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Forty five days on

July 27, 2012 4 comments

It has been a month and a half since I came into the US and I must tell you I am disappointed. Allow me to explain. For me, part of the thrill of coming to the US was that I would be in the country that had Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers and countless other scientists. I also looked forward to meeting Richard Dawkins here, as he frequently visits the USA. But I am appalled, that even after 45 days here, none of them have got in touch with me. My arrival has not been announced in any of the blogs. I have not been invited to talk on any skeptics’ meetings. No university has pleaded with me to sit through their course in Evolutionary Genetics. And NASA has not even dropped me an email. I can understand they are busy people but so am I. 45 days and no contact. For all its claims as a developed country, completely ignoring me is inexcusable.

Anyway, I cant keep harping on that. I must get on. To fairly report history, I was also a bit worried about the country was I getting into. Just a few days after I reached US, I learnt that “higher order thinking skills and criticial thinking” are proposed to be banned by the leading and lone opposition party. Also, a month back I learnt that North Carolina, the state I am in now, was considering to legislate  how the sea level should rise, specifying that it ought to rise only linearly and not exponentially. The best positive spin you can put on this effort to control nature by decree, is to call it The audacity of stupidity. It is with this idea of two USAs I travelled halfway across the world.

From the day I landed, my roommates and neighbours kept warning me that I could not walk to any place, and that I had to keep asking somebody to offer me a lift everytime I had to go somewhere. I would be wrong to say that the town had very little public transportation. Because, it had none. Moreover, I usually don’t prefer asking people favours and definitely dont prefer asking for a lift, as my entire trip would be spent worrying if I might be charged for it when I was about to get down. So I decided to walk to places like Walmart (which was a kilo metre away) and the bank. Though it was not difficult, it was an adventure. For one thing, I am yet to get used to cars going on the right side of the road here. So when all my instinct, honed in India for more than 30 years, tells me I can walk across the road, I promptly end up right in the path of an oncoming car that was taking a turn.

Still I braved it and the first saturday after I landed, I made a beeline to the local library. That was another thing I was looking forward to. Free access to all the books that I wanted to read. Allowing for the fact that that Mooresville is a small town, the library was pretty good. I found many of the books that I had wanted to read and membership was free. It was all smooth till I went up to the counter to get a membership. Remember, I was just 4 days in the country. The person at the desk asked me for an address proof and that said, without one, I could not become a member. I tried to explain to her that I was new around here and forget an address proof, I dont even know the way back home. She did not budge. I argued that she was not being fair to someone who had come walking 4 KMs on a hot saturday morning half of which on an interstate that was spectacularly unfriendly to pedestrians. I had a suspicion that all through my monologue, she was playing solitaire or chatting with friends on Facebook. At the end of all my pleading, she asked me to meet a senior lady.

That lady too said it cannot be done without an address proof. I had just opened a bank account and so showed her all the documents. I showed her my passport, my company’s deputation letter and also offered to pay her a security deposit which she can refund when I show her a proper document for my address. I was about to pull out my and X std and XII std marksheets and my Indian ration card, when she yielded, saying she trusted me and gave me a membership. Somewhere in a corner of my brain, I had a doubt that the only reason she allowed me a membership was because she realised that if she refused, I was seriously considering falling at her feet, which is usually a good strategy as it embarrasses the fallee much more than the faller.

I went back to the girl for the membership and as she was issuing my card, she told me I could take 5 books the first time, and that the next time on, I can take 35 books at a time. I asked her to repeat that last number, as I thought she was kidding me. But she was serious and confirmed that I could indeed take 35 books at a time. You could have knocked me down with the proverbial feather with that good news. Knock me down because I was also tired, not having had a good breakfast, with no concrete plan for lunch and four kilometres away from home(no idea about the direction though). But the number was unbelievable for me. When I was a member of Connemara, I could only take two books at a time, that too if I found any worthy. All this vastly improved my mood and I walked back home, with 5 books in my backpack.

At home, some of the things that stuck me on the lifestyle here is the inordinate use of plastic, water, petrol and paper. People did not have any qualms in leaving the tap running in full flow, when they were examining if a particular vegetable, that had been in the fridge from the time of Shakespeare, is in an edible state or not. This baffled me. In the bathroom, there was no bucket (or a pail as it is called here, which I learnt after I spent an amusing five minutes with a salesperson in Walmart. Amusing, that is, for anybody who was watching our conversation), which meant that all through your bath the shower had to be kept running. I gather that if people did not want water on them for sometime during the bath, they would just step aside (No, I did not do anything to check if my assumption was right, trust me). Moreover, this country must be the only one where the amount of water that people drink (in various colours) is equal to or greater than the amount of water they use for everything else (including flushing their toilets). They always have something in their hand for them to drink. I have heard a lot about diversity in America, but I think there is one category of Americans that I will never get to see: the dehydrated kind.

Every thing here comes in a plastic container (except, to my relief, the containers themselves). A trip to a store, could mean that you can come back with 20 plastic covers each with 1 or 2 items. And all this plastic was thrown into the garbage bin, which is just dumped into the earth. At least, this is what is happening in the place I live. Petrol too is pretty cheap. The very first day I landed in the US, Chicago, I could see that petrol was less expensive than water when I was charge $2.5 dollars for a tiny bottle of water, which was less than what I would drink in a gulp (I have since started drinking tap water). And nothing drove it home as clearly as when one of my roommates, who refused to walk to Walmart saying it was too unsafe, told me that he had asked his friend who stayed 30 miles away to come in his car and take him to Walmart which was just half a mile away. I was speechless.

I am not saying all this to take the moral high ground. I fully realise that, that is how it works here, but I am putting it down so that a few months from now, if I end up sipping something even while I am asleep, or decide to leave the car engine on when I get into a store, others can look at this post, and laugh at me. But if it seems like I am complaining too much, let me clarify that I have had some good experiences too. As mentioned there is the library which can keep me going for years. And then there are the frozen foods. I hate cooking as enthusiastically as I like eating. So frozen foods are always welcome. I just put them in the oven, cook some rice, buy curd and my meals are done. There is also the swimming pool in my community, which I can see through my window. I just keep checking till it is free and then just walk a few steps and have a good swim.

Which brings me to another thing I noticed here. Nobody here goes to the swimming pool to swim. I have seen people eat, drink, flirt, sunbathe, play and even read a book at the swimming pool, but never swim. I got the feeling that somewhere in their academic curriculum, the fact that a swimming pool is intended for a swim seems to have been missed out. So, though I am doing the natural thing of giving my best imitation of Michael Phelps in the 20 feet long pool, I always seem to be odd man out. Which is the same feeling I get when I walk on the interstate.

Another thing that startles me, is that complete strangers wish me when they pass me by. They keep asking how I am doing. And the first couple of times, I thought they were extermely generous people and so thought of inviting them home and pour out all my troubles, like the negative balance of my bank account, how a lack of car prevents me from going anywere beyond a radius of 2-3 miles, how much I miss my children and so on. But I soon realised, I am nothing if not sharp, that when they say “How are you doing?” they just intend to say a “Hi” and the only civil thing for me to do is to lie and respond that I am doing good. If contrary to all my expectations, it indeed turns out that there is a god that I meet after my death, who tallies all those lies against me, all these strangers will have to take the blame.

Those are really my initial thoughts of the US. So far, the only urban things I have seen in the US are my workplace and airports. By the way, the Charlotte airport is where I am writing this. I am here to take a flight to my brother’s place who lives in the state of New York and for a second time (in as many attempts at domestic travel in the US) my flight was cancelled. I was given a flight 12 hours later, which meant that I had to spend the night in the airport. Needless to say I spent the night productively: watching the airport staff mop the floors, and watching them trying to locate the luggage of my would-have-been co-passengers, whose bags, were sent off to different locations. I heard that some of those bags were sent off to White Plains, which would not have caused me any surprise, except for the tiny fact that, White Plains is where I had to go to, the flight to which was supposedly cancelled. It is all still a mystery to me, all the more to the owners of those bags, as to how that happened. Did they teleport the bags? And if so, why could they not do the same to us? Or is this the parallel universes theory that scientists talk about, wherein I am in a universe, where the White Plains flight was cancelled, but those bags were in a different universe where the flight was not cancelled. I can only hope, that parallel universe flight had a pilot too.

Right now, I am sitting in the airport waiting for an announcement asking me to board my flight to White Plains. But all I hear is an announcement for a differnt flight: “We are sorry we are not able to begin the boarding for Greensboro as we are still waiting for the pilot”. Wait, What!! Things are just not looking well, I must admit. I just hope I dont end up spending my increasingly shortening “long weekend” at the Charlotte Aiport. But I take comfort the way all Americans do. I take a sip of the green coloured water in my hand. Oh wait!! They have just announced that my flight has reached the door. I have to end this post now. I need to go find the pilot, even if that means travelling to other universes.

Categories: Travel

What my son taught me about my genes

July 2, 2012 1 comment

My two children: Akash (left) and Aman(right)

They are my two sons: Aman and Akash. When Prabha was discharged from the hospital after the delivery, she and I were given the blood reports of our two sons. Their blood reports told me something about my own DNA. In this post, I am going to explain what I learnt and how. Knowing that needs an understanding of what dominant and recessive genes are. So here are the basics.

All our DNA resides in strands called chromosomes. You can think of them as long strips holding our genes. Different genes reside on different chromosomes, and we need 23 of them to build a complete body. But all our cells (except for sperms and eggs) contain not 23 chromosomes, but 23 pairs of chromosomes. We get one set from the mother and one set from the father. Every cell provides two plans of building a body. But then, as we all know from personal experience, only one body is built. How is the choice made?

Consider for example the colour of your eyeballs, and assume that this depends on only one gene (this is hypothetical and need not be true, as some traits depend on multiple genes). Now if your mother gave you a gene for a brown eye colour and the father gave you a gene for a black one, which colour will be yours? That depends on the type of genes.If the gene for a brown colour is a dominant gene, then that will get precedence over the other gene and you will end up with a brown eye . In such a case the gene for the black eye is called recessive, because, the only way for you to have a black eye is if both parents give the black eye gene to you, so that the black is not dominated by the brown gene.

Similarly, our blood groups too are determined by the two genes we get from our parents. The commonly used blood group system is called the ABO system*. In this there are 4 blood groups: A, B, AB, O. Any person will belong to one of these types. This is determined based on what genes your parents gave you. To explain that, see the picture below which gives the different types of blood groups that a child can have for the different combinations of genes that the parents can give.

Blood group type that a child’s blood will belong to, for different combinations of genes received from parents.

The yellow boxes are the easy ones. Both mother and father have given the same gene, and so the child also has the same blood group. But if one parent gives an A/B and another parent gives an O, what happens is that the A or B overrides O (the green cells). This means the gene for A blood type is dominant to O. Similarly B is also dominant to O. If one parent gives A and another gives B gene, then the child’s type is AB (the blue cells). This is another way in which genes can interact. One need not always be dominant over another. They can be co-dominant. And this is what happens in AB. Both the A gene and the B gene are expressed. Here is a picture from Wikipedia explaining the same thing.

Blood group inheritance

Now that we have learnt the fundamentals, let us get on with the meat of my post. My wife’s blood group is O, which means, as you can see from the table above, she has two O genes. So, she is capable of giving only O gene to her children. My blood group is A, but that does not help me determine whether I am an A, because both of my chromosomes have A gene (let us call it AA possibility), or if it is because I have an A and an O, and I am an A because of the dominance (let us call this AO). This, I dont know.

I mean, I did not know. But my sons’ blood reports have solved this for me. One of my sons, Aman, has a blood group of O, and the other son Akash has a blood group of A. Both of of them would have received one gene each from Prabha and me. Prabha has definitely given an O to them, as I explained in the last paragraph. What I could have given them is not clear. Since Akash has an A, and Prabha cannot give that, it came from me. But this still does not tell me whether I am an AA or an AO. But Aman has got a blood group of O, which means I too, in addition to Prabha, must have given an O (refer to the table above. Only if both DNA strands have an O gene, will the blood group be O). Which means, I too must have had an O. That I have an A gene, is obvious becaues my blood group is A. But Aman has confirnmed that I have an O too. I have genes for both A and O in my genome. Elementary.

A final point before we close. Note that, if I had two A genes, I can never deduce that from the blood group of my children. Because even if both my sons were of A group, it is possible that I still have an O, but gave only A to both my sons. So the only way to confirm an AA would be to study my genome. Another option could be for me and Prabha to have as many children as we can have in our lifetime, and do a statistical analysis based on a 50% probability of my giving an A or an O to my children. But even that would still be subject to a very small chance of error (Just in case you are wondering, No, we are not planning to do that).

As every parent possibly does, I too have some wild ambitions (I would not want to dignify those thoughts with the word “plan”) on how and what I want my children to learn. But to my complete surprise, within a week of their birth, they taught me something about myself. There sure lie interesting times ahead.

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* – While writing this post, I learnt that this ABO system is just one of more than 30 systems in which blood groups can be classified.