On his blindness

The woman urgently needed a new pair of glasses for an upcoming meeting. So she was delighted to see an optical store on an otherwise desolate street in her neighborhood. A Russian-accented voice boomed dobroye utro (good morning) as she entered the store. For a moment she had second thoughts, wandering whether he would be able to understand her request. She was African and had a thick accent as well. Would they be caught in a conversational morass of misunderstandings? Luckily that was not the case. She was pleasantly surprised to discover how much she had in common with the store owner and they immediately established a rapport. After an impromptu lesson about the lenses needed to compensate for her high myopia, they perused his collection of designer frames, before engaging in a discussion about the visually impaired people in their respective families.

They simultaneously wandered if there were any medical breakthroughs that could help blind people. Being a curious person by nature, the woman paid close attention to the health news on television that night. She saw a snippet about an artificial retina. Although the implanted device was approved for a selected subgroup of patients with a rare eye disease, The Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System was a possible indication of future technological innovations that could benefit the estimated 39 million blind people across the globe [1]. The woman flipped through the Google search pages on her iPad, eager to share a list of current inventions with the store owner. She clicked on a page describing another discovery that could benefit blind people. Israeli researcher, Dr. Amir Amedi, had developed a non-invasive device (a computer mounted on glasses, connected to stereo speakers) that enabled blind people to “see” using sound.

Next, she searched for inventions of potential benefit to people with impaired vision or chronic diseases. Since comprehensive eye examinations were a rarity for poor people in the neighborhood, she was delighted to discover information for a portable eye examination kit. Another website for a smartphone diagnostic tool proclaimed that “almost anyone, anywhere could conduct their own eye test, quickly and easily.” However, correcting impaired vision with approved, do-it-yourself eye tests and devices were only the first two items on her wish list.

Eyes are said to be the windows of the soul and can also signal the onset of ocular ailments or indicate poorly controlled chronic diseases. She was therefore happy to read about the development of a scanner that could pick up on some of these conditions by non-invasively visualizing the 3D-structure of key ocular regions.

One week later, the woman received a call from the store owner. The thick lenses of her new glasses fit perfectly into a designer frame. She responded with a Russian word he had taught her: spasiba (thank you). Later that evening, the store owner called his son to tell him about the grateful customer. The son smiled when he heard about the inventions that the customer had shared with his father. Maybe one day he would no longer need to touch a Braille version of John Milton’s “On his Blindness.” Maybe one day he would be able to regain his sight.

Reference

1. Mariotti, S.P. Global data on visual impairments. 2010 [cited 2013 September]; Available from: http://www.iapb.org/sites/iapb.org/files/GLOBALDATAFINALforweb.pdf.

Of Nehru and Norwalk (First appeared on The Norwalk Patch)

The sweltering heat can shorten anyone’s temper. Ask Mr. Singh (a fictional name). His temper tantrums when people dared park longer than fifteen minutes in front of his Norwalk store were legendary, and vagrants decided that they were better off rummaging through the garbage of the Chinese restaurant next door. His attitude towards customers veered from cloyingly sweet, if you were a curvaceous young girl, to patronizing, if you were a homeless person trying to buy batteries for a CD-player you found in the dumpster next door. Yet once upon a time he had been a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngster fresh off the plane from India with his wife and young sons. America was the land of opportunity and, armed with stories of relatives who had struck it rich in Connecticut, he came searching for his dream. An Indian community would be waiting to welcome him and his family into their temples and homes.

The years passed in the blink of an eye and the vigor of youth faded. Mr. Singh invested in the stock market and paid the price. The tax man put a lien on his business and he had to figure out creative ways to pay for the college education of his sons. Mr. Singh kept going, in part because of his delusions.You see, dear reader, everyone else was always to blame for every calamity in his life. The fact that he did not fill out the proper paperwork to have a lottery ticket machine in his shop became the fault of the government. The fact that dear Mrs. Singh’s samoosas landed me in bed with a serious case of food poisoning was the fault of the dough he had purchased at Costco. For a second I found myself more annoyed at the fact that she had not made everything from scratch, before arguing with Mr. Singh about his irresponsibility.

However, Mr. Singh always managed to wiggle his ample girth out of tight corners. When his belligerent explanation that office workers who had purchased the same savory delicacies seemed just fine fell on deaf ears, he tried a different tactic. The heat outside was merciless and he swept away my defenses and a potential lawsuit with peace offerings of Haagen Dasz ice cream and the latest copy of the National Enquirer. Having honed in on my vices, Mr. Singh felt secure that he would not be losing a customer. I could not let him off that easily.

“So,” I interrupted sweetly (as he railed about the indiscretions of American stars discussed in the Enquirer),”Is it true that the first Indian prime minister (Jawaharlal Nehru), had been in love with the last British viceroy’s wife (Lady Edwina Mountbatten)?”

Mr. Singh was thunderstruck. He demanded to know if I had read it in the free copy of “that dirty rag” he had just handed me. No. My source was impeccable. I had googled the information and if anything appears on Google it has to be true. Mr. Singh was quick to set me straight. Nehru was revered in India and, according to Mr. Singh (who had it on good authority from an uncle who had been Nehru’s personal photographer), nothing happened. His opinion that revered men were obliged to have no flaws was not that far removed from our pre-Clinton (or was that pre-Kennedy?) view of charismatic leaders.

The conversation eventually drifted to more neutral terrain. One of his sons was getting married. The kid had been a straight A-student. Thanks to Mr. Singh’s sweat equity, or perhaps in spite of it, the younger Singh had graduated top of his class at Yale University and now held a prominent position at a local investment firm. Mr. Singh informed me that there would be two weddings. One would be held in India and then all the relatives would be shipped over here for a mega-festival that would last a couple of days. Mr. Singh had taken out a loan to foot the bill. I kept my opinion about a son allowing his parents to take on an added financial burden to myself. My ice cream was beginning to melt and there was no need to anger Mr. Singh again.

Summer means vacation time. So I did not see Mr. Singh for a few months. When I returned to Norwalk, I was surprised to see that Mr. Singh’s store had closed. I heard via the grapevine that he was broke and had decided to return to India with his wife. A part of me was sorry to see the old rascal leave and the other part felt happy. Hopefully he found that mythical retirement sanctuary that we all long for, aka the Marigold Hotel. Hopefully he will at long last feel at home.

Nuclear relationships (First appeared on The Norwalk Patch)

Commuters from Connecticut to Cape Town have usually gained impromptu insights into different cultures by reading books written by brilliant wordsmiths. For example, the Russian writer, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, was masterful at translating everyday life in the Ukraine in a manner understood beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. His work was also used as a literary device by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri, in her novel, The Namesake—a tale that focused on identity and the complexities of cultural assimilation into America.

Gogol’s childhood, filled with the Cossack traditions and rich folklore of his Ukrainian home, provided creative impetus for short stories that would form “the foundations of the great 19th-century tradition of Russian realism.” Using humor and a beekeeper as a narrator, Gogol introduced the reader to Ukrainian customs and folklore inEvenings on a Farm Near Dykanka. In another book, Diary of a Madman, the hero is an office drudge who ultimately ends up in a lunatic asylum. Such stories may also have resonated with the Indian-American author, Lahiri, in crafting a pivotal train scene in The Namesake.

However, the young woman on the train from Stellenbosch to Cape Town had no pretensions of seeking literary or cinematic fame by invoking Gogol’s name. She was far too caught up in her daydreams about a fellow commuter. If one could imagine a cross between the Hollywood actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Vin Diesel, the sensitive-looking soul with the biceps of a football player was her dream man. He usually sat across from her on the lengthy journey from South Africa’s wine heartland to the University of Cape Town. His nose was often buried in fictional books (mainly Gogol) or incomprehensible scientific texts. When she finally summoned the courage to talk to him, he told her that he was a physicist. The young woman, a humble secretary, was star-struck and tongue-tied at the same time. She did not wish to pester the young man with tales about her boring life where the only recent thrill was watching the formation of a new bee hive on the family farm. Besides, how could occasional intellectual spurts such as listening to the South African opera tenor, Gérard Korsten, compare with the sophistication of this smart man?

As it turned out, the pair shared a fascination for Korsten. The physicist analyzed the tenor’s performance as Canio in Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s Pagliacci and she told him about her love for Korsten’s role as a family patriarch in the long-running South African soap opera, Egoli: Place of Gold. Over time the physicist told her about his admiration for Sergey Korolyov (1907-1966, head Soviet rocket engineer and designer during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s). She listened to his scientific tales and reciprocated with gossip stories she had read about famed South African heart surgeon, Christiaan Barnard, in the Afrikaans tabloids.

Finally he revealed the top-secret research he was conducting at a local nuclear power plant ( Koeberg, 30 km north of Cape Town). In addition, he confirmed reports about negotiations with the South African government to supplement the country’s growing demand for electricity by building more nuclear power plants. He explained that Russia has about 10%of the world’s reasonably assured uranium resources and considerableexpertise in the generation of nuclear power (employing 200,000 people in this industry). Furthermore, the exportof nuclear power and expertise were major economic objectives. To him it seemed like a match made in heaven. While a decision was still being weighed by the South African government, the physicist was excited at the idea of having more nuclear power plants on the continent and elsewhere. He viewed nuclear power as a “clean,” energy source and a means to offset the interminable energyblackouts that had become the bane of South African consumers’ existence.

Unfortunately the young woman did not share his feelings. Koeberg had opened in 1984, two years before the disaster at the Ukrainian power plant, Chernobyl.Radioactive fallout had spread several thousand square miles, driving more than a quarter of a million people permanently from their homes and causing numerous deaths. Her pessimism increased after reading reports about a faltering cleanupfollowing a subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.

It would be up to the physicist to convince her that the Russian government had learned lessons from the disaster. He would wax lyrical about improved crisis-management practices, cost-effective and safer nuclear reactor designs (citing innovations by TerraPower as an example), and also mention the possibility of using different reactors in the future. Although real-world applications were still decades away, he felt reasonably confident that he could assuage her fears and change her mind.

The next morning the ardent suitor decided to hedge his bets by presenting her with a list of alternative, climate-friendly energy sources which he knew would be more suited to her beliefs. Armed with both plans of action, he boarded the train and mentally rehearsed his request to resolve their debate over dinner later that night. He suppressed his excitement by feigning indifference, looking down at his briefcase, before settling into his usual seat near the window. He looked up expecting to see her face. Her seat was empty.