When breath becomes air

This is not a review as such about the book by Paul Kalanithi but essentially the questions that popped in my mind when reading the book. There is no doubt we have lost such a dedicated, talented neurosurgeon. It’s very sad to see that after all the efforts he has put in, when it was time to reap the benefits he was affected by lung cancer. In these days of corporate hospitals where medical profession has become just another money minting business, we get to see very few people like Paul Kalanithi who don’t look at it like a job but as their calling and dedicate their lives for the suffering of the people.
The point about taking up something just as a job vs. taking it up as your calling has really struck me. I guess that makes all the difference between how seriously we take our work and how much we enjoy doing it even if it demands insane amounts of our time and energy. Be it any profession, I think if everyone gives a serious thought to what they really want to do rather than what benefits/social status a job provides, the world would be a much better place.
Another point that lingers in my mind is about what is considered to be a meaningful life? This might sound contradictory to the above point about doing what your calling is and dedicating entirely to what you want to do. The point is about where to draw a line between work and experiencing the pleasures of life. Maybe for some people, their work and call of duty is the way of life rather than ephemeral pleasures of life. In my view there has to be a right mix of a stoic and an epicurean. One cannot be living life to full potential by being at either one of the two extremes.
At one point in the book he mentions about his regular lunch in the hospital which is just a diet coke and an ice-cream sandwich. I was shocked and also felt sad that inspite of knowing all the ills of processed food, sugary drinks, etc how can the doctors themselves live on these? I agree that this point is totally tangential to the crux of what the book is about but I couldn’t really digest the fact that inspite of the knowledge we have, we sometimes neglect or ignore doing what is right for us. People who know me well and about my recent inclination towards avoiding processed food and going organic way might think I always come back to this topic no matter what the context is about :). However I seriously feel that this is something that should not be taken lightly and more importantly in the light of recent studies about the impact of processed foods on our health and environment.
Though there is lot of research pointing to the processed foods and chemicals as one of the common reasons for cancers in the past few decades, I still don’t get the point why nothing is being done to at least label these foods appropriately. It also reminded me about an article from food babe recently about the cafeterias in hospitals selling all this processed food instead of serving healthy food options. Why can’t the hospitals at least start serving fresh and healthy food instead of selling processed fast food? I am not saying that food or hectic schedule was the culprit in Paul Kalanithi’s case. All I’m trying to say is that we could at least reduce the probability of cancers by avoiding processed foods as much as possible and reducing a bit of stress in our lives. It was saddening to see a person end up with cancer while he himself was into the profession of treating cancers.

I was really amazed by how he has become a neurosurgeon (the toughest stream in medicine) while starting off with B.A in literature. This is like a lesson to all of us with mental blocks that we cannot learn or do something else than what we studied. I am happy that I read this book and hope to imbibe at least some of the good points in my day-to-day life. May his soul rest in peace.

Running without headache

One of the biggest problems with my long distance (10K or longer) weekend runs was the post-run headache. I would be perfectly alright immediately after the run but slight nagging headache would start after a few hours. It would continue for the rest of the day unless I sleep for 2-3 hours post run. This would mean that most part of the day would be gone. Although taking a headache tablet is another solution, I do not prefer taking tablets frequently.

I started researching online and found out that there are three main reasons for post-run headaches – dehydration, bad posture (neck area) and exposure to the sun. In my case, the posture seemed to be fine so it had to be the dehydration or the sun. I’m generally a bit sensitive to long exposure to sun but the main reason turned out to be dehydration. I used to carry enough water during my runs and also used to have one coconut water (~250-300 ml) after my run but that wasn’t helping.

I then realized that the excess loss of salts during the runs could be causing the headaches. Sports drinks like Gatorade was an option but I hate these chemical filled drinks. That is when I started having extra coconut water after the runs. I started having at least 2 coconut water (~500 ml) for every 6 – 7 km of my run. I’ve tested this multiple times over the last few weeks and can confidently say that this is working perfectly for me. I am finally very happy to have found a solution to the post-run headaches. Now the only worry is to make sure I have enough of coconut water stocked on the race day when I go to other cities for my runs. If possible I think it’s good to have one coconut water before the run as well to keep myself well hydrated.

Coconut water has been working wonders for me and I strongly recommend it to all runners/cyclists. I also make my own energy drink by putting some sabja (also called chia or falooda) seeds in the coconut water and allow it to soak for sometime. I carry a bottle of this during my long runs and also on the race days instead of having the chemical filled electrolyte drinks given on the race days. We are really fortunate to get fresh coconut water in every nook and corner here unlike in other countries where coconut water is also sold as packaged drink with added preservatives.

Taantra – Organic Baking

About a month back I stumbled upon Taantra. The moment I read about how Chaitali bakes the cakes with only healthy ingredients I was literally jumping with joy. I immediately ordered a Multi-grain Coffee Chocolate cake and few other items. The order was promptly delivered on time and the moment I tasted the Multigrain Coffee Chocolate cake I knew I found my healthy option for desserts. I decided to order my birthday cake this time from Chaitali and went with almond flour option. Instead of delivery, we decided to pick it up ourselves. After meeting Chaitali and hearing about all the healthy alternatives related to food, I was totally convinced that she was doing a very good job with organic baking and she definitely knew the stuff in and out. The almond flour cake also turned out to be very good.

We picked up Orange Almond cake today that she recommended last time when we met her. The aroma of the Orange Almond cake itself was a testimony of how good it’s going to taste. The taste was so good and the orange flavour filled the mouth. I could not stop with just one piece of it. It is after tasting this amazing cake that I decided to write this post. Whole oranges and almond flour are the only ingredients that go into this cake. This is definitely a healthy and tasty alternative to the regular cakes we get outside. After eating Chaitali’s cakes I now don’t feel like eating the regular ones and I now wonder how I was even eating them all this while. I strongly recommend Chaitali’s cakes to anyone looking for healthier desserts. Today we also ordered some magic bars and I cannot explain how happy I am after tasting them. Evening snack options was always a problem for us and with these magic bars I now have a good option for sure. We also got a sample of granola packet from her and we are yet to try it out. The Nuts & Seed bread that she bakes is also another healthy option for a snack. Do check out Taantra Menu for more options.

Run Rocky Run

I have been participating in the TCS 10K runs for 4 years now but it’s been only an year since I got more serious about running. After last year’s TCS 10K run, I decided to train well and also run regularly instead of running just a month or two before the runs. That’s how I got into registering for half marathons. Airtel’s Hyderabad Half Marathon in 2014 was my first one. I trained for almost 2.5 months for the run and the only target was to complete the run without much focus on the timing. I did it in 2 hours 47 minutes. After this, Half Marathons in Kaveri Trail Run (KTM), Bengaluru Midnight Marathon and the Auroville Half Marathon followed. I felt really good after completing each of these runs. I really enjoyed the scenic KTM run and Auroville run. I was very impressed with the living style and the greenery in Auroville. The trail was in the green zone and the muddy trail was perfect for the run. At the end of four Half Marathons, my current timing is around 2 hours 40 minutes.
Born To Run
I’m looking forward to these runs this year as well but the target now is to get my timing under 2 hours 30 minutes consistently. My long term goal is to be able to run in at least a few of these awesome runs – http://runnersforlifenewsletter.com/7-unique-international-races-worth-breakingyour-bank-for/.

I got a cycle (Btwin 5 Original hybrid bike) for cross training for my runs. However, I have also been using it to cycle to work for over 6 months now. Also, I took part in the Vodafone Cycling Event in Bangalore recently and finished 40 kms in 110 minutes.

After finishing the race
After finishing the race

Tiramisu in Bangalore

I am a big fan of Tiramisu. After trying out in several places in Bangalore over the last 2 years,
I thought it was time to list out some of the good and not-so-good places for Tiramisu.

Good ones – 
Smoke House Deli – One of the best ones for the price and portion size
California Pizza Kitchen – Very good but expensive (Rs. 450 but portion size is big)
Chianti – Good and not very expensive

Not-so-good ones –
ibis (Outer Ring Road) – Was not bad but not as good as the above ones
Spaghetti Kitchen – Will not recommend this place for Tiramisu for sure..but they do have great pizzas
Truffles (Koramangala) – Not very good but their other dessert options are good
Onesta (Koramangala) – Good but not as good as the above options. It’s served in a small shot glass and price is very reasonable.

Merchants of Doubt

This book is a very interesting read on how greedy companies can go to any lengths for profits and also how few influential people can change the policy decisions of governments by using the “element of doubt” as their weapon.
Here is the summary of what the book is all about –

This book shows us how fear of something can make us do anything. Even highly talented scientists can go to the extent of twisting/ignoring the facts out of their fears. Post second world war, when the cold war was at its peak, I think many scientists who worked on the atomic bomb were still having the fear that Soviet Union might attack USA anytime. The fear of communism taking over capitalism, resulted in few of the distinguished scientists going about blindly supporting the capitalists even when there was more than enough evidence of the harm the companies are causing. All over the book, we can see that the same set of scientists were involved in the issues of tobacco smoking, acid rain, post war (World War – II) nuclear arms development, effects of passive smoking, global warming, ozone layer depletion. The principle of free-market capitalism and importance of hearing “both sides” has been used and abused by people who didn’t want to admit the truth about the impacts of industrial capitalism.

Secondly, it’s sad to see the extremes to which companies can go to defend their products and protect their profits even if it’s at the cost of people’s lives. Though the industries discussed about in the book had conclusive evidence of the ill effects of smoking, acid rain, passive smoking, global warming, etc they kept lobbying to stop any kind of restrictions from the government. Under the cover of capitalism and freedom of speech these companies have ruined the environment and misled millions of people.

The other interesting point is how to defend yourself from criticism. All the lobbyists follow a simple principle of instilling doubts to mislead people. The strategy is simple….just start a controversy against the research, get it published in major newspapers and magazines that common people read and the job is done. The actual research and the results are generally published in all the science magazines that the common people don’t read often or don’t have access to. So, what reaches the public is the controversy than the actual facts.
That brings us to the impact of media and internet. We see that with the scores of 24×7 news channels all over, rise of Internet, anyone can now have their opinion heard, whether it is true or false. You pick any topic and there will always be opposing views on the internet. The burden is now on the people to check the credibility before blindly believing anything.

In conclusion, the below snippet from the book is one of the takeaways for me –
We take it for granted that great individuals – Gandhi, Kennedy, Martin Luther King – can have great positive impacts on the world. But we are loath to believe the same about negative impacts – unless the individuals are obvious monsters like Hitler or Stalin. But small number of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined, and have access to power.

I would strongly suggest this book to anyone who has any kind of doubts about global warming, effects of tobacco smoking, acid rain, etc. It’s an interesting coincidence that just when I finished reading this book, I came across this report from IPCC.  If you read the book, you will see that it’s this IPCC report of previous years that has been thrashed many a times by these handful of scientists.

Peek into a year of book reading

I restarted my habit of reading books last year after a gap of over an year. However, I was too lazy to write the book reviews. I hope to restart that as well soon. For now, here is the list of books I read last year and a few unfinished ones.

Here are some of the books I finished reading –

The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character)

And the Mountains Echoed

Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth

Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything

Few unfinished ones are Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, Conceptual Blockbusting: A guide to Better Ideas. It was my third attempt to finish Fooled by Randomness but could only read 70% of it…definitely hope to finish it in my next attempt and then start reading The Black Swan by the same author.

Currently, I am half way through Merchants of Doubt and hope to finish it soon. Watch out for more updates and reviews.

Yakult

It’s been a long time since I posted anything here and its also an entirely different topic that I am writing about.
I had been facing problems with mouth ulcers since childhood and none of the home remedies, allopathy/homeopathy/ayurvedic medicines helped. Recently I saw an ad about Yakult on TV and was curious to know about it. I found out that its a probiotic drink with tons of lactobacillus bacteria in just 65 ml drink. I thought of giving it a try to see if that helps in anyway and it unexpectedly turned out to be the magic cure for my mouth ulcers. I have been having 1 Yakult per day (not very regularly but at least 3-4 times a week) for almost 2 months now and since then the mouth ulcers problem is totally gone. I was really really happy to finally find a solution for this chronic problem. So, I am sharing it here just in case someone else has the same issue.

Also, there is no guarantee that this will work for everyone. For some people using more curd in their diet helps and for some people mouth ulcers could be because of too much of stress. It’s just that Yakult worked for me and maybe it can also be given a try if you ran out of all other options. This Yakult ad is one of the very few good things that I learned because of watching TV 🙂 .

Phantoms in the brain

Just done with reading the book Phantoms in the brain: Probing the mysteries of the human mind by Prof. V.S. Ramachandran. It is one of the best books I have read so far. Dr. Ramachandran explains the mystery of how the human brain works in such simple terms that even a person with no medical background can enjoy reading the book. The way he explains the problems of his  patients and the way he explains the reasons behind their behavior is really enthralling. I became a fan of Dr. Ramachandran when I watched his TED video (V S Ramachandran on your mind) prior to reading the book. The solution he came up for people suffering from phantom hands was ingenious. This demonstrates how complicated problems can be solved by simple ways if you think differently instead of blindly following the established ways. The various experiments he performs to understand patient’s problems better is simply awesome. The best part of the book is about the phantoms although the other cases discussed are equally interesting. I got slightly bored at the end, especially the last chapter, where he discusses about consciousness, meaning of self and the parts of the brain that might be involved. For people who are interested in knowing about human brain, this book is definitely a fun and easy way to quench their thirst.

Blood and Oil

Blood and Oil by Michael Klare gives a good insight into the dependence of America on oil and the resulting conflicts with other countries. The book starts with explaining the oil dependency and the dilemma about how and where to procure more oil from. And then the detailed explanation of how US got into alliance with Saudi Arabia for oil and how that dragged US into more regional conflicts there is very interesting. The author also explains how the growing resentment against America’s presence in Saudi resulted in increase of terrorism. The book also discusses the issues with Iran, Iraq and other Persian Gulf nations.
But after a few chapters, it kind of becomes repetitive when it comes to issues in the Caspian sea, Africa or other oil producing nations. Everywhere the issues are almost similar with the exception of names of places and people. Nevertheless the author drives his point home about the cost to be paid to get oil from these unstable and authoritarian regimes. And the cost is almost always blood of soldiers.
Apart from focusing on just America and it’s energy policy, the author also discusses about the growing competition from Russia and China to get cheap oil. Though these three nations do have a common goal of keeping the oil flowing without any interruptions, there is also a natural tendency to have more control than the other nations often resulting in tensions.
Towards the end I liked the solutions proposed and especially the first one which says that America’s energy policy should be separated from it’s foreign policy. The administration must stop getting into agreements that basically result in supporting the repugnant and undemocratic regimes thereby going against the basic human values.
On the whole, it’s a good read for people who are interested in knowing the details of at what cost the oil we use daily is procured and what lays ahead of us if something is not done now.