Monday, September 20, 2010

Dinosaur FAQ

Last evening, Puttachi and I made a model of a Dinosaur skeleton, using a kit with little wooden pieces shaped like a dinosaur's bones.

After we were done admiring it, Puttachi's questions began.

Amma, are dinosaurs still there?
No, they all died a long time ago.

But there was a dinosaur in London.
In the (Natural History) museum? That was a big toy. Batteries inside it made it roar and move and made it look like a real T-rex.

Did they make that toy to look like a real dinosaur?
Yes.

Why did dinosaurs die?
A huge rock came from the sky and fell on the earth, killing all of them.

Why was there a huge rock in the sky?
There are many rocks in the sky, they are called asteroids, they move around. Sometimes, one comes in the way of a planet and hits it.

What happened to all the people?
There were no people then. It was very long ago. People weren't even born then.

Then how do they know that a big stone hit the earth?
They do not know for sure. People who have studied about the earth and who know about dinosaurs, have thought about it, and they've said that we don't know what killed the dinosaurs, but it looks like it was a big rock from the sky.

Did you also think about it?
No Puttachi, I did not. I am just telling you what I have heard and read.

Are there dinosaurs in India?
They've found dinosaur bones or fossils in India, but there are no living dinosaurs even in India.

Why, did a big stone hit India also?
No, no, there was just one rock that hit the earth. But it was very huge. It raised so much cloud and dust and disturbed the waters of the ocean, that the dust and water spread all over the earth and killed all the dinosaurs everywhere.

Where did the rock fall?
I don't know, Puttachi. I'll find out and let you know - if the experts know.

Will dinosaurs be born again?
No, it's unlikely. But then you never know. Oh there was even a movie about it - that dinosaurs were brought back to life.

Did these dinosaurs come near people in the movie?
Yes they did.

Did they eat the people?
Umm yes, I think they did, some of them. But then that's just a story - a movie.

Amma, will you show me the movie?
Sure, in a few years from now. I don't think it is meant for children your age.

Why?
It is scary at times. Even I got scared when I watched the movie.

But you are a big girl.
Even big girls can get scared.

The Lion King is not a scary movie.
That's right.

It is for kids. Even kids can watch it.
Correct.

I like The Lion King.
I know.

Amma, do you remember what Simba said when.....

... and she moves on to more mundane matters!

Monday, September 06, 2010

The UK Files - The Elderly

Everywhere we went in the UK, I saw old and elderly people. Many of them. Lots more than I've seen walking on the roads in India.

They were invariably elegant in dress and manner, most of them had smiles and a kind word for Puttachi, and they carried themselves with grace and dignity.

Some of them were so old that they were stooped, wrinkled, barely able to walk, and yet they came shopping alone. One old lady took one minute to walk one metre, holding on to a walker. No exaggeration. Yet, she came shopping alone. Another lady, with crutches - so old, so old that I've never seen anybody older, got off a bus and on to the footpath, and went about her shopping. Alone.

Yes, it is because they live alone. Yes, it is because they want to do their own work themselves. But there is a far bigger reason why I saw so many old people out walking on the streets in the UK, and why none here in India.

Because the cities are friendly to them. In every way. The footpaths are even, with little ramps from every footpath down to every road. Cars STOP at pedestrian crossings when someone is waiting to cross. Even if there is no signal. They stop not only for the old and infirm, not only for young mothers with prams. They stop for everybody.

Buses are convenient. Easy to get in and out. And the drivers wait until people finish getting in and out. They help.

Here, pedestrians are at the bottom of the pyramid. Even an alert, energetic youngster finds it difficult to cross some roads nowadays. People tell me that I'm very fortunate to live a stone's throw away from an excellent shopping area. But there is one huge obstacle. I've to cross a road to get to that area. And that one road is enough to put you off crossing roads for ever.

How can anybody except the elderly to cross such roads? To walk on footpaths with crooked stone slabs? Travel on buses? No chance. No wonder we don't see old people up and about here.

Of course, they do have other advantages there. Little buses go around, pick up the old who live alone, take them to shopping centres and then drop them back to their homes. It arises out of necessity, of course, with so many people living alone.

It made me sad. Outdoor life after one point, perhaps eighty, is totally out of bounds to us here in India. Is there no alternative?

Friday, September 03, 2010

Trick or Treatment?

With the Flipkart voucher I won here, I bought "Trick or Treatment?: Alternative medicine on Trial" by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst.

It is a must-read for everybody interested in health - and especially for those who rely on alternative forms of medicine. It is interesting, impartial, well-researched, and full of information.

Chapter 1 - Speaks about why such an impartial study is important - millions of people around the world spend billions of money on alternative therapies - are they effective, and safe? This chapter also examines the kind of clinical trials that are necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of any remedy. It speaks about how clinical trials evolved, why blind and double-blind studies are important, and examines the placebo effect and its importance. A very interesting and informative chapter.

Chapter 2 - Deals with acupuncture. Acupuncture is based on an ancient Chinese belief that Ch'i energy flows through a body, and ailments occur when some important nodes are blocked. Sticking needles into the body at such points releases the blockages and sets the energy flow right again. Acupuncture claims to treat all kinds of remedies. The presence of Ch'i itself hasn't been proven over all these centuries, and so the basic presumption of this therapy might itself be wrong. But anyway, many studies have been conducted, including some very clever techniques to test the placebo effects of acupressure. The overall conclusion is that there are indications for its efficacy for some types of pain and nausea, but the evidence of relief for any other ailment is not enough. It is a relatively safe kind of treatment if you are so inclined to take it, but there have been cases of death due to negligent needling.

Chapter 3 - Homeopathy. Now this has been causing me trouble for a long time now. On one hand, there is this remedy that offers patients medicines that are so dilute that there is not even ONE SINGLE molecule of the original substance in the resulting medicine. It defies logic. On the other hand, there are millions of people who swear by it, some of them very smart and informed people. So there are only two alternatives - either the basic principles of science as we know it are utterly meaningless, or those millions of people are wasting time, energy and money on a placebo.

I did a lot of research prior to reading this book, and none of the homeopathy jargon made any sense to me. On the contrary, all the critics of homeopathy had me nodding with them in agreement.

This book is unique in that it approaches homeopathy in a very impartial way. It is not important that we understand it in the beginning, they say. Thousands of remedies weren't understood in the beginning, but were applied nevertheless. Only later did researchers understand the science behind it. The same approach has been taken throughout the book.

First the chapter talks about the origin of Homeopathy (based on hunches, assumptions), its rise in popularity (conventional medicine at that time actually killed people - using techniques such as bloodletting. So people who took homeopathy were better off. So it was assumed that homeopathy was effective), and its spread across the world (different reasons for their spread - mostly politics - nothing to do with efficacy).

To cut a very long chapter short, 200 years and 200 clinical trials later (which has taken into account all the basic tenets of homeopathy - including individualized treatment, etc), it has been proven beyond doubt that homeopathic treatment is no better than a placebo.

One of the authors, Edzard Ernst, is a trained homeopath, who has even practiced for sometime, before stepping back and opening his eyes. He says that nobody would have been happier than him if it had been proven that homeopathy is effective, as it would have opened up an entirely new world of research.

But why does homeopathy "seem to work"? All is explained in the book - and I guide you there for any more questions you might have.

Chapter 4 - Chiropractic therapy - Chiropractors claim that the spine is the key to the body's health, and adjustments to the spine can cure all diseases. Often it involves very rough manipulation of the spine and neck, and there are severe side effects, and several cases of death. Over the centuries, one section of chiropractors have broken away from the traditional beliefs and follow a more moderate form of this therapy, claiming to treat mostly back pain. But studies have shown that spinal manipulation might help, but it is in no way better than regular physiotherapy, which is safer and cost-effective.
If you remember, Simon Singh was unsuccessfully sued for libel by the British Chiropractic association for an article in The Guardian, criticizing Chiropractic therapy.

Chapter 5 - Herbal Remedies - Now this chapter was something of a shock to me. I was one among those who tended to believe that herbal remedies can't go wrong. After all, mainstream medicine also sources much of its remedies from plants. But what I found was that, yes, drugs are certainly made from plants, but the particular effective substance is isolated, and then synthesized or extracted to make medicines.
Very often, eating the whole leaf or nut or bark as the case may be, results in unwanted side effects. There have been many cases of people taking a herbal remedy along with mainstream treatment, and some substance in the plant has reacted adversely with the mainstream medicine and caused severe ill-effects. Even some commonly used herbal products that we use as home remedies might cause undesired side-effects when taken in excess. A mix of herbs, especially, that is common in herbal medicine can be particularly dangerous. This book suggests that before going in for herbal remedies, do your research well. Besides, many regular drugs go through years of testing to certify that it is safe and effective, whereas herbal remedies appear on shelves overnight. And it is not fair to the consumer.
An eye-opener of a chapter.

Chapter 5 - Asks "Does the truth matter?" and explores the reasons why it does. It is, once again, a beautifully enlightening chapter.

After this, there is a section where most of the other alternative therapies are discussed, each in one page. These include magnetic therapy, reiki, feng shui, meditation, massage therapies, totally thirty such alternative therapies. In case you are wondering what is the verdict on Indian systems of healing... Yoga, they conclude is an excellent way of life to maintain good health, and meditation and relaxation is also proven to be beneficial, unless you have a mental illness. Ayurveda - the verdict is mixed. Some remedies are proven to be effective and safe, but others are not. Many ayurvedic medicines have very high levels of metal, as it is believed to be beneficial (I'd heard about this disturbing fact before). But no metal in high amounts is good for the body. Ayurveda is a very complex system, and needs much more study to test its effects. In the meantime, keep your eyes open.

Disclaimer: I'm not a promoter of regular medicine, I don't pop pills left right and centre. I am well aware of underhand activities by greedy pharma companies, pushing untested drugs into the market, etc. I am a believer in the natural healing ability of our body, and I let the body do its job. Only when I see it might get out of hand do I resort to mainstream medicine. After all, its the best we have.

I've just tried to condense the material in the book in a few paragraphs. But I highly recommend that you read the book.
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