Category: Medicine

Oedipus round-up: The crossroads

Pardon me while I recycle a little content.

There are so many roads to Oedipus and so many ways we could take out of it to what comes next. Here are a few older posts, or multiple versions of posts, that can take us in a few of those directions.

On summarizing the play: what matters? Why? (With a hat tip to Freud & Deleuze and Guattari.)

On genre: Is how we tell the story part of the story?

On scapegoating.

On the civic life of Greek theater.

How it started: the OG convener’s post.

Feel free to continue our discussions by commenting on any of the above. Or take us where you will.

The plague for amphibians

We have been tackling COVID-19 in our daily lives and pondering over other forms of contagions such as the plague, sins, memes, information, beliefs, syphilis, family values, memories, influenza, AIDS, and even fictional diseases like the Shen fever every Monday and Wednesday morning. However, our discussions have been concerned about how humans are affected by and react to these contagions. Through this short post, I want to introduce you to a different perspective on contagion through the example of chytridiomycosis, an infectious disease discovered around 20 years ago that is known to have caused the decline of hundreds of amphibian species, including 90 presumed extinctions (Scheele et al. 2019).

Kermit the Frog might be in danger (Via Giphy)

Chytridiomycosis is a fungal infection caused by the spread of Bd/Bsal (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis/Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans) fungi through contact with spore-infected water or other infected hosts. The fungus replicates rapidly on the skin of the host and kills it off by blocking their breathing metabolism (most amphibians breathe through their skin). The contagious nature of the disease thus leads to mass die-offs in certain regions, and has been wreaking havoc on amphibians throughout the past half-century. Similar to COVID-19, Chytridiomycosis is also hard to detect without testing and thus in the absence of proper testing, the global trade network has also led to its spread across the continents. So while humans initially might not have been directly responsible for this plague on amphibians, the trade of animals without realizing its consequences has certainly exacerbated the problem.

Taxonomic distribution of chytridiomycosis-associated amphibian declines: Each bar represents one species, and color denotes the severity of its decline. Concentric circles indicate, from inner to outer, order (Caudata or Anura), family, and genus.  (Scheele et al. 2019)

Most prevention and detection efforts for Chytridiomycosis are currently being led by researchers (funding for which is also quite scarce, since the issue is quite low priority among governments) who test the amphibians for Bd/Bsal in suspected habitats. The results take 2-3 days to be processed in a lab and till then the tested individuals are kept isolated from their natural habitat in containers (quite similar to the practice of quarantine until COVID-19 test results come), which is quite undesirable (I think we all agree about that from our quarantine experiences). Finally, based on the results, the amphibians are released or treated for the disease using medicated baths and further measures are taken to prevent the spread of the disease from the area tested.

To aid the efforts to fight against this disease, the NYUAD iGEM team (which I am also a part of hehe!) has also been developing a diagnostic device that can be used in the field itself to give rapid and accurate results about the presence of Bd/Bsal. This will not only eliminate the need for isolating the animals for days, it will also encourage more testing, especially at trading ports, so that the disease can be prevented from spreading. Our progress this year has been slow due to restricted lab access, but the pandemic has also provided us with the opportunity to learn from some great (and still ongoing) rapid diagnostics research that was prompted by COVID-19. We are hopeful that we will be finishing the device soon and achieve our goals! I will leave you now with our 2-min project description video that illustrates most of what I have talked about quite well:

NYUAD iGEM Project Description Video

Fool’s Liquid Gold

“It’s the same with blood. Blood always replenishes itself. The more you take, the more it flows.”

“Dream of Ding Village”, Lianke
Blood Plasma

Yan Lianke’s Ding village is one driven by blood, the value of plasma and the promise of prosperity it provides. The HIV/AIDS crisis fueled by this fever for donation and compensation was a harsh learning lesson written into history, however the very demand created by the plasma economy that caused the outbreak is still pulsing.

A recent report analyzing the effects of the COVID-19 on the plasma fractionation economy estimated the current global value of the market to be 22.1 Billion (USD), and projected that by 2027 it would only grow to 31.9 Billion (USD). The plasma of blood, a mixture of water, proteins, antibodies, and other essential components is the liquid gold behind this industry and its continual expansion. For diseases like COVID, antibodies from recovering patients may even save the lives of others and people were actively encouraged to donate blood as the pandemic continues. Synthetic alternatives are still being developed but are unable to emulate the expansive array of functions and dynamic composition that make it life-saving. In such circumstances, what happens when a price tag is stuck on a blood bag?

Kathleen Mclaughlin’s journey as a blood smuggler caught between China and the US sheds a personal light into the consequences of this huge economy. She pinpoints an interesting parallel focusing on compensation for plasma ‘donation’:

“She gets about $300 a month for her plasma twice a week, a number determined by a formula that targets people just on the edge of getting by, where a few hundred dollars makes a major difference. The pay scale in China 23 years ago was calculated much the same way; enough to make life easier, not enough to earn your way out of selling blood.”

“My career as an international blood smuggler” McLaughlin, Gaurdian

This draws attention back to Lianke’s writing: “Rich or poor, it was their decision” (35). But this clearly wasn’t true and still isn’t. The systems designed to keep people reliant on donating are still persistent and when your livelihood depends on your ability to provide plasma, are you ever given the economic independence to ‘decide’?

Pharmaceutical Companies Are Luring Mexicans Across the U.S. Border to Donate Blood Plasma

The economies of health need to be understood better and regulated properly to ensure that the socioeconomic vulnerabilities and their security are driving factors in shaping policies, and not a means of exploitation. Whether it be the needles used for blood collection or the incentives of donation, each component in the process requires careful scrutiny and apprehension as the economy expands. The solution, then, lies in the mistakes and markets of the past.

Alving’s Haunt- The Form and Place of Ghosts. (Bhrigu’s Augmenter Post)

Ghosts work from home. Apart from the Flying Dutchman’s crew and the Wild Hunt, ghosts, ghouls, and other phantoms are homebodies, content to stick to one place to carry out their spooky business. Captain Alving is such a ghost, tormenting his long-suffering wife throughout the action of Ibsen’s Ghosts.

Ibsen keeps Alving’s ghost in one place by structuring the play with reference to Aristotle’s “classical unities” of action, time, and place in dramatic tragedy. The time of the play is uncertain- the place however remains the same. This form of drama resembles quarantine- by enforcing strict boundaries in the form of the play, Ibsen tries to contain Alving’s sins to his lonely country estate by the fjords, a quarantine-like focus that reduces the chances of the audience catching the impression that this tragedy happened because of any reasons other than Alving’s original actions.

The setting also prevents the fallout of his sins on the larger community beyond the Alving family, burning down his memorial to society. The orphanage was destroyed quite quickly after it was constructed; something to be grateful about, for if it had survived for too long, the memories of the place would spread, and Alving’s ghostly contagion would proliferate. Albert Speer, the Nazi architect, designed around “Ruin Value“, an architectural idea that called for buildings of the Third Reich to last for a long time and to remain aesthetically pleasing while ruined-the most oppressive ghosts of World War Two. Promoting Captain Alving through an orphanage built around the Ruin Value principle is a deeply distasteful thought. Thus, with Engstrand’s smoking match, Ibsen burned the orphanage.

Parthenon- an example of aesthetically pleasing ruins that have served as the revenants of Greek ideas and their ghosts.

The audience can see how structural failures in Danish patriarchal society force the necessity of a literary quarantine in Ghosts, a failure that permitted Alving to make his wife’s life a misery and brand his sins on his son’s brain. Syphilis is often called the “great imitator” (NSFW images in article, view at own risk) as its presence resembles the symptoms of other disease. Syphilis, like a ghost, is also perfectly happy to wait, as in its latent form, it can haunt the afflicted for years before manifesting in tertiary stage of the disease, a stage at which the victim is no longer infectious. Oswald cannot pass this disease on, and the contagion has been contained in his central nervous system, at the expense of Oswald’s life, Regine’s marriage, and Mrs Alving’s happiness.

Is it only a numbers game?

Johnson’s talk at Google regarding his book The Ghost Map celebrates the mid-19th century physician John Snow and a local amateur Henry Whitehead’s effort in finding the reason for cholera outbreaks in the city of London. At the centerpiece of their efforts is the construction of a map — a map of all cholera-related deaths near a neighborhood water pump, bounded by the walking path around the neighborhood. Johnson tells us how this map spectacularly illustrated Snow’s theory that cholera was caused due to drinking contaminated water, going against the commonly accepted miasma theory of diseases being caused by bad smells, or the airborne particles that caused them, and not carriers such as water.

Snow and Whitehead’s Map of cholera deaths around Broad street water pump- each black bar marks a cholera death in the house and the area is bounded by walking path. Image via

However, in his paper titled “Incorporating Quantitative Reasoning in Common Core Courses: Mathematics for The Ghost Map,” describing quantitative reasoning approaches that could be included while reading or teaching The Ghost Map, the Beloit College Professor John R. Jungck urges Johnson’s readers to ask whether these quantitative tools such as the cholera map actually just spit out the truth as Johnson seems to suggest?

He reminds us of Florence Nightingale, who herself had pioneered in the practice of data analysis and visualization, and is credited to have invented the famous coxcombs to illustrate the mortality causes for British soldiers in the Crimean war and successfully advocated in the parliament for better nursing practices and sanitation. But as a contemporary of Snow, even after seeing the map, Nightingale did not believe in Snow’s theory of cholera being waterborne.

Florence Nightingale’s famous coxcomb charts. Image via

While Johnson blames Nightingale’s disbelief on factors such as ideology, social prejudice, and limited imagination, in essence pointing that she did not understand Snow’s data, Jungck urges us to ask whether this data and its visualizations might actually support multiple clashing interpretations? He argues that the process of finding the truth is not just as straightforward as its revelation using the data but that it involves argumentation, controversy, and reconciliation with multiple alternate interpretations of the same data, a lengthy but robust process.

Jungck’s argument reminds me of my own changing interpretations of the COVID-19 case numbers over time. While the numbers remain the same, I see 1000 daily cases very differently now than I did a month ago. This interpretation can change from person to person, while Nightingale might have found 1000 COVID-19 cases normal (the new normal I mean), maybe Snow might have thought them to be extremely high. And even beyond that, behind these numbers is the story of how they are even generated: How many tests were done that day? What kind of tests were they? Where in the country were they done? Can we actually trust these numbers?, questions that require even further query than just the daily case numbers. Thus, varying interpretations and seemingly endless questions that ask for even more data are sufficient to remind us that a data set and visualizations alone cannot completely represent the truth.

Finally, tying back to the mortality bills we read about in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, at the start of the plague when the deaths are quite low, the narrator H.F. interprets those deaths as being caused by the spread of the infection rather than dismissing them as just normal variation. I want to leave you to think about how much of his interpretation was caused due to his anticipation of the coming of plague?

What’s with the Metamorphosis?

Needless to say, the plot of this graphic novel is extremely chaotic– we are presented with two distinct narrators whose lives seem to merge but who follow different trains of thought, the narrative of the story is messy and difficult to follow, there’s way too much nudity, and the characters within the story–being teenagers–are acting very hormonal. Amidst all the chaos, the audience is left having to tease out the moral of the story.

Since this is the first time being exposed to this text, I am stuck in a whirlwind of confusion. I can’t seem to figure out the multiple layers of isolation being presented in this text, and I sadly, can’t identify with the issues facing the teenagers because I had a whole different set of teenage problems outside the ones depicted in this novel.

However, I was particularly struck by the Burn’s need to depict changing character traits as a form of metamorphosis. Looking up the term “metamorphosis” in the dictionary, I came across the following definition:-
“(in an insect or amphibian) the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.”
“A change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one.”

Burns’ choice to depict the characters as teenagers offers some clarification as to why the characters change form. Teenage years, marking the stage of puberty, and a move from childhood to adulthood, offers group for some of “metamorphosis” within the context of the novel.

But there are also a number of flaws within this definition that are almost aggravating to me as a reader. Here are some of them.
1.) Metamorphosis based on my understanding requires a linear progression or series of stages. So an adult frog starts of as an egg, then moves to being a tadpole and then moves to being a tadpole with legs before emerging as an adult frog. There’s a clear starting point and a clear end point. This text, however, is contextualized in the middle of this progression. We are unsure of how the characters took form as children, and based on the end of the novel, we are also unsure of their end form. The idea of the “Black hole” as a metaphor stands not only for isolation, but for genuine confusion from a reader’s perspective. Added to this frustration is the fact that the experience of “teenage-hood” is also strictly contextual. These depictions are of American teenagers within a set time period so the experiences might greatly differ from other teenage perspectives across time periods and geography.

2.) There’s still no resolution as to why the concept of adolescence is depicted as an embodiment of some animal form. What is the rationale behind switching the face of a human boy to the face of a cat? Is there a reason for Eliza’s tail? Or Chris’ need to periodically shed skin like a snake? Granted the change of forms might just be temporary. But remember that metamorphosis is a linear progression–eggs–>tadpole–>tadpole (with legs)–> adult frog. You have a clear destination and every stage within the development entails some adding on of form or body part to reach that final stage of development. You can’t go from being a tadpole to being a butterfly. It just doesn’t work. There has to be some linear progression from one form to another.

I’m interested to see what you guys think.

Chiamaka Odera Ebeze (coe209).

“I died because my dad was the biggest blood merchant”

Dream of Ding Village is a fiction based on the AIDS crisis in Henan Province in China. Before writing the book, Yan Lianke, the author had visited the AIDS village seven times and lived with the locals for a while. After the first edition was sold out, the book was banned by the Chinese government with the allegation that it “exaggerated the harm and horror of AIDS with the gloomy way of description”.

In this book, we get a unique perspective from a dead narrator at the beginning of the story, who narrates the acts of his father and grandfather and the consequences faced by the villagers. The commodification of blood is an interesting aspect of the story. Blood is the vital fluid that courses through our veins. The irony is, that the blood that is intended to give life, in the context of Ding Village, takes it away.

Although most of the people who moved into the elementary school are nearing the end of their lives, the corruption of human nature never stops. Though on the verge of dying, people still attempt to steal grains and money. Rather than helping each other and making the rest of their short lives more pleasant, they fight for position and power. When Li Sanren died, he can’t close his eyes without having the official seal, the representation of power, in hand. What does power and position mean to people? Aren’t we also like the characters in the fiction? We all know that we are dying within a hundred of years, yet aren’t we still having the “the more, the better” mindset, striving to pursue something we can’t bring away after we pass away?

Three-Character Classic is the material every Chinese children learn. It teaches them the basis of Confucian morality, especially filial piety and respect for elders. Grandpa Ding has been teaching Three-Character Classic as a teacher throughout his life. However, it’s ironic that both of his sons aren’t behaving well, not even having the basic respect to their father. People start to look down on him because of what his sons have done. When parents have done their best to teach the children, are they to blame for the children’s misconducts?

Dream of Ding Village illustrates the important aspects of human nature. Ding Hui becomes committed in his pursuit of money, not considering ethics whilst doing so. In order to maximize profit, he sold blood wherever it was needed, meaning that he is to be blamed for the spread of AIDS in his country. At the same time, he profited from the government’s weak efforts to aid those diagnosed with AIDS. His approach to this economic opportunity can be compared to those by tobacco companies who profit from selling their tobacco products as well as profiting from the medication to help stop tobacco addiction. Faced with their own mortality, the inhabitants of the village stop caring for one another and the future of those not infected. Instead, they care solely on coffins and “face”. The book is a significantly effective reminder of the negative consequences of placing our financial benefit before the long-term burdens that haunt us down the line. Ding Qiang, Ding Hui’s son, was murdered, using poison, by the villagers in retaliation of his father’s actions. Like the case of Ibsen’s Ghosts, sons are punished for the sins of their fathers.

The majority of the readings that we did dealt with looking for the cause of a plague to find something or someone to blame. Whether it was supposedly caused by the LGBT community or as punishment from God to those that have constantly sinned people always looked for someone to blame. In the case of Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, The grandfather of the narrator is pinning the blame on his son, Ding Hui, for becoming a blood merchant. Ding Hui’s pursuit of a better life turned him into a heartless man, he did not shed any tears when his Son died but lashed out at the other villagers for the murderer to show himself. Ironically, Ding Hui himself is looking for someone to blame for the murder of his son as well. It is possible that Ding Hui is to blame for the spread of AIDS in their village because of his cheap ways of extracting blood, however nonetheless the villagers still consented to his business. Furthermore, we believe that the Grandfather himself is also looking for someone else to blame for the spread of disease, as he himself was the person that said blood would always flow. In the case of Dream of Ding Village, what would pinning the blame on someone for spreading AIDS bring? Apologies would not bring back the dead nor cure the people currently carrying the disease.


— Lateefa, Abdullah, Kai-Wen, Neha

“The world only spins forward”

The second part of Angels in America, titled Perestroika, deals with the aftereffects of the occurrences in Millennium Approaches and the conclusion of the play as a whole. In this part we gain insight into the Angels, Heaven, and God. Kushner describes them in a human way, very unlike the way they are normally discussed both in normal life and inside the play, where Mormon ideals run strong through some of the characters. God decides to leave, the Angels create through sex, and Heaven is a rundown town. These are all characterizations that would be expected to be found in Greek deities, not the Christian faith.

Perestroika shows new sides of each character. Roy, now in his deathbed, has moments in which he changes his normally brutish behavior for something completely different. There are flashes of compassion in his treatment of Belize during his feverish hallucinations, his normally kind treatment of Joe changes suddenly once Joe declares his homosexuality. Joe himself shows new things, under Louis’ harsh questioning he keeps trying to find excuses and attempts to escape culpability to the point of beating Louis when the wouldn’t stop his questioning. This is a huge break from the normally passive Joe. Finally, Perestroika also deals with the conclusion of the obstacles the characters had during Millennium Approaches: Louis and Prior get back together, Prior renounces his prophetic assignment, Harper moves out, Roy dies, and Hannah finds a new home in New York.

There was one more theme present in Perestroika that had big implications for the meaning of the play. The relation between dream and reality is very strong, many of the character’s hallucinations have very real effects on the world, from Ethel prompting Louis to sing to Prior and Harper almost recognizing each other from their shared experience in Millennium Approaches. Kushner plays fast and loose with what is real and what is not. There are moments in which the Angel arrives to Earth and all hell breaks loose, Prior fights the Angel, Hannah is flabbergasted over the entire situation, but in the end the event is remembered as dream rather than an actual event.

How should God be represented, and by extensions, what it means to be holy? Is following the Angels will faith or servitude? Is not following it heresy or independence?
Seeing the Angels’ behavior compared to people like Belize, who are the real Angels in the play?
Forgiveness is a heavy theme in the play, used by the characters to move forward; is being forgiven, and forgiving, a right or a privilege?
Is Joe deserving of hate? Is his behavior is fault or is that he can’t extricate himself from his conflicting convictions?
In the end Hannah is found to be in the group, what does that mean for her? Is she accepting, or has she become a member of the LGBT community?
Here is the video of the Epilogue, Bethesda, as portrayed in the movie Angels in America:

Iron Lungs


In Roth’s Nemesis (2010), we have come across the term “iron lungs” which some of the characters in the novel had to use when they contracted polio. It has been stated that there is no other device more associated with polio than an iron lung, or a tank respirator. Physicians that treated people who were at the early stages of polio found that they had trouble breathing because the virus paralyzed the muscle groups in their chest. At this stage, death is frequent. Although, those who survived recovered almost all of their strength.


What powered the iron lung was an electric motor with two vacuum cleaners. The pump would change the pressure inside the “rectangular, airtight metal box” which would pull air in and out of the lungs. Breathing on one’s own usually happened one or two weeks later.


Nothing worked well in trying to help people breath until Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw at Harvard University, in 1927, invented a version of an iron lung that helped to maintain respiration artificially until the person could breathe independently. An inventor called John Emerson later refined the device where a patient would lay on a bed (called a “cookie tray”) and could slide in and out of the cylinder when needed. The tank also had windows so that attendants can reach and adjust sheets, limbs etc. Emerson tested it by spending the night in it and it was first used in Rhode Island to save the life of a priest who had polio.

Fun Facts:

Mass distribution of iron lungs happened in 1939. In the 1930s, an iron lung cost around $1,500 which was the average price of a home. During this time, Drinker took Emerson to court and said that he “had infringed on patent rights by altering [his] iron lung design.” However, “Emerson defended himself by making the case that such lifesaving devices should be freely available to all.” In 1959, there were 1,200 patients using tank respirators in the United States, but in 2004, there were only 39 due to the polio vaccine.

Hope you enjoyed these facts!

Thanks & Regards

Mahra Al Suwaidi