Thursday, December 29, 2005

On the road

Texas road kill sighted (more than the usual, I might add).

1) Buzzard
2) Calf
3) Dogs
4) Cat
5) Coyote
6) Possum
7) Possum
8) Possum
9) Skunk


In the middle of no where Texas, along the road (nearest “city”, Thrall, population 710, twenty miles away), out pops a little shack with lights on.

“Beer, pool, girls” it reads.

All for the weary nomad I suppose.


We’re driving by this ranch in the middle of ranchland, Texas, with the usual bunch of cows chewing cud, and a couple of bored looking horses standing around.

And then I see it. I think I’m dreaming, and slow down to look again.

It’s there. There was a real, live, contented looking Emu strutting around the driveway of the farmhouse.

(that's not my picture, it's just a picture of an emu. I didn't have a camera handy then).

Monday, December 26, 2005

Revisiting “The walking drum”

Historical fiction has a unique place in the world of fiction. Here, authors wove a tale (most often of adventure) based in a time long before their own. They had to write a compelling story, yet in the backdrop of historical events that had to be accurate. Some authors were true masters of the form. ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy was one of the finest authors of historical fiction to have come from India. In his novels he wove fascinating tales of adventure, action, drama and romance amidst wars between the Pallavas and the Chalukyas or the Cholas and the Pallavas, taking back readers to a time of conquest, and glorious architecture and culture. Sir Walter Scott did well, while Shakespeare himself wrote great historical drama, like Julius Caesar or Anthony and Cleopatra. But it’s a genre little associated with that grand master of the quick draw, cowboys and fistfights, Louis L’Amour. Yet L’Amour surprises readers with his simply outstanding swashbuckling adventure, "The walking drum".

  • This is a story of Mathurin Kerbochard, in early 12th century Europe. Those were interesting times in Europe, with the Moslem Moors ruling the Spain, Christianity on the rise across Europe, with pockets of paganism still alive. The pagan Kerbochard himself was a descendant of a line of Druids. He’s the son of a famous corsair, Kerbochard, and carries his family name proudly. The story starts of in his home, along the Armorican coast, where he hears stories of his father being captured (and perhaps dead) in the East, and his home is destroyed by the Baron Tourmaline, who long held a grudge against his father. And from this first chapter, we are lifted in to a world of non-stop action and fascination.

    He escapes, only to be enslaved by pirates. All he has with himself are his wits, and a keen desire for knowledge. We then follow him through his adventures (with many an encounter with mysterious and beautiful women), as he escapes, makes a fortune, and goes to Spain. Spain under the Al Mohads had lost a little bit of the glory of the earlier Ummayad Caliphate but was undoubtedly the center of learning, arts and science in medieval Europe. Here scholars (not only Islamic) gathered, in the magnificent city of Cordoba, and the libraries of Cordoba alone had more books than the rest of Europe together. Europe was still years from awakening to the renaissance, and learning was stilled viewed with suspicion. Cordoba had Islamic scholars, as well as Jews and Christians, and was wealthy beyond the imagination of much of the rest of Europe. Here Kerbochard embarks on a mission of learning, mastering Latin and Arabic, and even learning Persian and some Sanskrit, while mastering swordplay and horsemanship, and mastering navigation, some medicine, science, and alchemy. He plunges in to one adventure after another, encountering nobles, rouges, solders and of course, mesmerizing women, making valuble friends and dangerous enemies. He then is forced to leave Spain, as he hears of his father’s possible captivity in the East, and moves on to France, towards his own native Armorica, where he joins a band of merchants.

    L’amour describes the rise of the new power, the merchants, beautifully, as Kerbochard travels with the band, which traveled with merchandise, and hundreds of armed men, veritable private armies. He avenges his family’s destruction by destroying the Baron Tourmaline, as L’amour beautifully describes the rise of “nobility” and blue blood in Europe (with the difference between a knave warlord and a noble being just one generation). The merchant army walks east, under the beat of a drum (the walking drum) as they cross Europe, rescue a countess, and make their way to Kiev. From there, the army moves on to the Steppes, where they encounter the famed horsemen of the steppes, a prelude to what would soon sweep across the world under the hordes of Genghis and other Khans. Great battles follow, and Kerbochard loses his fortune and almost forfeits his life.

    His destination is now Constantinople, still under the Byzantine empire, and Christianity’s greatest city, clouded under the threat of the rising power of the mighty Arabs. He enters the city as a beggar, but a wise and learned one. He leaves, as a friend of the Emperor Manuel. For he has to go farther east, as he hears his father is still alive, but captured at the impregnable fortress of the Ismaili Alamut Hashashins. The Hashashins (who gave the world the word assassins) terrorized the Abbasid elite with politically motivated assassinations for strategic gain. Their fortress was impregnable, and here, drugged warriors were promised paradise upon fulfillment of their assassination duties. Kerbochard, in the guise of an Islamic scholar infiltrates the great fortress, and in a fitting climax rescues his father. L’amour was a master of close one-on-one action, which he experienced as a professional boxer, and perfected in numerous fisticuffs and gunfights in the Wild West. Sword duels and galloping horses flow naturally and rivet the reader here.

    There is a fascinating twist as well, at the end of the tale. L’amour wanted to write three historical novels with the hero Kerbochard. The first would take mesmerized readers to Europe and the middle east, through the Walking drum, but the next two were more ambitious, as Kerbochard would head to the land of Hind (yes) and mysterious Cathay.

    It’s a pity that L’amour died a couple of years after writing this (perhaps his finest) book, and could not write these sequels.

    Oh well.

    “Yol Bolsun”. May there be a road always.

    Thursday, December 22, 2005

    Happy hour: The color of our skin

    It’s time to vociferously discuss some science again, over a mug of beer (or a fortifying orange juice, or any other stimulant of your choice). This story even made it to some news sites, only because it seems to be important to too many people. But the science is fascinating, and the experiments very well thought out, so why not bring it out on Balancinglife?

    Yup, this post’s all about the color of skin. A lot of us know that different skin color is due to different amounts of the pigment melanin. This pigment is produced in the skin by cells called melanocytes, and stored in structures called melanosomes. Quite obviously, Africans have tons of melanin, white Europeans have very little, and lots of the rest have some thing in between. But it wasn’t clear at all how this happened, and what controlled it.

    But there’s been some breakthrough research recently. And this knowledge didn’t come to us from human patients, but from some humble fish. Clearly, fish aren’t only important as food that increases human lifespan (and making the mind sharp, at least in Bertie Wooster’s opinion). The fish studied are a very popular lab too, called zebrafish that are supremely easy to manipulate genetically. They’re called zebrafish for obvious reasons. They have deep, rich stripes running across themselves, not unlike those striped horses of the savannah. Now, some researchers noticed something odd. There’s a known strain of zebrafish called golden, which are lightly colored, and have much lighter lines running across them. These fish have “hypopigmented” melanophores (a lot less melanin) compared to the “wild type” or normal zebrafish, and the development of melanin pigmentation is delayed in these golden zebrafish. So a bunch of researchers started looking at this more closely.

    Interestingly, the melanosomes of these fish looked a lot like the melanosomes of light skinned humans. So they figured that the gene causing this “golden” effect would be somehow responsible for skin color. And so they did some nice genetics (positional cloning and morpholino knockdowns, which we won’t get in to), and identified a specific gene. (image from Science, 2005, 310, 5755, pp. 1782 - 1786)

    Blink. Take a deep breath.

    Now, as a refresher for those who forgot, a gene (DNA) is made in to RNA, which then gives rise to a protein. This protein is the actual functional unit that carries out the action. Proteins are made up of scores of building blocks called amino acids, and we’ll get back to these in a moment. Now, how do you prove that this gene is responsible for color in normal zebrafish? Simple, take the gene, and put it in to the golden zebrafish and see what happens. The researchers did exactly that, and found that the normal gene, once introduced in to golden zebrafish fully restored normal color to these fish. Clearly, this gene plays a major role in skin color.

    But what does that have to do with us, you ask? The researchers asked the same question, and mined the human genome for genes that looked like this fish gene. The found a gene, SLC24A5, in humans, where 69% of the amino acids were identical to the fish gene, suggesting with little doubt that it was the human version of the same gene. Now here comes their most convincing experiment.
    They took the human gene, and put it in to the golden zebrafish. Guess what? The golden zebrafish regained their normal color. The human gene was fully functional in fish, and worked to regulate color, proving with out doubt (one of) it’s functions.
    There remained one obvious question. Did this explain different colors in humans? The researchers then looked through different human populations to see how this gene was different in them. They looked for “polymorphisms”, differences in the human gene in different populations. And the found one. Almost all Africans, native Americans and Asians (93-100%) have an amino acid called Alanine in a certain position in this gene. Almost all white Europeans had another amino acid called Threonine there, in that exact same position in the gene. And this can happen with just one single mutation in the DNA of the gene, a change of just one single base (out of thousands). And African Americans of mixed ancestry showed the same statistics, with the fairer ones having a greater prevalence of the Threonine mutation.

    But the story remains incomplete (isn’t that the beauty of science? One discovery leads to more questions). East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans etc) are light skinned. But almost all of them shared the same allele as the Africans. So, in their case, there seems to have been a second selection (of some other gene, that’s still unknown) that’s resulted in lighter skin.

    All this however still doesn’t tell us why light has been preferred. It is well known that dark skin protects the skin against ultraviolet damage, an obvious protection in harsh, sunny climes (Africa). But for light skin the most plausible hypothesis (still unproven) is that it allows more absorption of sunshine (required to make Vitamin D) in regions where there is little sun, requiring some “positive selection” of a gene for this purpose.

    A nice bit of work, using a model organism (in this case a fish) to answer human questions, and elegantly illustrating natural selection and evolution in an everyday system.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2005

    Bandyali school, and the Jaipur “Development” Authority

    Digantar is an exceptional group based in Rajasthan, running some excellent schools that works with poor and underprivileged children. Digantar runs the Bandyali school in Jaipur. This school educates 324 childre, 201 of which are girls. All children are extremely poor, coming from mali or gujjar or muslim communities. The school was set up in 1992 by Digantar, with support from the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The location was decided after months of community meetings, as a place suitable for children to walk to from various hamlets. This school is an national example of how quality education can be delivered to even the poorest (where there are many obstacles to education, especially for girl children), reflecting the ideals of India’s Education Policy.

    On 2nd December 2005, the Jaipur Development Authority has, in all it’s infinite wisdom, given the school a notice to evict in three days.

    Yes, three days.

    At a time when the Rajasthan chief minister is harping about the education of the girl child.

    Here's the petition which you can support:
    The petition to "Save Bandhyali School (Digantar, Jaipur)"
    Please read and sign the petition at:

    There is a blog which is constantly being updated with the progress of the issue, as well as it’s legal and social aspects, (link).

    Now, I’m not against private institutions built to make a profit. It’s great for people who can afford it (I benefited from it myself). But there’s no place for it if it’s destroying a wonderful school that’s benefiting hundreds of children in an area where there is no other choice or money. That would be more than a gross miscarriage of social justice.

    Sunday, December 18, 2005

    Spinning it straight on

    We had only some months ago moved in to that house, some fifteen or sixteen years ago. As I was heading out for a walk with our dog, I met out old landlord, Devraj uncle, downstairs. As our dog eyed him suspiciously, we started chatting about my school and such like. Then he gave me the latest news on our little street, by Yediyur lake in Jayanagar. Apparently some guy called Anil, who lived a block away down the street, had been selected to the Indian cricket team.

    “Who’s Anil?” I asked. “That tall fellow with spectacles, who goes out for cricket practice every morning?”

    Devraj uncle nodded affirmatively.

    Anil went to England, came back, and was dropped from the team. But early every morning, as I head out to school with my backpack, I would see this tall, lean, intelligent looking guy heading out in cricketing whites, with a kitbag, for cricket practice. Earlier I thought he was just one of those many league or club cricketers in the area. Now, I looked at him with new respect. I used to think the guys on my school cricket team were supermen. That meant Anil Kumble was something more. When I saw his name in the newspapers, as some Ranji exploit was being described, I started paying more attention. Still, the guys who had seen him bowl on TV didn’t think much of it. He looked like a medium pacer who didn’t spin the ball much.

    Two years later, he was back in the team, and this time when neighbors mentioned it, I knew who it was. South Africa, a bagful of wickets, and Anil Kumble was here to stay. I’d see him less often heading out for cricket practice (since obviously he’d be with the team, touring), but he would head out on a shiny new motorcycle now (a Hero Honda, I think), as his mom would be washing out the steps of the house ritually every morning. When we played cricket in the nearby ground, us wannabe’s who couldn’t bowl fast or spin the ball would lumber up in a mock-Kumble run-up and hurl down the ball, saying it’s Anil Kumble style.

    A couple of years later, as I was walking to the bicycle repair shop behind the little Ganesha temple on Kanakapura road, just beyond it’s intersection with our little street, I saw him again outside the temple, chatting with the priest. He had a brand new Maruti 800, four lemons strategically placed beneath the wheels, and a small garland of flowers in front of the bonnet. I thought I should go up to him and speak to him. But what would I say? That I’m one of the kids who lives down the street? Not much of an introduction for sure. The moment passed, I walked on, and I never spoke to him.

    We moved from that house to our own house a couple of years later. Anil Kumble too must have moved to a larger house somewhere else. But I continued to cheer him every time I saw him on screen, bowling his heart out for India.

    Now he’s taken more wickets than any Indian bowler, and has “spun” India to victory more times than can be remembered. At the threshold of 500 test wickets, and established as an all time great, Anil Kumble’s now playing his 100th test, something only a handful of bowlers have managed. He’s earned the respect of players around the world, and has continued to inspire with his simplicity and total commitment to the team.

    Well done Anil Kumble!

    Friday, December 16, 2005

    And why is it ok?

    There’s been a gradually growing trend in Indian cinema (in particular Tamil cinema) that is rather disturbing.

    A trend of men beating their wives or daughters or even mothers on screen, with dialogs saying it’s ok to do that.

    I can’t remember this happening in commercial Tamil or Kannada cinema from the sixties, seventies or even eighties, unless the story revolved about domestic abuse. This phenomenon pretty much started some time in the nineties, and has grown. It’s now totally ok for a man to come home and beat up his wife if she disagrees with him. Sometimes, it’s even passed off as “comedy”, but most other times it’s just a “natural” reaction of the lout.

    And it’s not just the villain doing this. It could be any “character” role (hero’s still don’t do that), the heroine’s father, or the city police commissioner, or the autodriver. Doesn’t matter. Angry? Just beat the crap out of your wife. It’s your birthright.

    Media, especially cinema (even the fantastically unreal “commercial” cinema) does affect society profoundly.

    So, why is this ok (or even popular or funny) in the movies?

    Tuesday, December 13, 2005

    The soap epic

    Nine a.m. on Sunday morning.

    The kids would be bathed and ready, the house would smell of incense, and the family would gather and get ready.

    In small villages, the entire family would dress in their Sunday finest, and gather at a few select houses to participate in the most important event of the day.

    Sometimes, a priest would be present, and ready, with marigold and camphor.

    And at the stroke of nine, a light would flicker, and the screen would come alive with the familiar spinning orb that was the logo of Doordarshan, and the familiar voice would start crooning…

    “Sita Raam patita paavan……”.

    Grandmothers would gasp with teary eyes, while an “arthi” would be taken around the telly.

    And for the next hour, they would all remain mesmerized by masterfully melodramatic myth.

    Ramanand Sagar revolutionized Indian television. “Buniyad” and “Hum log” might have been classic soap operas, but it took Sagar to recognize the sure-shot way to TRP super-stardom. It had to be the Ramayan, big, glitzy, and supremely devout.

    Slam-bang action would not have worked. The pace had to be slowed down, and select moments repeated and replayed to re-enforce the point. The cast had to look goodier than goody, and Arun Govil would forever be remembered for his celluloid soppiness. Can any of us ever forget that “divine smile”, which would fill the screen (in nauseating close up) for a good 20 minutes out of the 45 of each episode? Dara Singh became Hanuman, in deed and spirit. And Dipika won an election because she was “Sita maa”. For that matter, Arvind Trivedi won an election too, since he was “Ravan”, who, though a brute, did govern Lanka magnificently.

    Sagar knew that all good things did come to an end, but the savvy businessman makes it last very, very long. So, the simple task of Hanuman setting fire to Lanka would take an average of six hour-long episodes. Dasharatha’s death, which should only have taken a moment, took all of a month. And the battle scenes were masterpieces of 80’s television special effects. An arrow would leave Ravana’s bow. This arrow would then (in super slow motion) become twenty-five arrows. Ram would look at it and raise his eyebrow (as we would gasp). He would release his counter-arrow which would become twenty-five arrows as well, and defeat Ravana’s arrows. Ram would then take the time to graciously smile at us, while Lakshmana and Hanuman would nod and prostrate appreciatively.

    The process would then be repeated with arrows that would breath fire (to be quenched by arrows spitting water), arrows that became tridents (countered by arrows that became maces), and arrows that sparked red (countered by arrows sparking blue). The choices were endless, and would mesmerize us viewers for weeks on end.

    Kids would play in the streets with little bows and arrows. Parents would no longer worry that their kids were wasting Sundays, but were now spending quality time with the family learning about their heritage and culture.

    “Prasad” from poojas would be distributed as the title song blared again, at the end of the episode.

    And you could bet your last paisa that the faithful would gather once again, at the same time next week, demanding more of the same. For seventy-eight whole weeks. And when Ravana was finally killed, cities celebrated. When Sita had to undertake the “Agni pareeksha”, the same cities wept. And in the final episode (actually, it was three episodes), when Hanuman ripped open his chest to reveal Ram (Arun Govil smiling divinely), an entire nation cried enough tears to overcome Bangalore’s water problems.

    Ramanand Sagar; RIP.

    Saturday, December 10, 2005

    Snippets of life

    Dallas-Fortworth. It's a cold, winter afternoon.

    The drawl is distinct, and the twang sharp. Quite different from the softer, more unobtrusive tones of the Pacific Northwest, but I’ve come to enjoy this tone over time as well.

    The sight too is familiar. People are larger, and a little louder. Ten-gallon Stetson hats are on many heads, including the gentleman’s on my right.

    His attire is typical. Clean, well pressed full-sleeved shirt, crease-free jeans, Stetson, and thick leather belt with a six-inch brass buckle (and an engraving of a rodeo). Sharp, polished cowboy boots.

    There’s a tinkle, and he grabs his cell-phone from it’s raw-hide leather holster. As he drawls in to the phone, he tweaks his handlebar moustache, and a finger reveals a signet ring with a little cross engraved on it.

    The Wild West is still alive, at least in spirit.

    I couldn’t help but think that my thin frame, passionless beige trousers, thin-frame spectacles, small noodle lunch and laptop on lap made me a quintessential “girlie man” in these parts.


    All it took was a moment

    Monday evening, and I’m walking home from work. There’s a little street that I walk towards to cross. I see this kid (probably a freshman or sophomore) jogging towards the street. He runs across, without looking.

    A car’s coming up the hill, at about 30 mph. Perhaps the driver doesn’t see the kid. He reacts too late and the brakes screech. It’s too late, and I hear a sickening thud, as the boy is hurled 3-4 feet across on to the sidewalk.

    I run towards him. A lady on the other side of the street also run towards him. She gets there first.

    “Are you alright?”

    The driver of the car, an elderly gentleman, is also by the boy’s side, horrified. The lady calls 911.

    I run across the road (carefully) as fast as I can to the hospital (it happened right in front) and call the medics. Then I run back.

    The boy’s hood is soaked in blood, and there’s blood all over his face. “Will I make it? Call my brother!” he’s screaming.

    The cops pull up. Within minutes the medics are there too. Nothing seems to be broken, but he cant move and his speech was becoming slurred. Still, they think he’ll be fine. A friend of his is already there, and she’s sniffing in worry. He’s lifted on to the stretcher and taken away.

    The cops take our statements and contact information, and are gone.

    It’s all taken a total of fifteen minutes. The road is clear again. Students continue to jog across the crossing. Nothing could ever have happened at that crossing fifteen minutes ago.

    Wednesday, December 07, 2005

    Everything Scientific Vol. VI

    It’s back, the penultimate volume of Everything Scientific for the year 2005, and your one-stop for some of the coolest and latest in the world of scientific research.

    Biological fuel cells?

    From the cover of PNAS is this exciting breakthrough in the world of fuel cells. Hydrogen gas seems promising as a future fuel, suggesting a world where fuel is clean (the only by products are water and CO2), and breaking dependence on fossil fuels. But fuel cell technology is still only developing. A bottleneck is the required use of platinum electrodes. But platinum is expensive, relatively rare, and inactivated by impurities in Hydrogen gas (mostly hydrogen sulfide), and is intolerant to oxygen or carbon monoxide. Could biological systems hold a solution? Biological systems have enzymes (proteins with a catalytic function) called hydrogenases, which carry out dihydrogen oxygenation. These use nickel and iron in their catalytic sites, and efficiently carry out hydrogen-cycling. However, since these enzymes are from mostly anaerobic bacteria, they are intolerant to oxygen. Researchers have now studied a hydrogenase from Ralstonia eutropha , which is exceptionally tolerant to both Carbon monoxide as well as oxygen. They then use these studies to design a fully functional but simple fuel cell device, with this enzyme as the electrocatalyst.

    Perhaps biology will provide some more solutions to the world’s fuel problems. Read about the research here, or an editorial here
    PNAS, November 22, 2005, 102, 47,16951-16954

    Global change, ecosystems and human well being

    Most studies of climate or environment change look at little local environments, but they extend across ecosystems and continents. So, to measure the true impact of these changes, data from across regions need to be studied. And human activity must be recognized as essential parts of that ecosystem.

    Researchers from various countries across Europe worked together to come up with a detailed “pan-European” study, and took data from 1990 onwards (a decently long time study) and continued the trends to make projections for the year 2080, using the trends and rates seen with existing data. They studied socio-economic, climactic and atmospheric drivers, and used four different models to simulate climate change. Temperature changes slowly but clearly indicated a shift towards warming, but precipitation changes varied across regions. Land use scenarios did not change significantly, but changes in the provision of water were more significant (and would substantially affect the types of crops grown). Southern Europe in particular faced much greater water stress, while changes in snow cover in alpine regions would affect biodiversity, as well as reduce water in summers, with a greater risk of winter floods. The complexity and interrelatedness is fascinating, and is well worth a read (subscription required) here,.
    Science 25 November 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5752, pp. 1333 – 1337

    Paleontologists have unearthed another spectacular fossil, in the Bavarian region that has been a rich source of these fossils. This is another fossil of Archaeopteryx, the earliest undisputed avian, or bird. But what’s great about this is that it’s almost perfectly preserved, and has the first complete skull as well as a perfectly preserved foot. And that told scientists many new things. It reconfirmed that birds came from non-avian theropod dinosaurs (and not any other reptile). All birds have a fully reversed first toe, so that they can perch on branches, but Archaeopteryx does not have one, strongly suggesting that Archaeopteryx was better suited for living on land than living on trees. The foot also reveals a hyper extensible second toe, very similar to that seen on velociraptors of Jurassic Park fame. Cool.
    Science 2 December 2005:Vol. 310. no. 5753, pp. 1483 - 1486

    And there’s a bit of controversy as well. No, not that kind. It’s just that the fossil is not going to live in any of the world’s premier fossil museums, but instead is going to a private museum in Thermopolis, Wyoming (which sounds like a one horse, two grocery store town). Perhaps this will make the town boom?

    Eat your…..allergy vaccines?

    It’s been a desire for many researchers to engineer foods as effective delivery vehicles for therapeutics. One idea long standing (we actually heard about it way back when I was an undergrad) has been to engineer foods with “vaccines” against diseases, enabling a large-scale inoculation using just food. There remain many, many problems….the engineering of a complete vaccine would mean introducing the gene encoding an “attenuated” (weakened) version of the target toxin, which would be expressed in the food itself, and so available to the patient upon consumption. But then this toxin would need to be suitably absorbed and be available in the bloodstream. Obviously, this remains a complicated process with little success thus far.

    But researchers in Japan have made some nice progress. They’ve engineered the gene coding for a pollen that causes many allergies in to rice, and the rice expressed this at high levels (nearly 0.5 % of the total protein). They fed this rice to mice, and exposed them to the allergen. Amazingly, the mice appear to have taken up the rice protein, which caused resistance to allergies (reduced histamine release as well as sneezing substantially).

    All you allergic lovers of peanuts, help is on its way. Just a few more years now.
    PNAS, November 29, 2005, 102, 48, 17525-17530

    Theory of Intelligent Deception (ID)

    To end this edition of Everything Scientific, I just have to link to this letter to Nature, written by A. R. Palmer. It very nicely points out why “Intelligent Design” is not even a pseudo-science, and brings out why ID proponents have arguments that are ridiculous, and why ID doesn’t fit in to a science classroom. I will quote almost the complete letter (since Nature requires subscription).

    ”…………. I suggest that ID could be presented as an alternative so long as it is always accompanied by a third option: Intelligent Deception. This hypothesis proposes that the ID movement is motivated by an 'intelligent deceiver'. Individuals who understand how to debate alternative scientific hypotheses would never intentionally promote religious dogma as science. So an intelligent deceiver must be at work, guiding proponents of ID to sow confusion over valid scientific debate. To exclude intelligent deception from debates over ID versus evolution could be considered hypocritical on both legal and moral grounds…….”

    Monday, December 05, 2005

    Getting to the top

    Narendra Jadhav is one of India’s foremost and finest economists. He’s currently Principal Advisor and Chief Economist of the Reserve Bank of India. He’s also quite strongly against the old quasi-socialist system that prevailed in India till the mid nineties, and has lucidly pointed out how the closed economy of the past hurt India the most.

    Jadhav is also a Dalit, and author of the book ”Untouchables : My Family's Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India”.

    Here is an excellent interview of Jadhav by Subbu Vincent. Here he talks about currencies (and why the dollar vs. rupee exchange rate is the way it is), some effects of the Nehruvian era of protectionism, oil’s impact on the economy, and caste.

    Some snippets:

    A closed economy:
    "…. But in 1991, we had a ridiculous situation where we were 15% of the world's population and 7% of the worlds land, and our share in the world's trade was one half of one percent. (Our share of exports plus imports as a proportion of total trade.) A lot of people in India believed that the imperialist powers and capitalist countries were cornering us. That was stupidity. If our share was 0.5% why would the countries with 99.5% of trade share come together to corner us? We were a closed economy.”

    Oil and the economy:
    "……. Okay. Now, look at it this way. When oil prices are going up, what options do we have? First option, pass on everything to consumers. And force them to adjust. Second, let the oil companies take the hit. And the third one is the government absorbs the difference in the budget. There is no fourth alternative. We can't say we won't let this happen and that happen.”

    "………Do you realize how poor our performance in oil conservation is? In India we talk about oil conservation as if it was someone else's problem……………..What is the fuel efficiency we have achieved? That is the disadvantage/side effect of heavy subsidies. If you had passed on the prices to people, then they would be forced to conserve………So giving things under priced is also having side effects. So you have to weigh the pros and cons.”

    Caste and reservations:

    "……….Reservation for jobs is not like railway reservations…… Reservation, the need for it is coming from the inability of the system as a whole to be fair. It is to guard against that. What reservation means is that if you are a Dalit and I am biased man and therefore I will not give you the job, it is to prevent the kind of injustice which is there because of the psychological problems in non-Dalits towards Dalits; that is the genesis.

    "……….I have seen, if there is an inefficient person and if his same is Phadke or Apte, these are all names of the high born, they will be looked upon as inefficient individuals. But if there is a Kamble who is inefficient, you know what is the immediate reaction? It is to the blame the caste and then say "inko tho reservation miltha hai na."

    "……… Prejudices are there. They are difficult to erase. These are otherwise very capable people. But whether we hire someone or not should not depend on whether they are Dalit or Muslim or not. Whether they are fit for the job must be the factor.”

    Read it all here. It’s well worth your time, and perhaps a way to counter your own prejudices. And people like Narendra Jadhav and the late K.R. Narayanan are just the kind of role models dalit society needs (and not Mayawati).

    Friday, December 02, 2005

    Happy hour: Food for thought

    It’s amazing sometimes to find out that a fruit or vegetable that you thought was uniquely or intrinsically a part of your cultural food has been around in your culture for only a while. Given my fondness for food as well as trivia, over the years I continually researched the origin of foods. Much of this might be well known to you, but some of it perhaps might not be, so here we go.

    Cereals and grains are of course the bulk of what we eat. They come from grasses, and each of them has a long and proud history. Wheat is an essential part of breads, considered indispensable to European food. But the humble grass originated in Asia, in what’s the Middle East today. The earliest wheat cultivation took place in the regions from Syria through Iraq and Mesopotamia, as early as the Neolithic era, and slowly spread across Europe, and Central Asia, reaching South Asia. Guessing the origins of rice, the world’s most widely consumed cereal, is a lot easier. Rice is native to Asia, with the two major strains, O. sativa indica being native to India, and japonica being native to East Asia. In India of course rice has been synonymous with rich harvests and prosperity for centuries. Maize (or corn), which the average Punjabi will relish in his Makki rotis, is native to central America, and was prominent across America centuries ago, with a place of prominence in Native American folklore and religion. It made it to Northern India just a few centuries ago, but now is common food.

    But more fascinating are the roots of tomatoes and potatoes. The humble duo, a fruit and a tuber, have made themselves indispensable to all cultures. Elections in India have been lost because aloo and tamatar prices had shot up due to shortages. But both of them are native to the Americas (those of you who scoff at American food, you have much to be thankful for). Native to central and South America, the tomato was taken by the Spaniards to Asia (the Philippines first, from where it spread across South East, and then South Asia rapidly). Potatoes (and the very distantly related sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas) are also native to South America, and reached India thanks to the Portugese, a mere 500 years ago (or less). In Maharashtra, potatoes are still called batata, from the Portuguese (and Spanish) word for potato, patata (the origin of the word potato). Dum aloo has never been so foreign to Indian shores. The Spaniards first took it to Europe, and within just a few years, it became essential staple food.

    India and the rest of South and South East Asia have become synonymous with spicy food. One can’t even imagine a good Indian meal with out “chili” or “mirch”. But amazingly, these “chilis”, what America calls “peppers”, belonging to the humble genus Capsicum and are native to the Americas as well, tremendously important to Native American medicine. They made it to Asia again through the Spanish and Portugese, and took over palates rapidly. They were misnamed “peppers” because they were “hot”, just like black peppers were. But they’re not even related. And ancient South Asians used to spice up their food with black pepper (peppercorns), which is native to South India, and was a source of much wealth for centuries to the Malabar Coast. The word pepper comes from the Sanskrit word for it, pippali, which reached ancient Rome to become piper in Latin, and later pepper on our table.
    To any south Asian, mangoes are the kings of fruits (rightly so). And indeed mangoes are native to South Asia (Mangiferous indicus, celebrated in song, epic, panchatantra and jataka folk tales and legend. Apparently, Alexander the Great and his armies gorged themselves so much on this fruit in India, that it gave them severely upset tummies, and Alexander had to ban eating of mangoes in his army camps. The word mango comes from the Tamil mang kai, which was the word for the raw fruit (the ripe fruit is called mam bazham). But the name stuck because the Portugese used to ship the raw fruit (mang kai) to Europe, which would be ripe by the time it reached European shores. They took it to South and Central America as well, where it thrived (though they don’t taste or smell nearly as good). The orange too is native to either India or Indo-China. The word citrus comes from the Sanskrit Santra, while the word orange itself comes from the Spanish word for it, naranja, which comes from the Sanskrit naranga. But this reached Spain long before the Spaniards reached India. Arabs took it to Islamic Moorish Spain, where it thrived. Bananas too are native to Southeast and South Asia, with Alexander (remarkable, how much Alexander took back with him from Asia to Europe) encountering it in India, while the Spanish took it to Central America. So perhaps India is a banana republic after all.

    And finally to the world’s favorite drink, coffee (no, it’s not South American). The word coffee itself comes from the Italian caffe, which came from the Turkish kahveh. Native to Arab lands (originally coming from Kaffa in Ethiopia, and then Yemen), coffee was one of the regions most prized possessions. The Turks treated Italians to coffee, who fell in love with it. Export of coffee from Turkey was strictly forbidden, but legend has it that an enterprising European smuggled it out by presenting a lady friend with a bouquet of flowers in which some stalks with coffee flowers and beans were hidden. From there, it was but a short time before the Dutch took it to the Malabar coast, and the Spanish took it to the new world.

    And all this finally resulted in providing us with Seattle’s Best coffee, in Starbucks, and many an hour spent enjoyably at the nearest Starbucks outlet on Friday afternoons before happy hour!