Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Holidays and heartwarming movies

Happy Festivus. That, ofcourse, is the festival for the restofus.

The holiday meant it was time for a "heartwarming" movie, and feel-good times. What better way to celebrate than by cheering Rocky Balboa through one last fight? The first Rocky is an all time favorite of mine. Sure, some people dismiss it as a boxing movie, but though it had a fight as the backdrop, it was all about Rocky's character. You couldn't help liking the Italian-American who lived a rough life, but was basically a good, decent human bullheadedly taking on anything that life decided to throw at him. When Rocky runs across the steps of the Philadelphia Art museum (with that fantastic soundrack behind you), you cheer, and when he steps in to the ring for that fight, you know he's going to win in the end, but you gasp and hold your breath as he falls repeatedly, and keeps on getting up.

Somehow, the sequels lost the plot. Rocky 2 through 5 were terrible, even if they made plenty of money. And when Stallone announced Rocky Balboa, for one last hurrah, I like many others sniggered. The dinosaur was coming back.

But Stallone seems to have proven me and a lot of others wrong in this movie. Sure, there's plenty of cliche moments. You're not sure why he's moping in a restaurant named after his now dead wife (Adrian), and his difficult relationship with is son is a little less than convincing. But this movie rediscovers what Rocky is all about. It's about cheering on a man who will not take defeat, and every time life knocks him down, gets up and slugs it out. Battered, but not broken inside.

Stallone may be some 65 years old, but he still looks in better shape than I'll ever be. And when his film career is long over, he'll be remembered with just two movies. Rocky, and Rambo. But Rocky will remain his best, just because of who Rocky was. And Rocky Balboa is the best sendoff the Rocky story could receive.

And if it isn't the perfect holiday movie, I don't know what is.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Inclusive, exclusive

Roads, to me, are about connecting not just places, but people. And if I had to pick just three things that changed human history, they would be fire, the wheel, and the knowledge and development of roads (I know, there are plenty to choose from, but still). Roads started off as trails, which animals (and humans) used to frequently. With the knowledge of engineering (“the wheel”), roads became better.

And soon, they became the greatest means of communication and exchange of ideas that ever existed. Rome built an empire on the strength of it’s roads, till all roads lead there. The grand trunk road built by Sher Shah from Bengal to Afghanistan in the 15th century is still thriving today. The roads of the silk route allowed trade, science and religion to grow across Asia.

The growth of roads are typically accompanied by a splurge in development. First some one opens a gas station. Then a refreshment stand, or a restaurant pops up. Then some one opens a little garage next to it. Then some one else decides to open a convenience store right next to it. Soon the town is booming. People and ideas pass by, and the town learns from all of it.

Beautiful.

That fantastic animation studio, Pixar, used this simple concept to come up with the excellent Cars. Route 66 means a lot in American history. It was the road that connected the east to the west, Chicago to LA. It linked the country.

And then something happened. The interstates were built. Roads, which were meant to connect people, and link towns, somehow started bypassing them. Thriving little towns were literally “missed” by the interstates, and as people sped from one place to the other on the interstates, the little towns were lost, and almost frozen in time.

Cars, of course, is a classic old fashioned movie. But it hits home. As we rush by on the interstate, thousands of people are simply left behind. They know there is change, and they know that they are missing out on the change. But there is little they can do to remain linked to that change, and that rush towards progress.

A metaphor for a lot of things perhaps.

I appreciate the interstate freeways, but there certainly is something to be said about roads that link people, and not rush by. And I hope as India booms, there will be constant efforts to link people who are being left behind. Inclusive, and not exclusive.

(And go ahead, take a moment and watch the inimitable Nat King Cole sing Bobby Troup’s route 66)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Alpha male, super stud

In the time of kings and empires, the rulers always wanted a son and an heir. So that their “line” would continue, and great things would happen in their name.

Or something like that.

So, when a bride was chosen for a prince ready to sow his oats, the search would begin for a princess from a family that had a long line of sons. That was of critical importance, and people had observed that sons of families with many sons tended to have more sons.

Anyway, the scientific basis for this was not very clear. There is an old scientific hypothesis in evolutionary biology called the Trivers and Willard hypothesis for sex allocation (modestly named after the people who proposed it), which states that parents should increase the production of the sex with the higher fitness benefits (or highest payoff for “grandchildren”). This theory basically said that healthy mammals would have more male offspring, while female mammals living in harsh conditions would have more female children. Subsequent studies went on to show that this was not really true, but collective studies suggested that the proportion of male or female offspring was in some way controlled by the mother (the females) having the offspring. Somehow, scientists did not rigorously test if males, the fathers, too had a role to play in the determining of the sex of their offspring.

Anyway, a fascinating new study has now come out challenging old theories. The authors of this study used red deer as their model. They had earlier shown that males differed in their fertility rate (not surprising) and that more fertile males had sperm that swam faster, and a greater percentage of sperm that were normal.

Quite understandable and expected.

Now, they wanted to further test if males could in some way influence the sex of the offspring.

The experiment had to be well controlled. So, to do this, they used a sample of female deer that were kept in identical environmental conditions, were of a similar age and fitness, and furthermore, to make sure that the females didn’t manipulate any results by selecting specific mates, artificially inseminated them all (at a similar time in relation to ovulation).

As well controlled an experiment as could be.

And their results were very convincing. High fertility males (who had more fast swimming, normal spermatozoa) had significantly more male offspring. So, in effect, super-males will have more male offspring, who will go on to increase their fertility, and therefore will have greater reproductive success. Low fertility males however, will have female offspring, and therefore benefit by not inheriting lower reproductive quality from their fathers.

As I read this, I wanted to ask, “so how does it work in nature, since here you are artificially inseminating females. How does nature maintain a relatively stable sex ratio, slightly favoring females? Shouldn’t the supermales eventually lead to a male excess?”.

Well, the authors start to address this question with their concluding lines.

“….creating an unforeseen evolutionary scenario that includes conflicts of interest between males and females. For instance, a fertile male may benefit from producing sons, but the costs of raising a male may be high for a female in poor physical condition….”

Fascinating.

Read all about it in Science 1 December 2006:Vol. 314(5804) pp. 1445 – 1447.

(Also, read this fascinating old post on The Panda’s thumb if you have more time)

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Moving to google

I just moved from blogger to blogger beta, so the labels are nice, but it will take me some time to put back the links to other blogs and such like.

But be patient, and it will all happen over time, as I fiddle around with the template.

Truth and miracles

I was watching TV and there was this interview with someone about the soon to be released “The nativity story”. Nothing unusual about that.

And then the person being interviewed decided to become profound, and this is what she said (more or less).

“The present time is different, where people want everything to be empirically proven, and records to verify the truth. The old days were different. They didn’t ask if Mary was really a virgin, or of the birth of Jesus was immaculate. In the old days they had a different definition of truth.”

Bollocks.

There’s truth and there’s belief. They are not even close to being the same. This is belief. In the old days they believed the earth was flat, and that was the truth. But that was not true.

You can believe whatever you want, but don’t confuse that to be the same as the truth. And you DO want things to be empirically or quantitatively proven.

***********

Which leads me to a minor rant on another pet peeve. People talk about “miracle drugs”. Like penicillin was the first “miracle drug”.

But calling a drug a miracle drug just because you don’t understand what it does is the greatest disservice to science you could do. Most drugs came out of rigorous research, or if the were discovered serendipitously, years of research went in later on understanding how it works, or how to improve it.

It is shameful to dismiss it all as a miracle.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A tale of two cities

When my friends in Seattle found out that I was moving to Dallas, most of them said “it’s a different country.”

Now, I was quite familiar with a small college town in Texas, and I’d visited Austin as well. Austin actually seems to be a rather nice place. So, though I knew the red small town heartland of Texas was a place I’d rather not be in, I figured that since Dallas is a big city, it can’t be all that different from any other American city, even if it couldn't come close to matching the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

But having been here a few weeks now, I’ve come to find the city to be rather dramatically different. Almost a different country. So, I thought I’d write about some of my first impressions here.

Geography has played some part in this difference. Seattle is nicely located between a big lake, the ocean and mountains in the East, North East and South East. So, the city remains fairly compact. Even the suburbs (that make up the greater Seattle area), Redmond, Bellevue, Kent and the likes were never more than 15 miles or so from the city itself. Dallas is true unbridled urban sprawl. The city sprawls endlessly (there is no ocean or mountain to block it’s expansion) and extends in to one mega city as it merges seamlessly in to Fort Worth, Plano, Frisco and many other cities. It goes on for ever, with highways crisscrossing through the city.

The city (like many others in Texas) is built for cars and driving, but for some one like me (who doesn’t drive much, and likes public transport); it is rather difficult to get by. In Seattle the bus service is reasonably good, but more importantly, just about anyone takes the bus. During typical office hours, buses are filled with students, working professionals, professors, tourists, old people, disabled people, poor people, black, white, Asian…..just about any one. It isn’t uncommon to see some one fidgeting with an iPod or Blackberry or laptop. The drivers are friendly and courteous, and taking the bus is never too hard (even to park and rides way out beyond Redmond). Dallas is mostly contrasting. I haven’t taken the DART trains yet, but there seems to be a distinct class separation between those who take the bus and those who don’t. Most of the commuters in buses are obviously poor, and mostly black or Hispanic. Just about any one who has a car drives everywhere. And very few people bike or walk to work, with most streets being quite unsuitable for biking. That is a fairly dramatic change for anyone used to biking everywhere in Seattle (where buses have bike racks for bikers to place their bikes).

The city neighborhoods too are strikingly different. In Seattle, most neighborhoods were pretty uniform (I’m somewhat undecided if it is a good thing or not). There were many middle income neighborhoods (Ballard, Wallingford, Green Lake), a few very expensive neighborhoods (Mercer Island), some neighborhoods with a unique feel or group of people living in it (Fremont), and some poor neighborhoods (a good part of the Central area). The middle income neighborhoods were white (with some Asian populations), the really expensive neighborhoods were white, and the poor neighborhoods were predominantly black. Dallas contrastingly has some really expensive neighborhoods (like Highland Park), which are pretty much white. But most other areas are surprising in their layout and demographic. It is hardly uncommon to see some streets with nice houses, or fairly luxurious apartment complexes, but just two streets away the houses could be a little run down, or trailer houses, and low income apartments. The demographics haven’t changed too much. Poorer neighborhoods seem black or Hispanic, the more affluent neighborhoods white with some Asian (I’m only talking about the city here and not the outer suburbs). But what is different is that at least every one is on the streets “together”. Also, most people know that in the 60s, most middle income Americans (read white) moved to the suburbs, leaving the cities filled with offices, and the poor. The reverse is true today, with people flocking back in to the city, leaving the poor hanging. This is dramatically visible in Dallas, and many neighborhoods are changing rapidly (with new luxury condos, apartments or houses coming up in neighborhoods that just a few years ago were considered undesirable). I have a bad feeling that the poor will have to move out, and given poor public transport and high fuel costs, they’re screwed.

A last dramatic difference between Seattle and Dallas (for now).

Recycling.

Seattle (the country’s favorite granola city) recycles with relish. Trash is neatly segregated by everyone in to plastic cans and bottles, cardboard and paper, glass and aluminum, yard waste (yes) and trash. In Dallas, except in some areas, it remains mostly simple. See trash can. Throw all trash. There are some feeble attempts to recycle in the Medical center, but that seems to be about it. And that is pretty difficult for me to come to terms with.

The city will take some getting used to. But it is quite affordable, (surprisingly) tolerant and liberal, with excellent food choices. There’s something to this city.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Duct tape and chewing gum

(Apologies for irregular posting, but I still don’t have an internet connection at my new place)

In a conversation with some collegues, talk first drifted to NASA and their desire for a permanent moon base, with Bush's promise to have it up by 2020.

Then, it drifted to the old space race between the Soviets and the US in the old cold war days, and how the US spent billions on equipment and technology, while the Soviet space program was run on a sixth of the the cost. Rumor had it that the soviets sent up rockets using a mixture of gasoline and kerosine as fuel, instead of high grade "space fuel".

All that talk just reminded me of an old story I had heard some ten years ago. The US astronauts had a major problem. They were not able to write notes in zero-gravity, since ink would not flow out from a fountain pen or even a ball point pen. So, the US spent millions on special pens that would write in space.

People began to wonder why the Russians weren't complaining. They found out.

The Russians used a pencil to write in space.

Oh well.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Chad Vader: Full time loser

Heh...

Do not underestimate the power of the dark side. It also spawns the iconic Chad Vader, brother of the slightly better known Darth Vader.

Here's the first episode of the series:


You can view all four episodes of Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda's hillarious creation here.

Have fun, and may the force be with you.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Using bacteria to deliver anti-cancer drugs

Cancer patients and their friends and families know that cancer chemotherapy is notoriously difficult and toxic to patients for a wide variety of reasons, and the big problem is to kill cancer cells while leaving the rest of the normal cells in the body alone. There are a few strategies to go around this problem. One popular strategy tries to create drugs that target something unique in cancer cells, and so affect tumor cells more than normal cells. Another strategy uses a “zoning agent”, like an antibody that binds to something specific on a cancer cell, to which the drug itself is attached, so that the drug reaches the cancer cell alone. A third strategy often uses agents such as liposomes (which are sacs made of fatty substances), which can penetrate the pores present in tumors (but also a few other organs). The drug is delivered within the liposome sac. Once they get in, they stick around, and the drug within is released, so can act on the tumor alone. However, all of these methods have some limitations.

But can biology provide tools and answers that will allow the combination of two or more of these different systems, to make the cancer drug even more specific and effective? There are numerous different efforts going on across various research groups, but this rather nifty way to answer this question, where some researchers have found their solution in a bacteria really caught my attention.

There is a large genus of bacteria called Clostridium, which includes some toxic ones that cause botulism (common in food poisoning) or tetanus or colitis (from diarrhea to death), while other species of this genus are harmless and non-toxic. Now, these bacteria are anaerobic, living in low oxygen areas. Most cancerous tumors have a “hypoxic” core (where oxygen levels are very low, due to excessive growth of cells, and a cutting off of blood supply). So, strains of clostridium would selectively infect this cancerous area. A strain of clostridium called C. novyi-NT (NT is non-toxic) also has a second property, in that it secretes something that disrupts lipid bilayers (which constitute the liposome). The researchers figured that this second property could also be used to improve drug release from liposomes.

So, combining this strategy, they infected mice with tumors with this bacteria, C. novyi-NT, AND liposomes containing an anti-cancer drug. If they injected the bacteria alone, or the liposome with drug alone, they only found limited therapeutic effects. But when they injected the bacteria as well as the liposome+drug, they saw dramatic therapeutic effects. All the infected mice showed reductions in tumor size, and 65% of them showed prolonged survival. Basically, C. novyi-NT dramatically improved the anti-tumor activity of the drug in cancerous mice. The bacterial treatment appeared to improve the distribution of the drug in cancerous tissues six fold, compared to just the liposome with the drug, while showing almost no effect on normal tissue.

The results are pretty striking, and actually do suggest the possibility of using such strategies (with this bacteria) in delivering anti-cancer drugs. The researchers also went one step further. They identified and characterized the specific protein in the bacteria that cause the liposomes to break. This actually provides even more strategies, where infection with the bacteria itself may not be required (you could for example attach this protein to a tumor targeting drug, and improve that drug’s efficacy).

A wonderful bit of research. You can read all about it in Science, 24 Nov 2006: Vol. 314. no. 5803, pp. 1308 – 1311

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The fear of a timeout

There was a time when I used to think a timeout was only something basketball players took during a game. But that was a long time ago. I came to observe the full power of a timeout only after I came to America some years ago. And I found out that it was the most powerful weapon parents had in the fight against their kids. Whenever their kids did something they weren’t supposed to, a simple timeout would suffice to put the fear of gods, hell, pink unicorns or worse, parents, in to the kids.

The concept remains simple. Kid goofs up/throws a tantrum/kicks up a fuss/does badly in school/is just plain stupid. Parent(s) get hold of aforementioned kid, and put the smack down on him/her, by the use of a timeout. The order will be given (“you have a timeout for 20 minutes”), and all it means is that the kid needs to sit in a corner without doing anything for 20 minutes. And magically, the kid would start pleading for forgiveness, even as I imagine this to be perfect nap time. The more powerful version of a timeout, being grounded, amazed me even more. Being grounded just meant that the kid would have to sit in a room (complete with all the modern comforts of a TV, playstation, a computer, a comfy bed, and books) for a day, a week or a month. That, to me, seems like the definition of heaven.

And then I see the inimitable Carlos Mencia a few weeks ago on Comedy central, talking about the same thing. Of course, here he’s making fun of kids doing badly in school (with his typically “inappropriate” racial stereotypes). White kids who are troublesome or do badly in school get time outs. Hispanic kids screw up; they go home and get thrashed. Asian kids………get the shit beaten out of them even before they screw up, so that they will never dream of screwing up!

Which reminded me of what an African researcher here (I think he’s Ugandan or Kenyan) said. If he did something mischievous in school, his teacher would beat the crap out of him. He’d go home and tell his mom, and she’d go “you stupid kid, why did you have to annoy your teacher?” and proceed to then beat the crap out of him for annoying his teacher. So, the sorry kid would go and tell his uncle about his beating. His uncle, furious, would grab him, say “why the hell did you have to piss off your mother by pissing off your teacher”, and then beat the crap out of him. So that stupid bastard would finally go to his last hope, his dad, who’d hear the story, turn blue in rage, and then proceed to give him a sound beating for annoying his uncle by annoying his mother who got annoyed because he pissed off his teacher first.

Heh.

Now that story may well fit in India. I’ve seen some teachers soundly thrash their students. Canings (or that tight rap on the knuckles with a wooden ruler) at least used to be rather common when I was a kid. And I got off lightly, since the teachers in my school were a rather good lot, who rarely dished out a beating. I’ve heard some pretty good stories of teachers beating the shit out of a student for something as trivial as forgetting to bring the homework notebook, or writing English notes on a Hindi notebook, or not bringing a compass and protractor to the geometry class, or not wearing a uniform to school.

Sound familiar to some of you?

Somehow, it all seems to come down to the old colonial saying, “spare the rod, and spoil the child”. The concept of beating kids to discipline them has long been abandoned in the west, and if that happens in the States or the UK, that poor teacher is going to prison or will face some rather hefty lawsuits. Much of this holds for parents as well. But in most of the old British colonies (in South Asia, or Africa) the rule of the wooden ruler holds sway to this day.

Now, the question that always remains in my mind (which remains amazed at the power of a timeout) is this. How does one get parents or teachers in Asia (India in particular, since I’m most familiar with the environment there) to stop beating the crap out of the kids?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Bad boy..



Look at that bad boy.

Zero to sixty in FOUR seconds. Can cruise at 130 mph. To quote the manufacterers "How powerful is the acceleration? A quick story to illustrate. A favorite trick here at Tesla Motors is to invite a passenger along and ask him to turn on the radio. At the precise moment we ask, we accelerate. Our passenger simply can’t sit forward enough to reach the dials."

So what's cool about that? Any Lamborghini can do that.

Aha! But this puppy is fully electric.

Yup. With an equivalent efficiency of 125 mpg, AND a max range of 250 miles (don't need to worry about this stopping in the middle of a ride).

This is the future of electric cars. And it's not a prototype. You can buy it.

Their website, Time magazine best inventions 2006

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist.....

.......to be the president of India.

(Apologies for a rare “political” post on this blog).

As is often the case, conversations with friends (particularly Indian friends) tend to drift towards some discussion of politics. And it is quite common to end up discussing the present president of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam. Now, many of my friends think it’s wonderful that a prominent scientist is the head of the nation. They’re taken in by his grand visions of the nation, and his optimistic books on India’s future. But most also are disappointed with his stint as president. They say he’s too na├»ve and trusting to be president, or conclude that the president of India has no real power, is just a rubber seal of approval, and all the power lies with the elected prime minister and his/her cabinet.

But really, that is only partially true. Actually, the president does have substantial power, and I’ve always held that you don’t need to be a great scholar (or, in this case, a rocket scientist) to be president. All you need are three attributes: a strong, independent, non-partisan mind, a good understanding of constitutional law and the powers of the president, and the courage to see things through. Unfortunately, the Dr. Kalam hasn’t demonstrated any of these qualities. He’s undoubtedly learned, honest, dedicated, has a vision and loves his country, but that alone isn’t enough.

There are (in my mind) three or four occasions when the president of India does have a lot of power. The first (and perhaps greatest) power is his executive power, during the swearing in of a government. At this time, the president is all powerful, and he/she administers the oath of office for the prime minister and cabinet. Here, let us say there is some one who’s a known criminal, who is trying to become a minister (these hypothetical examples might reflect reality, but that is purely coincidental). If the president want’s to, he/she can actually refuse to administer the oath of office to that person. There is absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. The second (somewhat related) occasion is when a governor of a state is appointed. That person too is appointed by the president (based on the recommendation by the government). At this time, the president can refuse to appoint strongly partisan governors, or governors known to be docile or easily satisfied. He can insist on the appointment of a governor with the same qualities of non-partisanship and understanding of constitutional law. This then has a direct and tremendous impact on the appointment of state legislatures, and we might avoid seeing some of the circuses during the process of state legislatures being elected.

The third occasion where a president has a lot of power is in his legislative role, in the passing of a bill. A bill becomes a law only when the president has given his approval. The parliament sends a bill to the president, and if the president does not approve of the bill, it can be sent back. However, the rule states that if the parliament does send the bill back to the president a second time, the president has to sign it, and the bill becomes a law. Now, with weak, populist governments (as is usually the case in India), sometimes bills that should never be passed reach the president. The president sometimes does disapprove of the bill (if I remember correctly, Kalam did do so for some bill, which I can’t remember), but it is often sent back to him a second time, and he has to sign it.

But the rule does not say how quickly the president has to sign it. If the president strongly feels that a bill is against the greater interest of the nation, but is in a situation where he has to sign it (because it has been returned to him a second time), he can just sit on it for as long as he wants, making life rather uncomfortable for the politicians pushing for it. In this time, the president can make his views clearer to the national public through the media, and particularly through his speeches during independence or republic day (which is televised live, and is printed in every single newspaper in the country).

To do this, however, the president needs to have the courage to not succumb to the pressure that is bound to follow him if he does not sign the bill. But this is one quality that a good president needs to have.

Of course, there is the fourth occasion where the president becomes all powerful, during a national emergency. But that is a situation I never wish to see, since it is invariably accompanied by the suspension of most fundamental rights and the right to freedom. It is particularly important to have a strong president during these times (or else there might be other incidents like what Indira Gandhi did to keep herself in power).

So, the president of India is not really all that powerless. His/her power is different, that’s all. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be a good president. In fact, you probably shouldn’t be one.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A world of wonder

Recently Selva put together a fantastic science fiction short story contest, for which I was one of the panelists. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the 29 stories that were sent in, and the results are out with the top nine for every one to read. The authors were all enthusiastic, though some stories needed more work. But the best stories made me think about why I loved sci-fi so much.

My own love for science fiction started early, even before I really knew what science fiction was. I was probably some 8 or 9 years old (and already an avid reader) when some one gifted me an abridged version of Twenty thousand leagues under the sea and the enigmatic Captain Nemo had me hooked. A submarine the shape of a whale seemed too fantastic to believe. I didn’t wait long before I started reading the complete, unabridged versions of Jules Verne’s stories, which remain fascinating to this day. Verne was one of the earliest visionary sci-fi writers, writing about underwater travel or space travel a century before it happened. Dang, he wrote about space travel before the Wright brothers invented the airplane. And his stories were of intrepid adventurers, and non-stop action, something I could hardly resist in my early teens (and still can’t ignore). His twenty thousand leagues as well as From the earth to the moon remain amongst my all time favorites. The other grandmaster of sci-fi who caught my early attention was H.G. Wells. But it wasn’t his more popular Time machine or War of the worlds that fascinated me. It was his darker The island of doctor Moreau, with the man-creatures and the law that captivated me.

The important thing to remember about sci-fi is that it may be easy to get carried away with gadgets or innovations, but sci-fi is always about human problems and weaknesses, and is driven by its science content. And the masters of sci-fi always remembered that.

I only moderately enjoyed Arthur C. Clarke (though the 2001:A Space Odyssey movie did perfect justice to the exceptional book), but remain a committed reader of the man Arthur C. Clarke described as the best science fiction writer in the world (in the famous Asimov-Clarke Treaty of Park Avenue), Isaac Asimov, with the Elijah Baley series being my favorite, particularly as the blurring between android and human become greater . His popular science books remain amongst the easiest to read for a lay-reader.

There also remains the cross-over genre of Science fantasy, from Ray Bradbury through Frank Herbert and his messianic Dune series, and sci-fi pulp with Star Wars (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far away”) where science meets religion, politics, power and the survival of humanity. Where did science stop and fantasy begin? Then there is the often depressing but brilliant work of Philip Dick, who’s The man in the high castle played fantastically between worlds of alternate history, in the book as well as the book within the book.

Some of my friends think all this reading of science fiction and fantasy has ruined my mind. But they forget that I was saved thanks to the irreplaceable wit and ever reliable satire that Douglas Adams wrote, and Terry Pratchett continues to write. Reading Dirk Gently’s mostly harmless escapades has made life (almost) worth living, so I’ll thank my small gods for that.

This brings us around to the beginning of this post, the Scian science fiction short story contest. Some of the stories were dark, often futuristic, and sometimes with a view that science in the future could lead to doom. Sure, it is a paranoid world today. Sure, some people think we’ll have cloned humans rampaging around destroying humanity. Sure, some day some nut-job might want to rule the world by moving continents or aliens might invade the earth. But to me that’s not what science fiction, or science itself, is only about. There will always remain a universe of knowledge that we’ll never know. Science will always be about that quest of discovery and the frustration during the quest and is always overcome by the thrill of discovery. The only way to find out what is out there is to adopt the trekkie philosophy, and go boldly where no man (or woman) has gone before. It doesn't matter if it is dark or bright out there. The fun is in the ride. It's magic.

(Here are Falstaff’s thoughts about the contest).

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Self recognition, and science in the Islamic world

From the beeb’s always excellent Science page comes a fascinating story.

Elephants don’t just remember, they also show self awareness.

Yup, elephants can recognize their own reflections in the mirror. To quote the article:
“Many animals will respond to a mirror but very few show any evidence that they recognise themselves in the reflection. Canines, for example, will react to the "other dog" and will even look behind the mirror to try to find it."

This puts elephants in the group of animals with the highest degrees of self awareness; humans, the great apes, and dolphins. Read all about it here.

---------------

And for some more interesting reading, Nature has an extensive feature on Science in the Islamic world.

To quote some nuggets:

“Low investment and a low profile combine to keep the scientific community small, marginalized and unproductive. This is not simply a matter of underdevelopment; the oil-rich Gulf states invest pitifully in R&D…”

Or “The conditions in which knowledge flowered a millennium ago are hardly those that today's Islamists say they favour. Back then, support for scientific enquiry was matched by an openness to other cultures and sources of knowledge.”

The articles range from the present seemingly hopeless state of science in Islamic countries, to a beautiful timeline of historical scientific achievement in the Islamic world, to poor support for science oil rich gulf states, with a few bright spots in Turkey, Malaysia or (surprisingly) Iran, and many, many more excellent articles.

Surprisingly (for Nature), many of these articles are free to access.

The articles are well worth your time. Here.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Be cool, live long

I had earlier written about Calorific restriction (eating less) and living longer. This wasn’t about starvation, but just by eating less in terms of calories (but still getting enough essential nutrients) led to substantially longer and healthier life spans (in everything from the humble yeast to mammals, and likely, us). Now, the New York Times has an article chronicling the same story, but perhaps written in a more entertaining style.

But that is not what this post is about. That’s old news. This one is cool.

Literally.

It is widely believed that body temperature acts in concert with calorific restriction in increasing life span, as calorific restriction does seem to lower body temperature.

The normal body temperature is 98.6 F (or 37 degrees Centigrade). That’s what we all know. We also believe that this temperature is the optimal temperature for survival and life. This body temperature is controlled by a region of the brain, the hypothalamus, where a complex network of different types of neurons interact to maintain and control body temperature. By directing blood flow to shift to cutaneous blood vessels (that reach the skin), heat can be spent, while directing blood flow to deep blood vessels retains heat.

Researchers decided to test the cool-body temperature- long lifespan theory, and to do that they made use of this central temperature controlling system. Cells have a certain organelle, the mitochondria, which convert organic material in to energy (in the form of ATP) that the body uses. Now, mitochondria also have a protein called UCP (with two forms, 1 and 2) that uses up this energy and results in the release of heat. In this study, the researchers cleverly decided to take advantage of the central temperature controlling region of the hypothalamus to modify the core body temperature itself.

What they did was to engineer mice to over express this UCP protein (UCP-2) exclusively in the hypocretin region of the hypothalamus. This excess of UCP-2 slightly increased the heat in that small region alone. This effectively fooled the hypothalamus in to thinking that the entire body was too hot, and resulted in a lowering of the core body temperature of the mice, resulting in a lowering of temperature by 0.3-0.5 degrees centigrade.

The engineered “cool” mice were then fed the same amount of food as wild-type (normal) mice, and were monitored. Due to their lowered body temperature, these engineered mice ended up gaining more weight (compared to the normal mice), even though they ate the same amount of food. This was somewhat expected, since maintaining a lower body temperature would require less energy.

One would imagine that this weight gain (which is normally known to adversely affect lifespan) would result in a lowered life span. But surprisingly, what the researchers observed was exactly the opposite.

What they saw was that the engineered mice with slightly lower body temperature on average increased their life span by about 8% (in human terms that would be an increase in lifespan of about 8 years!). To push the question further, both the normal as well as the lower body temperature mice were fed on a fat diet. The engineered mice ate normally, and ended up surviving longer than the normal mice.

Now, what was earlier known was that calorific restriction would result in lower body temperature as well as longer lifespan. But here, the results suggested that lower body temperatures actually increase lifespan, independent of calorific restriction.

This study raises some really interesting questions. Would it be desirable to decrease body temperature slightly, and therefore live longer? Body temperatures are tightly regulated, and have evolved over millions of years to be where they are today. So, even if a slightly lower body temperature results in a longer lifespan, could there be other adverse side effects on behavior, or psychology or reproduction or something else? Calorific restriction appears to lead to healthier longer lives. Will just lowering of the body temperature do the same?

As always, more questions, each as fascinating as the other.

(You can read the complete article here (Science Vol. 314. no. 5800, pp. 825 – 828), or a short comment here)

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Borat

Borat.

Go watch it. It is as outrageous, irreverant and hillariously brilliant as I had hoped it would be, and impossible to review. If you are easily offended, stay at home and watch Friends.

There was one moment, during a scene where Borat crashes an evangelical meeting, where I was nervous. After all, this is Texas, the heart of the evangelical bible belt. But then, after a few nervous, silent moments, the audience started chuckling, and then laughing.

I'll leave you with the Borat version of the Kazakh national anthem till then.



I'm eagerly waiting for Sacha Cohen's next creation.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Change in the air?

I thought things were changing when I read that people in the most unlikeliest of places, Texas, were lining up to buy hybrid cars like the Prius, and began to believe it when I started seeing them on the highways, cruising right next to your friendly neighborhood Hummer.

But you know there’s real change in the air when truck and car dealers start talking about gas mileage on TV ads.

Another two years of high gas prices, and our little stick-shift 40-mpg Honda Civic coupe may not feel as lonely on Texas roads, and Texans will be hopping in to their Civics and Toyotas and screaming down the highways.

Of course, if that really happens pigs will also have wings, and cows will start mooing “Texas, our Texas”.

(There will be some some “nice” science posts to look forward to for next week).

Monday, October 30, 2006

The ugly Indian

There was a time when I was fed the myth that almost all Americans are ignorant and blissfully unaware of the world outside America. This myth was particularly strong before I came to the States, and continued to occasionally make appearances after I came to the States, in some gatherings of desis. Sure, there remain plenty of Americans who don’t know that Sri Lanka is a country, do not know the difference between the world’s forth most widely spoken language (Hindi) and a person claiming faith to the world’s third largest religion (Hindu), or that the US is not the world’s largest country (in terms of population or land area).

But I also learnt that this ignorance is not unique to Americans, and seems to be a rather strong human trait. Many of my own friends or acquaintances in the States are Indian. Almost all of them have advanced degrees and high paying jobs in tech or science industries. And many of these people roll their eyes in horror and depreciation when some average American still doesn’t know where Iraq is. But many of them are just as guilty of similar ignorance. Here’s a smattering of questions some desis I know were clueless about.

What is thanksgiving celebrated for? (One worthy answer said “it’s some special religious thing for Americans”)
Whom did American get independence from (for the 4th of July celebrations)? (One classic answer I heard was slavery)
Why was there a civil war?
How is the president elected?

When I occasionally ask why people didn’t bother to learn about these things, they said it was because they didn’t really care and it didn’t matter much.

Exactly.

Postscript: Sometimes I feel the larger and brasher the society (and I include an “Indian culture” in the brash category), the less the individual feels he/she is compelled to learn about others (I could probably say the same about sub-Indian regional cultures). But people from smaller countries often feel the need to learn about the big ones. You hear about ugly Americans or Indians or Chinese or Germans or Brits. You don’t hear about ugly Lituanians. And the few Lithuanians I’ve met have uniformly been well aware of the world they live in. Doesn’t prove anything, but perhaps there is something here.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The right to information

I was fortunate to meet and chat with Arvind Kerjriwal yesterday (he is in the USA currently, visiting a number of cities, supported by various organizations like the IIT foundations and alumni associations, Asha, AID etc). Arvind, a now retired IAS officer, founded the exemplary organization Parivartan, and has tirelessly campaigned for the Right to information (RTI) act. In recognition of his work, he was awarded the Ramon Magasaysay award this year.

The RTI act has been in the news recently. But, though I had heard a lot about it (both from the news as well as from organizations I knew were using it well), it was hard for me to imagine how powerful a tool it really could be, until my meeting with Arvind yesterday. So in this post, I though I’d outline what I had learnt from him.

I was surprised to learn that the Right to Information was declared a fundamental right in 1976 by the Supreme Court, as embedded within the right to freedom of speech. That was 30 years ago. But till now, there hasn’t been any mechanism or machinery by which that right could be exerted. But the whole process gathered momentum in 1990, spearheaded by Aruna Roy. Surprisingly, (I learnt from Arvind) this act may never have come to light but for the strong support of an unlikely person, Sonia Gandhi (I still know little about her, but my own respect for her has increased thanks to his one act). And here is what the law provides. It gives all citizens in India five rights:
1) The right to ask any questions about the functioning of any government body or employee
2) The right to inspect any public document
3) The right to photocopies of any document
4) The right to inspect any public work (eg. to inspect any road work for example)
5) To ask for samples of materials used

All this (unless it falls under areas of national interest or security). Still, these are just words. How can this be implemented?

The process is surprisingly simple. All you have to do is petition the public information officier of the government office concerned. If (s)he doesn’t respond in 30 days, that person will be penalized Rs. 250 per day (and still has to respond). A second petition is made to his/her immediate boss, who has to respond within 30 days (the same rules apply). If not, the file is sent to the Information Officer (there is about one per state) who has to by law take action, and penalize the negligent officer. A remarkably efficient process.

But does this work, in the corrupt, bureaucratic system in India? Apparently it does. I’ll just give two of the many examples Arvind talked about (there are many more that you can find here). The first one was of a daily wage laborer in Delhi, Nannu. He had lost his ration card, the card that entitles India’s poorest to subsidized food every month from government supplied provision stores. Now, according to law, a person’s lost card should be replaced in 10 days. Nannu was made to run from pillar to post for some 4 months. He had no money with which to bribe officials. Finally, Parivartan helped him file an RTI petition. In that he asked what progress was made on his replacement card daily, when he would get his card, and what happened to the officers in charge of his card. Within days, the official came to meet Nannu personally, offered him tea, asked him to withdraw his petition, and gave him the ration card.

It must be remembered that a bureaucrat or government official’s power lies in secrecy. And they are terrified of any negligence being made official, or coming out in the open. So, they feel tremendously threatened by the RTI act, since they have the most to lose.

Arvind gave numerous other examples of individual citizens benefiting. However, this RTI is also a powerful tool to expose major policy decisions. He gave an example of a recent effort in Delhi to privatize water supply in the city. Apparently, this was a proposed World Bank funded effort. The proposal was on since the mid nineties in complete secrecy. However, some news leaked out in to the press, and Parivartan, as concerned citizens (who knew nothing about water, but just wanted to know what was going on) filed an RTI petition asking for the files on this process. At first there was a lot of resistance, but finally the files were made public, and the story was shocking. Apparently, the World Bank was arm twisting and almost dictating policy to the government. The process of privatization (or any government work) takes place with bids by bidding companies. There is a two layered process, where first in this case the top six companies would be selected, and then in the second round, the best among them would be selected. Here, in the first round, Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, the well known consulting firm, had a bid that came in tenth. By law, they should have been eliminated. But the world bank insisted that PWC be considered. At first the government protested, but with continuous pressure relented, and declared PWC to be selected in the top six by declaring it to be an Indian company! In the next round, again PWC fared badly, with only a 67% score, and a terrible proposal. Again the world bank pressurized the government (by asking it to remove the people who evaluated the proposal), and forced the government to declare the PWC bid as the winner. Again, the government capitulated to pressure. It wasn’t just this, but the entire process of water privatization in this proposal was rather absurd, and would have affected millions of people adversely. Bowing to public pressure (after the dealings were revealed due to the RTI petition), the government scrapped the project completely.

Clearly, this Right to Information act could be the most powerful tool we have ever had in almost 60 years of independence, and the one chance to correct corruption and inefficiency in government.

But all is not well. Something this powerful for the people will by default have opposition by those who stand to lose. And this would be both the bureaucrats that run the country (both in the civil services as well as regular government offices) as well as politicians. So, there are concerted efforts by both the government and the bureaucrats to kill the bill. There are amendments being proposed that will in effect kill the bill. To make things worse, presently all the current Information Officers appointed are former bureaucrats. The come from within the system, and hate every aspect of the bill (would a former bureaucrat punish one of his old buddies who has failed in his/her duties?). This is in spite of the fact that the Information Officer can be any “eminent citizen”. The present chief information officer is on record saying he believes in “ahinsa”, and will not prosecute negligent officers! Politicians and others involved in rackets like siphoning off money or food from ration stores to sell in the black market hate the RTI. It could kill their own golden egg laying geese. So, there is every chance that this bill might be co-opted in to the vast bureaucracy that exists in the Indian system.

And it is our duty to see that it doesn’t happen. So, make some noise, petition the president or prime minister or the leader of the opposition. Make sure that the bill survives in practice. If it does, and it functions for five years or so, gaining visibility, it will become political suicide for any party to remove it. And it will be the one tool we have never had in all these years to fight corruption and strive for transparent, efficient governance.

(All this reminds me that it is time to revisit my complete Yes minister and Yes prime minister collections).

Monday, October 23, 2006

What's your worldview?

Regular blogging will resume on this blog in a day or two.

Meanwhile, what's your worldview?

Here's mine:


And here is where some famous world leaders would probably end up:


You can take the quiz here

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ali G and science

Booyakasha!

This be my main man, Ali G, talking to some scientists, technologists and creationist.

Check it.

Respect.



(Blogging will take a break until the 19th of this month. There will be lots of blogging after that).

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Plant bloodhound

It’s time for some scienceblogging again!

Before you read on, pause for a moment, and answer this question.

Can plants smell things?

I mean, think seriously. It’s a plant. How could a plant detect odors? Volatile chemicals? Sure, plants themselves could smell nice or nasty, but do they sense their own smell?

Now, think of a rather common garden weed called the dodder (a.k.a. strangleweed). If you are an enthusiastic kitchen gardener, and grow potatoes or tomatoes in your backyard, it is more than likely that this weed has at some point of time entered your garden. Its actually a sorry looking plant, with the leaves hardly visible, as it vines itself around the host plant, but it does sometimes have nice looking flowers. The dodder seedling can survive only for a short time, but in this time needs to hunt out a host, and start growing on it. This vine produces roots (or haustoria) that penetrate the host plant, and sucks out the nutrients from that poor plant.

In some fascinating work, scientists now report that this plant actually sniffs out its prey.

(image from here)

Yup, you heard that right. This plant hunts down its host by smelling it out.

Well, more or less.

The researchers designed some nice experiments, where they first traced the growth of dodder seedlings, and found that they moved towards tomato plants. Then the researchers carried out a more controlled experiment, where they put the seedlings in a special chamber with only two outlets. One lead to four real tomato plants, the other to four artificial plants. The seedling, with almost a relentless focus, grew towards the real tomato plants. Next, the researchers did the same experiment, but without any plants. In one side they kept real plant extracts, in the other, solvent alone. Guess what? The dodder grew straight towards the plant extract.

Ok, you say. Perhaps the dodder can sense any plant extract, since it parasitizes many plants. But that isn’t being really perceptive.

But guess what, this plant can differentiate between plant smells. If the experiment is carried out with the dodder seedling planted between tomato plants on one side, and wheat plants on the other side, the dodder preferentially grows towards the tomato plants. The wheat plant is an unsuitable host for the dodder, and it does not survive well on wheat. And this data shows that the way the dodder differentiates between tomato and wheat plants is by the volatile compounds they emit.

This plant practically smells out a new home.

Being a (former) biotechnologist, I couldn’t but appreciate the observation that if the dodder didn’t like growing towards the wheat plants, perhaps the volatile compound in wheat that differs from the tomato plant could possibly be used some day as a dodder-icide.

A fascinating piece of work, and it certainly has made me rethink the whole concept of plant sensory systems (after all, we have them for survival. There’s no reason to think that plants could not use something this useful). This study also raises so many questions. How do the plants detect volatile chemicals? What are the receptors that do this? Do all plants still retain this system, or do parasitic plants preferentially retain them? Such exciting times.

Now, here’s my question again.

Can plants smell things?

(You can read the full paper of this story here, or listen to an NPR broadcast here).

Monday, October 02, 2006

A desire to learn, and the great Indian school show

Saturday, the third day of the excellent South Asian Film Festival here in Seattle, had a rather interesting session. This one was dedicated to education themed films, and there were two movies, both striking in their own way.

The first was a charming little short film from Nepal, called Suk Bahadur class IV. This was about an eighty something year old gentleman, Suk Bahadur, who lives in a remote village in Nepal, who wanted to learn. He’d spent a lifetime in India, working as a driver (and drove Meena Kumari herself around, if his anecdotes are to be believed), and now came back to his birth-village up in the mountains to retire. He now wants to study and become literate, and so goes to school faithfully every day, with his little granddaughter.

You see him doing morning drills with the little kids, and then cramming lessons in classes, to come back home and do his homework (while being scolded by his seven year old granddaughter for not reading words correctly). And, like most garrulous old men, Suk Bahadur is never short of stories, or reasons why Nepal remains backward.

When the documentary maker finally shows the movie to Suk Bahadur, he only has these profound words to say;

”Main hero nahin, super-hero ban gaya. Sunil Dutt aur Ashok Kumar say bhi bada”

(I’ve become a super hero, bigger than Sunil Dutt and Ashok Kumar……doesn’t quite translate as well).

***********

The second movie was the simply outstanding "The great Indian School show". Set in the Mahatma Gandhi High School in Nagpur, the documentary chronicles events at this school, which has installed close-circuit cameras in all classrooms, corridors, the playground and all exits.

Yes, you read that correct. 185 closed-circuit cameras at every point in school. And all cameras lead to an array of monitors placed in the principal’s office.

The principal, an unctuous Mr. Bajaj, with gold rings in all fingers, a gold bracelet adorning the wrist, and killer dark glasses (henceforth to be referred to as Pimp Daddy B) goes on to explain the rationale behind such a necessary use of resources.

He says, now with the cameras he can monitor what is happening in every corner of school. He knows if there is the slightest indiscipline. He can see what each teacher is teaching in class. If he thinks the teacher isn't teaching well, he has video proof, and can fire him/her. This technology also comes with a direct speakerphone to each classroom.

He demonstrates, by zoning in to some random class, and his voice booms across the room.

The moment the students hear HIS voice, they all stand up, and the teacher too gets up from her bench!

He then asks the teacher how many students were failing in that subject. The poor sods have to stand up (in full view of the camera), and he asks the teacher to send him the list.

“See”, he turns to tell us, “how efficient the running of the school is.” And then he beams, and I almost expect to see gold teeth.

Pimp daddy, it seems, runs a tight ship. All the teachers sing endless praises of the cameras and mikes in every room. And here are some select pearls of wisdom they come up with.

“Thanks to this, the discipline is very high in the school”, muses teacher X.

“This is a co-ed school. Both boys and girls study here. So, things might happen. Therefore, these cameras are necessary”, philosophizes another erudite lady.

“Not just in this school, but we should have this in all schools, colleges, and offices. Only then will people work properly”, chastises sycophant teacher number three.

Some students are asked what they think, and they immediately sing praises of Pimp Daddy B. Other students march down the corridor, flourishing military style salutes.

And we, the audience, watch this movie in utter and total incredulity. Now this, truly, will make India the land of great free thinkers, and a hotbed of creativity.

Mahatma Gandhi, I’m sure, would have been proud of this school.

(My post for Gandhi jayanti).

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A wonderful short animation film, and a modest longer "nothing" movie

Day two at the South Asian Film Festival here in Seattle, and I was able to stay for only one of the evening sessions.

A long time ago, in the early/mid eighties, I remember going to movies in Bangalore, and most of them were preceded with short animation films, mostly on national integration and suchlike. The films were rather sloppily made, but always had catchy music (anyone remember "bela, gulab, juhi, champa, chameli...phool hain anek kintu maala sirf ek hain"?). I actually fell in love with short animation films then. But the fabulous short films of Pixar are what really made me appreciate how much could be packed in to so little.

Here at ISAFF there was a wonderful little short film, and this time from India. Sai Paranjpye films had put together a short children’s' film called Chakachak, which was a "heart warming" film about environmental awareness. The animation was decent, but the music (put together by the always excellent Three brothers and a violin, and sung unmistakably by Usha Uthup) was excellent, and went perfectly with the animation.

The message of course, with little kids on screen, was that we are destroying the earth, and we cannot let it happen.

Very nice, and I hope movie halls in India start screening these shorts before movies, like Pixar films often show here in the US. We need to see more short animation films from India.

***********

Man pushcart was a rather interesting Pakistani-American film, of the type I classify as "nothing films". A nothing film is not a film with no content. It's a film where nothing seems to happen; yet you are very impressed with the tale being told. This is about a Pakistani immigrant, Ahmad, who sells donuts, coffee and bagels from a pushcart in New York. Just a nobody selling stuff, but they have lives and stories also. Here, he is a former Pakistani rock star, now in poverty in NYC, selling breakfast, and working desperately hard (selling coffee during the day, porn during the night) to make enough to buy his own push cart. He has a life, some tragedies, an almost relationship, recognition by a rich Pakistani who identifies Ahmad as the former singer, and then makes Ahmad paint his house. Tragic, ironic, funny, and with nothing in it.

A rather charming movie. Most of the actors are not professional, but do a good job (particularly Ahmed, the lead). Some of the actors did fall short though. One of the characters was a Pakistani guy who sells Ahmed the pushcart. The only problem was that this guy spoke Hindi/Urdu with an almost Mallu accent. Now, I'd like to meet a Pakistani who speaks Urdu with a Malayalee accent. (Looks like I'm right, I looked the actor up on IMDB, and it's Panicker Upendran, a Malayalee name if there ever was one).

But I'm not complaining. More power to films of this kind.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Amu

Seattle's Independent South Asian Film Festival started its screening with the screening of Shonali Bose's Amu, and the experience was quite fulfilling.

When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, I was about six years old. Still, I do have some childhood memories of the family glued to the TV, watching Doordarshan news and the telecast of the assassination. But, living in Southern India, I guess at best we heard some stories of some "riots" in the North. It didn't seem like a big deal. There weren't large populations of Sikhs in South India. There were no riots. It all seemed distant, and my own memories are dim.

Amu turned out to be a sharp reminder of what happened, and how little has changed since then. The story is about Kaju (played by the irrepressible and always exceptional Konkona Sen Sharma, who, if she doesn't have a fan club, has one now started by me), an Indian-American, visiting India (and her extended family) from Los Angeles. The director, Shonali Bose, uses a rather interesting method to lead up to 1984 through Kaju. The first half of the movie is light, meandering along with some snippets of everyday city life, of college students in Delhi, some banter and light heartedness as the story proceeds. It is more a gradual unfolding as Kaju slowly learns about her past, and about 1984 from a very naive perspective (like many other people, she didn't know that it even happened), but gradually learns that she is intrinsically tied to the Sikh riots.

I felt the movie jumped a little abrubtly into the deapth of the riots, and tragedies that followed, the horror and the continuing travesty of justice. However, the performances by the characters (Sen Sharma, the always reliable Yaspal Sharma, Ankur Khanna, and (surprisingly) Brinda Karat are very sincere and compelling. This more than made up for the discontinuity in the movie.

The movie did however remind us of the horrors of the riots, and of the complicity of politicians, police and bureaucracy in these riots. It was not one or two people who orchestrated it (Tytler or Bhagat are just two politicians who led the carnage, but there were dozens more), but many, many more. The movie also reminds us of the many families and individuals who helped hide many Sikhs (their friends and neighbors), some times accepting great risk to their own lives. The movie maker, Shonali Bose, was there to answer questions, and most questions brought out these facts, which many of us have forgotten, or never knew (it is another matter altogether that sometimes the discussion diverged and some how ended in Iraq).

A lot of water has flown from the Ganges to the Bay of Bengal since then. And most of the victims of the tragedy (an estimated 4000 odd killed), the survivors who lost their families and livelihoods, still remain without justice.

A Sikh prime minister of India has not been able to change that.

The movie ends with a (somewhat cliche) news clipping of Godhra. And history repeated itself.

Amu is certainly well worth your time.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Oscars, and other movies

It looks like Rang de basanti is India's entry to the Oscars this year, for best foreign film. I felt the movie was above average, with some reasonably good acting performances and good music. But that doesn't make a winning movie, though it might be tremendously successful commercially. My own choice would have been that rather intriguing adaptation of Othello, Omkara. Still, good luck to Rang de basanti.

In other news more exciting for me, I'll get to watch some excellent short films, movies and documentaries at the always excellent Independent South Asian Film Festival right here in Seattle. I'm looking forward to the four days of fun with the excellent selection of films from across South Asia. Science blogging will take a break till next week, but there almost certainly will be some posts about the festival and the movies, from Thursday through Sunday.

And if you're in Seattle, don't miss this excellent opportunity to get a small glimpse of South Asia.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Happy hour: stealth, intrigue and deception

Time for some more Friday science fun!

One of the most interesting biology lessons I had in middle/high school was a class about symbiosis. Here, there were some examples of two living organisms co-existing together, usually benefiting each other, but sometimes only one organism benefited. All we learnt was about mutualism (where both organisms benefited), or parasitism (where one benefited at the cost of others). Well, there understandably are regions in between, where only one benefits, with no cost to the other, or where it is disadvantageous to one, but neutral to the other and such like.

In a beautiful paper that’s out in the latest issue of PNAS, I learnt of another one, called phoresy, which is actually a form of commensalisms (ignore the big words, just read on). Phoresy is actually a rather interesting system where one organism uses the other for transportation.

Now, why would an organism want to use another to transport itself? Perhaps because the other is more suited to move distances, or reach food sources that the one piggybacking needs. Like the remora that stick on to sharks. They move rapidly with sharks, and are protected (who’s going to attack jaws?), and get shark leftovers for food. The sharks lose little, so don’t care. It’s a win-no loss situation.

But this recent paper is far more fascinating than just that, and goes to show how far evolution can go to make things work for an organism. There’s a humble beetle called the blister-beetle. This beetle, like all other beetles, starts off as larvae. Now, these larvae actually survive by living off the pollen and nectar in the nests of a particular species of bees.

And how they get to the bees nest turns out to be a tale of stealth, intrigue and ultimate deception. After all, finding and raiding an insect nest on their own (especially for a wriggling larva) can’t be that easy. So they come up with something even better.

Instead of every larva striving for its own survival, the larvae co-operate to ensure their survival (greater good). The larvae first aggregate, to form a cluster, on flowers and branches of plants. Incredibly, this cluster visually resembles a female bee.

Not only that, but the clusters of beetle larvae also start emitting chemical cues that resemble the chemical cues that the female bees themselves emit, called pheromones.

Now, what can a horny male bee do to resist these sultry female bee siren mimics? Precisely nothing, that's what.

The male bee is drawn to this cluster of stealthy larvae, and tries to mate with it. As soon as the male bee alights on the cluster, the larvae latch on to the male bee.

This sorry male sucka then flies off with the larvae in tow, and then finally finds a real female bee, and the moment he comes in contact with her, the larvae latch on to her. She of course flies home to her nest, and there the larvae can happily disembark, and live and grow in food paradise, feasting off the nectar the bees work hard to find.

To quote from the paper:
”The aggressive chemical mimicry by the beetle larvae and their subsequent transport to their hosts' nests by the hosts themselves provide an efficient solution to the problem of locating a critical but scarce resource in a harsh environment.”

Now tell me science is not cool. (Update: There's also a podcast by one of the authors of the papers (via Selva))

(Read the complete paper here)





Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Parks in peril

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I consider myself to be particularly fortunate to be surrounded by unreasonable amounts of natural beauty. I'm a stones throw away from wonderful hikes (and occational black bear sightings) in the Cascades national park. Mount Ranier, Baker, Adams and St. Helens are just short drives away. There are the beautiful San Juan islands, where you can go out on a boat and watch Orca pods swim. And then there's the incredible Olympic national park, a world heritage site, and a temperate rainforest of stunning beauty. Every visit leaves me amazed, and delighted at the beauty of nature.

Like many other people, I think the National parks are the best thing that happened to this country. They are simply magnificient, and are undoubtedly treasures that we must save for future generations. The national parks in the US are also a shining example to the rest of the world on how to save these natural treasures, and delight in them.

But all is not happy. The October issue of The National geographic magazine has a cover story titled Parks in peril, and points out how much stress the parks are under. There are massive staff shortages, huge funding deficits (running in to hundreds of millions of dollars), huge stress from human encroachment, and immence pressure from various groups (from expanding suburban populations near the everglades to oil companies in Alaska) to open up the national parks for "development".

There will be many people who think it's just fine, and we don't need national parks. But if we can't save these few treasures, so unique that they are found no where else in the world, it will be a tragic shame.

The world will go on, people might survive, and "doomsday" may never come.

But the loss will be ours. And it will be irrecoverable.

This issue (like any other issue of National Geographic) is a must have.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Religion makes you dumb

Ok.....this is by far one of the funniest things I've seen recently.



Gawd! I love creationists.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The crab and the Samurai

Antuko, the child-Emperor of Japan, stared in somber silence. The year was 1185, and as he stared in to the ocean from his deck, he knew the end was near. A school of dolphins had approached his ships, and then dived under the ship and disappeared. Had they swum alongside the ships, his clan, the brave Heike, would have survived.

But he knew that victory was imminent for his rivals, the Genji clan. Three thousand of their ships approached his one thousand ships. Each of his ships carried his brave warriors, Samurai loyal to him.

He clasped the hands of his nurse, and they jumped in to the sea. His samurai followed him to the bottom of the ocean. The Heike would now rule the kingdom of the bottom of the sea. The world henceforth belonged to the Genji.


Japenese fishermen would find crabs called the Heikegani, which had shells that looked astonishingly like the mask of a samurai warrior. Thanks to this remarkable co-incidence, the crabs would not be eaten by the fishermen, who believed that the samurai of the Heike continued to live, as crabs at the bottom of the sea. This was my own summary of a folk fable that's still remembered well in Japan, and happens to be a famous examples that's attributed to artificial selection (quoted by Sagan in his Cosmos).

But may not be artificial selection alone at work here.

Artificial selection is a modification of a species by human actions. This results in specific traits being bread in the species. We’ve be at it for thousands of years now, and have bread different species of dogs (chosen for their size or fur or shape) or cats, or cattle or grain, or fruits and vegetables. The list is endless. The process of artificial selection, and the genetic events involved are the same (but often rapidly amplified, “artificially” by us) as natural selection, where organisims retain and propagate certain traits that are beneficial to them and allow them to survive or proliferate better.

With the crabs, the speculation was that the crabs that looked most like samurai masks survived, while those that didn’t look like masks became dinner. This may have created an artificial pressure for the proliferation of only those crabs that looked most like samurai, and due to that, today all the Heikigani look like Samurai masks.

However, this example isn’t really true of artificial selection, and there are much better examples of artificial selection (dog breeding that gave rise to different strains of dogs is much better). There is some truth in the artificial selection story here, but there are very strong other evolutionary reasons why the crabs have those dents on their shells (that just happen to look like samurai masks, when you throw the feet of the crab in there).

To quote:

….. The grooves are external indications of supportive ridges, called apodcmes, inside the crab's carapace that serve as sites for muscle attachment. Elevated areas between these grooves allow for an increase in internal space, so that the various parts of a crab's viscera - gastric, hepatic, cardiac, branchial, etc. -are reflected externally. This is not
to say that these structures are unaffected by selection ......The point here is that
these ridges and grooves occur in nearly all members of the crab family Dorippidae…..there are at least 17 different species of crabs in two families in the
Indo-West Pacific that are similar enough ..., and there are many related species from other far off waters that bear a likeness to a human face. Many Asian countries have names to account for the similarity of such crabs to a human face, such as the Chinese name Kuei Lien Hsieh (Ghost or Demon faced crab), and in several countries the crabs play a prominent role in local folklore, sometimes being considered sacred, with the face representing that of a deceased relative.


This is a very nice example of a mistaken hypothesis based on a final result.

Cause and effect again.

More interestingly though, this example still serves as a beautiful example of evolution by natural selection, that may have been influenced by artificial selection.

You can read all about the crab and its myths here.

I’m just going to use all of this as an excuse to post a picture of a Japanese painting depicting the fable, an exquisite Samurai mask, and the crab itself.



Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Cola wars

There has been some noise on the pesticides in cola controversy in India. A lot of articles came out saying sure, there are pesticides in colas, but the water we drink, or the vegetables farmers grow are far worse, with even more toxins. So, don't blame the cola companies.

To me, that seemed like diverting the issue from one wrong to another. Particularly since a lot of mud was thrown on the CSE, which came out with the findings.

Anyway, here's Sunita Narain of the CSE, with her response. I've pasted the complete article below. (I've also added my stand on the issue at the bottom).

Editorial: Divert, deny, dismiss and damn

==============================


What a line of attack! PepsiCo, in its advertisements to deny that it had pesticides in its drinks, said that there were more pesticides in tea, eggs, rice and apples. Coca-Cola, in its defence, has similarly argued that as everything in India is contaminated, its drinks are safe. They say this is being done to target them, because they are big brands and us multinationals. On the other hand, the pesticide industry, in its public response, wants the focus not to be on pesticides but on heavy metals and other contaminants. They also say that they are being singled
out.

What should we understand from all this: one, we should not target us companies, not target the pesticide industry and in fact, not target any particular industrial sector but keep the issue at the level of generalities. Two, we should not try and fix any specific problem, like pesticides in soft drinks through improved regulations. But we should keep our work focussed on everything that is bad from pesticides in milk to heavy metals in soil. Three, we should not try to get the government to set regulations for soft drinks because they were found to have
pesticides. We should instead try and fix something else.

Let's put this spin-doctoring aside. We know this is the first step of a game-plan: to divert attention from what needs to be done or to feed on our part helplessness and part cynicism that everything is so bad, so why bother.

Let's focus on what needs to be done. There is no doubt that water is increasingly contaminated with all kinds of bacteria and that dirty water kills more babies than anything else in our country, which is clearly and absolutely unacceptable.

Worse, we have a double burden of both pollutants and diseases. So there are biological contaminants mixed with trace chemical toxins from the modern industrial world they include arsenic and mercury to hormones and pesticides to even more deadly dioxins and furans.

All this contamination has to be challenged. All this has to be minimised so that it does not jeopardise our health. All this will have to be done urgently and together. But all this can only be done with a clear strategy and prioritisation of action so that we can bring deliberate change.

Let's take the issue of water and food safety. The government's own research shows that raw agricultural commodities from milk to vegetables are often contaminated with pesticides. We also know that regulations for pesticides in raw agricultural commodities are set, but are lax and not enforced. Therefore, the strategy is to ensure that we can revamp regulations that govern the safe use of pesticides.

The agenda for reform here is manifold: to ensure that no pesticide is registered without the setting of a maximum residue level, which defines what is safe residue in our food; to ensure that the sum of all toxins are kept within an overall safety threshold called the acceptable daily intake by toxicologists and to ensure that there are credible and effective ways of enforcing these standards.

In this we can learn from governments across the world. For instance, the uk government has a policy for naming and shaming suppliers of food that is contaminated. Our government can also check milk and vegetables on a random basis and make the data it collects available publicly.

In addition, it will be important to work with farmers who overuse and misuse pesticides, because of the lack of information supplied by the industry. Remember that the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the government has virtually abdicated its role of agricultural extension to private pesticide and seed industry interests.

But like all our other double-triple-burdens, we cannot take the step-by-step approach. The industrial world first cleaned up its water of bacteria, then pesticides, then heavy metals and is now dealing with tinier and even more modern toxins like hormones and antibiotics. We have all of that in our food and water.

We also do not have the luxury of first cleaning agricultural raw material, then building our processed food industry. We will have to clean both ends of the food chain the farm and the fork. We will have to do it together.

In all this we know that diversion is just one of the ploys. The second is to deny. This is where 'science' becomes a handy weapon. Modern science fails us. Even though it has created modern toxins, it is slow on generating knowledge about the impact of these toxins and pollutants on our bodies and our environment. Take climate change, take tobacco or even pesticides. The polluters want 'conclusive' and 'incontrovertible' evidence that there is cause and effect. We the victims have to prove our science.

The third tactic is to dismiss: your science is not good, it is not validated or peer reviewed. The health minister did exactly this when he used a half-baked report to try and discredit our laboratory and our work on soft drinks and pesticides.

It did not matter that the same laboratory, its equipment and methodology had been examined and endorsed by the highest parliamentary committee. It did not matter, because the purpose was not science but to use its power to discredit and to dismiss.

The fourth step in the polluter's game-plan is to damn and to destroy. Let's see what the future holds.

- Sunita Narain

-------------------

The way I see it is:

1) There appear to be pesticides in Colas (of varying degrees). The cola companies should (and can) make sure that their products are safe.
2) The government has a responsibility to have serious regulations on all food/water etc (like the various food safety agencies in the US). This starts from food growing and selling practices, that need reform. They've failed in that job. So, you cannot just blame a large corporation when the whole system doesn't have clear regulations.
3) However (1) and (2) can both be addressed, partly independently. In a country like India, it's hard to enforce good farming practices, selling practices or water management etc directly, because there're just too many farmers who can't easily be reached (for example). But a few mass market producers (major bottled water, milk, soft drink and food manufacturers/suppliers) can be asked to enforce safety standards, with clear liability and accountability. By doing that, the message will also go out in turn to their suppliers, and finally (eventually) the food growers.
4) CSE needs to answer the questions that people have correctly asked it, particularly for their own credibility. Narain also needs to answer specific questions addresed to her. Being evasive doesn't help. But that doesn't make all the points CSE made irrelevant. So, this editorial of hers, though incomplete, does raise some important (and in my opinion valid) points.