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!

    Tuesday, November 29, 2005

    The science of power

    I had searched for a good analysis and study of the Arthashastra, and recently found and read Roger Boesche’s excellent analysis The first great political realist: Kautilya and his Arthashastra. The book is crisply written, and analyzes Kautilya’s Arthashastra, while trying to understand it’s author, the legendary Kautilya (or Chanakya).

    Boesche approaches Kautilya after a thorough understanding of western political thought, from Plato, Aristotle and Thucydides through Machiavelli. And in his opinion, without the slightest doubt Kautilya was the first great political realist.

    I first read Machiavelli’s “The prince” some seven years or so ago, and was chilled by his pragmatic approach towards obtaining and securing power. But if this were to be a canine world, Machiavelli would be a friendly Labrador puppy compared to Kautilya the fierce Rottweiler.

    A bulk of Indian philosophical thought drifted towards Dharma or Kama, or the attainment of moksha. But Kautilya would have none of that, and wrote the 15 book Arthashastra. Shastra (science), and Artha, a word which means “object, purpose, end and aim”. Kautilya’s Arthashastra relentlessly pursues one Artha; achieving complete power. Power was a science, not an art. In this he remains committed to absolute “realism”, indifferent to dogma, morality or religion. Kautilya, as chancellor to Chandragupta Maurya, was instrumental in creating one of the largest and most powerful empires of the ancient world, immediately after Alexander the Great’s death.

    Power was political, economic and military. Any two without the third resulted in incomplete power. And in this quest for power, dogma and customs were powerful tools to achieve it, but “If a royal edict conflicts with law or custom, edict shall prevail”.

    His goal remained to enable the king to achieve complete power. And perhaps it is because he did not have any ambition to rule himself that he was able to consistently remain focussed to this goal, devoid of morality or justification. In his opinion, the king had to be disciplined and hard working (sleeping only 4 hours a night). A king should never allow an “undisciplined son” to rule, since that could cost him his kingdom. And a king had to avoid anger and lust, because a kingdom was at stake. To Kautilya, the king was an omnipotent father figure, who’s only goal should be to become a “Chakravarti”, and rule the “world” (he did of course believe that the only world that was worth conquering was only the Indian subcontinent. This dream of his was completed under Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka, who ruled from the borders of Persia to Bengal, and from the Himalayas down to the Andhra and Tamil lands, who though not conquered (due to Ashoka’s discovery of Dhamma), accepted him as “Chakravarti”).

    To achieve this, Kautilya advocated an elaborate spy state. A king should never have a single councilor, but three. One would be too powerful, two could plot together to overthrow him, but three would keep each other in check (the Romans tried this later, with “Triumvirates”). Every minister needed to be constantly tested; with piety (by spreading rumors of an immoral king), or material gain, or lust, or fear. And his schemes to counter disloyalty were chilling. For example, if a minister was becoming powerful, Kautilya advocated that his son be incited against the minister, and be encouraged to kill his own father (out of loyalty to the king). Once this was done, the son had to be put to death under the charge of patricide (to prevent any chance of remorse, or revenge against the king in the future). Or alternatively, he suggested that the minister be told that the queen loved him, and then have him put to death instantly the moment he came close to the queen’s quarters. Kautilya believed in an elaborate bureaucracy of spies, and even listed 40 different ways of embezzlement and ways to catch an embezzler. He suggested that alcohol be freely available in the kingdom, but only in alehouses owned by the state, with bartenders as spies detecting public opinion. Arrests on suspicion were permissible, and torture permitted if the circumstances demanded it. The ends justified the means.

    The state always had primacy, even over religion. It was essential that the state used religion to gain political power (by building temples and gaining goodwill, and controlling revenue and priest appointments there. Or by spreading superstition that the king was the representative of God, and opposing him would result in a thousand rebirths). He very strongly discouraged all active citizenship. Large gatherings and community celebrations could result in sharing of opinions, which could result in a threat to the king, and so needed to be banned.

    Kautilya advocated a socialist monarchy, with a centralized economy, and fortified treasuries as the most important buildings in a kingdom (not palaces). The treasury after all was key to the army. Without a prosperous economy, there would be no army, and Kautilya clearly recognized that (unlike most early political thinkers, who thought little of economic details). Kautilya clearly felt that the king had to be just in his rule, so advocated varying land and income taxes (according to productivity and ability to pay), and large credit schemes (but with the ruler as the creditor). He encouraged trade and traders (by even allowing them to own land) but disliked trader guilds. He regarded the people as the most important army of all. He recognized that the sudras (fourth and bottom in the caste hierarchy) were a powerful tool to achieve political power, and so considered them “full Aryans”, and strongly advocated their serving in the army (as opposed to tradition of Kshatriyas alone fighting), and granting them many rights of citizens. The dharmasutras advocated an army of Kshatriyas, with Brahmin or Vaishya conscripts in time of need. Kautilya was openly scornful of that, saying that enemy troops would “win over Brahmin troops by mere prostration”. But he loved the strength and large numbers of shudras. In his socialist monarchy, Kautilya advocated large rewards to the army and to the bureaucracy.

    His most chilling appraisal comes with foreign policy. Here, he was an unabashed expansionist (in the name of Dharmic rule) with no moral obligations. All neighbors were enemies and the enemy’s enemy was a friend. So, if countries were in a line, countries 1, 3, 5, 7 could be friends, as could 2, 4, 6. But countries 1, 2, and 3 could NEVER be friends. This status would change as soon as country 1 conquered country 2. From that very instant country 3 (a friend) would be the new enemy. A king had to prepare for war with the plan to conquer. Spies would be used extensively in the enemy camp, working on frightened, greedy, enraged or proud members of that society, while spies would remain in one’s own army, to ensure that there was no chance of a coup against the king. Kautilya was also perhaps the first to recognize three types of warfare. Open war, concealed (guerilla) war, and a third, a silent war, where the king would talk smilingly of peace and brotherhood, while using spies and assassins to destroy the opponent. And if a king lost a war, he should shrewdly regain his kingdom, using bribery and women to create quarrels in the enemy camp. Treaties were to be observed only when the king was himself weak.

    Kautilya was one mean s.o.b, but was supremely perceptive, and human nature has changed little. So much of this remains familiar to most of us, directly or indirectly. And it’s clear that the hard right or the extreme left really speak the same language (socialists, communists, neo-cons, ultra-nationalists all seem to have borrowed incomplete bits from the Arthashastra). After reading Boesche’s excellent analysis, it seems obvious that politicians and students of politics, irrespective of their leanings, should read the Arthashastra. Or should they?

    Sunday, November 27, 2005

    55 again

    The world was a difficult place. A mucus filled water world, shrouded in icy darkness. Perhaps it was all due to global warming. But the sun at noon would penetrate the darkness, and on clear nights, the stars would be beautiful.

    There wasn’t much of a world for a frog in a well.


    He’d been told to avoid the white man. Since they arrived his world had changed. Their rifles never missed, even from a 100 yards. He shouldn’t have strayed from his own, and approached the fort. But it was too late now. He had to die.


    “We thank you lord for this thanksgiving turkey….”

    Wednesday, November 23, 2005

    The badshaah of cool

    ”Jaan ki baazi jo lagate hain,
    Unhe kehte hain janbaaz.”

    In the mood for some classic kitsch, that’s so bad it’s fantastic, I revisited Janbaaz a few days ago. And I was reminded of something I always knew. No one in Bollywood ever spouted Urdu dialogues better than Dilip Kumar. No one ever brooded better than Amitabh Bachchan. No one was more “chocolatey” than Rajesh Khanna. No one was whackier than Shammi Kapoor.

    But the undisputed daddy of Cool (at least till the ‘80’s) remained Feroz Khan

    (No, Fardeen Khan is not Cool, though Feroz Khan is his daddy. He inherited his mother’s genes. Wearing shades doesn’t make you cool.)

    It’s not about the acting abilities. Feroz Khan had none. It’s about the swagger. Toshiro Mifune had it. Clint Eastwood has it. Raj Kumar (yes, Jaani) had oodles of it.

    Feroz Khan had it (and I daresay, still does).

    Dharmatma or Qurbani or Janbaaz, or (especially?) Yalgaar would have been relegated to the trash-bin but for Cool Khan, lead actor, director, editor and producer. The art of transforming trash to pulp-classics was never more perfected in Hindi cinema. B-grade cinema became blockbuster.

    The plot, just like the acting, was a completely negotiable entity. Every Bollywood cliché would be thrown in, and masaala mastered. Brothers, loyalty, friendship, patriarchs, feudal societies, Sufism and betrayal would co-exist perfectly with color, style, fashion, “modern” lifestyles, lots of “eye candy” and extravaganza, as if it were all normal. Dimple Kapadia or Zeenat Aman would look like a million bucks (I’m strictly imagining a million bucks here), and be dressed for the ramp, even while roughing it out in a “jungle”, boiling coffee. The villains would remain larger than life. When they gambled, they would only deal in “lakhs” (in the early eighties, that was a lot of money), never “hazaroon”. Their crime of choice would be dealing drugs (“smack” and cocaine), and never just petty “smuggling” (the traditional crime of the 70’s and 80’s). They would be pure comic-book evil. The music would sizzle, and the title-soundtrack would relentlessly pursue you, even after the movie (think “Janbaaz, Janbaaz”, or “Qurbani, Qurbani, Qurbani”…..).

    Thoroughbred horses would race into the sunset. It would be ok (no, anything else would be abnormal in Khan’s movies) for the hero to sleep with the heroine, before marriage, and then visit a dargah or a temple in devotion. And thugs in suits would toss hand grenades with a flourish. Quick-draw Feroz would shoot, and always hit his mark (a la Eastwood), with time to spare. And he’d never have to chase or leap at a fleeing villain. A casual walk up to, and a stylishly thrown punch would suffice. Meanwhile, in the heat of action, with thugs falling to Khan’s bullets like ninepins, the villain’s goons (following hallowed tradition) will always have time to attempt molesting the heroine (always failing, of course).

    But we, the gaping audience, wouldn’t care and would eagerly lap up this kitsch. We’d wait for the Feroz Khan twist in the end, when some one would always die (and it would not necessarily be the jilted lover), or fail in love. We’d be dazzled by the motorbikes and cars and thoroughbreds, that would adorn the screen for just the right amount of time. Khan popularized the item number, even before the very concept existed.

    Spaghetti western and James Bond would meet. There would always be other “stars” in the movie. It could be heart-throb Vinod Khanna, or jumping-jack Jeetendra, or 80’s and 90’s hit-machine Anil Kapoor, or gangsta Sanjay Dutt.

    But it wouldn’t matter. Feroz Khan would remain ubercool, and the movie would remain his. The badshaah of cool would walk away in to the sunset.

    Afterthought: Why did Dilip Tahil always act in gawdawful roles where he (a) gets beaten to a pulp by the hero, (b) died, (c) was mocked by the heroine or (d) all of the above?

    Sunday, November 20, 2005

    Everything Scientific Vol. V

    Here it is again, your favorite roundup of some of the latest fascinating breakthroughs of Everything Scientific.

    Life on another world?

    Saturn’s giant moon, Titan (perhaps the largest in the solar system, and at least as big as earth) has fascinated many astronomers. In a fascinating research article, researchers McKay and Smith investigate the amount of energy released when various hydrocarbons (acetylene, ethane and some organic solids) are consumed with atmospheric hydrogen. They find that there will be sufficient energy for organisms, like the methanogenic bacteria found on earth, to live just fine. However, organics don’t dissolve too well in methane (so won’t in the sea of methane), but Life can get around this by using catalysts to accelerate biochemical reactions in spite of the low temperatures, and find was to overcome the solubility issue.

    So now I guess one of us has to head out to Titan and see if there really is life there.

    Evolution in Mexico

    Mexico remains a predominantly Catholic country. It’s also a poor country, strongly influenced by the US of A. In a superb article in Science, Antonio Lazcano discusses the teaching of evolution in Mexico. Here’s a snippet.

    “I am always amused when I am asked by my American colleagues about the problems and pressures they imagine I face in Mexico because of my interest in life's beginnings. However, pressure to include creationism in public pedagogical and research settings has been primarily a phenomenon in the United States. Only twice during my 30 years of teaching about evolutionary biology and research into the origins of life, have I encountered religious-based opposition to my work. In both cases, it came from evangelical zealots from the United States preaching in Mexico. One of the little recognized U.S. imports into Mexico is a small flow of creationists, who, through religion, are trying to impose their fundamentalist beliefs and hinder the teaching of Darwinian evolution in all levels of schooling…………………. It helps here that in Latin America most Catholics tend to read the Old Testament not as the literal truth, but as a depiction of the ways in which divine creation may have taken place. It is thus possible to be a Catholic Bible-reader, or more generally a believer in the supernatural origin of life, without being a card-carrying creationist who has to reject Darwinian evolution in order to maintain logical consistency within a framework of fundamentalist Christian premises.”

    Well worth a read (Science, Vol. 310. no. 5749, pp. 787 – 789).
    Picture credit.

    Warm and dry……and dead

    Climates are undoubtedly changing (though it’s getting warmer in some places, and cooler in some others). It’s intuitive and obvious that large-scale drought is going to lead to loss of vegetation. But the response of large regional forests to warmer droughts is not too well understood.

    In this excellent paper, researchers look at the effect of the recent drought (2000-2003) in Western North America on pinon trees. There was a rapid regional loss of pinon trees here. But it was not due to the heat alone. In dry weather, bark beetles rapidly proliferate, and they grew rapidly in this drought, destroying many overstory trees. Similar such droughts are going to cause major local climate changes, by affecting the vegetation, and therefore soil erosion, near-ground solar radiation, local temperatures, ground water levels, produce (in this case, pine nuts, which are a source of food for birds, mammals and are eaten by people as well). This kind of interrelationships between species are often forgotten by us, since we are “distant” from our environments. But it does affect us all, air-conditioning or not. (PNAS, October 18, 2005,vol. 102, no. 42, 15144-15148).

    European origins

    One of the keys to tracing the origin of Europe’s population is how farming spread across Europe. Archeological evidence shows that farming came to Greece and south-eastern Europe through the near east, and spread across. The LBK people are believed to be the first farmers known to occupy Europe, originating in Hungary or thereabouts, and spreading across the continent. But did the farmers themselves move across the continent in a large-scale migration, or was it just cultural diffusion? These are two hotly contested theories.

    Some of this answer was found in the genes of LBK skeletons that have been unearthed. We all know of the X and Y chromosomes. Now, the Y chromosomes are inherited by males, without change. On the other hand, there is also something called mitochondrial DNA, and this is transmitted down through women. Recent studies with LBK mitochondrial DNA clearly show that the LBK mitochondrial DNA is predominantly different from the mitochondrial DNA of most modern Europeans. This is clearly a little bit of evidence in support of the cultural diffusion model. But earlier Y chromosome results show almost the opposite (the Y chromosome data show predominantly LBK types!). It seems more likely now that colonizing LBK men married local hunter-gatherer women, and it does seem like it was a mixture of both cultural diffusion and large-scale migration. (Science 11 November 2005: 1016-1018).

    Burn green

    Fossil fuels are becoming pricier, remain polluting, damage the environment during extraction, and their reserves are slowly depleting. However, biodiesel is an available cleaner-burning fuel, and is made by transesterification of common vegetable oils, and is a perfectly renewable resource. The only problem is that their catalysts are very expensive, are not “green” in any way, and consume a lot of energy. Some researchers (unsurprisingly Japanese) seem to have come up with a possible solution. They synthesize catalysts made from simple and commonly available sugars and is made out of sulphonated amorphous carbon. Making things super-nice is the fact that these catalysts are recyclable (or is that a corollary of the definition of catalyst) and is more efficient than other solid catalysts so far tested. (Nature 438, 178, 10 November 2005)



    Finally, for a bit of fun, I’ll leave you with a scan of one of the earliest superman comics (by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, 1939), explaining the science behind the man of steel’s amazing powers (open image in new window for bigger image).

    Looks like evolution wasn't a bad word in 1939.

    That’s all for this edition of Everything Scientific.

    Thursday, November 17, 2005

    Evergreen fall

    It's a popular misconception that the US Pacific Northwest does not have a "fall". That's because most of the trees here are evergreens (cedars and firs being the most common), and so don't have leaves changing color. But there are plenty of pockets of fall, where the colors are quite wonderful, and contrast well with evergreens around them. Fall lasts from mid-late September all through October.

    Here's a small photoblog of fall in various stages, taken over the past couple of months.

    That is a picture of one of the most well known bike trails around, the 60 mile odd Burkegilman trail, when fall was just beginning.

    Here's a contrast of the evergreens, with some fall color on a tree.

    This picture is one of my favorites, with the ivy turning red, some trees in fall color, and the evergreens around.

    The ground beneath my feet.

    Sunday, November 13, 2005

    Language and culture

    A couple of times a year, I act as facilitator at study-abroad programs here, where I talk to students traveling to India for a few quarters in a study-abroad program. These students come from various majors, and go to different cities in India with different subjects or areas of study in mind.

    In my last counseling session, I met a rather interesting student.

    He was Chinese-American, but was deeply interested in Indic studies, especially Indian languages. He told me of some of his experiences.

    He first wanted to study Tamil (Tamizh), and get a better understanding of Tamil Classical literature, ideas and philosophy (he’s of course a philosophy major). He was fascinated by what little he had read about early Sangam literature (200 BC-300 AD), and wanted to learn the language itself.

    So, he went down to India, and spent time in Madurai (Madurai Kamraj University), then Trichi, and then three months in Chennai. And he struggled. There were no programs that allowed him to enter at an interested novice level, and allow him to learn. Nor were there useful resource centers or libraries for him to access information. The professors he met were largely unhelpful. And there aren’t any good translations or commentaries in English of the Silappadikaram and other such Tamil classics. He was surprised, and extremely disappointed His quest for this knowledge was largely futile, but he wondered why if he could so easily learn any European language, or Chinese, or even Tibetian classics, was it so hard for Indian languages. And why weren’t there good university systems in place to enable that learning or research? I clearly had no answers.

    His present effort (this time) is to go to Jaipur, and study Hindi, and medieval Rajasthani literature. He’s apparently had a little more success in finding a good teaching, study and resource center, and I hope his quest is successful. But he’s not being too optimistic this time, and hopes to at least have a good time traveling (he’s a smart kid, and now pretends to be Assamese to avoid paying the ridiculous “foreign tourist” fees at various tourist places, since he knows some broken Hindi).

    But this made me think of a deeper issue. In Tamil Nadu, the “Tamil” revival movement (and the Dravida movement) dominates the political scene. For over 40 years, the state has been ruled by one Tamil party or the other. They shout hoarse about Tamil being denied it’s classical rights and pride of place. But if someone wants to come in and learn Tamil, there’s hardly any place he or she can go to, and there’s mighty little these so called champions of Tamil have done for Tamil language or culture (except shout hoarse that if girls wear jeans or if girls and boys talk, it’s ruining Tamil culture. Sorry, I couldn’t help that dig). If it is to study Tamil classics, it’s even harder. To the best of my knowledge, there are no dedicated centers for research and study on this area of priceless history. There are no dedicated university departments, or endowed chairs in universities for academics to pursue this research (if there are some, I haven’t found them). The few language departments have no incentive to teach, publish or research this area.

    I’ve found this true for almost any major Indic language (Sanskrit’s priceless legacy at least has a few study centers of excellence).

    Contrast this to the situation here, far away in the States. Some of them have outstanding programs in Indian languages, and carry out excellent research. They publish not only in scholarly journals, but also publish high-quality books available in various bookstores and almost all libraries. The University of Washington library has complete sections on Indian books, with shelves after shelves lined with books in Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and many other languages, ranging from reprints of classics, to commentaries and translations (in English). When the movie Pinjar released, not only did I find and read the Hindi original, but I also found (in the library search, as related books) other books in Indian languages, related to partition.

    It is one thing to shout hoarse about culture or language. But there does need to be incentives and resources to enable this education or research. And even at a basic level, for just spoken or written language, when it’s so easy to learn French or German (which is fantastic, I think) in India, shouldn’t it be the same for vernaculars?

    Or shouldn’t that be the case?

    postscript: Also read Vikrum’s excellent post on Orientalists, here. Incidentally, this is the 101th post on Balancinglife. That’s more blogging than I ever thought I’d do.

    postscript 2: Vikrum "responds" to this post, with another excellent post, here. Bang on.

    Thursday, November 10, 2005

    The corridor to hell

    The second part of conversations with Michael Mazgaonkar (the first part, rural innovations, can be found here)..

    In addition to their technology innovations, Michael and Swati actively drive the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti which works on environmental issues. They work with other groups in raising awareness, trying to work with the government. In addition, they inform people of their rights and try to ensure that unchecked misuse and abuse does not happen in the name of development.

    Now, the region from Ahmedabad to Vapi in Gujarat is called the “Golden corridor”, and is Gujarat’s industrial hub. Though productive, with many industries, almost every single pollution control or environmental law has been flouted here, and now the effects are being felt, and these effects are very, very harsh. Polluted Places (A Blacksmith institute project) describes the (almost unbelievable) amounts of pollution in this region.

    Scores of industries illegally dump toxic waste by the Damaganga river. This flows in to the river, polluting the water source, as well as seeps in to the soil, and contaminates the aquifer itself. Michale and co tested the pH (a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of water) in various water sources, and found the pH as low as 3 in one region, and 11.5 in another. To bring things in to context, the natural pH of water (neutral) is just below seven. A pH of 3 makes it as acidic as dilute hydrochloric acid, and a pH of 11.5 that of calcium hydroxide (imagine drinking whitewash). An effluent plant in the region callously discharged untreated water (green, thick and foaming) passing it off as treated water. This plant was going to be funded by the World Bank, but Michael took photographic, videographic and scientific evidence to the officials, who first dismissed it, then incredulously found out that it was all true.

    A more publicized case was that of Hema chemicals, a small chemical manufacturer. This company was found to have illegally dumped 300 tons of chromium waste (yes, 300 tons) by water sources, severely contaminating it. It took a very, very long time (faced with typical government apathy) to even counter this problem. In Michael’s own words:

    ·Over fifteen letters addressed to Pollution Control Board between 30th August '99 and 28th Aug '01 drew blank responses.
    ·After constant following up by PSS with GPCB they ordered discontinuance of power supply to the company on 3rd August '01 but it was not executed.
    ·PSS, through letters dated 7th August, 8th August '01 and 16th Aug '01 to GPCB pointed out that the company would use all means to circumvent execution of the order to discontinue its power connection.
    ·The order dated 3rd Aug '01 for disconnecting power supply was executed only on 17th Aug '01 but the company continued its operations using its private diesel generators.
    ·The company managed to pull strings in the corridors of power and managed to get its power supply restored on 18th Aug '01.
    ·GPCB was forced to act only after political interference in the matter was exposed through newspapers.

    The government pretends that the problem does not exist, and their stand is to:

    ·disregard the fact that 70 % of its groundwater is not potable,
    ·to hide that there are illegal hazardous waste dumpsites on private, government lands, and river banks as well,
    ·be oblivious to the fact that major rivers including Sabarmati, Mahi, Narmada, Kolak, Par, Damanganga severely polluted,
    ·remain blind to the clear and present health threat to communities in the vicinity of industrial estates due to pollution,....

    Hema was a small chemical company. A mega company like Aventis was caught red-handed dumping toxic waste illegally (in drums which still contained the company name). There isn’t even talk of taking action against them. In some areas, water from 100 feet deep can be pumped out. It appears clear. Leave it in the open, and it turns yellow, then brown, in 20 minutes.
    In some downstream villages, cancer rates have gone up to over 1% of the population (compared to average rates of 0.05 to 0.2% (hotspot rate)). Still, the water continues to be used to grow food, and feed livestock. Most people are aware of these problems, but are unwilling to compel the industries to conform to law or basic safety standards, because they fear a loss of their jobs and livelihood. But as time goes by, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the consequences.
    According to Indian law, companies are supposed to hold public hearings, there is a channel to petition, and violations of laws can be taken to court. However, there is now an effort underway, not unlike some of the recent proposals of the Bush administration, to do away with all pollution control laws, and to allow industries to voluntarily adopt non-polluting technology or to clean up. The proposal also takes away the right to a public hearing, or any mandatory disclosures of the industry.
    Michael and Swati, with other groups in India, are trying to raise public awareness of this issue, as well as make them aware of their rights, and the consequences.
    I have seen pretty bad cases of industrial pollution, but these specific numbers, callousness for the law (with encouragement from the government, in some guise of “development”) and degree of impact affected me deeply.
    I also have another question. Many people support allowing industry to voluntarily act. However, here we see that in spite of regulations and (a distant) risk of prosecution, industry remains utterly callous to any such efforts. How then do people believe that industry will voluntarily adopt measures that benefit the locality and their own employees?
    A developing country needs to learn from the mistakes made elsewhere. These problems of massive pollution have been faced by industrial Europe, and the United States, and many regions solved these problems the hard way. The technology to prevent these problems exist, and the laws and safety standards also do. Should not a developing country leapfrog towards such technology, rather than cripple itself first, and then heal itself?

    Tuesday, November 08, 2005

    Engineering innovations for rural India

    I spent a wonderful evening listening to and talking to Michael Mazgaonkar today. Michael is an electrical engineer by training. About 15 years ago, he (with his wife and colleague Swati Desai) went and started living in a Bhill village (Juna Mozda) in the Narmada region of Gujarat, and never left. Since then, they have been working with the villagers on environmental, adivasi, watershed, and technology issues for rural areas. This is the first post (of two) about his conversations with us.

    The technologist in me couldn’t resist the technological innovations they are enabling in the village, so this post is about technology. The next one will discuss some of the (horrifying) environmental issues of the area.

    A major effort of theirs has been on alternative energy. This village (like many others) is without electricity. Now any energy researcher will agree that energy is best managed locally (due to large energy losses in long distance transmission), and given India’s inefficient system, even if electricity comes to this village, it’s likely to be inefficient. But they have made substantial innovations in this area, focusing on local resources, and inculcating abilities in the locals.

    A first innovation (which he brought along with him) is a torch. Now, typical torch bulbs are moderately expensive, use a lot of energy (batteries), and burn out quickly. Michael and his local friends (tribals, mostly illiterate) innovated around this. They designed a torch (with the case made out of wood and cloth) using four super-bright LEDs (light emitting diodes). These are (surprisingly) remarkably bright, and use next to no energy (so batteries last 10 times longer). Their lifespans are also thousands of hours. Pretty handy in a dark village!

    Another nice innovation was a pedal power generator. They made one of these for the village school. Of course, the concept is simple. The pedals (of a bicycle) charge batteries, which light up the school. All it takes are twenty children, each pedaling for just five minutes a day, to charge the batteries to light up two schoolrooms for five hours daily.

    But the most ambitious project was an electricity-generating windmill (which they set up quite recently). The windmill is a10 feet in diameter, 1200-watt creature, which generates 1.3 kWHr of electricity (for 8 months in a year, when the winds are strong). This cost Rs. 76,000 (less than $2000), and was a first prototype, using fiberglass panels. Future windmills will be fashioned locally, using local wood (Teak, which is termite resistant, hard, and extremely durable). This windmill charges batteries in a battery bank. Villagers use these batteries to light up their houses (each battery allows 4 lights in each house), and pay a small fee for this. In just a couple of months, fifteen houses have started using this (and numbers grow by the week, in the village of ~45 houses). To prevent excess discharging of the battery, they innovated a low voltage discharger (to cut off supply when the battery charge runs low). Here’s a WMV clip about their windmill.

    Another technological innovation is more mundane. Michael and Swati helped create a womens’ cooperative, where the women process and sell organic dal (lentils; both thoor and channa dal) in cities like Baroda. Now, the dal is traditionally split by a hand-splitter, slow and laborious. Electric or motorized ones of course are expensive. They innovated and improved a hand-ground mill that splits dal about 10 times faster than the traditional mill (at a rate comparable to the electric one), that’s saving a tremendous amount of time and energy for the women.

    Another effort of Mozda (for the public domain) is to design Scheffler reflectors for use primarily to sterilize and dispose biological waste in hospitals in the greater area. Now, these reflectors are widely used in mega-temples like Tirupathi, Shiridi or Mount Abu to cook food for thousands of devotees daily. It’s perfectly suited to be modified to autoclave medical waste (usually sloppily done in hospitals in India, often due to erratic electricity supply). Their innovation meets World Health Organization standards. They are now also working on a needle crusher to get rid of hospital sharps.

    And all of Michael’s co-innovators are the local tribals.

    Someone in the small audience asked Michael if he worked with universities and students on these projects. A definitive yes was the answer. But then he added that most universities and students wanted something cool and flashy (that would be publishable or will result in a thesis) but weren’t interested in making something already known doable at a low cost. They wanted innovations to make things cost $5, not innovations that would cost $150.

    I (like many of us) was an engineering student in India too. Sadly, I can’t remember any of us doing any useful projects of this kind. More power to useful technology, that can be adapted for local needs, and more power to innovators like Michael.

    Here is an article about Mozda in the Indian Express.

    Saturday, November 05, 2005

    Always the bridesmaid

    (I wrote this piece a week before the India-Sri Lanka series started)

    Team sports traditionally have had a little bit of place for everyone. There will remain individuals who rise above the team; there will be the over achieving “superstar”, there will be the niche specialist, and then there will always be “bridesmaids”, players who are a part of all the action, always there, but rarely center stage.

    Indian cricket, with all its hysterical following, hasn’t been the exception either. In every team there have always been individuals who were essential for the team’s smooth functioning, but who always remained in the shadow. Pataudi and Jaisimha were stars, and even Farookh Engineer had his following, as Bapu Nadkarni trudged in to bowl quietly (returning with remarkable figures like 35-28-7-1). When Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Venkat and Prasanna mesmerized batsmen with their guile, Eknath Solkar quietly continued to take stunning catches, standing three feet away from the feet of those very batsmen.

    1983 almost became the year of the bridesmaid. True, the Indian team had Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, but it really belonged to those who crave for that one moment under the spotlight. Balwinder Sandhu, Roger Binny and Madan Lal trotted in to bowl faster than they ran, while Mohinder Amarnath stunned batsmen by running in faster than he bowled, and all of them picked up bagfuls of wickets. Yashpal Sharma and Sandeep Patil enjoyed every moment of their few days of fame. And then, months after the cup was lifted, they drifted back in to their lives of honest obscurity (even Mohinder Amarnath did, even though he was a fine batsman).

    Then something started happening. Perhaps it was the more prominent role media started playing in Indian cricket. The bridesmaid started becoming rare, and (dare I say it), less essential. The teams of the ‘80’s seemed to only be comprised of individual stars. Shastri, Kapil, Gavaskar, Vengsarkar, Sidhu, Prabhakar, Azar, even More, they all seemed to grow in to larger than life personalities, and the team became centered around them. Clearly, a team with too many centers wasn’t going to perform too well, so though their personal records swelled, while the team drifted in to obscurity. There were some patches of bridesmaid excellence though, with Srikkanth (who is remembered more for his erratic batting, but was an excellent team-player), Maninder Singh, or Chetan Sharma (who unfortunately is remembered only for gifting Miandad with a “six-ball” in that last over at Sharjah). Somehow, they held the team together.

    In Azar’s time, the transformation in to a team of under-achieving superstars was complete. Every player had a king-sized ego, or a king-sized personality. It was perhaps the sorriest time in Indian cricket. There was one bright spot though. One player remained the faithful bridesmaid though, performing beyond expectations. Robin Singh, that amiable Trinidadian who made Chennai his permanent home, was called in to the Indian team when he was in his early thirties, and gave it every little bit of effort he had. Time and again, he would walk out when India were batting terribly, with six wickets down, and start a rescue act with Ajay Jadeja (who’s fame perhaps got into his head). Every time the ball was tossed to him, he’d run in to bowl his military medium pace uncomplainingly. When younger players like Kumble, Srinath or Ganguly would make a mess of the simplest fielding efforts, and leave the field with spotless uniforms, there would be Robin Singh, with frayed elbows as early as the fifth over of the game, throwing his aged body to stop every ball from passing. While his colleagues would make millions endorsing everything from credit cards and soft drinks to cars and motorcycles, all he ever got to endorse was “Bigfun” chewing gum. But his indomitable spirit would remind us that cricket always had room for the big-hearted, who played for the team.

    The Indian team of the 21st century though is the team of the super-star, who sometimes does perform in a team unit. That was a transformation Ganguly (of 4 years ago) brought about. Superstars performed to potential, but played for a team, and that produced results. But the strain of keeping a team of superstars together has begun to show. Now every one of the eleven players is a bonafide superstar. Players like Kaif or Yuvraj Singh (who average just barely in the thirties) have played over one hundred ODI’s each, with barely a test record, and would have been bridesmaids fifteen years ago. But they are not. The media goes in to a frenzy even when they play. Kaif, after a few promising innings was compared to that incomparable finisher, Michael Bevan (with nearly seven-thousand runs at an average of over fifty). Yuvraj endorses just about any thing that can be endorsed. Harbajan Singh continues to flatter only to deceive. Ajit Agarkar might make it in to the bridesmaid category, but he started off towards superstardom (rushing to fifty quick wickets in ODIs), but squandered that start by continuing to perform erratically. Parthiv Patel, in his few moments of mediocrity, hogged his share of interview columns.

    People forget that bridesmaids are essential for a smooth wedding. They hold it together, gluing the little bits. They act as bridges. They divert some of the attention. They take care of little things. They keep smiling, and lift spirits.

    Perhaps the Indian team could do with more bridesmaids today. Yet perhaps all is not lost. Rahul Dravid has been the quintessential bridesmaid, though he might well be the best test batsman India has ever produced. He’s finally become a bride…….perhaps he can recreate a team ethic and make the wedding proceedings work smoothly.

    Wednesday, November 02, 2005

    The difficulty of being good

    The excellent South Asia Center at the Henry M.Jackson School of International studies here at the University of Washington has an annual Exchange program, where a distinguished public figure from India would spend an entire quarter in campus as Visiting Scholar, co-teaching a course, and giving some lectures. This year’s visiting scholar was the affable Gurucharan Das, man of many talents, author and superb columnist. He gave his keynote lecture last week, and I tooted down to witness the proceedings, and left after having listened to an excellent lecture.

    Smiling, unassuming, poised and articulate, Gurucharan Das spoke on a rather philosophical note, titling his lecture “The difficulty of being good”. He drew on his own rich background in philosophy (after all, he majored in Philosophy at Harvard, and along with Bruce Lee, is the only other person I know who succeeded in his chosen non-philosophical profession with a degree in philosophy!). The lecture discussed governance failure and corporate social responsibility, using the Mahabharata as backdrop, to draw analogies from, and explore sensitivity to Dharma.

    “What is the point of doing good, if there are no rewards?” was a question asked to Gurucharan by a social worker somewhere in India. From this question, he takes us to the forest, where Pandavas are in exile, and Draupadi sees that all those who compromise with Dharma prosper, while they (and Yudishtra in particular, who never waives from the path of Dharma) suffer. What does Dharma allow? Did Dharma allow Yudishtra to give Draupadi away after he gave himself away in the game of dice?

    We came back to modern India. The economy is growing, the population growth rate has dropped substantially, and there is a steady (though slow) decline in poverty. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s all happening in spite of terrible governance. As examples, we see huge teacher absenteeism in government schools, negligent government doctors, police not functioning, and businesses not transparent. Can behavior based on Dharma lead to economic harmony? Or, as Draupadi declared, “Power is all that matters.”

    Coming back to the absent teachers (the specific example constantly explored), there is an over 25% absentee rate in India, and half of those present do not teach. So, 2/3 of ALL government schoolteachers don’t do anything. Even in neighboring Bangladesh, there is only a 14% absentee rate. This abysmal negligence results in very low educational standards and literacy rates, and the poor are forced to enroll their children in more expensive private schools. What’s funny is that government school teachers are quite highly paid (starting salary of Rs. 8500, with perks), while private school teachers usually earn from Rs 2000-5000 (having worked with many of those, I’m more comfortable with these numbers), yet these private teachers deliver higher performance standards (though they may not be spectacular), because they are accountable. In a few states, there were efforts to confront this problem. For example, in MP, Digvijay Singh tried to make teachers more accountable, by making them answerable to the panchayat or local parent associations (who could deduct their salary if they were absent). Guess what, teachers are all-powerful during elections (they are held in rural school classrooms, with teachers supervising). According to Digvijay Singh, his move (extremely unpopular with teachers) resulted in the powerful teachers union working against him, and influencing elections (all held in their classrooms).

    Gurucharan Das went on to describe how, in the various education reform meetings (filled with politicians and bureaucrats) there is extensive discussion on resources or targets. But there has never been a discussion on teachers. Now, India spends nearly 4% of its GDP on education. This puts us right in the middle bracket of spending for education. But our performance remains at the bottom of the barrel.

    Back to the Mahabharata, during the game of dice, Vidura, who also constantly upheld Dharma, pleads with the blind king. He says, “To save a family, sacrifice an individual. To save a village, sacrifice a family, and to save a country, sacrifice a village”. His words are not heeded, and he walks out of the assembly in rage. Vidura looks at Dharma using a simple cost vs. benefits analysis, and it sums up the greater good. But to Yudishtra, this is unacceptable. He upholds Dharma (as he tells Draupadi) because he must, and because Adharma leads to damnation, and because he sees Dharma as a ship. If people are not good, social order will collapse, and the rules for cooperation will no longer exist.

    Back to corporate India, and Dhirubhai Ambani’s story. On one side, it was the glorious rags to riches story. On the other, it is a tale of deceit and manipulation, and the license raj. It has undoubtedly benefited millions of people (almost 8% of India’s taxes are collected from Reliance industries). Yet laws were broken with impunity. In Yudishtra’s words, ends cannot justify means. This brought Das to the topic of corporate social responsibility, and how corporations had excellent internal governance standards and codes, but little mattered to them when dealing with the greater economy.

    So with teachers or with corporations, the problem is the same. Can a sense of duty be given to any of these? Plato and Aristotle believed that virtue could be taught. Reform of schools or corporations or greater government is all our work.

    While concluding Gurucharan Das mused again, “What is the point of it all, the point of being good? Being good will result in greater rewards by themselves.”

    Friday, October 28, 2005

    Everything Scientific Vol. IV

    Here it is again, another edition of Everything Scientific, your one stop for some of the latest breakthroughs in science (the last edition for October). Earlier editions are available at the Science archives. Enjoy this edition, while I take a blogging break till Wednesday, and wish you all a very happy Deepavali.

    Deep impact on planetary science

    What the surface (and core) of a comet looked like had until recently remained a mystery. What would happen if a huge metal object hit a comet? Would it disintegrate? Would it destroy the object? What?

    The solar system has two groups of comets. One resides in a region near Pluto (very far away), called the Kuiper belt. A section of these gets scattered and comes close to the sun and the earth. The other is much farther away, in the Oort cloud (includes the famous Halley’s comet). It was thought that these perhaps originated near the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus) and were thrown far away. We’re still learning about the origin of these comets. In a major international effort, researchers landed Deep Impact on the comet Tempel 1. The comet released huge amounts of powdery debris, and spectacular new information about the core and origin of comets was revealed. The nucleus seemed to have different layers, and contained organic material, ice and silicate materials. The similarities with the distant Oort belt comets was striking. It seems now that they might indeed have originated in a common region, near the giant planets, suggesting major turbulence in this region of the early solar system. This is the cover feature of Science (Vol 310, Issue 5746).

    Another missing link

    When it comes to anthropoid evolution, North Africa and South Asia (the continents were at different places in those times) is where it all seems to have happened (anthropoids are higher primates, which includes gorillas, chimps and yes, us), and a lot of fossils of early anthropoids (like Algeripithecus in Algeria ) dating before 45 million years ago have been found. Then the next large bunch of fossils found were dated back to a MAXIMUM of 35 million years ago. Cranodental (teeth and skull) evidence that showed how anthropoids evolved in these ten million years in between were somewhat scarce. Substantial changes had taken place between 35 and 45 million years ago.

    Now researchers have found two new species of Biretia in Egypt, that date back to AT LEAST 37 million years ago. It’s a missing link in those 10 million lost years, and it shows many features that are in between what was 45 million years ago, and 30 odd million years ago. This throws new light in to migration patterns of early anthropoids. They might have migrated to Africa from Asia, or the populations might constantly have exchanged. We need a more complete set of new fossils to find out for sure. A big breakthrough for anthropologists (Science, Vol 310, Issue 5746, 300-304).
    The ground beneath our feet

    It looks like the massive earthquake that devastated Kashmir is just a sneak preview of what India and Pakistan might expect. There is a 2500 km faultline that runs through Pakistan, Northern India, Nepal and Eastern India. The Indian subcontinent is pushing its way in to Asia, at a rate of 2 meters every century! There is a possibility of many more major earthquakes striking, with every break of a fault segment (Science, Vol 310, Issue 5746, 208). In recent memory, there have been major quakes in Latur (Maharashtra), Uttaranchal, Gujarat, and now Kashmir. Indian houses are not really quake resistant. It is perhaps high time that urban planners (An oxymoron in India?) start taking these aspects in to account. The costs are high. And it’s not just money that’s lost.

    Bad habits? Blame your parents

    When gas prices rise, many of us start biking to work or taking the bus. This is normal adaptation, that evolutionary biologists call phenotypic plasticity. But can you get habits from your parents? Apparently, you can. Bird researchers in the Netherlands have found birds adapting rather uniquely. The birds studied adapted their reproductive trends to suit the local warming trends. Over the years, the region was getting considerably warmer, and so caterpillars were more abundant at different times of the year than normal (summer). Now, most birds used to have chicks when the caterpillars were abundant. Due to warming, caterpillars started showing up earlier, and there were less caterpillars when chicks came along. But a large majority of the birds continued to have chicks at the normal time (and survival rates decreased).

    But some birds started timing their chicks for when the caterpillars were around (i.e. earlier than normal). This was good, and their chicks survived better. What’s amazing was that their offspring continued this trend of having chicks earlier. A clear hereditary trend of plasticity, that is not only random. Good stuff for the survival of the bird (and showing natural selection). Science, Vol 310, Issue 5746, 215

    The oldest noodle

    Noodles have been around for a while, in various parts of the world. There still remains some debate on whether it was invented by the Chinese, Italians or Arabs. But how old is it really?

    Well…..Chinese researchers have found a superbly preserved sealed earthenware bowl in Northwestern China. The identified that it was millet that was the source of seed-husk and starch grains present inside the bowl.

    The noodles were thin (0.3 cm in width), over 50 cm long, and delicate, and resembled a traditional Chinese noodle that’s made by pulling and stretching dough by hand.

    The bowl was from the Neolithic era, and over 4000 years old (Nature 437, 967-968).

    That certainly puts to rest some debates.

    Growing new hair

    Stem cells are showing promise in all kinds of areas. Now, normal hair follicles grow, regress and rest for the rest of their lives. Researchers found that some of the cells of a hair bulb could undergo clonal growth in cell culture. People thought that they might indeed be real, multipotent stem cells that could sustain long-term hair follicle renewal. Recent work shows that this speculation is indeed true. Some of these cells were isolated from rat whiskers, and cultured. Then they were taken and transplanted in to newborn mice when hair was just being formed. This was then grafted in to nude mice (these are special mice which have no hair). Guess what? These formed all hair lineages , including the root sheaths, hair shaft, sebaceous glands, and epidermis, AND were found after many cycles. Now this is waaaay better than a hair transplant (where the hair is put in from a different part of your scalp, and will eventually die). Baldies, hope is on its way. (PNAS link).

    Inhibiting the toxin and not the bacteria

    Old school drugs against bacteria would try to kill them. That was the only objective. Bactericidal. Destroy them completely.

    However, times are changing. Bacteria now are increasingly resistant to most antibiotics. What we consider routine (a treatment with antibiotics) might not be possible even a decade from now. New drugs against bacteria are scarce, and it is an ignored area (not a “cool” area of research any more), so we might be in big trouble. But this new need is resulting in new approaches to drugs against bacteria. One approach is not to focus on drugs that kill the bacteria, but to develop molecules that inhibits the virulence factors, the actual toxins in the bacteria. So here, the focus is not the bacteria, but just the infective agents in the bacteria. One recent effort has identified a couple of promising new lead drugs that prevent the Cholera bacteria Vibrio cholerae from expressing two critical virulence factors, cholera toxin and the toxin coregulated pilus. So this doesn’t kill the bacteria, but it does prevent the bacteria from colonizing the intestine (when tested in infected mice), and so prevents the disease.

    An interesting and refreshing approach, which may well work in synergy with present antibiotics. (Science, Vol 310, Issue 5748, 670-674).

    The tsunami wall

    In an earlier post discussing the economics of conservation, I had discussed how costal forests (mangroves etc) and environmentally sensitive economic planning would have prevented some of the massive destruction that the tsunami caused. Here is another detailed report in Science (which includes authors from the M.S. Swaminathan Research institute in India), where they studied the protective impact of forests in Cuddalore (one of the worst hit districts in Tamil Nadu).

    Take a look at the image. Dark green shows dense costal forest/tree cover. Light green shows open tree vegetation. Blue with dots show inundated regions, and red shows damaged regions.

    There is NO overlap between the greens, and the red and blue. Basically, the costal forest areas suffered almost no damage.

    The data speaks for itself. (Science, Vol 310, Issue 5748, 643)

    That’s all for this edition folks!