Thursday, September 29, 2005

Where salmon spawn and pines grow tall

The pacific Northwest, where I've lived for nearly five years, is one of those places in the American continent that is embarrassingly beautiful. Here is a (rare) photoblog, of my surroundings, taken on my trusty, old-fashioned, fully manual, Minolta XD-7 film camera (and converted to digital photos).

The North Cascades are just a stones throw (if you're strong) away from Seattle, less than 15 miles. Weekend hikes were never easier.

And one of the beautiful aspects of these mountains are the number of alpine meadows that exist, after a climb of 4000 feet.

Or the number of beautiful waterfalls (a pity that the waters are too cold to bathe in, or the height of the falls too high).

And there is that distant risk factor. After all, this is active volcano territory, like St. Helens here.

Mt. Rainier might be the most famous peak in these parts, but the "nicest" must be Mt. Adams, especially at sunrise.

But, life without that old devil (Mt. Rainier) wouldn't be the same here.

I thought I'll tease you with this picture, of Rainier, hidden behind clouds.

Living in the Northwest is a pleasure.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

King of the hill

Yercaud is the pretty little “hill-station”, a stone’s throw away from Salem. Salem is surrounded by some hills (outer reaches of the Western Ghats), and atop the tallest hill visible from Salem lies Yercaud. Just like in all South Indian hill towns in India (Yercaud is at an altitude of about 5000 ft), you can check the usual suspects off the list. There are scenic vistas (alluringly named “Lady’s seat” or “Gents seat”), an ancient tribal temple (Shevaroyan), a couple of typical Hindu temples, some churches and convents, a nice old convent school (Montford), coffee estates, and the all-important lake at the town center. In fact, the name Yercaud comes from two Tamil words, “Yeri” (lake) and “Kadu” (forest). As you enjoy a cup of filter-coffee or an ice-cream by the lake, one billboard is bound to catch your eye. If not here, then somewhere else in the town, a similar board will proclaim the legend

“Bhavani Singh’s Perfumes”

With such an irresistible name, it becomes essential to pay the perfumery a visit. You drive up a hill, and see a store by the street, with the famous name. You stop, and the salesgirls greet you and display a whole assortment of spices and oils; nutmeg, clove, raisins, cardamom, black pepper…..and you are mesmerized. They point out the way to the “factory”, just a hundred yards behind. It looks like a large house converted for producing these spices and oils.

We walked up to the door, and on the porch an imposing figure greeted us.

“I’m Hari Singh, proprietor of Bhavani Singh perfumes”, said the smiling face.

Hari Singh, s/o Bhavani Singh, appears to be in his early forties, slightly portly, and with a perfectly groomed mustache, and a baseball cap on his head. He welcomes us to his store/factory, and starts telling us the tale of Bhavani Singh’s perfumes as he walks us through his large herb garden. He stops here exclaiming ”basil”, or ”rosemary”. He pulls out a leaf there, and crushes it, and asks us to smell it. We do, and are at once filled with the heady aroma of temple sanctums. ”Camphor”, he knowledgeably declares, and then pulls out another plant, ”wild mint”. We are under a spell.

We go inside the factory, and sit down. With us are another couple, and a family from Chennai. Hari Singh goes on to tell his tale. He has pictures of his family all over the place. We learn that they are part of the small Rajput community in Tamil Nadu. Hari Singh is equally fluent in English, Hindi or Tamil (spoken perfectly). His father, Bhavani Singh, participated in the freedom struggle against the British (fighting in Tamil Nadu). After independence he settled in Yercaud, and started the factory. Hari Singh, the inheritor of this legend’s legacy, was born and brought up here. Bhavani Singh established the perfumery, as he discovered the large variety of herbs that grew wonderfully in the salubrious climate of the hills here. But Hari Singh took the effort to new levels.

As he spoke, he handed out some of his products to try out. “Black Panther oil”, a guaranteed remedy against colds, clogged sinuses and migraines. Pills for aiding diabetics. Pills that help weight loss. A box of a gel was opened, and we were asked to try it. I suspiciously dabbed some on to my face, and was surprised by the cool, gentle feel it had. ”Aloe vera gel”, he declared, and proceeded to explain why their formulation was superior to any others. ”We only use the finest natural herbs, grown in our own estate here”, he said, ”and extract the gel, and dilute it to the perfect percentage for human use”. Another bottle was pulled out, a sure shot cure to aid hair growth. Amidst the other family, which was also here, was an elderly gentleman, quite understandably bald. He asked if this would help him regain his lost glory.

”Athu kashtam, anal irukartha kaapathum!” (That would be difficult, but it will save what’s left), came the spontaneous reply from Hari Singh.

Admiring letters from old customers (who had written back for more products) were immaculately preserved in plastic folders, and were shown to us. By now, we were practically eating out of his hands.

We walked out with two bags (but lighter by a few hundred rupees), filled with “Black Panther oil”, and aloe vera gel, and saplings of mint, camphor and rosemary, to take back with us. The lure was irresistible, and the sales pith perfect. As we walked away, we turned back for one last look at Hari Singh, s/o. Bhavani Singh, master of spices, and king of the hill.


Post script: The Black Panther oil does work wonderfully well to help unclog sinuses and relieve mild headaches. However, I have no idea about the miracle hair-cure or diet pills.

For more travel nuggets from South India, see here and here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Everything Scientific Vol. II

Here’s this month’s second installment of “Everything scientific”, a breakdown of some of the most significant scientific findings in research journals over the past couple of weeks, in a nutshell (The archives are here). Enjoy science, while I take a blogging break till Monday.


Zoning in:

Every big pharmaceutical company has now invested heavily in monoclonal antibody research (if you invest in pharma, take a look at some of the companies with successful MAB drugs). But monoclonal antibodies are lousy as drugs in many ways. They are biological molecules, and cannot be chemically synthesized. Biological production is prone to too many variables. They are difficult to store and maintain, not to mention administer. They sometimes trigger horrible immune reactions. But they have one huge advantage. They are super-specific. They zone in and bind to only their specific target within the body, and nothing else. So, they’re perfect to use to target an affected region ALONE (think cancer, for a start). So, the industry is growing rapidly, and is at about $30 billion right now. But, evidence is beginning to mount that there can be serious “collateral damage”, with titration effects and unbalancing immune surveillance, so the thrust now is to understand these areas better. Two excellent editorials take a look at the promise and pitfalls of these drugs.

Speaking of “biotech”, it’s the current buzzword in India. But the walk is still not close to matching the talk. Most degree and diploma holders in “biotechnology” in India have very poor lab skills. There are major changes happening in the patent law universe, and now process patents will be made obsolete. Instruments are extremely hard to find in India (none are made there). Still, some companies are starting to boom, and there are spots of progress. But don’t expect a repeat of the IT boom, and throw your money on Indian biotech yet.

Up in smoke:

Nicotine is the addictive agent in cigarettes, and it’s what makes the smoker feel happy and relaxed. Even when smokers want to quit, the addiction (and withdrawal cravings) often draws them back. How ever, some of the most carcinogenic and harmful agents in cigarettes are not nicotine, but are in the cigarette tar. The nicotine patch works, but often there is a lingering craving to light up. There is some hope for smokers now. The craving is usually due to a decrease in nicotine in the body (since it is metabolized). So, researchers are now trying to inhibit the enzyme (protein) that metabolizes it (a cytochrome P450). The idea is to inhibit the enzyme, and therefore keep levels of nicotine higher in the system for a longer duration of time. This would in turn reduce the craving for a smoke, and reduce the number of cigarettes consumed. This might ease the way to an eventual nicotine free lifestyle. Read more about it here.

(image from here)

When mice are sheepish:

Stem cells are constantly in the news, and stem-cell research is a bit of a hot potato in the States now. Embryonic stem cells are the most desirable because they are extremely versatile, and can develop in to any kind of cell necessary (with the appropriate stimuli). One area of research is to study if embryonic stem cells can repair damaged hearts. But human embryonic stem cells run in to a gamut of regulations (and religious/ethical issues). Bone marrow stem cells (easily available) do not have the same properties and versatility as embryonic stem cells. So scientists are struggling for solutions. In some fascinating research however, some progress has been made. Scientists have managed to use mouse embryonic stem cells to heal damaged sheep hearts. Many problems yet, but the test now will be if primate stem cells can be used to heal human hearts, and thus circumvent many ethical issues.

Warm earth, more hurricanes?

Global warming research also runs into controversy (with various groups opposing it, though it’s going to happen whether they oppose it or not). Still, the link between global warming and hurricanes was not yet strong. But now, there has been a massive 80% increase in the abundance of powerful tropical storms in the past 35 years. During this time, tropical oceans have warmed up due to greenhouse gases. The link is growing stronger, and this editorial points it out. Tropical storms “draw their energy upward from warm ocean water to drive their winds before expelling waste heat to the upper atmosphere.” The full research article is here. Good science always points out the still indeterminable, and I will take the trouble of quoting the last paragraph of the paper in full to illustrate that point:
“This trend is not inconsistent with recent climate model simulations that a doubling of CO2 may increase the frequency of the most intense cyclones although attribution of the 30-year trends to global warming would require a longer global data record and, especially, a deeper understanding of the role of hurricanes in the general circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, even in the present climate state.” (Science, 309, Issue 5742, 1844-1846)

Skeletons in the desert:

As far as human and primate fossils go, Central Africa has been a rich source for them. But, for dinosaur and early mammal fossils, Mongolia’s Gobi desert is providing more skeletons than most closets can handle. Many unknown species have now been discovered. This is also an excellent example of good science reporting in the New York Times, one of the few newspapers with good science coverage.

(Image from here)

Doomsday, not quite?

Space still remains the final frontier. Apparently, about 3.9 billion years ago (yup, puts in perspective our own relative insignificance w.r.t. the universe), the inner planets (including earth) were battered by something. It seems that most of the more recent impacts are due to small objects, which makes sense, since forces nudging asteroids out of the asteroid belt today (like the Yarkovsky effect) favor smaller objects. But this does not explain the ancient bombardment, which was mostly caused by much larger objects. A recent report argues that asteroids smashed the inner planets due to a major planetary rearrangement of outer, larger planets (i.e. Jupiter or Saturn teaming up, or perhaps Neptune and Uranus formed long after the other planets. But the case remains open. In more amazing space news, using satellites and a global network of telescopes, scientists have spotted the most distant explosion thus far. A star died when the universe was in its infancy, and exploded violently (a supernova), causing a gamma-ray burst. Gamma ray bursts are so bright that they are brighter than whole galaxies. Light from this explosion was spotted on the 4th of September. The star exploded when the universe was around 900 million years old. Then it traveled at the speed of light to where we could see it. The universe is now about 13500 million years old, and boy, that light has taken a long time to get here.

“A disease of white people”

Finally, in the September issue of Physics Today, there is an excellent article about Einstein and Racism in America. In September 1946, Einstein told some students at Lincoln University that racial segregation was “not a disease of colored people, but a disease of white people. I will not remain silent about it.” Much has changed since then, thanks to the civil rights movement. But till date, at any major university, African American scientists are incredibly rare, and though the reasons remain many, many underlying attitudes need to change.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Words that could/should have been

Alberquerque (n): The shapeless squiggle which is utterly unlike your normal signature, but which is, nevertheless, all you are able to produce when asked formally to identify yourself. Muslims, whose religion forbids the making of graven images, use alberquerques to decorate their towels, menu cards and pyjamas.

Botusfleming (n): (Medical) A small, long-handled steel trowel used by surgeons to remove the contents of a patient’s nostrils prior to a sinus operation.

Calicut (adj): Determined not to let someone see how much their inadvertent remark has hurt you.

Duddo (n): The most deformed potato in any given collection of potatoes.

Elsrickle (n):: A bead of sweat which runs down your bottom cleavage.

Famagusta (n): The draught which whistles between two bottoms that refuse to touch.

Louth (n): The sort of man who wears loud check jackets, has a personalized tankard behind the bar, and always gets served before you do.

Ripon (vb.): (of literary critics) To include all the best jokes from the book in the review to make it look as if the critic thought of them.

Zagreb (n): A stranger who suddenly clutches an intimate part of your body, and then pretends they did it to prevent themselves falling.

All this and much, much more in the legendary Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s “The deeper meaning of LIFF”. Brilliant and hillarious.

More than well worth your time.

Amazon link.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Southern spice II: cascading rivers

The deep south, especially Southern Kerala and South-Western Tamil Nadu, is waterfall country. No, not the Niagara style behemoth falls, that make you gasp in awe. This is the land of those small, inviting waterfalls, which ask you, through their rumbling songs, to take a dip in them.


Legends of the Tamil country hold the Sage Agastya (Munivar Agattiar) in the highest regard. He, the myth goes, was gifted the Tamil language by the Gods themselves, and was told to spread the good words. So, it’s not surprising (as you retreat in to the Southern most Western Ghats) to find a thousand spots where he is said to have meditated. One such popular spot is the Agastyar (Agattiar) falls, which actually falls just within the Kerala side of the border. The transition from the slightly drier Tamil Nadu to the greener and wetter Kerala is almost instantaneous; blink and you’ve missed it. The waterfall itself is rather overcrowded, with tons of people scrambling on to the bathing ghat, to feel the full force of the waters. Also, because this fall is a little downstream, and the forests above are increasingly eroded, the water is a little muddy. But, in spite of the scramble and the muddy waters, if you’ve never splashed about under a waterfall, this is great fun, and a great initiation into the art of splashing around under a waterfall.


But if you’re talking of waterfalls in Tamil country, the undisputed queen (or is it king?) of them all is Kutralam. Buried in the western most part of Tirunelveli district, even mentioning its name conjures up images of cascading waters in the minds of Tamil folk. Very close to the waterfall is an ancient Shiva temple, Thirukutralanathar (“Lord of Kutralam”), built in the late 7th or early 8th century by Pandya or Chola kings, and a delight for architecture students. But myth has it that the original shrine is older, and was placed here by none other than that noble mover and shaker of old, Sage Agastya himself (who supposedly shrunk an image of Vishnu to create a Shiva linga, thus keeping all happy). But I’m getting distracted here. The highlights undoubtedly are the waterfalls themselves (there are a number of falls here in Kutralam). Around the waterfalls are a number of shacks that provide you with the delightfully pleasurable head massages, with herbal and other oils. Anointed thus with oil, you can regally (or not so) make a dash towards the (rather crowded) waterfall. The men happily strip down to shorts or trunks, and joyously leap under the falls. The women head purposefully under the waters, but fully clothed in salwars or sarees! (Vikrum’s post is well worth a read). These streams that fall are tributaries of the Thambaraparani river, and originate in the tropical forests up in the Ghats, where hundreds of therapeutic herbs grow. So, the waters that carry these herbs and minerals are believed to be therapeutic, and in earlier times inmates of mental asylums were brought down here for a curative splash.

You close your eyes under the water, and enjoy the incredibly heady feel of water cascading on to your head and bare back. But then you finally open your eyes, look downstream, and see it all. Foam, and plastic bottles (of oil and shampoo), soap wrappers, and little shampoo sachets float away. You look around, and you see people happily using these, and nonchalantly tossing them into the stream. And you wonder why it is human nature to spoil that which is beautiful.

Yet, this place remains magnificent. "Kulichaa Kutralam, kumbittaa Paramasivam…", as the song goes… (unfortunately, it doesn’t translate too well).


There’s one gorgeous, relatively unspoiled waterfall I’ve found though. There’s the beautiful Mundunthurai wildlife sanctuary (a Project Tiger reserve), a short drive away from Tirunelveli, near Papanasam. Here, the Tambaraparani is dammed, creating a huge reservoir (a popular boating destination), that’s at the outskirt of the sanctuary. A little into the sanctuary is the Vanatheertham falls. Here, beautiful Ghat forests surround you, and the waters drop down a crystal-clear cascade. Splashing about here is a pleasure, and the few times I’ve been here, we were the only visitors. In the core sanctuary itself (or even while driving through), you’re almost certain NOT to see tigers, wild dogs or bears, but often do see endangered Lion Tailed Macaques, langurs, chital, Sambhar, and a snake or five.


There’s also a little bit of Kerala in this part of Tamil country. Somewhere between Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari, nearing the Kerala border, is the 16th century Padmanabhapuram palace. This was the palace of the rulers of Travencore (who ruled over a large chunk of Kerala, and a small dab of Southern Tamil Nadu). The palace was used by them till the early nineteen hundreds. It’s a perfect example of Kerala architecture, combining stone and wood effectively, with sloping, tiled roofs. There are little chunks of luxury inside, like a bed made out of dozens of different types of medicinal or fragrant wood, and there’s a large, beautiful tank (fed by what used to be perennial water sources), where his and her royal highnesses used to bathe in style. There’s also a relatively modern “music hall” built just over a century ago by the musician-king of Travancore, Swathi Tirunal. As I was walking in the palace grounds (which still belongs to the government of Kerala), I came across a large, smooth and round stone kept on a pedestal. A local guide told me that the stone was used to test applicants for the Royal bodyguard. Any one who wanted to enlist in the Royal guard had to lift the stone above his head, and place it back on the ground, one hundred times in five minutes. I tried to lift the stone, and my skinny muscles complained as they lifted the 25-kilogram rock over my head. I did it twice (in the stipulated 5 minutes), and gave up. It seemed clear to me that I was not quite Royal bodyguard material. The King’s chief advisor, perhaps?

(The first part of Southern Spice is here).

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Southern spice: where the water is sweet

These are little travel nuggets from various trips in Southern Tamil Nadu, each of which is too small to form a complete post in itself, but which (hopefully) forms some good reading together.


This was during one of my numerous visits to the heartland of Southern most India, Tirunelvelli. It’s a wonderful, medium sized, somewhat sleepy town woven in to Tamil folklore, with many songs and stories written about the sweet water of the Tambaraparani river, and the majestic Nellaiappar Temple. Tirunelveli sometimes also makes it to the news for the wrong reasons (when a very rare, violent riot breaks out). Anyway, this is Thevar country, and in older times the prevailing stereotype believed that the hearty folks down here were brave, honorable, proud and easily provoked. If you’ve seen the Kamal Hasan flick Thevar magan, which tells of a feudal tale like a thousand true stories from this region, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, here I was, at my cousins’ place, sitting on the porch and chatting with the toothless, shirtless, aged family retainer/watchman/all purpose handy man, Karuppa. He (then) must have been around sixty-five at least (he didn’t know his own age), and was almost as blind as the proverbial bat (stubbornly refusing to get rid of his cataracts), and needed to squint to see some one at a fifteen-foot distance. I asked him about the (in)famous sickle-swords of the region, the aruvaal. Warriors would carry one of these (often three feet long), hidden behind their backs. I asked him if he had ever held one of them.

”Aruvaal la yennale? Athu yellaru kitta irukum” (“what’s the big deal in an aruvaal, every one has one of those”), was his nonchalant reply.

I stared at him incredulously. He took me up to his little corner, and emerged, victoriously swinging an old, rusty, three-foot aruvaal. Yup, that polite, laughing, half-blind old man sporting a big, toothless grin, had a sword.

It was one of the few times when I was both shocked, and thought something was unbelievably cool as well!


By far the BIGGEST thing in town (yes, “town” is where the folks here say they are going to, if they mean they’re going down to the city center) is the Nellaiappan Temple, with Shiva in the “Nataraja” form. As you go to “town”, you see laid-back vesthi or lungi clad (and folded to just above the knee, revealing dashing red or blue “boxer shorts” of sorts) men sitting outside tea stalls, catching up on the latest “happenings” in town. There would be lots of pretty Tamil girls, mostly still clad in paavadai-thavani, or the more fashionable Salwaar kameez (jeans or skirts were a rarity), with flowers in their hair, usually walking around in small groups, chatting. And then, you see the massive stone temple gopuram rising over the landscape.

The temple, built by Pallava kings, is around 1300 years old, though it has been renovated and expanded many times over the centuries. An important Shivasthalam, it is one of the largest Shiva temples in India. Legend has it that some farmer harvested his paddy (nel), left it out to dry, and asked Shiva to protect it. Some time later, there was a huge thunderstorm, and the farmer feared that he had lost his entire crop. In anguish, he ran back once the rain stopped, to find that his grain was dry and untouched. ”Nellaiappar” Shiva had saved the day.

This temple, like most temples of the deepest south, commands awe with its sheer size. A major highlight of the temple is the 1000 pillar "cosmic-dance hall", which seems to stretch for miles. Deep, dark corners (when explored) reveal the distinct odor left by bats. And you stare in amazement at the scale of it all. Another major highlights of this temple undoubtedly are the musical pillars. Made of stone, select sets of pillars (closer to the sanctum) emit distinct notes (sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni, or solfa notes) when thumped with the palm. Hidden along the long corridor leading from the Shiva shrine to the Kantimati (Parvathi, Shiva’s consort) shrine is a rusty sign, with the paint peeling off. It’s by the ASI (Archeological society of India), and forlornly (almost apologetically) notes that the greater temple complex is the largest ever built in any Hindu temple, after the complex at Ankor Vat.


When I mentioned earlier why Tirunelvelli is part of Tamil folklore, I forgot the single most important (and greatest) contribution of Tirunevelli to the world. Tirunelvelli is also the land of that sublime creation, “Tirunelvelli” halwa, There are over a dozen shops that sell “original” Tirunelvelli halwa, but any old timer will tell you that there’s only one original.

Heading out from the temple, and walking a few blocks, one arrives at a dark, gloomy looking shop, known fondly as ”Irutukadai” (the dark shop!). At about 5:30 in the evening, the shop is closed, but a small crowd begins to line up outside it. By 5:55 it is restless. At the stroke of six, the doors open, and the crowds move in for the kill. The only thing sold in this shop is the hot, sweet, brown, wheat halwa, dripping in ghee. Customers go crazy, buying kilogram quantities of the stuff to take home, while others (such as myself) order more modest quarter-kilo servings (served in plantain-leaves) for immediate consumption and instant moksha.

Apparently, this most Tamil of creations is not Tamil. Rajput immigrants, who came here some eight decades ago, and who still own the store, set up the shop. Their “formulation” is a well-kept family secret (And it’s true. The irutukadai, halwa is somehow superior to other pale imitations elsewhere). It must be the sweet waters of the Tambaraparani that makes the difference.

(The second part of these posts is here)

Monday, September 12, 2005

55, not 42

These are mostly to prove to Mustang that I can manages sentences in less than 55 words. But may be I can't.....since I got carried away, and came up with two quick tales, which total to 110 words.

********* Tale 1 *********

Rajamma worked hours daily without rest. Her day started at dawn, when the sun’s rays struck. She had no worldly possessions. The day would be spent scavenging. Every discarded morsel of food was collected and carried back, on her head. Back home, to feed starving children. And please her queen. Worker ants had no choice.

********* Tale 2 *********

Manish was a regular kid. He went to school, and hated math. Playing cricket was his greatest joy. After school he would run to the ground and join his team. Then they would play. He would grab the bat, stand and wait. And listen for bells on the rolling ball. His ears were his eyes.


It's a fun exercise. So go join the bandwagon.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Everything Scientific Vol. 1

In an earlier post of mine, there was a comment which asked Are the scientists not doing a good enough job of taking science to the people. There is some truth to that statement. Also, mainstream media (with exceptions like the New York Times science page) does a shoddy job of reporting scientific breakthroughs. Most scientific journals require subscription for access, making even editorials difficult to reach. Science bloggers do however write exceptionally about science, and the Tangled Bank is a great, fortnightly science Carnival.

I thought I’ll start a fortnightly feature with my own breakdowns and synopses of recent scientific breakthroughs I read over that time (spreading news of the scientific breakthroughs in a nutshell). So, here’s Everything Scientific Vol. 1. (Please comment on whether this is a good idea, and if so, what areas of science are interesting).

Chimps and us:
One of the biggest breakthroughs since the Human Genome project is the recently unveiled primary draft of the Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) genome). Now, this is a big deal for a number of reasons.

A genome, simply speaking, is the complete genetic material in an organism. The two genomes show (without any doubt) that they are over 98% identical. What makes us so different from Chimps? Because a genome contains BILLIONS of nucleotides (the nucleic acids that make up DNA, the genetic material), this small percent difference amounts to millions of base differences between chimps and humans. Other highlights include variations in different genomic regions. For example, the male Y-chromosomes show the greatest divergence, while the female X chromosome shows the lowest (but still substantial, so no bad jokes please) divergence between chimps and humans. The three most prevalent hypotheses about human-chimp differences are protein evolution (proteins are the “business end” of genes), the “less is more” hypothesis (loss-of-function changes, like loss of body hair), and changes in gene regulations. The genome will go a long way in addressing and understanding these differences. Additionally, Chimps and humans are prone to different diseases (for example, Chimps are pretty resistant to cancers), and these differences in the genomes can help us understand why this is so, and perhaps (years down the road) lead to therapeutics.

Another major breakthrough is the discovery of chimp fossils. There are tons of hominid (human predecessor) fossils, but early chimp fossils hadn’t been found. Well, now they have been unequivocally found, and all from the same part of central Africa where some of the oldest hominid fossils have also been found.

More reading (with subscription): Timeline, Chimp genome issue of Nature, PZ Myer's take.

Smoking makes you blind:
We know that smoking is bad for us, and messes our lungs up, and gives us cancer. But here’s strong Scientific evidence that smoking increases age related macular degeneration (AMD). Basically, AMD is jargon speak for severe and irreversible vision loss in the elderly. Bad enough being old and somewhat blind, but going blind faster than you need to? Bad mojo, that.

Rapid and cheap genome sequencing:
There were a number of interesting breakthroughs reported in Science, but one that caught my eye was a new and cheap way to carry out Genome sequencing (subscription required). In a nutshell, traditional methods (which involve amplifying fragments, and separating them by a process called electrophoresis) needed lots of expensive reagents and equipment, which only a few research institutes have (mostly in the US, Japan or Europe). But these new methods just use common epifluorescence microscopes and beads on immobilized gels (that most small labs have). So, to me the exciting thing is that this can easily be used in smaller universities (including teaching universities in India), and students in these labs might actually do more than learn theory.

Too much information?:
A major problem confronting scientists is the sheer volume of information that’s coming out. Even in specialized fields, there are dozens of specialized journals that a researcher has to follow. Little wonder then that the public rarely gets to see breakthroughs in newspapers. Below is an excerpt from the perspective of a geneticist (talking only about Genetics journals), which remains true for almost ALL research areas, and separating wheat from chaff is pretty hard (but it’s all wheat in this post):

Before the Second World War, there were only two North-American journals exclusively devoted to genetics — the Journal of Heredity and Genetics. In the late 1940s, Genetics spawned two progeny — the American Journal of Human Genetics and Evolution………… It emphasizes the contrast between those years, when a reader had a realistic chance of keeping up with the whole field, and the current plethora of journals that makes it impossible to keep up with even the tables of contents.

Pain is all in the head:
Perhaps you’ve experienced severe pain, and felt much better immediately after taking a painkiller. But not all of that effect is necessarily due to the medicine. There’s something called a placebo effect, where people often report feeling better if administered a pill (even if the pill isn’t really a drug). One of the funniest placebo effects I’ve seen is the placebo effect seen in Viagra’s drug trials (it was pretty large, and it was not the guys, but their partners who were surveyed!). An excellent recent paper in the Journal of Neuroscience clearly shows that upon administering placebos (when the patients were NOT told that it was placebo), the activity in regions of the brain that are involved in natural opiate activity (called endorphins, the same stuff that often gives runners a high) substantially increased. This might explain why homeopathy is so successful in treating minor ailments.

Nanoparticles go beyond carbon:
Chemical and Engineering news (subscription required) has a cover story on inorganic nano-materials (83(35), August 29,2005 ). Even the nanotechnology world, just like our own, is driven by carbon. Carbon remains king, but in applications where high loads, temperatures or pressures are required, these inorganic materials are making a mark. Fullerene (an organic compound) like inorganic molecules (WS2, MoS2 etc) are now increasingly being studied for their lubricant properties, and they just might be the future of the automobile industry.

Free access to scientific breakthroughs:
Most scientific journals remain “subscription only” (especially the high profile ones, which have the big stories). But there has been a recent effort to make information more available to the public. One fantastic effort is the Public library of Science and their two present journals (PlOS biology and PlOS medicine) look like they’re going to be high profile, high impact journals, FREE for readers. Their goal is to make science more accessible to people around the world, and it’s a super effort.

That's all folks:
Finally some humor, and what it takes to be a hostel warden at IIT (could apply to ANY university hostel). Not really science, but oh well!

Happy weekend reading!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

When obstacles are removed

August is a good month (like many other months in India) for holidays. There’s Independence day of course, and usually raksha bandhan and Ganesh Chathurthi both fall in August. Since school usually opened in June (after the summer break) and both June and July were bleak months (as far as holidays went), I would await August’s arrival with eager anticipation. Somehow, this fact, along with the fabulous treats, colorful decorations and a delightful Amar Chitra Katha made Ganesh chaturthi a favorite festival.

My parents would go out a couple of days before Ganesh chaturthi (the day before being Gowri puja) to the market to shop for the festival, and I would invariably tag along. The endless rows of fruit vendors with cartloads of fresh fruit, and the even longer rows of flower sellers, engulfed by the mesmerizing fragrance of flowers would be our first stop. After some haggling and bargaining, our shopping baskets would soon be much heavier. After buying fruit and flowers, the next stop would always be at one of the carts or stalls (that appeared overnight, only to stay for a week or two and disappear) selling clay and paper-mache Ganesha idols. I would gawk at the massive six or eight foot Ganeshas that glared down at me, while dozens of smaller ones (gradually decreasing in size) would be arranged pyramid like, in front of the giant ones. My father would usually buy a small one (six inches would be considered plenty), and for a child some eight years old, that seemed to be a rip-off. A few years later, they stopped buying the garishly painted clay idols completely. Amma would say that it seemed to be wasteful and polluting, buying them and then immersing them in a lake. I later learnt that the paint used is rather toxic (the traditional clay ones aren’t though), and also result in silting in many lakes.

The celebration at home itself would be a rather simple affair. Amma and appa would sit and complete their puja (I would usually sit with them too), and after that we would say our own short prayers. The temptation to actually pray would be irresistibly high, since the prayers were to one who could miraculously remove ALL obstacles (Vigneshwaram). So, for what ever it was worth, I would pray (to do well in my studies, or in my single-minded but futile attempts at cricketing excellence, or music, or any thing else). That accomplished, the rest of the day would be one big party. It was also the day of honor for that masterpiece of culinary creation, the kozhukattai. Filled with coconut fried in jaggery, with the soft, melting exterior of steamed rice flour, the very sight of them would make the salivary glands irrationally active. In my prime, a dozen of these would be easily consumed (though alas, age takes its toll, and consuming more than eight in a sitting these days requires a supreme effort). There would be an assortment of savories my mother would make as well, and some special sambhar (usually with baby onions) to boot. A day of gastronomic ecstasy, and post meal recovery!

Afternoons (post lunch-recovery) would usually be spent visiting the various Ganesha “pandals” that every street or colony would unfailingly erect. My father would tell me that visiting nine of them on that day (the number would vary and could be five, or seven, or just three) would result in great luck. My own incentive however was different. I would search for the most tastefully decorated or imaginatively decorated pandal. Decorations would range from the simple to the bizarre and exotic. The “big spenders” would decorate their Ganesha with cashew nut, almond and cardamom, while other more typical ones would stick to a colorful arrangement of myriad flowers. Colonies would compete for (unofficial) bragging rights, by hosting a Ganesha larger than any other in their own neighborhood, and by blaring devotional music (usually set to the tune of a popular movie hit, with the lyrics suitably altered to replace more risqué elements with the devotional) a little louder than the next pandal. Usually, the larger the Ganesha in the pandal, the more garish and ostentatious they would look to me, and my vote would go to the one or two simple clay Ganesha’s I would find that were not covered in golden paint, and which were tastefully decorated with a couple of lamps, and strategically placed floral arrangements.

But more importantly, I would visit pandals (often more than the recommended seven or nine) for the prasadam they would each offer. This could be a simple mixture of jaggery and dried coconut, or milk with apples and bananas, or Panchyagajjya , but sometimes the colony would go the whole nine yards, dishing out modakas or kuzhakattais or even Mysore Pak, made in the finest ghee. In my teenage years, I kept up this gluttonous habit, but figured that running around from pandal to pandal would take care of some of those extra calories. There seemed to be an uncanny co-relation with the style of the pandal and the quality of the prasadam, and the aforementioned “tasteful pandals” usually had the most tasty and homely treats to offer.

Ten days from the festival (or the next day itself, depending on convenience) crowds would gather again, for the immersion of the clay Ganeshas, the “Visarjan” festival. This day would usually end up depressing me a little bit, as I would be saddened to see the immersion (of Ganeshas painted with toxic paint) in lakes and tanks, accompanied by callous crowds who would convert the lakes into a dumping yard. Thankfully, awareness in present times have increased, and most temples have separate immersion tanks made just for this purpose, and this has done much to save the city’sdying lakes. This done, the crowds would finally melt away, and I would be left with the desire to recover from the eating (and ready myself for the next round) before Dusshera crept upon me silently in late September or early October.

Aah! Festivities. Until next year then, while I dream of more kuzhakattai’s.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Education, and some humor

This is what the technical information sheet of some commercially obtained (from a very well known life sciences company) human testicular/testis mRNA (which we use in our lab for research) said:

Donor age: 22
Cause of death: head trauma
RNA quantity: 5 ug
Donor gender: MALE

I'm sure it must have taken the brightest mind in the company to figure out that that testicular RNA obtained from a human testis required a male donor.


Here is a Pew research survey summary titled "Religion: A strength and weakness for both Parties. Public divided on the origins of life".

(bold fonts my own emphasis)

42 % of those responding believe that life existed in its present form since the beginning of time (Damn those annoying fossil records. If only they would disappear just like the animals themselves did)

Here's a sample from "Views on Evolution"
"Human and other living things have existed in the present form only" Yes: 42%
(Curse you, Cro mangon man! Curse you Java man! Curse you, homo erectus! Curse you cave paintings! Curse you, unearthed habitat ruins! If only those remains had never been found. And as for those viruses that mutate even within a few cycles, and constantly evolve even in a tenth of a human lifetime just to prove evolution, lies, all lies, and damned lies I tell you).

The surveying morons go on to ask what people think about the consensus scientists have over evolution. The people (not scientists) say 54% of scientists believe in evolution.

Now if only the surveying group had asked us scientists what we believed (because of mountains of scientific evidence). But perhaps surveys are not allowed to actually ask scientists what they believe, and they can only ask people what they think scientists believe.

Here's the best part of the survey.

It asks "Who should decide what is taught"
And lo and behold! 41% of the population think that parents (not teachers, not boards, not educationalists) decide what should be in textbooks.

So now the brilliant high school dropout who thinks that physics and psychics are the same thing can tell teachers what they should teach kids in high school and college. Just fantastic.

I have no argument about people and their own religious beliefs. That is personal choice. But deciding what is scientific fact, or what should be taught in school, based on one's belief (which is not everyone's belief) is something that should not happen in a logical, scientific and progressive society.

(survey link from Patrix)

Friday, September 02, 2005

The caravan arrives: Bharateeya Blog Mela

(image from Saket)

Inspector Khaggu spat out blood, and wiped his lip with his hand. The fight had gone on for hours.

Across him, Dacait Thaggu lay sprawling in the muddy puddle, covered in slush and breathing heavily. He looked towards Inspector Khaggu and asked:

“Why do you hunt me?”

“Because you are a dirty thief, that’s why. You molest women, and ruin the lives of the helpless by stealing their belongings.”

“That’s a vile lie, Inspector. I have never robbed the poor, or even touched the hair on their head. And as for their women, all women are my own sisters.”

“Why do you steal, you filthy animal?”

“It’s a long story. I have no one in this world. A kindly old man adopted me when I was but eight years old. Yes, he was a thief and a petty pickpocket. But he told me never to steal from the poor. Never to hurt the oppressed. Never to harm women. But only take back what the rich landlords have usurped from the poor villagers. That is what I do. Unlike you, Inspector. You policemen work only for money and power.”

“You lie, thief! I don’t do this job for money. The moment I wear this uniform, I become a soldier of this nation. This nation, which is my mother. I too am an orphan. A police inspector adopted me when I was eight years old. He brought me up to be honest and upright, and fight for justice. And a lowly thief just like you killed him. Yes, I too am an orphan. Exactly eighteen years ago, on this very day, at this very Kumbh mela, I was with my family, and my father was treating us to cotton candy. Then there was that terrible fire. People ran helter-skelter. In the smoke and chaos, I was separated from my family. I fell unconscious, and when I woke up, Police chacha had found me. In his memory, I became a cop, and will die for justice.”

“Wait a minute! Did you say eighteen years ago? At this very Kumbh mela? I too was separated from my family in that very mela. My father, my mother, and my brother!”

“Thuggu! Do you have a tattoo of a lemon on your left shoulder?”


“Me too!”


“Come to my arms!”

Welcome to Blogmela.

Every day, there are stories that move us. Makarand writes this extremely moving article article of his experiences while meeting some young girls in a small village. That amazing blogger, Uma, in this excellent post on dowry, asks if this could stop happening. A few days ago, the story of bribes in maternity hospitals broke out. Michael Higgins takes a closer look at the situation. Dilip’s posts sometimes make you extremely uncomfortable. That’s because you know his stories are true, though you don’t want to believe them, like this one.

Atanu Dey writes about Lee Kuan Yew who, though a dictator, has created the perfect meritocracy in Singapore. In a related post Michael Higgins proceeds to break down corruption, pointing out why it exists. Perhaps you can think of more reasons. Shreyas Gopinath wonders aloud about the development of "Tier II" cities.

Blokesablogin questions Western versions of Indian history and religion that are still taught. Meanwhile, JK of Varnam points out to the confusion that surrounds building a chronology of events in Indian history. That's possible only if people are objectively willing to accept scientific dating studies, and not go by folklore. Did you hear of Drona and Ekalavya’s story from the Mahabharatha? Well, here’s a different version.

Meanwhile, Pankaj Mishra’s rather lame article in the New York Times is ripped apart. Sandeep is rather harsh when he trashes the article, as is Pennathur. Selva, in a fit of frustration, tries to dissect the the bullshit around us.

What’s life without musings? Lazygeek’s post almost asks if there is god or not. While Amrit has a different kind of realization. But perhaps we need to wait for our realizations. You think relationships are going to the dogs? Well, here’s some proof! Nilu, in his angst, asks if people can still talk to their ex-girl/boy friends after breaking up. Vivek, meanwhile, talks cricket (can there be a desi blogmela without cricket musings?).

The stomach beckons us. Rahul (who hasn’t activated permalinks on his blog) writes magically about his search for burger perfection, while Rhyncus has this fantastic post about food at my kind of a restaurant. Thanksgiving is a while away, but Sujatha makes us really hungry. But isn’t music the food of love? If you ever felt guilty defending rock music, there’s no need. Here’s one of Abhishek’s poems. Patrix, on the other hand, isn’t too lucky with music. Ash gets extremely nostalgic when she hears a CD sent by her dad. Carnatic music aficionados, on the other hand, have something to cheer, with what appears to be another excellent book on composers and traditions.

To me, the most significant aspect of air travel is the food. But take a look at Prufrock’s story. Gaurav meanwhile mesmerizes you with ants, while Richa reminds us about our best friend. What did you do at work today? Dream about a lazy weekend? Dheeraj finally learns to work.

We’re stuck with GWB, but at least there’s some humor in Bush bashing.

Where there are bloggers, there will be posts about blogging. Amit has done a fantastic job with the launch of Indiblogreview, and it looks like it’s going to be great reading learning about other bloggers! Good luck to you Amit. Uma, who could really give us a lesson or ten in writing, writes about her missing links. Sourin wonders aloud about a bloggers meet here in the States, while Gratisgab has this super post on friends with fewer obligations. Pablo wonders if only bloggers comment on blogs, while Arnab talks about a new derisive term, chick blogs. Arzan asks us why every day isn’t blogday. Are we as bloggers responsible for the content of every word of every post of a blog, if we link to a blog?

The past couple of weeks had a very important Supreme Court verdict in India, on the Private sector in higher education. Some how it didn’t make it to most blogs. But Abi has a take on it, as does Satya, on his fantastic blog Education in India. His recent Op-Ed on the topic is well worth a read as well.

Speaking of the media, does any one have any thoughts about the differences in the depiction of violence in Indian and Western media?

Finally, we come to some of the tragic events of the past few days. The South has just been devastated by Katrina. Sakshi writes about disaster relief plans. Though the tragedy is immense, the US MS media have largely been exceptional in the coverage of the hurricane and its aftermath. Harini writes about Our flood (in India) and the floods here in the US. Amardeep has a more detailed and penetrating essay, with two questions about race, and the hurricane.

Finally, I’ll leave you on a somber note, with Maitri’s blog. She’s from New Orleans, and is watching and reporting the devastation of her city first hand. I do hope the administration gets its act together.

Have a good weekend, and enjoy the posts (there’s a lot of quality out there).

The next carnival is at Harini's blog.

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