Monday, July 24, 2006

The 50 dollar Mercedes

The recent madness in Lebanon, and the evacuation of Indians stranded there reminded me of a story of one of my friends, now long past. Time has taken its toll on my memory, so the details are scratchy. But then, what is a good story if all the details are true to the T. After all, isn’t filling in the details the best part? But, for the most, this story is absolutely true.

This was in 1990, and erstwhile buddy of the US, Saddam Hussein, had just invaded Kuwait, and had instantly become enemy number one. The invasion itself was brief and bloodless (since the Iraqi army faced the terrifying prospect of going against the Kuwaiti army, which was about as big and well equipped as my college NCC unit), but it resulted in instant chaos in that little country. And, as we all know, Kuwait has about the same percentage population of Indians (particularly our intrepid Malayalee brothers heading out to the “gelph”) as does the average city in Assam have of Bangladeshis. They, like all other immigrants in that country, knew the US and its allies weren’t going to sit and watch the invasion in peace, and that war was imminent.

So, like every one around them, they were desperate to get the hell out of there, to wherever safe refuge could be found.

While this was happening, and I was watching and hearing about it from my parents, uncles, aunts, neighbors and Appan Menon from the World This Week, my school continued as usual.

Almost as usual. One fine day, a new student turned up. It was more than unusual, since it was the middle of the year, and students usually joined only at the beginning of the academic year. But P, with his perennial smile and cheerful outlook, just showed up one day. We became friends pretty quickly, and I learnt of his story.

He was from Kuwait, and was actually in India for a short holiday with his mom and sister. And then, while he was here, the war started. There was no question of them going back, of course, and luckily they had a house in Bangalore, and some relatives too. But his father was still very much in Kuwait, and stuck there.

And his father’s escape from Kuwait is the story movies are made out of (at least, it did make it to the Times of India).

When war seemed imminent, every person there grabbed any possession he/she could carry and tried to head out. There was no effort by the Indian government to try to evacuate its citizens then. The border with Saudi Arabia had been sealed, since the US and allied forces were based there. The only way out was up north, towards Jordan and Syria. P’s dad was a rather affluent white collar employee (I can’t remember exactly what he did), so he gathered every bit of cash or jewellery he could find, as well as any thing valuable (the TV, VCR, music system and the kitchen sink), loaded it in to their Mercedes, and started driving straight up towards Jordan.

But the going was never going to be easy. To drive, you needed fuel, and all he had was his one full tank. In addition, there were many, many checkpoints to be crossed, and each was guarded by Iraqi troops. The Iraqis did not have any thing against the immigrants, and so did not harm or arrest them.

But you couldn’t get through for free either. And the bribes were not cheap.

First the dollars diminished from P’s dad’s wallet. Then the jewellery went. Then it was the TV, and the VCR, and the music system. But somehow, with one bribe or the other, he progressed towards the border. But he had run out of cash and material goods before the final check point. It was a case of extreme despair, as he sighted the final checkpoint, and Jordan and safety beyond. Would he make it across to safety and his family?

The Iraqi guard pulled him over and looked at him meaningfully. P’s dad shrugged and gestured his helplessness. In the back seat of his car though, there lay P’s beloved Casio electronic keyboard, and something else that was his sister’s favorite toy or electronic item. They were expensive. The guard said he’d take those. But P’s dad couldn’t bear to give those away. Those were his children’s most valuable possessions, and reminded him of them constantly.

He tearfully refused, and offered his car instead.

His brand new, very expensive Mercedes.

The guard smiled in ecstatic delight. He pulled out a fifty-dollar bill, and gave it to P’s dad, and in return gleefully grabbed the car. But P’s dad had made it across to safety.

Back in India, and safe, he was soon reunited with his family. There, his kids got their keyboard and toys. And in a little corner of their home, there was (and perhaps still remains) a fifty-dollar bill, forever in remembrance.

(I’ve lost touch with P over the years, but hope he, his dad and his family are well, and look back nostalgically at their ordeal).

Friday, July 21, 2006

Nimble, mobile, small and young

Robert Weinberg from the Whitehead Institue has a more than revealing commentary in the latest issue of Cell. He titles his piece “A lost generation”.

He writes mostly about the current fate of young researchers in science (and by “young” in science, it translates to scientists in their thirties or perhaps early forties). These undoubtedly are by far the most productive years of a scientists life, and during these years (s)he usually make their most significant, “career defining” discoveries. At this age, researchers have boundless energy, and the willingness to ask and attempt to tackle risky and challenging questions. But it is becoming increasingly hard for young scientists to establish themselves, and get out pathbreaking work.

The average age of a biomedical researcher obtaining her/his first big independent grant from the NIH (the all important R01) has gone up from 34 to 41.7 years. That basically translates to most of the research in this country being led by “old” researchers. To me, this resembles what continues to happen in tradition bound societies (like India), where researchers past their prime, and without great drive, head groups (where young researchers are subject to their bosses ideas), and the scientific productivity, particularly when it comes to new, breakthrough research, suffers. To me, the best thing about research in the US is independence and resources given to young researchers, as assistant professors or some times even as postdocs. Their work often resulted in new paradigms or directions for their chosen fields.

Big funding agencies also now seem to believe that only major, collaborative research projects, across many groups, are really worth funding. Sure, that results in some extensive papers, usually published by the biggies (Nature, Cell and Science). But, though the work is often profound, it rarely is of a nature that sets new directions in the field. Partly because many of the senior, established researchers are more risk averse, and also increasingly devote less time to specific ideas (they have empires to run, and so can’t waste their time on pushing one or two high risk ideas).

Weinberg rightly makes the case that this makes science research rather unattractive for young researchers. As a young researcher myself, it is daunting to think of the years ahead as a postdoc, or later perhaps as an assistant professor, with increasing difficulties in getting funding (what with the agencies preferring “established” groups in getting funding, and with a decrease in funding available due to budget cuts). It’ll be years before I can even establish myself, at a time when my friends in other fields have risen to the top in their chosen careers. It’s very unsurprising that many of my brightest friends who have chosen science would rather look for positions in industry (big companies or biotech), rather than try to establish themselves independently, and attempt to crack some unsolved, challenging problems.

Weinberg’s vision in this regard is all the more important. His prophetic closing words “……As a consequence, those of us who conduct discovery research are confronting the prospect of a lost generation, a wide gap in our ranks, as bright young people look elsewhere to discover their career paths. The marvelous engine of American biomedical research that was constructed during the last half of the 20th century is being taken apart, piece by piece. We will all pay for this destruction for decades to come.”

Read the entire article here (subscription required).

Friday, July 14, 2006

Happy hour: Sacred cows and sympathetic squirrels

The hour is not really that happy, since I’m still very sad after the tragic terror attacks in Mumbai. I’m even more saddened by the rather ineffective leadership we have, and the absolute lack of even the concept of bipartisan efforts, or an understanding of national interest or national security by India’s pathetic leaders.

But life must go on, and as Mumbai’s citizens have fearlessly shown, it will. And there’s no better way to take your mind of tragedy than by exploring Science’s fascinating problems, revelations and possibilities.

And that leads me to today’s happy hour topic. I came across an absolutely fascinating essay in PLoS Medicine. How much did you think human disease risk is influenced by biological diversity? Did you ever think that the cow serenely obstructing traffic in a Delhi main road could serve a greater cause for humanity? Or the poor squirrel that was yesterday’s garden destroyer and today’s road kill could actually be helping humanity?

If this were a trivia quiz, and I asked you “what is common between cows and squirrels when it comes to infectious diseases in humans?” what would you say?


Ah, but science tells us the answer.

Both animals receive bites from insect vectors that would otherwise have bitten us, and infected us with pathogens, thus breaking a chain of pathogen transmission.

Still confused?

Think malaria. If the damn mosquito carrying the dreaded plasmodium, bit a holy cow instead of sleeping me, I’m not going to get malaria. Squirrels are bitten by ticks (that are perfectly capable of biting humans) that carry infectious spirochetes which cause lyme disease. And cows don’t get malaria easily, just as squirrels don’t get lyme disease easily. So, in effect the rate of transmission of both diseases to humans decrease.

And geeky scientists even have a name for such a process.

Zooprophylaxis (as defined by Allan Saul,
Malaria Journal 2003, 2:32) is “the diversion of disease carrying insects from humans to animals, may reduce transmission of diseases such as malaria”

What will they think of next?
And this is not just for malaria or lyme disease, but our friendly neighborhood animals seem to be lending a hand with various other diseases. Tick borne encephalitis (TBE) circulates among yellow-necked mice. If an infectious tick bites a human, the nasty disease is transmitted. So, you’d think if there are a lot of mice, then there might be more infection of humans. But here’s a quote from that paper:

”When the density of mice is high, then the probability of two ticks feeding on the same host at the same time is very small, so transmission declines to levels where the pathogen cannot persist. In contrast, when the mice are at very low density, not enough infectious ticks are produced for the disease to persist.”.

Similar stuff happens with house sparrows and west Nile virus. And a host of other examples.

And ecologists niftily term this a “dilution effect”, where increased host diversity results in an increase of the proportion of the bites that are “wasted”.


Cows rule. A little problem though. As that paper states, the “by-products of cows” provide breeding material for our dear bloodsuckers, the mosquitoes. Not good that.

Lovely read, and fascinating paper. You can read all about it here.

Postscript: My only “beef” with the authors is this statement “…they have been considered sacred since the Aryans invaded in the 2nd century, B.C…..”. Which history books have they been reading? Most historians are questioning that old theory.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Science fiction for you.....

The movies have made millions out of science fiction. Lots of B grade movies from the 50's and 60's, and classics like "Planet of the Apes", or "Star wars", and dozens of alien, android, or mutant movies never fail to have me glued to my seat.

But the real magic is in the written word. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were the granddaddies of the Sci-Fi genre, visionaries of their times. And then there was collosus called Isaac Asimov. The brilliant Phillip K. Dick (who died much too young) wrote superb stories like "The man in the high castle", "Do androids dream of electric sleep" (which inspired the superb film "Bladerunner"), VALIS or "A scanner darkly" (and that movie better be good). That, to me, was science fiction at it's best. And many, many writers continue to churn out the good stuff by the bagful.

And for all you aspiring writers out there, that intrepid blogger Selva at The scientific Indian has put together the absolutely fantastic Scian Science Fiction contest short story contest. It's open for all Indian bloggers, who can write science fiction, think they can, or want to write some.

What's more, there are real monetary prizes to be won too (and darn good money at that)!

So, do boldy go where few Indians have gone before.

I do look forward to reading the good stuff.

The Scian Science fiction contest.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Millionaire on a bus

I was having dinner with a friend and his father, and they told me this story they heard at an Indian restaurant in Chicago.

The owner started chatting with my friend’s dad (who’s here purely on holiday, spending time with his son), and asked if he was here on “business”, or if he wanted to start a business. Friend’s dad just listened on, and the restaurant owner (who seemed to love to talk to strangers, as is so common across most of Asia) told him his story. He came to the States in the 60’s, and spent time doing all the stereotypical things an Indian would do: work in a seven-eleven, run a gas station, grocery store, Indian restaurant.

He finally discovered the secret to immense wealth. Real estate (Lex Luthor certainly is on to something in Superman).

All you need to do is buy an apartment complex in a good location, he said. Then the money keeps rolling in, endlessly (or more precisely, "paisa aata hain, phir aata hain, phir aata rehta hain").

He apparently ended the conversation saying he was a millionaire many times over, but continued to run the restaurant for fun.

This reminded me of a gentleman we met on a bus two or three years ago. It was a lazy, sunny, summer weekend in Seattle, and we boarded the bus, which was empty (except for the driver and us). So, we started chatting with the driver, an elderly, pleasant looking gentleman. He turned out to be very chatty, and with an opinion on everything (just like any good bus driver in Tamil Nadu would).

Upon guessing that we were Indian (and beaming widely in satisfaction for a job well done after doing so), he revealed that he was Persian. He’d been in the States for over thirty years, had married and settled down here to raise his kids. He nostalgically talked about his homeland, the “land of roses”, used a few choice epithets for the theocracy there, scoffed at Pakistan (declaring it to be an unfortunate historical accident), and then started to complain about bus driving.

His hands apparently hurt him terribly, after 30 years of driving the bus. The hours were long, and the job tough and thankless.

I said it was a job though, and it probably helped him pay the bills.

He smiled, and said he didn’t do it for the money. He had more than enough for his needs, but did the job, because this was the job that had started him off in life. He couldn’t give it up. But his kids were all doing rather well, and he himself was doing fine. He owned some shops and restaurants with his kids.

And then came the icing on the cake, as he declared

“Five years ago, I officially became a millionaire. My wealth must have quadrupled since then. But I can’t give up this job ever.”

Our bus driver was a millionaire.

Only in America?