Saturday, September 30, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Thursday, September 28, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amu is certainly well worth your time.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Oscars, and other movies

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

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

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

Friday, September 22, 2006

Happy hour: stealth, intrigue and deception

Time for some more Friday science fun!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read the complete paper here)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Parks in peril

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2006

Religion makes you dumb

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

Gawd! I love creationists.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The crab and the Samurai

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

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

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

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

But may not be artificial selection alone at work here.

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

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

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

To quote:

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

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

Cause and effect again.

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Cola wars

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

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

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

Editorial: Divert, deny, dismiss and damn


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Sunita Narain


The way I see it is:

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

Friday, September 08, 2006

Friday silliness, and the mug

I have been tagged and the current meme is to put up a silly photograph of oneself.

I happen to be stupendously handsome, and a close-up or profile of myself is going to set a million hearts on fire. So, it is but prudent that I exhibit a more modest mug of myself.

And (grand drumroll) it is:

Yup, that's me.....standing forlornly, after getting completely and immovably stuck in the sand. I thought I was pretty hot on those dune buggy wheels, untill I got stuck. That flag came with the buggy, but appropriately indicates my distress.

It took three people to haul that buggy out of the sand, while I watched, grinning sheepishly.

I believe the idea is to tag five other bloggers. But I welcome all readers of this blog to spread such harmless and entertaining silliness, and post their mugs on their blogs (let me know, and I'll link back from here).

(Actually, now that I look at it carefully, that's a pic of a friend of mine who also came dune buggying with me, and also got stuck. Oh well....)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I could have been Luke Skywalker

Well, not really.

But one of the most enduring images from the Star Wars trilogy is Luke watching the two suns of his home planet Tatooine set.

Two suns for one planet.

And our own lovely earth could have had them.

When the solar system formed from instellar gas and dust, most of the stuff that didn’t fall inward and form the sun was condensed to form Jupiter. If Jupiter had been just a few times larger, its interior would have started thermonuclear reactions, and become a bonafide shining star. Even now, Jupiter gives out more than twice as much energy as it receives from the sun, and gives out enough energy in the infra-red spectrum to almost be considered a star.

So, depending on how you look at it, Jupiter isn’t necessarily the giant planet bully, but it’s just a failed star, a washout.

Jupiter isn’t so hot now, eh? King of the gods, hardly.

It’s just fascinating to imagine what would have happened to the earth had Jupiter actually become a star. What would have happened to days and nights? Would we even have nights? If there were no nights, would life have evolved the same way? What about the crucial day-night cycles of the biological clock? Circadian rhythm? The counter regulation of the metabolic clock? Would humans/mammals have ever evolved (since sleep, either diurnal or nocturnal, is so essential for survival)?

Would I have been Luke Skywalker?

(Interestingly, I recently read that Alpha Centauri, the closest “star” to the solar system and earth, isn’t just one star, but a THREE star system. Two stars orbit each other, and a third, Proxima Centauri, orbits these two. Now, if these stars had planets, and if they had life, it must be a sad life out there, with no night, and perhaps no sleep. Isn’t sleep the best thing about life?)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Happy hour: A sour taste

Happy hour Friday again, and this time its all about taste.

Sweet, bitter, salty, sour and umami (amino acid).

Though we have subtle and sensitive palates, taste can be broken down in to just five types. Taste is important not just to make gourmands such as myself happy, but plays an essential survival role for most mammals. For example, sweet, mildly salty or umami tasting foods are usually safe and nutritionally rich for the animal, while many bitter foods are poisonous (“don’t eat me”), or acidic food might be spoilt or overripe.

But most of us hardly give a second thought about how taste is perceived….about how it happens. Taste sensing happens through a fascinating signaling process. The tongue picks up molecules that have their unique tastes. These molecules are “sensed” by specific sensors or receptors on taste buds on the tongue. This is then transmitted by three specific cranial nerves, and is processed by the gustatory system, finally making its way to the cortex or the cerebellum of the brain, and voila, we taste.

The later events are somewhat known, but an understanding of what the actual sensors or receptors were for taste is rather recent. Zuker’s group, and Ryba’s group, amongst many others, has pioneered the identification of taste receptors, and the logic behind “taste coding”. They identified the receptors for sweet, bitter and amino-acid sensing taste receptors. These are all mediated by a family of proteins, the T1R’s, T2R’s and the T3R’s, that are all found in “taste receptor” cells on the tongue, with different expression patterns, so each group of cells can pick up a specific taste. There’s now stronger evidence for separate taste modalities for different tastes, and old ideas, like a “mouth map” that many of us learnt in school, showing a picture of a tongue with separate, fixed “zones” for sensing sweet, or sour or bitter, are clearly not true.

But the receptor or mechanism for sour and salty tastes remained unknown. The popular model (that was partly put across by Zuker and his collegues themselves) was that salty and sour (acid) tastes were just a sensing of ions. Hydrogen (H+) ions for acid, or sodium (Na+) ions for salty would be picked up by all or most cells, and a complex network of nerve signals could transmit it to the brain. A simplistic (not simple) model, that was rather unspecific and messy.

It’s wonderful though what new data and science does to change old thought. Isn’t that the best part of science? Zuker and his students and colleagues have now identified a very specific sour sensor, and it’s really a very nice piece of work they describe in a Nature.

Anyway, to find this receptor, some poor student (probably the lead author, Huang, on the paper) trawled through the mouse genome first looking for proteins that are membrane proteins (so they are on the cell membrane, and part of them would serve as an extracellular/outside receptor. They then eliminated known receptors, and further screened for receptors that were expressed or found in taste cells. Through this process of elimination, they finally ended up with just one candidate, PKD2L1.

They then went about proving that this was indeed a sensor for sour, by selectively killing off cells in the mouse tongue that expressed this specific receptor. What happened next was spectacular. The mice which no longer had PKD2L1 now no longer could taste sour, and happily continued to lick sour, acidic food, while all other mice (which had the PKD2L1 expressing cells) avoided the sour food completely.

So, Zuker and his colleagues now modified and changed the old theory of sour taste with their new paper. All it takes to modify or change your own idea is a little paper in Nature.

Meanwhile, another Japanese group came very close to identifying this receptor as the sour taste receptor as well, and had most of the same data, but did not prove it in an animal model, showing how awfully competitive science can be.

So now you know, when you suck a lemon, PKD2L1 senses the acid, and tells you to throw up. (In case you’re wondering if this was all done just in mice, don’t worry, we have the same receptor as well).

[link 1, 2],