Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Holidays and heartwarming movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 22, 2006

Inclusive, exclusive

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

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

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


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

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

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

A metaphor for a lot of things perhaps.

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

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

Monday, December 18, 2006

Alpha male, super stud

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

Or something like that.

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

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

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

Quite understandable and expected.

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

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

As well controlled an experiment as could be.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Moving to google

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

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

Truth and miracles

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

It is shameful to dismiss it all as a miracle.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A tale of two cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Duct tape and chewing gum

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

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

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

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

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

The Russians used a pencil to write in space.

Oh well.