Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Empowering educators to improve education Part II

In the previous post, we talked about Sikshana’s efforts in empowering teachers and educators, thus enabling them to improve school performance in India.

But all this is of course, anecdotal, and we only had Mr. Ramamurthy’s words for it. Does Sikshana have concrete, quantitative results to show for this? Indeed they do. At the end of each year, Sikshana again carries out tests for all students in the school (using the Premji foundation tests), and evaluates them. This then gives them a very concrete metric to measure improvement. The results thus far have been very encouraging, with anything between 10 – 50% improvement in the scores of kids in just one year. And more interestingly, a majority of the schools have met their own self-defined target for improvement. When asked how, the teachers usually say that they really appreciate the freedom Sikshana gives, and the trust it places in them, so feel obliged to work hard.

A lot, in Mr. Ramamurthy’s words, can be done with very little.

These seemingly simple interventions appear to have had a major effect in improving education in these schools. Yet, this method may not work everywhere. When asked for examples where this method doesn’t work as well, Mr. Ramamurthy unhesitatingly said this system didn’t work as well for them in urban schools in Bangalore. This is why they thought it didn’t work as well in urban schools. This system works a lot on faith in the teacher, and his general observation that in Indian rural areas, communities still work substantially on trust and honor. And “loss of face” by failing to make a commitment is still looked down upon in the local community. Rural school teachers are usually a close and highly respected part of the rural community. They are a part of the village elite, who are looked up to. With this status, they usually also feel obliged to work hard when trusted with resources, since they are praised and valued for work done well. So this system has worked in over a 100 schools in rural Karnataka. However, this seems to be lost in the anonymity of an urban setting. Teachers in urban schools are not really integrated into the school community. In fact, there isn’t really a school community, since kids come from different neighborhoods, economic backgrounds and communities. The teacher is just another anonymous person in a city of millions. So, teachers and staff (with exceptions of course) usually treat teaching as just a job that gives them a salary, and they usually want to get the best out of the job that they can. Only a few rare, dedicated urban teachers want to really improve the condition of their students. The local communities and parents of students will never feel that the school belongs to them, and is an integral part of their daily lives. In Bangalore, there is sometimes a second reason as well. An occasional problem of plenty.

A number of companies based in Bangalore now try to do their bit for the community, by supporting schools. Some of them do so by giving grants to schools, sometimes as a once in a year thingy, and with little expected in return. For example, to get some good PR, a company might donate a hundred thousand rupees, or send in some computers. But most of these companies do not ask the teachers/principal if they need it, what they would do with it, and how they will ensure that the children improve their performance. This means some urban schools have access to funds which they can spend, but without the expectations that the Sikshana model sets. So, in cases where Sikshana has approached some urban schools in Bangalore, and offered to provide (the limited) resources, with expectations set at the start, the teachers/staff are hostile, and say “there are other people giving us a few lakh rupees and they don’t ask questions, why do you want to set expectations, and then expect us to meet them?”. So, Sikshana largely burnt its hands with its forays in urban Bangalore, and now keeps most of its focus in rural/semi-rural schools.

Aniket, in a comment in the previous post, asked pertinently, “what happens when Sikshana goes away”. The beauty of this type of model though is that many of the improvements are carried out with very little monetary investment (their costs right now are about $1000 per school, and they cover over a 100 schools). A major emphasis has been on building the confidence of the teachers, and getting the community involved. With greater community involvement, there automatically are significant improvements at least in the basic functioning of the school. This is partly independently sustainable. Long term though, this type of system can become sustainable only through policy action of the government. One problem with the government though (particularly in India, but true mostly) is that it is a rigid, top-down approach, mandating specifics from teachers and staff (for example, requiring 30 students/year to take the board exam), as opposed to this model, expecting results, but giving the teachers the freedom to use resources as they see fit. Also, government policy will not make teachers owners of the resources, and thus teachers will not be inclined to responsibly utilize it. So, it is a bit of a chicken and egg question, and the answer (after all this hand waving) is that I don’t know. Sikshana though wants to collaborate with the state government (which does support it significantly here) and expand this program across the state (as well as take this model to other states which have expressed interest, such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu).

Finally, I’ll touch upon a topic that is an elephant in the room that every one pretends doesn’t exist. Education in India is a lucrative business, backed by powerful patrons. Everything from setting up a school to obtaining a license to growing costs money, and lots of money greases the wheels. Which means there may be almost a subtle incentive for governments to keep government school standards modest at best, and encourage (or at least wink at) the proliferation of private schools (which charge fees). Any attempt at government school reform will be at best half-hearted, with roadblocks along the way. Do I see a solution through this? Nope. Do you?

And yes, Sikshana does have a blog, reasonably well updated, and is great to read. So do check it out.

(I’m headed the India way next week, for a few busy days, so there may be a few travel posts from a bedazzled almost-tourist visiting the cities he grew up in, but will probably not recognize anymore. Enjoy the festival season and a happy new year to you).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Empowering educators to improve education (Part I)

Let’s talk about education in India for a bit.

Most of us will agree that while some of us have received an excellent (mostly private school) education, the overall condition of the government run state schools are a mess. Educational standards remain abysmal and students go through classes barely learning to read, write or count, and drop out to go and work in their fields or graze cattle (or worse, work in stone quarries or textile mills). Many of us look at the problem superficially, declare that government schools suck, and then state that the solution lies in privatizing education. Yet, that argument is at best simplistic (and at worst dangerous). While there are tens of thousands of private schools in India, from schools run in a backyard to outstanding elite, exclusive, expensive private entities, the vast majority of children in India (particularly rural and semi-rural India) still study in government schools. This number is in the hundreds of millions of children (think the entire population of the United States). A majority of these children are poor, and their parents will struggle to afford private schools (some of you may now say the solution is in education vouchers, and that is a whole different story we won’t talk about here), so the primary educator will remain the government of India.

So, here’s the status quo. All of us will readily agree that a majority of government schools suck. However, the reasons we attribute this to varies, from teacher absenteeism to social structures to lack of motivation to whatever else. Most solutions to “fix” or improve these schools have largely been some top heavy, one size fit all approaches that have mostly failed. But there are some wonderful examples of government schools that have shown dramatic improvements. Often this has been enabled by the efforts of some Non-governmental organization (NGO) or the other. I thought I’d talk a little about one such group, Sikshana, and what they have achieved. A couple of weeks ago, I got to meet and hear the founder of the group, Mr. Ramamurthy, talk about Sikshana.

Their goal is to empower educators and bring about quality education. The group wants to create sustainable models to improve government schools across the country, and ensure that government schools do a decent job in providing a sound basic education to kids. This of course sounds cliché, and is easier said than done. Sikshana realized early on that the usual top-heavy approach requiring schools to enforce some standards hasn’t worked too well. Instead, Sikshana decided to use a mostly carrot, little stick approach, implicitly believing that most people want to do something well as long as they are not forced to do it and do it on their own, and that small incentives can be a strong motivator to do this. So their model seems almost laughably simple, yet when you look at it closely is brilliant. So here is their multi-pronged strategy to improve schools.

Sikshana has currently adopted about 100 schools in the Kanakapura district (which is a semi-rural district not too far from Bangalore). This they did with the full support of the government. But by adopting the school, they did not take up all running responsibilities (that responsibility still lies with the government, which should not be allowed to wash its hands of all responsibility). So the government continues to run the schools, provide the basic mid-day food, employ and pay the teachers, provide the school building etc. Sikshana steps in though and only acts as a facilitator or provider for small things. But even this they decided not to thrust upon the school in a typical charitable organization fashion. Here’s what they do (and they do it slightly differently in each school, based on the nature of that school). They first get together and meet the school principal, teachers and staff, and sit down for a chat, to get an idea about the school. They find out if the teachers are really keen on improving the school (and try hard to get an honest feedback). Then they conduct a test for all the students in the school (using material from the Premji foundation), in order to gauge the level of comprehension of all students. After that, they discuss the results with the school staff. Usually, levels are abysmal (and usually the staff, when shown the results, are rather apologetic in typical rural Indian fashion). At this stage, Sikshana asks them if they think things can be improved with small investments, and if so, how much of an improvement the staff think they can guarantee. Here’s the clincher, Sikshana doesn’t ask the schools for a laundry list of equipment or needs (which is the usual procedure followed by charities or NGOs), but says they will provide a small amount of resources to the school, and the school staff have full control over those resources, to be used as they feel fit. Usually this elicits a startled response, since the teachers are usually only told to do something, but are rarely given any discretionary authority. But now, they are given the full power to do whatever they think is necessary to improve things. Different schools and teachers now react differently, and do different things with it. Sikshana usually knows that all teachers usually do only a few things (from their studies and data), but don’t insist that the teachers do it, instead allowing the teachers to come up with ideas themselves. This, it seems, is a strong motivating factor for the teachers/principal to put in a serious effort. After all, it is almost as if they will be spending their own money for something and not just use a hand-me-down. They implicitly accept personal responsibility, and surprisingly take it up as a challenge to improve performance. So the teachers often jump in and tell Sikshana they’ll make sure that things improve by 10% or 20% in a year!

Thus, the resources the school gets are used for a wide variety of things. Here are some examples. Some schools spend all the money to organize an annual day celebration. While they do this, Sikshana encourages the school to involve the local community (the parents of the kids). Initially, for some schools, this was a challenge since the parents had never been involved with the school before. But over a few years, this changed. The first annual day celebration might have attracted only a handful of parents, but the next few showed increased participation. Slowly, as the parents saw their kids win prizes at the event, or saw them perform (in a dance or play or sporting event), they became more enthusiastic supporters of the school. So much so, that in some schools now, the entire annual day celebration has become some kind of a community event, with some parents now putting up tents for the event, others sponsoring mikes or loudspeakers, and others organizing food or treats for the kids. With greater parental enthusiasm about the school, the kids themselves start becoming more enthusiastic, and the attraction of winning a prize in front of the entire village during the annual day function starts becoming a big incentive to excel in school. Sikshana then started another little program. It started to conduct some annual quizzes and other such events and selected one or two students from each school it supports, to take them on a field trip to Delhi. Now, Bangalore itself remains a dream for most of these kids, and Delhi might as well be Mars to them. So the kids who make it to these trips become some kind of village heroes or celebrities. In some cases, the entire village comes together to send off the kid on the trip, or collects a few hundred rupees for the kid to spend “when you go to Delhi and see the red fort”. These kinds of things again become huge incentives not just for the children, but for the teachers as well, as it becomes a question of pride as to which school sends more kids on the field trip.

That is community involvement. Sikshana provides (or “enables” as they put it) more concrete educational aids as well. For example, some schools asked for some computers for the kids, which they got. Sikshana keeps costs of computing software low by using open source software (Ubuntu/Red Hat etc), so they are able to meet many of these requests on their budget. But then, additionally, Sikshana then provided the kids of the schools with USB thumb memory drives. This enables the kids not just to play with the computer but to store their work, something that almost all schools completely overlook. The kids were given full, unrestricted access to the computers, and were allowed to just figure things out on their own. The results have been startling and amazing. Some kids, on their own (and with no computer training) have come up with fantastic little projects, using flash and animation in their creations. Many of these kids don’t speak a word of English, and some of them had paid little attention in class ever. But something in the computer (and the freedom they had with it) sparked something in the kids, and soon, they even started showing more involvement in class, as their confidence grew, and their work on the computer was appreciated.

In the next part of the post (which I’ll post in a day or two), we’ll talk a bit about success measures, and what didn’t work.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The hardest, most satisfying thing I’ve ever done

Regular programming should hopefully resume now at Balancing Life. The past few weeks have been hectic, and quite eventful. I ran and completed my first marathon this Sunday, when I survived the Dallas White Rock Marathon.

Why did I do it? Well, I really wanted to run this marathon for a great charity, and wanted to raise ~2000$ for them. To do that, I had to do something challenging, and believe me, the marathon was more than that. But by doing this I’ve learnt so many lessons.

The marathon itself was an incredible experience. There were nearly 20000 runners of all ages, shapes and sizes who ran either the full, half or relay marathon. I thought the weather was good, since it had suddenly become warmer. But there were very strong head winds and a humidity of nearly 85%. At the start we felt fine running, but as the miles wore on, the conditions began to take their toll. I had trained hard over the past 2-3 months, and hoped to run at a 9 – 9:15 min/mile pace, which I kept up for the first 17 miles. But as we reached the lake, the wind became increasingly nasty, and though I kept hydrating at all water stations, I was beginning to feel the effect of the humidity. We had some hills to run at mile 19-20, and soon after I negotiated them, my left leg started cramping. A friend of mine (who wasn’t running the marathon) met me at mile 20 and decided to run the last 6 miles with me. As the cramps got worse, I had to slow down dramatically, but he kept talking to me, encouraging me to keep moving. I did, and finally we saw that finish line and the huge crowd that was there. Running across that finish line was amongst the most exhilarating moments of my life. I was so exhausted at the finish, and could barely walk up to where they were handing out the finisher medals, but boy, was I happy to grab that! Along the way, as I ran, I saw so many incredibly inspiring sights.

There was an old woman (in her eighties, the oldest runner in the race) running a half marathon. Her T-shirt read “a model in 1932, and still running”. There was another man who ran the half marathon. He had no legs, but ran with prosthetic limbs. There was a small group of 5 people, mom, dad and 3 teenaged kids, running the half marathon with T-shirts saying “A family tradition for 10 years”. Up to mile 19, a gentleman in his early 60s kept pace with me, and then, as he couldn’t keep up any more said “you’re not too bad, are you”. And I am a good thirty years younger than him! The crowds that came by to cheer the runners as we ran around Dallas were fantastic, and made every runner feel special. And of course there were those elite international runners from Kenya and various other African countries running up in front at blinding speed. One can only look at them in awe and wonderment.

All this running has also brought so much discipline in my life. Long runs take a lot of time out of the day, so one has to be more efficient and organized with all other work. Of course, I’m incredibly sore after the race, but overall this running has dramatically improved my health (and helped me get rid of that little paunch that was embarrassing me). My diet has subconsciously changed, and I can’t bear even the sight of fried food any more. There are lots of carbs and protein in my diet now, and lots of fruits and vegetables as well. While I still indulge in some sweets, my body now demands only good, wholesome food. The only occasionally acceptable alcohol any more is a rare glass of red wine. And the best part of it all is that after a long run I can pretty much eat whatever I want to (each mile run burns about 100 calories), but only want to eat healthy stuff.

Most important of all, thanks to incredible support from friends and family, I was (more or less) able to reach my charity fundraising goal, and know that it has made a small contribution in helping a bunch of kids read (and I know the money goes there, because I make it a point to visit and spend time in those projects ever time I visit India). If this doesn’t give a sense of satisfaction, nothing will.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Impossible to categorize?

While a bookstore might be a favorite place for me to “hang out”, a constant grouse remains that in many bookstores far too many books are mischaracterized, and live on shelves they have no business being on. And that can make navigation around the bookstore a little inconvenient, to say the least. I’m never sure how books are categorized in different sections, and who does the categorizing, but far too often it just doesn’t make sense.

Science books are often a serious casualty. The science sections in many bookstores are poorly organized, and some books that should actually be there end up in other sections. I remember once looking for The Selfish Gene in a bookstore, and it wasn’t in the popular science section, or the biology section. Now this book is as good a book on genes and natural selection as can ever be found. Puzzled, I asked the person at the counter, and he finally tracked it down… the religion section. Dawkins has certainly written other books (like The God delusion) that could, conceivably, end up in the religion section, but The Selfish Gene? On the other hand, some exceptional science books end up in the “gardening” or “fishes and aquariums” section, so go figure.

The casualties very often spill over to some of my favorite authors. It doesn’t help much that many of them are British, and some of them are now dead. In a blink-and-you-are-a-forgotten-author American world, ambiguously delightful, dead British authors are bound to cause confusion. A particular favorite author of mine remains Gerald Durrell. Now, I can understand Durrell being hard to categorize. He wrote hilariously insightful autobiographical books, non-fiction and some fiction, with animals and natural history forming a backdrop. But to classify My family and other animals under “pets” does a grave and severe injustice to the author. In a bookstore we recently visited, his books were scattered across “pets”, “birds”, “animals”, “dogs”, “cats”, “animal psychology” (yes, honestly) and more. This we discovered, but only after a futile search through literature, autobiographies and natural history. It is so much easier to find the far more boring books of his brother, Lawrence, right under literature. But my very first encounter with bookstore cluelessness started with another favorite author of mine, that old master of English prose and humor, P.G. Wodehouse. Now, Wodehouse remains extremely popular in India (through some strange colonial legacy), and you can walk into any bookstore there, go straight to the literature/fiction section, and find a few dozen of his books neatly arranged. Assuming it would be the same here, I walked into a half-price bookstore years ago, strode confidently to literature, made my way down to “Woolfe”, and….no Wodehouse. A little disturbed but still calm, I shimmied like Jeeves would have down to the “fiction” shelves, and it wasn’t there either. Worried, I went up to the counter and asked. A bored clerk told me to go look for Wodehouse in the comics/humor section, and indeed I found a bunch of them there, resting unhappily between Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes collections.
At least another favorite British author of mine is easier to find, though (in my opition) grossly miscategorized. James Herriot wrote some fantastic semi-autobiographical books on his life as a vet. They really can only be classified as literature. But, while most bookstores here don’t do that, at least the books are easy to find if you walk to “veterinary science” and “animal behavior”. Finally, there is yet another fantastic author who is actually impossible to categorize. Terry Pratchett, the author of (in his own words) a series of inexplicably successful books, is usually categorized in different bookstores in these parts under “fantasy” (very reasonable), “fiction” (for want of anything better), “science fiction” (o.k, maybe), “literature” (I’ll go with that) or “comics and humor” (what can I say). While making it hard to search for his books, it at least ensures that I spend an hour in the bookstore, going from aisle to aisle. (And for those of you who don’t know, Terry Pratchett was recently diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s. Do read what he has to say about it in his own hilariously inimitable way, here).

But then, the very best authors are indeed hard (if not impossible) to classify. They do not remain within crudely drawn lines, but always flow across boundaries. This is why I miss the little independent but superbly stocked used bookstores that were almost as common as Starbucks coffee shops in Seattle, with Twice Sold Tales a perpetual favorite. Yes, there might be cats around, but you couldn’t ask for more knowledgeable bibliophiles at the counter, who loved the books they had, knew about them, and always ready to chat about books, authors, and how they could (or couldn’t) be categorized.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Goodbye, Anil

One of my all time favorite cricketers retired yesterday.

Goodbye Anil, and thanks for all those memories. For all those years in the '90s, and then the 2000s, you defined the best that was possible from an Indian cricketer. Polite, gentle, confident, untiring, committed, competitive, resolute, determined, and finally, magnificent.

I had written an article about Kumble a couple of years ago. Here it is again, for you to read. It still reads well, except now he retires with 619 wickets. Phenomenal.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Life in the center of the earth (almost)

It really is remarkable how little we know about life on earth, even with scientific data pouring in constantly. This is particularly true for the smallest forms of life; microbes and organisms that are only a little bigger than microbes. But since we are used to seeing and hearing things, we rarely even think of life that is smaller than say an insect. Yet over 90% of all life is microbial, and we don’t even know how many species of mammals there are on earth, leave alone microbes.

Microbes though couldn’t care less. They have always ruled earth (though we would love to think we rule this planet) and will, in all probability, continue to do so. It is easy to forget that the earliest forms of life were microbial, single-celled organisms capable of only the simplest functions: survival and reproduction. And it is in these two functions that microbes have excelled. In places where you would think life would be impossible, you are more likely than not to find some microbes chugging along. Put it this way, if there was a hell, there probably wouldn’t be any humans there, but there would be plenty of extremophiles having an orgy. It is always fascinating to see what creature can survive where no other can, and every now and then there is a discovery of yet another creature (usually a bacteria or archaea) that defies all probability of life and thrives.

So, let us say there was a world without light, where the temperature was over 60 degrees centigrade (140F), where the pH was over 9 (an extremely alkaline environment), and there was little or no oxygen. Would you think there would be life possible? Apparently, if you literally dig deep enough, the answer to that is yes. So what kind of life is it?

Some researchers collected fracture fluid from a depth of almost 3 kilometers within the earth’s surface, from a South African gold mine. Within it, they surprisingly found a single dominant species of bacteria, which they called Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator (link). Now, it looked like these bacteria were perfectly happy living all alone in a vent where there was no light, and therefore no photosynthesis, as well as next to no oxygen, and an extremely alkaline and hot environment. Everything about its life seems wrong. Yet it lives, doing all things that living things need to do. It fixes nitrogen and carbon. It divides (albeit all so slowly, taking a few hundred years to divide). All life needs energy to drive it. Yet there is no light here, so this bacterium actually gets energy from the radioactive decay of uranium. This allows the generation of an electrochemical gradient from hydrogen to sulfate. It was thought that for all life you need a diverse ecosystem (which provides nutrients for each other, or helps break down compounds and so on). And here we have this bacteria happily being an ecosystem of one, in true US Army style. Yet, this bacterium is not all that different from other bacteria, or just all other living cells in general, and has all the genes used to make amino acids, or metabolizing carbon and nitrogen, with a few tweaks here and there.

This story is probably best told by one of the people who discovered it and then analyzed its genome, in this absolutely fascinating podcast. If life fascinates you, this podcast will amaze you.

Hear here.

If we do some day travel in space, and explore new worlds, we probably will not see any four eyed green web-fingered aliens. If we do find something, it will probably be closer to this bacterium.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Run Forest, run

Side note: As you all have no doubt noticed, posts here have been rather infrequent recently. I have a good reason for that. It is because a lot of my free, do-anything-you-want time is being spent on my latest passion, running. A few months ago, I decided to train for and run the Dallas marathon, with a mission to raise money for my favorite charity. There is much more about that (and what you could do to support that effort) here. Rest assured that if you wanted to pick an excellent charity to contribute to, this would be one of them.

I’m a newbie runner, and started running only about six months ago. But these six months have been a fantastic learning experience (thanks largely to some friends I run with, and the Dallas running club). Before I started training, my idea of distance and endurance running (and endurance athletics in general) was quite like the idea many, many people in India still have today. So this post is a little bit about running, my own running efforts, and some thoughts on attitudes towards running in India.

Running is not much of a sport in India. The last time someone from India won an Olympic running event was way back when India was a British colony, in 1900, by a British-Indian gentleman by the name of Norman Pritchard. Even that was in a sprint, and he wasn’t even brown. Indians don’t run. They become computer engineers or doctors or run motels. And on an athletic field I was what can only be described as average. Recognizing that, I never bothered to understand the finer nuances of endurance running. Running marathons was something my crazy white friends and colleagues here did. But then white people also liked getting burnt in the sun. They’re crazy. A marathon is 26.2 miles. In my book that’s called a road-trip. I had done some jogging on a treadmill before, and 3 miles was about my limit. So for a number of years I had decided that it was just one of those things white people did to make us brown people look bad. (Ok…just ignore all those Moroccans and Algerians and whatnot winning bagfuls of Olympic running medals. They live in the Sahara desert, so they don’t count). That feeling was reinforced by none other than Tom Hanks. Someone yelled “Run Forest, run”, and he set out to run all across the United States of America. And he was on crutches, goddamit. On the other hand, if you saw some random Indian on crutches and yelled “run Raju, run”, he’d probably turn to you and ask why he should run, was there a fire/communal riot/flood in the area, would his child get admission in college if he ran, and if not, would he get free electricity if he ran. It wouldn’t work.

And then I discovered that brown people ran as well, but were mostly closet-runners. In fact, a bunch of my Indian friends turned out to be closet-runners (particularly back in Seattle). Oh the shame! To top things, they ran marathons for charity, and were doing more to do good on earth than I was by just using grocery bags for shopping, avoiding plastic and feeling smug. There almost seemed to be some underground movement of Indians actually running. Finally, apparently one didn’t have to be born with running ability. Running is an art and a science, and just about anyone can do it. So, six months ago, I started running. I’m still surprised at how quickly I have transformed into one of those Gatorade sipping, technical T-shirt wearing runners who will never run in street shoes again. This brings me to running in India.

Recently, the fine Indian city of Chennai hosted a half-marathon. Apparently, it was a huge success, and lots of celebrities and politicians showed up for photo-ops. Their intentions were excellent, with the proceeds going to some charity. And in all that excitement, people forgot about the running part of it. In almost true Indian style, amidst the inevitable chaos thanks to the crowd (all Indian events, even sporting ones, have crowds associated with them), one of the runners died of exhaustion.

It is a terrible shame. What is also a shame is that most people in India think about marathons the same way I used to a couple of years ago. Comments from various people varied from "What better way to get fit and run for a cause (assuming that one just woke up one day, ran a marathon and miraculously became fit) to “Many believe it underscores the need for participants to check their levels of fitness before taking up such strenuous exercises.” If you are missing the irony here, let me explain. You can go to a doctor and check your fitness level and be declared perfectly fit. A fit person might be able to climb a flight of stairs. Or even ten flights of stairs. But he or she is unlikely to be in shape for a marathon. Nor is it as simple as running every day, and increasing your distance constantly. You might finally make it through a marathon that way, but it won’t be easy, and it might end up hurting your body permanently.

Distance running requires a combination of many things: speed, endurance and strength (both physical and mental). Miss any of these, and you are in trouble. So, in order to build speed, you train using track workouts (running distances of say 800 meters, in sets) and interval running (where you run in fast bursts during sections of a run). To build endurance, you train on long distance runs regularly. And for strength, you combine running on hills with active cross training and strengthening exercises in the gym. As your strength and endurance increase, so does your mental strength. Finally, during and before the run, a runner needs to think of hydration and salt balance (which is why runners drink Gatorade. And I thought it was just an American aversion to water), and eating a sensible diet (particularly the night before a run) rich in carbs (with some protein thrown in), without too much fat or sugar. During the process of training, your body metabolism itself changes (becomes more efficient, and burns more calories, even while resting). Now throw in proper running form (running with your head held up, hands unclenched, without crouching your shoulders and with your back straight, leaning slightly forward) and good running footwear (no, regular sneakers don’t do the job), and finally you’ll be on your way towards becoming a runner.

There was a time, long ago when I was still in high school, when I did a little bit of running. During our annual sports day, the school would also organize a 5k “road-race”. It used to be great fun, and a bunch of us would show up and run. Here’s how it went. We’d all show up, wearing the stipulated stiff white cotton shorts and white vest, and white canvas shoes (terrible for running). The whistle would blow and we’d be off, tearing down the route. In about two kilometers, a bunch of us would be out of steam, while others would soldier on. The few really fit students (mostly boarders who spent their time playing soccer, hockey and basketball) would then soldier on and win the race. There was some potential there, with many of them (particularly those students from the North Eastern states, or Nepal, or the Himalayan states, used to higher altitudes) being natural runners. Most of that potential was wasted. Imagine the possibilities if the physical education instructor had even the slightest idea about distance running (instead of just yelling “run up, run up”), or if the kids had used proper running shoes instead of the thin soled canvas shoes (which always left your feet in pain after hard exercise). All these kids were from affluent families, and could easily afford good running gear. Most of them though would never even think of becoming runners.

For the few who actually discover running in a scientific way, it is usually too late. They are by then in their late teens or much older, and far too old to take up athletics seriously. And of course, competitive running is one thing. But running for fun (which can be a fantastic way of being fit) itself will take a long while to catch on in India. I cringe when I see people heading out for a fast walk/jog in the mornings, with the best intentions of getting fit, wearing sandals and thick cotton clothing. Or heavy sneakers that might look nice, but do nothing to support the feet (or the heavy impact on the body that running brings with it). But there’s potential there, and I’m dreaming of the day when the Mumbai (and other) marathons become a serious event with thousands of Indians running it, because they are passionate about running.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Opportunities lost

My introduction to the American education system was only at the graduate school level. That still exposed me to some of the systems in place for undergraduate education, and the university system in general, and I marveled at the choices and sheer flexibility that the students had during their education. So, even though I had no exposure to the school system here, I made the assumption that the school system would be as flexible and innovative and accommodating as the university system. I thought a school student here in the US would have as many choices, options and variety that a college student had.

It turns out though that while the university system here remains the envy of the rest of the world, the school system is a far cry from the university system. It is as bureaucratic, static, dogmatic, rigid, uninspiring or banal as any other system anywhere else. This is a story I recently heard from an acquaintance I run with. She studied in one of the (better) public schools in the Dallas area. Now, my friend was a pretty good student, and what is quite atypical is that she really liked math. She wasn’t exceptional at it or anything. She just liked it. It was her favorite subject. Usually, in most schools (especially in the US) it isn’t cool to actually like math or science. She did, and so did another friend of hers.

Anyway, somewhere in 7th or 8th grade, they had to take some tests, which would determine if they took some more advanced math classes, which would then introduce them to calculus and high school AP math. Both she and her friend did only modestly in that test, and were marginally below the required score to be allowed to progress to AP math in high school. But they both liked math so much that they wanted to take those advanced courses over the next few years, including AP math.

They actually wanted to take those courses.

So it seems perfectly reasonable (to me) that they should have been encouraged to take those courses, or at least been given some option to retake that 7th or 8th grade test (to see if they could qualify for AP math later on). Usually, students are forced to learn something. Here they wanted to learn something themselves. Anyway, her then math teacher flatly told the two of them that since they hadn’t made the required grade in that standardized test (which they had missed by a whisker), they would not be allowed to go on and take calculus in high school. These two begged and pleaded, and even had their parents write to request that they be allowed to take those math courses and study more, or at least be retested in order to see if they could qualify for those courses.

Close, but no cigar. The teacher stuck to her guns (and rules) and declared that they would not be allowed to take those math courses in high school, since that is what the rules said. So finally the two of them had to go sleepwalk through “simpler” high school math curriculum without calculus, which were too boring and too easy for them, and did not challenge or inspire them in anyway.

Finally, when this girl ended up in college, she thought she’d try to take more advanced math courses. Because she hadn’t taken AP math and science, she didn’t get into her first choice colleges, and had to settle for a “lesser” state university (which was a good one though, in my opinion). But still, she thought she could now take some more interesting math courses. She registered for a few, only to find that the college curricula assumed substantial prior knowledge of lots of math that she’d never had (and not for lack of interest). She also found that most of the other students in that course had taken AP math/calculus in high school. So she spent a frantic semester trying to work twice as hard to learn things that the rest of them found quite basic. In the end, it turned out to be too hard to catch up. She didn’t want to take a big hit on her GPA. So instead of finally majoring in chemistry/biochemistry with a math minor (what she wanted to do, and which required quite a bit of math and calculus), she ended up with a developmental biology major. The story of her friend from school is a little different. He also struggled with some math courses in college, but he was more resolute (and loved math more), so stuck it through some very tough courses. After a few tough semesters, he finally became good at it, and eventually majored in mathematics. He loved math so much that he even went on to get a masters in math, and now works as an analyst for some company.

So the decision of a bureaucratic, uninspired teacher from 7th or 8th grade possibly changed the entire career of this girl, who now feels bitter at being denied the opportunity to learn and do what she wanted to and liked to do. Had she just been encouraged to retake a test in 7th or 8th grade, or had been allowed to take calculus in high school, it is quite possible that she would have gone on to a college of her choice, or at least majored in the subjects she wanted to, and liked the most. One single decision not made by her potentially changed her life.

And while this is a story of one particular teacher, it apparently is quite reflective of a lot of the school system here. An excessively bureaucratic, rule-obsessed system, with a huge amount of pressure on teachers to make sure the maximum number of students go through high school and get their diplomas, even if they do not learn as much. What this is doing though is two things. (i) It produces a number of students who go on to college (and are interested in college), but are ill equipped to handle a lot of college courses (which they might be interested in) and (ii) it also potentially produces an even larger number of students who, thanks to diluted educational standards, will never be able to go through college at all.

It is a shame though that a university system that is exceptional overall has to be fed by a school system that really leaves so much to be desired. The university system (particularly advanced or graduate education) is therefore partly forced to rely too much on imported foreign students (the school system alone isn’t responsible for so many foreign students, but I believe it does play a big part in it). Secondly, it isn’t fair to burden the university system (which by definition should strive for excellence) with teaching students basic subject concepts that should have been handled in high school or earlier.

And if we flash to the current presidential election, both candidates have only given lip-service to the educational system, and promoting “science and math”. Look deeper, and both of them have no ideas or real desire to really try to fix anything (or perhaps Barak does, but then focuses too much of his plan on hiring more teachers, and very little on educational standards and educational choices themselves).

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Remembering Zion

The Zion national park in Utah is breathtaking, by every definition of the word. The red cliffs and mountains rise rapidly all around you, and the Virgin river looks placid enough, but was in fact responsible for those massive canyons and “narrows”. The place is absolutely perfect for some spectacular hikes, on trails that cling tightly to one side of a mountain, while on the other side there is a few thousand foot vertical drop. This place is not for those with an uncontrollable fear of heights.

The hikes were fantastic, the river was wonderful, the water icy cold, the rocks were picturesquely jagged, and the wildlife plentiful. And the place is far out in the southwest, with the nearest decent airports hours away in Vegas or Salt Lake City. So it was a little surprising to find the place filled with visitors. Sure, it was Labor day, and there were plenty of Americans, and plenty of adventure seeking foreign nationals who live in America (such as yours truly). But what really surprised me were the number of European and Japanese tourists in the park. On the trails, the languages most frequently heard were German, German, German, English, Japanese, more German, Italian and Spanish. The Germans (and I’m including the Austrians, Swiss and sundry here) were everywhere. Break out a few kegs, and you could have early Oktoberfest.

Why Zion National Park, and why not any place else? Is there some tourism agency somewhere in Berlin or Munich or Frankfurt telling all Germans to head out to America, and while there, to make it a point to get to Zion national park?

And not surprisingly, at the more scenic view points at Bryce and at Zion, away from the harder hikes, there were plenty of Indians around, as we discerned voices in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali and Punjabi as cameras clicked away.

Zion and Bryce canyon were very contrasting in many ways. Sure, Bryce had some more impressive geological formations that ice and water (and some wind) had carved out, not least the abundance of hoodoos and natural bridges, but to me Zion had a more “intimate” feel to it. Hiking up steep peaks or wading through the river towards the narrows seems like a timeless pleasure. But after a while of looking at gargantuan grand natural amphitheaters or massive canyons, you can actually tire of them. I love the Grand Canyon, and was suitably impressed by it, but have tired of it after a couple of visits. Bryce gave me the same feeling. But I cannot say the same of Zion. It is a place well worth visiting repeatedly, with something new to discover each time.

The National Park Service was at its best at Zion. The park was as well maintained as could be (given the sizeable number of tourists), and the shuttle service around the park was great. I can only imagine the nightmare the cars that crisscrossed the park before the shuttle service was established must have caused. Now all you need to do to get around the park is to hop on a shuttle and head out towards the next sight or hike. But what was really impressive was the design of the visitor center. It blended perfectly with the mountains all around. Importantly, it had been designed to minimize its energy requirements and consumption. The building had large cooling towers on all sides, which would cool air as it brought the air in, hence keeping the building cool (and it can get pretty hot down there). For heating during the cold winters, the long, south facing roof panels could trap solar heat, and warm the inner rooms. And the building maximized natural lighting as well. The landscaping around the park avoided lawns and water-pools and instead used only native plants. That meant that most of the landscaping around the visitor center needed little or no care or watering, but the plants thrived in the unique climate of the region. “Appropriate” can be used as a dull and boring adjective. But in this case, the visitor center was appropriate, and anything but dull. Since conservation is at the core of the park service, it was gladdening to see the message being implemented, and so elegantly at that.

We discovered that great pizza can indeed be found in pizzerias in the unlikeliest of small towns, even if they are not called Papa Del’s or aren’t located in Urbana, Illinois. The little town of Springdale, right outsize the park entrance, is about as touristy as it can get. There are some delightfully eclectic stores or historic inns amidst a mix of outrageously overpriced restaurants and souvenir stores. While wandering around looking for some decent and affordable food, we came across the uninspiringly named Pizza & Noodles (a pizza and pasta bar), and entered it expecting pizza mediocrity. Instead, we found an outstanding assortment of gourmet pizzas, and our taste buds exploded as the crust and toppings touched our tongues. The pizzas were superb, and there were more vegetarian options here than I had ever seen (perhaps catering to those eco-conscious vegetarian Germans?). It was well worth our time and money (cash and check only, no credit cards please).

This is more a general observation than anything else, but why are national parks filled with people who are mostly white or Japanese (with a smattering of Indian or Chinese visitors)? In most national parks I’ve visited across the country, there seem to be a few Hispanic visitors, and fewer African-American visitors. Any conspiracy theories out there?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Book review: Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture

Warning: This book might be dangerous. It has the capacity to make the reader think.

When I was a kid growing up in India, it was some sort of dream of mine to have my own little secret chemistry lab. There were all these stories in books about kids having their secret dens in their basement, where they made fascinating discoveries or invented cool compounds. Except there were two small problems; we didn’t have a basement (or too many extra rooms) and, more importantly, there was no such thing as a “home chemistry set” to be found in any store in India. So it was with absolute wonder that I imagined every smart or curious kid in the US to be working away into the night in his or her own little lab.

Of course, I learnt that it wasn’t really true. But it certainly was true that at least till the eighties many, many kids in the States got a home chemistry set as a Christmas or birthday present sometime in their lives. And many of them had the time of their lives creating colorful solutions, horrible stinks or flashing explosions, even as they learnt the scientific method and gained a love for chemistry. Somehow, this love for “do-it-yourself” science died in the US in more recent times. Perhaps it was because companies became too worried about liability issues that could come from some kid getting injured. Perhaps it was because the state became a big nanny, and people live in constant fear about the next potential chemical weapons attack. Perhaps because of this it became harder to get chemicals. Or perhaps it was because of all these reasons and more. Anyway, the concept of home chemistry kits was slowly lost, and that sadly might have killed the potential scientist in many a kid.

But it looks like there have remained some die hard enthusiasts of home chemistry experiments, and Robert Thomson, the author of the “Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture” must be amongst the foremost enthusiasts of those. In writing this book, he has thought through every little detail to help anyone, from a high school student to the adult diehard, in establishing a complete, very effective home chemistry lab.

In a world where everything comes in a nicely over-wrapped package, Thomson doesn’t expect you to rely on any kit. On the contrary, he points out how most of the kits out in the market presently have been dumbed down to ridiculous proportions, and also avoid selling any chemical that could be slightly toxic or dangerous (which pretty much leaves only salt and sugar to sell). The book starts with the very basics; the equipment you need, the space you’ll need, and the source for chemicals, and goes through seventeen comprehensive chapters of chemistry. There are simple chapters on making and separating solutions, chapters covering important chemistry basics like redox reactions or acid-base reactions, chapters on chemical stoichiometry and then electro and photochemistry, qualitative and quantitative analysis and finally even a pure fun chapter on forensic chemistry. In all of these chapters, Thomson has been very meticulous in explaining basic chemistry concepts (using simple definitions and very effective examples), providing details on the equipment, and finally, some excellent experimental details. The first chapter draws you right into the book, as Thomson explains how he became interested in home chemistry. He describes how to convert anything, from a kitchen to a garage, into a suitably safe and convenient chemistry lab. And then he provides plenty of information on obtaining equipment and reagents that are surprisingly extremely cheap. I was very surprised not just at how many chemicals I could get at the local pharmacy or hardware store, but at how pure many of them were. Many of them were an order of magnitude cheaper than the stuff my own lab buys from Fisher and Sigma-Aldrich, but just about as pure. Perhaps I should tell our lab manager to get our stuff from the retail market. Home chemistry can be very effective and very cheap. And he also makes sure to tell you how you can get stuff that is safe, and will not get you into trouble with paranoid agents. Importantly, Thomson tells you how to avoid serious trouble by avoiding any discussion of making stuff that could blow up (which is a little bit of a pity, since some of the most fun science experiments start or end with a pop and some nasty smells sure to amuse kids).

Thomson also is very clear in telling you how easy it is to hurt yourself (or someone else) by not taking the right precautions at home, and then goes on to tell you the precautions you should take for a safe working environment. Home science is a serious pursuit, but while you have to be careful, you can and should have fun doing it. Thomson remembers that throughout the book. I was particularly pleased with his emphasis on good book keeping, and the importance of a record notebook. Without carefully recording experimental detail and results, science quickly deteriorates from reproducibility and substance to entertaining but irreproducible anecdote.

This book is almost a must have for a high school chemistry enthusiast (any AP Chemistry major), but will work just as well for any kid with a love for experiments, or the adult who has time for a hobby and a passion for science. There’s a lot of learning to be had by doing experiments yourself. This is a book that should be whole-heartedly recommended, and is something I hope many high school chemistry teachers will adopt enthusiastically in their classes. It is also my dearest hope that this book reaches India, and at least some school teachers there get their hand on it. It is a book that can actually make you think.

If you are one of those closet home chemists, this is the book for you. Go get it. Meanwhile, I’m off to observe some copper turning turquoise blue due to oxidation.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Postdoc personalities

Life in science isn’t a bed of roses, and being a postdoc is hard enough as it is. So it is important to keep one’s spirit up, particularly during the long phases of hard work without successful (read “publishable”) results. As in any other workplace though, your general contentment level is influenced by the people around you, especially your peers. Postdocs come in all shapes, sizes and characters, but there are a few character types you want to avoid hanging out with (even if you are one of them), in order to remain sane and content. Surprisingly, like most normal people, postdocs too fit into some characteristic groups (including those you want to avoid). So here are some of the classes of postdocs whom I do my best to avoid (and hope never to become).

The arrogant prick: Unfortunately, this class of postdoc isn’t too uncommon.
This class has two subtypes, (a) the “publication snob” and (b) the “research snob”. The publication snob is the person who thinks anything published in journals other than Cell, Science or Nature is worthless, and tells you exactly how worthless it is every time you see them. This is even if you have just published a very nice piece of work in a “lesser” journal, and (s)he knows about it. Yet, worse than journal snobs are research snobs. These people think the only interesting/important/cool/spectacular research in the world is being done in their lab, and more importantly is being done by them. Everyone else is just wasting taxpayer resources and chemicals. The research snob talks to you with a condescending sneer, and feigns politeness when you talk to him/her about your work, pretending to listen, and then shrugging in a knowing manner while asking you what the big deal is. There is only one person worse than a research snob. That person is a journal AND research snob, and, unfortunately, there are plenty of those as well.

The radiator of negativity™: This class of postdoc must be avoided at all costs. If you see one of them, turn and run the other way. If they see you turning and running, pretend you have forgotten something or have to get back to an experiment (use a timer), and still run. Because, if you spend any time conversing with them, they will effortlessly leave you suicidal. These people ooze out negativity, making everything around them miserable even if you’ve been feeling perfectly happy before seeing them. Here’s a hypothetical sample conversation with a radiator of negativity™.

“Hey, what’s up? Things going well? How’s research and the job search?”

“Not really. I’m stuck working on some papers for publication”

“Isn’t that good?”

“No. They aren’t going to be Cell papers, which means they won’t get me a job, which means I’ve wasted the past five years. This area of research has no future.”

Now you get defensive and worried and say “That’s not really true, is it? You can do good work that isn’t published in Cell and still find a job”, and wonder about that postdoc’s area of research (which you think is pretty hot).

“Not really. Even if the work is good, it doesn’t matter. The system sucks, and there aren’t any jobs out there. Anyway, no one here helps you get a job. What’s the use of working for a famous PI if I can’t find a job. But they don’t help you find a job at all.” moans Negativity, thus in one single stroke making you feel your work is useless, hate your chosen job, your research area, your boss, your institution and also filling your mind with dark thoughts for the future. You are convinced that there is no future and you should have become that doctor your parents always wanted you to be. Meanwhile, Mr/Ms. Negativity walks away without the slightest hint that those words have left your mind in a maelstrom.

The irrevocably depressed: This class of postdoc is only a little better than the radiator of negativity. This person has a naturally depressive personality, and is him/herself easily depressed. It hasn’t helped his/her cause that the past 3 years of ceaseless toil have yielded poor rewards. Which means this person is perennially suicidal. A conversation with this person will be something like this:

“Hey, what’s up? How’s work?”

Deep sigh. “It’s tough. This project isn’t going anywhere. But the boss wants this work done right now. But what’s the use of doing this? It’ll get me nowhere. It’s too late for me now. I don’t know what I’ll do. I can never get a job.” Pause. Another deep sigh. “But you’re ok. You are still young.”

You are left feeling absolutely terrible for that person, and then panic sets in as you start worrying about yourself.

The insane workaholic: This class of postdoc is pure intimidation. This postdoc works 16 hour days seven days a week, juggling 6 experiments every day. His/her eyes are bleary, with dark circles around them. You don’t know when (or if) he/she eats or sleeps. Wears the same sweatshirt almost everyday. One day he/she mentions to you that his/her weekend was very relaxing. It was the first weekend in three years that this person had taken off.

And you wonder if that is what’s needed in order to succeed. Is life as a successful scientist really that hard?

There’s plenty of pressure as it is in being a postdoc. There’s no need to be in any of these classes, making every one around you unhappy. Some people hate happy campers, and wonder how some people can remain reasonably happy always, through ups and downs at work. But I love them, and wish more postdocs were like that. A dash of positivity, a little bit of humility, the ability to laugh off mistakes, and finding time to relax. Just give me enough of that and the postdoc life will remain a lot of fun.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Wall-E thoughts

This isn’t a review, but there are some spoilers here. Hopefully nothing here will hurt your movie experience, but perhaps give you some food for thought.

I’ve often thought that the best thing George Lucas did was not making Star Wars or Indiana Jones, but setting up a dedicated “special effects” computer group. This little group would go on to become Pixar, the studio that redefines animation and graphics while still telling great stories. With every movie of theirs you wonder what could be better and yet (almost) every time they manage to deliver cinematic classics. From monsters in the closet to lost fish, wannabe normal superheroes, rat chefs and now an amazing robot, they continue to spin visually incredible yarns that defy imagination and dare you to expect more in the next installment. With Wall-E they’ve done it again, and have really gone where no robot has gone before. The movie is breathtaking, brilliant and pushes the boundaries of what is possible on screen when you have a great story, scriptwriters and brilliant animators.

Now, one of the great things about Pixar is that along with the story, they take serious pride in the thoroughness of their research, and their content is impeccable. Where ever there is some actual science or detail involved, they invariably try to get it right. This was on particular display in Nemo, and every frame of every scene at the bottom of the ocean was painstakingly created to real detail. It wasn’t just the general feel of it, but Pixar had taken the effort to determine exactly which species of fish or crustacean or mollusk or coral or anemone could exist in that particular ecosystem, and then the drawings of each of those were perfect. It wasn’t just the sharks who were drawn right.

There were plenty of brilliant bits in The Incredibles, but that was a superhero flick, so there could be plenty of liberties with science (while trying not to break all the laws of nature at once). But with Wall-E, Pixar has gone back to its Star War roots, and classic science fiction. Here’s the movie in a nutshell. Humans have made the earth uninhabitable, so they leave and live somewhere in distant space on a giant starship. The earth has robots (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, or Wall-Es) to clean it up, but all of them have now been inactivated. All except one, our hero Wall-E. He is some kind of self-teaching and constantly learning robot whose primary job is to pick up trash, compact it and pile it up. 700 years after humans have left the planet, a scout robot (Eve) comes to earth looking for signs of recovering life, meets Wall-E, sparks (literally) fly, and we have a delightfully eccentric intergalactic robot love story. But even as I left the cinema thoroughly satisfied, the scientist in me started talking in my head. Had there really been a robot named Wall-E left behind on earth, while people spent their time on a starship in space, what would things be like? Could it really be like the movie?

First, the earth itself. Now, in the movie the random abandoned city on a plant-less earth is depicted in dusty reddish hues (perhaps a little tribute to Tatooine, and a somewhat Martian landscape). There are plenty of dust storms to go around. But here’s my thought. If the world is good enough for cockroaches (as the movie says it is), it may not be good enough for us or other large animals, but it certainly will be good enough for microbes. Gazillions of them. And where there’s life on earth, there will be some photosynthesis. This means even if there aren’t too many plants around, there will be photosynthetic microbes. This in turn means the world wouldn’t just be a dry, dusty brown, but would have some shades of green, with polluted water all around. Wouldn’t it?

Then there’s Wall-E himself. I loved the way the creators of the movie made little things about Wall-E plausible. He needs energy, and the sun is the obvious inexhaustible source, so he has nice retractable solar panels (much like the Mars rover) to charge up when he’s running low. And the city is littered with tons of decommissioned Wall-Es, so Wall-E can go to any of them for spares or repairs (from new “eyes” to new caterpillar tracks). Obviously, he’s going to have wear and tear over 700 years. But how does his memory/cpu work perfectly for 700 years. My desktop has a habit of dying every couple of years, so clearly Wall-E wasn’t made in some low-cost mass fabrication plant. Either that, or Wall-E needs to be able to repair and replace his own memory or cpu by himself, figuring out a way to backup and retransfer all the data (so that he remembers he’s the Wall-E and not just some generic wall-e). How does he pull that off?

The world of instant gratification on the starship had massively obese people shuttling around on their little pods, and communicating exclusively through the virtual screen. Obviously, centuries of living without any walking would result in massive obesity. What was far more delightful was the description of massive bone loss and bone shrinkage from the limbs of these people. But how much bone would we loose if we don’t walk for 700 years? Will we (as the valiant captain of the ship does) even be able to lift our body mass, leave alone walk? And, ahem, if people never physically interact, how do babies come? And here’s a question for you. Can you use a fire extinguisher in outer space to propel yourself forward? And how long will a plant survive in the frigid temperatures of outer space?

Finally, most of the imaginary technology on display in the movie was brilliant. The details on the starship were spectacular, and those little pods which the people lived on were fantastic. But why did Wall-E, back on earth, have a betamax VCR and a cassette (Hello Dolly!) from the 60s? Wouldn’t he have an abandoned DVD player or something instead? There must be some story behind this, so will one of the creators of the movie tell us?

There are only a few movies out there which have scenes in them filled with such lush detail of imaginary worlds, but Wall-E enthralls you in almost every scene, leaving you to ponder a thousand little questions. Perhaps that’s why it isn’t surprising that this is the first movie in a long time that left me with so many thoughts after the movie.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go see the movie, and come up with your own questions.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A fortune in the attic?

When I first came to the land of liberty, I discovered something rather quickly. There is a ton of “junk” here in this country that is perfectly good and useable, and which would be very valuable to lots of people around the world.

This astute observation was made on my second day in the States, when I was in the balcony of my apartment, observing the trash dumpsters visible from there. Two college kids were moving out of their apartment, and by the time they left, they had left behind an old (but working) television set, two excellent lamps, an old (and working) microwave, and some still useable furniture. I was astounded by the fact that these seemingly useful things would just be left behind. No one threw away furniture or *gasp* a television set. If you had an old TV and wanted a new one, you took the old one to the store, and the store owner would take your old one and give you a new one with a 15% discount. That was how you upgraded electronics.

And that was when I learnt one of the first rules of living in a consumer paradise. In order to live the American life, one had to buy lots of stuff continuously, but remember to upgrade constantly, and get rid of the old stuff. There is a sequence to getting rid of the old stuff as well. First it goes into the closet, then it moves into your garage, and finally it goes into the dumpster.

Not too long after that, I learnt that there was a corollary to this rule. If you happened to forget to clean out your garage, and kept your old stuff really long (say till you had grandkids), that stuff (actually useless in the modern world) would suddenly become valuable.

Only, instead of calling it junk, you would now call it a “collector’s item”, and you could sell it on eBay for a small but tidy fortune. What’s more, you can pass of just about anything as an antique or even better, a classic, on eBay. There are actually people here who will pay m-o-n-e-y to buy your old trash.

And this means there is a slim chance that I might have a fortune in my hands. And I have to thank my dad for this. Here’s why. My father had always been an enthusiastic adopter of technology, and eagerly bought the latest and best in electronics in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In his possession are 30 year old typewriters made by Brother, or a fine collection of LP record albums, or better still, an 8 mm and 16 mm film projector (and 8mm films), or a spool audio recorder. And all of them have been used but stored in perfect working order in their original packaging. The last time I looked, people were selling “vintage” 8 mm film projectors for $125 or thereabouts. The typewriter sold for $50 or more.

Add all of these together, and there’s a small fortune waiting for me, all tucked away in some shelf somewhere in our home back in India.

There used to be a time when I made fun of my parents storing their old and used electronics. I take all of that back, and hope they keep it safe and sound so that I can sell them all after another 10 years, by which time they will be absolutely and completely useless, and worth a fortune.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Where fanatism takes us, and a new SciFi story contest

For your viewing pleasure, a video from one of Carl Sagan's shows.

While some religions pretend today that there was never any wanton destruction of knowledge or (different) thought because of their "peaceful" message (and other religions still continue to unleash violence in the name of eternal peace), ALL organized religion has always been guilty of fanatism. There is much for us to remember in Sagan's words here.


And here's an announcement. Selva, who blogs at The Scian has announced the Scian Science Fiction short story contest.

Go on, take up that pen (or keyboard) and start working on your SciFi masterpiece.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Another edition of Pragati out

The June issue of Pragati, the excellent monthly Indian National Interest Review, is out. There's plenty of outstanding reading material there. Amongst the articles is a book review by me, adapted from an older post of mine, on the traditions of recording history in South India (the book is "Textures of Time"). This present version is more polished and concise (and adapted to a magazine format), and might be more entertaining reading.

Anyway, go here to download and read the latest excellent issue from Nitin Pai and co.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mind reading, big pictures and little details

The one thing about being a postdoc is that you’re no longer green behind the ears, and have developed somewhat of a decent bullshit detector. You’re also a little less in awe of your boss or most other independent investigators. And hopefully most postdocs become rather good at reading between their lines when discussing projects or experiments with their bosses. At least, when the boss says “this won’t work”, or “just go and do this”, you don’t just take their word for this.

Here’s my thumb rule for those statements. If your boss has this really nice but far fetched idea, and is really excited about it, he/she will say “these experiments are easy, you need to go for it. All you need to do is purify a couple of proteins, throw in some reaction mixtures and read your data”, you can almost be sure that the experiments will involve about two years of backbreaking work involving 16 hour workdays that go on for months, and plenty of labor in the 4 degree cold room. On the other hand, if you go up to your boss and discuss a proposal/idea you have come up with and the boss says “that’s way too hard, and I don’t think it’s going to work”, it means (a) the boss isn’t really interested in that idea but wants you to work on his/her crazy idea (see above) or (b) hasn’t really thought much about it since you are the one who has come up with the idea or (c) both.

One sometimes wishes for those early days as a rookie graduate student, in awe of the boss, naïve, gullible and completely willing to try the most insane or undoable experiments possible as a thesis project, only because the boss is such a famous scientist, he/she has to be right.


On a related note, you can safely assume the thumb rule that any senior investigator who is exceptionally creative with big picture ideas (and who hasn’t done benchwork for 20 odd years) is going to propose the maximum number of “that’s easy” experiments that hang on a slender thread of a hypothesis (the kind that goes “if this were true, then this and this and this will be true, and so this story will be awesome”. Except that the very first “if this were true” is a big if). You’re also certain to be doomed to some years of crazy and hard experiments that are going to tell you that the first “if” is false.


The phenomenal growth of molecular biology through the nineties and now the past ten years has made many biological experiments amazingly easier, and I’m very grateful for that. But I think it has done enormous damage to good, quantitative biochemistry (and biology in general).

The beauty about a lot of modern molecular biology is that it is carried out using kits made by companies, which the average trained monkey can execute. You don’t need to know most of how it works. Also, the reagents and kits have been made so good that you don’t even have to worry too much about being quantitative in your experiments. They’ll usually work (somewhat). You can throw in a little bit of an enzyme or lots of it, or a little bit of salt or lots of it, use approximate concentrations and approximate conditions and still the experiment works. Here’s a real example. Set up a PCR reaction with a Taq polymerase kit, good primers and a plasmid template. Now spit into that reaction tube, double the volume of the reaction with your saliva, and then start the reaction. I can pretty much guarantee that the reaction will still work.

What this oversimplification of molecular biology has done is it’s created (or is creating) a pretty large number of extremely sloppy biochemists. I see far too many undergraduates or graduate students who (a) don’t really understand the concept of molarity, normality, salt concentrations, pH, metal or buffer effects and (b) also think that just because they think it doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t matter. For example, they think that they can purify a protein on an ion-exchange column using either a 100 mM sodium chloride solution or a 200 mM sodium chloride solution and it won’t matter much. Or their buffer can be at a pH of 6 or 7 or 8 and their protein will show the same activity. And most of them don’t think pH meters need to be calibrated (and don’t know how to calibrate it anyway).

All of this, combined with the extreme confidence of today’s kids, makes for very interesting presentations in student seminars where they show rubbish experiments, and then authoritatively state “I think our hypothesis is wrong” followed by “this company that supplies us with X reagent sucks. My experiment didn’t work because I think the reagent has gone bad”.

If you’re going to make a statement like that, you need to back it up with data. But who needs data these days?

We need some more hardass investigators, who won’t be scared to crack the whip.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Enjoying science podcasts

Ok, I've been very slow to jump onto the podcast bandwagon, mostly because I rarely use my mp3 player these days. I also didn't think I'd be able to pay attention to the podcasts while doing other things, and thought I'd hear about important science breakthroughs anyway, and would rather read the paper.

I'll have to eat those thoughts.

The podcasts from Cell, Science and Nature are superb. I've just come to the conclusion that they are a great way to find out about some of the latest breakthroughs in diverse areas of science. I used to be very good at at least scanning through the latest issues of all three magazines, and a few more, but sometimes it is hard to keep up with them all. The podcasts compile some neat work not just from the main journals, but also from other "family" journals (for example, the Cell podcast includes some interesting stories from Molecular Cell or Cell Metabolism etc).

And they are perfect to listen to in the lab, while number crunching on the computer, or catching up on email, or while doing trained monkey experiments like plasmid preps.

I'm hooked.

This week's Nature podcast in particular is fascinating, with everything from PZ talking about squid eyes to economist Jeffery Sachs and the "crowded planet challenge". Go read.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The beauty of compromise

Too many things have kept me away from regular blogging, so apologies to you all. I prefer posting essays, all of which take time to write (and so often remain unwritten, and unposted). Perhaps a better strategy would be to post shorter (but hopefully still sufficiently interesting posts), trying to post longer articles when time permits. Lets see how that goes.


Meanwhile, here's a superb essay by one of India's foremost contemporary historians, Ramachandra Guha. Here he explores some of South Asia's well known conflicts; in Kashmir, in Nagaland, the formation of Bangladesh, the Narmada movement, and the Sri Lankan civil war, and shows how inflexibility and dogmatism of contending parties have dragged on and amplified disputes. Here's an excerpt:

Now, a group of engineers based in Pune advocated a compromise solution. Given that the dam had already come up to a height of about 260 feet, clearly it could not be stopped. But its negative effects could be minimized. Thus, the Pune engineers had designed a model of a dam smaller than that originally envisaged. The reduction in height would greatly reduce the area to be submerged, yet retain many of the benefits that were to accrue from the dam. The drought-prone regions of Kutch and Saurashtra would still get water. At the same time, many fewer families would be displaced.

Unfortunately, the compromise was rejected both by the Gujarat Government and by the NBA. The former insisted that the dam had to be built to its originally sanctioned height of 456 feet. The latter insisted that the dam must be brought down. As the Andolan's slogan went, 'Kohi Nahi Hatega! Baandh Nahin Banega!' (No one will leave their homes, for the dam will not be built). But a good chunk of the dam had already been built. Hundreds of tons of concrete had already been poured into its foundations. And thousands of families had already been displaced.

While the ability to compromise will certainly not guarantee results or solutions, it is often undervalued by too many policy makers or leaders. Anyway, get your cup of coffee, sit down and read the complete essay here. It is well worth your time.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Book review: HomeSpun

It is hard to resist the lure of a sepia tinted book cover with a black and white photograph of a couple with that glazed, nostalgic look on their eyes. The cover almost suggested something vintage, perhaps timeless. That was more than enough for me to start reading HomeSpun, by the debutante novelist Nilita Vachani.

The book starts with the death of Nanaji, and a scene of mourning. And just like that, you plunge into the lives of different families, and a story of different ideologies, of conflict and reconciliation, love, relationships, marriage and death, all narrated by Sweta Kalra, while the characters slowly emerge as the chapters roll on. Parallel stories develop, all of which you know are interconnected through Sweta. And while the book starts with tragedy, and has plenty of tragedy within, it takes us for a ride without plunging into darkness or depression.

The book is part coming of age, part exploring the complexities of human relationships, part conflict, and part exploring the idiosyncrasies of human nature. There is the story of Nanaji, and his struggles as a revolutionary and freedom fighter fighting against the British for an independent India. He tries to live an extremely principled life, following the idealistic example set by Mahatma Gandhi. The problems of the world and day-to-day life remain somehow esoteric to his mind. Yet his wife, Naneeji, is a polar opposite. She loves her jewellery and silk, and she wants herself and their kids to lead a good, comfortable life, the life she believes that a senior government official (which is what Nanaji becomes after independence) should live. Their lives are spent in open conflict, sometimes bitter, sometimes petty. You know their every relationship is strained. Yet the book starts off with Naneeji wailing and bemoaning the loss of her “wonderful” husband.

Then there is the story of the Kalras, most importantly Ranjit “Ronu” Kalra. His father is a sub-inspector of police. Sub-inspector (later superintendent) Kalra could be described with clichés like conscientious, simple, earthy. The apple of inspector Kalra and his wife’s eyes is their son, Ranjit. A chance encounter with a film producer, who happens to adore Ranjit’s curly 5-year old locks, changes Ranjit’s life forever. He goes on to become the greatest child star of the black-and-white era transitioning between silent movies and sound dubbing. And while Ranjit’s brief celluloid career takes off, the author gives us a hilarious and fascinating view of the film (“phillum”) industry of the time, filled with histrionics and glycerine, political sensitivities, charlatans and bigger-than-life characters. Ranjit’s career as India’s favorite kid ends abruptly with him growing up, but his childhood stardom stays with him for life, and in a strange way directs his fate as an adult. In this mix enters Anamika (Anu) Reza, a spirited teenager, Ranjit’s first girlfriend and true love. Their lives entwine, and they go through passion and longing and separation. Both characters are immensely likeable, yet as different as chalk and cheese. Ranjit is almost immediately endearing. He has the burden of having to grow up as a former child star, and yet remains shy and simple. He’s one of those people who may have dreams, yet lives by avoiding conflict, and trying to keep everyone happy, never confronting tradition. Just by being with the fiery, modern and liberal Anu throws him into a cauldron of thoughts and conflicting emotions. When the time comes for him to make his decisions, he is unable to go with his dreams. His father decides his future, and soon Ranjit heads off to join the air force to become a pilot he would never have become on his own. In contrast Anu’s life, just like her, remains turbulent and feisty and fiercely independent, and she lives on her own terms without holding regrets.

In between all these stories is the pivotal subplot of a small but important character, Ranajit’s friend and fellow officer, Dusty, and the war with Pakistan. And then there is Sweta herself, mostly as a frumpy, slightly overweight but bright and curious girl, with usual and atypical growing up problems. There is her relationship with her beloved Nanaji, and Nanaji, or her mother, and most importantly, Anu.

The author, Vachani, takes us through a whole panorama of events and emotions, and the story progresses beautifully through the last days before independence, the turbulent fifties and sixties, and more contemporary India in the seventies or eighties. We start with tragedy and the death of Nanaji, and as the book progresses, the different stories interweave, interspersed with gentle or dramatic twists. “Homespun” is almost a perfect title for the book, the elaborate plot weaves through a post-independence middle/upper middle class India, and the lives of characters you understand and empathize with, or often relate to. And every one of the characters is beautifully developed and utterly believable. In between the characters, the author explores the myths and stories that we hear about the freedom struggle, or the war with Pakistan (through Anu); myths that are almost always rosy. What lies beneath those tales? Who actually won the war? How many people died? And how did they die? My only complaint with the book was the way the relationship of Anu and Sweta develops, and the slightly predictable direction it heads towards. But that is just a minor quibble with what was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and just the kind of story that will make a terrific movie.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Encouraging women in science

There’s been plenty of talk about difficulties women in (academic) science face, and how there are very few women scientists at senior positions in academia in most universities. Most major research universities now admit that there are difficulties women face in research that have nothing to do with their scientific abilities. Subsequently, most universities now say they are actively trying to rectify this, and look to hire more talented female faculty. Departments try to have career workshops for female graduate students and postdocs to encourage them to stay in academia, there are endless efforts to recruit more female students and so on.

All this is well and good, but are there some really simple things that universities could do to rectify this that aren’t in the spotlight? From what I can see, at least in the greater biological/biomedical/biochemical sciences there are plenty of female graduate students (approximately a 1:1 male: female ratio). This more or less remains when you start off as a postdoc (a few years of postdoctoral work is pretty much required before you can get that assistant professor position). But by the time you look at senior postdocs or junior faculty (3-4 years down the line from a starting postdoc), there are far more men than women. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that most women have kids between their late twenties and mid thirties. That’s when they are most likely to be in the early-middle stages of their postdoc. There’s nothing new in this statement, we all know it, as do most universities. So a number of universities now say that they are working towards policies that make it easier for women postdocs or junior faculty to have kids.

But I was quite unaware of how bad the present policies are though until recently, when I was chatting with a postdoc friend of mine who is pregnant. Now, the three things that will make it easier for a female postdoc to have a baby are (1) the ability to easily take time off/maternity leave (2) the financial means to afford a baby (those things are expensive) and (3) a good medical insurance policy that would cover most of the massive medical expenses having a kid incurs.

Unfortunately, apparently most major research universities still have lousy policies for all three of those. Here’s how it works. Most institutes have a policy stating that a female employee cannot be fired if she decides to have a baby, and also that she will be allowed to take the required time off post childbirth. That’s the good part. But here’s how the fine print goes. The only paid leave the person is allowed to take is the leave that she has accrued over the year. Postdocs (at least here) are technically allowed to take 12 days of vacation time, and week of sick leave a year, and there’s no roll-over policy for holidays not taken during previous years. So that gives a grand total of less than three weeks off. There isn’t a concept of overtime/leave accrual for working weekends; all you can get credit for is if you work on public holidays (probably half a dozen for the year). That’s it. Subsequently, if you need more time off, you can take unpaid leave for a maximum of 12 weeks.

You might argue that the option of taking unpaid leave for 12 weeks should be sufficient; after all, you shouldn’t be paid for not working. That’s ok, except that the salaries/fellowships of postdocs aren’t that high in the first place (some might call it unreasonably low). So, since you’re paid a pittance for endless hours as it is, the least you might hope for is continuing to get that salary while having a baby, so that you can take care of points (2) and (3), the financial details.

Which leads to point (3), medical insurance. A lot of postdoc researchers in the greater biological sciences work in premier medical schools/centers across the country. An outsider might be tempted to assume that medical costs for an employee of a medical center would at least be subsidized. Invariably that isn’t the case at all. Students and postdocs usually are offered a mediocre insurance policy, fine for minor ailments, but not that great for extended medical care. Most postdoc policies pay only about 75% of the medical costs (and the remaining 25% runs into thousands of dollars). Students or postdocs don’t get any benefits even if they choose to get their treatment from the same medical center they work in.

Sucks, doesn’t it?

These seem like rather obvious reason why a lot of women decide against plunging into academic scientific research careers, when just about any job in industry or even teaching offers better policies and benefits. Here’s one suggestion for NIH. Come up with a policy that states that all female postdocs who have their salaries paid by NIH grants must get 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, and flexible work-hours for 6 months after returning to work. And universities can start coughing up a little bit of money on better health insurance policies. Finally, it makes no sense for universities with major medical centers not providing any subsidized health care to their own postdocs and students in their own medical centers.

Obviously, this alone isn’t going to create a flood of female scientists wanting to spend their lives in academia, but I think it certainly might help.

Now these suggestions are fairly simple and easy to implement. So, if it is that simple, why hasn’t it been implemented yet? And I’m familiar with policies only in a handful of universities in the US. What’s it like in other schools? Other countries?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Rejection letter

(Hopefully this will be a prelude to more regular blogging)

I just got back from an excellent seminar by Randy Sheckman. Before he started talking about his research, he commented on how some people react angrily upon receiving rejection letters from editors of journals who decide not to publish their research (Sheckman is now chief editor of PNAS). And then he put up a slide with what must be the ultimate response to an unfavorable review, and had us in splits.

Sheckman attributed this priceless quote to George Bernard Shaw (though I googled it to discover that it was Max Reger who wrote this letter to a music critic). Anyway, here’s the quote, the all time best response to a rejection letter.

“I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.”

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Goodbye Arthur C. Clarke

(Apologies for the infrequent posts, and this may continue for the next couple of months. But I’ll post when I can)

Arthur C. Clarke’s death yesterday didn’t really come as a shock or surprise to me. The man was over 90 years old, so it was time. But his death did trigger some fond memories of his books, and the influence they had on me.

I got introduced to science fiction probably in my very early teens. But that was mostly through the “classic” science fiction writers, like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Verne in particular was (and remains) a huge favorite of mine. His stories were all about adventure, and to a teenager with an over imaginative mind, little could be more exciting than going off to the center of the earth or crossing oceans in a sea-monster shaped submarine. But somewhere around then, I decided that I wanted to read some novels where there was more science. At the time “cool” science meant space, so I wanted something to read that had space in it. Science fiction used to be hard to come by in those days, but luckily for me my school had a library well stocked with fiction. While rummaging through the shelves of books there, I came across a hardcover book which had a picture of a meteor and some planets in the background, with the irresistibly intriguing title of The Hammer of God. Pretty soon I was devouring the story, and I vividly remember being rather taken in by the Indian theme that ran in the background. A meteor named Kali bound to destroy earth seemed particularly apt. But I was more struck by the fact that many of the characters seemed to be of Indian origin (the hero of that novel was Robert Singh). That was perhaps the first time I had read a book by a non-Indian author where important characters had Indian names, but more importantly, their nationality didn’t matter. In other books by western authors, if at all there was a character with an Indian name, that character would be particularly Indian and often pander to some stereotype. But here the nationality or ethnic origin didn’t matter. The person just happened to have an Indian name, and it wasn’t the least bit odd. I thought that was just the way it should be.

That said, when I finished reading “The hammer of God” I wasn’t particularly overwhelmed. It was an interesting book, and kept me engaged through its pages, but nothing more. Still, it had been sufficiently exciting for me to want to read another book by Clarke. Rendezvous with Rama followed, and that book left me far more interested in the genre. From there it was but a few steps to exploring the worlds of Clarke, Asimov, Franz Herbert, Philip K. Dick and so many more. Science fiction became a wholly enjoyable part of my reading habits, and sometimes a valuable source of knowledge and information. And yes, I realized there was more to space than warp-speed, Captain Kirk and death-stars.

Of course, writing about Clarke without mentioning “2001: A space odyssey” is futile. Surprisingly, I’ve never read the book. Through high school and college I filled my head with trivia about the book and the movie, and the naming of HAL and whatever else, but some how never got around to reading the book. But I did see the movie in a most atypical way. Roger Ebert, the noted film critic, hosts what he calls “Ebert’s overlooked film festival” in the little college town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. In the year 2001, I actually went to this gem of a film festival, and was treated to a superb selection of films of Ebert’s choice. One of the highlights of the festival was, yes, a screening followed by a discussion of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. “Odyssey” and Urbana of course had the deepest of connections, as in the book the computer, HAL 9000, becomes operational in the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois (don’t ask me how I know that without reading the book. It is essential Odyssey trivia). I watched the movie, mesmerized, almost hypnotized by the surreal rolling colors and visuals of the movie, and the hypnotic voice of HAL 9000. In between I remembered scenes from “2010” (which I had seen earlier) and wondered about how Chandra, the Indian scientist who creates HAL, became a white dude in the movie. The discussion that followed the movie was unsurprisingly fascinating, since the room was filled with movie buffs and science and SciFi geeks, a dozen computer scientists who felt possessive about the movie (because Chandra and HAL were fictionally from Urbana-Champaign), and a benignly portly Ebert lording over all proceedings.

That was the last time I saw or read something by Clarke. I hadn’t read a book of his since then, and the only other time I thought about him was when I was with some friends and the conversation meandered towards the utility of space flights and then to how satellites (in a geosynchronous orbit) changed our world for ever. My only contribution in that discussion was that the geostationary orbit of satellites are in what is now called the Clarke belt. The man, like all great science fiction writers, was a visionary.

Today Arthur C. Clarke is dead. But thank you for playing a little role in nurturing and directing my fascination for science.