Monday, September 06, 2010

What’s next, Balancing Life?

I started blogging five years ago without knowing what blogging was. This blog started as a place where I could put up essays I wrote about various topics that interested me, and I hoped that some of them would be read, and I would get some comments and feedback that would help me clarify my own thoughts. But the experience has been way more enriching than I had ever imagined it would be. It has helped me develop my writing skills, improved my ability to think cogently and write concisely, and helped me explore complex topics. Often, diverse and contrasting opinions on the same topic have helped me reshape my own views. This blog has also strengthened my passion for writing about the various sciences, particularly about the natural world. It has been a fun ride. But I haven’t written anything on this blog for a couple of months. That’s not because I don’t have anything to write, but because I think the blog has served its purpose well. Now I’m left with the “what next” question. I don’t know the answer to that, and am still thinking about it.

The blog and its archives will remain here. And at some point of time I’ll probably start writing essays and articles on this blog again. Till then, sign up for email updates (top right side bar), and you’ll know when I start writing again. Thanks for all the fish.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

On Cretaceous beds, dinosaur fossils, the formation of the Indian subcontinent and geology in India

Some weeks ago I had a wonderful discussion with Suvrat, who has rapidly uplifted the quality of discussion on geological/earth sciences, paleontology, evolution and whatnot. My own interest in the geological sciences came through an interest in paleontology which comes from a serious interest in and study of evolution. So it is an absolute pleasure to discuss "naive" questions on geology, different type of deposits and beds and fossils with someone who actually knows what he is talking about, and Suvrat is exactly that. For my simple (and sometimes simplistic) questions, Suvrat patiently wrote back in magnificent detail explaining and clarifying broad questions in geology (and research in those areas in India), filling his answers with personal perspective. I thought snippets of the whole thread would be of significant interest to readers of this blog who cannot but have been fascinated by dinosaurs and moving continental plates and changing worlds.

The discussion started when I wrote to him about this discovery of some fossils in India, which showed a prehistoric snake devouring dinosaur eggs. A spectacular finding, it gave a new perspective on snakes millions of years old, and how they evolved over time. Now, the fossils were discovered in Gujarat, in what are called the Lameta Formation beds. These beds were formed over 67 million years ago, in the late Cretaceous era, amongst the oldest such formations still around in south Asia. I knew nothing about this region itself, and in general the state of paleontology and geology in India and other parts of South Asia, and this piqued my interest so I asked Suvrat:

".....are there any parts of south Asia where they've found fossils and deposits from Paleozoic (particularly Cambrian) or even Precambrian eras? I'm guessing, particularly because of the climate (and geology) it might be hard to find remains and fossils from those eras. But is there anything like the Burgess shale in south Asia?........also, parts of China and Mongolia have yielded spectacular remains of Cretaceous as well as Cenozoic stuff. Do you think parts of south Asia (like the Lameta beds) might hold some treasures like those parts? Finds from here might help piece together evolutionary bits, particularly since the Indian subcontinent split off from Gondwanaland somewhere in the mid Cretaceous. So presumably (and if you're very lucky) you could find some really interesting fossils and look and see how they compare with fossils on either side of Gondwanaland and Laurasia, and stuff in between. What do you think?"

To this Suvrat patiently came up with a beautiful bite-sized "dummies" post about Cambrian and pre-Cambrian sediments in India:

".....Throughout much of the Paleozoic the Peninsular Indian continent was part of Gondwanaland, surrounded by what would become Antarctica, Australia, Africa. So there were no marine incursions and no marine sediments were deposited. So (there is) no chance of a Burgess type deposit in S. Asia. There is Cambrian sediment northwards in the Himalayas but that is crumpled and metamorphosed, so if it did contain exceptional fossil beds like Burgess, they have been destroyed.

There is plenty of Precambrian sediment all over the Indian continent. The most promising for animal fossils is the Vindhyan basin. There is Proterozoic sediment there but the Neo-Proterozoic where early animal evolution unfolded is not very well represented and has not yielded too much in terms of animal body fossils. Some tracks and trails have been found but their significance is debated. So there is some scope for further surprises there. This post give a flavor of the controversies regarding the Vindhyans.

As Gondwanaland began to split up the eastern margin of the future Indian continent rifted earlier. Here continental interior basins developed filled by fluvial sediments (a lot of India's coal is from these basins). These contain abundant plant fossils which have Gondwanaland affinities i.e. they are similar to ones found in Antarctica and Australia. So the plant fossil record does tell us about this ancient geography and evolutionary relationships of floral groups. Later the western margin of the Indian continent rifted from Africa and marine basins developed in Rajasthan, Gujarat and M.P. There is a thick Jurassic marine fill and thinner Cretaceous marine sediment. There is Cretaceous sediment is south India on the eastern margin. These deposits have been studied quite extensively and their fossil record is being studied as part of the larger paleo-geographic framework."

Coming to the spectacular fossil finds in Gujarat that the paper discusses Suvrat continues "...the Lameta are mostly marginal marine and terrestrial deposits ...the last stage of deposition in western India before the Deccan volcanism. Being terrestrial deposits the fossil record is not as rich as marine sediments since the chances of fossils getting destroyed in terrestrial settings is higher. However as the recent find shows, freakish events like mudslides, floods, river banks caving in and so on can preserve spectacular examples. So while the background rate of fossil preservation is not that good, there is always a chance of a catastrophic event entombing entire horizons.

In a sense we are lucky to have the Lameta at all. These deposits are quite thin, just a few meters of so and would have surely been completely eroded away by now. But the Deccan volcanics over much of Cenozoic have encased them in a protective shell and saved them from destruction. So a Chinese basin type preservation (in the Lameta) is not out of the question. We need to conserve whatever good localities are available for further study.

His last lines were obviously a red flag for more questions from the ever curious and persistent schoolboy (me). So I asked:
"...........Is anything like that ever likely to happen in India? For all its faults in other spheres, China has done spectacularly not only to preserve its fabulously rich geological basins (which are fossil treasure troves), and has also developed a strong community of Chinese paleontologists and geologists who are making some spectacular contributions to science. Paleontology or geology are hardly significant professions for anyone in is a "no scope" profession. Similarly, there are so many sites in the US (from the badlands in the Dakotas all the way down south to sites in Oklahoma and Texas) that have not only been reasonably well preserved, but where American geologists and paleontologists have been given unrestricted access and lots of funding to carry out their research. I'm pretty sure a researcher in India will struggle to carry out any field trips in these fields, and the Indian government can sometimes make it very difficult for foreign scientists to carry out field research in India (for various reasons). So how do you see things in India, and where do you see things going towards?"

Suvrat comes up with even more perspective, and ends on an optimistic note:
"........Over in India we have strong social pressures to take up Medicine, Engineering, MBA ...but not pure science and certainly geology ranks lower in the sciences as well. China probably has suffered less of that historically and so plenty of really bright Chinese students take up geology and the result combined with adequate government support is the world class research coming out of their labs. There may be another economic angle to this. Historically, salaries in China were more equitable across all professions (that has changed recently) ..and so a doctor in practice probably did not make that much more than a geologist teaching at a State Univ. In India there always have been great differences in income, based on profession. Geology jobs for long until recent were with the government and salaries modest. On the other hand a doctor or a lawyer or a MBA always made more money. I wrote a post sometime back speculating why Bengali geologists published more in top class research journals in sedimentary geology than other ethnicities in India, outlining some of these issues."

But then there is the key question of site preservation. Most of us know how abysmally historic sites are protected in India. Geologically/Paleontologically spectacular sites unfortunately aren't necessarily breathtakingly beautiful forests or mountains, but are often what look like "waste/fallow land". Secondly, there is a massive construction boom in India which demands both land and material (for bricks, stone etc). All of this obviously encroaches on these lands. Here is Suvrat's perspective on those sites in India:

".....those kinds of geology parks do exist in India but enforcement is non -existent. I have had two bad experiences. One in Jabalpur, coincidentally in the Lameta beds. That was during college a couple of decades ago and the outcrop already showed signs of being worn away by human activities and the threat of encroachment from slums. The second is at Gilbert Hill (Andheri) Mumbai which is a great example of columnar jointing in basalts but also is the de-facto toilet of the surrounding slums. Both sites are officially geology heritage sites but neglected. Recently there was a report on how Jurassic rocks containing fossils from the Rajmahal hills in Jharkhand are being used for construction purposes despite pleas from geologists for protecting at least part of the site. So that awareness and political clout to protect these sites as national monuments and for science just does not exist in India for now." Think about that. A magnificent and rare geological formation right in the middle of Mumbai, which, with some vision could be made into a national monument type public park! But even before that happens, the site may be lost for ever by a city with a voracious appetite.

But Suvrat ends with on an optimistic note. " ..........the good news is that geology salaries are going up. A lot of private companies in mining and petroleum are setting up shop and geologists make a good income both in production and in R and D. Add to that because of environmental concerns and groundwater in particular the need for good geology expertise is being recognized. So "saving the earth" or "save India from climate change" may be a good theme to use to educate people about the importance of geology and chip away at the age old social reluctance to see geology as a top profession and encourage bright young students to pursue it as a career."

I share some of Suvrat's optimism in that private stake holders (including big oil) have made some spectacular finds in geology, and have often worked to protect it. But will it happen in India, or will those geological and paleontological scientific treasures be lost even before they are found and studied?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Eating high fructose corn syrup makes Yogi bear.......

.......fatter than the average bear.

Apologies for that awful title that I couldn't resist.
If you are fond of sweets, chocolates, candy, cookies and ice cream, and have ever read the label for the ingredients, you must have noticed one of them, called high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). You might have wondered about it a little, or just thought that fructose is sweet like glucose, and gone on with your indulgence. HFCS has now largely replaced table sugar (or sucrose) as the main sweetener in most confectioneries sold in most stores. A huge reason for this has been the easy availability of the vast quantities of corn grown in the US, from which high fructose corn syrup is extracted, making it cheaper than sucrose. While there has been speculation for a while (and increasing correlative data) suggesting that HFCS may increase obesity or other health problems related to sugar, much of this has been decried by the food industry.

However, the data is slowly shifting towards the adverse health effects of HFCS. A recent paper in Pharmacology Biochemistry and behavior (Bocarsly et al, now suggests that HFCS causes the characteristics of obesity, from increases in body weight to increased triglycerides in the blood.

Let's take a look at what this study shows.

The researchers studied the effects of HFCS in captive rats. Their experiments were simple. They fed groups male or female rats, either normal rat chow, or rat food mixed with sucrose (sugar), or rat food mixed with equal amounts (and calories) of HFCS (and each sample size was ten rats). They varied their experiment so that the rats could eat HFCS with every meal, or HFCS was provided only for 12 hours during the day. They carried out these studies over a short time frame (two months) as well as a longer time frame (6 months). Here is the rationale behind this experiment. The experiment not only tested if HFCS could cause increase in weight, but compared it directly with consuming table sugar, sucrose. Now sucrose is a compound that is made of one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose. So when sucrose is broken down, it breaks down to fructose and glucose. Secondly, the process by which glucose and fructose are broken down are similar, and the amount of energy they each can release is the same. HFCS has around 55% fructose and 45% glucose. So the food industry has always claimed that using sucrose, or using an equivalent amount of fructose would be biologically very similar. However, when rats were fed either regular food, or food + sucrose, or food + HFCS, the results were quite different.

Here is what the experiment unambiguously revealed.

The male rats fed HCFS gained more weight than mice fed with regular chow or chow supplemented with sugar even over a two month period. Over a six month period, this weight gain in male rats was very significant when compared with rats eating regular chow. In male rats, after 6 months of these diets, the rats on HFCS weighed on average a 100g more than rats fed on regular food. Female rats also gained weight eating HFCS, but at a lower rate than males. After a 7 month duration on these diets, the rats fed with normal food weighed 177% over baseline. However, the rats with continuous access to HFCS were ~200% heavier than baseline. There were a few other interesting observations, indicative of the effects of HFCS on obesity. In both male and female rats, the increase in body weight was accompanied by an increase in actual abdominal body fat, as well as increased triglycerides. So if the same effects hold for humans, the weight gain would primarily be around the abdominal region.

There remain some limitations in this study. The dramatic increases in body weight as well as abdominal fat was observed in rats that had food + HFCS available continuously. In female rats that had access to HFCS only for 12 hours during the day (for a long duration) did not show those dramatic weight increases. However, male rats even with controlled access to HFCS showed this increase in abdominal fat accumulation. Since we care about human consumption of HFCS, does human consumption of HFCS reflect tightly controlled access to it, or a constant availability of HFCS with any meal? Secondly, there will be some differences in the rates of metabolism of glucose and fructose between humans and rats. However, the broad processes of absorption and breakdown of these nutrients are very similar in us and in rats, so it is quite likely that this general phenomenon will hold true in humans. But doing these experiments in humans (where a long term study could be five or ten years) would be extremely difficult to control. Secondly, the experiments were done in rats kept in cages in a laboratory. One could argue that there is clearly nothing in common between laboratory rats and humans. These rats exercise very little and are largely sedentary. They don't run around as much as they should, are already somewhat obese even before feeding on HFCS, and have fairly unlimited access to food and can eat whenever they want to, and as much as they want to in one sitting. Surely that can't be the way humans live. Oh but wait a minute!

The authors in their discussion speculate on why HFCS might cause increased body weight gain when compared to regular food or even food supplemented with an equivalent amount of sucrose, but their discussion only briefly touches on aspects of sugar metabolism that could explain this. So I'll elaborate a little more, and add some of my own speculation based on how these sugars are metabolized. In short, it all comes down to the body's way to regulate sugar levels, sense how much is there, and feedback to control the effects of these sugars.

Firstly, glucose and fructose are absorbed very differently. Glucose is absorbed early in the small intestine, while fructose is absorbed later. But the big difference comes in how and where the two sugars, as well as sucrose itself are metabolized. Sucrose has to be broken down in the stomach into glucose and fructose before it can be used. Glucose can be used by just about every cell in the body through a process called glycolysis, to break it down into usable energy. The process of glucose breakdown is a very tightly regulated process called glycolysis. In this process, a key regulatory step happens when glucose is converted to another sugar called fructose-6-phosphate, and then to another sugar called fructose-1,6-bisphosphate, which is then broken down into triglycerides and then energy. Now, the enzyme that does this conversion to fructose-1,6-bisphosphate is called phosphofructokinase and it is highly and exquisitely regulated by multiple inputs, including other co-factors as well as other modifications. This allows the cell to tightly and precisely control how much glucose is broken down. Fructose however is broken down not in all cells but largely only in the liver through a process called fructolysis. Here, instead of fructose being converted to fructose-6-phosphate, and then being tighly regulated in its conversion to 1,6-bisphosphate and later triglycerides, it is converted into a similar (but biologically very different) sugar called fructose-1-phosphate. This small change in the position of that single phosphate group makes a huge difference biologically, since the breakdown of this sugar into triglycerides happens very quickly and easily, and is not tightly controlled by many inputs. The result of this is that fructose is very rapidly and easily broken down into triglycerides which can then be used for energy, or be converted into glycogen or fats for storage. While the eventual outcome of glucose and fructose is similar, the way the two are regulated and controlled is very different. In other words, the body has much more control over how fast glucose is broken down, but far less control over fructose breaking down.

So this phenomenon, combined with the fact that HFCS has over 55% fructose, and 45% glucose means that the body is dealing with a much higher ratio of fructose to glucose when compared with just plain old table sugar (sucrose). The difference is small over a few meals, but over a long period of time, this adds up to quite a lot. Also, what this difference in circulating glucose (that is regulated and not tightly broken down) does is change the way the body responds to feeding. Glucose controls insulin release, which in turn controls a hormone called leptin, which controls apetite and satiety in the brain. Now, this small but continuous difference in fructose/glucose ratios (comparing HFCS to sucrose) alters how much circulating glucose remains in the blood, which can alter leptin levels as well as leptin sensitivity, and this finally alters the brain's ability to be satiated after a meal. Over time, HFCS could change the satiety achieved by eating, and also finally alter eating patterns. All this put together could cause the increase in body weight seen over time.

Of course, there will be people unsatisfied with these data. But the data is suggestive, and this idea is compelling.

Miriam E. Bocarslya, Elyse S. Powella, , Nicole M. Avenaa, and Bartley G. Hoebel (2010).
High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Some changes

....expect quite a few changes in this blog over the next few days/weeks.

Monday, March 29, 2010

How buying “local” produce can have a very high carbon footprint….

.....and other such thoughts.

Buying “local” food and supporting local farmers and their local produce is one bullet point mantra often touted to be far more sustainable than buying food at a supermarket that belongs to a big company. The main claim for this is that local produce has very low transport costs (from the farm near by to the market), so the carbon footprint for this produce is extremely low. This then would mean that it is far less energy consuming and in the long term far more sustainable.

For a while I thought this was a compelling argument, and sometimes pondered over how guilty I should feel for not heading out to the local farmer’s market to buy “local” produce. But then, ever the skeptic, I decided to actually see if this was true.

First of all, at least in most of the US, local food now means food grown not necessarily 10 miles from the city, but within the state. Obviously, there are many cities near which there is no significant farming/agricultural land growing wheat, corn, fruit and vegetables. While Dallas does have farms a hundred miles or so from it, “local” predominantly means within the state of Texas. But since Texas is almost three times the size of France with most of the population in the four large urban centers (Dallas-Fortworth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin) it is very likely that a significant portion of the “local” food is being trucked across hundreds of miles from various rural, agricultural parts of the state to the cities. So that immediately weakens the distance and high energy consumption argument.

But could it still be possible for me to be more energy efficient (and our food more sustainable) if I shopped at a farmers market and not at a supermarket chain? Here is what some simple but rigorous calculations suggest:

Dallas has a lovely farmers market as well as other stores that sell local produce extensively. All of them are located around 8-10 miles from home. So a return trip is about 20 miles by car, through significant traffic. In addition, these stores only sell produce, so if I need a toothbrush or soap or any other daily use produce, I need to head out to a pharmacy or a general store to buy it. So if I get my food from a farmers market my gas consumption will be about gallon of gas a week (or over 50 gallons of gas a year). It also is a significant investment of my time.

In contrast, we live about 500 yards from a supermarket owned by Safeway/Tom Thumb, which is at the end of the street our house is in. It is the typical big American supermarket which sells everything from food and produce to kitchen towels and brooms. In our case, shopping is done on the way back from work without any detour, and on occasion I walk down to the store to pick up stuff. The total extra annual gas consumption for our shopping is zero gallons. In addition, it also saves a lot of time during the week since there is no need to make additional shopping trips for items of daily use that is not food or produce.

All of this only considers individual energy consumption (which can be quite significant), and does not go into the significant energy efficiencies brought about by economies of scale achieved by larger supermarket chains.

There is tremendous value in local food and local crops, and there should be a significant space for it. But even a simple hard look suggests that it is not necessarily a more “sustainable” and energy efficient method of food production. The more I research these issues (and those around “slow food”), the more it seems like they are largely seductive rants against corporations and globalization. Where there remains much value in these ideas, and they should be encouraged, they will not meet any rigorous analysis of sustainability and energy efficiency unless one uses similar eyewash metrics that large, inefficient corporations use.

(For a fascinating and rigorous information on a host of these issues, Just Food is an excellent read).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Revisiting “Inherit the wind”

Stanley Kramer made “Inherit the wind” way back in 1960. It is remarkable that the movie remains as relevant and powerful today as it was back then. “Inherit the wind” was an adaptation of a play by the same name that was a parable of the famous Scopes “monkey” trial , and when it was made in 1960 also became a critique of McCarthyism. As the old quote goes, the more things change, the more things remain the same.

“Inherit the wind” was a thinly veiled fictionalization of the Scopes trial, a case in 1925 that tested the Butler act which prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution, or any theory that denied creation as told in the Bible in schools. John Scopes, a high school teacher in Tennessee, was charged with teaching evolution in schools, and put on trial. It became a battleground between fundamentalists who believed in an absolute and literal version of the bible, and modernists, reformers and thinkers; people like Spencer Tracy’s fictional Henry Drummond (based on the real life Clarence Darrow) who thought that an idea was bigger than any monument man could build.

Watching “Inherit the wind” today, fifty years after it was made; one is struck by both the power of the screenplay and story, as well as the ability of the director to confront a serious issue head on, with no punches spared. The Scopes trial itself was fought by two of the best lawyers and orators in America at that time, three time presidential candidate and staunch Presbyterian, William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted, and Darrow, who fought for the defense of Scope. In Kramer’s movie, Durrow becomes Spencer Tracy’s Henry Drummond, and Fredric March’s Matthew Brady is strongly based on Bryan. The first few scenes of the movie suggest for a few moments that the characters will all be painted with a broad brush of stereotypes, with Brady entering the town to rousing chants of “some old time religion”. But everything changes once Drummond appears on screen, and the entry into the courtroom. The sheer ferocity of the courtroom drama and the power of each argument make you forget those early moments of awkwardness, and suck you right into the battle. The sequences of incidents in court that lead Drummond to utter frustration in the courtroom are built brilliantly. First Drummond is not allowed to call upon any experts in anatomy or geology, anthropology, archeology or astronomy, with his pleas being dismissed as “irrelevant” to the case. The case was about trying Cates (the character based on Scopes) for teaching evolution, which was against the law. It was as simple as that. Nor was Drummond allowed to read out passages from “The origin of species”, even as Brady proudly declares that he has not read the origin, and has no need to read any work of paganism and the work of Satan. Drummond’s moments of frustration can only be described as masterly. Finally, Drummond has to fight the case using the Bible itself as the sole reference.

Putting Brady on the witness box, Drummond systematically hammers away at passages from the Bible, which if taken literally can only be absurd. If the earth was created in seven days, asks Drummond, and the sun and the moon and stars were only created on the fifth day, then before the fifth “day”, what would a day be? Would it just be a day, or a year, or a million years? To these and other pointed thrusts, Brady remains unperturbed, and only remarks that he did not think about it, because the Bible didn’t talk about it. Drummond leaps upon this point and says that it is precisely the problem, that people here did not think, and the only person who thought about it and talked about it has been put on trial, only for his “right to think”. As Drummond builds his argument, and the single minded fanatism of Brady (and the townsfolk) comes more into prominence, Tracy’s firm, crisp voice almost seems like a thunderous shout as he says fanatism and ignorance always remain busy and need feeding. The entire movie is a masterpiece of courtroom drama, with actors and script rising spectacularly above the merely good to elevate this movie towards true brilliance.

Even between these extended periods of stupendous drama from Drummond and Brady, there are little moments to cherish. When Mrs. Brady is confronted by Rachel Brown, the torn, tormented fiancé of Cates, on why her husband, who Cates trusted and confided in, twisted her words in court to make Cates appear diabolically evil, Mrs. Brady snaps back that at least she believes in her husband, and believes in something, and that makes it her basis for living. What did Rachel believe in? And could she stand for anything at all? In another lull between courtroom storms, Drummond and Brady spend an evening chatting about old times, and Brady asks Drummond why they moved so far apart, and Drummond responds that perhaps Brady had just stood still while he himself had continued to move forward. And while having dinner with Mrs. Brady, Drummond says that he would still perhaps have voted for Brady for president, but if Brady did indeed become president, he would have been his loudest opponent shouting from the opposition bench. The contradictions and complexities of human emotions stand out between, during and within the intense moments in the courtroom.

And then there is Gene Kelly, as the caustic “Baltimore Herald” reporter E.K. Hornbeck, who covers the case, and whose newspaper pays the entire cost of the defense as well as Drummond’s expenses. His character is a throw back to a time when journalists still had names with two initials (are there any left today other than A.O. Scott?), who fought with their words as if they were bare-knuckled fighters, who confronted issues head on, and cowered before no one. Cynical, terse and sarcastic. In a last scene with Drummond, Drummond snaps back at Hornbeck’s cynicism, saying he would die alone, and that no body would mourn for him or appear at his funeral. Hornbeck smiles and says he knows that even if no one came, Drummond would be there, and would fight to the last for his right to be alone. The right to think, the right to speak, the right to question authority, and to stand for the truth. All powerful ideas, yet ideas that have shaped this nation unlike any others.

In the very last scene, we are left with Drummond picking up his copy of “The origin of species”, and then the Bible, smiling, and clasping them together. What does he mean by that? Is it a reconciliation or a preparation for battles to come?

Friday, February 12, 2010

The adventures of Ibn Batutua

"Ibn-e-batuta ta ta
Bagal mein joota ta ta
Pehne to karta hai churrr"

Through those lyrics from Ishqiya, Gulzaar's zany mind conjures up an improbable road song, full of carefree spirit and an imagery of freedom and lust for travel. Yet who was Ibn-batuta, what was his story, and why is he remembered even today (at least by a few) in distant India?

Now somewhat forgotten by history, Ibn-batuta might well have been one of the greatest travelers of all time. A few years before Marco Polo set off on his memorable voyage to Cathay, Ibn-Batuta, born in Morocco in the then backwater trading town of Tangier, set upon a voyage which took him almost his entire life, and by the end of which he had travelled across north Africa and Asia all the way to China and back. A staggering distance, more than twice that of what Marco Polo accomplished, and all because he wanted to see all places on earth that comprised of "dar-ul-Islam", the lands where Islam had spread and where Islamic law took prominence. At the end of his journey the ruler of Morocco told him to write the story of his travels to the very ends of the earth, in the form of the classic travel chronicle of the time in Arabic, the Rihla. And the result is a rollicking adventure across the lands that were the richest and most prosperous in the world at that time, in the early 14th century.

While his story remained unknown to the west until the last couple of centuries, his rihla had been widely read in the wider "Islamic world" which covered most of Asia. Since then, translations into English and French brought his story to the west. Reading Ross E. Dunn's version of Ibn-Batuta however puts his story into marvellous perspective. Dunn uses his considerable knowledge of medieval Islamic civilizations across the world to describe the Sindbad like adventures of Ibn-Batuta, while simultaneously describing the conflicts, rulers and political climate of the time in the various lands travelled by Batuta. Through the story of Ibn-batuta Dunn is able to describe how even very diverse lands would have been easily traversible by a muslim of learning. Ibn-Batuta was an educated muslim, trained from childhood in arabic, Islamic law, religion and practice. So when Ibn-Batuta set off on his first journey (ostensibly to perform his "haj", his pilgrimage to Mecca), his knowledge of Arabic and the quran alone would have sufficed for him to be sure to be welcomed (or at least offered shelter) in all the lands he travelled through. Yet, the time of his journey was also one of the most remarkable times in human history. A few centuries earlier Islam had spread rapidly, through both trade and the sword, across Asia, North Africa and a large part of Europe. This was partly because the Arabs were intrepid travellers and traders, and sat right at the middle of a great trade network that connected Europe from ancient times to the wealth of India and China. The Arabs ruled both the land (through their horse and camel caravans) and sea routes (with dhows that plied across the Indian ocean and Arabian sea). Yet, at that time, various events had taken place to make the world a place of great innovation, trade and prosperity as well as political turmoil. The Al-mohads had lost their hold on Spain and Iberia (al-Andalus), and the caliphate had collapsed. In Asia, the hurricane-like forces of Genghis Khan and his vast Turko-mongol armies had swept down the central Asian steppes and overrun the lands of the Khwarizm, Babylon and Persia. After his death, Genghis' descendants squabbled (while still ostensibly under a great Khan), and the empire split into many smaller pieces. Many of these, in Central Asia, came under the strong Persian and Arabic influences, and under these influences converted to Islam. Meanwhile the Mamluks remained strong in Egypt and parts of Arabia and held off the mongols, so while Baghdad had been destroyed by the mongols, Cairo and Damascus and Shiraz remained (and grew) as great centers of Islamic learning. With the fall of Islamic Spain, muslim scholars and men (women, unfortunately, got the short end of the straw in those days) came to these cities, helping their growth as vibrant places of culture. At this same time, the great trading cultures of Venice, Genoa, Florence and what was left of the Byzantine kingdom sent fleets across the Mediterranean, and central Asia, the heart of Islam, became the great melting pot of people and ideas. And finally, even though there were so many kingdoms, it was a rare time of relative peace. The Mongols were still somewhat united under the great Khan, they had made peace with the Mamluk rulers of Egypt, Arabia and Syria, the mongol invasion had made peace possible between Christian Europe and the muslim Arabs, and India itself was largely united under the new Islamic Delhi Sultanate. It was across these lands that Ibn-batuta travelled.

Of course, Batuta dictated his rihla when he was old, at the end of his travels, so some of his dates are slightly off, or the precise place where he met certain people of that time a little skewed. Yet, his accounts remain amongst the best and most descriptive of all the lands he traversed through at that time. Batuta perhaps did start out only to complete his haj, but as he went from what was then a provincial town (Tangier) into the magnificent metropolis that was Cairo (perhaps the largest city in the world then), and then Damascus and into Persia, there was no stopping his wanderlust. For a man of some learning, these places were the wonders of the world. Ibn-Batuta was also an odd mix of scholar, pilgrim, muslim puritan, sufi believer, curious traveller, rogue, yet person of the pleasures of the world. Thus, his descriptions contain an amusing, sometimes conflicting mixture of all these attributes. Yet what made him such a great traveller was undoubtedly what must have been an engaging and friendly personality. He made friends, often with eminent people of the region, with ease. And while imagining himself to be very proper and correct, Batuta appeared to have an extraordinary ability to flatter persons of importance, who were often so pleased with him that they showered him with generous gifts. Through his traveling acquaintances, he was also able to meet most of the rulers of the realms he passed through. And with each subsequent destination, his renown as a great traveller increased, thereby enabling him to command even greater respect. An indication of his abilities particularly with flattery is seen even in his rihla, when the ruler of Morocco asked him to name the great kings of the time. Without blinking an eyelid, Batuta clubbed the relatively minor kingdom of Morocco with the great kingdom of the Mamluks in Egypt and Syria, and the grand Sultanate of Delhi and the Khanate of Mongol China. Similarly, when he met the Chagatai ruler (then one of the smaller Mongol Ilkhanates), he told him that all these kings were equally great, and all were magnificent, earning himself great rewards.

Through his version of Ibn-Batuta's tale, Ross points out that though Ibn-Batuta travelled through so many different lands, it would have been so easy for a learned muslim to make those travels without knowing any of the local languages or customs. Batuta's background as an arabic scholar of sharia (Islamic law) made him a particularly valuable visitor to those lands where muslim kings ruled over vast majorities of non-muslims (such as the Sultan of Delhi, in India), and where learned muslims were in great demand. And, like most travelers across unknown or dangerous lands, Batuta jumps from situations of great fortune to great misfortune, but emerges out of them only with the desire to see more lands. In his travels he acquires gifts, great wealth, horses and camels, slaves, friends and many wives, only to loose them or abandon them and then promptly acquire new ones or reacquire old ones. Batuta's stories of India were of particular interest to me, and Dunn also does a wonderful job of describing Delhi as records say it was when Batuta landed up there after years of travel in Central Asia. A vast part of the Indian subcontinent, from the fabled Khyber pass through the Gangetic plains all the way down south to the deccan were ruled by the sultans of Delhi, and the current incumbent was Mohammad-bin-Tuglaq. Tuglaq ruled at a time when the Sultanate was at it's zenith, and yet was on the verge of collapse. His kingdom was vast (the largest it would ever be under the Delhi sultans), rich with resources and people, and was bursting at the seams. Tuglaq was an eccentric of the strangest sort; a visionary, a tyrant, a petty ruler, a scholar, a reformer and a deeply religious man all at once. All these qualities were in conflict with each other, so it wasn't a surprise that his rule was becoming increasingly schizophrenic. Much of Batuta's colorful descriptions of the Delhi court have come to us from other historical sources, and there remain so many descriptions of Tuglaqs eccentricities that the word "tuglaq" has become a common noun to describe odd behavior in many Indian languages. The sultan would one day befriend or reward a scholar, and the very next day decide to behead him. Having decided that he couldn't trust anyone around him, Tuglaq decided to appoint only unknown foreigners in his court, and it was here that Batuta presented himself. Tuglaq made Batuta the qadi/kazi (judge) of Delhi, gave him a great salary and set off to suppress some revolt in the Deccan. Batuta paints a colorful picture of the intrigue in the Delhi court, where everyone was unsure of his fate, yet tried to outdo the other in outward pomp, so everyone raked up huge debts. Finally, unable to take it any more, Batuta tries to escape, is prevented from doing so, and then is sent with some visiting Chinese ambassidors to the court of China. So he makes his way to the south Indian coast of Malabar, gets robbed (escaping only with his trousers and nothing else), encounters numerous wars and conflicts between the local chiefs, gets shipwrecked, then makes his way to the Maldive islands. Here he is immediately appointed judge, marries multiple local women of influence, complains about the local customs, tries to overthrow the small kingdom there, fails and still escapes. His writings portray wonderfully the confusion and intrigue that existed amongst all the smaller Indian kingdoms, and the conflict between Islamic lords and smaller Hindu chiefs and the greater population, even though he remains true to himself in his travelogue, and only talks about everything from his own perspective. Even though Batuta cares little about the common population, his occasional references to events involving commoners portray a rare picture of medieval India.

As he continues his travels all the way through south east Asia to China, all the while being welcomed into muslim communities in each of these lands, it becomes increasingly apparent to modern readers like us just how vast, prosperous and powerful the Islamic networks of those times were. And more than just the sword, it becomes increasingly clear how much of a role trade (and trading guilds) played in the spread of this faith. Also, unlike the historians of any particular kingdom (say those of the Mamluks or the Delhi Sultans) Batuta was just a traveler through these lands, and so his own accounts provide a different perspective (sometimes more accurate at least for some aspects) than do official court historians. Yet Batuta is also infuriating as a travel writer, since he remains so focused on the muslim world alone, and ignores the diversity of customs and other cultures he passes through. The various Christians, Buddhists and Hindus he must have encountered remain inconsecuential to him, so we miss out on eyewitness accounts of all these other peoples. Throughout it all though is a rare love for travel and the sights of new lands, which make his accounts all the more readable, and also gives us a glimpse into a vibrant time in human history, enabling us to realize how closely interconnected the world always has been. Dunn's book is particularly readable because it puts all these events in perspective and provides this wonderful picture of the world as it was then.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Book Review: Atul Gawande’s “The checklist manifesto: How to get things right”

Ever thought about how healthcare could be improved? How doctors could reduce errors or complications during serious operations? Almost everyone has a theory on why hospital errors always occur. But Gawande, in his latest book “The checklist manifesto: How to get things right”, suggests that a major part of the solution lies in an innocuous and mundane a checklist. The book’s point is very simple. No mater what you do, checklists can help you do it better. This applies to the usual suspects (like the airline industry which pioneered checklists) as well as what would seem improbable; a hospital.

He sets us up well, starting with typical medical almost horror stories, of near misses and tragedies in the operating theater, and lays out what he calls “the problem of extreme complexity”. Medical cases are astounding in diversity and complexity. Problems can arise at any time during a medical procedure, and quickly go out of hand. So what can be done to improve this? Aren’t doctors and nurses doing their best already? And then, right away, he throws at you a solution so startlingly simple that you almost laugh it off. A checklist. Checklists work and are widely used in a whole range of professions (who sometimes don’t even call it a checklist). Gawande first describes a few cases in medicine that he came about during his academic research, which intrigued him because they achieved improvements that were way above the typical average in those settings. Piecing together the facts, he realizes that what works here is a little list of things that doctors and nurses run through before, during and after every medical procedure, as part of a defined yet flexible and adaptable checklist.

Digging deeper, he starts to explore checklists in a diverse range of industries. The airline industry is an obvious place to start, and Gawande draws us into the process by taking us to testing facilities at Boeing, starting from the first checklists the airline industry drew up in the 30s and 40s. But from there he starts seeing and then describing checklists in a whole range of industries, from the building industry to investment bakers, top chefs and Walmart. The story on the response to hurricane Katrina, the government bungling and incompetence, and the emergence of Walmart as an unlikely hero in New Orleans thanks to its superb enforcement of checklists is as amazing as it is inspiring. By the time he gets into specific studies in the medical profession, you already know that checklists make a huge difference. Then comes the studies he helped carry out in hospitals across the world, from rural Tanzania to crowded urban India through the UK and America. In every case enforcing these checklists dramatically improve hospital performance. And the items on the checklist are simple, obvious things. Check antibiotic, wash hands, change gloves, change tubing, that sort of thing. But in the heat of a critical operation, or when overwhelmed by huge patient numbers the obvious is often skipped. By setting up the checklist, giving nurses the authority to enforce them, and making medical teams work like a team the checklist becomes a staggeringly effective weapon, taking little time to enforce, but packing a massive wallop of effectiveness. The errors that come up can be quickly spotted and fixed, the entire medical team becomes more effective, and the doctor’s ego can be kept in check.

Regular readers of Gawande’s books or articles on healthcare in The New Yorker know that he is a consummate writer. He combines a doctor’s thorough knowledge of the healthcare system in America with the rigors of a scientist and the vivid imagery of a fantastic, old fashioned story teller. In his books you’ll find bits of the old sage, and the thriller writer, and the writer of a whodunit. The checklist manifesto is no different. With every old medical war story he brings up, and with every other profession he dives into, you are sucked into the details of that story, even while you shout out the solution; “a checklist!”. He draws you into the story, makes you feel involved in the process, and you gasp with him when checklists work, or scowl when medical professionals resist them, and smile when a great victory is won thanks to an error the checklist caught. Whether he overstates his claim or not, time, the clinical and hospital review process and accumulating evidence will tell. But he certainly does a fantastic job of convincing you that checklists can make a big difference in medicine. While medicine will remain a highly specialized skill requiring years of study and training, the adoption of a simple, rigorous, adaptable checklist is not only possible in medicine, but works magnificently.

Some might think that something as simple as a checklist does not deserve a whole book dedicated to it. By the end of this book though, even a seasoned skeptic will accept defeat. Through the book and this one simple point Gawande is able to give the reader a vivid description of the range of errors or complications in medical science, the immense complexity of modern medicine, and a whole host of issues doctors and nurses face in hospitals in every corner of the world, developed and developing. Some problems are not as disparate as one might assume. By the end of the book, it becomes obvious that some aspects of medical practice isn’t that different from any other complex (as opposed to complicated) field of work, and when checkpoints work so well elsewhere, there is no reason for it not to work as well in medicine. Even smart, intelligent, highly trained people can make mistakes, and checklists can help reduce them. And this is a smart, intelligent, simple book that is well worth reading.