Tuesday, February 01, 2011

New York to Ithaca

The endless road north west from New York is five hours long. Five hours that pass through the snow in winter and the thick green canopies in summer. Every bus ride is a cacophony- a cacophony of a dozen ear phones playing bad music, empty nothings from the multitude of cell phones and the droning of the bus punctuated by the old and faithful snore.

Through tinted glass, you can see the hours go by. Thoughts meander to meaningless conclusions. Annotations and re-annotations soil them, filing them to an archive, in the hope of eventual retrieval and maybe they will make the pages of a "biography of an unknown citizen" or a library bound moribund thesis .

In the contained atmosphere of the bus, there resides a smell- an amalgam of countless odours. An amalgam of the air freshner in the washroom and the odors of a million riders, it permeates your senses and sets off a million memory recalls of earlier journeys.

A waking sleep approaches, either lulled by fairies of summer or the gloom of winter. Through deep valleys and high hills, the mind drifts, powered by the currents of chance and circumstance.
At the very end, the five hour road empties into Ithaca, a small town by the lake. Journeys seem to begin and end in circular manner, till the ends and the beginnings all coalesce into a large droplet , threatening to overwhelm the reality that is journeyed upon.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wikileaks and the pointlessness of it all..

Information is often a slow acting weapon, making but an infinitesimal dent on its target .It attains its fullest purpose only when it is constantly reinforced and allowed to endure on a scale of multiple generations.In both totalitarian and democratic societies, this characteristic is often used to the fullest effect, writing over inconvenient truths and reinforcing convenient half truths.

In our own recent history, we see multiple examples of the limited effects of information. The first,much celebrated leak was that of the Pentagon Papers.Over the time since the leak, their impact moved from the front pages of a daily newspaper, to the footnotes of academia. All references to it have been expunged from popular consciousness and the United States found itself in Iraq. Information lost that battle.

A big example of the complete and utter uselessness of information is the effect of internet on China. Much was bandied of the effect of internet on the urban youth. But I have read and found that many chinese believe what their government , rather than what NY times tells them. That battle never seems to have begun.

The newest and possibly the most extreme example is the Wikileaks Cable dump. A mass of hundreds of thousands of documents, many of which will be a trove for a graduate student, but not for the average reader. The scale of this leak, in some sense puts it apart from all other leaks.
But what is the consequence of wikileaks? Its possibly another battle lost. We already see much of it disappearing from the front pages and the prime time, having exhausted the short attention span of the news cycle and possibly actively suppressed by the governments of the world. The information will continue to circulate for a long time, feeding only the appetites of governments, academia and the UFO worshipping conspiracy junkie.

But perhaps I err on the side of cynicism. Maybe all is not lost. I read today that Tunisians, angered by details of corruption in their authoritarian government, are leading a revolt against it.

But I think being the skeptic is the safe bet here. The premise that the availability of information can have an impact is relevant mostly for rational beings. Human beings are not rational. We make our decisions not on fact, but on our prejudices and emotions. Information that does not reinforce our prejudices is discarded. Only information that lingers long enough for the next generation to absorb is likely to make a difference. We live in a world, where useful information is actively scrubbed from the mainline discourse. We live in a world, where information only has a half life of sixty minutes.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Life of a scientist": The extraordinary tale of Mario Capecchi

In the dying days of the second world war, the great Erwin Schrodinger published a book- a collection of lectures. In this book, he conjectured on how chemistry and physics could be used to answer the question- "What is life?" In the aftermath of the war, this book became a call to arms, for a number of physicists who had turned away from physics- distraught at the weapons they had wrought. Thus was born molecular biology. To me, they were heroes.

For those of us who have lived in a time of peace, the tales of these scientists, who lived in extraordinary times, were of an epic nature.Its not just that they were great scientists who laid the foundation of the current revolution in biology,but that their life stories bestow upon them the aura of myth and legend.

Today, I heard an extraordinary tale in the same vein- albeit of a boy who, during the war, walked barefoot down Italy's boot and has built some of the most powerful tools in understanding how mammals(mice, humans) develop from a single cell to an adult, how they fall sick, grow old and die.

Mario Capecchi (pronounce Kapeki) was invited to talk at Cornell today. It was meant to be a popular talk and not a science talk. To me, it was one of the most amazing stories I have ever heard. Mario Capecchi was born to an Italian-American mother in 1937 in Verona. His father died during the war in North Africa, fighting for Il Duce. His mother was part of an anti-fascist grouping and knew that her time alive and free was limited. So ,she gave her daughter up for adoption to a French family. She sold the rest of her belongings and gave it to an Italian family so that they would look after the four year old Mario if anything happened to her. Sure enough, she was dragged away by the GESTAPO to the concentration camp at Dachau. A year after she was arrested, Mario Capecchi was thrown out of the house he had sanctuary in. He was five years old and it was 1941! for the next four years of the war, he wandered his way south, alternating between orphanages of unlimited horror, chicory and dry bread crust and the streets where he along with other orphaned children stole food from the carts. Eventually, he was "held" at a hospital, bereft of his clothes, so that he wouldnt run away . In 1946, on his birthday, his mother, who he described as having a gift for the dramatic, arrived to take him away. She had survived the concentration camp and had spent a year searching for him. There really must be miracles. The story was reminiscent of the climax of the movie "Life is beautiful".

In 1946, Mario Capechhi was brought by his mother to the United states. He apparently waited to see if what the rest of impoverished Europe thought of the US was true. In a voice filled with emotion, he declared "People in Europe thought that the streets in the US was paved with gold. I found more, I found opportunity!" He grew up in a large Quaker commune and seemed to be deeply influenced by them.

Mario Capechhi obtained his PhD under James Watson and went onto join Harvard medical school as a professor. He described Harvard as a university where "you are asked every day as to what new thing did you find today?" He believed that this curtailed the kind of research of fundamental importance and encouraged trivial pursuits. He also noticed that while Harvard had many brilliant scientists , they failed to work in synergy and were constantly in apposition to each other. This perhaps conflicted with his Quaker upbringing. So, at his first opportunity, he moved to Utah State University- a move tantamount to academic suicide for many!

By the early 1990's the techniques invented by Mario Capechhi's lab, in collaboration with two other labs had made the manipulation of the mouse genome a routine technique. Their work has been foundational and has made possible several thousand research break throughs in recent years. In recognition of this, he won the Nobel prize for physiology in 2007. After the Nobel prize ceremony, he met a lady who turned out to be his sister, the same sister who had been given away for adoption in 1937!

I worked with mice for three years. Mario Capecchi wrote the lab manual that we all used and did many an experiment which we cited. His name was always deep within my head. I had always greatly admired his work. I always wondered what prompted him to move from Harvard to Utah. I always wanted to know who he really was. Capecchi the man was on display today. Mario Capecchi is in my pantheon of heroes.


If you want to read more:

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hanging Warren Anderson

Of late, the media (Facebook, blogs and television stations) of the affluent classes has woken up to a tragedy called Bhopal.The Indian middle classes have learnt about Methyl Isocyanate, Union carbide and probably even about a place called Bhopal. There has been much finger wagging, shows of outrage, anger, soap opera like news shows and the normal disgust we reserve for our ruling classes. At the center of this storm is one man- Warren Anderson- and the story of his escape. Our sensationalist journalists have been going over board pinning blame for his "escape" to every Tom, Dick and Harry who operated the levers of power in 1984.

However, I have a single question- Why do we need to hang Warren Anderson? To me, it seems that its vengance. Vengance not because his company's profit guided zeal lead to the death of thousands, but because it is in some way, an insult on our recently rediscovered self respect.
I argue, that its not Warren Anderson that we need to hang. In his stead, we need to hang our own heads- in shame!

For years now, we as a nation, have remembered Bhopal only on anniversaries and court cases- just like we remember Gandhi and Independence day for the holidays they bring.We have looked on while the contamination at the factory site has leached into the water table and created new generations of victims, who will pin upon themselves not only the ribbons of Bhopal,Dow and Union Carbide,but also the apathy and inertia of our government. Its a crime, that years were spent, trying to get Dow to clean up the site, but that the goverment did not take upon itself to clean up the site. Sure, the site belongs to a third party, but the land belongs to India and the people being effected are Indians. This is a crime that our government is guilty of, yet we seek to hang Warren Anderson.

Warren Anderson represents a creed of people that will cut corners to make money. The government, is responsible, for overseeing and regulating the actions of such people. The media is responsible for the constructive criticism of the government and the society it governs. Yet, a
quarter century after Bhopal,we still stand at the edge, waiting for a disaster to strike. We still have to live our nights in the industrial cities with the putrid smells of unknown gases, released by industries out to make a fast buck . Its a shame, that we have no active agency that aggressively ensures the safety of the public. A The government stands dumb. The media is vocal, only in pursuit of individuals, but not issues. We, the people, are also to blame. For the media only shows us what we want to see and many of us, with the voice, are apathetic- for the thousands who died were not our aunts and uncles, but were only maids, rickshawpullers and menial labourers.

The fourth estate, our representatives and us are all out to hang Warren Anderson and the people who let him escape. For, in them, we have a scapegoat, a fall guy for the crimes of our government,our profit driven media and our apathy. Someone called his escape "a systemic failure". I would say that, our misplaced zeal and our inability to identify with our fellow citizens is the real failure. Warren Anderson has long been dammned! We on the other hand, are slowly dragging ourselves to the gallows.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and started to love James Joyce

This essay has two lies. One, I never stopped worrying about James Joyce. Two, I have never started to love him.In all truth, this essay has little to do with James Joyce.Actually, I must add that it has nothing to do with him whatsoever.This essay has nothing to do with various waterbodies of consciousness. It may in the end, have something to do with pseudo-nihilist literature practised by unnamed characters in the rubber monster movies of twentieth-century Japan.Ihope it has the same effect on your as Mothra and Godzilla had on Tokyo.

This essay is neither about Nora Barnacale nor her "sensual epistolary" correspondence with her husband or third wave feminist interpretations of her alter ego- Nora Joyce.However, I would like to mention that she thought, very correctly,that her husband wrote books that only her husband could read.Now, some of you would have begun to assume that I am a boor,culturally uncouth and probably uses literary masterpieces as litter for cats.But I can promise you
that its not true. First, cat litter usually has calcium bentonite. And since most paper is made of cellulose, its pointless to use James Joyce's books as cat litter.Second, I have no cats.These two observations, that flowed through my conscious about 10 seconds ago should convince you, that I do not use the books of that Irish drunk as cat litter.

There may be those of you, who believe that I am book burner.I have had several hair leveling episodes with my bunsen burner, but I defenitely dont burn books.In fact, I inspired no book burner and curiosity did not lead me to ask at what temperature, paper burnt. Though, I sometimes wonder, if I should know if the gods we worship are mortal. But,I digress.

Actually, I will digress. I find this strict conformity to one subject, is detrimental to my mental well being.This detriment makes itself apparent as a jelly like,sharp ooze.Most of this ooze, is from my disgust at our contemporary treatment of Al-Jabbr.Al-Jabbr, among other things,made gold from cabbage (and thus caused famine in germany),lent his name( for 89 dinars) to a vital weapon(algebra) in the fight against fourth grade super heros, created the Zebra (that too on a sunday) and wrote the instruction manuals for most of these achievements in a language that only he could read. Today, we call this langauge gibberish.You may all, by now have fiugured out that Joyce bashing is a strange attractor.For the object of maintaining subtlety, let me emphasize- Al jabbr wrote stuff only he coudl understannd. we called the gibberish. James Joyce wrote stuff only he could understand. We call them Ulysees,Dubliners and masterpieces.

Now, I must end. At the end, we all realize, that we are in the same place as we were in the beginning- in front of a comp. Some of you may rush the barricades, to nail me. But, Iwill tell you that they are no barricades. They were destroyed by Mothra and Godzilla's elder son, just yesterday- over who should get Iran's stockpile of NREU snacks(not really enriched uranium).

ps-dedicated to two physicists,A.Douglas,C.bergen,sixteen pairs of twin poodles and my old freind- count Duckula.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Travelogue 1: Long journey home

Long journeys are dangerous. On such journeys, if you are Bilbo- you can kill dragons. If you are Rama, you kill Ravana. The rest of us make do with lost luggage, jet lag and empty bank accounts.

Now, even if you dint do the traveling, you may suffer the ill effects of some someone close to you doing the traveling- sort of similar to second hand smoking. First, you might have to get up at unearthly hours to open the door (either to the car or the house). Second, you might have to help pack their suitcases etc. Third, you might have to read their boring travelogues. Right now, I am inflicting, upon you, the absolute pain and boredom of reading my travelogue.

A few aeons ago, I crossed one ocean, a couple of seas and continents to come to Amrika. In light of the long time interval that managed to pass itself by and in part due to the availability of a paid vacation( vacca= latin for cow, ation= the action of, thus vacation= action of being a cow), I took the greatly unexpected and shocking decision of going home.

My first limb of the journey took me from the middle of nowhere to new york to get a bite off the big apple. The stay here was mostly uneventful with the exception of a friend driving up the wrong side of the street. While this accident caused a panic attack in the car, a similar action was carried out voluntarily and with much sangfroid, on the streets of Hyderabad, while discussing the lack of lane discipline on Indian roads. I must also mention that I -the common NYC taxi commuter-was, most probably, swindled to the tune of a few million (8.3 to be precise) dollars by the cab driver (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/12/nyc-taxis-overcharged-pas_n_497662.html)

My flight from NYC took off without much drama and flew well enough. The few sore exceptions included a lawyer sitting next to me. Her excellency would not switch off the phone till the plane flew over the atlantic- where I believe the cell phone signals are a little weak. By the time I landed in Frankfurt, I had consumed two dinners,four glasses of juice, twelve pounds of boredom and thirty six winks - interrupted only by 500 days of summer and a snoring snooty lawyer.

Frankfurt at 5 AM on christmas day, was all you would expect of it. Vast empty lobbies with occasional, but large concentrations of Indians- flying to Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Mumbai and the washrooms (to brush their sparkling teeth). The only exceptions were solitary Indians, manning check-in desks and snack bars. The ones at the snack bars were not really mallu but insisted on giving me euros as change for the dollars I paid.

Now, in due course of time, it was time..for me to fly on further. There was a long line of Indians who waited to charge into the plane..so they could find cabin spots for the millions of tons of hand baggage they carried.I often wonder whether the 'Vimanas' of the Indian epics failed to make it to the modern era primarily because ancient India failed to discover the concept of limiting cabin baggage.

During the halt, I looked at each humanoid entity, to determine which would share my seat. It could have been the exceptionally pretty woman, it could have been the economist I gossiped with or even a normal non-entity. It was however, a male of the species. He was the type who had spent a couple of days in various airports- delayed by storms and the like. That was by itself not particularly tragic. It was also not tragic that he dint remove his heavy jacket during those storm ridden days. It was however, tragic that he decided to unbutton and remove his jacket- the moment he sat next to me. For a screamingly long instant, Dante's last level of hell opened its gates to olfactory senses. In that moment, the agnostic that I was, made a deal with God to see if he was really almighty.

The plane took off and turned south east. "Le Tormentor mon olfaction" of the aisle seat slipped into the seat and into a deep sonorous sleep. In the midst of the smell hell, the roof leaked!Yes, the roof of an Airbus, A340...pride of the Airbus family..leaked water that dripped onto me at regular intervals. But then, lo and behold!There was a miracle. A passenger on the seat behind me, my guardian angel, got up and sprayed "Le Tormentor mon olfaction"with a deodorant. Perhaps, god exists and is almighty.

Then, the plane flew on, the food flew in. As I flew over the Black Forest, there was a cake,over Turkey, I was served some sweet meats. Over the Caspian, I was served some eggs. Over Iran, there was some tea. As the procession of food went by, I came closer and closer to India. I could no longer sit in my seat. Neither could any of the other passengers. For it seemed like half the passengers knew each other, but were according to impeccable german efficiency- seated separately. Children (about 25-3o year old) were separated from their parents. Friends were divided (for about 8 hours). Yet, no wall or fence (that the germans could come up with) kept them apart.

At last, without any drama, the plane touched down. I was nearly home..er, the new airport was a few light years away. But, I was home....to be contd...if I have the mood, time and the boredom.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

If Shivaji came back.

The council of the afterlife carefully examined the application, and debated over it for a few years. Then they granted the applicant's wishes, with all the regular conditions ofcourse.

On a remote hill, in the centre of India,amidst the broken fortresses, a King of old reappeared.
His name was much celebrated, for he was the high king of the Marathis, and a few centuries after his birth- the overburdened bearer of its pride. Curious, he was- about how his land was and whether it had prospered.Now, his wish was granted. He could observe and speak, eat and drink. He could ofcourse claim that he was Shivaji...but who would believe. Even in the land of superstitions and Shivaji worshippers, he would be yet another actor. He had sixty earth days ofcourse, before he would have to beam back to the other world.

Much aghast he was, at the broken state of his proud forts. One after another, they were just mudpiles flying foreign flags and guides speaking strange tongues. The marathi they spoke was a strange too, but several hundred years would normally do that. He walked the land..through sugarcane and paddy, highways and hotels. He was crestfallen, to learn that there was a king no more and that his precious state was ruled by outsiders...from that ancient source of evil..Delhi. His work had been broken.

On a lonely rock, atop a windy hill, he lamented the loss of his kingdom. While in his anguish, in the far off distance, he beheld a mighty city...stretching down to the sea, glowing brightly in the overcast monsoon darkness. Over many a days he drifted into the city. In his time, this land was just wet marshes and islands. In the harbours, he could perceive a great many ships flying the same foreign flag. As was his reason for coming, he spoke to many- the fishermen who spoke his tongue, the driver of the horseless carriage who spoke another and the fire worshipping man who spoke a third. Mumbai the city was called.

He learned of how the world had changed since he departed to the next. He learnt of the British, the fight for freedom, the birth of a new India and the importance of Mumbai in this new nation.
It was not clear , whether he appreciated it completely. But, his opinion was no longer of importance. He had only come to see how his land was prospering.

He found that there were still some who claimed to defend his country for him. Infact, they seemed to believe exactly what he believed on his death bed. He wondered if they were his true successors. One day, he went to a large hall, where the shadows of people moved and spoke...larger then lifer they were. The shadows were descriptive of a man(we will refer to as A) who claimed that invaders from other parts of India had to leave his state. Shivaji, the courageous, found it hard to understand why A was being deified by an actor who was from the far north and a director from the far south, the very people who A wanted to be kicked out. It made little sense to Shivaji. Infact, it would make little sense to any one, why A was being deified.

Shivaji's time on this world, was once again ticking to an end. He,as was his nature, wanted to one last time defend his old country. He joined A's army and marched on a tall building. He put his club to good use and was once again in his element- the fearless king. In marathis defending outsiders, he saw traitors. In outsiders working to make Mumbai and themselves prosperous, he saw parasites. Such was his worldview, for he was from a time when the Marathas- feared warriors, fought hard to save their independence and their way of life. That, that time had gone, was not appreciated by Shivaji.

A's activities had set the city afire. Out with all those people who cant speak out tongue, they cried. Shots echoed in the distance, as the local government struggled to bring control. Shivaji ran now, trying to find as many invaders before the messengers of heaven arrived to get him. In the darkness and the melee of battle, Shivaji looked like one of those men from the north..yet, he did not realize it. At one corner, stood the army he had fought proudly for. Into their waiting arms he ran. He let down his guard and smiled. The smile froze, as he noted that a large sword had pierced him in the heart. He felt no pain, for his body was only a vehicle for his spirit. The body lay limp and the spirit of Shivaji drifted up into the world of the afterlife above.
He beheld with his senses, his lands once again...far they stretched, further then he could imagine. Beyond its ancient boundaries, the lands of his country stretched on. It seemed that his lands had grown and become part of a larger land...with wide hills, quick rivers and thick forests.
A light dawned on him. His time had passed.

Postscript: No offense to mighty Shivaji.Offense meant to several morons, who inhabit the 21st century but use brains produced in the 17th.