Sunday, October 12, 2014

My fears about ebola in the sub-continent

[Note that this is a first draft of my thoughts on this topic, I will make this more concise and pointed in a couple of days]

So, Here's what we know about Ebola in Western Africa so far (culled from various articles in the popular press I've been reading of late -- I'm not too keen on providing citations right now, might do it a bit later)

* The epidemic appears to have  initiated when an unfortunate 2 year old came in contact with an animal host of ebola (most likely an undercooked fruit bat - the consumption of which is quite common amongst the poor in West Africa)

* This occurred in Guinea - a region which does not have the experience that Congo / Sudan / Uganda / Zaire have in  controlling ebola.

* Because the symptoms of the disease are similar to other big diseases in the area (malaria / cholera / lassa), it slipped below the radar for a lot of time. It took almost 3 months to realize that the disease was actually Ebola. And the most virulent strain (Ebola Zaire).

* Prior ebola epidemics fizzled out quickly because they never found their way into a major metro area. However, this particular epidemic is different as it has entrenched itself in Conakry (Guinea), Freetown (SL) and Monrovia (Liberia) along with more rural areas in said countries.

* What is particularly saddening and alarming about Ebola is that it has no (generally available) cure. While it is quite hard to spread in general, anyone who cares for a patient of ebola is at extremely high risk of catching the disease - unless Hazmat suits are employed. So, doctors and nurses are at high risk; spouses and family are also at very, very high risk. (The human tragedy of wiping out all your near and dear ones is something which is extraordinarily distressing). Doctors are dropping like flies; A sizable number of liberia's 50 doctors have been put out of commission by ebola - some have died, some have fallen sick and are under care - and some just don't have the staff to run a clinic.

* The devastation and desperation in west africa is palpable; international airlines (except a couple) are not flying there due to the fear of spreading the virus. 3000 American troops have made it to Africa -- but they're not medical professionals. Doctors without borders appears to be the primary care provider in the area -- but they're suffering similar staggering losses too. (Though they are doing much better than liberians because they have the resort to western medicine if the contract ebola).

* This particular epidemic has a mortality rate of ~ 70% -- but the statistics are incredibly unreliable. The current number of formally reported cases is ~ 8000, but there is an unofficial expectation from CDC that the actual number is closer to 20,000. This thing has blown out of control.

* The disease has spread outside africa to the west as well (places which have flown health-workers out to be treated, or places which have migrants from west africa, such as dallas). Western doctors have proven fairly incompetent in dealing with aspects of this disease: diagnosing it (Dallas) or enforcing appropriate hazmat procedures (Spain). But what they have done well is treat the patients: Ebola survival rates in the west are way higher in the west. This is due to a combination of much better care - and more importantly, experimental drugs (ZMAPP and the like).

* ZMAPP appears to be a good cure for ebola - it has worked on 18 of 18 primates it was tested on; it has worked on most humans it was used on (though some have still died). The catch, of course, is that ZMAPP is available in severely restricted quantities. Thankfully the gates foundation has become involved in this (among other investors) and it is fairly rational to expect larger doses of ZMAPP in the near future.

* It also appears that a vaccine is in the works  - and might be available by the end of the  year. There appear to be multiple approaches towards the vaccine. At least one should work (we know that Ebola survivors appear resistant to the disease - so this tells us that there might be some cheese down the vaccination path)

* In the meanwhile, Ebola is growing exponentially in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Not much has been heard from other nations in the area: Mali and Ivory coast are silent. (The hope is that this silence is genuine - and isn't masking a problem). These exponential growth rates are possibly going to touch 7 digits by January 2015 (per a projection by CDC).

* Ebola had spread to Nigeria for a bit too: but Nigeria appears to have been monitoring this situation very carefully. The virus did burn through a people there -- but it appears that the epidemic is under control in Nigeria. This is probably because the disease did not make it to one of the slums in Lagos (Nigeria's largest city with a Mumbai-esque 17M people).

And the following are my fears for India, informed by the occurring in Africa:

* Per a statement by Harsh Vardhan, India's minister for health, there are 45,000 Indians living in west africa (in the affected area).  Peter Piot (the discoverer of Ebola in 1976) also worries about Ebola in India: he calls it the ultimate nightmare scenario. He frets about asymptomatic carriers (e.g. Thomas Duncan) not being detected by temperature monitoring equipment in airports and making it to meet family - and infecting several people subsequently (after the incubation period for the virus, which can be as long as 3 weeks).

* Ebola in India would be almost as bad as it is in west africa. We have a tradition of family taking care of sick people; we have a tradition of doctors not wearing gloves while examining patients. We are filthy and our cities become unhygienic cesspools in the monsoons. The only thing we have in our favor is preparation and knowledge: but that isn't a given for doctors in smaller towns who might not be aware of the goings on.

* In my opinion, India's primary path against ebola should be a comprehensive flight ban / quarantine program -- don't even let the problem arise in the first place. This might mean short-changing our 45,000 Indians who currently live in west africa - but this is entirely excusable. But assuming that this alone shall suffice is dangerous, especially, when we notice that Africa is essentially exploding with this disease. A spark might fly towards India in a very convoluted route - maybe a liberian who things he/she is safe takes a road trip to Nigeria to fly to Europe and then India?

* India must be prepared to educate its doctors on what they should be looking for regarding Ebola.  They should be taught how to don and doff PPE (The latter is even more important than the former as the sad experience in Spain has shown us).

*India should set up an ebola task force where doctors are trained to handle ebola patients (this can be done by interning with the MSF / West African personnel in the hot zone). These doctors should tend to any cases that might arise in India - not anyone else. These doctors should be immunized as soon as the vaccines come out. This is to make sure that a sick patient does not expose any more than 1 other person to the disease (to make sure that this does not keep spreading).

* India should have military on high alert. Curfews should be enforced to make sure that Ebola stays contained.

* Hazmat gear should be procured for several doctors and nurses. Health workers should also have first dibs on treatment with ZMAPP. Military personnel should be utilized to teach doctors to don and off hazmat gear. Further, a trained military person must be involved in all sessions when doctors / nurses removed their gear.

My two cents: Ebola in India need not be an epic disaster if some precautions are taken. But I am concerned that the current government appears to only be focusing on prevention of the import of the disease to India. This worries me because this either appears to be poor risk management or poor communication on the government's part.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

the video gamification of life

Given the recent launch of fairly compelling "smart" watches and bracelets - and the already existing "fitness bands", it is fairly clear that computing is moving closer to human bodies. Closer than the smart phone that we currently spend the night with.

And not only is it moving closer to human bodies, computing is learning more and more about human lives - our heath and the way we live; when we sleep; how we sleep, what we had for dinner (to a fairly quantitative extent) and what we think about that politician.  Our life is becoming aggressively quantified. Every one of our behavioural aspects has become a data point in someone's chart. This behavioral map is a godsend to marketers, sociologists and anthropologists. Think of all the hitherto unanswered shower thoughts (eg. "I wonder how many people are having the exact same dinner as I am and watching the same movie as I am.") that can be answered by big data. But that isn't the focus of this piece.

What I'm trying to argue here is: wearables will bring about the video-gamification of real life. The above mentioned quantification of life shall make available detailed statistics for every aspect of life - which one can use in competition with other folks online - or one can use to improve one's own routine.

Did I wake up at the same time as yesterday? Did I bathe longer than yesterday? Yesterday's run was only 780 calories - can I, with a little more effort do 800 calories in more or less the same time? Did my high school colleague (who always seems to be better than me at everything) really actually do 900 calories today? Is the kid sleeping alright? Can I plot her body temperature time for the last 16 hours and see if her cold is abating?  How long has that curry been sitting in the microwave? 

And about that game of tennis yesterday -- how many Newtons of force did my racket impart to the ball when I served up that ace? How do I compare with the pros? Should I give up everything and take up pro-sports because I am that good?  Where did I put my keys? What is the best place I should store my keys given the usual manner I move along the house?

I am not sure I am entirely comfortable with this immersive quantification of life. I find the prospect of surrendering my information to entities which will use it to sell things to me a bit icky (though I cannot articulate my exact problem with it - what is the problem with targeted advertising in lieu of  "catch-all" advertising - when the time spent on serving me advertisements is still essentially the same, if not less.). 

One particular issue I'm a bit concerned about is the fact that I'm enabling a filter bubble to form around me. By allowing an algorithm designed by a profit-maximizing corporation to only show me the things that it thinks I have a high likelihood of clicking on, am I not missing out on more obscure experiences on the internet?  Epiphanies usually strike when one least expects them - when a totally unrelated experience triggers a thought process which helps one better comprehend a problem at hand. Some of these thought processes have been triggered by looking at totally unrelated advertisements and articles. I fear such exercises might be much diminished in a perfectly quantified world .

But all said an done, the geek in me is genuinely looking forward to the imminent extreme quantification of life.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

How to decode a 6 month old.

After a month of being the primary caregiver for our little daughter, I believe I have understood all there is to know about infants. So, here I proffer these words of wisdom to all who find themselves in a similar boat as I did a month ago.

Everything you have heard about babies providing hunger and sleepiness cues is bullshit. The single web post I read long ago about understanding a baby's cues for hunger (if she licks her lips, she's hungry) and sleepiness (if she rubs her eyes, she's sleepy) did not know what it was talking about. Babies function in a periodic routine - where everything is repeated every 3 hours during daylight hours. They sleep on the dot. They eat on the dot. They will not tolerate deviations from schedule. Babies lick their lips and rub their eyes all the time.

I tried following cues once. I tried making her sleep when she rubbed her eyes. She refused to sleep. She puked on me. I persisted trying to make her sleep. And after a lot of effort she slept. I looked at the clock. It was exactly 3 hours since she had last slept. Cleaning up the mess, I swore I would never try following cues again.  And for 29 days since then I have been a happy camper.Babies are creatures of schedule. Little else.

Babies will gravitate towards forbidden articles. Without exception. And they will eat the said article when you are not looking.

The daughter has gazilions of toys. Toys that are made specifically for infants. Toys that are meant for the infant to shove into her mouth and maul to infinite glory. Toys that are periodically washed and do not even have a single molecule known to man to cause cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

And we also have television remote controls and a particularly disgusting slinky spring (which exists for some reason that I fail to recall) in the whereabouts of a play area.  Of course, the sanitized toys are abandoned in favor the the filthy options - and active intervention (often followed by shouts of disapproval) is necessary to right this wrong.

Babies are not creatures that respect boundaries either. We try to keep her on a blanket on the carpet in the living room. But she always moves towards the edge of said blanket, with one arm on the (forbidden) carpet all the time.

Diaper changes are planned by babies to occur at the most inconvenient of times. A lot has been written about the cognitive ability of infants at this age: that they do not comprehend the concept of object permanence; that they do not acknowledge themselves as an entity. However, they do possess some rudimentary intelligence - which is almost exclusively dedicated to finding the most inopportune time to require a diaper change.

Fast asleep at midnight after several awakenings to pretend to feed? Yes, I need a diaper change.
Finally starting to drink milk after 20 minutes of staunch refusal? Yes, I need a diaper change.
Installed in a baby high chair with all buckles painstakingly fastened and food heated up, ready to eat? Yes, I need a diaper change.
That awesome piece on science friday about neanderthals has just started? Yes, I need a diaper change. And I need it now.

Baby sleep is quantized. Babies are quantum creatures - not just because there's always uncertainty about what they will do next. But their sleep schedules are surprisingly quantized -- during the day, they sleep in periods which are integer multiples of 35 minutes.

Well, not exactly. The 35 minutes is more of a statistical mean -- there's a distribution around it (though, thankfully with a tight standard deviation). In other words, babies are more complex than quantum mechanics.

Babies don't like to be alone. Often, babies will ignore you when you are trying to play with them. But it is usually a bad idea to try to exploit this situation to pour yourself a (much needed) warm cup of coffee. Because, even though they are focusing intently on munching on that tag on the teddy bear, they are equally closely monitoring you. Once you step out of field of vision, they will invariably cry - and if you don't respond even for a minute, you will most certainly see a tear on their eye. No matter how discreet you are.

They will almost murder you with tears the first time you make them sleep. When you try to make a baby sleep for the first time, they will test you. They way I see it: babies have been conditioned by evolution to not warm up to any one off the street. They need to run a test to see if the person trying to make them sleep is worthy of the privilege. So one must persist making them sleep, inventing maneuvers to comfort them (using the amplitude and spectrogram of the crying sound as closed-loop feedback parameters). This ensures the development of a 'go-to-sleep' routine. Rewards (for developing said routine) can be reaped soon - my record for transforming her from an active state to a sound sleep state is 1 minute.

Grandparents are excepted from these rules.  My little stint with the daughter was bounded by two different (and incredibly capable) grandparents, who did not seem to be subject to the aforementioned constraints.  (you could argue that this proves that my rules are not repeatable - so the above points cannot be actual science, as they seem to fail when the scientific method is applied with care - but I'll ask you to with withhold judgement and take this on faith).

With these little tips, you shall definitely be able to take care of your six month old. Just remember humans are capable of incredible things like climbing  Everest, walking the Sahara barefoot, running marathons and operating windows 8. This should give you some confidence that you will probably be able to care for your little one.

STATUTORY WARNING **** if you were actually planning on taking this advice seriously, please get help. now.****

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A new business model for news?

To the individual who actually consumes the news, the internet is a blessing. It is possible to read news and opinion - immediately after publication -  from any source in the world, and comprehend the entire context of the happening by following a few hyperlinks. And all this is free. For now.

This level of immersion into current affairs (or even historical affairs for that matter)  is unprecedented in human history. To repeat a platitude, we are indeed in the golden age of information.

However, there is a catch. If you are getting something that you used to pay for, for free - then there are concerns about long term sustainability. How is the reporter going to feed his / her family if one portion of his / her revenue stream is dried up?

And sure enough, the contemporary newspaper business is in doldrums - and their way to cope with this issue is a paywall. If you want to read articles on the economist, you have to buy a subscription. The same with the new york times; the same with scientific american; the same with the wall street journal. 

But paywalls are a deeply problematic solution. Firstly, it becomes uneconomical to subscribe to all publications of interest (remember, one of the big plusses of the internet is to provide the ability to consume a variety of news sources). Secondly, the magic of internet lies in the ability to hyperlink from one story to another - and it would be undesirable, in my opinion to break that magic by paywalling.

So, in this context consider the following scenario.

People spend a lot of time consuming "news" through facebook (an a few lost souls do it through google plus). It's a fair bet to say that most internet users have a social media account of some sort. Currently news on social media is either sensationalized clickbait or in-depth (paywalled) analysis by repulable sources such as the economist and the new york times. And almost all non-paywalled news sites are difficult to consume due to a significant amount of real-estate being dedicated to irritating animated and noisy advertisements.

I believe there is an opportunity for these social media sites to offer a consolidated paywall for news, wherein avid news junkies (like yours truly) pay around $10-$30 a month for an all-you-can-eat buffet of articles from new scientist, scientific american, new york times, the economist, the BBC, times of India, the Hindu. (and so on). Since people know exactly where the clicks and "time-spent reading" are going, it would be a fairly trivial matter to divvy up the thus generated pot among the deserving news-sites.  This would be a spotify for the print media and would make the news media economically competitive again, while generating a robust revenue stream for the service providers (google, facebook and twitter being the current defaults), though this could easily happen through a third party app on either (or all) platforms.

Since we are considering an "all-you-can-eat" buffet of separate news sources aligned only by a sign-in to a third party, the hyperlink-to-paywall problem articulated earlier also has the potential to be solved: if you're signed through facebook (say), you are in the "secure area" inside the paywall - and hyperlinking should work like it did in the good old days (or at least that is the theory).

I could see this extrapolate to (or even include) news served up in video format - and something like this would be key in making finding information on the internet a less frustrating affair.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Meeting a Hindu Priest

So, the daughter had her traditional naming ceremony today, in accordance with specifications laid down by her grandparents. One of the requirements in a successful "naming" is a priest - and one such was imported from a local temple to oversee the ceremony.

The aforementioned importation was performed in a vehicle driven by yours truly, and this essentially implied that I got to spend 1 hour with a person I have absolutely nothing in common with. I won't lie - I was a bit nervous at this prospect, as I do come off as abrasive occasionally. I wanted to be on my best behavior to make sure this gentleman felt comfortable in my company. And  I think I managed to pull it off.

Of course, out of respect for his privacy, I won't be naming him or his temple. I will however minute out my chat with him, as I believe this chauferring business today was a field trip in anthropology.

The first thing that struck me about this gentleman is that he was very polite and sweet.

He hails from a fairly large metropolis in south India - and has performed 5 years of higher education in vedic scriptures. He has a rural background - his family earns farms near said metro.

He has spent a few years in the US, most of them in the valley of the sun. He currently lives in the temple campus in Arizona. He hasn't assimilated much at all - he depends on volunteers to take him around town. This presumably includes trips to walmart for groceries and keepsakes (read: chocolates). He does not have a driver's license - he has not even tried to get one as  his boss has forbidden him from driving. His only interaction with non-indian americans for any meaningful discussion duration has been with a bunch of local students who dropped by to understand how south indians perform rituals.

He works a lot every week - gets about a day off. However, he clearly enjoys what he does, so he appears to be in good humor. However, he is trying to get married - but he complains that "girls only want software engineers as husbands".

He will be in India next month - right in time for the generals. He backs the BJP  - primarily because the BJP has taken a strong stand against cow slaughter in India. He is optimistic that Modi will be the new prime minister. He was particularly appalled when I informed him that India was the world's largest exporter of beef. He is a die-hard vegetarian and mentioned that Humans don't need to eat meat - unlike a lion, needs to eat the deer by natures' decree.

His views on other religions seem to be uninformed and even naive. When I asked him if he ever entered a church in the US - possibly as an exercise of intellectual curiosity, he said he absolutely did not. His views on islam were particularly naive in my opinion - he felt that almost all violence in the world seemed to have an islamic origin (apparently MH370 had a muslim pilot and the boston marathon bombers were muslims). I did point out that his views were not empirically valid - and told him that some of my best friends are Muslims.

All said and done it was an interesting experience to chat with this gentleman.  One particularly sobering realization based on this discussion was regarding how easy it is to misinform people and whip up a lynch mob (a-la-2002) based on what he feels regarding islam.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Our Future is in OUR hands

There are a lot of Indians who hold a very pessimistic view of India. They believe that India is a poor casteist society whose glory days lie in ancient history. That India is a land saturated by 'goondas', a land where corrupt leaders rule the roost. That there are way too many people in India to have a realistic chance at prosperity for all. That Indians are somehow genetically inferior to the industrious Japanese (Japan being a nation which shares a similar population density, but has an order of magnitude more income per person).

I would like to argue that there is absolutely no reason for this inferiority complex. Indians are as industrious as any of the other peoples of the world; some of the world's smartest minds are (and have been) Indians.  (note that this is not a nationalist statement - one in 6 people in the world is Indian - and therefore, stands to reason that approximately 16% of the smartest people in the world are Indian)

In this article, I'd like to highlight a talk by one of India's (and humanity's) biggest fans, Professor Hans Rosling, whose talks in TED are a huge attraction. In a very unique and quantitative way, Professor Rosling professes a very optimistic and rosy view about all of humanity, India included. He is of the firm belief that the average Indian will achieve a western standard of living within a single life-time - and he proves this by extrapolating trendlines is his TED Talk.



Economists agree that a young developing nation (with a lot of people in the "earning" age of the population distribution) is more likely to grow (and frankly needs to grow). Nations like Russia and Japan have lots of old people (an inverted population pyramid); as a consequence, no one expects them to grow very significantly. Of late, China has been making use of its demographic "dividend" growing at consistent astronomical rates since 1979. (However, due to their draconian one-child policy, it is expected that their growth will decelerate soon). India also has a demographic dividend - that's part of the reason why the last 10 years have been the best in India's recorded history, as far as average economic growth rates are concerned. However, there are growing concerns that the dream is rapidly fading away due to the cowardly policy stands of the center government. And slow growth right now will be nothing short of a humanitarian disaster - as the hundreds of millions of India's young need jobs.

There are several ways to put a population to work. And not all of them are equally successful. Consider this: America was not always as rich as it is now; Japan (with the same population density as India) was not always as rich as it is right now. China was poorer than India 30 years ago.  In almost any region that has achieved "western" levels of per-capita incomes one thread is common: freedom. Economic freedom. When you allow people to do what they want to, it just happens that they do a good job of it and generate wealth. They generate wealth that no amount of central planning ever could. And this wealth generation is the best way to mitigate poverty.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in America's universities and in the silicon valley, I would like to reiterate that Indians are as capable as any other race. There is nothing that his necessarily holding India back, other than a lack of economic freedom; something that politicians in India have annexed in the name of "socialism". India has been experimenting with socialism over the last 60 years. While there have been significant strides made (e.g. in fostering a robust democratic tradition, something most countries in the world still struggle with), India is a significant laggard in human development. Data shows that this is due to an oppressive regulatory environment that has stifled economic freedom.

It is up to the people of India to make their vote count and to take the side of economic freedom and rapid development.It is up to the people of India to make their vote count to make prof. Rosling's vision come true. The key to good human development at the bottom of the pyramid isn't hand-outs and subsidies; it's economic freedom, entrepreneurism and free enterprise.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Everything Will be On Record -- And it will be awesome!

I have thought about this a lot. And I have now become convinced that, in the near future (in the next decade, say), every interaction you have with anyone else, every little walk you take outside your house, every single thing you say, will be recorded. And this will not be a bad thing.

And in most countries, it will not be big brother who is recording you -- it will be you, yourself. You will be wearing a wire all the time -- every conversation you have will be picked up by a hidden camera and microphone on your person (tethered wirelessly  to your smartphone, possibly) ; it will be recorded and immediately uploaded to the cloud. You will do it; everyone else will do it; and everyone you know will know that you're doing it - and you will know that everyone else is doing it. Furthermore, friendly algorithmic agents in the cloud will determine if you are in imminent danger - and will dispatch appropriate authorities to your current location, should such a determination be made. All this without any violation of privacy -- they're acting on fully your behalf. 

By far the biggest benefit of this will be felt in the developing world. A developing world, where there's lots of poverty - and subsequently, lots of corruption, bribery and exploitation right now. I believe that this is all set to change because of technology. I believe that when used appropriately, technology can bring an unprecedented level of transparency to human-human interactions, potentially striking a debilitating blow to current self-sustaining cycles of corruption. 

Consider the following scenario, which most Indians will be able to relate to. 

You're in a government office, trying to secure some paperwork to take possession of your new house. Things are great, except for the clerk at the registration office, who wants a few tens of thousands of rupees to line his pockets with. You really have no way out of this situation -- he's going to irritate and harass you until you pay up.

Now, imagine, if you had a hidden camera/microphone on your person - and you recorded some fairly incriminating statements and expressions from him (demanding bribes, for example). And then you proceeded to hand this tape over to one of the hundreds of news channels which have mushroomed of late in India. This naming and shaming that will ensue will possibly act as a disincentive from further corrupt behavior.

The tea-boy who sees a minister get off light after running that red light could hand over embarassing records to the media, for instance. And if the police don't record acts of sexual violence  and say something misogynistic instead -- you now have a video of a shameless, corrupt cop to upload to youtube.

This will, of course, bring about a 'blackmail' culture for a while. But I am convinced that this is a transient. Soon, every government employee, scared that they will be falsely named and shamed, without telling their own side of the story, will start recording everything they do. Maybe their employer will do it for them. Soon every human interaction will be recorded by both parties. And this will bring rise to perfect transparency. The same clerk in the registration office that we talked about earlier will now work under a camera, which is recording everything you say to him; everything he says to you. Your personal microphone is also recording everything you say to him. If you offer to bribe him, you're in trouble; if he requests a bribe, he's in trouble. Your only option is to follow the rules. His only option is to follow the rules.

Big brother isn't watching you. But if you do something wrong, the wronged party can rewind the tape and show big brother.And if some party wrongs you, you and rewind the tape and show big brother.  And if big brother isn't willing to listen, big news media is going to be more than happy to listen.

And this will kill corruption.

Thoughts?




Sunday, January 22, 2012

Reconciling western notions of free speech with India

Okay. So, we've all recently suffered through the Salman Rushdie fiasco, where India's ostensibly immature attitude towards freedom of speech denied him permission to travel to Jaipur. As a progressive, I do find this distasteful -- because I personally hold no diety sacred; I hold no supernatural dogma sacred -- but I do hold individual liberty and the freedom of speech sacred.

I have no doubt in my mind that this is not the way it ought to have been. Let us assume the worst, for instance. Let us assume that Salman Rusdhie was trying to troll the adherents of the religion of his ancestors. (This article discusses Islam's beef with Mr. Rushdie  -- I would be willing to call this creative license, and not intentional trolling --- but as I said, let us assume the worst).

Let us also consider the similar case of M.F. Hussain, held by many to be India's answer to Picasso. Hussain earned the hatred of India's insane conservative Hindu movement for these paintings (how dare some muslim draw our godesses in the nood?), among others. (I'm fairly sure that if India's far right read this blog, they would be after my head too -- but hey, I get about one view a day!). Again, for argument's sake, let us assume the worst. While I don't think these paintings are inherently more salacious than the average sculpture/painting of the same goddesses in question (that the  Hindu worships without question), let us assume that these were made to troll the Hindu masses.


So, extrapolating from these two cases, let us consider two thought experiments. Author S who intentionally trolls religion I1 with incendiary writings; Painter H1 who trolls adherents religion H2 by depicting godesses in the nood. Ought a democratic third world nation, I2, comprised primarily of religions I1 and H2 ban the offending works of S and H1? Ought I1 and H2 be ostracized from I2 society?

The answer is a clear no. Ideas that challenge the status quo must not be shunned; they must be allowed to spread based on their merit in society. Take Darwin for instance; his theory of evolution pretty much invalidated the deeply held dogma of all organized religion out there -- and they did not like it. His theory is one of humanity's most significant philosophical achievements to date. Irreverence to holy texts should not be censored, at the very least.

Given the nature of the opposition to Mr. Hussain and Mr. Rushdie ("let us vandalize his house and destroy everything he loves" / "let's kill him"), we must understand that we're dealing with intellectual twelve year olds here.

Of course, a Hussain or a Rushdie could be deemed to be a polarizing figure. Someone who makes religious people uncomfortable. A model citizen, in my book, if offended by a Rushdie or a Hussain, would write about it in blogs and in facebook. A model citizen would conduct a peaceful protest march on the street.

Sadly we don't live in such a world. Provoked mobs are notorious in their tendency to lynch. Salman Rushdie will probably be killed if he is in  Muslim country (like translators for the satanic verses have been killed elsewhere).

More than that, angry third world mobs tend to riot, hurt and kill themselves. A puristic interpretation of the freedom of speech would prioritize the  freedom of expression of a smug troll over the life of a thin skinned human being who lives in the third world. 

While I do believe the average third world ought to develop a thicker skin, I think he/she has better things to do --- like work for food. To this end,  I do believe absolute freedom speech is a western luxury, and third world nations such as India and can be forgiven for banning books which have a high chance of creating communal tension. I'm upset that Rushdie cannot be allowed to come to India to address the meeting in Jaipur, because I believe the freedom of expression has suffered a blow. But I do understand that his visit would have brought about a potentially dangerous situation in Jaipur.

Following the thread of causality I just articulated, it means that I'm upset that India is a third world country with citizens who have very thin skins. Or that I'm upset India is a third world country. Which is the story of my life. I'm upset that my home country is a third would country with the largest number of poor people in the known universe.Which is a bigger problem than the freedom of expression of a troll.











Monday, December 19, 2011

Links for December 19, 2011

Articles that I have been reading today:

http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney

An excellent article on denialism in general.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228372.200-the-underhand-ape-why-corruption-is-normal.html?full=true&print=true.

An article on how corruption is a part of human nature.

http://cdn.theatlantic.com/static/infocus/kjiobit121911/k30_19020182.jpg

This gentleman is delighted that Kim Jong Il is no more.

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2010/02/a_nation_of_racist_dwarfs.single.html

And this tells you why the aforementioned man is delighted.

http://neoindian.org/2011/06/16/why-you-should-read-the-vedas-and-why-the-religious-will-never-understand-them/

An interesting perspective on the Vedas.

http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679008/an-indian-inventor-disrupts-the-period-industry

Good to see eccentric inventors in India.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/17/opinion/crashing-the-tea-party.html?_r=1

The tea party is popular no more. Looks like George Sr. will have to change to coffee with his dolls in the attic.


Wednesday, December 07, 2011

And Ode To Data

As an engineer who has hung around lots of test sections over the last few years, I have developed a mortal fear of a four letter word: Data.

Data is nature's way of keeping your ego in check; data is nature's way of proving that your understanding of the universe (or that miniscule fraction of the universe that you are studying) is entirely incorrect (or at least, needs some level of tweaking).

Data is the world's best physics teacher. The curious engineer relishes fitting physical models to incomprehensible data patterns. The high of fitting a model and making measurable predictions is one of the great highs of life. It is often worth the corresponding low when one realizes that there's a caveat to the model that we just developed.

My attitude towards data has evolved since I joined Intel about a year ago. In graduate school my life was  centered around data. The emphasis back then was to fit an intellectually elegant physical model to the data - so as to make the results general. I believe there is a physicist within every engineer. It is this inner physicist within every engineer that likes to fit a physical model to the data. A shot at redemption for engineer who is, at some level ashamed of becoming a sell-out.\

Having made the switch from academia to the dark side (the corporate world), I am guilty of selling out all the more. While my loyalties do still lie with data (and at Intel, data is the undisputed king), the way of looking at data is completely different.It is less passionate; it is more dreary and mundane. Heartless sounding statistical methods are applied to the data to cull out main effects and interactions.

Which is not to say that physics is entirely forgotten. Physics is more like a philosophy here; it is what informs one's intuition. All the model fitting that is done here is done in one's head. 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

It's not rocket science

One of my pet peeves these days is the phrase "It's not rocket science". Because rocket science is not complicated. You take chemicals that produce a large amount of gas on chemically reacting; you duct the gas out in one direction -- and you immediately move in the opposite reaction.  It's so simple that even ancient peoples had working rockets -- before they even knew what a technical paper was. I hereby take a vow: I will NOT use the phrase "It's not rocket science" ever again. Because that's an insult to my intelligence.

Let's think of something more apt. Manned flight? Meh. An undergrad who's been paying attention in fluid mechanics class can draw a couple of control volumes and prove the Kutta-Jukowski theorem. If an undergrad can explain something, I refuse to use that to signify a complicated situation.

Before I learnt how microprocessors worked, it was all greek to me. But now, I see how circuits of transistors trading in 0s and 1s essentially run the internet. While all this is remarkably complicated, it is not a philosophically closed book. I can wrap my head around it. But this is significantly more complex than rocket science.

I've a;ways found understanding avian flight to be a much more difficult prospect. It's considerably more complex than how an airplane generates thrust and lift -- but it's not impossible to explain. As a matter of fact, this site does a good job of it. If you say "It's not bird flight", you will earn a little more of my respect than you would have, had you gone with "It's not rocket science".

But one thing that does scream complexity to me is theoretical physics. I've sort of sold-out by getting a PhD in engineering ('cause that's where the monies are), so there's almost no chance that I can make head or tail of how a neutrino traveling faster than light can allow for time travel. My understanding of the world starts and stops with classical mechanics (like most engineers). What would intimidate me is the math and physics of string theory. Hell, even quantum theory.

Long story short -- if you say "It's not rocket science", I will either lose all respect for your intellectual faculties, or interpret it as "it's not as simple as rocket science". For a particular task to gain my respect you probably will have to claim that it's not bird-flight --- or, what the hell, the theory of faster-than light neutrinos.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On Tablets

It's been more than a year since I became a part of the Apple bandwagon. I purchased myself an iPAD about 16 months ago. I was sufficiently impressed by the same to subsequently purchase an iPhone. Looking back, this is probably because of Apple's reality distortion field.

And the wife was  impressed enough to purchase the most recent iThing with Siri. 

I can now confirm that the the iPad is pretty useless. You can't read an article on it when it's dark as the iPad is too bright. You can't read an article on it when it's bright because the light will reflect off the glossy surface. When you finally locate yourself at a convenient angle, you will find that the screen orientation will automatically flip to horizontal when you're prepared to read it vertically. 

And then there's the fiasco of trying to navigate a large multi-page article on the iPAD. It is almost taken for granted that you will click some silly link inadvertently while trying to resize an article. Some of the more sadistic webpage designers like to split a story into 20 pages with links to pages 1 through 20 at the bottom of the page. Each and every one of those numbers is hyperlinked,  (like such: 1 2 3 ... 20). Clicking these numbers is about the most difficult thing one can consider doing with one's iPad.  I inevitably click everything else on the page (including advertisements) while attempting to click these numbers.  I am convinced that my arbitrary clicking on an iPad article is to some extent responsible for the success of the ad-revenue model of some of the websites I visit.

Have you ever tried to type on the damned thing? The keyboard is evil, most likely a descendant of Josef Stalin. Yes, I get it -- the touchscreen is a wonder of the modern world, yes, yes. But what big Steve has done is that he's taken something simple and functional (the humble keyboard) and turned it into something beautiful and utterly useless.  As someone who types a fair amount, I can think of several things that are more pleasurable than typing on an iPad. Like getting waterboarded.

Sometimes, I like to mask my frustration by thinking of  the iPad as a mere piece of glass. When I watch people type on it (or shooting birds at stones on it), I imagine the screen to be blank. This immediately converts my frustration into mirth, as anyone would look ridiculous beating a piece of glass without any gratification. I usually collapse in laughter watching people do stupid things to glass.

Tablets are first world toys. They're useless for creating content (you can't really type on the damn things). You can't really consume content on them (give me my 37" TV anyday over the piece-of-crap IPAD). 

Maybe the experience with M$' Windows 8 will be different? Skeptical I remain.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Proposition: An atheist Chruch

We like spending time with like-minded people. Christians spend Sunday in the church; singles spend friday nights in bars attempting to simulate perpetuating their genes; Hindus spend time injuring the soles of their feet in the temple; Muslim (men) attend the mosque; stoned slackers attend tapings of the Daily Show in NYC. But where does the friendly neighborhood atheist go? Nowhere. He/ she sits at home browsing reddit. Reddit is a site where people post pictures of themselves and their pets doing stupid things. The goal is to be a little less pathetic.

I hereby decree that there be established something physical called the Church of the flying spaghetti monster. Its philosophy is well articulated here . Its subsidiary in China would be called the Party headquarters of the airborne soy-soaked noodle; the Indian affiliate would be the temple of the traveling Pav bhaji. But I digress.

This church will convene every Sunday morning, just like Christian churches do. It will have a service where congregants watch youtube videos of Salman Khan (the educator, not the actor, www.khanacademy.org ). After exhausting all those videos, the congregation will move on to watching Leo Susskind's talks at Stanford on Quantum mechanics. The video will be rewatched until the congregation acquires a philosophical understanding of quantum mechanics. It is therefore moot to decide upon what to watch next.

The church will be organized at some dude's basement, using his 50" (125.7cm) television for all Khan-watching purposes. In areas where basements are uncommon, the sessions will be either organized on the roof, in the garden or in the garage. The host will assume all responsibility of transporting the 1257mm (we like to keep it metric here) to the place in consideration. Living rooms will be avoided since it is assumed that the inevitable xbox 360 will provide a diversion from Khan watching.

The head church will be established in one of the poorer parts of Vatican city, primarily to troll organized religion. (There were three options -- Vatican city, Mecca or Benares. Mecaa lost out because it would be illegal under prevailing Saudi Law. Benares is a no-go, because I personally am averse to filth; the goal is to troll, not to commit suicide. Which leaves only the Vatican.

If we were to limit these atheist Churches to cities with an atheist population exceeding 1,000 that would essentially eliminate most cities in the US, India and the middle east. (The latter because the would all have been stoned to death if and when they did come out, the former because they would have been bullied to dead for being a lie-bur-ull, and India because some everyone loves their neighborhood crackpot.) For Instance, I have it from an unimpeachable source that I was the only atheist in Chennai when I stayed there.I'm fairly sure that I am the only atheist in Phoenix at this point in time. I was the only atheist in Bahrain when I stopped over there to change flights in the airport.

Sounds complicated. Perhaps it is now time to watch a fox eat a cracker instead.




Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lokpal Blues

Now that the Lokpal Bill pretty much has been passed, I'm trying to figure out whether I should continue being skeptical of this, or if I should look at the silver lining.

My issues with the bill still persist--

The bill has been drafted unilaterally by a small, unrepresentative panel. That this bill (drafted by common citizens) gained so much eminence is certainly a gross perversion of democracy - what makes Anna Hazare et al. so special to get their bill considered ahead of other citizens? - but let us overlook that for now, as this is not germane to the issue.

The bill has been "passed" by the parliament under duress, under significant emotional manipulation ("Pass it or I starve to death!"). This is also a gross perversion of democracy. But let us overlook this for now as well, as this is also not entirely germane to the issue. (Let me also add that I am proud of the discipline shown by the crowds - there were scant untoward events during the massive gatherings - which is very surprising for a crowd in India.)

The people in charge of the movement certainly do not inspire confidence. Anna Hazare has several Talibanistic tendencies -- he is known to have gotten some "drunkards" flogged in public for drinking in is village. He is known for his association with regressive hindu fundamentalists such as Baba Ramdev, whose views on everything have more in common with Ug the caveman than the average Indian. Just talk to him about homosexuality if you want to get a snapshot of his views.

These three factors made me oppose the bill on principle - and I've been fairly shrill about this. But now that the bill has pretty much passed in the parliament all my whining will be of little consequence. So, let us nitpick the actual bill:

The motivation for this bill is absolutely indisputable. Corruption is crippling the bottom of the economic pyramid in India. It is also irking the urban middle class which compares Indian politicians with Barack Obama (who seems squeaky clean compared to A Raja and Laloo Yadhav) and feels humiliated.

But are the actual provisions smart? Do I think that they will curb corruption? Let me copy the summary of the bill from wikipedia and comment upon it [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Lokpal_Bill#Criticisms_of_the_bill, my comments are italicized and under-lined in square braces [] ] :


Some important features of the proposed bill are:[11]

  1. To establish a central government anti-corruption institution called Lokpal, supported by Lokayukta at the state level. [No issues with this]
  2. As in the case of the Supreme Court and Cabinet Secretariat, the Lokpal will be supervised by the Cabinet Secretary and the Election Commission. As a result, it will be completely independent of the government and free from ministerial influence in its investigations. [Basically a supercop which is not under the government's control - none of the people who appoint the Lokpal are elected representatives. This means that it will be impossible for the people to vote out an unpopular Lokpal -- this is a massive, existential flaw with the law.]
  3. Members will be appointed by judges, Indian Administrative Service officers with a clean record, private citizens and constitutional authorities through a transparent and participatory process. [ (1) Clean record requirement opens a can of worms, as now there appears and incentive to get people framed (2) Who selects the private citizens who select these Lokpals / Lokayuktas? (3) This whole thing is beginning to look like a scenario from Yes Prime Minister -- like the conversations between Sir Arnold and Sir Appleby and the chairmanship of the commission for the freedom of information]
  4. A selection committee will invite short-listed candidates for interviews, videorecordings of which will thereafter be made public. [I like the videorecordings bit -- but how will it be guaranteed that the the transparency is real and not selective?]
  5. Every month on its website, the Lokayukta will publish a list of cases dealt with, brief details of each, their outcome and any action taken or proposed. It will also publish lists of all cases received by the Lokayukta during the previous month, cases dealt with and those which are pending. [Again, how do we make sure that the facts are not selective? You can frame anyone by doctoring facts. The appearance of transparency is dangerous -- how do you guarantee that the transparency is genuine?]
  6. Investigations of each case must be completed in one year. Any resulting trials should be concluded in the following year, giving a total maximum process time of two years. [Yes. And the moon is made of green cheese. How is this rule going to be implemented in a nation where cases drag on for centuries in the courts?]
  7. Losses caused to the government by a corrupt individual will be recovered at the time of conviction.
  8. Government officework required by a citizen that is not completed within a prescribed time period will result in Lokpal imposing financial penalties on those responsible, which will then be given as compensation to the complainant.
  9. Complaints against any officer of Lokpal will be investigated and completed within a month and, if found to be substantive, will result in the officer being dismissed within two months. [See comment 6]
  10. The existing anti-corruption agencies (CVC, departmental vigilance and the anti-corruption branch of the CBI) will be merged into Lokpal which will have complete power and authority to independently investigate and prosecute any officer, judge or politician. [Don't care about this.]
  11. Whistleblowers who alert the agency to potential corruption cases will also be provided with protection by it.

Bottomline: The bill creates a new non-democratically selected power center. This is a step backwards for democracy. The head lokpal has so many powers that he could very well plot a coup against a government the Lokpal declares "corrupt" .

Futhermore, there is no fool-proof mechanism to keep this person honest (though it is quite clear that the drafters of the Jan-Lokpal bill did try to account for this issue --- but I don't think it is anywhere near foolproof as they would like).

While this law does address some issues (like the political neutrality of the supercop), it raises several more serious questions. The silver lining is being obscured by other clouds :(





Monday, April 25, 2011

Another Holy Cow

I speak of none other than Sathya Sai Baba, Satyanarayana Raju (or Raju, as I will call him henceforth in this post, because all men are equal.).

This is a sensitive topic, lots of people I know have a lot of respect for this gentleman.

However, I would like to link to his wikipedia article here.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sathya_Sai_Baba

And I would like to point out certain aspects within the article.

This particular section has him resembling Peter Parker.

On 8 March 1940, while living with his elder brother Seshama Raju in Uravakonda, Sathya was apparently stung by a scorpion.[27][28] He lost consciousness for several hours.[26] Within the next few days there was a noticeable change in Sathya's behavior.[28] There were "symptoms of laughing and weeping, eloquence and silence."[28][29] "He began to sing Sanskrit verses, a language of which he had no prior knowledge."[6] Doctors believed his behavior to be hysteria.[6][28] His parents brought Sathya home to Puttaparthi.[30] Concerned, they took him to many priests, "doctors" and exorcists.[28][29]

On 23 May 1940, Sathya called household members and reputedly materialised prasad and flowers for his family members.[31] His father became furious at seeing this, thinking his son was bewitched. He took a stick and asked him who he was. To this Sathya announced calmly and firmly "I am Sai Baba", a reference to Sai Baba of Shirdi.[6][26] He proclaimed himself to be a reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi—a saint who became famous in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Maharashtra and had died eight years before Sathya was born.[6][30][32]



*sigh*

Devotees say they have observed Sathya Sai Baba manifesting vibuti (holy ash), and sometimes food and "small objects" such as rings, necklaces and watches.[103] In some books, magazines, filmed interviews and articles, Sathya Sai Baba's followers report miracles of various kinds that they attribute to him.[104] The first ever record of Baba's miracles by a foreigner was made by Howard Murphet in his book, Sai Baba – Man Of Miracles.[105] Devotees have said that objects have appeared spontaneously in connection with pictures and altars of Sathya Sai Baba.[106][107] Sathya Sai Baba's devotees believe that he relieves his devotees by transferring their pain to himself.[108]


(and the rest of the section "Reputation for Miracles and Clairvoyance").

*sigh again*

And this:

The Vancouver Sun in 2001 reported that Sathya Sai Baba told his adherents not to browse the Internet due to allegations rapidly circulating on various Internet websites and in a few newspapers.[131] In a 2000 public discourse, Sathya Sai Baba said, "These teachings (the Vedas) are highly sacred. Today people are ready to believe all that they see on television and internet but do not repose their faith in the Vedic declarations. Internet is like a waste paper basket. Follow the 'innernet,' not the internet."[132]

I will finally end with this video:



Epilogue:

An argument in favor of people like the aforementioned Raju is that he can get stuff done to help the people who need it most.

I still don't think we need to resort to blind faith in something supernatural to do this. I don't mourn his death more than I would mourn anyone else's.

I must also link to a BBC documentary series and an excellent reddit thread discussing these issues.

(1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BVEJDPrGpM&feature=player_embedded

(2) http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/gw7q5/indian_god_sri_sathya_sai_baba_dead_at_86/

Monday, April 18, 2011

Who do we trust?

Exhibit (1) -- A take-down of Communist Rule in WB from rupert murdoch's propaganda rag, the wsj.

http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2011/04/13/india-journal-the-unnecessary-decline-of-calcutta/

The post contains this patently illogical statement:

In 1950, the city had a population of over 4.5 million. Bombay’s population stood at 2.6 million and Delhi’s at 1.4 million. Bangalore had just 0.8 million people. By 2007, Bombay’s population was nearly 19 million, Delhi and Bangalore had 16.7 million and 7 million people respectively, while Calcutta’s population was 14.8 million. While other cities have successfully projected themselves as offering economic opportunity and upward social mobility, Calcutta is a shadow of its former self and wouldn’t even be counted among the top four cities in India. It has long been surpassed not just by Bombay and Delhi, but arguably even Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad.

IMHO the author (Rajiv Mantri) needs to rush to a hospital to get his head examined.


Exhibit (2) -- This article in the Financial Times, which seems to want to give the communists the benefit of the doubt.

http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2011/04/18/marxism-in-west-bengal-good-for-growth/

Certainly both can't be right, unless this is Schrodinger's politics.

Needs some investigation.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Only 2 ways out

I've come to realize that there's only 2 ways the entire crisis of 2008 could have been dealt with.

(1) Let the banks fail and face the depression that the pundits promised would follow.
(2) Big governments saves the banks, averts a depression.

Method (1) would have been the capitalist way out. The free market way out. The fiscally conservative way out. Method (1) would have instilled a fear of misbehavior in the banks and other financial institutions - and thus ensured that the crisis would not have occured again.

However, method (2), the "big government" solution was implemented. The banks were saved by taxpayer guarantees. A depression was averted (say Krugman et al.). Let us pause here and note that the more fiscally conservative politicos decided that capitalism was a no-go. Bush et al. decided that they needed a strong state to "guide" capitalism. They decided that the invisible hand was too harsh a fitness function for the Genetic Algorithm that is the market, especially when one is dealing with banks.

Now that method (2) has been implemented, we must forget about method (1). There is no way we should even consider unfettered capitalism in the short run (with the same companies which benifited from the handout still in existence). The only way out is to regulate the banks to hell. If politicians manage to impose method (1) characteristics on the system what will result is a bastard child of socialism and capitalism -- one where losses are socialized and profits are privatized. There is a bunch of people that believe this has already happened.

So, my understanding is that there is no option but to regulate everything, sit down and shut up and accept all the inefficiencies that come with it. If you want to say "market knows best", then I will remind you that in your worldview, you are dealing with financial institutions which should have died. If you let them get away with no regulation, you should realize that what is happening is not capitalism anymore. Moral Hazard, yada yada yada.

So, in essence, fiscal conservatives should also realize that their philosophy is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. After all, a fiscally conservative president rescued the banks with government money. This should be enough evidence for us to throw these ideas (from Ron Paul et al.) into a bottomless pit.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Portland

Was in Portland for a couple of days for a hectic training trip. This was my second trip to the city (the first one having been in November).

I have been told that it is a beautiful city with snow covered peaks in the vicinity (Mount Hood), beautiful evergreen forests and the rugged pacific coast. Unfortunately, there was no way to verify this claim, as the city's skies were saturated with clouds all along. This was the case in November -- and it was also the case now. For all I knew, all the maps and photos could be an elaborate ruse, and that surroundings of the city could be as flat as central Texas.

Did I mention the gloom? I believe most native Portlanders believe that the sun exists only for 3 months a year, and the rest of the year it is replaced by some sort of hazy continuum in the sky. Stands to reason that Copernicus, Galileo and the like did not hail from Oregon. And it rains all the time. It rains so much that there's moss on the asphalt!

My employer (who shall remain unnamed) has several campii in the area -- and each campus hires several thousands people, who commute on the perpetually wet streets of Portland. I found one fairly ironic thing on campus: a covered parking area with solar panels on top. It certainly is the height of optimism to expect to produce any useful amount of electricity from the 270 days of utter gloom that the city encounters. I'd like to meet whoever did the ROI calculations on that.

I could now relate to why Nirvana, Alice in Chains and the like produced such gloomy music -- Seattle essentially has the same weather. There is no way you could expect bubblegum pop to arise from such a setting.

On a concluding note, I look forward to one of my subsequent trips to Portland being in Summer. I have been told that those 3 months (from July to September) begin to resemble paradise. This will be a welcome change from the 50C temperatures in the Valley of the Sun, which spring, summer and fall invariably bring with them.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Silent Sundays

So, this weekend, Radha and I decided to hike up Camelback (again). We decided to do it on Sunday, because, well, we were lazy on Saturday. We took our own sweet time in getting things done, and found ourselves in the Camelback area around 915a.

We had assumed that getting a parking spot would be quite a simple deal -- but it did not work out. There was not a spot in sight -- just a line of cars ahead of us, seeking that non-existent spot.

Since Camelback wasn't going to work out, we though going up Squaw peak (2 weeks in a row) should not be such a bad deal --- it'll get the heart beating fast -- good cardio.

Same problem there. No place to park. For a city with so many things to do, Phoenix does not have enough parking places to keep your car while you do the things that you can do.

So, we made our way to South Mountain. (We were going to get that cardio -- no two ways about it). And as soon as we entered the park, we were informed that it was a silent Sunday, and that no motor vehicle would be permitted within.

We took some bikes on rent near the parking lot and climbed up (all the way to the summit). It took us a good 1 hr 35 min to go up (because we were no physical shape to do so). The bike that they gave us was a thick wheeled mountain bike -- and it did not perform as well as one of the thin wheeled ones. The way up was a struggle, though reaching the top did allow us to wallow (for a little while) in a sense of achievement.

And then the downhill ride was fun.

All this was done without coping with vehicular traffic on the mountain thanks to the city's silent Sunday program. This is what they ought to do on every paved mountain around the world!

Cold in NY, Warm in the Arctic

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/25/science/earth/25cold.html?hp

The surprising variability of climate never ceases to amaze. Clearly, the last line of the article makes sense. Nature is the total perspective vortex!

“Just when you publish something and it looks like you’re seeing a connection,” Dr. Wallace said, “nature has a way of humbling us.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

Uranium in Punjab Water


It started off with Mrinal's post RTI requests (pages 1, 2, 3 and 4 ).

The gist of these reports is that high concentrations of Uranium have been found in bore-well water in areas in Punjab. The uranium in question here is natural uranium and not depleted or enriched uranium, suggesting that a military connotation is unlikely. The study is being conducted by the Guru Nakak Deo University at Amritsar -- and a final report is due in 2 years. The report also states that using reverse osmosis is sufficient to reduce the concentration of U in water.

Concerns regarding consuming food grown in Punjab were raised by Mrinal.

Further investigation lead to the following links from Akhilesh:

Article from Punjab Newsline regarding links between H2O U concentration and mental retardation. Dr. Carin Smit (from RSA) was responsible for the study.

A wikipedia article on the same subject was also unearthed, which contains a good summary of the issues. Along with the summary, several excellent links are also available in the footnotes section, including an NDTV report, a report in the Telegraph and an article in the observer. (Subsequent talkback regarding this article – especially regarding the link between Autism and waterborne Uranium cited by Lingo available here).

From the wikipedia article, it is clear that the likely source of uranium in Punjab was fly-ash from coal-fired power plants. There are 3 coal fired power plants in Punjab, as per this wikipedia article. (a) Ropar (b) Lehra Mohabat (c) Bhatinda


Source map available here. Figures are from the BARC documents referenced above.

The map is mildy suggestive of a correlation of U concentration in water to proximity to Power plants. This correlation was originally investigated by an article in the Observer in 2009.

The technicalities of Uranium pollution due to thermal power generation were then explored. PJ cites a couple of articles

Around 90% naturally occurring uranium could be stopped in the RO membrane. However methods like ion exchange would be more effective. If it is a naturally occuring uranium(?), is probably composed of 99.3% uranium-238, 0.7% uranium-235, and a negligible amount of uranium-234 (by weight), as well as a number of radioactive decay products. The half-life of uranium-238 is about 4.5 billion years, uranium-235 about 700 million years, and uranium-234 about 25 thousand years. 235 and 234 isotopes are much more harmful than the 238 one. US EPA guideline for drinking water is 20-30 µg/l, Australia is 20 µg/L and California Public Health Goal for Uranium in Drinking Water (not a regulatory standard) is 0.5 µg per litre. So the water in Punjab is definitely 6-7 times higher in concentration even by the modest guidelines. This level of uranium is not dangerous for example if one was to be in the water or bath in the water. But it is NO NO for drinking. Because all uranium isotopes are primarily alpha emitters, they are only hazardous if ingested or inhaled, so definitely NO NO for eating the vegetable products in the area as well. Several of the radioactive uranium decay products are gamma emitters, that is why workers in the vicinity of large quantities of uranium in storage or in a processing facility can also be exposed to low levels of external radiation. This could come in picture if there is a dump site. This is a very serious issue and definitely worth taking considering this will affect generations to come (ofcourse it would depend on the extent of contamination in all of Punjab and neighbouring state waters).

PJ Also supplies a link to a SciAm article, which asserts that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. However, the article asserts that both are fairly harmless and does not get worked up about it.

There are several unanswered questions at this point.

(1) Why Punjab? If fly ash is responsible – why not the USA, which gets more than 50% of its energy through coal? Why not other areas in India?

(2) Is food from Punjab (grown, presumably on this high U water) dangerous?

(3) Are we confident that U is responsible for the retardation in children? Is the number of retarded children in Punjab abnormally high?

(4) Are the concentrations of U unequivocally die to coal ash?

An email was sent by Mihir to offer help with this issue to Ms. Smit in RSA.

Dr Smit,

Hope this email finds you well. I am part of a small group that has recently discovered the issue that you have been working on (regarding extremely high levels of exposure to Uranium in children in Punjab's S Malwa region) and have read the paper that you published together with the team from Microtrace.

Quick introduction to who we are: We are a community of Indians - living both in India and abroad - who have graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras sometime between the last 5-8 years. Our group focuses on policy discussions, but we also want to help out with targeted issues such as this.

First, we wanted to thank you for all the work you have done to analyze and publicize this issue. I am sure it must have been an uphill struggle, and I cannot imagine what it took. For all of this, thank you.

Second, we wanted to ask you how best we could help. Here are a few avenues we are toying with, but we would be interested in your thoughts:

It seems to us that our effort may need two clear goals:

1. Identify and mitigate the root causes of the uranium exposure as quickly as possible

2. Evaluate how widespread the effects of this problem are (eg. Most of India's food comes from the Punjab - is there a possibility of the metal seeping into groundwater that is subsequently used for agriculture?)

There are potentially a few ways of doing this (all thought starters at this point):

a. Get the company I work for (I am an Engagement Manager at a consulting firm called McKinsey) to do a pro-bono study on this issue through their social sector office with a group of volunteers from within the company and try to unearth key causes.

b. Organize fundraisers to highlight this issue and fund academic studies that help us get to the root cause/ mitigate it

c. Reach out to contacts we have in the media in India to ensure that we raise the profile of this problem

d. We may need to do all of these to get anywhere

For now, we would be quite interested in 2 things:

1. Understanding if you are still actively working on this issue, or is there another person you can point us to that may be a better point of contact.

2. If you are active on this topic, we would love to set up a conference call with you and speak to you on what the right approach/ setup might be to make a difference to the children of Faridkot.

Apologies for this long email, and please let us know what we could do to make a difference. Thanks so much!

Mihir Mysore



I'm disabling comments on this post -- let's keep the discussion on FB.