Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The hands that raise a thousand eyebrows: One of the most common edicts passed by upholders of our cultural inheritance (read Shiv Sena and Co.), is a ban, 'informal' as it may be, on holding hands. I really don't understand why. I think that hand-holding is probably the minimal, non-invasive (culturally), action that a couple can engage in, which may nonetheless be (and I hear 'reports' that it is) quite affectionate. A ban on holding hands is a blow to the expression of a minimum, but quite effective, form of human affection. Such a ban should be severely deplored.

Also, I have thought of a clever substitute to holding hands for protesting against the bigotry- 'holding feet', since it can be done below eye-level. This habit, if sustained, may also have a happy evolutionary consequence- the development of toes that are as dextrous as fingers, leading to an invitation to a renewed arboreal way of life: a welcome escape from the concrete jungles. On a more prosaic note, it also may lead to shoe manufacturers having to radically modify their designs.

P.S: Post made upon popular demand from a few hand-holding couples who I know. They have now been encouraged to wiggle and exercise their toes as practice for holding feet.


I finally got around to watching Michael Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine'. I thought it was a very good documentary, although in the end, Moore raises more questions that what he answers. But he make an excellent attempt to delineate the problem and its possible causes. Moore has been criticized of being 'unrealistic' in his portrayals, but I thought much of what he showed was as 'realistic' as things can get, and made a lot of sense. In general, I like Moore's documentaries because of their simplicity; he asks people extremely simple questions which nonetheless frequently strike at the heart of the matter (sometimes through the people's inability to answer them)

The big question of course is "Why is there so much violence in the US, especially gun violence?". The backdrop is the tragic Columbine high-school massacre of 1999, in which two teenagers walked into the school loaded with ammunition and guns, and went on a shooting spree killing 12 people, before turning the weapons on themselves. Moore can empathize; he hails from Flint, Michigan, where in a similar unbelievable incident, a six year old shot and killed his classmate, a little six year old girl. Are these just freak incidents, or is there an underlying thread? Moore compares anuual numbers of gun deaths in many developed countries. Most are a far cry from the US: 11, 000 compared to a couple of hundred deaths in Germany, the UK, France, and Japan. Then he tries to analyse various factors which people and politicians have quoted to explain this disturbing trend. Among these are (not surprisingly); violence at home including poor family structure, the influence of violent TV, video games, and movies, a generally poor and indifferent social makeup...and Marilyn Manson, the transvestite like looking psychedelic heavy metal performer.

Moore dissects each one of these factors and tells us that none of these factors is really unique to the US. In Japan, for example, video games are extremely gory, but violent crime is apparently much less. In one of the more amusing parts of the film, he interviews Marilyn Manson, the freakish looking performer. Surprisingly, Manson sounds not just extremely sane and reasonable, but also educated and well-read. In a telling instance, he says that at the same time that the masscare took place, the US was bombing Kosovo and killing hundreds of innocent civilians. So who is to blame? The president who pursues a belligerent and violent foreign policy, or Marilyn Manson??

Since none of these factors can really account for the glaring differences in violent crime, Moore finally turns to some of the more central factors, including the ready availability of guns in the US. But here too, there is confusion, because it turns out that in Canada, guns are as easily available, and yet many parts of the country are so safe that citizens don't even lock their doors. So no, that's also not an unambiguous cause. So what is it?
At this point, Moore launches into a recounting of the 'culture of fear' that exists in the US, a fact that has been increasingly brought into the forefront by leading intellectuals. And to a large extent, I agree with his assesment. Americans seem to be unusually afraid people (given their secure existence and high standard of living), and the media and the government are largely responsible for inducing that fear. All the time, the media is bombarding the US with news of some form of impending doom; serial killers in your neighbourhood, killer bees from Africa, mutagens in your food, and bomb making terrorists in your backyard. Unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of propaganda, no matter how vulgar, there is a shred of truth in all of these scares. But what the government does is to use and exaggerate these to play on people's emotions and keep them afraid. Because afraid means subdued and ready to listen to what the government is saying.

Why are Americans so afraid? Even Noam Chomsky cannot provide a conclusive answer, but rightly says that the reason is deeply rooted in American history. To try to answer this question, Moore shows us a revealing cartoon film for a few minutes, which explores Americans since Columbus. The main reason why many Americans came to America was religious persecution in Europe. Then there was fear of the Indians in America, then the British, then the slaves (which continues to an irrational extent in the form of fear of African Americans to this day). So Moore seems to say that since time immemorial, Americans have always been afraid of someone or something (he is primarily refering to white Americans), and this fear never went away inspite of massive improvment in standards of living and 'equality' among the populace. That is why, Moore says, Americans have come to rely on guns as a means of keeping them safe. Ironically, they have made them more unsafe than ever. In fact, there are many Americans who have loaded guns in their house, just to 'feel safe' even if they live in a safe neighbourhood and have never had any safety issues.

One of the people whom Moore interviews is 'Moses'- Charlton Heston, who is President of the National Rifle Association (NRA). I have to say that after watching Heston speak, I have lost a lot of respect for him. The man is not only indifferent, but not even articulate. He is as hazy about answering Moore's questions as anyone could be. After the Columbine incident, he had the cheek to hold an NRA convention in Colorado. There, he flashed a letter from the Mayor of Denver in front of the audience, in which the Mayor had requested him to cancel the convention in light of the tragedy. I expected Heston to at least make an arrogant excuse for the event. All the inane man could say was "This is a free country...we can travel wherever we want and hold a convention there". Appalling! He was completely stupid, and totally missed the point. Later, Moore interviewed Heston at his palatial mansion, and there too, the man was clueless and completely indifferent. He would not even acccept the little girl's picture. After a few minutes, he simply walked away. No wonder Heston became the President of the NRA; toting a gun does not need a shred of intelligence after all.
More inspiring was when Moore took two survivors of Columbine to K-mart, where the killers had bought their ammunition. Surprisingly, after appeals from Moore and the survivors, that branch of K-Mart promised not to stock any more ammunition for guns in their store.

What's my take on this? I don't doubt that Americans live in a culture of fear. The reasonable and sane Americans among them apparently don't seem to make a big difference in attitudes. Apart from the aforementioned reasons which I agree with, I think there are a few other things. Americans, especially in the last two generations, have enjoyed an immensely high standard of living, and also immense security as such. Because of this completely secure existence, I think that many of them cannot distinguish between real and perceived threats. For them, every threat is a real threat; a belief which makes a field day for the government and media to exploit. After all, what better way to deflect people's attention from the issues that really matter, than by keeping them always under fear and preoccupied with things that are never or rarely going to happen? It's a classic model of thought control and propaganda. People who have actually faced problems of safety learn to recognise really dangerous situations. Secondly, Americans, at least until now, have been able to isolate themselves from knowing about world affairs, again because of the high living standards and internal security which could afford to keep them preoccupied. This makes them ignorant about what is really happening around them, leading to further confusion that can be exploited in the form of fear.
The social structure is definitely to blame. The mother of the six year old worked a seventy hour week making fudge and milkshakes, in a restaurant owned by the 'the oldest American teenager', Dick Clark. Because of this desperate run to make ends meet, she could hardly meet her son. It would be premature to draw a direct connection between this fact and the son's violent act, but I strongly believe that a supportive and loving family can make a world of difference for troubled individuals, especially children. Dick Clark, as expected, refused to comment.

It is definitely true that guns are very easily available in the US; the more important fact is that many of those guns which are easily available, are far from being hunting weapons. They are quite distinctively weapons that would be used for killing people. It's extremely important to keep these out of the hands of everybody and anybody. Why on earth are you compelled to own an M-16 assault weapon to hunt deer? Simply invoking the second amendment (right to arms) as an excuse to buy such a gun is nonsense. There should be a demonstrated need to purchase such a weapon. Bur for that, Americans, including Heston, should first curb the paranoia to keep loaded guns under their pillow, and also should curb the hubris that makes them quote and abuse terms like 'amendment' and 'freedom'. This is really a sad existence they are living, especially if there is no threat. Heston, ostensibly the President of the NRA, could cite absolutely no reason why he kept so many loaded weapons in his house (except the marvelously stupid reason, "I do, because I can. I have the 'right' "). I was also shocked when James Nichols, the brother of Terry Nichols, one of the Oklahoma bombers, quipped that citizens should posses guns to 'overthrow brutal governments'. When Moore asked him why it cannot be done in Gandhi's way, the ignorant man said, "I am not familiar with that" after a long pause. We rest our case.

On a different note, these days, many authors and bloggers are quoting ad hominem attacks on people like Moore and Chomsky. The fact that Chomsky has a private trust fund, or that Moore actually purchased Halliburton shares, are made a big deal of. However, that does not suddenly preempt the work they have done, their personal flaws notwithstanding. Gun violence is a very serious matter, and an amalgamation of all the factors listed is responsible for causing it. The least we can do is take cognizance of them and think about them.

Monday, November 28, 2005


Now Rajasthan has done it. The province of Ajmer has passed a series of guidelines, short of notices, that prohibit tourists from doing many things which are objectionable, or rather, which the province of Ajmer...or rather, specifically which the sub-divisional magisterate of Ajmer finds objectionable. Carrying on the glorious tradition of big-brotherhood that has been instigated in many of our country's social quarters, here are the laws that have been passed, in which these noble icons of 'Indian culture' have made clear a tacit assumption of generality (italics are mine):

* Men should never touch women in public, even to help a woman out of a car, unless the lady is very elderly or infirm

* In Indian culture... men socialise with men, and women with women

* Married couples in Asia do not hug, hold hands or kiss in public. Even embracing at airports and train stations is considered out of the question

* Generally it is improper for women to speak with strangers on the street and especially to strike up a casual conversation

* Drinking alcohol or smoking in public, no matter how innocent, are interpreted as a sign of moral laxity and are not acceptable.

The interesting thing is that not only do these restrictions apply to tourists in Rajasthan, but they have been generously extended to include not only the rest of India, but apparently all of Asia. Wonder what the Thai, or the Japanese will think about this (incidentally, I have a feeling that the Japanese will actually laud this).

Point no. 2 really is as inane as things can get, not that the other ones are any less inane. I am just waiting to hear about new laws that dictate how tourists (or Indian citizens) should behave even in private. Incidentally, there is even a British couple interviewed who think that such guidelines should be 'made available' throughout India. The case of the Finnish woman who skinny dipped in a river and then walked naked to a temple to 'appease a deity' may be a convincing case in point, but other than that, what 'Indian culture' are these guys exactly talking about??

P.S: Based on some comments and afterthought, I realise that having some such rules is probably prudent to prevent tourists from tainting the general atmosphere of such a place. It's only some of the extreme phrases and generalised wording that irked me when I read it. Maybe not kissing is ok, but just holding hands and making conversation with strangers of the opposite sex??

Saturday, November 26, 2005


When Einstein's detractors wrote a book named "One hundred authors against Einstein"- a hack attempt to denigrate his theory of relativity- the great physicist calmly retorted, "If I were wrong, then one would have been enough"

Michael Crichton seems to have tried to fill in the role of those one hundred scientists, 'against' global warming this time, by providing scholarly looking footnotes and references to his new book "State of Fear". However, clothes don't make the man, and footnotes don't make a convincing book by themselves. Throw in a decidedly obvious deviation from the author's usual style, and what you get is a volume that, although interesting and catchy in a few isolated parts, largely turns out to be an anti-climax. Unfortunately for Crichton, we, his readers who have till today largely praised his work, expect better from him, and it quickly becomes all too apparent if he does not deliver.

Crichton's "The Andromeda Strain", "Jurassic Park" and "Congo" were great thrillers and page turners, with crisp and no-nonsense accounts of events, impeccably precise character portraits, and a convincing plot. State of Fear, on the other hand, tries to throw in characters that are all too emblematic of the California they belong to (with perfect bodies and looks, and each one being the beneficiary of millions of dollars, an instant trendy and assertive vocabulary, and glitzy sports cars), and resort to cliche utterances that the reader quickly begins to recognise.

The novel basically centers on what is apparently a huge global warming hoax carried out by a band of 'eco-terrorists', supported by fanatic publicity-seeking environmental nuts, with 'stunts' involving millions of dollars, high tech equipment and weaponry, and a vast global network that would help orchestrate artificially created violent weather phenomena, with possible cost to hundreds of human lives. All this being made to coincide with a major international and highly publicised conference on global warming, that would assure maximal impact on industry and environmental policy, which would in turn lead to a loss of billions of dollars for industry. Trying to thwart this attempt are a philanthropist's lawyer, his California-blond secretary, and most importantly, an MIT Professor and his Nepali student who not surprisingly seem to know everything about everything.

Those few lines sum up the plot of the book. The objective of the heroes (and the villains) becomes clear about halfway through the book, and nothing after that really surprises us. Either the protagonists will succeed in thwarting the eco-terrorists' weather manipulation attempts, or they will fail, or they will partially succeed. And that's exactly what happens. In a few cases, they succeed; in others, partially. Everything is predictable, and after the first half of the book the novel drags. And I mean, really drags. The fate of a certain central character is bandied about so many times in the book, that this constant and seemingly portentous dilly-dallying itself gives away his fate, again halfway through. I could have given away the plot myself in detail, but then the reader would not have had the opportunity to savour some insipid and predictable writing, would he? As the end approaches, it starts to look like Crichton has found himself in a tight spot, and is deliberately trying to make extended attempts to hold our attention. Accounts of the heroes' encounter with a cannibalistic tribal community almost seemed to be aimed at saying "Are you scared yet? No?! Ok...then this will really scare you". The novel ends on an abrupt note, but by that time, I was glad that it ended, because I really wanted to get done with it.

I was surprised how much Crichton's style has suffered in this novel. The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, and Congo were books whose style may have been closer to pulp fiction, but the character development was novel and crisp, and the books progressed in an authoritarian manner that held your attention. In State of Fear, the character development is extremely cliche, and in some parts, it starts sounding like Crichton's main target audience is American high school teenagers. Attempts at forging tempting relationships between the characters are rather lame. However, like I said, the greatest flaw in the book is the predictability. Halfway through, everything becomes clear, and we know things are going to work out one way or the other. The sensationalist parts at the end sound contrived and designed to try to get back our attention which has been largely lost. The few page turning and intriguing passages in the book concern Crichton's narration of events related to the science of global warming (or the opposition thereto) and a chapter long monologue by a researcher about what we are essentially familiar with as Orwellian thought control, or the 'manufacture of consent' as enumerated by Noam Chomsky, aimed towards convincing the populace that global warming is not taking place.

And it is exactly these parts that made State of Fear a controversial novel. At a time when many Governments in the Western world are being seen as having the worst track record in climate and environmental policy, the last thing we need is a Crichton who writes even a novel that depicts environmentalists (or at least many of them) as fanatic publicity seeking stuntmen having nothing better to do with their time and lives. What's wrong with all the footnotes that Crichton makes characters repeatedly refer to as a case against global warming? On first glance, we are compelled to note that many of the footnotes are from the annals of the most distinguished journals in the world, including Nature and Science. However, not even 'distinguished' articles are always free of bias. As someone said, the problem with many scientists is that they find what they are trying to find. Crichton notes hundreds of references, and plugs in dozens of charts and graphs in his book that seem to point to one fact- global warming is a non-fact. According to him, there is no proof to ascertain that there is a consistent pattern of global warming that is commensurate with increasing levels of CO2. One of the major arguments Crichton notes is the drop of mean temperature during the middle of the century, when CO2 levels were still rising. However, the most prominent red herring that Crichton throws in here is the correctly noted and simple fact, that climate change, let alone control, is still a very complex issue, and no definitive answers can be given that correlate factors in a causal relationship. And here, as noted on this website for example ('Michael Crichton's State of Confusion'), Crichton seems to contradict himself; the lack of correlation between rising CO2 and temperature, is exactly as many scientists believe, because the climate was complex, and there were many other factors that actually drove down the temperature even as CO2 levels rose. However, Crichton seems to be promoting the notion that we don't know anything at all. That is certainly not true. Correlation between a general rise in temperature, ice melting, sea level rising, and greenhouse gas emissions has been clearly noted in the annals of hundreds of journals. Agreed, whatever deficiencies there are, are caused because climate prediction and even understanding is a complicated business. But the other main reason is that many of these methods of measurement have their own errors. At the same time, that is what statistics is for; one can measure averages, deviations, and try to quantify the errors. Exact figures may be incorrect, but this fact does not suddenly preempt the entire phenomenon. Also, Crichton points to a number of local cases, where temperature dropped even though CO2 increased. Now, one can also point to an equal number of cases, where temperature rose. However, in that case, researchers have been careful to subtract factors like the so called 'urban heat effect' that could effect erroneous increases in the temperature. One sparrow does not make a bird, and Crichton seems to think that a dozen of them do, when he also neglects many cases where another two dozen of them won't. These days, it seems to be fashionable to immediately take a contrarian stand whenever many people start ascribing to a particular point of view. But this fact by itself does not make the contrarian stand true, although unambiguous hard facts do.
Crichton seems to take pleasure in writing a novel in which iconoclasts challenge prevailing wisdom, trying to bring about a Copernicus like revolution. Fortunately, what Copernicus said or did not say did not change the heliocentric nature of our solar system. Unfortunately, sensibility about global warming related issues is already dictating public policy to an undue extent, and 'politicizing science', a fact that Crichton himself eloquently warns against at the end of the book, and this debate actually affects the face of our planet. At the end, it is facts which prevail. On the other hand, when there is a dearth of facts, is it not better to err on the safer side? At the least, if we agree (and Crichton does) that climate is a complicated issue, does it make sense to make it even more complicated to understand by introducing man made elements such as greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere?

I agree that there are certain environmentalists who are too vocal in their opinions, sometimes without concrete evidence. But they mean well, and after all, all of us are going to live on the same planet in the future. We have to take care of it, global warming or not. That there is a general correlation between greenhouse gases and rise in temperature, quite apart from the details and frills, has been consistently demonstrated. By recounting a tale that presents lop-sided and biased evidence, Crichton is certainly not helping the cause. In the end, there is a remarkable section that Crichton has penned (probably better written than the whole book) in which, whether he wants to or not, he ends up comparing global warming to the early twentieth century obsession with eugenics, a moral travesty that is apparently being committed by members of the highest levels of industry, government, and academia. Interestingly, Crichton thinks that it's the most distinguished researchers and the most elite universities who are the greatest perpetrators of the global warming hoax. This made me laugh. In science, more than elsewhere, hoaxes are usually and quickly exposed. The iron hand of experiment and objective evidence makes certain that selfish researchers usually do not succeed in biasing scientific results and keeping them under wraps for long. So it is a kind of joke if universities are really the greatest hoax promoters. Scientists are safe as such. The ones who need to take care and watch out, and not be given to personal interests and biased views, are politicians...politicians, and writers like Michael Crichton, that fine and intelligent man whose work I have always enjoyed until now.

Friday, November 25, 2005


In this post, Gaurav rightly castigates Ernesto 'Che' Guevara as a pseudoicon behind which lay a repressive and insidious soul. Interestingly, like Gaurav, I also was rather taken in by reading about Che Guevara at first. But after reading a couple of accounts about him by various authors, it becomes apparent that Guevara is exactly the kind of person who would be easily mistaken for a freedom loving liberal and passionate revolutionary. So I realised that our experience is not really an isolated one, and anyone who simply skims the details of his life would be bound to have a false notion of the wolf in the samaritan's clothing.

Guevara is further lionised by movies like 'The Motorcyle Diaries', which I incidentally believe is a fine and refreshingly simple movie. I even bought the DVD. In it, Guevara's life before he became the Che Guevara is explored, and he comes across as an unusually honest, sensitive and kind man. I don't doubt that he was then. But a man's life should be weighed in the totality of his actions, and in Guevara's case, it seems that the bad definitely outweighed the good in the end. Also, his was not an isolated case of someone turning towards communism after being inspired by the misery of the masses, and so the image of him painted in the movie, rosy as it seems, is not a unique one. In fact, the story of his adventures in Latin America would have been one among several reasonably touching stories if he had not been turned into the martyr that people made him. It's always interesting how events from a man's life which may not bear awe-inspiring significance by themselves, suddenly become timeless folk tales after the man is turned into a martyr.
Che may have been a liberal revolutionary in the making when he trekked across the continent with his friend and witnessed the injustice meted out to poor and destitute people. But the liberal revolutionary became an authoritarian and rabid belligerent soon after he joined Fidel Castro's ranks. Like Castro, Guevara descended into the clique of those who tout freedom, without respecting the concept of personal freedom of the common masses one bit. I always feel much more sorry than angry about Guevara. A striking and noteworthy example of massive potential being put to the wrong use. In fact, it is interesting to contrast Guevara's life with Gautam Buddha's. Like Che, Buddha also saw the misery and injustice in the world. But what a different path he chose!

Incidentally, apart from 'scholars', even Roger Ebert, the fine movie critic, has shed light on the true Che Guevara in his review of The Motorcycle Diaries':

"Che Guevara makes a convenient folk hero for those who have not looked very closely into his actual philosophy, which was repressive and authoritarian. Like his friend Fidel Castro, he was a right-winger disguised as a communist. He said he loved the people but he did not love their freedom of speech, their freedom to dissent, or their civil liberties. Cuba has turned out more or less as he would have wanted it to...The final titles of the movie say he would go on to join Castro in the Cuban Revolution, and then fight for his cause in the Congo and Bolivia, where he died. His legend lives on, celebrated largely, I am afraid, by people on the left who have sentimentalized him without looking too closely at his beliefs and methods. He is an awfully nice man in the movie, especially as played by the sweet and engaging Gael Garcia Bernal (from "Y Tu Mama Tambien"). Pity how he turned out"

I am not surprised that students in Germany have to be specifically told that Che Guevera is not to be idolized. It is easy to be impressed by him. Dig deeper and one knows better.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Ad Lagendijk, writing in Nature, yet again points to the human nature of scientists, and the alpha maleness prevelant even in the austere looking landscapes of scientific research. He also raises a point that should be read by those who are interested in the representation (or the lack thereof) of women in science, and not the pseudofeminists I mean.

Lagendijk rightly points out that the usual portraits of scientists as heroes making significant discoveries, depicted in interviews, short biographies, and biopics, are highly idealised. Closer to reality is a Darwinian struggle for making one's research known, with enough vituperative spitefulness, usually subtly hidden, to provide an admirable plot for Shakespeare. Tongue in cheek, Langdijk says,

"Recently, there has been a call for physicists to focus more on biology. But surely there is no further need for this; physics 'red in tooth and claw' is already dominated by biology, of the kind studied by Charles Darwin."

Landijk notes the clear-cut agressive territorial and self-aggrandizing nature that scientists display in conferences, journal articles, interviews, and referee reports. Many times, these displays are veiled, thinly or subtly, in the form of superior language skills and smooth (and loud) talk; a ploy to silence your 'opponent' ad hominem.

"A modest Japanese presenter does not stand a chance against a loud, American critic speaking in his, and modern science's, mother tongue. An offensive question asked at a conference by a streetwise, senior physicist of an overenthusiastic, junior Spanish scientist can be counted on to have the desired effect: a high-tempered, ultra-fast, absolutely unintelligible reply. 'Target neutralized' as they say in the military"

At the same time, English is the language of science, and always has been. And we should be happy for that. So having a minimum proficiency in the language is not just a need in scientific circles, but an extremely fair one. Of course, there is also a general decline in standards in the scientific community as far as language is concerned, and many journal authors seem remarkably adept at turning the simple into the complicated. But then, the general decline in language standards is a big and lamented topic of discussion in itself, and I believe that many people are just not taking the minimum pains to improve their language skills through simple and studied awareness. But let me keep that rant for another post...

I plead guilty to mulling over Langdijk's quips about PhD. students:

"Young, self-assured, male PhD students quickly learn the rules of the game. When confronted with a new research assignment, their response is not fascination or curiosity; rather their first question is whether they will be first author on resulting publications."

But fortunately for me, I am probably young, but still not self-assured. And if innocent curiosity is really the price one pays for self-assurance, then I wouldn't want to be self-assured anytime soon.

Frankly, I cannot see how the situation can get any better, with more researchers vying for fewer grants, and favouritism and political bias being rampant in most avenues of applied science. Maybe the one way out may simply be to be aware and keep a sane and cool head.

And lastly, it seems that science at least until now, has been undeniably a man's game, with the playing field and it's strictures decidedly established by men:

"Science has always been a man's world. The values and norms that control our disciplines were established by men. In physics there is an alarming lack of female participants; it would be tempting to claim that because of physicists' typically masculine power games the physics community is not an attractive option for female scientists."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The best Overture I have heard: Overture to Thesco- Handel
The best Presto I have heard: Presto for Symphony no. 36 in C Major "Linzer"- Mozart

Heaven on Earth.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

One of the central themes in Elie Wiesel's 'Night'- one of the hardest and most gut wrenching books one can ever read- is that of God's reasoning. Wiesel was sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust, where his family perished. The unspeakable horrors he witnessed there made the pious and scholarly protagonist of the book, apparently a vicarious incarnation of Wiesel himself, question God's motives. This made him heart-rendingly question God's existence.
I believe that if I were ever in such a situation (and 'God forbid that I should never be'), I would rather not believe in God. The question of how those beings whom we call human beings could commit such unimaginable acts of depravity is itself a universally profound and most complicated questions to answer, and one that would easily wear out human reasoning of an entire lifetime. I would not want to make the question infinitely more disturbing and complicated by assuming the existence of God and asking how 'He' could allow such things. Understanding human beings is a paradigm that is enough for many lives, and I wouldn't want my helplessness to grow many orders of magnitude by questioning the mind of an intangible almighty...

It's very strange how, at the very moments when we need to invoke God the most, his existence always complicates the situation much more than it deconvolutes it, at least from a rational perspective...

I am not really happy with the recent Flag option provided by Blogger, that enables bloggers to mark blogs as 'objectionable'. Although this does not mean Blogger will actually take any action, doesn't this sound too much like passing a judgement and policing the blogsphere? Flagging may unconsciously bias the judgement of readers. I presume that blogger is talking about obviously objectionable content such as obscenities. But if I feel like hurling obscenities at something that I thoroughly deplore, why should Blogger tell me I shouldn't do it? If I am obscene enough, it will easily reflect on the opinions of the readers of my blog and my reputation will be what pays the price...anyway, that won't happen with me...I am too timid a person ;)
If you find the content on my blog 'objectionable', please tell me so instead of flagging it; that's what the comments sections is for. Better flog my posts rather than flag them :-)

Thursday, November 10, 2005


It’s been two and a half years since I came here, and I think that now would be an appropriate time to compare the education systems in the two countries; at least those parts of the systems that I have been able to purview. Of course, these would simply be personal and limited observations, and two and a half years would hardly be enough for comparing such sprawling systems with all their glories and follies. But I was tempted to do this because I have always had a personal interest in teaching and someday, I hope to be a teacher in the most general sense of the term. I have always respected teachers, especially because I have been brought up by two of them, and as I grew up, I learnt a lot about teaching, largely due to the dedicated efforts of non-teachers, who set an example of how not to teach. I have never been much of a studious person or formal classroom or exam enthusiast (I have narrated some of the agonies I suffered during my education here), but I will always remember the memorable spiels delivered by the few wonderful teachers I have met. I will never forget them. But now, for the observations:

1. Contrary to what I and most of the people I knew believed, the culture of higher education in the US is not as shamelessly informal as hearsay would suggest. Of course, it’s still orders of magnitude more informal than our educational culture. But in general, deference is valued here too. In my department for example, I know only one professor who is addressed by his first name. That destroyed the first major illusion I had. Even my American friends confessed that they would not be very comfortable calling most professors on a first name basis. As far as the classroom culture is concerned, yes, it is much more informal than ours, and there is a gargantuan gap between the consequent efficiency of knowledge dissemination that is observed here. All through my school, college, and university years in India, asking questions in class was largely forbidden. If not official, it was a reverently followed unspoken rule. Breaking this rule would not only cast you as an upstart brat in the eyes of your classmates, but would very likely jeopardize your formal existence in the institution. Once you ask a question to which the professor does not know the answer, it would be very likely that he would give you a bad grade and reduce your marks, especially in the practical exams. In fact, this became a piece of student wisdom of sorts that was faithfully passed down from one generation of students to the next. When you asked your seniors about the professors, one of the first things they would say, would be ‘Please be in the good books of XYZ if you want your performance in the practical exams to stay secure.’ Being in the good books means not to ask ‘obvious’ or ‘stupid’ questions, the real value of which you learn only many years, and practical exams, later. Naturally, the real reason why nobody wants to be asked questions is because he does not know the answers and wants to hide his ignorance from the students. In India, since not asking questions is not yet an official rule in the handbook, professors deter students from doing this by the institution of unofficial terror. If one were to ask them a question, not only would his performance in the practical exams be permanently altered, but the professor would also cast so many aspersions on him by way of obvious and subtle ridicule, that the student would be silenced into submission after that. Of course, what I am saying does not happen all the time, but I have witnessed it in many classes, and on many levels of education. I am sure that my friends in other branches would definitely corroborate my observations. Over the years, totalitarian professors have become experts in the art of informal intimidation of students. Giving low grades or even failing students in exams, making sure that the ‘external examiner’ intimidates and asks the student tough questions, and last but not the least, asking the student to rewrite an experiment in his or her journal countless times, even though there is no evident fault with it (In 12th standard, I had to once draw the human heart perfectly so many times in my journal, that I fear my own heart became deformed in the process); all these are standard practices to make the student ‘know his place’. There is a weird Orwellian flavour to many aspects of our academic existence.

In the US, all this is largely absent. Here, professors are much more forthcoming and honest, questions are largely encouraged, and you are actually allowed to disagree with the professor. Since many professors here are actually well-qualified, a blanket case where the student is right and the professor is wrong usually does not arise, whereas in India, it arises so many times, that the student finally gives up trying to say anything in class, especially given the fate he will suffer. Interestingly, even here, the art of unofficial intimidation is not lost to professors’ sensibilities. I do have witnessed the rare cases where the professor beat the student (and on some occasions it was me) into submission by ridicule. The ridicule was not blatant, but it happened a sufficient number of times for the students to prefer shutting up from the next time onwards- even though it wouldn’t have led to the professor hampering the students’ performance in the exam, it was not worth it due to the sheer time spent and the futility of it.

In the US, informal communication crucially hinges on making yourself heard. If you have an appointment with anyone, and if you want the conversation to be nice and informal, one cardinal rule is- speak up. Be frank. Don’t be overtly enthusiastic and obsequious obviously, but in general, make your thoughts known, and they will be appreciated. Sit excessively quietly, and the situation can well become uncomfortable and formal. If you talk, even an otherwise thorny discussion can be mitigated to a large extent. Even if someone wants to fire you, it will likely happen in such a way that both of you will part on good terms. I think that communication is an integral element of informality in the American academic culture. Whether it is negotiating a cease-fire, making a diplomatic move to reduce global nuclear proliferation, or asking for leave to go to India in December, dialogue always helps.

The formality in our system basically stems from our fundamental attitude of deference towards elders, which is not bad in itself. But things have to change with times, and most importantly, we have got to come to terms with the fact that asking questions has nothing to do with deference to elders. For some reason, in many cultures, including ours, deference is equated with silence. The two are certainly not necessarily equivalent. From the same illusion of equivalence also rose a culture where women could not have their say and had to keep quiet because they were supposed to show deference, and where students could not ask questions, because somehow, it had been grilled into their heads that asking too many questions was the same as being rude or irreverent. This silence kept the questions in their minds unanswered. This quota of unanswered questions keeps on building and finally results in professional incompetence sometimes.
We really need to change this attitude. Keeping excessively silent in front of anyone- elders, parents, grandparents, teachers- is not automatically a mark of respect, and can well stifle communication and freedom of expression, and similarly, speaking up does not automatically mean not respecting them.

On the other hand, one outstanding component that is lacking in the American system, is the personal relationship that develops between a student and a teacher. In our country, this of course goes back to the old ages, to the 'Gurukul' system, where a student would go and live in his Guru's 'Ashram'. In such a setting, even if life was tough, a special bond always developed between the teacher and the student, the teacher almost becoming a substitute parent of the student, the excessive deference of the student notwithstanding. In recent times too, the bond can develop. That's how the teacher becomes a mentor. The few great teachers I have had have become outstanding mentors of mine. The personal touch which they imparted to our interaction has ensured that I will always have the utmost respect for them, and will be in touch with them all my life. However, my parents and these teachers also tell me that this bond is weakening somewhat on a general scale, and it is the students who are to blame. They have made a manifest observation, that over the years of their career, they are meeting fewer and fewer students who are warm towards them, acknowledge them, and most importantly, keep in touch with them after they have left college or university. I believe that is a sad scenario, because these few sincere upholders of the scholarly tradition need to be constantly appreciated. Maybe this trend is increasing because of the increasing business like nature of our educational system- and especially with the number of private management and engineering schools springing up like grass everywhere. With this comes an attitude to treat the students more like customers; another facet of the American system, but unfortunately sans the high quality in this case. But in general the bottom line is that I cannot think of a personal and enduring interaction in the American system because of its professional nature. That is a very good thing with our system, but again one that may lose its benefit because of undue reverence and respect.

2. This was about people. Now about the system. Again, contrary to my belief, the American system of higher education is, in general, not necessarily of ‘higher quality’ at least as far as the theoretical quality of education is concerned. In fact, it is now a fact of growing awareness that American educators are lamenting the decline of quality in American higher education, from about high school onwards. So as far as quality per se is concerned, this system is as good, or even a tad worse, than our system. What’s strikingly different is the element of awareness, and the lack of red tape, that enables decisions to be taken fast, so that any gap in quality can be filled up as fast as possible. There is a short, efficient way for registering almost any kind of complaint about almost anything here, and some kind of action will usually be taken about it. There is a number to call, or a short, easily reachable email address. Admittedly, these features mark many other systems in the US. But they are a relief especially in the educational system. I won’t expostulate on how all the details are different, because it would probably be known to most people. But what’s different in these two systems is not raw materials, but processing. Without processing, the raw material, no matter how good, will never make it to the market.

3. Most importantly, the American system does not largely suffer from the single most pernicious and devastating element that has riddled our bureaucracy and educational scenario- the culture of antiquity and decadence that we seem not only to tolerate, but to actually encourage. Whether it is laws to deal with road repair, or experiments that students do, everything seems to date back to Isaac Newton's age. The word ‘amendment’ is simple a theoretical figurehead in our culture. This culture rapidly transforms itself into mediocrity, mediocrity in terms of employees and individuals, mediocrity in terms of facilities and materials, and mediocrity in terms of every facet of the system.
Consider the faculty appointments in our educational system. Although some hope is now emerging on the horizon, the fact remains that for many years, the concept of tenure and peer review has been simply absent in our system. Once an individual joins a government academic institute, he is essentially a life member of it. There is no annual evaluation of performance, and even if there is, it is tenuous and never too strict. The level of evaluation would be fairly good in the IITs and IISc., but in Universities, an individual generally gets promoted purely on the basis of age! The existence of the reservation quota simply exacerbates the situation to a great extent. There are three levels of rank in our universities- lecturer, reader, and professor. Many ‘professors’ I know have attained that particular rank purely on the basis of seniority. In American universities, becoming a full, tenured, professor is an incredibly challenging and demanding goal. One has to write grants and show repeated credibility of performance and research ability. Only after demonstrated erudition in his area is he considered for a promotion to a tenured post. Of course, the real reason why no such evaluation really exists in many of our universities is because ‘professors’ are not supposed to be productive researchers in the first place at all! As long as they do the mandatory teaching and publish some numbers of papers in some journals, it’s completely ok for them to stay. Again, reservation further lowers the standard to almost negative levels. This will never be seen in American universities of reasonable repute.

4. However, in our system, where the culture of decadence manifests itself the most, is in the complete lack of progressive attitudes in the small things that matter; because after all, that’s where God/the Devil is- in the details. For years, we have been churning out the same syllabus, a syllabus that has always been radically in need of progress, a syllabus that has elements of instruction dating back to antiquity, and a syllabus that essentially is simply because it is easy to teach the same things every year for thirty years, so that nobody has to lift a finger to change things. Claims that the syllabus has been ‘revised’ usually refer to the replacement of one dated concept by another, or more frequently, the deletion of some already dying concept. Sure, there have been some improvements. But mostly, under the name of progressive thinking and revision, all that our educators do, is start ostentatious and fancy sounding new courses and degrees like ‘Information Technology’ and ‘Communication skills’, along with entire new institutes aimed towards giving students a so-called ‘modern’ education, thereby further deluding them (and their parents) who are already getting biased and inordinately swayed by peer pressure and glitzy talk about what exactly has ‘scope’.

To instantly know how dated things are, all one has to do is to take a look at the list of ancient experiments (not to mention the apparatus) that are prescribed for the BSc. Course, or to take a look at the inane torture of ‘submissions’ that engineering students have to endure every year. The experiments in the journals bear scant resemblance to what is actually happening in the field. Year after year, like the farmers who used to pay tax to the British by doing back-breaking toil, the students have to churn out journals, working on dated concepts. The excuse of including those experiments for decades, is always that, ‘Students should learn the basics’. No matter if those basics are presented in a way that would beat the will and interest of the average student to death. In these mandatory pursuits, students spend an enormous amount of otherwise valuable time. That’s because the educators never want to take the time to actually think about what the students are learning. In this attitude also is inherent, a basic lack of respect for the minds of students, as well as for higher education itself. As long as professors can make the students repeat the standardized experiments year after year for decades, and as far as they can make the unfortunate souls repeat the write-ups of the experiments hundreds of times, they can always reflect satisfyingly on a day well spent. Actually now, there can be no excuse for not modifying the syllabi. Because of the Internet and the relatively quick access to so many resources, it should not be difficult at all for educators to spend their time productively in lively debates about improvisation and betterment of the syllabus. But unfortunately, that is only if they want to. Flexibility is another characteristic of a modern academic system, a facet that is completely lost to our system. It was only after much argument that I could study both Biology and Maths during my first year of BSc.; apparently according to the esteemed educators in our college, they had at most tenous connections with each other. Any scientist or modern educator would die laughing if he witnessed this scenario today. Others would actually cry, because it is depriving eager students of a balanced education. Especially in today's multidisciplinary world, success can depend on having acquired a wide and diverse intellectual and practical skill set. It's far from that in our system. At every level of education, Indian students are bound in a straitjacket of what gray-haired educators have defined as ridiculously and inconsequentially strict rules of enrollment years ago. If somebody complains why there are so few polymaths and renaissance men in our country, my silly sounding but long thought about reply would be, "Because they did not allow them to study chemistry and philosophy at the same time in college"...

This is, in general, emphatically absent here. The syllabus is constantly revised, and new experiments are added. The academic freedom that students have here is well-known. The students can flexibly choose almost any combination of courses. Exams are usually not based on rote learning, and short and interesting assignments make things easier as well as more productive for the students. I mentioned above that at least in theory (literally too), there is no difference in our system and theirs. But in an age that increasingly equates quality with novelty and keeping up with the times, we will instantly fall behind. Most importantly, the emphasis on practice is nowhere near to the sorry state that our system is. Practical applications of ideas abound in the lab, and instill a sense of exciting reality in the students’ minds. Armchair speculation, no matter how profound it may seem, gets converted into practical tools here. As they say, in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is…In my department for example, the single individual who is in charge of the chemistry practicals, does the job better and more creatively than the combined faculty of the chemistry department of my college. References are always provided…and are acknowledged. Basic safety procedures are taught and followed. All this is not difficult at all. It only depends on attitude.
At the heart of all this is a genuine desire to improve and raise the standard of education. Also, actually implementing measures is much more easy due to almost total lack of bureaucracy at the local levels. It’s all about will. It is easy to harp about the availability of better resources in the Western world, but more often than not, it sounds like an apology for complacence. The real question is that of motivation, not of resources. Given the kinds of resources that are available, we can do much better now, if not as well as in American universities. The single most damning thing about our system is academic decadence. This is the same kind of paradigm that exists in our excessive praise of our ‘glorious culture that has stemmed from a glorious past’. This is the present. And that, is the future. Unless we acknowledge this, things will stay the way they are.

I am neither trying to excessively praise the American system, nor act as an apologist, nor am I trying to say that our system is hopeless beyond improvement and repair. But these days, it is almost a fashion to point out problems with our systems, and then to say that things are going to improve because there is hope on the horizon. Globalization, economic reforms, outsourcing- all are quoted by some as instant and automatic fixes for all our problems.
Yes, there is hope. But I am not an idealist, and I don’t think anybody should be. The other thing that is fashionable these days, is for many to point out the evils of ‘Western culture’, and deride almost everything to do with it. That does not obfuscate reality. The American system of education has always stood as a model in many ways. It is has nothing to do with ‘Western culture’, and definitely nothing to do with the negative connotations of it that are constantly pounced upon by nationalist opportunists. The point is not to emulate, but to learn and improvise. The point is to be constantly aware, and to constantly keep thinking and doing. Hope itself won’t change the state of affairs ever. Because after all, there are always many ways to make a mess of things.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


MACHO, in astronomy, stands for Massive Compact Halo Objects, remnants of massive stars that are considered key to the study of neutron stars and black holes. But there have always been MACHOS right here on our planet- Massive Compact Hollow Objects.

I hate the ‘macho man’ culture, especially in the US. Now that does not mean that I hate macho men. There are good macho men and ‘macho’ macho men. If the word ‘macho’ refers strictly to structural characteristics, then yes, I have a couple of macho friends, and very nice people at that. But I get fed up with the latter, and especially with the cocoon of apparent macho privilege that they surround themselves in. What I don’t like is the constant adulation that the macho men are worshipped with, and the almost obligatory stereotypes that they are cast in, and also the almost obligatory derogatory stereotypes that ‘the others’ are cast in. I hate the macho men cliques who deride other men as not being ‘real’ men, and I shirk from the elements of culture that are supposed to define the macho man as the only man there can ever exist on our planet,and who can take care of the opposite sex. I am repelled by the macho men one line definitions, which say things like ‘real’ macho men are not supposed to be too sentimental, are not supposed to cry, and are always supposed to lend themselves to ‘being a man’. All the other men who are not macho become weaklings and ‘pansies’, by default.

An entire industry grew around the perceived and made up needs of the machos. The macho has to smoke a certain brand of cigarette, has to guzzle certain beers, has to drive macho trucks, has to make sure that his biceps pass a certain diameter test every month and most importantly, has to roar like a gorilla at football games. The vision of beer drinking hunks gathered around pizza in front of the TV for the Sunday games reminds me of the writer and literary critic Francis Ferguson’s resentment of the progenitors of machos, prevalent even at the esteemed Harvard, in the 1920s. Ferguson said,

“Instead of five thousand keen, intellectually alive, well-read young men, I find five thousand tawdry yokels, bellowing at ball-games”.

The Corporation pounced upon the culture that the machos had entwined themselves in. They invented Red Bull, the Ford Truck and other accessories guaranteed to win the heart of the macho. Everyone else belonged to an inferior group of men. But the Corporation went a step further; they had to, it was so alluring. By making the machos and their worshippers pander to their glitzy products and ideas, the corporation could deflect their attention from the issues that really mattered. Not only that, they could instill a kind of irrational jingoism, especially made manifest by the team games and the whole industry that grew around them. Team games build attitudes of mindless groupism. The whole deal about ‘My Team’ instills an almost patriotic brotherhood in the machos, driven purely by irrational emotion. This brotherhood in turn fuels a million dollar propaganda industry of sponsors, and every type of consumer industry built upon these principles. Television and the Internet was a boon for The Corporation, who could now use these hypnotizing mediums to dull the minds of the machos, and to make them massively subservient to the corporate culture insidiously seeping into their psyche. When the government teamed up with the corporation, this confluence ensured total brainwashing
I don’t want to get too predictable or too extreme here, but I think there’s definitely more than a shred of truth in what Chomsky has to say about sports and thought control:

"Now there are other media too whose basic social role is quite different: it's diversion. There's the real mass media-the kinds that are aimed at, you know, Joe Six Pack -- that kind. The purpose of those media is just to dull people's brains.
This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them. To get them to watch National Football League. Just get them away. Get them away from things that matter. And for that it's important to reduce their capacity to think.
Take, say, sports -- that's another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it -- you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that's of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about -- keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it's striking to see the intelligence that's used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in -- they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.
You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? I mean, I don't know anybody on the team, you know? I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn't mean any -- it doesn't make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it's a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements -- in fact, it's training in irrational jingoism. That's also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that's why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on."

Fanning these flames are the select pseudo-feminist members of the opposite sex (read the ladies in ‘Sex and the City’), who adulate and adore the machos. Living up to their expectations becomes another enormously labour intensive diversion for the machos, and also for the non-machos, because they are kept wondering what they exactly lack.

The machos created norms, they automatically created cliques. You needed to have the above quoted, team-sports watching, beer guzzling, truck driving, bicep building qualities in order to become a member of the select club. All other men who did not play sports, did not drink beer, and did not have the other aforementioned noble qualities, instantly generated new adjectives in the dictionary- nerds, geeks, pansies, and wimps- and became minority outcasts. So much so that in a heartbeat, one would label somebody else with one of these epithets, without knowing a thing about him. Critics who criticized the machos were instantly discarded aside as examples of the foxes calling the grapes sour. Intellectuals, who tried to portray the absurdity of the macho culture, became ‘intellectuals’.

The macho culture is a great example of how self-generated paradigms undermine rational thought and purposeful and critical analysis of key issues. It’s also a very good example of the kind of human characteristics that fuel propaganda and thought control in a democratic country. It is the portal to a false sense of power, and a blow to the heart of an equal, unbiased evaluation of society.

Machos would not like to read this. That’s because since I don’t like or play sports as such, it makes me a weakling, doesn’t it?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg is not only one of the most important scientists of the last century but also an avowed atheist and a fervent advocate of science and rationality, along with being an excellent writer. Some words of wisdom from two speeches that I think are worth keeping in mind:

* From his speech at the Freedom from Religion foundation:

"While creationism is a persistent problem, the more serious fact is that a large majority of Americans, without believing very much in the teachings of their religion, nevertheless believe strongly in religion. While actual belief is gradually diminishing there continues to be respect for the moral teaching of religion."

"Most of the world's great religions coexisted very comfortably with slavery. Part of the general moral improvement of the human race can be credited to "the growth of science--a sense of rationality, a scientific view that we don't really differ that much from one another, that there is no divine right of kings and so on, there is no intrinsic racial difference that should allow us to enslave one race for the benefit of another race."

"People have just gotten less religious and more moral. If you read the Ten Commandments, the first four have nothing to do with morality--they're purely descriptions of piety. The Ten Commandments portray a deity who is self-centered, selfish, jealous, obsessed with his own importance; this is not a nice kind of person. The traditional teachings of religion are, from the point of view of the morality most people share today, pretty immoral."

* From A designer Universe?

"With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion"

Friday, November 04, 2005

I would spread my clothes under your feet,
but I am poor and have only my dreams.
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
tread softly, for you tread on my dreams...

----W. B. Yeats

Again and again, for one reason or another, this fabulous piece of poetry keeps meandering back to me. It sobers me and makes me pensive like few other words in the English language. Definitely the most striking four lines of poetry I have read...

P.S. The exact wording is actually different. But strangely, this is the 'version' that has been carved into my mind, because it was in this form that I first read these lines in the marvelous 'Disturbing the Universe' by the distinguished physicist-polymath Freeman Dyson.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Marathi girls with trademark phrases of expression can now find solace that at least somebody shares their sentiments of expression in Marathi.
The other day, I was playing tennis with a Chinese colleague. We were playing doubles, and everytime he missed the ball or hit the net, he would go "Aiiiiiieeeee, yaah!"... which I think is the Chinese version of "Ayyaa!"...apparently, this is not an isolated example. ;)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


The most important biodiversity we will destroy will be that which we will never know about. One of the telling signs of this trend is the decline in frogs round the world. Croaks and warts apart, frogs and toads are some of the most important animals not only in the ecological chain, but also as the source of potent drugs for human beings. In order to save ourselves by clearing away more forests and making space, we are actually sealing our fate forever. This is not apparent or obvious, but then, most of the important things in life never are, or become so when it's too late. The problem is that when we are dealing with such complex systems, they are very prone to what in technical fields is called 'normal error', error introduced simply by our inability to grasp the fine points of a complicated system, error introduced because of the inherent complexity of the system. We may think frogs are yet another species jumping around, but it's becoming apparent- and only after we have done irreversible damage- that they form a crucial link, a hub between different parts of the entire biosphere, whose importance tragically would manifest itself only after it has been destroyed, and by then it would have been characteristically too late.

The colourful little cute red frog above is also one of the most poisonous species on the planet- nature alluring, but red in tooth and claw. It produces a poison, a grain of which smaller than one of salt can kill a human being. South American natives coated their arow-tips with this poison from the Arrow-poison frog to deadly effect. But it was another cousin of this frog, shown to the right, that led to the discovery of Epibatidine, an alkaloid that turned out to be a potent non-addictive analgesic, whose derivatives would replace addictive drugs like morphine and lead to better painkillers. The alkaloid was extracted from the frog's skin after making painfully difficult efforts to breed it in captivity. Literally hundreds of alkaloids with diverse pharmacological actions have been isolated from just the skin of amphibians in the last thirty years. This is just one among countless examples. Sponges from the ocean, for instance, have been the source of some of the most important anti-cancer drug candidates discovered in the last twenty years. According to a recent report in Nature, around half of the drugs currently in use have originated from nature. The importance of preserving natural sources for new life-saving agents can hardly be overemphasized.
Yesterday, I was reading the reminiscences of Jerrold Meinwald, a pioneering organic chemist at Cornell University, who turned his chemical talents towards uncovering the extraordinary chemical diversity in nature, thus becoming one of the pathfinders of the science of chemical ecology. Among Meinwald's string of papers, the latest one deals with the extraction of novel compounds (sulfated nucleosides) from the dreaded funnel-web spider shown below, one of the most poisonous species of spiders on the planet.

These compounds promise new leads for stroke and other neurological disorders. This is again, just one example. How much remains to be discovered? Meinwald says,

"What might one anticipate to be the future of natural products chemistry and chemical ecology in this post-genomic, post-9/11 age? Is there anything left to discover? The answer to this question is certainly a resounding "yes". To begin with a small example, there are roughly 40,000 described species of spider, all capable of paralyzing their prey, but less than 1% of their venoms have been subjected to careful analysis. Surely there are great opportunities here for the discovery of novel neuropharmacological agents. There are about a million described insect species, and a conservative estimate of three million species of insect on earth all together. We can estimate, then, that 99.9% remain as potential targets for chemical study. Among soil bacteria, something like 99% are presently unculturable. Nevertheless, these organisms are known to be genetically extremely diverse, and it appears highly likely that a knowledge of their secondary metabolites would be not only chemically fascinating but also of great value to medicine and agriculture. It is certain that the study of extremophiles will greatly broaden our understanding of what kinds of chemistry can support life. We can conclude that most of nature remains to be explored at the molecular level."

It is mind-blowingly wonderful to imagine then, given the wealth of new and useful drug leads that we have already isolated from so small a section of the biodiversity of our planet, what potentialities lie for us in the future. But then, wonder turns to woe when we realise how much of this biodiversity we are destroying on a per day basis- the loss of species that one day would have supplied us with life saving drugs, with the cure for AIDS perhaps, is heartbreakingly incomprehensible. Most of them will silently die away, and already have, and left behind will be human beings, for whom the bell ominously tolls...Is this the true face of capitalism? The destruction of the future of our race for petty, short term gains in the present and 'near' future?

And to end on a relatively light note- how frogs usually make conversation...