Thursday, November 30, 2006


The New York Times editorial yesterday talks about a lawsuit brought against the US govt and the EPA for not imposing restrictions on CO2 emissions for new cars, something that was a part of the Clean Air Act. The lawsuit was filed by a few states including New York and Massachusetts. The lawsuit also includes an amici curiae filed by some of the leading climate scientists in the world. Of course Michael Crichton will hasten right away to denounce this cabal as a conspiracy clique. That would naturally undermine his own cabal, the one he, the FBI, and the EPA are all part of, won't it?

The document (PDF) is worth reading as it sets out quite clearly what is known about climate change and global warming. Anyone who thinks that the connection between human activites and global warming and ice-sheet melting, increase in hurricance intensity/frequency and impact on biodiversity of climate is not clear at all would benefit from the report. If you still think exactly the way you did before, then you should reach for the nearest good dictionary and look up the meaning of the phrases "likely" and "very likely".

Strongly recommended for those who think that "global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" or anything close to that. Better be cautious than cuckoo, right?

Link: Realclimate

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Yesterday marked 1348 days since US forces invaded Iraq. A CNN commentator noted that this was one day more than the time US forces were in World War 2. The contrast is compelling, both because of the nature of the current situation, and the poignant feeling it gave me when I realised that it was relatively quickly and momentously that the Allies defeated the twin giant totalitarian powers of Germany and Japan (along with their sidekick, Italy). One cannot help but note the contrasting facts:

1. In WW2, the US was fighting against an enemy which personified true evil. I call it the last war in which the US was 'good' and the enemy was 'evil', perhaps the last war in which we could unequivocally support US actions as honest and noble. In the current war, the enemy was certainly not good. But what can be said for the US? In fact, this war is being stubbornly touted as a war between good and evil when the facts are much more complicated.

2. The last war was led by a president who was as decent as any American president ever was. This war is led by a president who is more *insert favourite adjective* than almost any American president ever was.

3. The last war was a true collaborative effort, with many nations fighting together against a common and well-defined enemy. This war is essentially a unilateral engagement enforced upon the world by one country, with most other nations rejecting the conflict, some nations accepting it, and almost everyone being uncertain about what on earth it is actually about.

4. In the last war, the people supported the president. In this war, the president supports the people's deception and ignorance. The last war was supported by both political parties. This war is going on on in spite of both parties vehemently disagreeing about it.

5. The last war was at least to a large extent about peace and freedom. This war is about oil. Period.

6. The 'exit strategy' in WW2 was clear; to free Europe and Asia from totalitarian rule and then quietly bow out (although that didn't really happen). In this war, there is no exit strategy, and whatever it is going to be now is going to bring much pain and grief at the least. The last war aimed to forge a peaceful continent from an anarchic one. This war seems to be forging an anarchic state from a relatively peaceful one.

Even points 1. and 5. are in dispute. Some historians (for eg. see Zinn) believe that it was really Japanese challenge of US economic supremacy and Pacific trade routes that forced the US into the war. Still, Franklin Roosevelt was an honorable man, and he joined other nations in denouncing and fighting evil at a time when the US still could claim a reasonable baggage of innocence in foreign relations. GWB in contrast wants to feign innocence where none exists.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Given my earlier writings on my blog and my opinions in general about religion and God, it was ironic to say the least when I received the following email:

Dear Ashutosh:
We recently came across your site,, while searching for fellow believer bloggers.

A small group of us have started a new site called Christian Bloggers. Our prayer and intent is to bring Christians closer together, and make a positive contribution to the Internet community. While many of us have different "theologies", we all share one true saviour.

Would you be interested in joining Christian Bloggers? Please take a few minutes to have a look at what we are trying to do, and if you are interested, there is a sign up page to get the ball rolling. We would greatly appreciate your support in this endeavour.

May God Bless you and your blogging efforts. We look forward to hearing from you.

Craig Cantin
Christian Bloggers

Now this is so outrageous considering my beliefs (or actually lack thereof) that I sincerely hope that it's spam. I wish to tell them that yes, I have a different 'theology'; it is called Neology (No Theology) with Nogod as my savior, but I may have a serious disagreement with all their combined theologies if I say that.

That reminds me of the time when me and my cousin were roaming around VT and the Fort area on a hot day in Mumbai, when an evangelical Christian lady stopped us and exhorted us to attend a particular church that evening. She said that Jesus will forgive our sins, no matter what our religion (read: 'conversion spiel in beatific disguise'). I remember arguing with her along with my cousin why only Jesus could forgive our sins, when suddenly, the sight of a shop selling sugarcane juice was more than a potent force to draw me away from the conversation. No matter what sins of mine Jesus can forgive, I am sure he won't forgive my gluttony. So why bother?

Friday, November 24, 2006

I happened to see Crichton's 'State of Fear' again in the library yesterday, and I was amused and again thought of how it provides a great case of how politicians and naysayers cherry pick on scientific results and present biased views draped to look like authority. For anyone who is reading that book and getting impressed by the 'scientific' data it references, I again would point to the authoritative RealClimate article penned by respected climate scientists, as well as Chris Mooney's factcheck of Crichton's footnotes. Mooney, as I have noted, has written the readable The Republican War on Science. As Mooney says it best:
" In the appendix to ''State of Fear,'' Crichton frets about ''Why Politicized Science is Dangerous.'' But he may himself have provided a case study."


Is it just me who thinks that


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looks uncannily similar to

Josef Stalin in exile in 1915?

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How convenient.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


A disturbing article from the latest issue of Nature (subscriber link) documents the audible noises that creationist groups in Europe have been starting to make, to try to force creationism into science curricula. The trend is most evident in Turkey, and Italy also is in the throes of a similar debate. While the movement is still not large-scale, there are isolated pockets which have no remorse in flinging creationism at students as an 'alternative theory' to evolution. More than ever, scientists now have to take a deep breath and make sure that the exact meaning of evolution is made clear to students.

As an aside, about 70% of people in Europe believe in evolution. In Ted Haggard's America, the number has actually dropped down to 40% since 1985. What sweet irony I feel when I say "God save them" when I hear this. One of the reasons why I and others think fundamentalism has not cast such a long shadow in Europe is because Europe has seen such horrible religious conflict through the ages, that I would think it's simply too tired to get involved in relgious tirades anymore. Of course, Europe has also seen enormous non-religious conflict, so I believe it would be tired of conflict in general. In the much more historically liberal America, I fear that religious conflict may be a more welcome guest, ready to be invited in and nurtured until he erupts and spreads his poison among his hospitable hosts. Maybe it's European history and not creationism that should be made mandatory in American classrooms...

I believe that one of the problems that leads to such further unpleasant situations as are emerging in Europe is that evolution is really not taught too well in our classes. I don't recall it being taught too well in India (inlcuding in the ICSE and CBSE syllabus) nor did I see it being explained clearly and succintly in some American biology textbooks that are prescribed in schools and colleges here which I took a look at. On the other hand, what I find lavishly illustrated in most of these textbooks is the astounding diversity of life. If the books can do such a good job in illustrating this variegated diversity, it should be then a short step from there to connect it to evolution, and to explain how the central tenet of natural selection is a guiding force for all that spellbinding natural multiplicity that we see around us.

Perhaps the single-most important statement about evolution that teachers need to drive home into students' minds is this:


This misconception is widespread and easily assimilated. I found myself wondering about the 'chance' nature of evolution even when I was in my first year of college. Of course, that did not lead me as it might lead some, to believe in god as the default alternative. But the very fact that I kept on being puzzled by the chance nature of evolution makes it clear that I had really not understood evolution well. Many proponents of evolution (including Dawkins of course- "Darwin's rottweiler") have belaboured this point often; that the reason many people doubt evolution is simply because they haven't read up on it and tried to actually understand it. It is quite easy to get bewildered by the complexity around us and question how it could have arisen from simplicity. It takes a little more effort on our part to understand some basic aspects of evolution that can easily answer that question and convince us that evolution and 'chance' are diametrically opposite. To understand this "structured random" nature of evolution, I can heartily recommend any of Dawkins's, Stephen Jay Gould's, or Kenneth Miller's books (especially his Finding Darwin's God). A simple reading of three such books should largely get rid of the 'chance syndrome' that we might suffer from. The non-chance nature of evolution is manifest through mountains of evidence from history, as well as modern experiments done in laboratories.

But if even adults can suffer from this affliction of ignorance, then we should surely take many more efforts to make children understand the true nature of evolution. Evolution is surely a theory of simplicity and supreme elegance, but from a pedagogic perspective, I think it can still be tricky to explain some of its fine points that are nevertheless central to its key hypotheses. Because of this, teachers and parents (charity begins at home) really need to take out the time to make sure that students and children are asking questions in the first place, and then getting them clearly answered. If not getting them completely answered, then at least doubting, and most importantly, being quite happy with exploring and saying "I don't know"

In the end of course, questions remain, and the beauty of science is that it always has questions to gnaw at. Evolution is not a perfect theory, and there are puzzles that have to be solved. But more than anything else, students should be finally told that because there are questions does not mean an entire theory should be debunked, something the creationists are fond of doing till they drop dead. Because evolution (or evolutionists- an appellation which I hate because it sounds like "leftists' or "corn lobbyists") cannot answer 'all' questions scarcely means that "evolution is wrong". In the more than one hundred years since Darwin set foot on The Beagle, natural selection has emerged as the grandest, simplest, and most elegant theory that explains our origins. Now what would we rather have; a theory that, through objective evidence we are 99% certain about, or a completely made-up 'theory' that we are 100% certain about that not only does not provide a shred of evidence, but also contradicts itself and basic logic, as well as actively lies about its 'hypotheses'? In fact, how can we be '100% certain' about such a 'theory'? The sheer self-contradiction even in making a statement about such a 'theory' boggles the most average of minds.

I don't believe in evolution because I think it's a perfect theory. I believe in it because of its pervasive simplicity, the countless examples that it provides to explain complexity, and the simple fact that it's really the best theory we have. I also will be constantly puzzled by how any kind of skepticism about a detail of evolution can make the default leap of faith into the existence of a designer. At the least, it insults our intelligence because it means that because we can't understand something right now, it means that a supremely competent designer must have made it possible, and that we should give up trying to understand it. Not just that but even in the absence of Darwinism, God is really a bad explanation of anything because then as Dawkins has said many times, we just come down to trying to explain God.

To teach evolution would mean to teach the nature of science itself, its self-correcting and gradually progressing nature, as well it's drive to become more and more sure about the truth through critical acceptance, and rejection, of theories and hypotheses. An active effort needs to be made by scientists, teachers, and parents, to rescue their students and children from the trappings of a dark age (I was startled when this last statement made me sound like a preacher. Never mind, preachers would never certify me as their own...)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I hope that when the new Bond film makers decided to make Casino Royale, they were aiming for a radical break with the old Bond genre. If they were, they have made a good start. If they did not aim for such a thing, they have failed on many counts.

After watching Casino Royale, I don't know whether to feel happier that Bond movies are becoming more "realistic', that Bond himself is becoming more realistic and even human, or whether to feel sad that we have really seen the last of the James Bond that we all knew and loved. When I say "we", I mostly mean members of our parents' generation. I am by no means one of the rare 'old Bond' lovers of this generation, but I have to say that I was fortunate to grow up feeding on the thrills and entertainment of the old Bond classics. If I hadn't done that, I may never have become a James Bond fan, and Sean Connery who is old enough to be my great grandfather would have seemed like a speck in the Precambrian. Fortunately, I have paid homage multiple times to all the great Bonds before this, and have seen what they are like, and what they could do. As I have mentioned before, nobody beats Connery as Bond, and Brosnan comes in a good second in my opinion. I have also mentioned that I grew up a James Bond junkie. Me and my cousin used to enact end scenes from Bond movies in the living room countless number of times, and I actually used to relish playing the villain more then Bond sometimes, because it seems that the villain often got the best lines when he used to bore Bond to death close to the end. Stromberg, Dr. No, Christasis, Drax, Goldfinger, Largo- they were all deliciously wicked.

But I digress. So what about Daniel Craig? I have to say one thing; that he is hands down the most intense and athletic of the Bonds. The opening scene has him chasing a villain in an almost painfully extended chase, that has him mostly looking like an old world monkey jumping large distances with long paced bounds; and I don't mean this in a pejorative way at all. But there's more to the new Bond, which becomes evident in that scene. The new Bond falls, the new Bond oozes blood, the new Bond cringes, the new Bond can be clumsy at times. The new Bond is human!! That's what distinguishes the new bond from all the old Bonds.

Now is this a good thing or a bad thing? That's the question that will occupy audiences long after they have left the theater and returned to their homes. It's a tough call, and I am still mulling the philosophical implications. The reason is that one adjective which sounds like it was invented by James Bond is "UNPERTURBED". Shaken perhaps, but of course not stirred. That was an adjective to which all the old Bonds were faithful. But this Bond is anything but stirred. He looks scared, he looks hurt, he looks emotional. At the end, he manifestly falls in love with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, who I hate to say is almost ordinary in this movie). Bond in love?! Bond and emotional?! That's something which is really hard to digest for hard core Bond fans like us. One of the big virtues of all the old Bonds was that they all managed to stay detached- another adjective that Bond could have invented- without appearing vindictive. They could use beauties for information, and for business before pleasure, and then toss them away, all the while appearing completely innocent. They could seduce them with a one liner so that they never had to care later what those women thought; they would doubtlessly be too stricken (or too dead) to harbour resentments.

To be honest, the signs of emotion were already there. In Goldeneye, Bond sits wistfully on the beach while his lover tries to make an attempt to break through his impenetrable wall of impenetrability. That's when we first get the feeling of a heavy burden hanging on James Bond's back. But Daniel Craig can carry this sense to almost tragic extents. In fact, this is probably the first Bond film where I could sense pathos in James Bond, a wholly new perspective that I could not have imagined before. In Casino Royale, not only is Bond an emotional man, but he also transmits his emotional persona to M, Judi Dench. That was another slightly disquieting experience. In this movie, Judi Dench seems too sentimental, too emotionally insecure. I have to admit that Dench is probably the only woman who can play M and get away with it, but if you compare her with M from all the old Bond movies, you will notice that she is radically different from all of them, and especially in this movie. In fact, M never was a central character in many old Bond movies, and taking her center stage has always carried its own risks.

However, James Bond becoming emotional or attached per se is not a problem. It's the implications of that. For instance, I could never have imagined a woman actually trying to make Bond grudgingly wear a tuxedo of her choice. For a brief time, the movie veers dangerously close to becoming almost a romantic comedy, and although it quickly corrects itself, I was mortified at the thought. What about James Bond resigning from M16, largely because of his love for a woman? Another hard to digest fact. Not that Bond has never shown the semblance of love before; in You Only Live Twice, he actually gets married to a Japanese woman (who naturally dies shortly later). In The World Is Not Enough, he comes close to getting attached to the beautiful Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), but quickly proves that he is quite detached by putting a bullet through her without hesitation, when she betrays him and tries to get him killed; this is followed by an apt pithy one-liner. James Bond is a secret agent of the British Secret Service with a license to kill and a short life span. Can he really deviate far from this character?

Alluding to the opening scene, Bond again seems much too human when it comes to combat. He is still a fine fighter, but hardly gives us the "Only James Bond could do something like this" feeling. In Roger Ebert's review of the movie, Ebert compares James Bond to being more like Jason Bourne. But does Ebert realise that that precisely is the problem?! Only Bond can be Bond, and Bond cannot be and should not be like Jason Bourne. In fact, that was the central issue I had with the movie. Action packed as it was, the action sequences did not give you the feeling that their orchestration belonged in Bond's capable hands, and only those hands and no other. You could have thought of any number of action hero characters who could have managed those feats. In almost five or six sequences, Bond is running after cars and villains in a way that reminded me of a combination of Forrest Gump and Lola from Run Lola Run. Bond is fazed, Bond is shaken, Bond is even duped (that's why he has to run with sudden realisation). One of the most jarring scenes in the movie is when the lead villain (and there are many) strips Bond naked, ties him up to a chair, and then proceeds to inflict upon him a particularly painful kind of torture. It's sad and almost pitiful. Can we really imagine Bond in this condition? Again, there is precedent, but with a different Bond. In Die Another Day, Bond is similarly caged and tortured by the North Koreans. But somehow, Pierce Brosnan can carry off such torture surprisingly well. Craig also is brave, but he cannot carry it off with the unfazed audacity of a Brosnan or Connery.

At the heart of many of these problems is the mundane sounding fact that the film makers have done away with Bond's constant wisecracking. But wisecracking is really the essence of Bond. The only reason why Bond works is because he can be in the most hopeless situation, but can still give us the illusion of being in charge with his wisecracks. He could give us the illusion of flirting, or alternatively distancing himself from women, all because of his wisecracks. Doing away with wisecracks is not a very wise way to please Bond fans. As for the gadgets, I don't have a real problem with their absence, but I do miss seeing John Cleese as Q. The villains are all right, but the lead villain is at the mercy of other villains, which is a little less chilling than what you would expect for a Bond villain.

So what does all this mean? Daniel Craig is emotional, intense, and still determined and ultimately unperturbed, although he does not exactly look like that when he is in the thick of things. Daniel Craig is atheltic, but he gets hurt, fails to make elegant jumps between buildings, and gives an impression of more resolve than natural ability. Daniel Craig falls in love, lets women choose his tuxedoes, resigns from M16 because of a woman, and in the end, tries to save the woman who betrayed him (or at least so it seems). In a nutshell, Daniel Craig looks real. Daniel Craig is impressive, but is he James Bond?

And that's the problem die-hard Bond fans like me have. We live in a world, fairy tale world as it may be, of a Bond who is rugged, gets himself out of impossible situations, turns situations around purely based on wisecracks, and uses women and then discards them without them holding a grudge or him appearing like a self-centered pig. We live in a world where Bond is all about elegance, detachment, imperturbability, style, and charming and mischievous innocence. I have to say that I think that the world of that Bond has come to an end. To be honest, I am not sure even now whether that is a good or bad thing. I think that this humanizing of Bond may be a part of the greater humanizing of superheroes, including Batman and Spiderman, that we have seen in the past few years. There's nothing wrong in that, and one may even come to adore these reinvented characters more than their ideal counterparts. But so it is for Bond, and fans like me cannot help feel a wisp of nostalgia when we remember Goldfinger or For Your Eyes Only. Daniel Craig is a fine actor, and he has played Bond's role with wholehearted dedication. As a thriller, Casino Royale is an afternoon well-spent (although perhaps a little prolonged). But for old Bond afficianados like myself, Craig is definitely a new kid in town.

Or perhaps my questions are justified. After all, why should only realistic movies be good ones? Actually, why should movies be realistic at all?...

Monday, November 20, 2006


"If someone is interested in the details, I will be happy to talk to them later"...these words of mine in a group meeting presentation were met with amusement and subdued smirking. I was puzzled. In India, I remember hearing these words often in a talk. They made me feel happy, because they seemed to indicate that the speaker was genuinely interested in explaining the fine points, and indeed even the general points of his talk later to those who were interested. So what had changed between then and now? Two factors I think among others: Google, and Powerpoint.

Powerpoint allows you to display a long list of references with the tacit assumption that the audience will scan and memorize them instantaneously. Surely all the references you need will be in there. So for details, just look into those.

Google made avoiding human communication even more easy. Some experience that I have supports this. Let's say someone was talking about a project that involved RNA interference (RNAi), which is a standard tool these days, and which was awarded the Nobel prize this year. I would cringe asking them "What is RNAi?", because more than once I have received the response, "O RNAi...that's...why don't you google it?" Well, of course I can google it, but it's not a crime to sometimes yearn for human communication. In 'older' times, the speaker knew that you would have to probably go to the library and browse through books to get such a question answered. To save you that trouble, he or she would take out a few minutes to answer your question. Even today, there are a few speakers who are gracious enough to be patient and try to answer even a general question by taking a few minutes. But the percentage is alarmingly dwindling, even those who are willing to talk to you in detail later. If you want to ask them about the direct details of their research, fine. If it's something general, you can always...

I understand of course, the enormous benefits of having Google and the internet at your fingertips, which in fact allow you to instantly access such information. Interestingly, it works both ways; today in a presentation, a colleague highlighted a drug for tuberculosis, a well-known antibiotic. I was tempted to ask her what protein target in the tuberculosis bacterium it targets. But I was stricken with the 'information at your fingertips syndrome'; why should I ask her that if I could get the information right away from Al Gore's information superhighway? (This syndrome has also led more people googling in presentations than paying attention to the talk)

Naturally, Google is God. But I wonder if human communication in presentations has been stifled because of the tacit assumption on the part of both speaker and audience, that they can always google it. As for me, I still love to say "If someone is interested in the details, I will be happy to talk to them later" as a catch-all phrase, and I think I am going to continue doing so. For the sake of good old fashioned banter, if not anything else.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


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Katie Holmes trying to say "Please, get me out of here! I am being held captive by these scientology obssessed movie stars and their fellow believers! Help me pleaaaaase!"

Friday, November 17, 2006


I first saw him in an unlikely place. It was the summer of 2003, and I was standing in a line for one of the big roller coasters at the Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey. Right behind me, there was a man with a flowing beard and a long white robe standing and marveling with childlike enchantment at the snaking and whizzing roller coaster on top. I was amused, but even in 2003, I was not entirely sure what Sri Sri Ravi Shankar looked like. I did suspect it was him because I had probably seen his photo somwehere, and two of my friends has attended his art of living ccourse and had strongly recommended it to me. Their most important rationale was that "there is nothing spiritual about it"; it was a logical and 'scientific' technique of meditation. I never ended up attending one of those courses, but now I wish I had (or perhaps I still will) out of sheer curiosity.

Three years later, the massive following around Ravi Shankar is exceedingly looking like a cult and seems jarring to me, something like that around Satya Sai Baba. I have read some of his writings. While there is nothing particularly dogmatic about them, I also could not see anything exceptional in them; no fresh point of view, no new insight. I have already written about his article on terrorism, in which some lines are outright ludicrous. But today, I see hundreds of thousands of people following him, hanging on endearingly to his words, and preaching his philosophy around the world. But even after having read some of the articles about and by him, and after one Nobel prize nomination later, I still don't understand what exactly his philosophy is; that leads me to think that his philosophy is not so much being taught, as it is being parroted. His deep-breathing technique may have its merits, but that hardly explains his mass appeal.

But what I worry about the most is his followers' consistent insistence of the innocent quality of his teachings, the 'non-spiritual' nature of his discourses. They say that in fact, he is against organised religion, his sayings don't have a religious flavour. But religion is first and foremost about blind faith; the rituals and dogmatic sounding customs that most people's definition of religion necessarily contain come much later. If you are convinced that someone's discourses don't have an iota of dogma in them, and if you are stuborn to the point of unwavering belief in this fact, then you are actually being dogmatic, and there's not much difference between you and someone who strictly adheres to well-defined religious customs taught by a preacher. Both these attitudes are the same, because at their root, they are the product of blind faith.

There have been sinister examples of cults in history that have not been imbibed with any one religious philosophy or tradition. The members of those cults were lured into them precisely because the non-religious sounding tenets of the cult appealed to them. Jim Jones's cult is an archetypal and chilling example. The charismatic preacher preached essentially what was racial equality, compassion, and love, attributes that should not necessarily subscribe to a particular religion. But the line between religious dogma and religious dogma masquerading as 'objective' and logical beliefs is thin, and Jones's followers certainly did not recognize it. The distinction between being in love with an idea and being in love with the person who came up with it was quickly forgotten. The result? Jonestown, Guyana, and the largest collective mass suicide in history, grotesque proof of how one man can convert well-reasoned and sane people into faith imbibed zombies. Convert them to such an extent that, when the moment of reckoning arrives, mothers willingly inject cyanide into their babies' mouths.

I am in no way comparing Ravi Shankar to Jim Jones, and I hope that I never have to compare anyone to Jim Jones. But I wish to emphasize that just because someone preaches universal compassion, equality, and peace, does not mean he is incapable of forming a cult around him. Religious faith is akin to romantic love, and just as in romantic love, it does not always take rational justification to subscribe to it; in fact, since most of us have some rationality in us, rationality may be the perfect bait to lure someone across the line of faith. For a moment, let's assume that Ravi Shankar's words bear weight in terms of policy or political action. That still is no reason to worship him with the kind of enraputured soul-filling ideology that you see and hear.

When I hear about one lakh people singing and dancing together, their emotions essentially orchestrated by a single man on a stage, I see no reason to not believe that what I am seeing may be the collective exaltation of a cult. If people think that Ravi Shankar is someone exceptional because he preaches in a non-spiritual manner, then it may be part of a delusion that they are unaware of. Perhaps Ravi Shankar has excellent PR skills, perhaps he is unusually articulate, perhaps he is the Dale Carnegie of India, but all that is no reason to worhip him and put your complete faith in him, as many of his devotees do. After all, as I often reiterate, compassion, equality, and respect and love are qualities that are independent in their merit and do not need to be true because they are enunciated by someone in particular. The same thing can be said for all the social service efforts that his foundation is engaged in; admirable efforts in themselves, and it's not necessary to attach any kind of aura to the person spearheading them. If Shankar iterates values in a way such that the common man understands them better, we certainly appreciate him for doing that, but it should have nothing to do with worshipping him, dancing to his tune in the millions (pun intended) or calling him 'Sri Sri' for that matter.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


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Milton Friedman has passed away. The Nobel Laureate, champion of laissez faire capitalism, can lay fair claim to be the most influential American economist of his generation. The strutting capitalism of 80s and 90s America must have looked toward Friedman as its role model. He consulted two US presidents and Margaret Thatcher, took the Chicago School to intoxicating highs, was known for walking out of interviews if he thought the questions were stupid, and apparently never lost an argument. As an impish aside, I think he may have only indulged in arguments that he knew he could win, or in which, in Hans Bethe's words, he already had an unfair advantage. After all, why would a man who favoured virtually unbridled deregulation be always right?

I will always remember Friedman's most interesting argument in The Corporation, in which he said that if corporate officials indulge in behaviour that is moral by many people's standards (such as compromising on profits by engaging in more environmentally benign practices), they are actually being immoral by shareholders' standards. More correctly, the only definition of morality that matters for corporations, is that which benefits shareholders...

A provocative and brilliant man who lived a provocative life.

Friday, November 10, 2006


KinasePro says that this video brought a tear to his eye. Seriously, why do we need God if the scientific complexity, mystery and beauty of life and its workings are enough to keep us occupied and enthralled all our life? As the inimitable Douglas Adams asked, "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" More than a hundred years ago, we found the answer to the question, "What is the great force holding it all together"- Natural Selection

Among the parts and events I could identify in the video were the actions of muscles (featured as the worm like actin and myosin walking around with 'legs'), neurons, tubulin elongating and reducing in length (the stuff of cell division), the endoplasmic reticulum, ribosomes merrily threading a piece of mRNA, and endocytosis.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


About intellectuals' attitudes towards religion and Christianity in particular, Bertrand Russell wrote,
"The majority of intellectually eminent men disbelieve in Christian religion, but they conceal the fact in public, because they are afraid of losing their incomes"

Some critics, including Paul Johnson in his Intellectuals, an include-all unabashed excoriation of intellectuals, accuse Russell of being an opportunist, continually writing books throughout his lifetime from which he could always be assured royalties because of their massive popularity. Johnson condemns Russell for capitalising on his proven selling potential. The same criticism has been hurled at Noam Chomsky (who not surprisingly has a large portrait of Russell hung in his office)

For a moment, let's leave aside the fact that there's nothing wrong about capitalising on your selling potential; it would be hard to find an author (including Johnson) who does not do that.
But now, when I read the above statement, I think that Russell learnt from his realization, and he knew exactly what he needed to do to avoid pitfalls other intellectuals might face, which would force them to stay politically correct. Russell was nothing if not a shrewd man, and early on, he must have realised that he would come under fire for his controversial views. The evidence supports his belief; in world war 1, he was first fined, then lost his professorship at Trinity college, and then was put in jail. He was declared "morally unfit' to teach at City College in New York after public outcry condemned his writings on sexuality. Even in the best of times, he must have been a liability to at least some influential British officials who could turn the wheels of his fortune. With such a tumultuous and unpredictable public life with no sure and consistent income, Russell surely must have realised that he would need to have some other source of income if he was to remain outspoken about his worldview. If that was the case, then there was nothing wrong in capitalising on his unique ability to convey his views to the public in the most effective manner; if anyone, it was the public who benefited from his books, most of which were exceptional. If Russell becomes an opportunist because of this, then so does Johnson, who is trying to capitalise on the shock value of his Russell criticism.

In fact, Bertrand Russell was an extremely shrewd man, who knew exactly what he needed to do in order to maximize the impact of his words, and to make himself secure for doing that.


The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.
—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

I am tempted to quote the blind Dhrutarashtra from the play at the end of Jane Bhi Do Yaaro which is hilarity exemplified; "Yeh kya ho raha hai beta?"

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Bush has finally listened to his wife. As Bob Woodward says in his State of Denial, Laura Bush was one of the people who apparently told Bush to replace Rumsfeld. Now Rumsfeld himself has taken the lead. Good for him; now, he can start criticising troops in public and not just private. After all, he had done a 'fantastic job' in the words of his mentor, and what better class act than to leave gracefully after doing such a job, so that your career will forever remain untarnished. I wonder whether his resignation was a 'known unknown' or an 'unknown unknown' for him.

Now with the Democrats in charge of the house and probably the senate as well, I hope they make it as difficult for Bush to pass flawed bills as it would be for Martin Bormann to gain entry to a bar mitzwah. As the NYT said, they didn't win particularly because people voted for them, but because people voted against Republicans. But much of course needs to be done by them, and much anticipation abounds. The choice in their latest invasion is one between the 'tolerable and the awful' only, and it needs to be seen how tolerable they make it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


While the major point of contention in the election is going to be Iraq, science is also going to have its fingers crossed about the outcome. As Paul says, there are so many cribs that science has about the Bush administration. But it's not just about allowing this or that kind of scientific research, it's about respecting the very notions that science stands for- truth, candor, skepticism, and rationality. What science needs from the government is not so much of funding as of trust in the objective evaluation that it does, and more importantly, the wisdom, equaniminity, and guts, to support its conclusions. While political agendas always take precedence over 'truth' and all politicians cherry pick on scientific findings to some extent, the Bush administration has stretched the line about falsifying and cherry picking the conclusions of sound science. One of the best accounts of the administration's egregious behaviour that I have read is Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science which might as well be titled The Republican War on Honesty.

Biodiversity research, stem cells and global warming have seen their good share of mudslinging and manipulation, Plan B was almost stifled, and we don't even have to get started on creationism. In the case of Plan B, it wasn't about just respecting science, but about respecting human dignity- it would give the roughly 4000 women who get pregnant from being raped every year, a chance to regain and retain some of their dignity.
About creationism, curiously as I mentioned previously, Bush has actually failed to get creationism taught in biology classes, hard as his minions have campaigned for it. In my opinion, he started out on the wrong foot; he could have probably managed to get it included in a comparative philosophy class, or one on the history of (bad) ideas. In fact, why not teach creationism in a class on Christianity, and tout it as a well accepted religious 'theory'? Too bad he missed this chance.

Be as it may, the Bush administration's track record for respecting science has been the worst ever. And so at stake in this election (and the 2008 one) is not only funding for science, but the very recognition of science as a candle in the dark, as an epitome not of faith, but of doubt. Because that's what fuels progress.

Monday, November 06, 2006


It's hard not to discern the heartfelt anticipation and emotion in the hearts of those friends of mine of all ages who are supporting the Democrats, and also the cheerful confidence in the looks of those friends (of which I have none) who are supporting the Republicans.

My gut feeling is that the Democrats should emerge triumphant, even in the absence of blockbuster candidates. But then, politics and human nature have never stooped to dance to the tune of lowly rationality, that annoying little thing that somehow always crops up in human affairs. In any case, I get a feeling that should Bush lose, two major factors might be responsible for that; religious conservatives' loss of faith (pun intended) in him for not introducing prayer and supporting creationism in schools, and much more importantly, and hopefully, the disillusionment of American families whose sons and daughters are dying in Iraq. Thomas Friedman's readable recent article in the NYT makes it clear; Bush and his neo cons think American troops are stupid, plus, in trying to absolve Rumsfeld of blame, they have inadvertently heaped insults on the generals and the army.

Meanwhile, last minute PR photos of Bush with babies and siblings are wondrously rib tickling.

* Why I don't like to discuss centrifugal force with my friends (as I was doing yesterday)

Image Hosted by

A pretty centrifuge to the one who guesses which Bond movie this cartoon is based on.

Courtesy: Randall Mundroe

Thomas Friedman answers a few questions at the NYT

Q: Q. Do you have any solution to the problem of the disaffected young Islamic men who are convinced that the afterlife is better than this one and that they are doing something good for those they take with them in a suicide bombing? We clearly need a new approach beyond counterintelligence and law enforcement.

Q. Do you think it is possible for democracy to work in an Islamic nation without secularization?

A: Let me address both questions, because they are interrelated:

The second largest Muslim country in the world is India. And, as far as we know, there do not seem to be many Indian Muslims in al-Qaeda.
Why not? Partly the answer is culture. India has what Lawrence Harrison in "The Central Liberal Truth" calls a "progress-prone" culture. And partly the answer is context. India is a free-market democracy, albeit a messy one, where young people, Hindu or Muslim, boys or girls, have a chance to realize their full potential - even with the lingering caste system.

...It is hard to point to an example where Islam and democracy have worked well together. There are Muslim countries that are democracies, like Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, but they have been largely secularized and not run on Koranic law. I think Islam and democracy could work well together, but it would take the sort of reformation of Islam that Christianity and Judaism went through. There are Muslim thinkers who have called for that.

This also echoes my opinion. I have always thought that if there is anyone who can reform Islam, it would be Muslims from the inside. Provided they can survive the fatwahs.

Friday, November 03, 2006


One of the pieces of news (NYT link) making waves is the finding that resveratrol, a substance in red wine, can offset the effects of a high-calorie diet and prolong mice at least. But the graph is revealing, and is also relieving, because it emphatically shows that wine enthusiasts gleefully running out to buy (and justify) large stores of Chianti should pause for thought. The graph clearly shows that a standard low calorie diet still is better than a high-calorie one fortified with red wine, at least in the long term. So think again before you douse yourself with wine and cheese.

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Copyright: Nature Publication Group

Original Nature paper (Subscriber link)

Now let me get back to my creme-filled donut.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Guilty as I feel about it, this piece of news (if true) gives me a small tinge of sadistic pleasure. Ted Haggard, the cult leader-like head of the New Life Church, the man who has a hotline to George Bush, not to mention God, has stepped down among accusations that he paid money for sleeping with a gay man.

Why does this give me sadistic pleasure? Because Pastor Ted Haggard is the same man who disparaged Richard Dawkins when Dawkins went to his congregation, and who claimed that the "eye just was", thus trying to debunk evolution. When Dawkins said that the scientific evidence clearly says that the earth is four and a half billion years old, Haggard said that Dawkins was echoing "some of the views of some portions of the scientific community". In response to his statements and his attitude, when Dawkins flatly told him he knew nothing about evolution, Haggard in turn tried to roundly scold Dawkins for being intellectually arrogant. On second thought, let me embed the video here, which like other Youtube videos on Dawkins's 'The Root of all Evil' is really worth watching.

Face it Haggard, you are only human, and whatever you are, now can you still conclude that God made you in his image? Better to live proudly and face the truth, rather than live under the burden of knowing that God made you a certain way.


I better fry that fish for dinner today instead of waiting for the weekend. How many times do you see a front page news headline on BBC saying "Only 50 years left for sea fish"? But that's what it says, and this is one of the scarier changes that's going to take place as we irreversibly modify our planet. No need to have Halloween as a special celebration anymore.

This is not suprising. In an earlier post, I already commented about precipitous amphibian declines orchestrated by environmental damage. Now it's the fish, and in fact marine life in general. And no wonder; out of all systems, marine systems are probably the most delicate systems on earth. In fact, we haven't even understood the complex symphony involving fish, algae, other sea denizens and chemicals, that takes place below the water's surface. As one researcher said, marine biosystems are like a pack of cards, so intricably linked with each other, that disturb one, and you turn others topsy turvy. But doesn't the pack of cards go further in even more ways? After all, the oceans are the great equalizers of the planet, absorbing CO2 and being key for maintaining temperature. One of the scarier scenarios for global warming concerns the perturbation of the North Atlantic Circulation, which would throw Europe and the US into a new age of climate, possibly an ice age.

In the last two decades or so, we have been starting to see the effects of climate change on biodiversity in a very real way, with not only loss of habitats, but also the spread of disease vectors that thrive in warmer conditions. Finally, as I have already said, it's going to be the disruption of daily life that is going to be the final wake up call for people. The only critical question is whether it will be too late by then, and the answer increasingly seems to be yes. This is no longer a matter that needs to appeal to only morality and preserving the beauty of nature. This has to do with our modern way of life, and once we take a look, we realise that the matter of biodiversity destruction is linked to many others of our grotesque nemeses, including the oil crises, and religious and political conflict. The pack of cards packs deep indeed.

Critics of global warming who said that taking action against it would adversely affect economies need to open their eyes. The naysayers who don't wish to preserve the environment for its own sake could at least preserve it for their own sake. How many people's likelihood is related to seafood collection and processing? And again, how much of the world economic capital rests on providing seafood to populations? If this has nothing to do with economics, then I don't see what has. The fact that I may not get that stuffed pomfret on a lazy weekend will be the most trivial of all consequences.

I firmly believe that if humanity's end comes, it will not be because it lacked the technology and capability for solving problems, but because the problems were so intractably connected to each other and humans' way of life, that even solving one problem would make the entire system collapse. It would be the ultimate irony; the system's sheer complexity and overbearing influence precluding even the realistic solution of a problem, even when it is at hand.


My advisor pulled a Niels Bohr on me today. We have this proposal to present, in which we have to come up with an original idea. It's well known that most original ideas don't work, so it's no trivial matter. I had an idea, and I walked into his office and said, "Are you open to crazy ideas?" He replied, "Not if they aren't crazy enough". I walked out of the room right away.
Not fair; I have so long wanted to pull such a Niels Bohr on someone.


"Let me put this kindly: anyone who believes that Donald Rumsfeld has done a "fantastic job" in Iraq is out of his mind. The fact that such a person is president of the United States is beyond disturbing. But then this is the man who told Michael Brown he was doing a "heckuva job." And, yes, our Iraq policy begins to look uncannily like the Katrina response.

The president, in other words, has just proved that he is utterly unhinged from reality, in a state of denial truly dangerous for the world. He needs an intervention. Think of this election as an intervention against a government in complete denial and capable of driving the West off a cliff. You can't merely abstain now. Bush just raised the stakes. And he must be stopped."

Andrew Sullivan says it better than I could. There couldn't be any other way to say it.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Gaurav has written about Shivan Vij's botched up attempts to draw publicity to his blog by posting pictures of the victims of rape and murder in a village near Nagpur. The act was truly heinous, and deserves to be paid every bit of attention as the Jessica Lal and Priyadarshani Mattoo, but giving it attention is not the same as splattering photos of dead bodies on blogs and front pages. First of all, someone who has a way with words can evoke the same emotions with them, and "a picture is worth a thousand words" is not an adage that should be used indiscriminately. Secondly, it is very much possible to be graphic without being sensationalist or insulting.

When could it be appropriate to describe graphic details? Graphic details certainly catch your attention, and this tactic has been wrongly used by the media as noted to sensationalize muders, rapes, and other atrocities. However, describing atrocities and posting pictures of them is quite different. That's because our visual memory is much stronger than our verbal memory, and therefore, much more responsibility needs to be exercised when assailing our visual senses. The press often fails to understand this responsibility, and takes the easy way out of shocking us by showing graphic photos. This is an easy way out because naturally, it is much more difficult to deliver the same emotional impact through words as through pictures. But in this process, as Gaurav notes, they forget about the dignity of the victims. Somehow, the fact that they are dead reinforces this lack of attention in their mind.

Among all the books I have read in my life, there have been books that have described a singular event in history in more graphic detail that I should have read. These were the Holocaust books that I encountered at perhaps too early an age. But now, as I remember those books, I realise that they were the finest examples of graphic and yet necessary reading that I have seen. Probably the first such book was William Shirer's monumental Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer's descriptions of the treatment of Jews and 'experiments' on them in extermination camps are as morbid as anything could be. And yet, Shirer is such a masterly and authoritative writer that he brilliantly succeeds in convincing us that those paragraphs should be read by every human being on earth, in fact precisely for reinforcing the idea of human dignity. So actually, it is possible to remind everyone what human dignity is through graphic descriptions.

The other such related book which I can highly recommend, although for those with a strong stomach, is Richard Rhodes's Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust. This books talks about how the Holocaust in fact began with the German invasion of Russia, when the infamous SS began summary executions of thousands of Ukranian Jews by shooting them and then dumping bodies in pits. Parts of the book were too much for me, maybe because I had had too much of Holocaust reading at that time. But again, like Shirer, Rhodes makes graphic descriptions necessary and is a riveting storyteller without peer. The accounts are intensely vivid, but never gratuitous, something like the opening violence in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Just like Shirer, Rhodes manages to convince us that reading those descriptions are necessary for understanding the history, or at least are necessary to give us a unique vantage point. Both Rhodes and Shirer are superb historians, and it is this distinction that helps them to depict graphic events in a way that actually highlights human dignity.

The bottom line is, it is quite possible to be very graphic without pictures, and without insulting human dignity. But such writing is an art, and very few members of the press are masters in it. Most are not, and therefore they take the easy way out of posting and publishing sensationalist pictures solely intended to shock.

Update: In retrospect, I guess that my labeling of Shivam's post as a publicity stunt was a premature conclusion. Sorry about that. I basically founded my hasty assertion on the basis of the post itself, and his link to it on another blog. But I now realise that his motive was not to defame the vicitms. On the other hand, I still believe that one can inform as well as shock without being graphic, but then it also depends on the sensitivity of the reader.