Saturday, May 26, 2007


I don't believe in God or religion. But, looking at the current religion-connected dystopian scenarios that are enveloping the West, I am really tempted to say this: I am happy to be a Hindu, and in fact I am proud of it. If possible, I would want a world without religion, but if I were forced to choose, Hinduism could be a good candidate for world religion in my opinion, because it's not even one religion as such (actually I may choose Buddhism, but Hinduism has such delightful and colourful mythology!)

While I have enjoyed recent readings of atheist philosophy written by Harris, Dawkins etc., I have to say that now I am a tad weary of them. Not because I diasgree with them or don't enjoy them anymore. In fact I agree with almost everything they say and constantly are informed and entertained by their and others barbed articulateness on matters of faith and religion. But I also think that while their main thrust is really and rightly against faith in general, the substance of their arguments is really against the three monotheistic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Their barbs are mostly directed against believers in these three faiths, because belief in these faiths seems to restrict one in following certain dogmas, or at least to be serious about them. Also, on an international level, fundamentalists especially from these three religions are causing great harm to human life and dignity. So many conflicts in the world are marked by religious tones. Sam Harris says that the Kashmir conflict is essentially a religious conflict. But I don't think I quite agree with him there; while religious beliefs definitely play a role in the conflict, I don't believe religion is as much a substantial reason for that conflict as it is for say the Israel-Palestine conflict. But I digress.

I constantly realise how much these arguments by these fine writers and thinkers are really made rather unnecessary if you are a Hindu. Although that does not mean that I would try to foist the benefits of Hinduism upon anybody (a meaningless point since I am an atheist) or that I make a big deal about it, and nor does it mean I actually believe in any of the faith-based tenets of Hinduism, I am constantly struck by how coolly most Hindus might take dissenters' objections about their gods, rituals, or practices, whereas Chrtistians, Muslims, and Jews might (and do) consider those objections blasphemous, offensive, or at least unpleasant. While fundamentalist Christians still enjoy a large following in the US (the most religious country in the developed world in my opinion), the corresponding Shiv Sena is largely unpopular among most Hindus and does not have a very large following. Unfortunately, like pestilent vermins, they seem to cause more problems than we would like them to and occasionally keep cropping up. But the point is that the Shiv Sena holds fast to some misguided fundamentalist version of Hinduism which is not only a non-essential part of the philosophy of the religion, but basically does not even really have to do anything with Hinduism. In fact I always like to call Hinduism more of a philosophy than a religion in the first place. And when it comes to philsophy, everybody has the right to pontificate.

As Hindus, we generally don't care about any version of creation, about virgin births, virgins in heaven (the monotheistic religions seem to be obsessed with virgins in many contexts) and in fact about any kind of rule-based belief system. The three monotheistic religions could make a checklist of pretty much absolute requirements that any one of their followers need to follow or believe in. I am not saying that everyone needs to follow or believe in all these norms, but they seem much more of absolutes than anything in Hinduism, and those who don't follow them are not really considered people of the faith. If you are a Hindu, even an ardent one, you could care less whether Brahma created the world, or whether Kalyug is going to be imminent or not, and still consider yourself a faithful follower. I am amused at how sanguine most Hindus will be if someone seriously challenges their myths and beliefs, because there's always an alternative path to salvation (whether you believe in it or not) that does not require belief in those myths. They would simply shrug their shoulders, and would even agree with their adversary. In fact, even something approximating atheism, or at least secular humanism, seems to be very easily permitted in Hinduism. So many words in holy books such as the Vedas from the past can safely and very easily be discarded by Hindus, and yet they can call themselves Hindus. Biblical instances of impiety and downright despicale immorality perpetuated by god make Christians squirm and get defensive. But most Hindus would not mind if someone points out moral transgressions in the Mahabharata. For example, how about the fact that Draupadi had five husbands? In fact, one sordid explanation of this fact says that when Arjuna won Draupadi in the swayamwara, Kunti saw her beauty and realised that with such a beautiful woman in the household, the brothers may not be able to contain their lust and may end up fighting and even killing each other over Draupadi. To avoid this scenario, Kunti ordained that she should marry all of them (although I am not sure how that would really have been a solution as such). In any case, most Hindus would not get worked up if someone points out such disreputable events and interpretations in Hindu mythology. But I cannot imagine most Christians being very comfortable with such analyses involving Moses or Jesus. And it has been amply demonstrated that Muslims are not. Among Hindus, there is a sort of common wisdom that denigrating particulars makes no dent in the grand structure. Is this cherry-picking? Not any more than cherry-picking from the Bible. But while many Christians may have serious and even violent debates about such exegesis, Hindus seem to be content on such allowances for multiple and alternative interpretations.

Of course, people of other faiths sometimes denigrate Hinduism precisely because of these multiple allowances that Hinduism gives its followers. They say that this means that anything goes. First of all, that's not true, because multiple ways of life don't necessarily deviate from some reasonable guidelines and definitions. But even if it means that anything goes, it's still much better than "only our thing goes", isn't it? Not surprisingly, the real problem is in the word "mono", which automatically forces people into believing a constrained set of norms laid down by some supreme bearded man. For a Hindu, not only is there no one god, but god is also supposed to be everywhere, including inside himself. In the Gita, one might get the illusion that even after enunciating the various ways in which one might attain salvation, Krishna still says that in the end, it is about following him. But, as my father pointed out a few days ago, even "him" does not mean only Krishna, but can mean many things, including the person himself. One need not attach any realistic or corporeal connotations to this abstract entity.

Not to sound like Fritjof Capra, but just like the behaviour of the electron, a Hindu has an option of following multiple paths from the beginning to end. In fact, even the beginning and end can be defined in many ways. Christianity or Islam seem much more like classical mechanics, with well-defined and absolute trajectories. Hinduism is electrons, everything and nothing at the same time, particle and wave both exemplified. But now I am sounding like Deepak Chopra. So I should stop.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007


I have read Sam Harris's brilliant "Letter to a Christian Nation" but I haven't gotten a chance to read his bestselling "The End of Faith" yet. But I became aware of an interesting critique of Noam Chomsky that he pens in the book. Apparently, Harris praises Chomsky's exhaustive exegeses on US hypocrisy and his anti-war writings. At the same time, he also says that by saying that 9/11 was probably not that surprising given the US historical connection with the Middle East, Chomsky is missing the real point, which is the problem with religious faith itself. Thus, 9/11 was the result not of US foreign policy, as Chomsky (almost always) points out, but faith itself.

I think the middle ground is the correct one here. I think both explanations are correct. Harris' faith problem is the deeper reason, but Chomsky is also right in saying that a lot of Islamic faith (whether misguided or not) was challenged by the American presence in the Middle East, preceded by the British presence there. While the primary reason for both American and British hegemony in the Middle East was and is oil, Osama Bin Laden and others also saw this presence as a Christian coalition intruding in a holy Islamic land.

Faith is definitely the root cause of the problem, but once you acknowledge and assume its existence in the Islamic world, it's also true that Western influence inflamed it and exacerbated the problem. Both Harris and Chomsky are right in my opinion.

I have ordered the book and will see what exactly Harris is saying.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


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Tom Lehrer is one of the great post-war American informal satirists, and also an excellent and talented mathematician, pianist, singer and entertainer, an altogether remarkable man. A friend introduced me to him, and I was hooked. His excessively irreverential, flippant, and brilliantly sardonic wit, ensconced in precisely metered and sparkling tunes and piano waltzes, is some of the most rambunctious and fun-filled entertainment I can listen to. He takes potshots at everything; religion, the armed forces, and politicians. Of course, everyone does it these days, but Lehrer did it in the 50s and 60s. And you have got to hear his high-speed and extremely accomplished rendition of the Periodic Table.
He is just so funny!

Here's one of his most popular pieces poking sharp fun at the Vatican, "The Vatican Rag":
First you get down on your knees
Fiddle with your rosaries
Bow your head with great respect
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect

Do whatever steps you want if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff
Everybody say his own kyrie eleison
Doin' the Vatican Rag

Get in line in that processional
Step into that small confessional
There, the guy who's got religion'll
Tell you if your sin's original

If it is, try playin' it safer
Drink the wine and chew the wafer
Two, four, six, eight
Time to transubstantiate

So get down upon your knees
Fiddle with your rosaries
Bow your head with great respect
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect

Make a cross on your abdomen
When in Rome do like a Roman
Ave Maria, gee it's good to see ya
Gettin' ecstatic an' sorta dramatic an'
Doin' the Vatican Rag"
Naturally, there's no substitute for listening to it. So do that here (the song plays automatically when the page loads)

In the introduction to another of his great songs, "It makes a fellow proud to be a soldier", here's what Lehrer says:
"One of the many fine things about the army that one has to admit, is that they have carried the American democratic ideal to its logical conclusion, in the sense that not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed and colour, but also on the grounds of ability"
Now what country and government does that remind me of?...


Monday, May 21, 2007


"Atheist literature" (a scandalous term in my opinion- sounds like "revisionist literature") has been thriving in the last few years. Sparkling critiques of The Supreme Fascist, his cronies, and religion have been appearing, penned by stalwarts such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, and most recently, the outrageously provocative Christopher Hitchens.

All critiques have been controversial, but love them or hate them, all of them deliver devastating broadsides to the whole edifice of religion and faith. All four writers have been asked almost the same kinds of questions in public settings: Don't you feel you are hurting the sentiments of many? (Hitchens: "I don't care. It's the truth"). Don't we need God for some kind of moral code in life? (Dawkins: "Take a look at the bible abomination upon humanity", Dennett: "Look to moral philosophy"). Aren't these barbs really directed at 'extremists', which are really abnormal growths in a largely benign paradigm? (Harris: "It's this 'benign' framework that nourishes the roots of extremism")

But one favourite question that is always asked, and which seems entirely reasonable is, "What harm does it do if a person keeps his religion to himself?". And all the authors more or less give the same kind of answer to this question, that while they personally don't believe in it, it would be largely all right if people keep their religion, prayer and faith to themselves. But some people have even gone to the extent of saying that denying this right to personal faith is treading on fundamental rights as enshrined in Constitutions.

There are many critical answers to this question, but I keep thinking of one particular point that has nothing to do per se with religion or politics; that doing something like this is just not psychologically possible. Think about it. Is it psychologically possible to believe wholeheartedly in something, and also to believe that it's not true? It sounds downright self-contradictory to me: "I believe in the green toad-faced gnome. I pray to him. I eat with him. He grants my prayers. Of course, I understand that he is not real". Can this happen?? You are believing something, but you are also believing that it does not exist.

Hitchens says that religion is like a toy. You are free to play with your toy, but don't insist that me and my wife and my children also play with the toy. Don't barge into our house and force us to play with the toy at gunpoint.
But this is precisely the problem. Especially if it's a toy (such as God) that does not exist, it becomes even more important to become convinced in the existence of the toy, and to cling to it with your life. It is not too hard to believe in a toy that exists (although not forcing others to play with it still very much stands put) but it takes a lot of faith indeed to believe in a toy that is made up. And then it becomes even more of a compelling reason to invite, convince, and then to obstinately force others to believe in that toy and play with it. Even if someone does not do it himself, he is much more likely to at least tacitly support someone else who does it.

That is the reason why, even if having personal beliefs and faith may seem perfectly reasonable, in my opinion, having those beliefs and not forcing them or at least trying to convince others to have them, is largely a self-contradictory condition. A person who has those beliefs and still believes that only he believes it and that it does not exist at all, needs to have a schizophrenic paradoxical mentality of believing and not believing in something at the same time, as harsh as it sounds, based on simple reason. Or as Richard Dawkins says, someone like that would be rather easily called delusional. This is not at all a personal attack on anybody, but an objective definition of this self-contradictory condition.

This is a very unfortunate state of affairs, because I surely would like everyone to have their own faith if they keep it to themselves. I just don't think that such a situation can exist. Not because of intolerance, not because of some inner obduracy that people would have, but because of a simple psychological inconsistency that I see in it. For those who believe it does exist and soundly practice it, I enormously respect them, but would like to look at the results of an MRI of their brain. No offense, seriously.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007


Chemical and Engineering News has an editorial this week about the editor's visit to China, in which he was impressed with the great strides in innovation and the building of infrastructure that China is making. He visited Shanghai, and marveled at the transformation that is overtaking the city's roads, buildings, and technological labs, including pharmaceutical ones. When roads are supposed to be built in China, no morchas or hunger strikes thwart them. Make of that what you will. But it seems to be engendering massive development.

Again, I cannot help but make a comparison. While basic infrastructure is thriving in China's industrial and academic laboratories, it is still pretty much in a sorry state in India. While thousands of young Chinese are increasingly studying science in China, the situation remains woeful in our country. While masters degree students routinely do solid and meaningful research in Chinese academic laboratories, getting a masters degree in science in India still seems to be almost entirely about classroom studies, with one semester of some research project thrown in mainly for image cultivation. While reservation policies are sucking India into a vortex of even lower standards for education and research, nothing like this seems to be a major issue in China.

By various standards of measurement, China is charging ahead in many aspects of research including applied science. In 2006, the Shanghai Institute of Education conducted their annual survey of measuring the academic standards of institutions classified by country. They chose several parameters to assess this measure. Some of them, such as the number of Fields or Nobel prize gathering alumni, can be quite inadequate. Others, such as citation measures, are better. The report ranks the top 500 world universities. Not a single university from India is among the top 100. Neither is any from China. But in the top 200, 1.8% are from China while 0.4% are from India.
Apart from the Shanghai analysis, another notable report was published in 2004 by David King, the British government's chief scientific advisor, titled 'The Scientific Impact of Nations'. King chose many other variables, including number of PhDs awarded for example. In his list, India comes in at 22 while China at 19.

These studies indicate that if China is not ahead of India already, it's quite difficult to argue that it is at least as good, and probably at least a bit better.

But academic rankings constitute one of the aspects. I can speak for my subject, chemistry. However, since chemistry is inherently an interdisciplinary science, the conclusions also spill over into other fields, such as polymer science or biochemistry. In case of chemistry, I find Chinese researchers in China consistently publishing good papers in chemistry journals. Not all of these are in the highest impact journals, but the point is that there are very many from China in the top 25%, if not the top 1%. In practical terms, such advances which are lesser than great but still good can also greatly contribute to the development of the field. The contribution of Indian chemists working in India is distinctly lesser. I was saddened to see a pretty serious rebuttal of a paper by a very well known and highly respected Indian chemist, which indicated some simple lack of attention to essential details. Among pharmaceutical chemists, the image of Indian scientists in the US is decent, but I don't see a comparable image at all for chemists working in India. One especially sees some very good articles published in the field of organic chemistry by Chinese chemists. I am not saying that all these articles constitute highly creative academic research, but since organic chemistry is really the backbone of much of our material comforts, they indicate the potential and real proliferation of Chinese researchers in many different fields, most notably the pharmaceutical industry. This will give Chinese industry, manufacturing and trade a considerable advantage. Also, fundamental research in medicine is virtually non-existent in India. So it might be in China. But strides in organic chemistry will contribute partly to generation of funds for new clinical research with new drugs.

China is also making things quite attractive for "returnees", Chinese students who are currently studying in the US. From just my department, three students have decided to go back to China right after their PhD., two directly to academic positions, and one to the Novartis unit in China, the first of its kind outside Europe and the US. All three are going to have access to decent salaries and excellent facilities. In contrast, I haven't met Indians until now who are especially enthusiastic about going into academic research back to India. I greatly admire those who do, but the percentage surely is dwindling.
On the other hand, the opportunities for expatriate Indians to return to India and work in industry are consistenty growing. They will serve as a respectable sink for Indians, provided the private sector does not institute a reservation policy, and the communists don't start flapping their wings too much. Both these possibilities are very much tangible, given the current state of affairs. Also, to be honest, India is not seen as a very favourable location for new pharmaceutical R & D units by many foreign companies, because of our generous production of and investment into generic drugs. If foreign pharmaceutical companies see their IP regime threatened by lax Indian patent laws, they will be loathe to initiate R & D in India. Of course, the lure of recruiting skilled graduates in large numbers (not to mention relatively benign environmental laws) is going to stoke their interest, but the point is that the end decision will by no means be a done deal. We will have to wait and see how India holds up to their expectations and aspirations as a whole.

However, the generation of all these scientists, whether they stay in India, stay abroad, or come back, depends on a focus on scientific excellence. In this respect, I see almost no indicator that our country is alive and well. Undergraduate research is still non-existent, the lament of basic infrastructure being especially prominent there, and as they say, if you don't catch them young, you may not catch them at all. I have written about this before. And the so-called heroes of Indian science to whom optimists point are almost without exception more than fifty years old. New blood arises only from constant nurture, and we seem to have surely lost our way there. From what I hear from many Chinese students in contrast (not all of who are biased...), the Chinese government is making science attractive for young students by implementing excellent infrastructure in many universities. Undergraduates and especially masters students in China are doing concrete research, and many of them come to the US armed with a publication or two. The fact that Chinese students are usually highly motivated workhorses is a trivial and well-known point.

On the flip side, China is increasingly criticised for its lack of pollution control and wanton exploitation of natural resources. Companies seem to be sometimes less eager to set up units in China, one of the reasons apparently being the relative difficulty of doing market surveys and studies in China compared to India.

Of course, the biggest problem with China is its authoritarian regime and human rights problems. We in India pride ourselves on the fact that we are a democracy. But there are two important questions; first of all, given the events of the last many years (including even the recent mundane events in Baroda), it is not a foregone question to ask whether we really value and cherish democractic ideals and preservation of individual freedom; it seems that we are more in love with the ideal of democracy than with practising it. And the second related more important point is, what's the use of all that democracy if it does not produce results. Taken at face value, it may seem that democracy nurtures creativity and totalitarianism hampers it, and that's absolutely true. But our kind of democracy does not seem to be nurturing too much creativity and at least as far as practical success in science and technology is concerned, China's kind of totalitarianism does not seem to be creating great barriers for its citizens to aspire to scientific knowledge and success. That of course does not mean that that kind of totalitarianism is better than democracy. But we are looking at a particular context here, and as far as serving that context is concerned, our democracy does not seem to be doing us great good, and perhaps we need to turn away a bit from touting its virtues, and actually think of how we can succeed in its framework, perhaps even by modifying its specific details. I don't think we are doing that.

Also, a truism is that money still rules, and science and technology in China seem to be increasingly targeted towards revenue generation, a fact whose lure would likely overrun other concerns and ideological premises. Pharmaceutical research in China especially seems to be charging ahead, but what is more important and frankly admirable, is the Chinese government's realisation that good drugs and the consequent revenue will come not only from enticing foreign companies to set up camp in China, but more importantly in nurturing and preparing a new breed of young students who will take the reins of China's R & D, and thereby China's economy, in their own hands. For doing this, the Chinese also seem to understand that its really the basics such as science education and basic infrastructure which sow the seeds of excellence, not just high-tech facilities. Also, once there is an atmosphere of technological and scientific innovation, one would not be surprised if China surges ahead in the most fundamental research too.

Unless we get over our internal disputes, lack of attention to basic facilities, and most importantly, a mentality that places other things above the entire country's eventual success in science and technology, we will eternally be the potential would-bes. Whether China will be the "is" remains to be seen and to be frank, both China and India's future is a wait-and-see proposition right now, but many as of now would place their bets on China rather than India. As I have quoted Prof. Balaram's words in a past post, we need to stand, before we can aim to sprint. Our peacock seems to be content on displaying its colours, while China's dragon wants to take to the air.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007


There's also a sick video on Youtube named "Killer Bite" in which a warped mind has a video of his pet boa strangling and consuming two of his pet rabbits who are minding their own business, eating carrots and grass. I thought that the video was incredibly cruel, and it's quite clear that its sole purpose is entertainment, especially considering the ostentatious ominous sounding battle music in the background. The pervert has blocked comments, but if you find the video offensive, please do flag it as inappropriate.

However, what was even more appalling than the video were the comments. Some said "O it's ok, this is exactly what happens in nature". Well, once in a while lions also kill human beings in the wild. Should we feed convicts or normal human beings to lions and say that that too is "natural"? Others said that "It's the rabbits who were too stupid...why didn't they dodge the boa?". I don't even want to respond to these gits. Also, rabbits are not exactly the 'natural' food of boas (not that feeding birds would have been any more humane). Who knows if the boa was deliberately starved before letting him loose on the rabbits, which is perfectly possible.

In any case, quite apart from the fact that nature is indeed red in tooth and claw, this kind of deliberate setup shows an extraordinary apathy and condescension towards nature and animals. This pompous human being needs to be summarily condemned.

Even when such a thing is natural, there are limits. I always recount a story about Charles Darwin which indicates that it is possible to be an objective observer of nature as well as a humane person. Darwin was treading through some forest in South America, when he saw a wasp repeatedly stinging a spider and flying away. The spider was desperately trying to get back at the wasp, flailing and steadily faltering. Darwin the dedicated naturalist could have documented the entire episode in his diary dispassionately, but he did not; he put the spider out of its misery by instantly killing him.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Since we are on the contentious subject of drugs and patents, it is worth pointing to another lively debate that has been going on in the blogosphere. In a nutshell, this is what it is about; Merck has a bestselling anti-HIV drug named Efavirenz. They offered to sell it to Brazil at a reduced price. Brazil did not accept the price, and then broke Merck's patent (due to expire in 2009) and now are going to produce the drug through a compulsory license issued by the President. And they think Ahmedinejad is defiant...

This has raised a lot of heckles. Some are pointing to Brazil's hypocrisy; while on one hand, they tout themselves as a fast-growing economy with a modern space program (and ethanol fueled cars), on the other hand they want to play the pauper and demand outrageously low prices for drugs. Of course, price control and price setting are very complex issues, but one question that surfaces is, does Merck have the right to decide whether a price is cheap enough for a country like Brazil to afford? On the other hand, it may always be in the interest of a developing country to display its (true or contrived) empty pockets to get the best deal. And of course, Merck simply may not be able to make enough profit if it sells the drug at that price, which leads us down the always thorny path of asking "How much profit is 'enough' profit?"

Many questions arise in this context, and I wonder what the world is going to look like ten years down the line if such things continue to happen. Firstly, who are the losers? Brazil, because its international image is going to suffer and this may deter further pharmaceutical investment in it? Or Merck, because now, where they were going to make at least some money earlier, they will make none? One thing is for sure, such brazen flaunting of patents is surely not going to encourage pharma to sell drugs to developing countries. And I don't think the option of regularly breaking patents and producing drugs is too favourable for a country's political and international health.

Merck also says that,
"Research and development-based pharmaceutical companies like Merck simply cannot sustain a situation in which the developed countries alone are expected to bear the cost for essential drugs in both least-developed countries and emerging markets. As such, we believe it is essential to price our medicines according to a country's level of development and HIV burden, thereby ensuring equitable access as well as our ability to invest in future innovative medicines. As the world's 12th largest economy, Brazil has a greater capacity to pay for HIV medicines than countries that are poorer or harder hit by the disease.

This decision by the Government of Brazil will have a negative impact on Brazil's reputation as an industrialized country seeking to attract inward investment, and thus its ability to build world-class research and development."
I sort of agree with that, and even generics producing countries have to consider this; it's not about profit making, it's about being a perpetual free (or cheap) rider, profiting on other hard-earned inventions. And this time, the IP laws also seem quite reasonable; it's not like Merck made a "slight" modification on some existing product and is now raking money off the patent.

One extreme result I can see of such generics piggybacking and/or sidestepping IP regimes, is that companies may refuse to disclose the formula for a new drug, simply asking the FDA and patients to be content with its therapeutic benefits. While this scenario does not sound realistic, every generic country and developing country would be in deep trouble if it is realised. There is also another serious problem that might surface. One of the grievances of the developing world is that western pharmaceutical companies are not focusing on diseases that are dominant in developing countries, such as infectious diseases. It's only recently that western companies are devoting resources to develop new medications for infectious diseases, motivated largely by hospital infections in patients in their own countries affected with HIV and other such ailments, but also motivated in part by the prospect of suddenly having a huge new market open up in developing countries. Imagine how much motivation will remain for them if generics for their anti-infection compounds are hijacked and produced by developing countries outside the patent the moment they are approved. That would pretty convincingly deter them not to devote further resources to such remedies.

A sane way out of this may have been for Brazil to subsidise the drug to make it cheaply available to the people. If the government of Brazil thinks something is too expensive, then it only sounds fair for them to pay for that product, instead of flaunting and trampling over patents and IP regimes. Isn't that what taxes are for?

I am not against generics companies, but at the same time, one has to keep within the boundaries of some IP regime, otherwise the world will descend into a free-for-all in which, ironically the "flaunters" will end up being the "flauntees".

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Why do so many people have a conception of Indians as having a misguided socialist mentality? Part of the reason is because it's true. But partly, it is because of articles like this op-ed in the New York Times written by Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City. (Incidentally, is it just me, or is the NYT giving vent recently to too many socialist-minded writers?)

Mehta talks about the quite ludicrous sounding patenting of yoga positions that is being done in the US. Ludicrous sounding only if you think that the patenting of breathing patterns is also not cool. Mehta wants to criticise the fact that Indians living in the US want to patent yoga positions, because yoga is the "great gift that India has given to the world".

One might argue about the benefits (patenting and other ones) of yoga positions, but the strangeness in the proportion becomes obvious when we get to Mehta's musings about patenting of drugs. Why, asks Mehta, should drugs discovered in foreign countries be patented, if yoga positions cannot be? If you agree that yoga, something that has been offered for free by India to the world cannot be patented, then so shouldn't drugs, especially based on Indian ancient remedies. After all, turmeric, neem, and bitter gourd have all been "offered" by India to humanity for free. So why should the western countries have the authority to file patents on their active principles?:
"Drugs and hatha yoga have the same aim: to help us lead healthier lives. India has given the world yoga for free. No wonder so many in the country feel that the world should return the favor by making lifesaving drugs available at reduced prices, or at least letting Indian companies make cheap generics. If padmasana — a k a the lotus position — belongs to all mankind, so should the formula for Gleevec, the leukemia drug over whose patent a Swiss pharmaceuticals company is suing the Indian government."

And more:
"For decades, Indian law allowed its pharmaceutical companies to replicate Western-patented drugs and sell them at a lower price to countries too poor to afford them otherwise. In this way, India supplied half of the drugs used by H.I.V.-positive people in the developing world. But in March 2005, the Indian Parliament, under pressure to bring the country into compliance with the World Trade Organization’s regulations on intellectual property, passed a bill declaring it illegal to make generic copies of patented drugs.

This has put life-saving antiretroviral medications out of reach of many of the nearly 6 million Indians who have AIDS. And yet, the very international drug companies that so fiercely protect their patents oppose India’s attempts to amend World Trade Organization rules to protect its traditional remedies."
Lots of barbed words come to mind against this argument, but I just want to point to one central point that many people still don't realise: Discovering and marketing a new drug is not easy. Equating the free "gift" of yoga with traditional remedies and saying that ergo drugs also should be made available cheap or free shows a quite serious disconnect from the economics and reality of the drug discovery process.

In fact, the drug discovery process is hideously tortuous and uncertain. On an average, it takes 800 million dollars and 10-15 years to come up with a new drug, and if anything this situation is going to get worse. Out of all the thousands of new molecules that show promise, only a handful make it to the market. In general, 5 out of 5000 compounds make it into human clinical trials, and 1 out of these 5 has a good chance of making it to the market. Thus, the attrition rate is enormous, and so is the wastage of funds.

The second point is that of course there's a difference between grinding a weed and eating it, and isolating, testing, modifying, and selling the active component in the weed in deliverable form. Let me ask how many of our traditional Indian remedies satisfy all these requirements for a good drug; high potency, selectivity and bioavailability (how much of the compound is actually available to exert its action without being rapidly metabolized), low or no toxicity, cheap, consumable and deliverable form, and long shelf life. Even if the neem leaf satisfies these requirements, we only have ourselves to blame then for not realising its potential and not patenting it in the past. Now this may indicate a gregarious personality- even that point is taken- but nobody can then blame other countries and researchers from taking advantage of this traditional remedy and modifying it to make a viable drug.

The reason all those antiretrovirals could be made easily available to those 6 million AIDS patients is because somebody else had already invested the time, money and effort neceesary to discover those drugs. We cannot keep piggybacking forever on hard-won drugs. If we have to do original R & D in our country- and given the rise of new endemic infections and developing resistance to old ones, we will have to- we simply would not be able to afford discovering drugs and selling them so cheaply. In this light, it is also to be noted that there was a gut reaction against the Mashelkar report because it was "favourable to the drug companies". We can definitely argue the details such as profit margins, but such a general gut reaction is not warranted, because if laws are too strict towards the companies, they will never be able to recover the cost of R & D which they spend in discovering new drugs, including the cost incurred by failed ones. In the end, it may be the people who ironically pay the price.

So, to make a blanket statement that one is against any law that is favourable to the companies is to demonstrate a misinformed and socialist attitude, that if anything may make life-saving drugs inaccessible to the people themselves in the future. And columnists like Mehta need to abort the warm, socialist feelings that they may get by saying such things as the statement that drugs based on traditional remedies should be sold cheaply or for free by foreign companies, and look at the real state of affairs. Even I feel a little sad when I hear that some American company has suddenly made millions from something that we have been using for millenia. But I don't feel any resentment towards them, I feel resentment towards ourselves, we who are unnecessarily missing the potential investment returns on so much of our heritage because of some weird notions of the "common good".

Hat tip: Derek Lowe

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Monday, May 07, 2007


I have always had mixed feelings about capital punishment. On one hand, I think it causes unnecessary suffering to a lot of people and reflects a kind of hubris in judging people on our part. On the other hand, I find it hard to argue the value it has for deterrence; one problem in assessing deterrence is that because it necessarily involves people who might have been deterred because of possible retribution, it's always difficult to pinpoint how valuable it has been because we never get to know the wannabes who never were.

In any case, one thing which we all can agree upon is that whatever capital punishment is meted out, it needs to be humane. Electrocution, death squads, hanging, and gas chambers in my opinion always have been grotesque and cruel methods, a blot on our humaneness. I used to think that lethal injection is "better" than these methods, but somehow could not shun a dissenting thought about how humane it really is.

Now, a morbid sounding but important editorial from the freely available PLOS (Public Library of Science) journal PLOS Medicine offers a critique of lethal injection that should be carefully pondered by policy makers and officials as well as by common citizens. It basically questions the use of the procedure and points out that especially the first step- considered to be the key step in making the procedure humane- may not be so foolproof and benign after all.

This first step is the induction of anesthesia by an injection of thiopental which is administered to the condemned man in order to supposedly ease the next two steps; an injection of pancuronium which paralyzes the muscles, including the respiratory ones, and then a final injection of potassium chloride that causes cardiac arrest. In the absence of anesthesia, the victim would feel an extreme asphyxiation and muscle spasms.

The PLOS editorial first points towards an article published in 2005 in the distinguished journal Lancet, whose conclusions if true are horrible and alarming to say the least. Let the abstract speak for itself:
"Anaesthesia during lethal injection is essential to minimise suffering and to maintain public acceptance of the practice. Lethal injection is usually done by sequential administration of thiopental, pancuronium, and potassium chloride. Protocol information from Texas and Virginia showed that executioners had no anaesthesia training, drugs were administered remotely with no monitoring for anaesthesia, data were not recorded and no peer-review was done. Toxicology reports from Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina showed that post-mortem concentrations of thiopental in the blood were lower than that required for surgery in 43 of 49 executed inmates (88%); 21 (43%) inmates had concentrations consistent with awareness. Methods of lethal injection anaesthesia are flawed and some inmates might experience awareness and suffering during execution."
What the journal is saying is clear; the procedure seems to be administered sloppily, with basically no concern for the dying man. The fact that the concentrations of thiopental in the blood were lower even than those in surgery patients sounds outrageous, because ideally, the thiopental administered to condemned men is supposed to be at a dosage much higher than that for surgery patients, to ensure the kind of anesthesia that would be considered deadly for surgery patients. But this study shows that it is even lower than in surgery patients, which seems to indicate negligence bordering on criminal behaviour.

What is even more frightening is the second article referenced in the editorial, published in the same issue. This more clearly indicates that the level of anesthesia would depend on how long the procedure took, and if the procedure took very long because of whatever reason, the anesthesia would not be enough and the victim could actually be aware. Even more significantly and morbidly, the main thrust of this article is that the three lethal compounds do not always act in a strict sequential manner. Thus, both potassium chloride and thiopental may not have done their job before pancuronium starts acting. The implication is horribly obvious; the victim undergoes death by chemical asphyxiation, being aware of it all the time. However, because he was under anesthesia, he would not even be able to indicate his suffering.
The fact is that very little research has been done in standardising the protocols of lethal injection, and more importantly, intensive research has not been thought to be necessary. All in all, it is a great travesty if true. The whole point of lethal injection was to make the procedure humane, and such kind of negligence of simple protocols might show that in fact it's supposed to be the opposite.

However, in the end, the PLOS editorial makes a compelling point:
"As editors of a medical journal, we must ensure that research is ethical, and there is no ethical way to establish the humaneness of procedures for killing people who do not wish to die..."
That is, we have a kind of paradox here, namely that even in the absence of research, it would at the same time be considered unethical to conduct research and "standardize" the conditions for lethal injection by performing experiments, admittedly even on animals.

And this is the real heart of the matter which the PLOS editors are getting at, that no forcible killing can be humane. Admittedly, whether we believe in their stance on abolishing the death penalty or not, this is an extremely important matter, and it does not seem to be doing humanity's moral record any good. Personally, even if it might sound macabre, I think that the only possible humane way to kill a human being may be to bring him within ten meters of an atomic explosion, with instant flash incineration. The ludicrousness of this thought itself indicates how thorny and immoral the shades of this issue are.

These studies highlight the inherently oxymoronic nature of the whole matter. Humane killing? Can any method of killing someone against his or her will be considered humane? Let's face it, capital punishment can never be humane. Something to think about.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Can someone tell me how to get rid of this disgusting damn popup that started showing up suddenly without any input on my part? My blog's reputation is being catapulted from non-existent to bad!


Friday, May 04, 2007


A pretty amazing debate has been going on in the webpages of But first, a little about what it is about. The webpage is the one displaying Michael Behe's "Darwin's Black Box", a book that has stirred up unnecessary muck, although not unpredictably. Behe is a biochemist with some credible credentials, but incredible assertions. He is the infamous guy who popularised the concept of "irreducible complexity" in the late 1990s. Behe's contention simply put was (and is) that the biological world is so complex, that only a designer could have made it. That's because if we considered any one of the tiny, fundamental units of life, such as an eye, it is quite clear that taking away any one of the myriad parts that comprise the eye would render it completely non-functional. Thus, it is inconceivable (to Behe) that the eye could have actually evolved gradually, and that all the parts should have been put together, already formed, by some intelligent designer. Enter ID, creationism in a dapper although embarrassingly ostentatious outfit.

There are holes as big as empty space in Behe's whole framework. In one fell swoop, he pushes so many issues under the rug that the rug can no longer bear the presence of all of them, and splits wide open. Behe makes a general philosophical argument, gives it a fancy name, and simply proclaims that it is true by default, the classic demonstration of the "argument from ignorance". He does not look at any contradictory evidence, and even when it is overwhleming, deems it insufficient without any justification. Most importantly, Behe offers not one iota of positive evidence for his own assertions, including the stupendous lack of explanation for the complexity of his intelligent designer who designed such a complex world. Science only partially progresses by elimination of alternatives. It needs solid positive proof to be useful and real. Also, a scientific theory does not collapse only because some detail in it is simply challenged. There are many details in evolution that are debated by scientists. But that does not mean that they don't believe in evolution itself, because there's monumental evidence from a stunning variety of scientific disciplines in support of the truth of evolution. In fact, it is staggering how many different questions in different fields seem to come under the purview of evolution as their answers are revealed everyday. In this context, I have to say that the efforts of Behe and his cronies to discredit evolution are an abomination upon science, and display at most a juvenile understanding of the scientific method.

But needless to say, Behe has been the poster boy for creationists in the last decade, who want to furtively bring creationism to the schools under the guise of scientific jargon. Behe deliberately has chosen the field of biochemistry for his crusade (and crusade is the right word, because his spiels are all based on faith), because he wants to enter creationism through the backdoors of hard science. Most of his creationist patrons probably don't even understand what he says, but no doubt dance with glee when they hear him citing scholarly notions and hijacking them to support his purpose.

Behe was also an apologist for the creationists in the infamous Dover creationist trial of two years ago, where twelve parents of school children had brought a suit against the teaching of creationism in science class. Behe was a defendent for the creationists, and among others, Kenneth Miller the Brown University Professor was an expert witness for the plaintiffs. One of Behe's arguments in Darwin's Black Box is that the immune system is too complex to have evolved by natural selection, ergo, it must have been, by default, designed. During the Dover trial, Behe was shown more than fifty peer reviewed journal publications that dealt with the evolution of the immune system. Not only could he not refute them, but he confessed that he had not read any of them. In the end, the attorney for the plaintiffs as well as the judge roundly scolded Behe and his ilk, and cited their "breathtaking inanity" for simply touting that complex structures arose by the work of an intelligent designer, and for implying that there surely could not be any need to actually study where they came from. In an embarrassing moment for Behe, the plaintiffs' attorney said that while serious scientists were engaged in studying the evolution of the immune system and finding new therapies for diseases, Behe and his sympathizers were not only misleading the public, but were doing absolutely nothing to advance the future of science and medicine. In fact, I feel more pity than anger for Behe, who is clearly an intelligent and educated person, and yet wants to waste his time advancing crackpot causes and not actually making a difference by doing scientific research.

The most vocal opponent of Behe has been Brown University professor Kenneth Miller, and I would strongly recommend his book "Finding Darwin's God" for anyone who wants a good understanding of evolution (including a clear refutation of the belief that evolution is a product of chance), as well a very spirited and convincing reply to Behe's assertions of irreducible complexity. The bacterial flagellum, probably the only example of a true motor in nature, is an astounding factoid of life's complexity. Without doing any research, Behe had again simply proclaimed that it was irreducibly complex. However, Miller showed that there are several examples of other flagella in nature, which show some of the components of the bacterial flagellum and yet work, even if not as well; what is most bothersome that Behe has frequently either not just been aware of the literature, or more believably has shown deliberate ignorance of it. This principle extends to all those other systems which Behe claims are irreducibly complex. The bottom line is, yes, many complex structures in nature can be shown to be made up of independently functioning partial components, and we can follow an evolutionary history for the presence of all these components. For those which are not, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that they were designed by any Yahweh or Zeus.
The humble and yet stunning eye was always one of the favourite targets of creationists, and they used to cite Darwin's own quip about his incredulity at the eye's functioning:
"To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree."
They also conveniently ignore what he said next:
"Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory."
There it is; The Reluctant Mr. Darwin demolished irreducible complexity a hundred and fifty years ago.

So, if Darwin himself laid to rest all such troubling questions about irreducible complexity more than a century ago (it is truly remarkable to discover how prescient- and right- the man was), why is there a 85 comment debate on the webpage showcasing Behe's book? The debate is in the comments section of a certain J.M. Ridlon, who seems to know evolution inside out. Incidentally, and again it should not be surprising, the book has received four stars and 575 reviews, which means that most of the reviews have been favourable. This can mean several things; firstly, that sensible people simply did not comment. But what I am more certain about is that most of the reviews were probably written by intelligent folks, probably and unnecessarily fence-sitters, who got impressed with Behe's scientific exposition and felt convinced that at the least, there were serious flaws with evolution. It's very sad if such a thing happened. To these of course we can gently say only one thing; read a good book. Start with Climbing Mount Improbable, that alone will suffice and help you understand evolution a little better.

On the other side of the debate is a cabal of dissenters who keep asking Ridlon to prove with complete certainty all the assertions that he makes. What surprises me is that even these dissenters seem to be intelligent and well-read, and yet they show a deliberately woeful ignorance of the scientific method. However, after trudging through the 83 comments and being highly impressed with Ridlon's knowledge of evolution, it becomes clear; these dissenters don't really want to prove evolution wrong and creationism right. In fact, the comments clearly show that they steer clear from trying to affirmatively expound upon creationism; not surprising since they don't have a shred of evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer. All they do is take potshots,some quite learned sounding ones, at evolution. And then it becomes clear; they want to create "reasonable doubt" about evolution to then allow creationism to be also taught as an "alternative theory" in classes. As it is with many other creationists, they want educators to "teach the debate" where there is none, and they are mustering every effort they can to try to actually convert their arguments into a true debate. After every comment, J.M. Ridlon has given a detailed response, showing how their arguments are wrong.

But now, I have a suggestion for him; J. M. Ridlon, don't bother. These folks are just out to make a political point, not a scientific one. This is not science, it is the manifestation of the dredges of human nature. So no matter how much you convince them about the known certainty of evolution, all they will do is ask, "But, are you one hundred percent certain?". When you, as a good scientist will say that of course not, but that does not tarnish evolution, they will simply turn Bill O'Reillyesque and shout "That's it! That means the whole theory is wrong. We are right, you are wrong!" Now, do we watch Bill O'Reilly except when we want some 'white noise' in the background to help us sometimes fall asleep? Then, J. D., I suggest that you do the same about this comment-fest. It's not about science.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Much is being written about the underrepresentation of women in the IITs, and Nanopolitan has done some quite gruelling analysis of the whole matter. However, the original question was related to judging the caliber of the JEE and whether it has any inherent bias against women. However, the lack of women in the IITs can at least in theory be explained by several factors not related to the JEE, and one of those factors certainly could be the "culture" in the IITs.

So the question is, is the culture in IIT such that it may be biased against women? While such a question is surely bound to raise some hackles, let me hasten and add that an affirmative answer to this question would not reflect negatively on any particular gender. The point is, there are many institutions and fields which have been male dominated, and while that says something critical about the institution, it does not necessarily say anything bad about the individuals comprising it.

Questions whose answers may involve any accusation of bias for or against a particular gender are always considered uncomfortable. But I ask this question only because I am familiar with another hotly-debated topic; the underrepresentation of women in science. When this topic is brought up, we are inevitably reminded of Lawrence Summers's unfortunate comments that sparked a storm. But sometime back, I had written a post about a Nature article in which the author talked about the fierce "alpha male" culture that exists in science, that has made science traditionally a man's game. There was no accusation in that article, and yet I agreed with its premises. Science has been a man's game, there can be a lot of vituperative criticism and aggressiveness inherent in scientific competition and meetings. Essentially because of historical circumstances, women unfortunately have been dissuaded from a lot of scientific research.

Sometimes, observation trumps a lot of hypothesizing, and one thing I have to say is that for some reason, I have seldom seen even very intelligent girls trying to diligently get through the JEE. Exceptions abound of course, but within my acquaintances, I can think of very few girls who were first in their class (or in the city, state etc.), had the mettle to beat the male competition and get into the best engineering colleges in the country, but did not even appear for the JEE. So irrespective of the reasons, I think that there is something that keeps a lot of girls away from the JEE. One simple factor which comes to mind, and this is in fact true for boys too, is that parents sometimes balk at the thought of sending their son or daughter away to a far away place like Kanpur or Kharagpur. Another factor, and this is something a friend of mine told me, is that with predominantly boys appearing for the JEE, it is difficult for girls to form a study group.

Anyway, this is my take on it. But the men and women of the IITs can enlighten things more for me. I definitely think that traditionally, the IITs have always been perceived as a man's game, quite apart from whether that perception makes sense or is true, and this in its various implications and manifestations has kept girls way from the IITs, and consequently from the JEE. Things may change in the future, and they emphatically should.

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