Thursday, February 28, 2008


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The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright
Knopf, 2006

Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower is the best history of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden that I have come across. Wright traces not just the history of the terrorist, but the fascinating if disturbing history of Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East, where religion was more intimately linked with people's way of life than in any other nation in the world, and where a perception of the world engendered by old tribal customs and anti-Western attitudes fanned hate and extremism that was nonetheless seen by its practitioners to be essential to maintain their culture and religion- a point that has been sadly lost on Westerners. As CIA agent and bin Laden expert Michael Scheuer says, they don't attack the US because of "its freedoms". They attack the US because they see the US as interfering in their quintessential Islamic way of life, what they hold dearest, irrespective of whether it's justified or not. They are as much in love with Islam as any one ever was with any entity. That is what is frightening.

Wright traces the roots of extremism in the Middle East through Saudi Arabia's history, where extreme and primitive religious traditions juxtaposed strangely with immense wealth driven by exploration for oil. It was in this milieu, after World War 2 that Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri grew up and acquired a taste of jihad. Often lucidly Wright talks about the environment where they spent their childhoods, and brings the rustic Saudi Arabian landscape to life. Wright also talks about the enduring influence of Syed Qutb, the devout Egyptian religious scholar who was disturbed by what he perceived as the hedonistic coed culture of the United States, when he visited the country as an exchange scholar in the 1950s. It was his writings and his image as a martyr- Qutb was jailed and executed as an extremist in Egypt- that greatly inspired Bin Laden's and Al Zawahiri's calls for worldwide Jihad.

Wright also documents in considerable detail both Bin Laden's and Al-Zawahiri's transformation from educated, well-to-do moderates to extremist radicals in love with the Quran and martyrdom. Bin Laden's extremism was only set aflame during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Wright vividly describes the deadly brotherhood and romantic visions of martyrdom that bound the Jihadis together in that war-torn country. It only helped that Bin Laden had the money to draw followers and finance missions. After that, it was only natural and a small step before Bin Laden turned his already brainwashed and transformed psyche towards the US.

On this side of the Atlantic, Wright also narrates the urgent and often heartbreaking efforts of the few CIA and FBI agents who recognized Bin Laden's threat in the 90s, the marginalized Michael Scheuer among them. The central tragic figure in the book is John O'Neill, the brilliant, swaggering but restless and tormented FBI agent who was desperate to snare Bin Laden, often fighting tenaciously against the foot-dragging and bureaucracy in the government agencies. A man who never achieved satisfaction in life, O'Neill was a heavy drinker who lived with three women at the same time. After many failed attempts to capture Bin Laden and convince the administration to be more serious about the threat- a journey that along with some other dedicated FBI agents led him around the world from Africa to the Middle East- O'Neill finally had enough and took up a new position as head of none other than the World Trade Center. O'Neill could have escaped in the initial attacks. But keeping with tradition, he decided to go inside the flaming towers to save others. The man who more than almost anyone else had been trying to catch or kill Bin Laden tragically perished inside the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Wright's book is a gripping treatment of an urgent subject. It demonstrates what fearsome power religion can summon, how it can completely transform the minds of men in the service of romanticized deadly causes, how blind ideology can have devastating and heartbreaking consequences. It shows us how the Middle East is largely and tragically still a land stuck in time, where irrational beliefs and tribal brotherhood can manifest in the most violent ways. The story of these gentle-looking, pious Jihadis is chlling by any standards. It is yet another illustration of the insidious nature of religious faith. It deserves to be read, and we all deserve to read it and think about what we can do to stop such fanaticism. The leader of the United States is not even close when he says that the men of Al Qaeda are cowards and fanatics. They are anything but that; they are cold, calculating, determined men who have dedicated their lives to what they see as the most just cause in their lives. They need to be stopped at any cost, and understanding where they come from will be the first step in trying to do that.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008


There's an interesting debate in the December issue of Chemical and Engineering news, which pits two professors and well-known energy experts- David Pimentel of Cornell and Bruce Dale of MSU- on opposite sides of the biofuel debate, specifically the ethanol from corn debate.

The debate is quite instructive and you can read about it yourself (access should be free). I have been an opponent of ethanol from corn ever since I first heard one of David Pimentel's viewpoints. The main issue concerns the "energy balance" of corn production. It turns out that by many estimates, more energy from fossil fuels (in terms of corn fertilizer, transportation etc.) is put into producing ethanol from corn than is obtained from using the ethanol. Pimentel believes that this balance is negative; you put in much more energy than what you get. Dale makes some arguments which I find strange, arguing that one must consider the exact character of the fossil fuel sources that are being used (gas, coal or oil) otherwise one is comparing apples to oranges. As far as I am concerned, all are fossil fuels, so it's not going to matter which one is used. All are going to be expensive in the future, in one way or the other. Ethanol from grass provides a better alternative to that from corn, but even there Pimentel contends that that sheer volume of carbon source that one gets from grass is less than that from corn.

In any kind of energy source evaluation, it is always important to consider the ancillary sources involved that may contribute unfavorably. For example, in considering solar and wind-power, one must consider the cost of materials for construction, the land used and the fate of those materials in the future to name a few significant factors.

Many Americans don't realise that diverting corn away from food production can have an immense impact on the American way of life. Michael Pollan's truly excellent The Omnivore's Dilemma makes it clear how much dependent Americans are on corn, which pervades almost everything they buy in the supermarket. We should shudder to think of an "American Corn Famine" akin to the Irish Potato one. If corn is diverted to produce ethanol, Americans will wake up to an unpleasant shock, where almost everything they buy for their daily consumption has become expensive. More than 60% of all corn goes not in human food products directly, but into animal feed. Cattle, hens, and even salmon are fed corn these days. (Maybe that's why grandmothers don't like meat that much anymore). Cheap corn-fed beef is a luxury Americans may not enjoy if corn supply starts getting diverted into producing ethanol. And even with much corn being used for fuel, as Pimentel demonstrates, it won't fulfill more than a small amount of this energy-hungry nation's energy needs.

In any case, I have always thought that the reason ethanol from corn has received so much attention is because of the gratuitous lobbying in Washington from corn companies, and the resulting shameless pandering that Bush and other officials have demonstrated in terms of the obscene subsidies that corn gets. Seriously, is the United States truly a free market economy, with such ridiculous subsidies offered to corn and oil?

Clearly there has to be a better solution. As with so many other things, ethanol and corn seem to have been oversold by George W. Bush, along with the accompanying corny lines.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008


You remember how all those mean, giant alien ships were slowly grouping and getting into their positions in preparation for a massive coordinated attack on earth's denizens in "Independence Day"?

That's how I kind of feel about little Myco right now

Monday, February 25, 2008


So it seems that some people are visibly outraged at Jim Watson's appointment on the SEED group board of directors, which among other things runs the well-respected scienceblogs, featuring many well-known blogs like Pharyngula and The Scientific Indian. According to these people, Watson should be fired and not allowed to sit on any such committee because of his racist remarks.

With all due respect to the sentiments of these folks, I have to say I disagree.

I completely agree with what a ditzy old fool Watson was, and I have disparaged his actions in a previous post. But no matter how much you may hate the man, there are two things; firstly, that should still not take anything away from his past achievements and his capabilities (something that some have unnecessarily tried to do), and secondly, it also does not preempt him from offering his services in some valuable way to other organizations. Relatively few science administrators have the kind of experience that Watson has.

In fact, I now think that removing him from his age-old post at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory itself was uncalled for. This was not because he does not deserve to be marginalised, but we have to agree that his direction of CSHL has nothing to do with his racist remarks. I completely agree how difficult it must be to have such a man running your institution, but to be honest, I believe that keeping him in his position and subjecting him to daily scorn might have been a better punishment for him than just removing him from front of everyone's eyes.

And no matter what he has said, I think it sounds a little totalitarian to say that Jim Watson should not be allowed to sit on any committee or on any board at any time in his life, ever. He is going to get his due ridicule and punishment from the way people will be treating him from now on. But how about this- we can give him that due punishment and also take advantage of his knowledge of science.

Two birds with one stone I say.

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After watching In Bruges (pronounced "brooj"), I felt like catching the next flight to Bruges, a place whose name I had not heard two hours before. It has been slotted as the most intact medieval city in Belgium, and I have to say I have not seen anything like it. Nor have I seen a movie like In Bruges.

In "In Bruges", Bruges (now didn't that sound laboured?) becomes a temporary home for two contract killers. I cannot say I would want to meet a contract killer anytime in my life, but I would hazard a guess that killer Ken played by Brendan Gleeson may be the kindest and most sympathetic contract killer ever, if there can be anything like that. That doesn't stop him from killing though. But he is just a little more likely to shed a tear than, say, Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old men.

Together with his restless and gloomy friend Ray (Colin Farrell), Ken has taken a respite in Bruges from a killing gone wrong. He and Ray have been instructed by their mafia boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes in a role that he clearly relishes) to take a break in Bruges. Have a fun time in Bruges, Harry says. In Bruges. "In fucking Bruges??", asks Ray. Why not the Bahamas? Clearly Ray is despondent in Bruges. Ken on the other hand shrugs, buys a guidebook and enjoys Bruges from the top of a famous tower. This is not exactly a vacation; Ray had another killing to do, a killing which went terribly wrong and which sets off a chain of events that combine unexpected comedy and the best of dark morbidity. At times you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

This is one of those movies whose plot really shouldn't be given away because it's utterly unpredictable till the end. It is one of the darkest comedies I have seen, perfectly accentuated by the fact that Ken and Ray are Irish and display that kind of detached amusement, so that Colin Farrell can be himself. Adding some more comic tragedy to the movie are a midget and an unusually interesting and pretty woman named Chloe, about the only thing that can cure boredom in Bruges. Bruges is indeed beautiful. And yet, seen through the eyes of the protagonists, it often seems miserably lonely. The arbiter of their fates is Harry, a man who exudes comical casual cruelty. At times, you feel that you are being swallowed by Bruges and you need to join Ken and Ray for some scotch; that may be the only thing that could keep you from killing yourself.

In Bruges is quite tragic, and it's utterly funny. It may be one of the few movies where you can sympathize with contract killers. Even they deserve something better than Bruges. Or perhaps not.


Sunday, February 24, 2008


Yesterday I attended an illuminating talk about Iran by former New York Times columnist Stephen Kinzer and Iranian academic Fatemeh Keshavarz. They essentially stressed the point which people like Ron Paul and Michael Scheuer have been making, that many Americans see Iran-US relations as beginning with the hostage crisis of 1979 and everything after that being Iran's fault.

It's pretty clear that the US is almost as responsible for the current state of Iran as Iran itself. It's also pretty clear that increasing ignorance among Americans of the history of US foreign policy is going to lead them down a disastrous path. Keshavarz also indicated how Iran is much more progressive compared to Arab countries, and how any kind of belligerent action by the US against Iran is going to trample whatever goodwill the US still has among common citizens of Iran. As for Ahmadinejad, he is something akin to a court jester who thrives on rhetoric, and who is despised by many Iranians.

Clearly, George Bush attacking Iran in any way may be the worst thing to happen to the US in the last one hundred years, whose repercussions will be deadly and far-reaching.

But when I was discussing US involvement in Iran over the last 50 years, mainly for the oil, a friend quipped, "But of course, the US is going to be looking at its self-interests. Why blame it for doing that?"

There are two answers to this questions. Firstly, even if we accept the thesis that every country always does what is necessary for its self-interest, in the case of American involvement in the Middle East, Bush and even earlier Presidents have actually jeopardized American interests and national security. The effect of pursuing oil in the Middle East for self-interest is that the US has become utterly dependent on this politically unstable, frequently America-hating group of countries.

The second and more chilling effect is that this hatred of the US because of its continued presence has led to and will continue to lead to a rapid rise in terrorist activity against the US. I have just ordered Michael Scheuer's "Marching toward Hell" in which he basically says that only when there is a devastating terrorist attack in the US in the next couple of years leading to the loss of thousands of American lives- and Scheuer portentously thinks this is almost certain, especially because of the way US leaders have engaged in conflicts abroad at the cost of neglecting border security at home- will Americans realise how Bush had been misleading them about national security for the last several years since 9/11.

Secondly, and I always say this to people with whom I get into arguments, it's fine if you really want to pursue your self-interests. But then, just be prepared for the consequences. That's all. Many Americans live in a weird world of expectations in which they want it both ways, to enjoy their standard of living and to engage with the world in such a manner that all their interests will be satisfied, and also to hope that everyone will be their friend and won't harbor any resentment towards them. The only thing I say is, fine, if Americans want to linger in the Middle East to satisfy their self-interest, so be it. But then they should not complain about increased American hatred and possible increased terrorist attacks against the US.

Interestingly I also have a similar argument with some extreme Republicans who don't want any taxation at all; in their world-view where every person is on his own and nobody cares if inequality massively rises, they simply should be ready for an increased possibility of a French-revolution style uprising where poor people have had enough. I doubt if these same Republicans who grumble about taxation will agree to such a predictable consequence.

In any case, sadly, not only are many Americans unaware of these consequences, but their leaders are not only unprepared for them, but they keep increasing their probability.

Suggested reading:
All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror- Stephen Kinzer
Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq- Michael Scheuer

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Saturday, February 23, 2008


I haven't seen all the nominated movies so can't really be too comprehensive, but here are a few that I feel almost certain about.

Best actor: There really doesn't seem to be any other option except Daniel Day Lewis for "There Will be Blood". Almost no other actor I know brings such intensity to his performances and inhabits his characters so thoroughly. I read somewhere that Day Lewis is a very selective actor, doing about three movies per decade. I have enjoyed every one of his movies that I have seen. His last portrayal of Bill the Butcher in "Gangs of New York" was absolutely mesmerizing. I heard that he actually spent a few weeks apprenticed to a butcher to get into the meat-chopper's skin.

This year, Day Lewis's competition also looks rather tame. Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises" and Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd" were very good, but not outstanding in my opinion. So was Tommy Lee-Jones in "In the Valley of Elah". The only serious competitor could be George Clooney in "Michael Clayton", but I just don't think he could beat Day Lewis's extraordinary portrayal of a cold-hearted oil tycoon.

Best Animated Film: Ratatouille. Period.

Best documentary: "Sicko" should win for social awareness creation. But I heard "No end in sight" about another American blunder is also pretty good.

Best Film: Can't say, mainly because I have not seen "No Country for Old Men". By all accounts, it seems very likely to win. Also did not see "Juno" which is supposed to be excellent too.

Roger Ebert's predictions



More inspired ignorance among people according to the WSJ, this time manifested in fear of the small
"Our first reaction was that 70% of people must not know what nanotechnology is – President Bush, who has openly relied on moral views to shape his scientific agenda, has made nanotechnology one of his scientific priorities, after all. And Dietram Scheufele, the University of Wisconsin professor who led the survey, agrees to a point. People’s understanding of what nanotechnology is hasn’t advanced much over the last few years, he tells the Business Technology Blog. “So people rely on mental shortcuts,” lumping nanotechnology in with other new technologies like stem cell research and genetically modified foods, he tells us. The same people who object to those fields – often on religious reasons – object to nanotechnology. (Incidentally, the heathen Europeans are just fine with nanotechnology.)"
Mental shortcuts are naturally the best way to reach the greatest number of conclusions in the least amount of time. And finding GM foods or stem cells morally unacceptable is also equally ditzy. Of course, the WSJ should know that President Bush himself has made nano one of his scientific priorities without understanding what it is. But that's ok, one needs time to understand such things. After all, it takes time for one to collect one's thought.

Note: A reader mails me to ask if it's wrong for the majority to decide what is morally unacceptable or not. Sadly, whether we like it or not, that's often the way it works in a democracy.
But that's not the point here. The point here is about making such decisions because of misguided and/or gut reactions. It is about the process rather than the paradigm.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008


With hope and clear skies possibly on the horizon, it is going to be very important for the next president to choose a capable chief science advisor. Sound science is going to dictate many of the directions this country takes in the new few decades. The former president has virtually trampled science and the science advisory system underfoot. Who could be an apt candidate for this key post? Here is a list of a few that I like...and one that I don't...

...Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit

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I can't wait for this appalling caricature of reason to make its way into theaters in April and then be plastered. It especially makes me lose it when IDiots spew propaganda claiming that they are being marginalized by us- science and scientists. But then that's always been the case. People who lack solid evidence always take to propaganda and attacks on others claiming they have been treated unfairly.

For now, watch the pseudo-intellectual claptrap trailer narrated by the abominable subhuman Ben Stein in his somnolent voice. And read PZ Myers's rebuttal in which he buries Stein under a ton of reason.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I thought only right-wingers did this. Not cool, people.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008


The Economist has two perceptive articles about Obama:
"With the brief exception of those four heady days after the Iowa caucuses, he has never been a front-runner; now he will be more fully scrutinised. The immediate focus will be on the horse race: can he win? But the bigger issue, which has so far occupied too little attention, is this: what would a President Obama, as opposed to Phenomenon Obama, really mean for America and the world?"
To be honest, the articles are more about Hilary, because she is the one who should be really worried now. March 4 might be her turning point when Texas and Ohio vote, or it could be "Billarygate", after which even the superdelegates probably will not be able to save her. In addition, the Democrats likely already know that having a Obama vs McCain race might be much more to their advantage than a Hilary vs McCain race.

And yet as the articles contend, Obama has some way to go before he assuages voters about his lack of experience and assures them that he is going to be tough and efficient about Iraq and the economy. As far as Iraq is concerned, Thomas Friedman accurately said that the "only choices are between bad and worse", and so Obama might run the risk of simply improving the situation from worse to bad- a notable achievement without a doubt but yet one that will give his opponents plenty of opportunity to vilify him. As for the economy, it's hard to say. Economics may not (and often does not) bow to politics and deliberate actions and sometimes no number of bills and policies can save the economy soon enough.

Actually it won't be surprising if Democrats win the race. If we look at the last 80 years or so of American history, it's quite clear that another party was chosen when one party made a mess, and the mess this party has made exceeds almost all the other messes. Let's see: Hoover failed to rescue the country economically, so people chose FDR who brought the country out of The Depression. Truman and Eisenhower both completed their terms, but Eisenhower won against Adlai Stevenson because he appeared tough on the Soviets. Nixon cast a blemish on the presidency, and Democrats were elected once again. Carter got embroiled in the Iran hostage crises farce, and everybody got so upset that they elected an actor. The actor endured because of rhetoric that for better or worse went down well with people. His successor George Bush again lost to Clinton after the fall of communism. And we know the depressing rest.

So it won't be surprising, only relieving, if the Democrats and Obama for that matter get elected. The only question is; with the current state of affairs and the twisted situation in which the Republicans have entrenched the nation, will the new President be able to do something soon enough? Time is of the essence here, not just political brilliance and prudent actions.


Monday, February 18, 2008


This is based on my own experiences. I am sure there are several reasons and some of those reasons are commonly known. But I have still always been surprised and intrigued by why members of the liberal intelligentsia display a consistent aversion to nuclear energy. Here is my own list based on my personal interactions with reasonable and intelligent people who argue against nuclear power.

1. Ignorance: This simple reason remains pervasive. I am not trying to sound preachy or elitist here but reading two or three books would greatly benefit people who have a gut reaction against nuclear energy. The whole set of misconceptions about any kind of radiation being harmful, about nuclear plants releasing large amounts of radiation (when in reality they release fractions of what everyone naturally gets from the environment), about nuclear waste being a hideously convoluted and insoluble problem (the problem is largely political, not technical) can be dispelled by reading some basic books on radiation and nuclear energy. The most important revelation in this context is how, in our daily lives, we face risks that are hundreds of times greater than those from nuclear energy (transportation, air pollution etc.) without getting nonplussed.

There are of course many books for understanding such concepts, but for a general overview, I would recommend Richard Rhodes's article in Foreign Affairs and his book Nuclear Renewal, Samuel Glasstone's timeless classic Sourcebook on Atomic Energy for basics, and Gwyneth Cravens's very informative book which I am currently reading. Another informal, breezy and excellent treatment is Scott Heaberlin's A Case for Nuclear-Generated Electricity: (Or Why I Think Nuclear Power Is Cool and Why It Is Important That You Think So Too). For those who are ok with a little heavier dose of science, I would strongly recommend David Bodansky's Nuclear Energy.

2. Bad connections: There are two bad connections which many liberals automatically make, both of which are unjustified and contribute to their dislike of nuclear power. One is the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Again, knowing the basics about how different weapons are from reactors can contribute to mitigating this misunderstanding. Somewhere, I think there is also this connection between nuclear power and nuclear proliferation. While there is some truth to this, the fundamental thing to be understood is that every power source carries some risks, and the danger from nuclear proliferation mainly exists because of human stupidity and its manifestations, not because of some inherent problem with nuclear energy. The thrust should be at maintaining an international system that safeguards nuclear material from being used for weapons, not to ban the material itself. And even with the proliferation risks, the benefits of nuclear power far outweigh the risks.

Another bad connection is between environmentalism and boycott of nuclear power. Environmentalists are mainly responsible for reinforcing this connection, with their decades-long opposition to nuclear energy, which started with some reasonable premises, but then mainly descended into irrational, uninformed and exaggerated polemic. Helen Caldicott, whose opposition to nuclear weapons is commendable, is a prime example of peacemongers gone awry. Her latest book warps and misrepresents facts grossly in some cases and demonstrates simple ignorance of matters, not to mention cherry picking. One expected better from such people whose original intentions were honorable. Liberals need to know that nuclear power is completely compatible, if not especially so, with environmentalism. It releases very little greenhouse gases and is a model for power efficiency.

3. Waste: A point again related to 1. Many people think that this is the single greatest threat from nuclear power, that we will all be inhabiting vast atomic wastelands if we allow nuclear power to flourish. Again, read some books! It's not a trivial issue, but mostly a political issue that's also related to inefficiency and increased proliferation threats from burying valuable plutonium-containing nuclear waste.

4. Damn dem Republicans: There is actually a third connection- that between nuclear weapons and right wing belligerent political leaders, mostly Republican. If the erroneous connection between power and weapons is made, then it is not too difficult to perceive a connection between power and right wing fanaticism. It does not help that some leaders such as Republican Senator James Inhofe who is vehemently and stupidly against global warming, are also pro-nuclear power. The only way to stop oneself from treading this false path is to be reminded that this is not a political issue. Just because some environmentalists oppose nuclear power does not make it flawed, nor does Inhofe's support make it promising. The merit of nuclear power lies in science, and thus bows to no political or partisan mongering, and especially not to hacks like Inhofe.

5. Fear of the unknown: Again related to 1. above. I was at a climate change dinner and happened to have an amiable journalist covering the event sitting at my table. We got into discussing the merits and problems with nuclear power and what she said still simply captures the sentiments of many reasonable and intelligent but anti-nuclear people. She said "I am just afraid of something I cannot see". Well, if there's one thing that distinguishes man from other species, it is his ability to uncover nature's secrets and appraise and harness them, especially the ones that cannot be seen. Man's great capacity to face unknown challenges, understand them and use them to his benefits underpins much of our technological prowess. We cannot see x-rays, yet have no problem having x-ray scans (ironically something that delivers a greater dose of radiation than nuclear power plants). Only increased and better dissemination of knowledge about nuclear energy can dispel such doubts of the unknown, something which we should be proud of doing in the past.

The simple fact that a piece of uranium the tip of your finger can deliver as much energy as almost 2000 pounds of coal should be evidence of man's astounding achievement in wresting nature's essential source of energy from her. In the discovery of nuclear power we have done the unimaginable. We have brought the sun and the stars to our world. Extinguishing their flames will be conduct unbecoming of our vast and unique place in the universe, and a very great tragedy.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008


In my list of places to visit in my lifetime, apart from the traffic light, there's another place I want to visit. A nondescript address- 109 East Palace, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Fortunately I am getting the chance to visit this lovely city for a conference in March. By happy coincidence, my hotel is also on the same road. Why do I want to visit this address? Best said after I have actually been there!

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Friday, February 15, 2008


There is an article in the NYT about a new book that contends that Americans are getting not just dumber on average but "hostile to knowledge". The comments in the comment section are quite interesting. I saw many comments arguing that this situation is not so bad because the total number of people having advanced knowledge is increasing, and so is the average quality of the knowledge. But what I find strange is that while this fact is true- the top 10% of "knowledgeable" people in the world is probably getting better- how does it matter if especially in democratic countries, it's the majority who is going to vote and make decisions? I don't understand why people feel relaxed about the situation. It does not matter if the top 10% of people in the country are the most knowledgeable and rational people in the country. The other 90% can ruin the world by sheer numbers.

I do agree that knowledge disparity is increasing in the world. On an average, given the social, technological and political situation in various parts of the world, it does seem to me that people are becoming less rational every day and relying more on biased views or, even more dangerously, on gut instinct. Many times, it seems that people just don't want to carefully explore issues and think about them anymore. They don't want to hear both sides of an argument and don't want to take their own time to decide about issues in as unbiased a way as they can. The rise of religious fundamentalism simply quells rational thought. Watching biased left or right-wing programs on television greatly exacerbates the matter. Sometimes I increasingly get the feeling, not uncommon among some whom I know, that humanity seems to be suffering from some self-imploding death wish. I also agree that the top 10% of the world, the people who really want to learn and have the capacity, are getting better. But what's the point? These people are not going to run the world. And in fact they should not run the world and transform it into some kind of knowledge autocracy.

Better to have 90% of the world having basic common sense than 20% of the world being Einstein and the rest relying on their feelings to take decisions.


Thursday, February 14, 2008


One would think that the "most capitalist person" in the world's most capitalist country might say otherwise. But:
"As I see it, there are two great forces of human nature: self-interest, and caring for others. Capitalism harnesses self-interest in a helpful and sustainable way, but only on behalf of those who can pay. Government aid and philanthropy channel our caring for those who can't pay. But to provide rapid improvement for the poor we need a system that draws in innovators and businesses in a far better way than we do today.

Such a system would have a twin mission: making profits and also improving lives of those who don't fully benefit from today's market forces. For sustainability we need to use profit incentives wherever we can. At the same time, profits are not always possible when business tries to serve the very poor. In such cases there needs to be another incentive, and that incentive is recognition. Recognition enhances a company's reputation and appeals to customers; above all, it attracts good people to an organization. As such, recognition triggers a market-based reward for good behavior. In markets where profits are not possible, recognition is a proxy; where profits are possible, recognition is an added incentive...

The challenge here is to design a system where market incentives, including profits and recognition, drive those principles to do more for the poor. I like to call this idea "creative capitalism", an approach where governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world's inequities.

Some people might object to this kind of market-based social change, arguing that if we combine sentiment with self-interest, we will not expand the reach of the market, but reduce it. Yet Adam Smith, the very father of capitalism and the author of “Wealth of Nations,” who believed strongly in the value of self-interest for society, opened his first book with the following lines:

"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it."

Creative capitalism takes this interest in the fortunes of others and ties it to our interest in our own fortunes in ways that help advance both. This hybrid engine of self-interest and concern for others can serve a much wider circle of people than can be reached by self-interest or caring alone."
That's Bill Gates speaking at the World Economic Forum in January 2008 at Davos, Switzerland. The whole thing is worth reading, and Gates certainly has walked the talk in the last few years with his immensely valuable charitable work.

But this is the point that free-marketers should remind themselves of. Adam Smith himself advocated the implementation of certain sectors- most prominently education- through government. It is our misfortune that governments have become riddled with so much ineptitude and evil. But still, however difficult it is, the solution must be to reform, not to eliminate government. Today, everybody knows Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations but we also need to remember his other major work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. There is no evidence to my knowledge in Smith's writings that he advocated rampant or unfettered capitalism. As Gates says, capitalism should be creative and not unfettered. Maybe that's where it has gone wrong. A while back, I read Milton Friedman's Free to Choose and while much of his philosophy makes good sense, the point is that in reality, people are not free to choose, and it should be realised that while this may be due to government, it is not always necessarily so. We have to dissect the reasons for this stranglehold on freedom of choice that bedevils people and tackle the specific reasons inherent in every context.

But interestingly and rather dishearteningly, a lot of times it is fate itself that leaves people unable to choose. This goes straight to the marvelous idea of "competency" or "capability" that Amartya Sen has expounded. More on it in another post, but suffice it here to say that before people have the freedom, they need the sheer capability to act freely in the first place. For example, what's the point of having the freedom to vote if one does not have the competency to decide whom to vote for? For whatever reason, many people don't have competency of one kind or another to vote, to participate in the market system, to lend their views to expedient social and political discourse. And to blame government for depriving this competency in every case is surely a shallow proposition. In fact, sometimes government is necessary because of sheer scale to give people that capability. In today's world, this system is broken in many cases. It would be defeatism to think that the only way we can fix it would be by eliminating it. First give people the capability, by whatever means, and then they will get the much coveted libertarian freedom of choice to fix the system...and themselves.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008


And one of my favourite Darwin stories, a simple one which when I read in Nobelist Konrad Lorenz's "The Waning of Humaneness" as a school-kid, left me especially touched because it seemed to strike a nice balance between dispassionate and objective scientific curiosity and humane action. Lorenz along with two others has won the only Nobel Prize for medicine ever awarded for animal behaviour studies, and was especially an expert on aggression. His book King Solomon's Ring is hands down the most delightful and interesting book about animals and their behaviour that I have ever read. He recalled the story thus:

On one of his typical specimen-hunting forays in South America, Darwin came across one of nature's quintessentially cruel spectacles- a wasp mercilessly stinging a spider. The spider would try to scurry away but the the wasp repeatedly would find it and sting it until it was doddering painfully and still trying to get away. The wasp nonetheless relentlessly continued its onslaught. For a naturalist, the fight was worth documenting to the end, one example among countless of nature red in tooth and claw. But Darwin did the humane thing; he drove the wasp away and ended the spider's misery.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008


Looks like Obama is now truly neck to neck with Hilary and might be set to get the nomination. Even if Hilary thinks she can win in Texas, I think it just might be possible for the Clinton-haters in Texas to vote for Obama. It would be a great day for this country and the world if he wins and a historic one if he becomes President. That said, I think a Obama vs McCain fight is going to be close and not easy. It might have been much easier with Romney vs Obama. McCain does carry the weight of experience. In addition, he might put off some conservatives, but it is possible that he can swing the minds of people on the fence with some of his moderate stances.

On the other hand, one must acknowledge that there are many Democrats who would not have voted for Hilary but who say they would vote for Obama. Then are also those somewhat muddle-headed people who would vote for Hilary by default because she is a woman. One of the most hilarious viewpoints I read came from a voter who said she would not vote for Obama because she does not like his "Muslim roots". Anyway, in general, it does seem that it would be much better and safer for the Democrats to have Obama as the nominee, to appease those Democratic voters who would not vote for Hilary (and who might even vote for McCain in a Hilary-McCain race).

In any case, I cannot help but think that this is one of the few elections in American history in which people all around the world are almost as interested and anxious about the results as the average American voter. That's because not only has Bush immensely harmed this country, but by trampling international laws, treaties, conventions and sentiments under his foot, he has also significantly harmed the world. The world needs Barack Obama as much as America does.

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Friday, February 08, 2008


This is really ridiculous. We are writing a paper with a friend and collaborator of mine who is a NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy) specialist at a prominent university in the US. He just came back from India after a stay of more than two months. He said that his original trip was planned for only a month. So why did it take so long?

Apparently, his visa was delayed. The fine folks at the US State Department saw the dreaded word "nuclear" in his job description. Alarm bells went off in their experienced minds. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance? Surely this is suspicious. Off they went doing a background check for more than a month. In the end of course they found nothing. But my friend had to stay for an extra month, delaying his work here, not to mention our own work.

This is outrageous. NMR is one of the most important techniques ever in chemistry, biology, materials science and drug discovery. For crying out loud, life-saving MRI is based on it (although not incidentally, they took the word "nuclear" out of MRI because it would make people uncomfortable). Every single day, hundreds, if not thousands of papers are published in journals worldwide that involve the use of NMR in one way or the other. Four Nobel Prizes have been awarded to NMR scientists. My own PhD. thesis is mostly based on the interpretation of results obtained using NMR (I have mentioned about it here) NMR has nothing remotely to do with atomic bombs.

But the bull-headed rocks at the State Department cannot even distinguish between the "nuclear" in NMR and that in "nuclear weapons". Why can't they hire specialists who actually know something basic about science (and common sense) instead of randomly spouting gut reactions and going ballistic every time they see the word nuclear? In some ways, it would give people like me sadistic pleasure to think of all those floor scrubbers in the department running around trying to find out if I have a Jihadist background. But as everyone knows, unfortunately in the end the person who will lose the most will be me.

Despicable, and it reminds me of Goverdhan Mehta's shoddy treatment at the American consulate. But considering the ultimate authority they answer to, we can trust them not to look at trivial things like facts and details.

At least now I know what word to not include in my job description when I file for a Visa. "Magnetic Resonance" will have to do. Sigh.

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As part of the Authors@Google talk series that Google has organised, everyone's favourite nuclear historian Richard Rhodes gave a talk at the company, partly on general nuclear history and policy and partly about his new book (which I reviewed here). In the end, he asked the bright folks at Google for advice about how best one could possibly implement an international system of tracking nuclear material.

There were several interesting points about both history and current policy that he made that I think are worth noting as summaries (for those who may not have the time to watch the entire one hour talk)

1. Paul Nitze was a highly influential official in the State Department who served through six administrations, advising presidents on nuclear policy. After surveying the damage caused by atomic bombs in Japan and comparing it with the damage caused by strategic bombing, he erroneously concluded that atomic weapons are not much different in their effects from conventional incendiary bombing. He set the tone for policy partly grounded in this belief in 1950 when he drafted a key document named NSC 68 which outlined George Kennan's containment doctrine and advocated increasing nuclear weapons building as the best way to counter the Soviets. Although the report was opposed for its exaggerated tone by some, the Korean War that began that year sealed the deal, and the report more or less set the tone for US nuclear policy for the next six decades. Nitze could well be called the "father of threat inflation"

2. Most of the estimates about nuclear weapon targeting made during the Cold War or at least during the early years were underestimates because they neglected the effects of fire. Fire effects and the resulting strong winds cause a firestorm in a nuclear attack, and they can contribute up to 60% of all the effects. Most initial calculations only included blast effects. In a somewhat dramatic illustration, Rhodes showed the possible blast and fire radius of an attack on Google with a 300 kT weapon. The fire radius is much larger than the blast radius, and in addition fires can spread far and wide depending on vegetation.

3. In another telling illustration, Rhodes showed the nuclear winter that would result from a "limited" exchange of about a megaton between India and Pakistan. Within a few months, the simulation shows that the average temperature of the world could drop by 5 degrees, a catastrophic result. One can scarcely comprehend the nuclear winter that would have resulted from an estimated exchange of 10,000 megatons between the two Cold War superpowers. The illustration showed that even a small regional war waged with nuclear weapons could have extremely serious global consequences.

4. The real problem with nuclear proliferation is that like any complex machine, the system can go haywire and is subject to "normal accidents". More accounts than would make us comfortable exist of nuclear weapons accidentally armed or delivered somewhere instead of conventional weapons. Rhodes also noted that both the Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals don't have Permissive Action Locks (PALs). This makes the situation uncomfortable. I am interested in knowing his sources for this information.

5. Rhodes again outlined an ambitious plan by many former US experts including Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Sam Nunn for universal disarmament. These gentlemen were early advocates of security through minimal deterrents. But after 9/11, they realised that nuclear terrorism makes only universal disarmament an ideal goal to be pursued for securing peace. Rhodes makes the accurate observation that nuclear proliferation can be stopped only by satisfying nations' security needs. However, I disagree with his projection for Pakistan's nuclear disarmament. Senior Pakistani officials have ostensibly said that they would disarm if India would disarm. But I doubt it because the Pakistani arsenal (about 40 weapons) is as much a deterrent against India's conventional forces superiority as it is against India's nuclear arsenal (about 60 weapons), and India inherently has the conventional advantage because of its size and resources. I don't see how this could stop being seen as a threat by the Pakistanis.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

"Mr Romney announced the suspension at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and frankly I'd be making it easier for Senator Clinton or [Barack] Obama to win," Mr Romney said at the conference.

He added that the Democratic candidates would be a disaster for the "war on terror" and the war in Iraq.

"In this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror," he said."
Yes, that's right. Spin and project your pathetic failure as some astute decision/honorable sacrifice that has everything to do with not letting your evil opponents win.




Hell's Angels may have been of some use
"Now researchers in Germany say that the rapidly vibrating tattoo needle could be a useful way of delivering vaccines under the skin instead of insoluble ink.

In studies with mice, tattooing a vaccine produced 16 times more antibodies than a simple injection into muscle tissue.

The level of antibodies indicates the strength of the immune system's response.

Dr Martin Mueller, one of the researchers behind this work, says that the greater damage to the body caused by the tattoo needle may explain the better immune response."


Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Paul Krugman on why Hilary's mandatory healthcare plan would be more economically sound than Obama's optional healthcare plan. Makes sense to me.
"An Obama-type plan would also face the problem of healthy people who decide to take their chances or don’t sign up until they develop medical problems, thereby raising premiums for everyone else. Mr. Obama, contradicting his earlier assertions that affordability is the only bar to coverage, is now talking about penalizing those who delay signing up — but it’s not clear how this would work.

So the Obama plan would leave more people uninsured than the Clinton plan. How big is the difference?

To answer this question you need to make a detailed analysis of health care decisions. That’s what Jonathan Gruber of M.I.T., one of America’s leading health care economists, does in a new paper.

Mr. Gruber finds that a plan without mandates, broadly resembling the Obama plan, would cover 23 million of those currently uninsured, at a taxpayer cost of $102 billion per year. An otherwise identical plan with mandates would cover 45 million of the uninsured — essentially everyone — at a taxpayer cost of $124 billion. Over all, the Obama-type plan would cost $4,400 per newly insured person, the Clinton-type plan only $2,700."

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Please don't make contradiction this obvious. But then, what better can we expect from you?
"Mr Bush said his proposal would cut "wasteful or bloated" spending and also urged Congress to make his tax cuts permanent.

The defence department's budget is set to increase by 7.5% and the Department of Homeland Security's by 11%."

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Will it also lead to sunny and warm hope for this country? Will Barack Obama be chosen? It's interesting; I had never heard of Obama before 2006 when I first started seeing him in short interviews on TV. The man made a deep impression on me from the very first, not in the sense of the typical politically canny and charismatic Clintonesque impression, but an impression that seemed to derive from his heart, reflecting a deep-set conviction and....soulfulness. Not an exact analogy, but it is the kind of impression Mikhail Gorbachev would have made when American leaders met him after he had just become President. Here's a man who is truly different from his predecessors; in case of Obama, truly different from the crooks and smooth-talkers that preceded him.

I have thought since the beginning that he would be the person to really affect change. Obama becoming president may be the best thing to happen to the US since the sordid days when actors started taking over the country.


Monday, February 04, 2008

JUDAH FOLKMAN (1933-2008)

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Image: LA Times, Boston Globe

All living entities need a pipeline to survive. In case of most living organisms, this pipeline consists of blood vessels that provide essential nutrients and oxygen and carry out waste products. As we all know, our organs would not survive for long without the intricate blood vessel network- the vasculature as it's called- that supplies them. But what's true for organs is also true for entities gone haywire- tumours. Like organs, tumours also need blood vessels that would supply oxygen and nutrients to their hungry cellular machinery.

Angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels, is important to both tumours and healthy organs and a mainstay of life itself. One would think that starving tumours of their essential needs by choking off this pipeline of capillaries would be detrimental to them. But just how detrimental it would be and what important ramifications it would have was not at all obvious 30 years ago. In fact even today, tumour vasculature is one among dozens of factors responsible for the growth of cancer, a disease whose newly discovered complexity continues to stun us every day.

The exact and overriding importance of angiogenesis for tumours was first demonstrated in 1971 by a then little known doctor at Harvard Medical School, Judah Folkman. Folkman crucially demonstrated that tumours cannot grow beyond a certain size if they are deprived of a generous dose of blood vasculature and angiogenesis. Moreover and more importantly, he also showed that tumours secrete proteins that promote angiogensis. Think of a tumour as initially hanging off a cliff by a thin thread, struggling to hold on. Then the proteins it secretes and the ensuing blood vessels that grow would constitute lifelines- deathlines for us that is- that the tumour throws to clasp on to the cliff. The growth of these lifelines and their integrity can make the difference between life and death, both for us and the tumour. In his seminal 1971 paper, Folkman suggested that the very difference between a benign and malignant tumour can be made by how strong and fortified this process of angiogenesis around the tumour is.

What was speculation and based on relatively scant research in 1971 has rung more than true since then. In the ensuing years, dozens of proteins and growth factors have been discovered that are oversecreted by tumours to facilitate their growth. Concurrent with these discoveries, proteins that naturally inhibit angiogenesis have also been discovered. The growth factors promote angiogenesis by binding to crucial receptor proteins on the tumour cell surface. This fact also obviously points towards a possible therapy for treating cancer- by halting this angiogenesis. If one can design drugs that prevent these growth factors from binding to their receptors, then the growth of new blood vessels would be prevented. Shrink this growth, and one can possibly shrink the tumour, either to its death or to a withered state that is no longer capable of metastasis and cancer.

Since Folkman's pioneering description and speculation in 1971, the understanding of angiogenesis as being crucial to tumour promotion as well as the targeting of angiogenesis as a cancer therapy have both become central concepts in the knowledge and treatment of cancer. Angiogenesis has also proven to be important for other disorders such as macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the United States.

In the last few years, dozens of drugs blocking tumour growth by blocking angiogenesis have been discovered. Several of them have now been approved as cancer therapies by the FDA. Two examples are the drugs Sunitinib and Avastin which is an antibody.

Judah Folkman's vision is now directly benefiting millions of people worldwide. In my opinion he definitely deserved a Nobel Prize and probably would have gotten it soon. But the man himself sadly and unexpectedly left us on January 14. He was due to give a talk at my university a couple of months ago. I could not attend it because of a prior commitment. Now I wish I had. But his dream and contributions survive. And they provide one of the best recent examples I know of how basic biomedical research can bring practical and humane benefits to millions.

Obituaries: NYT, WSJ, Boston Globe

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Saturday, February 02, 2008


I am back from a satisfying trip to Pune. Satisfying personally and professionally that is. "Socially" is a different matter.

People ask me, "So how is Pune"? Let's see; absolute anarchy in traffic- Law College road left my jaw open even when I was anticipating a slide into indiscipline. And this is not just "compared to the US". Any reasonable person should be appalled. The behaviour of people in traffic can only be compared to animals who rush mindlessly to occupy free space. There is absolutely no law and order that is enforced, either by traffic policemen, or by anyone's inner conscience. Clearly there are people like me or the readers of this blog, but also clearly their number seems way below the critical mass, if there is one.

Point number two; politicians and industrialists are running rampant over property and people. The amount of land which they have either explicitly or implicitly (in collusion with contractors, either amiably or by threatening) taken over is obscene. Nobody can stop them because we have not yet learnt to stoop to using their methods. And this is not just some remote story. Parts of Deccan which I have seen and wandered around in since a small kid have been blatantly destroyed and taken over. An acquaintance was told to lay off a meager piece of land because some political hack was interested. A prominent hospital here has been made an "offer"; we offer you a generous sum of money. Please vacate. If the money does not persuade you, we have a generous dose of goons and bullets behind it.

Now of course, people say, "It's not that bad. It's not really affecting us on a large scale directly". To which I have two things to say. Firstly, who is "us"? Secondly, read Martin Niemoller's poem