Sunday, December 13, 2009

Minority creates knowledge, Majority generates intelligence

I was reading Weinstein's piece in NYT today, on Samuelson.  In the context of Samuelson's contribution to Kenyesian economic theory, the article points out that in the 1930's, when Keynes developed his ideas, world leaders could not cope with the great depression, whereas last year we were able to get it right:
Back then, governments stood pat or made matters worse by trying to balance fiscal budgets and erecting trade barriers. But 80 years later, having absorbed the Keynesian preaching of Mr. Samuelson and his followers, most industrialized countries took corrective action, raising government spending, cutting taxes, keeping exports and imports flowing and driving short-term interest rates to near zero.
I have been trying to find examples where the intelligence of a group of people turned out to be greater than that of one; where the origin and propagation of knowledge ultimately led to collective human behavior (thought and action) demonstrating an increase in intelligence. Examples in individual organizations was being hard to qualify. 
So, one group of the human population creates a problem and another group solves it.  An action is a problem when it concerns a minority of the population and is a solution when it is related to the majority.  Both groups of actors, were exposed to the same knowledge over the same period of time (80 years).  It may even be very difficult to find unique identities of the two groups of actors. But a solution was implemented. That's indicative of the evolution of intelligence.  
What did it achieve?  Nothing new.  It just ensured the sustenance of the system! Technological innovators achieve much greater feats.  The next big problem, our climate, environment and habitat will probably test if technological innovation has made us more intelligent. However, the majority and the minority of the population seems to have a wrong alignment this time. The solution will come from the minority, but the majority has already aggregated, around negatives.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Interpreting incomplete experiments

The graph here is used by the authors of the analysis to somehow predict that when 100% of humans become authors in 2013, we are better off.  If, 100 people read what I type, then I'm an author because of the viral characteristics of information propagation.  This definition allows the qualification of Twitters as authors;  not mere communicators.  Humans and all animals and plants and the whole living world is already 100% communicators; besides, 40% of the human population is in India and China.

Take for example this debate on whether google is making us more intelligent or less. One has to actually read the several links embedded in these articles to get the complete picture.  But, how difficult is it to assume that some who are finding it beneficial to adapt are evolving with respect to our information processing capabilities while others are not, without attempting any generalizations?

The PS2 or PSP or whatever gaming device you use, is designed to test your eye-hand coordination; because you don't have a perfect/ideal coordination, manipulating these devices is a challenge and some incentive is added to the exercise in the result of the game to stimulate euphoria.  If you had perfect eye-hand coordination and other physical capabilities, you would need to be in the field, to get the same amount of satisfaction. So, a device that is designed to exploit your lack of capabilities to make money, is used in an experiment to suggest that we can enhance our capabilities with practice at a faster pace now than ever before.

When we write technical papers, the experimental section has the sole purpose of describing what the limitations of the experiments and therefore the results are.  However, its not written in the negative; it only describes what was done and then a practitioner can figure out what was not done.  This discipline in communication forms the basis of scientific methodology.  This discipline of communication intends to eliminate ambiguity.  

Science is not a profit making business.  But, if you leave the experimental or methodology section of our work out and become 'authors' based only on our results and discussion and conclusions, it seems there's a viable and flourishing business model.  


Sunday, November 22, 2009

the I in Me

In the wikipedia page on neurotrophins, there's a statement to the effect that adults have an enhanced capability to grow new neurons and synapses for about an year into a romantic relationship.

Neurogenesis would increase the capacity of our brain and thus the possibility of enhancing our capabilities. We therefore either choose to enhance our capabilities and god gives us the extra neurons or, we can stick with the experimental observation that the process of learning involves and requires neurogenesis.

Perhaps more important than asking what are we learning during this first year is, why, are we choosing to learn while in love? Procreation, with the purpose to preserve the Me, fits the bill well. I will not make the remaining connections here; I'm already on a detour.

Whatever satisfies the purpose of preserving the me will then allow us to increase our capabilities, I suppose.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

comma ( , )

While trying to explore the molecular pathway of information processing, I was a little surprised to learn that we have tackled massive explosions of information throughout our evolutionary history and came out better-off. I looked there to find some exclusivity; something in our history that will allow me to narrow down my thoughts.

Turns out, symbolic expression of certain emotions is even universal. We however have developed language, to go beyond symbolic expression.

I was once asked to draw an analogy between the collective behavior of a group of people in an organization(not any random group of people) and human intelligence. Couldn't do it. At that time I didn't know about Language.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

40% of us, here, don't believe in evolution.....

The third world, developing economies and now, emerging markets-have been used to describe the majority of the human population over a period of close to a century. Classifying human population has various advantages and purposes. But the one I like, is that as soon as we recognize an inequality, it automatically sets in the process of equalization. The academic way to interpret this, that it is taking longer than three generations of classifications, is that things are still in a flux and the time constant is longer than what we have so far.

More on this later. Since I relocated, I haven't had a chance to update this space and wanted to do that. However, I still haven't completely organized my free time. I got hold of Alex Wright's GLUT and Greenspan & Shanker's The First Idea and both are being extremely educational :-)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The value of our used things

Every time I relocate, I find myself in this phase at the end of the packing process, where a miniscule remainder scattered over the apartment suddenly becomes an unmanageable, unending, way-too-much-crap kind of deal. This then becomes the most tiring part of packing and moving. Everytime, I decide that next time I won't let this happen.

There are several things going on here. First of all, I'm not picking up these that constitute the residue in the main phase because they seem relatively insignificant compared to the ones that I'm packing. But as all the more significant belongings get into boxes away from my sight, I'm left to consider only that remain scattered all over the place, as my belongings and thus their perceived value increases, at that point of time.

But now I'll have to decide how much I'm willing to pay for my used belongings, because my international carrier will allow two checked baggages while the US domestic carrier will most probably charge me for the second.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


As kids, we used to race bicycles. I like to remember that I was the fastest with a close second, but it really has been a while. All of us had similar (bi)cycles, nothing fancy and we would randomly start racing, for example on or off our way to school or the soccerground. And the process of proving the best was relentlessly repetitive. I sort of remember figuring out that if I would extend the distance to cover, I could always win; the runner up would inevitably end up somewhere else, doing something else. The rest of the group would follow, in a herd. One day one of our friends showed up with a souped up cycle. We refused to let him participate in racing. We were around 10-15yrs then. We would try the cycle out and then refuse to race it. Actually we would refuse its company in our herd.

This seemingly simple and straightforward behaviour actually involves a very complex analytical process involving several factors. The angle I want to point out is that, if we chose to race this superior cycle, we would have to advance our machinery and we knew that was impossible. It would involve convincing our parents to buy us a similar cycle. All of us were from an equivalent economic background. Then, if we even allowed this cycle to stay in the group we would eventually start racing it. If we were forced to race it, which we prevented from happening, we would be forced to soup up our cycles. The ethics of the means would be compromised.

Thus, I disagree with Marc W. Herold's analysis of the Afghan policy of President Obama. There actually is a very intelligent reason to use footsoldiers against footsoldiers. Ofcourse, this juvenile instinct was lost in the higher order foreign policy making business, globally, forawhile. If you force me to prevail against your faster bicycle, you soon will be struggling to prevail against mine.

Reclaimed water

I was wondering how the Hindus would feel about domestic reclaimed water.....

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Biological Clock, Happiness and Nations

I have been trying to construct the complete picture since my last post. I think I'll just put down what I have so far, particularly encouraged by the comments on my previous post.

Happiness describes a personal experience; the perception and even the observation of an event varies among individuals. However, the fact that we all use the same word(happiness) to describe something means that there's something that we feel like expressing, and the reason that would happen is because we believe that others would have the same response (would like to feel happy) and we want others to know about it. This then requires that there is something fundamental that is common amongst individuals and I feel that this common element could be the effect of the circadian clock on our existence. The state that is described by being happy actually allows us to ignore the dictates of the 'clock', which is most probably controlled by the chemical processes of life.

Now, I have argued in a previous post that machines and thus the industrial revolution signifies the beginning of our attempts to control physical time and that we have not yet evolved enough to adapt with this socially. Incidentally, the 10-12 yr kids that I find in the various talent competitions in Indian television are clearly much better adapted than me. Adapting to machines also defines what is developed and what's not. Then, if we consider what it takes to adapt to instruments that gives us control over physical time, I see it as being able to think in the positive direction of the time axis. Incidentally, thinking about history is slow, thinking about the future doesn't have a speed limit. Science fictions are invariably thrilling although they may have many other negative aspects; to watch a period drama on the other hand you (atleast I do) need to create the right ambiance. Therefore, being able to predict the future is not necessary. What counts is, are we spending our time analyzing our history and trying to understand our present or are we trying to look into the future? If I have the fundamentals of my sustenance available I can afford to spend my time to look at the future, which may or may not even be relevant to my own life. If not, I'm forced to dwell on my history and understand my present.

These are characteristics of individuals. In the context of the collective behavior of citizens, leaders have historically played decisive roles, which is quite intuitive. In our modern policy making system, we still need the right people at the top. A much more striking realization is that you can't create a 'flat organization' anyrandomwhere; the organization needs to be comprised of multi-skilled people, for it to work.

I guess we need to define what comprises the positive axis of time to be able to establish that cure and prevention are actually relative terms, which I have to do in another post. But what I meant while writing it in the previous post was the existence of the knowledge of what comprises a prevention in the population; then if we inquire as to who knows about the prevention, we will find atleast one mind that has been thinking ahead, relative to the rest in the population. But everyday life in India is not made so exciting (becasue I'm not in a mood to use negatives today) by subtleties like this. We have localities comprising of people who will give you several flavors of possible preventions within a city.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Biological Clock and Happiness or some other word

I notice that I had used 'dislike' at the very beginning and then while trying to link it to something observable, I used 'happiness'. This is significant because in the commentaries I had linked, 'want' and 'like' were used to describe the psychological state.

For me, a psychological state is registered definitively when the term 'happy' is used to describe it, while the experience described by 'like' can always be debated. For example, we spent two consecutive Christmas at the Yosemite NP. We liked both. But the second visit was a 'happy' experience. The whole park was under more than a foot of snow and I still remember the taste of the fillet mignon dinner on the 25th. I didn't feel like coming back to town. Similarly, the one night planned stay at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon that we extended to two nights. In both instances, we stayed in cottages in fairly wooded areas. You get terribly hungry but who wants to eat; the fresh breeze and the cool temperature and those water droplets constantly condensing and making that sound as they fall on the dry leaves below will drive anyone to sleep in a city but who wants to sleep and waste off the experience there, then.

For me to 'like' represents description of experiences over fractions of time while, the cumulative positive effect is 'happiness'. I may like something and try to go and do the next step and end up disliking it. The net information then is inconclusive and I need to explore some more if circumstances permit.

But irrespective of what the right choice of word is to describe the psychological state, what I'm really interested in, is exploring if there's any merit in the hypothesis that we are not really very adapted to this time coordinate. It gets reflected in our social behavior too.

Perhaps the reverse experience is more intuitive, that every event has it's own time coordinate. All we do is generate a critical volume of information so that the event can take place. An example is Hillary Clinton's not becoming President; didn't she have everything, perfect, to become the President? It just wasn't the time; it was Obama's. And by this I mean the collective behavior of the World required Obama. I have examples even in my technical field that seem to conform to this idea. In India I notice these retrograde actions, consistently; almost everything seems like a cure and never prevention. A people that can't feel the pulse of time and therefore always acts in retrograde is then the characteristic of a developing Nation.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Biological Clock and Happiness

I think this biological clock keeps us together and lets us live as long as we do and therefore we fundamentally dislike it. My guess is, it originates from the equilibrium time scales of the various chemical reactions of life or something of that sort.

The description of the happiest moments of our lives always, irrespective of country and culture, come with a line to the effect that '.....wish it never ended.' It may be said casually, but unlike a lot more of these phrases, I believe there's always some element of truth in this one.

The reason anything ends is ultimately controlled by our individual biological clocks. When we are happy, we loose track of the clock. Then, how about, loosing track of the clock makes us happy? If you can do anything to loose track of the clock, you'll feel happy. I'm using 'the clock' purposely to distinguish it from mere time. Loosing track of time is very physical, in this case superficial is probably the right term whereas loosing track of the clock has a biochemical origin and mechanism. I think, although I can't meditate for any significant length of time, meditation would achieve something like this.

So, shutting down the process that keeps us alive makes us happy. Being happy is basically dying.
I had taken this post down for a while, because I had trouble defending it with a friend. Her point was that my usage of the term 'happiness' was too unscientific to the extent of being irresponsible. To which I sort of agree. I have no intention of corrupting this one sane thing left in our lives.

But today (August 15), I find Jonah Lehrer has written about our compulsion with electronic information and links Emily Yoffe's writeup on Panksepp's work. And, in Yoffe's commentary I find reference to ' our internal sense of time' in the context of an emotional state that Panksepp describes as 'Seeking'.

Monday, August 10, 2009

can It be done without a war....

Whats been missing from the whole scenario is wars. I feel, India is trying to break loose off all its colonial residues but can't quite get there because of this lack of a Nationalistic feeling. We do not really consider ourselves to be belonging to a single Nation. We haven't really done anything together after the Independence movement. I mean we do not feel it, like every moment of our lives. Once that is achieved, reforms will become much more smoother and effective. Lately, wars have been the only way to achieve this.

The previous military conflicts, for example the one at Kargil, almost immediately polarized the population. It didn't quite serve the purpose. But the reason, it couldn't be used by the state was a lack of effort or performance from the media. Now, the Bush43rd's Iraq adventure has shown how the media can be used to keep the public constantly talking about all the wrong aspects of Government function and so, once the Indian media matures sufficiently in covering up data and carrying people's attention over an extended period of time, India will go to war. Also, there weren't enough movies made on the Kargil war. The commercial aspects really need to change. The state has to raise the funds for the conflict. And, you cannot have power outages in the middle of a major mission, the TV needs to constantly transmit. Otherwise the audience will be lost. I mean people might get bored and go to work or something.

Actually, any crisis will do.

Friday, August 7, 2009


The H1N1 virus doesn't seem to know that Indians have not panicked. Infact we are at the forefront it seems, of coming up with a vaccine. In 2006, India was able to come up with a H5N1 vaccine but there weren't any manufacturer with safe laboratory conditions. This time there are like three private manufacturers. btw, what the heck does forefront mean?

The monsoon is now looking more like a draught. I mean, the eminent journalists are being able to see it now.

Will we atleast get the well-deserved (because we didn't panic) hindu growth rate?

Who cracks the jokes on India?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A State for the Second Lifers

I can't stop laughing ever since I heard about this second life/Avatar/3D virtual world stuff last evening :) which probably means I'll be in there soon. I was recently marveling at the blogger statistics from Calcutta; there's an incredibly large number of people blogging from here, most of it is like personal diaries and I guess some use it as their creative portfolio but in general women seem much more creative and original.....I spent some time trying to get an overall pic; yet I find that the internet connectivity is almost nonexistent in this rural-city; which led me to wonder, are these bloggers represented in our policy making process? Anyways the point is, what happens when India enters 'second life'. How many more states do we need to make? I can already see a demand for the bloggers and one for the second lifers coming up. Our lives are dependent on very sofisticated technology and India cannot afford to provide that kind of services to the whole nation, neither does it need to, so let us do it in our own state.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Let's start voting on policies

Reading policy reports is boring. I read the Yash Pal committee report on higher education and research recently. Basically because its, now. There are a bunch of earlier reports available at the NIC portal. A previous Radhakrishnan committee report outlines the historical development of our formal education system. It started with recognizing the Madrasa system in Bengal for Islamic education followed by the BHU for the Hindus. Finally they got their act right and decided to model Indian education as per the London University. Seems like, after sixty years we have figured out that we should actually be following the US system and not so much the British system anymore.

Recently, Frontline had a bunch of stories on University Inc. ; it not only allowed me to get an overall idea of the Yash Pal committee report on NCHER by breaking it down into several stories, but it also made me wonder why every person who’s opinion was quoted, were introduced by the rank they hold or have held in various Government concerns related to higher education instead of their most significant relevant achievement.

Since the theme (at least one of the themes) of the committee report, as far as I understand, is to incorporate that missing social intent into the bureaucratic framework, which would involve everyone concerned to think of the value of education before its business prospects, wouldn’t it be more acceptable to readers who are not familiar with the very big names in Indian higher education, if one or two of their most significant achievements were listed, as an introduction?

But that is not the general practice in the Indian culture. The throne is supreme and anyone who is eligible to sit in it is revered, automatically, no questions asked; if you have grey hair it helps with the image. Isn’t this the most fundamental problem of every Indian enterprise? If not, lets start informing the people about the role models of higher education in India. Let every journalist, when they quote someone, National or International, anyone, also ask them to name their most significant achievement and lets print that and push the public to learn and understand a few technical jargons.

The point is, we characterize our leaders as the Director of a certain Institute and not the inventor of a Green(er) Technology. Often we mischaracterize! Most Indians still don’t really know what our respectable previous President’s real achievements were. The funny part is, did he really spend as much time and energy about informing the people as to the misperceptions they have about him, as much as he had spent trying to convince the Nation as to why we really needed a nuclear deterrent? At least he didn’t do a great job about it; everyone around me has an opinion about our nuclear capabilities but no one can form an opinion about whether he should have been given the responsibility to make that decision in the first place. The end result is that we are begging the developed nations to let us have whatever green technology they invest and develop without having to pay too much.

Further, what is the mechanism to obtain the consensus of the students and the faculties actually involved in education and research? Should it really be NCHER who conducts this debate and discussion? We hear the term ratification in the context of UN programs. Don’t we need one, Nationwide, to implement this reform? Lets ask every government employee (no-exceptions) concerned, to read the report which is freely available now, and express their individual opinions. Let Institutions compile these comments. Anyways they produce these Annual Reports, which I haven’t found very useful yet. Otherwise, it will be left to non-believers to implement a program to ‘create knowledge’ in class rooms and laboratories. A contemporary example is perhaps the fate of the primary education reform in the Kerala State Board that I read about in Frontline sometime back. The noise inside Jadavpur University doesn’t seem to say that their Institution is a failure. Even better, lets have the Nation vote on ballots that just list policies, without any political party symbol; our lives today is the benefit of some sincere market research; how long will the people take to learn that? What percentage of our population really comprehends the regional and global implications of the 40,000MW nuclear energy capability that we are hoping to acquire by 2021? I’ll infact be curious to learn how many will actually feel comfortable reading, let alone comprehending, a report in English. If not, what did the Election Commission so effectively manage? I wouldn’t call it a democratic anything.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bankrupt Journalism

Machines that pollute our environment in Bengal, in the form of privately owned mass transport are staying away from the road today, perhaps indefinitely. I love it, really.

I scanned two newspapers in the morning, Anandabazar Patrika in bengali and The Telegraph in english, and failed to find the word environmental pollution. They call it their Bureau's reporting. Its really the stuff of chai shops. I know enough about editing to see through this irresponsibly naive purpose of misdirecting readers.

The court order, as they point out, is an year old. Why do we need a court order to stop polluting our environment, once again? I don't want polluters be it in the form of nitrogen oxides or just plain old spit around me. Speaking of spitting publicly, I will need to record a video or something to show the action but its really incredible; its like a constant shower coming down from both sides when you walk. I wonder how that will affect the spread of the influenza A /H1N1 here. I'm not 'panicking' though. On May 15th we had zero reports and on July 22 it was 348, on July 19th it was 298; but no one died. We are such a self sufficient, mature nation! We told the US to screen their passengers before sending them over here; the US consulate in India asks for screening reports even before issuing the visas. But we can take care of ourselves. By the way, this virus is evolving.

But enough about health and environment, how about our agricultural economy and the monsoon? The day after Prithviraj Chavan conducted that farce with full court press coverage declaring the 'updated' report on the progress of monsoon, which to us clearly said that the showbiz was to distract the people from something much more pertinent, Anandabazar patrika had a very short 250 words or so, by someone and I apologize for not being able to recall the name of the author, calling the bluff and hinting that what if the prediction of IMD was wrong this time. You know, when they predicted in April 96% of normal rainfall in long time average, we got 48% below normal; now when they are predicting 93% of normal how credible is that? An organization that can't predict today's weather straight, why is it asking the Nation to believe that in August we will get 101% of normal?

Anyways, this report was embedded in an obscure corner, way inside; only weirdos like me must have read it. However, its made to the front page today. But now, the blame is squarely on the government. All through winter and summer, when we were not getting the expected weather conditions, we were joking as to when the public will start blaming the government for not allowing us any rainfall. We were suffering in the heat waves but ours is a rich man's problem.

Sadly, we have all the facts and can plan our lives accordingly. The people who most needed the facts, and spent money on these print media to acquire the information, are left without it and instead directed towards agitating against the administration and continue on with their already miserable lives.

Monday, July 20, 2009

per capita emissions - Convenient?

Due to industrial growth, India's energy consumption and thereby emission and pollution in general is increasing rapidly. However, if you divide the absolute emissions by the population, the emission per capita is insignificant, compared to the rest of the world.

Anyone who is following the media already knows what our Minister of Environment and Forests Jayaram Ramesh's argument was. What got left out in the Indian media is that Secretary Clinton actually questioned our rationale for dividing by 1 billion. Ours is a loosing argument because the discussion is being initiated by the industrialized. Retrograde action prompted by the developed I guess is a fundamental characteristic of the developing.

Here's the absolute emissions per country. I would think there's more recent data somewhere out there but the trend is clear. I guess the question is whether a country's size is described by its population or land area and thus, is the environment being looked at only from the perspective of the human beings or the planet as a whole.

We therefore find the US Secretary of State pushing India towards indigenous green technology development and perhaps science and technology in general while India seems more concerned that the world may start confusing us as a developed industrialized nation. Why can't I find the MoE&F urging us to develop the necessary technologies? Even the TERI report last December, that I thought reflected a similar progressive impetus for India, I now find have been maligned. Lets ask, for starters, the Indian corporate houses that build temples to legitemize their earnings instead upgrade our existing electrical grid. Why are we investing into developing post graduate teaching programs in nanoscience and nanotechnology? Who will teach What and to Who and Why? I guess Steven Chu needs to make a visit next?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Today, I found three netizens who have talked about open-source research before me!

J-C B is in Philadelphia, RR in Vancouver and MT in Sydney; I have linked their relevant sites. Just to keep things straight, I googled for science blogs and found J-C B's Nature precedings ppt which led me to the others. Tanmoy exposed me to the origin and development of open source publishing in particle physics and helped me wrap my head around what it would take to get materials science into open access; part of his work in the open domain, elevates the term hobby to new heights.

Recently, in an attempt to find co-investigators, I explained to a friend that open source development in SW has been immensely useful and therefore successful, while the only good example of open-source publishing was in the field of high-energy physics and in every other field there's too much friction. So how about open source research? Publishing could then become redundant. I find that MT has already formalized this argument here. RR has even addressed the issue of getting scooped. I would like to add that if we remember the fundamental purpose, the term scooped becomes irrelevant.

The intense competition in my field of experimental research will become evident from a little digging into the lone citation to my last paper published earlier this year. Which, I like; it keeps the adrenalin constantly above basal levels and drives me to perform. It also helped eliminate my other choices in open access research topics :-) and got me started with developing this idea of trying to link information processing to stress at subconscious levels, in terms of molecules.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Who trains our graduate students?

Over the weekend, a comparison of our (it seems only eastern India) construction workers and those at other (better places) came up in a social conversation. The observation is really common place- the slope of the flooring is messed up, so that water is flowing in the 'wrong' direction and leaving the place muddy. I call it a common experience because I had some construction work done in our place over the winter and had to literally tell, what I had assumed would be the 'experts' how to go about fixing things.

It was a very uneasy experience. I used to start every morning, unable to tell them anything because I was assuming that they knew the tools of the trade much better than me but by mid day, I would end up an active participant of the work. In Calcutta people will often describe this as that these people are in a constant lookout to cheat you and unless you are attentive at what they are doing they'll do a sloppy job and cheat you. But what if they are incapable of doing a better job? What if they are actually doing the best they can and our input is actually necessary.
The construction workers, or for that matter any worker, here, are not trained/skilled personnel. Farmers, come and do building construction in he city and similarly in other trades. Now do we get, why labor is cheap out here?

A trained construction worker, will not only be able to read engineering drawings but will also be able to identify the best possible solution to a problem and so will be conversant with the tool set and also the market, whats available and whats not. And, inevitably, they will come up with a better solution to your problem than you can; so that you get used to the habit of just stating your problem and a solution delivered and eventually you'll be ashamed even to start speaking about a probable solution. This last aspect will arise only when you stop keeping up with the market and therefore the people you are hiring for help is actually driving you towards staying on top of things-progress.

To get to a slightly more technical perspective, some of our scanning probe microscopy instruments that allow us to look at atoms, need to be vibrationally isolated for obvious reasons. They need other environmental noise control too, but how do you feel about constructing a room, specifically to provide this vibrational isolation, without ever being able to measure the actual vibration spectrum? While lecturing (while the instrument is still in its crates) about the scanning probe method you remember to point out that environmental vibration is a source of noise in your data. Then you show them the instrument and let them handle it and they become curious as to how such a large instrument is vibrationally isolated and then you tell them that it wasn't really done very scientifically. The engineer was able to estimate the ground vibration for that site, from the size of the building. And, the engineer was also the person who provided a solution and executed it.

Then, who are the graduate students of eastern India learning from?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Polluter Pays?

Turns out we have managed to exceed the critical tropospheric ozone levels over our agricultural belt. We generate ozone in this lower atmosphere by our industrial and transport emissions-an Urban problem? Well its supposed to affect crop yields, threateningly, although it might really be fun to figure out that data. [edits on July31,2009: I find some reliable data here] How about a little Asthma for rural India? Then you take your harmless corticosteroids and kill your hippocampal neurons. By the time we start feeling the effect we will probably figure out how the US had tackled this problem, or, did they?

Here, you can visualize the global ozone column(from the ground to the top of the atmosphere) in near real time (within 3h of actual observation). The data is collected by spectrometers on a satellite launched by the European Space Agency. At this NASA site you'll find some more nice images of tropospheric ozone.

Our industrial and transport emissions are nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and these get converted into ozone in the atmosphere in the presence of sunlight. Lightning will also help. Incidentally, we had a very intense and frequent lightning period during the end of summer in Kolkata. These ozone precursors can also be tracked to determine intercontinental pollution spread.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The sickness of not knowing, part 4

E. Ron de Kloet and co authors have reviewed and summarized the biochemistry of stress in a Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2005. doi: 10.1038/nrn1683

The paper doesn't seem to be available for free on the internet. What this paper describes is the process involving hormones, genes and organs that gets triggered in response to stress. Sapolsky and co authors have reviewed the role of glucocorticoids in stress response. [doi: 0163-769X/00/$03.00/0]

Here's my understanding of whats happening.
Homeostasis is the technical term describing the equilibrium I was talking about earlier, in the scale of a cell. It is regulated by the pituitary gland in the brain. Vasopressin, oxytocin and a whole bunch of other hormones are stored in the pituitary gland and are involved in this homeostasis process. Out of these, oxytocin controls the negative effects of cortisol on the hypothalamus; estrogen amplifies its effect in women while male hormones kill the effects of oxytocin. So, just to clarify, the adrenal glands on the kidneys secrete adrenaline and glucocorticoid(GC) hormones, mainly cortisol; adrenalin combats mild stress response but severe stress is countered by GC ( in a very simplistic description of the biochemical process); both or only GC damages the hypothalamus cells. The interesting feature is that, these renal glands secrete something that works in the brain, yet the glands sit on the kidneys! By the way, the typical manifestation of GC activity on your brain is when you start shaking/ are basically killing hypothalamus cells. Vasopressin, it turns out regulates water in our body through the kidney. This constitutes the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis regulates a bunch of functions including our stress response, energy management, immune system and the digestive system.

This area can rapidly become extremely complicated if I'm not careful. One term for example sounds very interesting and I didn't pay attention to earlier, is neuroendocrine neurons. These are basically endocrine glands, except they are cells(neurons) that respond to neural stimuli. The hypothalamus has a lot of these. Other relevant neuroscience jargon are plasticity and the limbic system. Plasticity describes the capability of the adult brain to learn from experience and the limbic system is the part of the brain that differentiates us from other animals.

Also, in the literature stress is distinguished from stimulation. For example, excessive GC like I mentioned above is harmful and forms the upper threshold, while concentrations slightly higher than the basal levels are stimulatory and helps us learn stuff. So, in response to a severe stressor, enhanced GC action is triggered; but the physiological functions are supposed to recover over time and when that is not allowed, GC actions starts becoming pathological. Whats not clear to me yet is whether in response to a severe stressor, GC concentration is increased or does it just act faster or for a longer period or perhaps a feedback controlled combination of all these. It is interesting to note that Sapolsky points out the necessity of understanding the ethological perspective of stressors as percieved by the subject.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Stuff I couldn't find in Google

To setup an experiment we have to import either instruments or components from abroad, very often from the US. The Indian distributors will not stock these items because they will have to pay a 35% excise duty, whereas if we import, being Governmental organizations, we pay 9.36%; the price of buying something from the distributor's stock is typically three times that of importing directly. However, when we import, FedEx and UPS carries the packages over international borders and then we have freight forwarders moving packages between factories and ports both internationally and within India. In my last three experiences, twice with FedEx and once with UPS, the packages sat at the port of entry for a month and then another month in Kolkata, after which we actually paid several thousands of rupees for the space and time where they were hatching eggs in the custody of these extremely efficient courier services and snatched the boxes off their hands, literally. It will actually feel like you are being blackmailed with something that you payed to buy. I tried arguing with them that they were thus interfering with my research plans and in another occasion that they should waive their shipping fees; the folks can't comprehend these concerns; while responding they just overlook these statements.

I have found out that this is generic in India. Private organizations it seems do not face this problem. They have absolutely no problem importing stuff, like in the order of containers, not these meager cardboard boxes. The reason, everyone seems to know but will never officially acknowledge, is that they have an advanced, human lubrication mechanism in place. As intriguing as this topic is, I wish to rather highlight how this delay that I described earlier would interfere with experimental research. btw, before shipping, there's an ordering process which involves obtaining hard copy quotations with accurate terms and conditions and then there's a sending payment process.

Also, in India it seems like people are hired first, then they are provided the money that they will spend, at the end of the purchasing process described above, boxes and for some lucky folks huge crates will get manually downloaded from trucks on the passageways ( I haven't seen any fork lifts yet, except in the shipyard) and then rooms will be constructed to accommodate these boxes. Thus a laboratory is democratically formed.

India has a large population of highly educated eligible folks and therefore all selection procedures are very formal and detailed. For example, the requirement for an Assistant Prof. position in my insti is PhD plus four years of postdoc. Its not like one random person came up with this rule for a specific post. It is actually decided by a group of India's most eminent and successful scientists. PhD plus 4 years of PostDoc! I knew a guy, who got his PhD in Chemistry from India, went to the US for postdoc-ing, did eight years of it; not because he wanted to , but because he couldn't get a job and then finally did a one year CS course and got a job in a software company. Obviously a very modern and ambitious character who didn't settle down for any arbit ill-paid job. The point being, no one does four years of post doc anymore. We, in our generation, somehow value time. We will continue postdoc-ing only when we do not find a suitable position. In very rare cases, folks will settle for two terms (2+2) but in different areas so that one actually develops some new capabilities (these are the dorks btw); but even then the second term position reflects the added experience from the first term. Its not like postdoc-ing in India has any competitive advantage.

Typically, a postdoc's life in a foreign country is not exactly tourism. A scientific, creative and innovative mind or what's left of it thus gets fatigued. As if, the 10th grade, the 12 th grade, BSc, MSc and then the national competitive exams were not enough; survive through a 5-7 year PhD program and then perform in a 4 yr foreign postdoc appointment; you are now eligible to become an Asst prof in India. This screening process I would think has to be counter productive for a Nation's work force building. But once again, this could be the topic of another nightout. Right now, what I tried to emphasize was that, anyone who survives this excruciating torture is Exceptional. What does India do with these exceptional human beings then? Remember that human beings develop survival skills and one of the first things, I think someone who tries to perform outside India learns, is to value time. Thus every experimental problem that such an exceptional scientist likes, has a shelf life, precisely because many around the world care about it. Science is the most interesting game in the world because you play it against the most intelligent crowd on this planet (with the right attitude, its not as cocky as it sounds).

Now go back to the beginning of this narration...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Machines-the urge to control time

From the standpoint of a person who is paying out to receive a service [INR 4718 million was paid out as bribes by rural households in 12 states, in one year] its almost always to make something happen quicker. So, things happen slower than is convenient (the provider) and services are required to be quicker (the consumer). These can sometimes be related. But to simplify things lets consider the situation at a very early stage of development of this problem, when the interdependence was rare. So, the first person who wanted to get a service out of turn and when the service provider was still not accustomed to the idea that the consumer would payup. Why did the person want the service out of turn?

This time factor, attempting or desiring to get things done or even requiring to get things done quicker than it normally would take is inherent in what we term growth in the artificial world. In the natural living world, growth is a function of time; but the function is programmed in the DNA, so that we can't quite change it within our lifetimes. However, in the world we perform in, to demonstrate growth we have two avenues. One, achieve/create more than we start with without tampering with the natural timescale of events. The term achieve is relative. If someone has already done what I want to do, I achieve nothing that is socially perceptible. Therefore, the second route is to tamper with the timescale and achieve something that has already been done, but quicker, hence implying the possibility of being able to achieve a net more within our equivalent lifetimes.

A citizen, who is against paying up for services is also, I feel, against recognizing the value of time in the sense I just described. For example, the answer to the question, what is the difference between the life of a eighteen year and a thirty eight year old in the Indian society, is not time! But when we try to control time do we destroy our social structure? Obviously not always, but perhaps when you try to accommodate 16% of the world population in 2.4% of the world's land area? Curiously, breeding was once upon a time the manifestation of prosperity. Now, very often human beings are born, here, to keep the family unit intact.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The PTTI issue in West Bengal

I had trouble disseminating the PTTI issue based on current media reports. So here's what I found so far on the web. Everything I'm quoting from the mentioned sources are in italics.

The Background. The National Council for Teacher Education was appointed in 1995 with responsibilities which are pretty intuitive and jurisdiction on all states except J&K.
The West Bengal Education Act of 1973, however vests responsibilities that overlap with those of NCTE, on the West Bengal Board of Primary Education.[Source] I also find reference to a Bengal(Rural) Primary Education Act of 1930 here. I think the reference to the eligibility of students as being higher secondary qualified versus secondary qualified as the source of the conflict is someone's analysis and synthesis of these State and Central legislatures and the exclusivity of power issue.

The Conflict. (In his letter Bhattacharjee pointed out that) the training of primary teachers were conducted under Primary Education Act and Rules. While the NCTE Act was promulgated in 1995, the training institutes of the state ran as usual.[Source]

The Fallout. Stating that the high court order had put the future of 75,000 trained candidates in jeopardy, it said nearly 40,000 of them were already engaged as primary teachers with 20,000 waiting for their selection as primary teachers and 15,000 yet to receive their certificates even after completing the course.

The state government had also requested HRD minister Arjun Singh to bring an appropriate legislation in validating the course upto 2005-06, the letter (CM's) said.
Arjun Singh was the HRD minister from June 1991 to Dec 1994. The NCTE Act was formulated in 1993 and enacted in 1995.

The Trigger. The Calcutta High Court on Wednesday (October 1, 2008) declared 122 Primary Teachers’ Training Institutes (PTTIs) in the state (out of 138) illegal since these were not recognised by the National Council for Teachers Education (NCTE).
A Division Bench of Chief Justice S S Nijjar and Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose said these institutes should have sought recognition from the NCTE in accordance with the law.
The Bench also directed the institutes to return the money taken from the applicants for admission to the 2005-06 session. The NCTE had issued a circular in 2006 terming the institutes invalid, as they had not sought recognition from it. Subsequently, a Division Bench of the High Court passed an order restraining the admissions and the PTTIs could not admit students after 2006.
The Wednesday’s ruling came during the hearing of a PIL filed in 2007 by Tulshi Bakshi, a resident of Kolkata. [Source]
The Bottomline. Here's a detailed account of a Kolkata High Court proceeding, which, if I understand correctly, states that the Tulshi Bakshi PIL precedes this one. There's a pretty detailed discussion on the significance of use of commas, semicolones and full stops in this document! The pertinent information here is that the NCTE overrides State legislature. About 15000 colleges are facing the same fate Nationally. The litigations have occured throughout India and the judgment is all pretty consistent.

So what the heck happened between 1995-2005?

At the end of it all, ofcourse I do not understand why teachers need to be trained or rather, how people can just be trained into becoming teachers and why someone who is deciding to give up academics/education/learning after the twelfth grade should be selected to train/teach humans at an age when we learn the fastest. Infact why is anyone being allowed to give up education after the twelfh grade? Why would the government promote it? Why isn't part of my responsibility/job description to go and explain to fifth graders what I do in the lab?

Monday, June 8, 2009

The sickness of not knowing, part 3

Looks like, the stress due to un-processed information has been treated so far as a subset of stress due to processed information.

Came across a review of Alex Wright's book Glut in Nature while checking some cross-references (technical), which mentioned that a google search for information overload comes up with millions of results; so had to go and try it; I got about 49000hits in 0.2 sec; anyways, the interesting finding is that Reuters conducted a survey in 1996 and the report is called Dying for Information?

So basically, the relation between information and stress is for real. I need to deal with trying to define un-processed information. The terms un-organized, un-structured and even un-categorized information would probably qualify as un-processed to varying degrees. At least this seems to be what information overload is concerned with; particularly when you are surveying people. I feel, the origin has to be much more subtle. When we leave something un-categorized, there's an absence of a very specific piece of information that we did not seek and this, I feel is the stressor. Anyways, hopefully the thoughts will evolve and become clearer; will try to get hold of a copy of Glut meanwhile. Whats known about the biochemical cycle seems to be much more elusive though. The role of language in processing information also becomes relevant. A large part in the difference between processed and unprocessed info can be estimated by the words that would be used to describe a visual signal for example. So, the conversion of a visual signal into words maybe an interesting biochemical cycle to explore.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The sickness of not knowing, contd.....

Came across a few other pieces of seemingly related stuff on the net, particularly wikipedia; haven't had a chance to cross check with the original sources yet.

Alvin Toffler has used the term Information Overload and might be the person to popularize it. The idea has been around for sometime.
Infact, Steve Beller has linked information overload to stress.

To get an idea of the volume of information we are talking about, I find the How Much Information project site particularly informative.

However, I feel information overload has been concerned with information that has been processed to some extent. So people actually read stuff but fail to comprehend or verify its truth and therefore can't use it, but have to store it and the conflicts arising out of this leads to stress. I think I believe that the effect is much more subtle. If noticing something versus reading something can be distinguished as conscious and subconscious processing, then I feel subconscious processes are capable of initiating the biochemical cycle (hopefully this is known and I'll be able to find a scientific reference to verify); I also don't think that only the subconscious information leads to stress and the conscious mind is the equilibrium state.

By the way, looked up Alvin Toffler because he was quoted by Carolyn W. Meyers in MRS Bulletin vol 31, Jan2006, p5-9 to say that the illiterate of th 21st century are not those who can not read or write but those who can not learn, unlearn and relearn.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The sickness of not knowing

I came across Dan Gilbert's article in the NY Times. It helped me with the title! What I have been pondering for some time now is the more general hypothesis, that un-processed information leads to stress. I'm interested in boiling this down to experimental observables and the task hasn't been easy so far. I thought the biochemistry of stress would be fairly straight forward to come across in a review article or something. Haven't found anything like that yet.

The complication arises because of the way I have been defining the problem. The idea struck me while surfing the net one day in Los Alamos. I was scanning through headlines in Science Daily. Typically that's what I have time for and get to read only one or two full articles. But on that particular day, there were several articles that I needed to read. When scanning headlines, I can guess what's inside and use that to decide how to prioritize my time on the net. I do not always estimate the content correctly but it works for me. But couldn't do that on that day and it bothered me a lot and could recognize clear signs of getting stressed. This is one of the unique advantages of a quiet place like Los Alamos - you can choose to stay so decoupled that perturbations are almost non-existent and then you get to recognize weird things about yourself.
So, I started to consider what was bothering me; my own research was flourishing and was in a state of constant euphoria; started looking at my data and the stress symptoms disappeared. It struck me then that in the few minutes that I spent on that site, trying to rapidly catch up on recent scientific developments, I left a lot of visual information un-processed. I saw and read stuff that I didn't take the time to convert into knowledge.

Every time we read a word, the ionic signal from our eyes must trigger a chemical cycle; this chemical process attains equilibrium when we believe that we have understood something; I would also think that this chemical cascade involves several organs spanning our whole body; but what happens when we leave something before this equilibrium is attained? Not only are we abandoning a chemical reaction halfway through it, we are initiating several other reactions very rapidly, particularly when we are surfing the net; things are different if we were reading a book, I would think. This act of not allowing chemical reactions to attain equilibrium must be chemically toxic; we must have a DNA code to process the end products generated after equilibrium is attained, but the products of incomplete chemical reactions may not be recognized and would therefore be toxic.

This then happens not only for visual signals but for all our senses. Toxicity of sound/noise, I find has been studied experimentally and understood. I found Robert Sapolsky's work (parts that I understood) pretty close to what I want to arrive at. I mean the fact that we suffer from so many stress related diseases is also recognized in this context. But a clear knowledge, perhaps a circular flow-chart (such as seen in the description of biochemical pathways) in terms of molecules has been hard to find. This would be significant because it would unify the pathology of several organs to (un-processed) information.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


The effects of the permanent settlement act it seems, can help understand the attitude of the majority of Indians towards work. Its going to take me some time to construct the whole argument. In this context, I wish to explore the industrial revolution, colonization of India, de-industrialization of India (India contributed 22.6% of world income in 1700 and Europe 23.3% whereas in 1952 India's share fell to 3.8%), a sharp divergence in the income-per-capita between economies since the 1800 and finally, the difference in the popularity of the thoughts of non-achievers for example (in Bengal) Ramakrishna as compared to those contributing to the Bengal renaissance.
Add to this, the impact of creation of wealth and its relationship with innovation.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


If, to perform meant work done towards achieving a predefined objective within a deadline and actually do something better either with the deadline or the end result, then, the group of performers in our society is a minority, globally. For me its still empirical, but can this really be true? Doesn't it mean we are being selected against?

This idea of per capita happiness instead of income, to measure the prosperity of a Nation sort of drives the nail in. Whatever the metric is, will increase.....they say.