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/trembling....you 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.