Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cost of Idling

Idling is an Indian trait (like prolixity). Or so it was believed, in the old days of the 3% 'Hindu rate of growth'. Given our present rate of growth, such beliefs, at least in the West, have taken a back seat. But here I am talking of cars idling - at traffic lights, at intersections, traffic jams, things that are endemic in most major cities today. And which continues to be a problem. In a fascinating post some time back, Suvrat Kher has done a rough calculation on how much the city of Pune wastes as a result of motorised transport idling for just 2 minutes. Just to shock you into reading the article and his calculations, the total fuel consumed in Pune by idling cars, two wheelers and rickshaws amounts to an incredible 19 thousand litres per day! Emissions of greenhouse gases amount to 45 tonnes/day. This works out to about Rs. 500/- per year per average car owner, wasted on fuel, and taken on a yearly basis, his summary gives 7 million litres of fuel wasted correspondingly adding 16,000 tons of CO_2, 17 tons of PM10, 11 tons of SO_x to the atmosphere. The fuel cost itself is about 340 million rupees. His cost estimates are based on August 2007 prices - you need to multiply by about two and a half to get present day rupee figures. If all vehicles in Pune reduce idling time by just one minute per day we would save about 3.4 million litres of fuel worth about Rs. 17 crore annually! This is equivalent - in terms of fuel saved and CO2 emitted - to removing around 18,500 two wheelers or about 9,300 cars from the roads of Pune. Remember, all this is for just 2 minutes of idling per day for every motorised vehicle. Most of us who drive would find this number absurdly small. One could do this calculation for any of the major cities in India if the data is available. However, though its clear that the numbers are enormous, to get a better feel for the numbers, it would have been better if one could find the percentage of fuel wasted per day based on present day daily consumption. Is there a site which would have this number? Or at least the amount of fuel consumed per day in a given city? A rough and ready calculation assuming I drive for say, 30 minutes a day, would give something like a 7% loss at uniform fuel consumption (for a 2 minute idle). Since fuel consumed during driving is considerably more than while idling, this percentage is probably a slight overestimate, though compensated by the fact that most of us spend more than 2 minutes idling. Do read the post, and more important, switch off at traffic lights and long traffic jams.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Books on Global Warming

Freeman Dyson reviews two books on global warming in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books. The first describes the global-warming problem as an economist sees it and is not concerned with the science of global warming or with the detailed estimation of the damage that it may do. It assumes that the science and the damage are specified, and compares the effectiveness of various policies for the allocation of economic resources in response. The second book is the record of a conference held at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization in 2005. It is edited by Ernesto Zedillo, the head of the Yale Center, who served as president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000 and was chairman of the conference. I am not going to summarise the review here. What I want to discuss briefly, is an issue which Dyson brings up, which is not discussed in either of the books under review. He considers the Keeling graph which shows the fraction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as it varies month by month and year by year. It gives us our firmest and most accurate evidence of effects of human activities on our global environment. When we put together the evidence from the wiggles and the distribution of vegetation over the earth, it turns out that about 8 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by vegetation and returned to the atmosphere every year. This means that the average lifetime of a molecule of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, before it is captured by vegetation and afterward released, is about twelve years. This fact, that the exchange of carbon between atmosphere and vegetation is rapid, is of fundamental importance to the long-range future of global warming. Dyson pins a lot of hope on biotechnology providing mankind with the wherewithal to create more carbon-eating trees. Here is his overview...(in the process he also takes a pot-shot at ethanol, as does Amartya Sen (see my previous post)). At this point I return to the Keeling graph, which demonstrates the strong coupling between atmosphere and plants. The wiggles in the graph show us that every carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere is incorporated in a plant within a time of the order of twelve years. Therefore, if we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" as a low-cost backstop to global warming. The science and technology of genetic engineering are not yet ripe for large-scale use. We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years. Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp. Keeling's wiggles prove that a big fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes within the grasp of biotechnology every decade. If one quarter of the world's forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years. It is likely that biotechnology will dominate our lives and our economic activities during the second half of the twenty-first century, just as computer technology dominated our lives and our economy during the second half of the twentieth. Biotechnology could be a great equalizer, spreading wealth over the world wherever there is land and air and water and sunlight. This has nothing to do with the misguided efforts that are now being made to reduce carbon emissions by growing corn and converting it into ethanol fuel. The ethanol program fails to reduce emissions and incidentally hurts poor people all over the world by raising the price of food. After we have mastered biotechnology, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed. In a world economy based on biotechnology, some low-cost and environmentally benign backstop to carbon emissions is likely to become a reality. Even by Dyson's optimistic estimates, it will be at least 50 years before bio-technology has mastered the technology to produce genetically engineered carbon-eating trees. If present day doomsday scenarios are to be believed, will that not be already too late for our beautiful blue planet? Dyson's claim of carbon-eating trees, have been debunked at the Real Climate site, the main point being what I have already discussed above - viz. the time scales involved and whether another 50 years of carbon pollution is something our planet can take, without us doing anything in the intervening period. There is also the important ethical problem of leaving the problems our generation has created for a future generation to handle. What kind of planet are we leaving our children? It's a pity that a top class scientist like Freeman Dyson should fall prey to the usual 'do nothing, its all a lot of hype, global warming is a myth' crowd.

More on Food II

(Do you get the feeling I am getting obsessed with the food issue?) A recent article by Amartya Sen discusses the problem of global food prices and food availability. His sober assessment is that things will eventually get better, but global food production does need to increase, and more important, while part of the contributing factor is indeed accelerating demand from China, India, Vietnam and other growing economies (hey! George Bush almost got it right...), these countries need to do a lot more in making sure that food is equitably distributed between the newly rich and the poor. Increased demand of food from a larger well-to-do class is driving food prices up, leaving the poor to face higher food prices but no greater income. It's no use just blaming the developed countries of the world for all our ills. Sen's favourite example of famine and its causes is the famous Bengal famine of 1943, which he has studied extensively. He gives here some interesting details, which, I at least, was unaware of. The British rulers were determined to prevent urban discontent during the war, so the government bought food in the villages and sold it, heavily subsidized, in the cities, a move that increased rural food prices even further. Low earners in the villages starved. Two million to three million people died in that famine and its aftermath. In other words, it was, at least partially, artificially induced. He also discusses the issue of ethanol from agricultural products. This process contributes little to reducing global warming, while diverting scarce agricultural resources to fuel production. Do read some of the comments to the article. Most of them are very well-informed and its a pleasure to read the discussion (unlike some of the discussions that appear in the national newspapers here in India). There are amusing interludes - one worthy keeps referring to Prof Sen as 'she' and defends the production of ethanol from corn. (He corrects himself later at least about the first goof-up).

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Entertainment -- IPL style

Lights, camera, action! If this sounds more like a Bollywood script start, things were not very different at the IPL match between the Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings, at the Chepauk Stadium on Saturday. My first live i.e on site cricket match was entertainment all the way. Even before the teams had come on to the field, the crowds had started hollering and blowing their trumpets (yes, indeed you could buy these paper/plastic noise making objects I euphemistically call trumpets, just outside the entrance, just as you could get your face painted whatever coloured stripes you wanted, and buy Chennai Super King flags, banners and t-shirts), Sivamani the local Chennai percussionist was drumming away full speed and the stands were full of people waving banners, and generally having a good time. It was carnival time, and everyone was happy. Once the match started, there was a momentary lull. Every time a bowler began his run, a frisson of excitement would pass through the crowd, but each time there was a 4 or a 6 or a wicket getting out, the audience would be up on their feet, roaring and dancing with Sivamani keeping the beat. Sivamani, in fact seemed to think he was the star of the show. He would periodically uproot his drums and other paraphernalia, move around the outer circle and plant them at different points in front of the audience, perform for some time, turn around to the audience to take a bow and move on. Quite a character! Shane Warne's boys posted a daunting target of 211 and while the Dhoni boys tried their best, it was not to be and they lost by 10 runs. But it didn't seem to matter, at least to the spectators. They were having fun, and it was a thrilling match to watch. It's not pleasant to nitpick, but I can't help wondering why it is that we always fall down on infrastructure. In Stand D there was just one small single exit through which some five to six thousand people had to emerge - a situation ripe for a stampede and it's a miracle that it didn't happen. The staircase leading down was pitch dark and we had to light it with our mobile phone lights. Even that wasn't the end of the trial. To get out of the stadium complex, we had to squeeze through a narrow gap between two buildings, and since like good Indians, nobody would give way or wait a second longer than necessary, there was an enormous crowd of people jostling, shoving, pushing trying to squeeze out. Coupled with an uneven pathway with large stone blocks jutting out, and uneven flagstones, all invisible in the dark till you tripped on one, it was truly a nerve-wracking experience to get back out on the road, out of the complex. With so much money being made on this spectacle, don't the organisers feel the need to provide some basic facilities to the public -- after all, it's public patronage of these events which allow such hefty fees to be paid to the cricketers and such large profits to be made. Perhaps I am mistaken. The IPL is meant to make money for the sponsors and the organisers, the public is just the fodder for this enterprise.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Openness -- Chinese style

Reports from the media all over the world are trying to show that there is a new spirit of openness in China after the recent devastating earthquake. Journalists were not prevented from reporting first hand, (some) criticism of the relief effort was allowed (it apparently helped if their reports showed Prime Minister Wen Jiabao actively helping with the relief work), select foreign journalists were allowed in....get the idea? Nicolas Kristof, the Op-Ed columnist of the New York Times who has been following the developments has a report today about this new spirit of openness. The evidence is apparently mixed but one phrase caught my eye -- China’s police announced that they had punished 17 earthquake “rumor-mongers” last week, with penalties of up to 15 days in jail. Jee-Whiz-Bang-Wow! China is really opening up. I am sure by this time next year, we are going to see full-fledged multi party democracy in the Mainland.

Women in Academics

In two parts:
  1. A recent issue of Women, the supplement of the well-known literary fodder of the chattering classes, India Today has suddenly discovered that there are working women outside of Industry, the Corporate Sector, Banking, Modeling and Bollywood -- in other words they have discovered (drum beats please...) ACADEMICS !!! In it are featured six women academics in various fields. They are
    • Kavita Singh, an art historian in JNU
    • Neelima Chitgopekar, a historian at Jesus and Mary College, Delhi
    • Renee Borges, Ecological Sciences, IISc, Bangalore
    • Anita Mehta, physicist from S. N Bose Centre in Kolkata
    • Shireen Moosvi, historian from Aligarh Muslim University
    • Nandini Sundar, Sociologist from Delhi School of Economics.
    Two of these women have figured recently in this blog -- Anita Mehta for her article on Indian science, and Nandini Sundar for her article on the Naxal movement. Of course, it wouldn't be India Today if they got everything right -- Kavita Singh has aged 13 years just by dint of appearing in the magazine, and Anita Mehta's affiliation appears as S. N. Bose College instead of S. N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences.
  2. The Boston Globe reports in a recent article about two new studies that try to answer the question why there are not more women in science and engineering. The bottom line? They just aren't interested.. These two new studies by economists and social scientists have reached a perhaps startling conclusion: an important part of the explanation for the gender gap, they are finding, are the preferences of women themselves. When it comes to certain math- and science-related jobs, substantial numbers of women - highly qualified for the work - stay out of those careers because they would simply rather do something else. Of course they give the usual disclaimers -- that these findings involve averages and do not apply to all women or men; indeed, there is wide variety within each gender. The researchers are not suggesting that sexism and cultural pressures on women don't play a role, and they don't yet know why women choose the way they do. One forthcoming paper in the Harvard Business Review, for instance, found that women often leave technical jobs because of rampant sexism in the workplace. Some of the conclusions may sound like stereotypes, but as one of the investigators says, there is a germ of truth in these stereotypes. There is also no question that the findings are quite controversial and it is important to understand the modalities used in the survey. Clearly, these studies are based on a survey of the American work force and the issues in India would presumably be substantially different since science doesn't seem to have the opprobrium attached to it, that it seems to have in the U. S. more and more. The Indian National Science Academy (INSA) published a report on Indian women's access to and retention in science in 2005 which would be more relevant perhaps, to the Indian context. However the issues being discussed in these reports are quite different and therefore are not really comparable. The former discusses why more women do not choose a scientific or technical career. The latter (INSA report) discusses the fate of those who have already made the choice to go into science and technology. I don't think there is any study of the former kind in the Indian context.
Update: A blistering attack on this study by Kathy G (through Nanopolitan) quoting the Snake Goddess. Take a look.

New Blog

My friends from Thekambattu about whom I wrote sometime back here have started their own blog. I didn't identify the place as Thekambattu because I wasn't sure they would want me to, but now that they are 'visible', do visit.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More on Food

After the remarks on Indian food consumption by President Bush which I discussed in an earlier post, the issue seems to be here to stay. The Indians got into the act, asking Americans to eat less - of course only lower level flunkies in the Government were involved in this, in keeping with our new-found closeness to the US. The same article however quoted United Nations sources to claim that Americans consume 3770 calories per person, per day compared to 2440 calories for Indians. These numbers beggars belief -- its unlikely, if not impossible, that American food consumption is a mere one and a half times that of an average Indian. Given India's large swathes of poverty stricken regions, the average, one would imagine, could easily be about a tenth of the American number or thereabouts. Yet another article on Sunday, May 18th, tells us that Americans waste 27% of food available for consumption - that's about a pound of food per American per day. Some of the numbers in the article are truly staggering -- in 1997, in one of the few studies of food waste, the Department of Agriculture estimated that two years before, 96.4 billion pounds of the 356 billion pounds of edible food in the United States was never eaten; a more recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year, which is about 12 percent of the total waste stream...well, you get the picture. Lest it sound like we are blaming everything on the Americans, the Europeans are no slouch -- Britons toss away a third of the food they purchase, including more than four million whole apples, 1.2 million sausages and 2.8 million tomatoes (wonder how they tallied up these numbers!). In Sweden, families with small children threw out about a quarter of the food they bought, a recent study there found. Of course none of this is new. It so happens that rising food prices all over the world have dented the comfort zone of even the developed world and high food prices, coupled with high gasoline prices have begun to hurt. According to a Department of Agriculture estimate recovering just 5 percent of the food that is wasted could feed four million people a day; recovering 25 percent would feed 20 million people. Small numbers perhaps, when compared with the number of destitute and hungry people in the world, but not insignificant. There is now even a blog which discusses waste issues. However, none of the tips there sound too innovative, at least to Indians. Even in the 21st century, where everyone is rushing to catch up with the prosperous West and emulate their habits, I suspect food wastage is not a serious issue in India at least in homes. (Instead we probably lose vast quantities of grain which just rot in the godowns of the FCI). For this we need to thank generations of parents growing up in the spartan environment of an earlier age, who always brought up their children not to waste food and not leave any uneaten food on one's plate. I would like to hope that this attitude has percolated into the psyche of most Indians.


We have a friend who voluntarily took the decision to move to a village near Salem, (Tamil Nadu, India) where he lives with his wife and two sons. When I first visited him some years ago, it was a classic rural setting - no running water, no electricity, though he had just moved from a hut to a brick house he had built. I haven't been back (yet) but friends who visit them regularly tell me that there is running water, electricity, mod-cons like a washing machine, and guess what, a computer connected to the net via his WLL mobile! Uncannily, I have occasionally chatted with him over gmail from a remote village in France (to a remote village in Tamil Nadu!!). What does all this have to do with Kombucha? Because of his connection to the net he is frequently well-informed about many matters (like the Gautam Sen blog I mentioned in an earlier post), and it is from him that I found out about Kombucha. Kombucha is a tea or tisane that has been fermented using a macroscopic solid mass of microorganisms called a "kombucha colony," usually consisting principally of Acetobacter-species and yeast cultures. This has suddenly gained a lot of popularity and has been mentioned in TV shows and plugged by celebrities. It is, not surprisingly for a new exotic product, believed to have therapeutic properties. Making it is not difficult once the culture or zoological mat has been procured. And of course, now that you have heard of it, where else would you get more information on this than Wikipedia whence I gleaned some of the details.

Monday, May 19, 2008

R for Rahul

If you type a word or phrase in the firefox URL box (not in the Google search box) it tries, through Google, to take you to the best possible match with that word or phrase. While typing the URL for my blog, I accidentally hit the enter key after typing rahul and it promptly took me to the Wikipedia entry for Rahul (is there anything for which Wikipedia does not have an entry?) -- here is what it says.... Rahul, a popular male name in India, has a variety of meanings. The earliest meaning found in the Upanishads is "conqueror of all miseries." Later use of the word is attributed to the Buddha, who named his son Rahul as he felt that family ties could be an obstacle in the path to renunciation and nirvana. Most Rahuls belong to the Hindu community. Some Dictionaries also suggest the meaning of Rahul as someone who is "Capable in all works" or "Efficient". Rahul in Sanskrit means "Efficient" The earliest recorded use of the word Rahul is found in the Mundaka Upanishad, wherein the word is used as a synonym for the moon. Conqueror of all Miseries, Capable in all works...oh well, I knew it all along :-) :-) Alas I don't figure in the list of famous Rahul's :-( :-(

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Some thoughts about Binayak Sen

Much has been written about Binayak Sen's incarceration, most recently by Harsh Mander in today's Hindu. I know next to nothing about the case and a superficial trawling of the net has produced little more than what has already been reported. In general my sympathies lie with those who have been unfairly found to be at the wrong end of the full majesty of the law (and frequently the majesty is found to be without clothes). In this respect however, there are a couple of facts that I couldn't help noticing. Even assuming that the Chattisgarh High Court has a partisan view of the matter, why is it that the Supreme Court of India has seen fit to reject his bail application? Assuming that the Supreme Court is not equally partisan (after all, in recent times, the highest court of the land has seen fit to overturn or put a stay on numerous decisions of the Government) is there something more to this case than meets the eye? Secondly, in the list of Nobel Laureates who have signed the petition to free him, a conspicuous missing name is that of Amartya Sen. For someone who has always been at the forefront in the defense of democratic values, his absence from the list of signatories is indeed odd. (Curiously, there are a couple of well known physicists in the list -- Cohen-Tannoudji and Charles Townes - I wonder how much they really know of this case). The comrades are, of course, mostly absent from the list of those calling for Dr Sen's release (unless one counts an editorial in The Hindu asking that he be released). This is not surprising considering that they are fighting a bitter battle with the Naxalites in Nandigram and elsewhere and there is clearly no love lost between the 'M' and the 'M-L' . I would appreciate any information or links to information that people might give, which will cast some more light on this issue, beyond what the press and internet (at least superficially) have to offer. However, whatever be his transgressions, there seems no justification for his incarceration for 10 years and all reasonable minded people should agitate against it. For some differing perspectives, look at Gyanoprobha This is a blog run by Gautam Sen, brother of Binayak Sen. It is necessarily a one sided view of the issue but has some pertinent viewpoints with which it is possible to agree. It also has links to differing views which is refreshing. Another article by Dr. Nandini Sundar, Professor of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, blames the Government, Salwa Judum as well as the Naxalites for the uncontrolled violence throughout the state. As she says How does blowing up policemen, shooting at a Collector, attacking camps and destroying schools and transformers, lead to any change in the system?. More recently, I would say, how does attacking innocent train passengers and killing the driver help in furthering the cause of the adivasis, in whose name the Naxals seem to speak. Aside: Leaving out Kashmir, an interesting fact which appears to be true is that Naxal violence has killed more people in India than Islamic terrorism. Frequently Naxal massacres and raids on villages number in the hundreds, compared to numbers in the tens in the case of Islamic terrorism related killings. Are there any sites which give comparative figures? The Naxals also seem better at PR -- many in the intelligentsia think that their cause (and hence their large-scale killing of innocents in their many raids) is more just than that of say, the jehadi terrorists.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Times of Chennai

When the Times of India (TOI) started a Chennai edition, we subscribed to it, assuming that it would provide us with some comic relief from the ponderous and stodgy People's Daily of Chennai (PDC) aka The Hindu articles and communist propaganda. In other words, it would tell us who is doing what and to whom. However the Chennai TOI has come as a pleasant surprise. It's not only chock full of news right from the first page, there is nary a nubile nymphet to be seen nor a fluffy article about Angelina Jolie's 15th adopted kid and her pet cat. The news coverage is actually quite impressive including a few science (occasionally pseudo science but that's expected in any paper) articles in the Trends section. Of course almost all the foreign articles are sourced from agencies (expect the occasional tripe from Chidanand Rajghatta) but then it's better than having one's own reporters providing news with a tilt as in the PDC. As a compendium of news from different sources, it's adequate. Even the pictures near the masthead which usually used to be of some beauty queen or equivalent, now carry pictures of Amar Singh or M. Karunanidhi (called familiarly Karuna by the newspaper, a serious case of lese majeste if ever there was one). And as good old Wodehouse may have said, only if the other contestants were Sir Watkyn Bassett, Roderick Spode and Oofy Prosser, would these worthies ever have a chance of winning a beauty contest. Of course there is fluff but it's been banished to a pull out Chennai Times but it's pretty dull -- one can only get so interested in the antics of Namitha or Asin and Kamal Hasan. So the question is - what is the reason for this barren landscape -- is it because
  • The TOI is trying to be a serious pretender to the PDC throne
  • There really is very little so called Page 3 happenings in the city compared to Delhi and Mumbai.
Something tells me it's the latter. Who pray are our equivalents of Shobhaa De and Parameshwar Godrej?

Jaipur Blasts

The tragic blasts inside the walled city of Jaipur has brought out the worst yet again in our private TV channels. A whole lot of talking heads have emerged out of the woodwork, everyone from Defense Analysts (how does one become a DA - is there a Bachelor's or Master's Degree for it 'BDA' or 'MDA'??), Anti Terror experts (again, perhaps with BAT degrees no doubt), out of work diplomats and the usual hawks from various Delhi 'think tanks'. NDTV had a mind numbingly boring discussion session at the Narain Niwas hotel in Jaipur where politicians of every hue, bureaucrats (mostly retired), intellectuals (what DD and AIR used to at one time call 'Buddhi Jeevi') providing the Government advice on how to prevent such attacks in the future. As expected the BJP MPs blamed the Central Govt. for poor intelligence and being soft on terror, the Congress MPs blamed the BJP state Government and the rest blamed everyone else. No content, no insight, no nuance, absolutely nothing. Times Now with Arnab Goswami lined up an impressive list of experts - Defense Analysts (again!!) both from India and Pakistan, a former head of ISI in Pakistan, G. Parthasarathy, former Indian ambassador in Pakistan, BJP MP Rudy all talking simultaneously and at cross purposes, but not for long since Arnab as usual did most of the talking. The nadir was of course plumbed by Headlines Today/Aaj Tak where an almost hysterical, breathless and over excited reporter kept showing a video that had been sent to the channel by email, purportedly showing the cycle with a blue bag strapped to the carrier. This was shown interminably while the reporter droned on about the email address and how it was sent immediately to the Intelligence Agencies (because they are a Responsible Channel) forgetting that an email address can be trivially spoofed. Aaj Tak decided there was no need to show anything else, this in their opinion being a scoop. At some point, he even got confused and said the terrorists had sent it only to them because (yes, you guessed it) they are a Responsible Channel. (This evening, NDTV gleefully reported that the video that was apparently sent to various channels has turned out to be a hoax, whatever that means since in any case the video had very little content). And so it goes. Not once did I see a balanced, nuanced, serious discussion of this issue. Almost makes you want to go back to the days of those stodgy discussions held on Doordarshan.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Knock, knock...

When I started this blog about a month and a half back, little did I realise the amount of effort one needs to put in to keep it active and interesting so that it continues to attract those eye-balls! (Is there an equivalent of a TRP rating for a blog?). One has to fold this time in along with the time one spends (or expected to spend ;-) )doing one 'real' work and it all adds up. Additionally I have well meaning friends with their own blogs who knock on my window (metaphorically mercifully since they live in a different city) asking me to wake up and keep the blog alive. As a result, as Calvin would say, 'The days are just packed!'. So here is something on Symbolic Manipulation Packages that I have anyway been meaning to write about for some time, entitled 'Socialist' Software - it has a bit of nostalgia associated with it which I hope you will forgive.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

'Socialist' Software

One of the dangers of getting old(er) is a marked propensity to talk of the (usually) non-existent 'good old days'. In this post I am not going to talk of the good old days (nor am I going to tell you my age ;-) ) but of a good old piece of software called MACSYMA. MACSYMA was developed at MIT in the late sixties and was the first such attempt to have a program to do symbolic computations. MACSYMA was legendary in its day, not only for being a pioneer in its field but also because of the vastly different types of symbolic manipulations it could do (for its time). It was a mammoth package written in LISP and was made freely available to anyone who could dial into MIT to use it. (It was followed by other software like REDUCE which were however not free). In the early 1980s when I started using MACSYMA for my thesis, I found it indispensable. I would log into the MIT computer at night (because of lower charges) using an acoustic coupler and the phone handset. MACSYMA helped me do many of the painful infra red divergent integrals that are ubiquitous in QCD (my field of research), regulate them, cancel divergences and get finite answers. For its time it already knew dilogarithms (and in fact, polylogarithm) and that was a god-send. It even had a preliminary High Energy Physics package for doing loop integrals and traces of gamma matrices written by Terrano and Wolfram, one of whom (no prizes for guessing who) was intimately involved in MACSYMA development. The MACSYMA license was eventually transferred to SYMBOLICS who did a very poor job of marketing it. From 1998, the MACSYMA source code under the avatar of MAXIMA (to avoid copyright problems) was made freely available under GNU Public License by William Schelter who maintained it till his death in 2001. Since then a band of MAXIMA enthusiasts has kept MAXIMA alive, though it had long ago lost its preeminent position in the world of Symbolic Manipulation Software. Today its place as been usurped by MATHEMATICA (among others like MAPLE, MATLAB etc.) - a mammoth enterprise of Wolfram Research, Inc consisting of armies of programmers creating newer and more and more powerful modules to address more and more sophisticated problems. Frequently these modules have bugs and they are promptly addressed in the next release of MATHEMATICA which users are then expected to buy. As a result of its virtual monopoly in the marketplace, most people including in my field of HEP, write extremely sophisticated programs using MATHEMATICA programming language as the base, to do calculations that would be impossible to do by hand. However the price one pays for this is astronomical. The very reason for this article is that recently we decided to upgrade MATHEMATICA to version 6 with 10 users (from MATHEMATICA 5 with 5 users) and the cost came to more than Three Hundred and Fifty Thousand rupees. (And this for an upgrade!) This all but puts it out of reach not only of individuals but also poorly funded institutes and universities. I have heard this complaint not only in India but also many organisations in Europe and the USA. MATHEMATICA today is a money-making machine with little if any academic ethos attached to it. Stephen Wolfram's inspiration for MATHEMATICA however clearly originated in MACSYMA in which he was one of the earlier developers. Given the level of development, there is no way for MAXIMA to compete with MATHEMATICA is this respect. Clearly a time has passed when publicly funded software development was expected to cater to the needs of the community, irrespective of its funding status. Of course there still is a lot of free software out there -- FORM, Psilab, and so on but almost all of it is for very specialised purposes, just as another free software SCHOONSHIP (a contemporary of MACSYMA) was for doing those horrendously difficult Supergravity calculations. And the ideology of free software lives on in GPL and the whole Linux movement. MACSYMA (or present day MAXIMA) is now part of the Debian package and the MAXIMA site has links not only to the source code and binaries but also quick start examples that will set you on your way. I still find MAXIMA useful for doing integrals, products, differential equations, and matrix manipulations which would take too long by hand and I urge anyone reading this to try his/her hand at it. Be warned though, it doesn't have all the bells and whistles and colours that one has got so used to in the mathematica interface. MACSYMA lives on, but only in the world of some die-hard old timers who will not let it die. I would like to end with two simple exercises that show up the some fundamental differences between the two. There are many more but this will suffice. I do two integrals in both MAXIMA and MATHEMATICA -- the responses are illuminating. Here is the MAXIMA output Notice that MAXIMA carefully distinguishes the n = -1 case in the first integral, and in the second case the sign of the constant 'b'. You might argue that in this case trivially sin would go over to sinh when 'b' changes sign, and there is no need for the software to nitpick. However where these are embedded in very large programs, it is important to carefully define the range of the various variables and constants -- you don't want to have to go in and do these changes by hand. MAXIMA forces you to think carefully about your expression before calculating it. In comparison, let us look at the same two integrals in MATHEMATICA MATHEMATICA just produces a standard output (which is technically even wrong for n = -1) . It expects you to worry about special cases. Its the difference between a software created by scientists for scientists and software created for scientists by a bunch of paid programmers.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Indian science...continued

Those interested in this on-going discussion on the state of Indian science, please look at a post and subsequent discussion on Sunil Mukhi's blog. Its good to see people taking a positive attitude to the subject rather than the doom and gloom scenario painted by others.

Monday, May 5, 2008

High Energy Physics and Indian Science

Update<*> My earlier post on T(h)rashing Indian Science has interestingly generated a lively (and civilised) exchange of views. In particular, I would like to quote Sunil Mukhi's comment in relation to high energy physics (since this also happens to be my field and his comment is buried deep inside). He points out that If being a "world-class scientist" is measured against objective standards like being invited to speak at international conferences, having one's work well cited globally, being on editorial boards of leading journals etc, then (from whatever I know) Indian science is doing much better than before. Just to cite the example of TIFR, most particle physicists there failed to qualify on any of the above counts in the 1960's and 70's, but most do qualify on one or more counts today. Further on ... Ashoke represents an incredibly high peak in Indian science, and this is not built on any past glory - to this day he writes dazzling papers literally on a weekly basis. I don't have the space to justify this statement here but please note that he became an FRS two years *before* T.V. Ramakrishnan despite being over a decade younger than him! concluding with I don't want to be seen as saying more than I am. My point is not that Indian science is doing very well on average, merely that we do ourselves the disfavour of forgetting about its successes - something that in no other country would be done so casually. Frankly the glee with which we rush into these "Indian science is dead" discussions strikes me as fratricidal in nature. Of course as some of the other comments have pointed out, what was being discussed was how much Indian science had become text book material . However in the present context, I am not sure this is particularly relevant. What we must strive for is to have vigorous world class research activity at the front lines, not with an eye to posterity wondering whether this or that topic has the potential to make it in a text book of the 22nd century. The other issue that needs attention of course, as Desiraju's article points out, is how to attract more students into pure science courses. These have no easy answers. Having said that, I decided to do some research about High Energy Physics (HEP) in the country just out of curiosity and also, because of this wonderful resource called SPIRES all the data is available at one's fingertips. (Its a pity that no other subject in physics has anything comparable that one could use -- Google scholar is just not complete enough and a bit of hit or miss). I looked at what is called the Top Cite Olympics. (Go to SPIRES --> Playground --> Topcite Olympics). It shows top cited papers per country. (I am aware that these days one is expected to carry out a more nuanced analysis, involving impact factors and H factors but this will do for starters). India ranks 22nd in this list above Brazil and China but below Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Leaving out top cites by virtue of belonging to the usual gigantic HEP experimental collaborations whose discovery papers hit top cites almost instantly, here is the data for India. There is one 1000+ citation, that of Sandip Trivedi et al., (for the now famous KKLT work). For 500+ citations, we have Ashoke Sen (single author), Varun Sahni (with Starobinsky), T. Padmanabhan's review, and Mohammed Sami's work on dark energy (an example of a not so great university affiliation!). China has no 1000+ citations, and no 500+ citations if one leaves out large collaborations. Japan, way above us has 3 1000+ citations of which one is of course the famous Kobayashi Maskawa paper. Taiwan, again ranked above us, makes it by having one paper which is part of the large CTEQ (theory) collaboration. You can take a look at this data here and play around with this yourself. There is also data available for the year 2000. (Incidentally India also has the lowest GDP per capita amongst the top 45 countries listed -- this data is also given!). If a similar picture exists in other branches of physics (and of course other branches of science) it would appear that we are not doing too badly though there is little room for complacency. About work becoming text book material, that is a more difficult call to take. Additionally I think, as I said in the beginning, this does not address the issue of attracting more good students into science. This will involve more concerted effort on our part and I have no ready answers at the moment. <*>Scholars without Borders blog has an analysis of the Indian science situation in the light of the two earlier mentioned articles.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Eat less, lower prices

In yet another unnecessary spat between the US and India, President George Bush and Secretary of State Condi Rice have ruffled Indian feathers by claiming that world food prices are rising because Indians (and Chinese) are eating more. For once, Bush managed to side-step foot-in-mouth disease by explicitly clarifying that he meant it as a compliment, as a sign of better prosperity and therefore betterfor business (also known as the eat better, buy more plasma TVs and iPods Bush economic model). India's notoriously prickly politicians across the board fell over themselves condemning what is really a statement of fact to which there was no need to take exception. However, the Times of India went further and produced more provocative information -- that Americans eat five times as much as Indians. Bolstering this fact was a graphic, from the US Department of Agriculture showing that Americans consume 1046 kilos of grain per capita per year compared to India's measly 178 and China 291. (The USDA site is a mine of information on food and agriculture issues). Let us consider these figures dispassionately. 1046 kilos works out to a little more than 3 kilos of grain per person per day!!! Now, while one may admit that an average American eats more than an average Indian, imagining even a particularly obese American wolfing down 3 kilos of atta/maida/rice per day (and presumably other things as well) is more a vision from a Monty Python movie and strains credulity. Even the average Chinese appears no slouch in the grain department, munching through almost a kilo of grain per day! So what is the explanation, assuming that TOI hasn't goofed. Clearly this is the effective amount of grain consumed and includes the huge amounts of grain consumed by cattle which appears as beef on the dining table of an average American. (In fact the American diet is low in grain and high in animal protein, mainly red meat). The same is true of the mainly non vegetarian diet of the average Chinese. It is a well known fact that grain-fed livestock consumes resources far out of proportion to the yield, accelerates soil erosion and affects world food supply. Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein. This and a lot of other information is available in a Cornell University study - for example broiler chickens (make) the most efficient use of fossil energy, and beef, the least. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle production requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1. (Lamb meat production is nearly as inefficient at 50:1, according to the ecologist's analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Other ratios range from 13:1 for turkey meat and 14:1 for milk protein to 17:1 for pork and 26:1 for eggs.) I can see my vegetarian friends girding their loins, if I may so put it, in having one more argument in their arsenal of reasons for a vegetarian diet. Before leaping to conclusions, let me also point out that in India almost all cattle is grass fed, there is just not enough grain to feed cattle. In fact the same study above points out that with only grass-fed livestock, individual Americans would still get more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of meat and dairy protein and grain-fed livestock farming is a costly and non sustainable way to produce animal protein. He distinguished grain-fed meat production from pasture-raised livestock, calling cattle-grazing a more reasonable use of marginal land. The report in the TOI is just another example of journalistic excess arising from an incomplete understanding of the facts, something that Indian journalists excel in. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have an attention-grabbing headline.

Friday, May 2, 2008

T(h)rashing Indian Science

Two articles within a few days of each other, have appeared, bemoaning the state of Indian science. The first is a vitriolic and polemical attack on Indian science (and scientists) in general, titled Science in the Sick Bay. It talks of the "prototypical Indian science institution (which) looks drab and is dingy, with sanitary facilities that rival those in our railway stations", except, curiously enough, those with "en suite" bathrooms! The other is more detailed, serious and dignified, as befitting the stature of the person writing it -- however it is no less gloomy and despairing, presenting a bleak picture of the direction in which Indian science is moving, Neither quality nor quantity. (Note that the latter is on Nature and may need registration, though not payment). At some future date, when I have managed to put some of my chaotic thoughts on paper, I might have some comments on these articles.

Dalai, Nehru and Chou-en-Lai

I found this remarkable photograph by Homai Vyarawalla on the Scholars without Borders blog site. It shows The Dalai Lama, Nehru and Chou-en-Lai in the same picture taken sometime in the 1950's. In view of some recent events that have been discussed in this blog and elsewhere, it's interesting to see their respective poses. Moving from right to left, Chou-en-Lai clearly looks like he would rather not have anything to do with the other two - raising his hand to shield himself from all the negative Feng-shui emanating from his right. Nehru, indifferent, looks far into the distance as befitting an intellectual who is above such fractious politics. His Holiness the Dalai Lama even at that age (less than 20) has his usual beatific smile on his face. I would like to also use this blog to shamelessly plug the Scholars without Borders site mentioned above. It is almost single-handedly run by my friend and colleague from JNU, R. Ramaswamy (who also kindly gave me permission to use this photograph) and I would urge all academics (and of course others) to visit this bookstore-on-the-net. It's an on-line resource for academic books from India, and, at the moment at least, the only one of its kind in India.