Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Off to Paris!!!

I have lived in Europe for 7.5 years now, but never been to Paris before. As a kid, I used to gulp up Alexandre Dumas' novels. Guy de Maupassant has always been one of my favourite short story writers. I was introduced to Science Fiction (although I am not a big fan of the genre) by Jules Verne. I have read Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Gide. All in translation of course. The only place in France I have been to is Strasbourg, where the local dialect is very similar to German (although they usually hate to admit that). But I have never been to Paris. Not that I don't want to, but because I have always been scared of the French language and the way one never knows how to pronounce a word. What to pronounce and what not to.

For example, the "ll" Marseilles is not pronounced as "l", but the ones in Villepin and Gaulle are pronounced.

Of course everybody has told me that Paris is very touristy, and I won't have a problem. In fact I am staying with locals from Couchsurfing and Hospitality Club, the brilliant organizations which will make life so much easier.
Funnily enough, I wasn't nervous when I visited Italy, Spain or Greece.
I even called up my friend Fabien (who is French, but not from Paris) in the morning and had almost an hour's conversation and he trying to convince me that it'll be good fun. I know it will be. I know there are millions of tourists in Paris every year who don't speak any French. I know I'll have my hosts. But I am still nervous!

I'll be in Paris from today evening until the 25th. In between, I'll stay for two days in Tours and visit a few of the famous chateaux of the Loire valley. and I of course plan to make a day trip to Versailles (another place where "ll" is not pronounced!).
I will try to update my travelogue, but I don't know how often I will have access to the internet.

This is a common post for this blog and also my travelogue.


Saturday, June 10, 2006

Blogaddiction and other addictions

I get addicted to different things at different points of my life. Fortunately I don't smoke, don't like alcohol and have no curiousity about drugs, so no harm done to my physical health. Ok, I shouldn't be in a hurry to claim that last last bit... I do wear glasses...

My very first and long-lasting addiction was books, stories.
It was probably introduced to me by my grandmother who used to read to a toddler-me every evening. There used to be a stupid story about a pet hen surprising its kid owner by laying eggs "magic", and I used to love this story. This one had to be read to me every evening apart from another story. I why my grandma didn't tear off her hair in frustration. One of my earliest memories is of throwing a tantrum because she couldn't read to me since we had visitors.
But the main "credit" for my reading addiction goes to my grandfather's cousin who had remained a bachelor and used to dote on us kids. He used to bring us books and read to us very regularly. Nowadays I don't read books all that much, but do read a bit during bus or train journeys.
I have been wearing glasses since I was 10 years old, and I believe my reading addiction is responsible for that.

Once in a while I also get addicted to particular people, that of course usually means that I have developed a crush, or more often that I am in love and cannot have enough of that person. Most often an "addiction" means I overdo it and manage to push them away. But that is a topic for a separate post someday.

Since quite a few years, I have seen myself getting addicted to the internet. And that is certainly not good, as I browse aimlessly when I should be working or doing other important things. This is something I really have to bring in control.

A related addiction that I can sense is in the process of development is reading people's blogs. I have a weird way of doing that. When I like a blog, I often go back to the very first entry and read through all the posts sequentially. Especially if it is a personal blog like a diary, not if it is a news blog. Crazy, isn't it?
I first discovered a blog when I was living in Heidelberg, and I came across Trey's blog. He was a postdoc at my institute (whom I didn't yet know, and had never come across). His blog was mainly about how he and his partner (now husband-- they were married last year thanks to SF mayor Gavin Newsom) had adopted their daughter and he continues to blog about bringing her up and his thoughts about various issues. Soon after discovering the blog, I contacted Trey and walked down a floor to meet him. Later on I met Guy and Emma too. In many ways, theirs is an ideal family for me, and it is nice to keep track of Emma's growing up since we both moved-- I to Vienna and they to San Francisco.

Another parenting blog I had found through Trey's blog was about a former stay-at-home father whose daughter is already a teenager, and his son is about to be one. I guess since both his children read his blog now, he can't be very straightforward any more lest they take offence and so his blog is mostly a reminiscene of stories of when they were younger.

A blog I discovered a couple of years ago through a website was of an American guy who lives in Vienna. I have never met him, although we have had long interesting discussions. What I fascinated me was that many of his inner thought processes and insecurities etc are very much like what used to be me.
From the same website, I recently came across Prashant's blog, and it is interesting to read about another Indian living in Europe (in his case, Paris).

I had also discovered Metroblogging Vienna, a group blog which has interesting news, observations and stories about Vienna, from different perspectives.

While looking browsing through profiles of Couchsurfers in Paris because of my impending visit, I came across Justin's and Sam's blogs. Justin is an American theatre actor living in Paris, and his writing is delightful and fascinating. As I once commented while checking whether he could host me during my visit, if he "is half as good an actor as [he is] a writer, [he] must be very good indeed!" He won't be able to host me during my visit, but I hope to meet him for a drink. Unfortunately he has not been updating his blog since a long long time. Sam is a British kid who has just finished a course in Paris and will be going back to the UK. It is a pity that he will be away during most of my visit to Paris, and so we probably won't be able to meet up.

Recently, since the reservation issue has come up, I have been commenting on other blogs, and going to blogs of people whose comments are interesting, and through their blogs discovering other blogs. A very good blog that discusses various social and other issues is Indianwriting, and although I don't always agree with what she says, it is always a fascinating read. A blog that I am hooked to is now is called Random Thoughts of a Demented Mind, by a bong with his very hilarious of discussing various issues pertaining to India. Other blogs I have bookmarked include that of a gay guy from Bombay, has achieved proficiency in both German and French simultaneously in less than two (?) years, and also a blog in Hindi that I have bookmarked but am yet to read.

On Thursday, while I was supposed to be preparing for my progress report for the next day, I discovered another parenting blog of a professor of Economics, Lisa Giddings, who writes about her life with her partner and their (biologically the latter's) daughter, Maggie and a younger son (I haven't reached his birth yet). I had clicked on this blog from a random list that appears every day from his collection of blogs, but since it was a random list and I had not bookmarked it, I lost it on Friday (and read the whole of another lesbian parenting blog last night), but rediscovered it again today. I like the way she (actually the other one as well) uses pseudonyms and abbreviations for refering to people, like "BioMom" for her partner and the biological mother of their daughter and "FYO" (Four Year Old), the daughter etc. Considering that she blogs quite regularly, I haven't even reached half way yet, but it is a delightful read.

Now how do I get any thing else done, if I really keep track of so many lives every day...


Sunday, June 04, 2006

Reservation in India: a points-based system and alternate viewpoints

I can't help it. Reservation (see my original post on this issue for a background) is probably one of the most talked about issues today in India, and hence this is already my third post on the issue in the 10 posts I have made since I started my blog. Browsing Indian blogs, I came across several interesting articles and ideas. The most interesting among them is from Anshuman Ghosh from Delhi/Hyderabad. He agrees with the need for reservations for weaker sections of the Indian society, but proposes a points-based system that gives preferences to people who really need affirmative action as opposed to someone who has already benefitted from this and should no longer require special consideration.

Quoting from his blog:
The way the Graded Points Based Reservation system is supposed to work is -

1) Extent of reservation will be calculated for each individual - just cause you are from a XYZ caste WONT let you in, as it does today
(This is a point against the present system, and in favour of Graded Points System)

2) If you are from a "backward caste" : you get ___ points.
The number of points you get in this clause will depend on which of the backward caste you are from. Aka, to what extent are you the minority. The idea is that minority is given some credit at least, but thats not the sole criteria.

3) Parents are illiterate : you get ____ points
Graduate parents ? You DONT get points under this clause.

4) You are poor (based on annual income of family etc) : you get ___ points
Parents earn lacs ? Affluent family ? You DONT get any points under this clause.
[1 lac/lakh = 100,000 -A.S.]

5) After the total points are calculated, the amount of concession in marks will also be decided on the basis of points (deficit) you have accrued.
This will also ensure that not all get the same 'help', cause the needy need more.
I really like this idea. If this is coupled with good grass-root level education and opportunities-- schools, good teachers, legal and social encouragement to send children to schools, generous scholarships and fellowships, special coaching if required, etc-- this might get rid of our social inequities in no time. This scheme could also include poor people from upper castes (with appropriate points deducted if necessary) and that would immediately get rid of the valid current concerns. In fact if all these were taken together and implemented over a limited period of time (say a decade or two), I might even support 49.5% reservation. But of course the fact remains whether reservation can achieve something. We don't know whether 22.5% reservation for the last 59 years has been able to achieve social parity for SC/STs.

Other interesting articles in the context of reservation:

1. Sam Pitroda, the head of the Knowledge Commission appointed by the Prime Minister strongly opposed the proposed increase of reservation to 49.5%. Here is an interview.

2. Puspa Bhargava, a member of the Knowledge Commission was one of the two dissenters who conditionally supported the proposed increase in reserved seats. Dr. Bhargava was the founder and former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB). In this interview he supports the increase in reserved seats but opposes the "creamy layer" availing the benefits of reservation. He also proposes an increase in the number of seats in general, and it might have been his idea that the government has jumped upon now to resolve the issue. He also suggests a time frame after which the number of reserved seats will be gradually decreased, a suggestion which I am sure will not be heeded by politicians. Interestingly enough, he also suggests setting up 400,000 high schools across India (and says that Central Schools/Kendriya Vidyalayas are among the best run schools in India-- dunno what his source is, but yay!) so as to make reservations unnecessary. I, and I am sure everybody else other than the politicians, would agree completely with him on the last point.

Interestingly, I noticed that one of the comments on the interview is from Sohan Modak (or someone claiming to be him). Prof. Modak very effectively headed the Department of Zoology at the University of Pune, and brought it to excellence. He had also made sure that it was one of the first places in India where a Masters in Biotechnology was instituted. Unfortunately politics among professors (most of whom he had brought in) spoiled the department and Biotechnology split up from Zoology (I was in one of the first batches that suffered because of this). Modak was a great teacher, albeit a very pompous one, and a decent scientist particularly in his younger days). I quote his comments:
Subject: Dr. P.M. Bhargava on the issue of reservations
Whuile there is always the problem of haves and haves not, Bhargawa's comments are far more insidious than they appear. He, like Manmohan Singh, have missed the point by ignoring what do the students in the general category have to fight to get admission in an institution of higher learning than those who are awarded direct entry albeit without having learnt 60 % of their academic material! Whaty a death nail for the National Knowledge commission! PMB's comments are at best assinine as he has never really been a teacher, nor a saviour of reserved classes when practicing employment practices when he directed the laboratory. Did he really practice affirmative action in hiring personnel ? I guess he enjoys the same power play that Arjun singh does! It is really unfortunate that neither PMB, nor his cohorts, have done much to generate the greatest need of India, and that is to provide good teachers without whom the country is doomed. You can take the reservations to 90%, but who will teach? Not PMBs from their high pedestals. I have already asked NKC to help me understand what is knowledge, but none have cared (or, dared) to reply. well, at least not yet!
-Prof. sohan Modak, Pune.
3. A very thought-provoking article by Siddharth Varadarajan shows how castism still exists even in institutes of higher education, how the media is often one sided, and why there should be reservations. I found the article via this excellent blog, indianwriting.

Update 5 June 06 1.49am :
4. Yet another thought-provoking article via indianwriting has Yogendra Yadav discussing statistics of backward castes (OBCs- mainly Shudras in the Varna system). According to the article, even going by the minimum figure, the percentage of OBCs in the population would be around 36%, which is more than the 27% which the government wants to reserve for them. He claims that the non-SC/ST/OBC, i.e., the rest of the population is 33%, which is somewhat difficult for to digest.
Nevertheless, I think improving conditions at the grassroot levels (schools, absolutely compulsory education, good and non-truant teachers, generous scholarships, extra coaching if required and the like) are more important for achieving social equality than reserving 49.5% seats in IITs.
How would people who don't have the grassroot stuff that I described above compete for the IITs with or without reservations? That would only bring down the standards of higher education. And again will reservation achieve anything; has it achieved anything significant for the SC/STs in the decades since independence?


Genetically Modified Organisms

I was checking out discussion groups in CouchSurfing (that reminds me, I really have to write the inaugaral post about CouchSurfing and Hospitality Club on my travelogue), and saw this group called "Protecting the Environment for a healthier tomorrow". They'd had a very one-sided discussion on Transgenic Crops-- as is usually the case, such groups are filled with people who care for the environment, but most of their "knowledge" comes from scare-mongering environment groups, like Greenpeace. Don't get me wrong, Greenpeace does a tremendous amount of great work, but I absolutely don't agree with their campaign against everything GMO. A couple of years ago it had these imbecile posters all over Vienna that translates to "Is Your Milk Changed? -Against Transgenics [German: Gentechnik]". That is stupid scare-mongering which is amazingly successful in Europe. At the other end we have Monsanto et al. that give an equally one sided view, that no one can trust.

The problem is that there are very few people who look at both sides and are in between. Scientists and Geneticists, who know what is happening (but do not have vested interests), and who may well be listened to by the public, prefer to remain within their ivory towers and don't to speak to the public. Anyways, I joined the group and posted a rather long write up. Probably too long... but hopefully someone in the group will read it. Let's see whether I manage to restart the discussion.

Background: The discussion was started by the moderator in the context of Golden Rice. This rice produces beta-carotene in the part that we eat, its endosperm (it is normally only produced in green tissues). Since a lot of children in poor rice-based societies suffer from blindness because of Vitamin A deficiency, Golden Rice might be a good way to prevent it.
I reproduce my write-up below with minor editing.
[It was written in a hurry, at one sitting, and perhaps later I should research it more and write a better article. But this should do for now. If you are a biologist, you might find things a bit over-simplified, but remember it was written for non-biologists.]

My problem with the debate (as with most issues of environment) is that people on both sides refuse to listen to the opposing side. In this forum, the discussion has been mainly to oppose transgenics, so I'll attempt to go towards the other side. A blanket "Genetically modified food/animals/plants is bad" as propagated by Greenpeace and others is plain crazy. Just as it would be crazy to assume that Monsanto and others are saints on earth.

What is GM technology?
It refers to modification of genetic material of organisms in the laboratory. Remember, right from the beginning of civilization farmers have been crossing plants and animals to obtain better characteristics. This used to take several decades, but now can be done in the laboratory in a few months. None of the food you eat is what used to grow in wild. They are all products of crossing by farmers through centuries.

Common products of GM technology
I bet you have heard of Insulin. It is given to people who suffer from certain forms of diabetes. All insulin for pharmaceutical purposes is only produced from genetically engineered bacteria, and this is the safest possible method. Genetically engineered Insulin is historical as it was the first such case, but now many medicines, hormones, vaccines etc are produced by genetic engineering.
So, please don't put a blanket horror sign on genetic engineering or transgenic technology.

Fine, that was bacteria, what about plants and animals?
Apart from time and convenience there is another huge difference between crossing plants and animals as farmers did, and what can be done in the laboratory. And this is what most the fuss is about. Famers can cross only (closely) related plants, or in case of animals of the same species (exceptions being mules). However, in the laboratory, one could theoretically express any gene from anywhere in a plant or animal, something not possible by farmers. And one can use diverse sources-- express a plant protein in animals or visa versa. For example, there was a recent report of a very useful goat that produces human anti-thrombin (required for blood coagulation) in its milk. Until now this protein used to be extracted from human blood, and given the number of diseases, this is no longer a safe option.
Of course these goats are only for pharmaceutical companies, their milk is not for making cheese. This is an example of what can be done.
The beta-carotene from the main example, again, is something that is present in tomatoes and carrots that give them their red colour. They can be put in rice. Why should this be any problem at all? If you can eat beta-carotene in tomatoes and carrots, what is the problem in eating them in rice?

Real Problems
No, I am not naive enough to say that all transgenics are good and we should all blindly approve of them. There are potential problems and caveats.

a) Environmental: Say a company wants to produce a plant that has a huge yield, but its seeds kill themselves (so that the farmer has to come back to the company to buy these seeds). That might be dangerous to the environment, as these genes might escape through natural sources (viruses and other pathogens, pollen etc) and create havoc to the flora.
There are several such real life examples. But again, not all such cases are harmful, and each case is different and should be studied on merits of its own.

b) Health: In many cases, because of our incomplete knowledge, it is difficult to predict whether expressing a foreign protein, might affect other aspects of the metabolism of the plants and animals, making them unsafe for consumption. This is indeed a huge caveat and justify the cautious approach of many countries to GM food. But extensive tests should be able to find out whether there is a risk in a particular case.

I hope I have been able to show (if not convince) you that transgenics are not all dangerous. Some of them are indeed cause for concern, but each case should be studied on its own merit. The safety of individual cases should be tested really rigourously, and after they pass these tests, they should be allowed to be used.
If babies of poor countries are going blind because of the lack of beta-carotene, and rice that expresses it (and has been rigorously tested to be safe) can be provided to them, I think it would be extremely selfish of us to sit in our armchairs and pontificate that we are against GM food and we won't allow this.

Have we forgotten Marie Antoinette's comment about cakes instead of bread?

Disclaimer: I am a Geneticist, I use genetic engineering techniques every day in the lab, but in basic research only. I don't make transgenic food, or animals that produce stuff in their milk, or clone animals or the like. And I am not associated with any commercial company, although our institute is funded by one.


Saturday, June 03, 2006

An unexpected compliment

I had almost forgotten about Leonie's flattering compliment. On Tuesday, when Ramesh was here for the siRNA conference, and we were having dinner upstairs at the cafeteria, two German guys were sitting next to us. One of these was a young group leader in Ramesh's current institute, and when he had been introduced before his talk, I had heard that he had done his postdoc in Heidelberg. So I enquired about people I knew from that lab and he asked where I had worked. As soon as I said EMBL and Jürg, the other German guy sitting next to me introduced himself as Marc (Leonie's boyfriend who works in Bielefeld, I hadn't gone for his talk at the conference) and that Leonie had told him about me being in Anton's group. Later when Leonie came and I told her that I'd met Marc, she said that she had told him about "how much fun the joint lab-meetings [progress-reports] are because of [my] contributions". Wow! That was nice to hear!!

We have been having weekly joint progress reports with her group since more than a month, and from this week we started an alternate-weekly joint Epigenetics Journal Club as well. It is true that right from the beginning, I have been liberal with my questions and comments in our own progress reports, and apart from Anton, I probably am the most vocal in these. Now that we have them with her group, I continue my barrage of questions, comments and interruptions because in our group I am the most familiar with their area of research as it was my own during my PhD.

Nevertheless, I was quite taken aback by her compliment and also that she had actually told this even to Marc so that he knew all about me!

In a related development, during the Epigenetics Journal Club today, she jokingly suggested that I participate in their Polycomb Journal Club, and I did sign up. It'll take up quite a bit of my time, but I think it will be very useful and I'll enjoy it. But it starts at 9am every wednesday, so I have to be in the institute well before that...