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Showing posts from August, 2010

Cosmos Episode 8: Travels in Space and Time

Sagan covers so much ground in this episode ... which is what he does in all the other episodes as well!

Sagan explains relativity to the general audience — I would never have thought that possible. Perhaps, an audience that is not trained in science would not be able to make much of this really.

The spectacular ideas originating with Albert Einstein that the speed of light is the ultimate speed in the universe, that the speed of light stays constant in all frames of reference, that there are no privileged frames of reference, that time slows down as you travel close to the speed of light, all these concepts are such basic concepts of modern physics and yet very little known to the general public.

Sagan talks about the original thinker that Leonardo da Vinci was and how Einstein's special relativity opens the door to the possibility of long distance space and time travel.

Sagan shows sketches of spaceships of the future that utilize nuclear fusion as their power source — surely someth…

Cosmos Episode 7: The Backbone of Night

Sagan begins this episode talking about his childhood years in Brooklyn. He describes how as one grows up ANYWHERE, one's world keeps getting bigger.

Sagan goes back to the Greek islands from 2,600 years ago where people first developed the scientific method.

Sagan goes even further back in time to our hunter-gatherer ancestors and wonders if they ever wondered about the stars and how they would have reasoned.

We are all children of astronomers of course, like Sagan has said in one of these episodes somewhere.

It is awe-inspiring to realize that people made simple extrapolations and realized that those little points of lights in the night sky had to be like our sun and that there might be planets and life around those stars too.

And here we are, more than 2,000 years on, and we are still searching for the answers to those questions posed a long time back. It's tough to find the answers to some questions.

I was thinking of what questions I could pose today that humanity would still b…

Cosmos Episode 6: Traveller's Tales

Sagan is in his element in this episode ... well, really he is in his element in ALL the episodes!

Sagan talks about the Voyagers ... those robotic spaceships ... traveller's from Earth as far as Sagan is concerned.

Sagan goes back and forth in time effortlessly ... from the world of Christian Huygens to the strange worlds discovered by the Voyagers ...

Sagan talks about the Jovian satellites and their wonders.

Sagan daringly conludes this episode like the true visionary that he is imagining the day that people on Titan will look up at the sky and see the wonder that is the ring planet Saturn.

I am sure that day will come to pass perhaps 500 years from now ... long after we are gone from Earth.

The Cassini mission that Sagan talks about has come to pass of course. How sad it is that Sagan did not live to see the spacecraft landing on Titan ...

Cosmos Episode 13: Who Speaks for Earth

Sagan makes a personal stand in this episode. This episode is kind of like a crescendo of this fascinating series.

Sagan covers an immense and bewildering amount of ground in this episode too as with every other episode. He narrates the story of how French explorers first made contact with a tribe living on an Alaskan coast back in the 18th century and how they had a peaceful interaction and he contrasts this with Spanish explorers and they violent initial contacts they had with the Aztecs in Mexico. This was all awe-inspiringly new found knowledge and discovery for me personally of course.

He uses these earlier encounters to explain how a future initial contact with an extraterrestrial civilization might turn out to be. He daringly attempts to explain the imponderables in the Drake Equation which tries to put a number on the possible existence of intelligent civilizations elsewhere in the universe. I am curious about one of the components of the Drake Equation in particular — the likel…

Cosmos Episode 12: Encyclopedia Galactica

It's not that I am unfamiliar with the topics that Sagan covers in this series. In fact, I've read Cosmos and many of Sagan's other books. So, I guess the reason why I am lovin' it so much is because it has been quite a while since I touched base with all these concepts that are so close to my heart.

In this episode, Sagan daring touches upon what one might describe as the somewhat treacherous and murky grounds of UFOs and extraterrestrial intelligence. It was instructive to see him emphasize and repeat that 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs.'

The way he categorically ruled out that all the sightings of UFOs are anything but figment's of people's imaginations showed the essential spirit of scientific inquiry at its best — one might almost have concluded that Sagan doesn't really think that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe at all.

But in fact Sagan and most other scientists do believe in the existence of extraterrestria…

Cosmos Episode 11: The Persistence of Memory

It's going to be tough to write about Cosmos because I will run out of superlatives pretty soon. Anway, we'll see about that when we come to it, I guess!

It was breathtaking to see Sagan start this particular episode talking about whales with all the confidence and panache and more of a marine biologist.

He talks about the amount of information in our genes and then moves on to our brains — one particular theory posits that the brain evolved in layers: the brain stem, the Reptilian-complex, and then the cerebral cortex.

He lucidly shows how the brain contains more information than contained in our genes and how that accounts for all that we have accomplished as a species and he extrapolates about species that might have more neurons and neuronal connections than are present in our brains. He speculates about intelligent life forms whose neurons may not be physically connected like they are in our brains. What creative thoughts!

Astonishingly enough, Sagan draws parallels between h…

Cosmos Episode 10:The Edge of Forever

It was amazing to see Sagan touch upon such a vast array of topics and present it all with his exquisite and unique poetic touch.

This episode is all about the large scale structure of the universe. Sagan talks about the types of galaxies and the origin and fate of the universe.

Sagan tries to explain the possibility of the existence of a forth dimension. He wonders if there might be enough matter in the universe to stop the present expansion of the universe.

Oddly enough, he seamlessly weaves Hindu philosophical stuff into this story of modern scientific cosmology. He talks about how only the timescales mentioned in Hindu mythology come anywhere close to the timescales revealed by modern cosmology.

It was wonderful to see Sagan visit South India and talk about the Pongal harvest festival in the same episode that he talks about the Very Large Array in New Mexico. And he visits both South India as well as the VLA.

He gives eloquent voice to the speculations about whether our universe might …

Sherlock Holmes Needed!

It's a strange case of disappearing old men and women!


Japan has many achievements it can be proud of. One of those is the extraordinary number of centenarians amongst its population.


But now it seems that many of those centenarians exist merely on paper!


http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/world/asia/15japan.html?_r=1&th&emc=th

The New York Times reports that some of the older folks have been dead or missing for nearly 30 years in some cases but their relatives never reported this minor detail to the government so that they could keep claiming the pension.


Well, it seems economic necessity can make people do the strangest things.

It might seem ironic to state of course that people in nations such as the United States and Japan suffer from 'poverty' ... synonymous as those nations have become with wealth and affluence.

Topic of Cancer

Hitchens writes about what it feels like to be diagnosed with cancer.

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/09/hitchens-201009

He is wonderfully unsentimental as when he suggests that an appropriate answer to that inevitable question about 'Why Me?' is ... 'Why Not?'

Yeah, exactly the kind of stoicism that I hope to display under circumstances of stress.

It's infinitely infantile of course to imagine that the universe cares whether we are alive or dead! But clearly, people who believe in one variety of religion or the other do believe that there exists a benevolent 'Father' up in the sky who is looking after us.

Of course, it beats me how people can believe in the basic scientific facts such as the fact of the Earth being a sphere and revolving around the Sun in space and at the same time believe in all this religious childish mumbo-jumbo. You see, when you look up at the sky to point to the Big Fellow with the White Beard, that's only a part of th…

The Churlish Adolescence of India and Pakistan

I was surprised when I learnt recently that the Government of India was mulling giving aid to the flood victims in Pakistan until recently when so many weeks have passed since the floods.
This is extremely unfortunate and childish on the part of the government. Does it think that the people of India will get angry if it gives aid to the poor people of Pakistan? I don't think the people of India have any enmity with the common men and women of Pakistan who are probably hostages in the hands of the Army and religious zealots.
And at last, the government, in its infinite wisdom decided to give $5 million. But, strangely enough, now it's the turn of the government of Pakistan to show that it's no less childish than the government of India. So, what does the government of Pakistan do? It's still mulling whether to 'accept' India's gift or not!
It's shocking to see this infantile behavior of these two 60 year old nations.

Death!

Is the right punishment for corrupt people. That's my opinion.

It's nauseating to hear about all the corruption with respect to the contracts awarded for various projects related to the Commonwealth Games.

People are doing it so 'transparently' and brazenly as they know that nothing will happen to them ... there are no consequences. Powerful people know that you can always make sure that a corruption case will get lost in the maze of the Indian judiciary. You can make a case last longer than your lifetime and then of course once you are dead, it's over!!!

The death sentence is on the statute books of course for the 'rarest of the rare' crime as of now. People get the death sentence for particularly gruesome cases of murder. Although, another oddity in India has been the fact of how rarely even those few death sentences get carried out. But that's another story.

If people can be awarded the death sentence for murder/rape, then why not give them the death sen…

Nehru, Indira and Manmohan?

Holy Ghost!!!

Well, the mumbling Good Doctor is now India's third-longest serving PM ...

Third on the all-time list! Well, India does not have the kind of restrictions that the United States. Think of the vision of Washington to leave the office voluntarily after he completed two terms in the office!

That was 200 years ago and strangely enough nobody dared to try to better the General. Think of Jefferson — he wanted him epithet to say that he was the founder of the University of Virginia. Being the President was passe to him. What an humble polymathic genius!

And what do we folks here in India do? We put someone in the office of the PM and once the bloke has been there long enough, we start thinking ... 'oh, who after him/her!' This man/woman is indispensable!!! How is India going to survive after him/her!!!

And we lift the ordinary mortal to the level of a deity ... there you go. That's us Indians. We really like our deities I guess.

Does BlackBerry bypass the NSA?

That's what I am thinking after reading this ...

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/technology/13rim.html?hpw

I mean, the U.S. govt. is probably able to crack any encrypted communication it wants to ...

And the movie Enemy of the State would have us believe that the telecommunications companies are hand in glove with the govt. And of course there are laws in the U.S. too that require companies to provide access to the govt. when the govt. wants to tap into any particular individual's account.

As long as that's all done in a supervised fashion ... legal warrants and all ... I think that's okay in these days of terrorism.

God Bless!!!

Oh, swine flu is spreading fast in Orissa!
Where in hell is that exactly, you may ask?
Well, it's just one of the tiny states of the Republic of India. If you are trying to find out on a map, look EAST if you may please ...
40 million people ... all the relevant statistics that matters.

And what do the blessed and intelligent folks of Orissa — happens to be the state that I am from — do to 'fight' swine flu?
Oh, they turn to homeopathy of course!
Wow! How smart of them!

And Kashmir Smolders

The Valley has seen enormous discontent in the population in recent months.
Many people have been killed in firing by the security forces. A really tragic state of affair. Kashmir is almost like a problem without a solution. Things seem hopelessly bad.
But challenging problems have been solved elsewhere in the world.
It seems though that people must learn to deemphasize the role of religion in their lives for any hope of finding some sort of a solution.
Strangely enough, when you look at what is common to many of the enduring problems the world over, religion seems to be the one thing that is common to them all.
Think of the never-ending troubles in the Middle East. Jerusalem, the Holy Land being at the center of dispute, there being many claimants to the same patch of land.
Northern Ireland was a religious problem too though it seems to have been resolved amicably now.
Of course, the worst of the battles in the history of the world have been fought about national and racial identities.
It se…

Hawking Says — Beware Mankind!

Stephen Hawking says that humanity must find an alternate to planet Earth in the next couple of centuries failing which our chances of long-term survival are slim.
I am hopeful that we will certainly find habitable planets in the vast oceans of space that is our visible universe.
I am sure there will be many good candidate planets for colonization in the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy itself.
What is disheartening is to realize the enormous vastness of galaxies. When you talk about interstellar space and interstellar travel, distances inevitably need to be measured in hundreds and thousands of light years just to begin with.
And the rocket technology that we have mastered so far is woefully inadequate for the task of making these interstellar journeys even inside our own galaxy.
Certainly, our little, tiny planet Earth will be found to be suffocatingly small for an ever burgeoning population of billions of humans.
But there's an irony there though. As long as parts of the human rac…

Puberty Ahoy!

It seems girls are reaching puberty ever sooner and this has been linked to a general increase in weight.
Well, the human species is changing in fundamental ways, it seems.
But that's inevitable although we are probably far away from accomplishing the kind of things depicted in the movie Avatar.

Plane Crashes in Alaska

And Ted Stevens, the long-time Alaska senator dies.
Luckily, Sean O'Keefe, the former administrator of NASA survived the crash.
It beats me how anyone can survive a plane crash but I don't know the details of the crash of this private jet.
O'Keefe, it turns out, now heads the North American operations of EADS, the European defense and aerospace giant.
That's a perk of having deep links in Washington thanks to his many years of working in the Beltway.

Desiree Rogers is now CEO

The ex-White House Social Secretary is now the CEO of a major publishing house.
Call it the perks of a stint at the White House.
But print publishing apparently seems to be on a death spiral.
So she will need all the luck in the world to revive the magazines that she is going to publish.

The Perks and Perils of CEOship

CEOs of major corporations are in some ways like modern-day royalty. Of course, PMs and Presidents of countries can lay claim as well. Obama enjoys such perks of the presidency as would have been quite unimaginable in the days of the old-world kings.

However, these modern-day royals have to perform a real tight-rope walking as well. Gone are the days when kings used to have 'exclusive' access to extensive harems. Alas!

These days, well, just look at what happened to the CEO of HP. Mark Hurd has done a fantastic job as the CEO by all accounts. And yet he was brought down by sexual harrassment charges brought by a reality TV contestant.

It's not entirely clear what exactly was the job description of the lady who has brought these sexual harassment charges. Seems like she was a high-end hostess or something — whatever that means.

Perhaps, HP's mistake lay in hiring her for that job but then that decision must have been more than just Mark's since her's was very much a…

Alzheimer's conundrum

The battle against Alzheimer's seems to be reaching some fruition.

It seems researchers have come up with definitive biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/health/research/10spinal.html?_r=1&hp

Parallels are being drawn between these amyloid and tau markers as a predictor of Alzheimer's and cholesterol as a predictor of heart disease.

So, the dilemma is also pretty inherent. Having cholesterol is a good predictor of heart disease. However, not everyone who has high cholesterol will develop heart disease.

Similarly, if a person has amyloid and tau, that doesn't mean that the person is sure to develop Alzheimer's in the future.

Drug companies out there are all frantically trying to develop drugs of course.

Will we see a day when there will be something akin to atorvastatin for people having these biomarkers?

It's going to be a dangerous balancing act to do a cost versus benefit analysis pertaining to any drugs that apper that proclaim to hel…

Choppers of India Unite!

Now that Sen. Charles Schumer (D — NY) has termed Infosys a 'chop shop,' righteous indignation and condemnation will pour forth like water down the Niagara.
The 'insiders' know that it's all political posturing ahead of the mid-term elections.
Is Infosys a chop shop?
Well, if Infosys was into the leveraged buyout business, then this 'slur' might have made some sense. As it is, it's nonsense of course and I expect Tom Friedman to write about this in his next column.
Friedman got the 'inspiration' to name his book The World Is Flat from Nilekani of Infosys after all.
What does Infosys do though? What does the broader Indian IT industry do?
It certainly can't claim to be an innovator in the sense of a Microsoft or Google or Apple. What Indians are learning to do is acquire IT skills and some domain expertise and then be able to do 'regular' paying white-collar jobs that earlier Americans used to do.
So, these 'safe' jobs for average A…

Adversity helps cope with chronic back pain

This is according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Buffalo and UC Irvine.
The study's author Mark Seery, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at UB says: "It appears that adversity may promote the development of psychological and social resources that help one tolerate adversity, which in this case leads to better CBP-related outcomes. It may be that the experience of prior, low levels of adversity may cause sufferers to reappraise stressful and potentially debilitating symptoms of CBP as minor annoyances that do not substantially interfere with life."
Well, well, this is some discovery.
Actually, kind of common sense knowledge put in medical gobbledygook.
What the research has shown is that folks who have experienced some prior pain can take CBP in their stride. And folks who have never known any pain whatsoever will wilt under the slightest CBP.
Well, that figures!

Novartis has got one more winner

Tasigna has got fast-track approval from the FDA to be used to treat Ph+ chronic phase CML (chronic myeloid leukemia).
To use the technical phrase, the FDA has approved a new indication for Tasigna (nilotinib) for the treatment of CML.
This new indication expands the use of Tasigna to to adult patients in earlier stages of the disease.
The new indication for Tasigna was approved under the FDA's accelerated approval program, which allows FDA to approve a drug to treat serious diseases with an unmet medical need based on an endpoint thought to reasonably predict clinical benefit.
The interesting thing is that while the FDA has approved the drug, in the meanwhile, the company is required to collect additional long term efficacy and safety data confirming the drug's benefit.
Thus, with this accelerated approval program, patients get to lay their hands on promising new drugs while the confirmatory clinical trials are being conducted.
One can hope that these confirmatory trials will stand…

Remains of the Day

I am thinking of how the mighty have fallen.
Think of the plight of a British PM who had to fly in blind to land at Delhi airport.
And think of what would have been the case if it was instead the President of the U.S. who was flying in or for that matter the PM of India.
The entire airspace over New Delhi would have been closed for an hour if not more. Ordinary passengers be damned!
And this is the PM of a country that once had an empire over which the sun never set.
At least, the Queen chose to maintain her dignity by simply not travelling to Delhi for the Commonwealth Games. Smart lady!
Poor suckers like Indians and a few others of course continue to fly the flag of the commonwealth — a dead idea that never was quite hot to begin with.
But then Indians are party to many such dead people's societies such as NAM and SAARC.
Britain at least has got what still matters somewhat — a membership on the U.N. Security Council as one of the five permanent members with a veto power.
After all, winni…

Polio in India

A new report says that polio in India is at its lowest ebb in the last 10 years.
Some achievement that! When you consider that polio was eradicated about 50 years back in the advanced nations.
India is strange. One hears strange tales of how people in parts are suspicious about why the government wants to give polio drops to their kids. They think it's a conspiracy by the government to make the kids infertile so that their won't be any more offspring!
Holy cow!
Of course, once such a belief takes hold in a certain community, it is really difficult to make them understand that it's not so.
And so the pulse polio immunization programs will endure for many years to come and we will continue to have Polio Sundays.
I have sympathy for the poor kids who are getting fed so much polio drops every few Sundays. They must be thinking — oh no, there we again! More polio drops! I tell you, polio sucks man!

Medical stuff ...

New research suggests that women are more attracted to macho men more than they are to the metrosexual variety.
Alas!
I guess our evolutionary imprinting is still at work here ...
I guess though that women have become smart enough now a days and go for the investment banker types and IT folks who have got all the wealth ...
Well ...
Other research suggests that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is not all that hot when it comes to CPR. The traditional compression technique on the chest is better.
Well, that's good ... for many reasons — both medical and sociological I guess.

Sisyphus

An interesting character out of Greek mythology.
Maureen Dowd uses the phrase 'Sisyphian task' to describe America's toils in Afghanistan.
Now that I know what Sisyphus is all about, I guess she is sort of right.
The guy was apparently a king who was punished by the gods for his hubris.
His punishment was that he would push a stone up a hill and it would come down and he would push it up again ... till eternity.
Ouch!
The Greeks were certainly creative in their myth making!

Contact

A difficult movie to make.

And a difficult book to write.

I marvel at the audacious genius of Sagan. Imagine the breadth of someone who was a professional scientist who had specialized in two disciplines — astronomy and biology. No one was a more potent lyrical evangelist for the beauty and compelling nature of the scientific enterprise. And he wrote fiction too!

It's clearly a difficult task to try and decide on what track events might proceed when we make contact with an advanced civilization out there. I hope folks are still at work on SETI. I for one can think of no other scientific endeavor that is more important. SETI is a game changer of a magnitude unlike any other scientific endeavor — except none.

May be, I am 'unrealistic' like the scientist portrayed in the book.

But if I may try to sell my point of view for a moment here, can't anyone imagine the consequences of how marvellous it would be if we discover species that are millions of years advanced than us techno…