Friday, April 13, 2007

Throw the beloved to the crocodiles

Those of you who are from India or Pakistan must have heard Baba Bulleh Shah's poem 'Piya Ghar Aaya'. Bulleh Shah wrote in Punjabi, so the lyrics have been difficult for me to follow, and I had always wondered about the meaning of the opening line:
Ghariyal deyo nikal ni
The only gharial I knew about is an endangered crocodile-like reptile. Maybe the return of the piya (beloved) was creating too many complications and the poet wanted to set the crocodiles loose on him. Or maybe there was some deep Sufi symbolism involved.

As it turns out, Bulla was not a sociopath and there is no mysticism involved. The ghariyal in this case actually means the village watchman who beats his gong to mark the passing of the hours. The poet wants him sacked so that her (the poem is written in a feminine voice) reunion with her lover is not cut short by the coming of the morning. As one translator renders it:
Sack the gongman
My love has come home today.

He strikes the gong time and again
And shortens my night of dance and song
If he were to listen to me,
He would throw away the gong
Sack the gongman
An idea right after my heart. Let us sack all watchmen, throw away all alarm clocks, shut down all NTP servers, and give ourselves over to love.

But how come reptiles and watchmen have similar sounding names? The reptile part is easy. Earthen pots are called 'ghara' in many of the languages of the subcontinent, and the male gharial has a snout which resembles such a pot. About the watchman I can only guess. Maybe gharas with holes were used in water clocks, giving the name ghari to clocks in general, in turn leading to the person whose duty it was to announce the time being called a ghariyal.

What do you think?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Rubaiya is back

Rubaiya Bintenahar is coming back to the RG Kar Medical College Hospital, Kolkata to continue her studies.

Rubaiya is a third-year medical student who had been branded a witch and confined to her house in her village for 23 days. She had received psychiatric treatment earlier and a worsening of her condition was taken as a sign of possession by her father who brought her back home to be treated by a witch-doctor. After the story was picked up by the media, social activists and the administration convinced her father to allow her to rejoin her studies.

What I found really touching is the image (reproduced here) that accompanied the newspaper report. The man walking behind her with the heavy bag is identified as her father. He looks so much like the stereotypical protective father of a Bengali girl, carrying the heavy bag to spare his daughter. In the university where I study, every year at admission time there are some fathers like this who insist on checking for themselves whether the dormitory beds are soft enough for their darlings. Looking at this photo I cannot bring myself to believe that Rubaiya's father meant her harm. Yet, he treated her so cruelly.

Reminds me of the famous quote by the physicist Steven Weinberg:
Good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things—that takes religion.
Except that this time it is garden-variety superstition rather than religion which is to blame.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Sex is sexy, biology is not

Here is proof yet again that sex sells, and that it sells really well.

A few days back there were a lot of headlines about a creature which has not had sex for the past 100 million years. The creatures are the bdelloid rotifers, microscopic aquatic organisms whom no biologist has ever caught having sex. They are believed to reproduce asexually by cloning.

But all this is old hat, so much so that even a mere reader of pop-biology books like me knows this stuff. So why the sudden headlines? There hangs an interesting story about human culture.

The journal PLoS Biology, which is part of the admirable project of providing open access to scientific research, has a system of publishing popular summaries of important articles. On 20th March it published a summary titled 'Who Needs Sex (or Males) Anyway?'. The press and most of the blogosphere picked up the title and the first paragraph which mentioned asexual reproduction in the rotifers and ran with it. And in doing so it missed the real essence of the article, which was to study the meaningfulness of the species concept when discussing asexually reproducing species. If there is no sex to mix up the gene pool in each generation, then is it meaningful to talk of an species as an evolutionary entity? The paper show that at least for these rotifers it is. And that whether you use a certain quantifiable feature of the rotifers bodies to do your classification or you use DNA sequences, you end up with the same 'species' categories. That is what the paper is really about. Asexuality of the rotifers is something it uses as an established premise. Yet, that is what the media really picked up.

The right kind of sex life may or may not make you long-lived, but it certainly makes you popular.

In defense of the "100 million years of chastity" headlines, the asexuality of bdelloid rotifers does pose an interesting problem for evolutionary biology. It is generally believed that sexual reproduction and the recombination of genes it brings about is necessary to allow a population of organisms to keep up with changes in its environment. This argument appears to be supported by evidence which shows that while in the course of evolution different organisms have developed asexual reproduction, this trait has not survived for long.

Bdelloid rotifers throw a spanner in this neat story. They appear to have survived for millions of years by reproducing asexually and hence suggest that sex may not be really necessary for survival.

However the real twist will come if someone discovers that the bdelloid rotifers do have sex after all. This has happened before. Some other organisms which were early thought to be asexual are now known to reproduce sexually—the males were so insignificant that they had earlier been mistaken as parasites feeding on the females. The females of some other species may concur.

There goes the SC again

It is most unfortunate that the Indian Supreme Court has stayed the implementation of the new law providing for reservations in higher educational institutions for students belonging to backward castes.

The Indian constitution itself (in its Article 15) empowers the government to carry out affirmative action programs for "the advancement of educationally and socially backward classes". Thus the court could hardly question the constitutionality of the principle of reservation. Rather, it has based its judgment on the fact that the government could not provide any data on the backwardness of specific castes more recent than the 1931 census.

The court's argument is flawed because different provinces have regularly kept updating the list of backward castes which are eligible for reservation. Instead the court has turned this fact on its head by observing:
Nowhere else in the world is there competition to assert backwardness and then to claim we are more backward than you.
Of course there will always be attempts by the powerful to hijack and subvert any redistributive program. But this does not take away the fact that Indian society is highly unequal and that a lot of this inequality is caste-based.

Hopefully the Supreme Court judgment will cause the government to produce a well-researched survey of social backwardness in our country (just as the Sachar Committee did for the Muslims) that will put to rest once and for all the anti-reservationist argument that reservation for OBCs is nothing but pork-barrel politics.

And on one thing I think that the government is completely wrong: the issue of creamy layer. Deprivation in Indian society is not just caste-based but also economic and there is enough economically privileged people from the OBCs that it makes sense to have provisions for the exclusion of the creamy layer.

Free Shaquanda Cotton now!

Shaquanda Cotton is a 15-year-old Texas girl who has been in prison for over a year now merely for shoving a hall monitor in her school. Recently her detention has been extended for possessing 'contraband': a plastic foam cup and an extra pair of socks. Under the law she can be held in the detention facility for the next seven years—till she turns 21.

The same judge who sentenced her to imprisonment also let off a white girl found guilty of arson with just probation.

Here's the full article from the Washington Post.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Genealogical epiphany

A cousin can be defined as someone with whom you share a grandparent but not a parent.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Wikipedia watchlist as webfeed

UPDATE: The scripts mentioned in this post were not working for a while due to changes in the MediaWiki API (which is in alpha). They are now working again.

Wikipedia's watchlist feature just calls out for a RSS feed. Why should you have to keep checking your watchlist page, rather than being notified when an edit to a watched article actually occurs? Though the web interface to Wikipedia does not offer such a feed right now, all is not lost—Wikipedia has a not too well-publicized XML API which, among other things, allows you to log in and fetch your watchlist as a RSS/ATOM feed.

Here are two scripts that take advantage of this API: if you have Python installed and run an aggregator program like Liferea which lets you specify a local script as a feed source, then you can use this Python script by Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya; otherwise you can use Tim Morgan's CGI script, a copy of which he has kindly hosted on his own server (but be sure to read the caveats on his blog first).

Friday, March 16, 2007

Leo Tolstoy hated geeks and Germans

Tolstoy's heroine Anna Karenina, being a considerate hostess, tries to draw the geeky (and German) steward of her lover's estate into the dinner table conversation by asking a technical question. But, as many a geek has since discovered, the suits and gowns don't really want to know the answer.

Here's the excerpt:

"Have you ever seen a reaping machine?" she said, addressing Darya Alexandrovna. "We had just ridden over to look at one when we met. It's the first time I ever saw one."

"How do they work?" asked Dolly.

"Exactly like little scissors. A plank and a lot of little scissors. Like this."

Anna took a knife and fork in her beautiful white hands covered with rings, and began showing how the machine worked. It was clear that she saw nothing would be understood from her explanation; but aware that her talk was pleasant and her hands beautiful she went on explaining.

"More like little penknives," Veslovsky said playfully, never taking his eyes off her.

Anna gave a just perceptible smile, but made no answer. "Isn't it true, Karl Fedoritch, that it's just like little scissors?" she said to the steward.

"Oh, ja," answered the German. "Es it ein ganz einfaches Ding [It's quite a simple thing]," and he began to explain the construction of the machine.

"It's a pity it doesn't bind too. I saw one at the Vienna exhibition, which binds with a wire," said Sviazhsky. "They would be more profitable in use."

"Es kommt drauf an.... Der Preis vom Draht muss ausgerechnet werden. [That depends...the cost of the wire must be taken into account.]" And the German, roused from his taciturnity, turned to Vronsky. "Das laesst sich ausrechnen, Erlaucht. [It can be calculated, your excellency.]" The German was just feeling in the pocket where were his pencil and the notebook he always wrote in, but recollecting that he was at a dinner, and observing Vronsky's chilly glance, he checked himself. "Zu compliziert, macht zu viel Klopot [too complicated, makes too much troubles]," he concluded.

"Wuenscht man Dochots, so hat man auch Klopots [a man who wants troubles will also have troubles]," said Vassenka Veslovsky, mimicking the German. "J'adore l'allemand [I love German]," he addressed Anna again with the same smile.

"Cessez [Stop it]," she said with playful severity.

Anna Karenina is one of my favourite novels, but when Anna throws herself under a train at the end of the novel, I have one reason different from Tolstoy's to say:
Vengeance is mine; I will repay

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Sale! Sale! Sale!

Time for poor students of mathematics to be happy. Springer-Verlag is running its annual 'Yellow Sale' where you can get your favourite (and dreaded) yellow-covered books for upto 50% less.

I'm going to buy Arnold's Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics (the link is to Amazon, but they are not running the sale on their site; you will have to buy from Springer or one of their recommended booksellers).