Similar DNA

From an article in Times Now News:

Comparing Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Union Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan on Wednesday said both have a similar “DNA” and share a passion for scientific research.

I’m sure I’m interpreting this too literally but when the national science minister makes a statement saying two people share similar DNA, I can’t help but wonder if he knows that the genome of any two humans is 99.9% the same. The remaining 0.1% accounts for all the difference. Ergo, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has DNA similar to Rahul Gandhi, me and you.

That said, I refuse to believe a man who slashed funding for the CSIR labs by 50% (and asked them to make up for it – a princely sum of Rs 2,000 crore – in three years by marketing their research), who claims ancient Indians surgically transplanted animal heads on humans, whose government passively condones right-wing extremism fuelled by irrational beliefs, whose ministries spend crores of rupees on conducting biased investigations of cow urine, and whose bonehead officials have interfered in the conduct of autonomous educational institutions even knows how scientific research works, let alone respects it.

Vardhan himself goes on to extol Vajpayee as the man who suffixed ‘jay vigyan‘ (‘Hail science’) to the common slogan ‘Jay jawan, jay kisan‘ (‘Hail the soldier, hail the farmer’) and, as an example of his contribution to the scientific community, says that the former PM made India a nuclear state within two months of coming to power. Temporarily setting aside the fact that it takes way more than two months to build and test nuclear weapons, it’s also disturbing that Vardhan thinks atom bombs are good science.

Additionally, Modi is like Vajpayee according to him because the former keeps asking scientists to “alleviate the sufferings of the common man” – which, speaking from experience, is nicespeak for “just do what I tell you and deliver it before my term is over”.


Curious Bends – killer palm oil, bunking homeopathy, India’s sex ed. and more

1. How Indonesia’s palm oil industry is killing people in China and India

“In both China and India, air pollution is one consequence of a massive exodus from farm to city that has occurred in recent decades. The change has contributed to rising emissions from both vehicles and factories, especially coal-fired power plants, and an emerging middle class that increasingly desires a range of consumer goods that are common in Europe and the United States. South-east Asia has encountered similar problems in recent decades as its economies and populations have boomed. In fact, according to the WHO, nearly one million of the 3.7 million people who died from ambient air pollution in 2012 lived in South-east Asia. But on top of smokestacks and tailpipes, the region faces an added burden: smoke haze produced in Indonesia that is a by-product of the world’s US$50 billion palm-oil industry.” (19 min read)

2. Casual paternity testing is a way of encouraging people to be suspicious all the time

“Easy DNA, a laboratory based in the town of Nagarcoil in Tamil Nadu, deals with 30 cases of paternity tests a month, said Rama Anandi, who works in its marketing division. Most requests for paternity tests at Easy DNA are spurred by “husbands having doubts on wives”. The DNA samples and results are generally sent across via mail and the payments made online. All a client has to do is buy a home test kit, take a saliva swab of the child’s mouth, and mail the samples to the nearest collection centre. The results are sent back in no more than two weeks. The lab also gets requests from hospitals for ‘maternity tests’ to resolve the tricky cases of infants mixed up by hospital staff or caught up in a suspected ‘child swap’.” (13 min read)

3. Homeopathy is pure bunkum (even if Indian PM Narendra Modi says it isn’t)

“On top of this, those who report apparent improvements are not unbiased observers, but presumably believers in homeopathy who want their loved ones to get better. Homeopaths will often state that some conventional doctors prescribe homeopathy. Some do, but many do not. In fact, the overwhelming majority of real doctors think homeopathy is pseudoscience. After all, homeopaths typically dilute their remedies until they contain no actual ingredients. Even though zero was invented in India, I suspect that most Indians would spurn the ridiculous notion of pills containing zero.” (4 min read)

4. The silence around sex in India has prompted new ways to educate kids

“Sex education is being outsourced to non-profit or private organizations because the Indian government is “abdicating its responsibility,” said Ketaki Chowkhani, who is working on a doctorate in women’s studies about sex education in urban India at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. “It should be the responsibility of the school, and consequently the state, to provide comprehensive sexuality education,” said Ms. Chowkhani in an email. Private schools that have sex education as part of the curriculum tend to call in someone else rather than leaving it to their teachers.” (5 min read)

5. There’s a little selfishness in the US wanting India to go big on solar

“It is clear that sustainable and renewable energy resources have a strong role to play in India, and the source of choice is the sun. India hopes to become into a solar-power-equipment-manufacturing hub and a global solar power. The US hopes its manufacturers will benefit from India’s ambitions and simultaneously encourage India to reduce carbon emissions. Solar power generation in the country increased 14.2% during 2012-13 to 2013-14. It costs Rs 6.91 crore per MW of grid-connected solar PV power, according to the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission. In comparison, nuclear power costs Rs 17.27 crore per MW and electricity from coal Rs 5.75 crore per MW, according to our calculations.” (5 min read)

Chart of the week

“Every now and then, though, you stumble across a map that enlightens. That’s how we felt when we saw the awesome map made by Reddit user TeaDranks. The map resizes countries based on their population. It’s simple: Each square represents 500,000 people. TeaDranks posted the graphic on Reddit’s “map porn” discussion on Jan. 16. He calls it his “magnum opus”.” NPR’s goats and soda has more.


The dignity of human labor

My Twitter friend and compatriot @zeusisdead made a good, bristling case for why we shouldn’t celebrate India’s Mars Orbiter mission’s frugality. Here’s a telling excerpt from his piece as it appeared in Times of India:

ISRO [India’s space agency] did not get to Mars by using duct tape and M-seal to make the orbiter work. ISRO is not trying to repair cars by refashioning cycle chains. It takes several minutes for the ISRO command centre to beam a message to the orbiter and an equal length of time to hear back. The “thoda adjust kardenge” attitude of jugaad with people tinkering on the fly would have failed like a wet cracker here. ISRO built a top-class launch vehicle and payload, and we should not cheapen its success by harping on any number. India’s space programme is a testament to a culture of tackling hard challenges because they are hard, not because they are easy. Of doing the best, and not the cheapest. Jugaad in India was born as a necessity in impoverished conditions, and instead of elevating it to godhood we should be trying to escape a culture of jugaad as quickly as possible. ISRO is showing us the way.

For those who don’t know much Hindi, including me, “jugaad” means to hack something together in a very creative, sometimes cunning, sense.

Anyway, there is perhaps a simpler explanation for why the Mars Orbiter worked out so cheap (it does find mention in @zeusisdead’s piece). Having moved to the United States less than a month ago, I was expected to be alarmed by the cost of many products and amenities by my relatives already living in the country. They converted every dollar into rupees and were in a perpetual state of astonishment when it all worked out 60 times costlier. But then, they were careful to note the exceptions: medicines, books, public transport, shipping, and most of all tips. These things worked out way costlier than they ought to, they said.

I’m much more comfortable in the United States, and it’s not in spite of these “costlier” things, it’s because of them. In my opinion, they make it easier for me to acknowledge the dignity of human labor. It’s the cost of labor that escalates the cost of certain products and services. Medicines bought at the pharmacy or books downloaded from the web may be cheaper but they ought to be more expensive if you want to have them delivered home. Fuel is cheaper, too, if you can be honest about how much you’re filling up for and are able to do it yourself, but if the bunk has to manned, who pays those who man it? That’s the price we ought to pay to respect the dignity of human labor.

In the same way, as an organization operating out of India, ISRO has to spend much less than the developed world to consume manhours. And that the price of a manhour is low in India is not as a natural product of our socio-economic forces but as a result of deliberate subsidization whose costs we hide behind a veil of cheapness. It is in this sense that Modi’s call to ‘Make In India’ sounds ominous, too. Labor shouldn’t come cheap, but if it does, who’s paying for it? In the words of American economist Thorstein Veblen,

Labor wants pride and joy in doing good work, a sense of making something beautiful or useful – to be treated with dignity and respect, as brother and sister.