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The nomenclature of uncertainty

Credit: bongonian/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The headline of a Nature article published on December 9 reads ‘LIGO black hole echoes hint at general relativity breakdown’. The article is about the prediction of three scientists that, should LIGO find ‘echoes’ of gravitational waves coming from blackhole-mergers, then it could be a sign of quantum-gravity forces at play.

It’s an exciting development because it presents a simple and currently accessible way of probing the universe for signs of phenomena that show a way to unite quantum physics and general relativity – phenomena that have been traditionally understood to be outside the reach of human experiments until LIGO.

The details of the pre-print paper the three scientists uploaded on arXiv were covered by a number of outlets, including The Wire. And The Wire‘s and Forbes‘s headlines were both questions: ‘Has LIGO already discovered evidence for quantum gravity?’ and ‘Has LIGO actually proved Einstein wrong – and found signs of quantum gravity?’, respectively. Other headlines include:

  • Gravitational wave echoes might have just caused Einstein’s general theory of relativity to break down – IB Times
  • A new discovery is challenging Einstein’s theory of relativity – Futurism
  • Echoes in gravitational waves hint at a breakdown of Einstein’s general relativity – Science Alert
  • Einstein’s theory of relativity is 100 years old, but may not last – Inverse

The headlines are relevant because: Though the body of a piece has the space to craft what nuance it needs to present the peg, the headline must cut to it as quickly and crisply as possible – while also catching the eye of a potential reader on the social media, an arena where all readers are being inundated with headlines vying for attention.

For example, with the quantum gravity pre-print paper, the headline has two specific responsibilities:

  1. To be cognisant of the fact that scientists have found gravitational-wave echoes in LIGO data at the 2.9-sigma level of statistical significance. Note that 2.9 sigma is evidently short of the threshold at which some data counts as scientific evidence (and well short of that at which it counts as scientific fact – at least in high-energy physics). Nonetheless, it still presents a 1-in-270 chance of, as I’ve become fond of saying, an exciting thesis.
  2. To make reading the article (which follows from the headline) seem like it might be time well spent. This isn’t exactly the same as catching a reader’s attention; instead, it comprises catching one’s attention and subsequently holding and justifying it continuously. In other words, the headline shouldn’t mislead, misguide or misinform, as well as remain constantly faithful to the excitement it harbours.

Now, the thing about covering scientific developments from around the world and then comparing one’s coverage to those from Europe or the USA is that, for publications in those countries, what an Indian writer might see as an international development is in fact a domestic development. So Nature, Scientific American, Forbes, Futurism, etc. are effectively touting local accomplishments that are immediately relevant to their readers. The Wire, on the other hand, has to bank on the ‘universal’ aspect and by extension on themes of global awareness, history and the potential internationality of Big Science.

This is why a reference to Einstein in the headline helps: everyone knows him. More importantly, everyone was recently made aware of how right his theories have been since they were formulated a century ago. So the idea of proving Einstein wrong – as The Wire‘s headline read – is eye-catching. Second, phrasing the headline as a question is a matter of convenience: because the quasi-discovery has a statistical significance of only 2.9 sigma, a question signals doubt.

But if you argued that a question is also a cop-out, I’d agree. A question in a headline can be interpreted in two ways: either as a question that has not been answered yet but ought to be or as a question that is answered in the body. More often than not and especially in the click-bait era, question-headlines are understood to be of the latter kind. This is why I changed The Wire copy’s headline from ‘What if LIGO actually proved Einstein wrong…’ to ‘Has LIGO actually proved Einstein wrong…’.

More importantly, the question is an escapism at least to me because it doesn’t accurately reflect the development itself. If one accounts for the fact that the pre-print paper explicitly states that gravitational-wave echoes have been found in LIGO data only at 2.9 sigma, there is no question: LIGO has not proved Einstein wrong, and this is established at the outset.

Rather, the peg in this case is – for example – that physicists have proposed a way to look for evidence of quantum gravity using an experiment that is already running. This then could make for an article about the different kinds of physics that rule at different energy levels in the universe, and what levels of access humanity has to each.

So this story, and many others like it in the past year that all dealt with observations falling short of the evidence threshold but which have been worth writing about simply because of the desperation behind them, have – or could have – prompted science writers to think about the language they use. For example, the operative words/clause in the respective headlines listed above are:

  • Nature – hint
  • IB Times – might have just caused
  • Futurism – challenging
  • Science Alert – hint
  • Inverse – may not

Granted that an informed skepticism is healthy for science and that all science writers must remain as familiar with this notion as with the language of doubt, uncertainty, probability (and wave physics, it seems). But it still is likely the case that writers grappling with high-energy physics have to be more familiar than others, dealing as the latest research does with – yes – hope and desperation.

Ultimately, I may not be the perfect judge of what words work best when it comes to the fidelity of syntax to sentiment; that’s why I used a question for a headline in the first place! But I’m very interested in knowing how writers choose and have been choosing their words, if there’s any friction at all (in the larger scheme) between the choice of words and the prevailing sentiments, and the best ways to deal with such situations.

PS: If you’re interested, here’s a piece in which I struggled for a bit to get the words right (and finally had to resort to using single-quotes).

Featured image credit: bongonian/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

TIFR’s superconductor discovery: Where are the reports?

The Meissner effect: a magnet levitating above a superconductor. Credit: Mai-Linh Doan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Featured image: The Meissner effect: a magnet levitating above a superconductor. Credit: Mai-Linh Doan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

On December 2, physicists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) announced an exciting discovery: that the metal bismuth becomes a superconductor at a higher temperature than predicted by a popular theory. Granted the theory has had its fair share of exceptions, the research community is excited about this finding because of the unique opportunities it presents in terms of learning more, doing more. But yeah, even without the nuance, the following is true: that TIFR physicists have discovered a new form of superconductivity, in the metal bismuth. I say this as such because not one news outlet in India, apart from The Wire, reported the discovery, and it’s difficult to say it’s because the topic was too hard to understand.

This was, and is, just odd. The mainstream as well as non-mainstream media in the country are usually quick to pick up on the slightest shred of legitimate scientific work and report it widely. Heck, many news organisations are also eager to report on illegitimate research – such as those on finding gold in cow urine. After the embargo on the journal paper lifted at 0030 hrs, I (the author of the article on The Wire) remained awake to check if the story had turned out okay – specifically, to check if anyone had any immediate complaints about its contents (there were two tweets about the headline and they were quickly dealt with). But then I ended up staying awake until 4 am because, as much as I looked on Google News and on other news websites, I couldn’t find anyone else who had written about it.

Journal embargoes aren’t new, nor is it the case that journalists in India haven’t signed up to receive embargoed material. For example, the multiple water-on-Mars announcements and the two monumental gravitational-waves discoveries were all announced via papers in the journal Science, and were covered by The Hindu, The Telegraph, Times of India, Indian Express, etc. And Science also published the TIFR paper. Moreover, the TIFR paper wasn’t suppressed or buried in the embargoed press releases that the press team at Science sends out to journalists a few days before the embargo lifts. Third, the significance of the finding was evident from the start; these were the first two lines of the embargoed press release:

Scientists from India report that pure Bismuth – a semimetal with a very low number of electrons per given volume, or carrier concentration – is superconducting at ultralow temperatures. The observation makes Bismuth one of the two lowest carrier density superconductors to date.

All a journalist had to do was get in touch with Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the lead author of the paper as well as the corresponding author, to get a better idea of the discovery’s significance. From my article on The Wire:

“People have been searching for superconductivity in bismuth for 50 years,” Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the leader of the TIFR group, told The Wire. “The last work done in bismuth found that it is not superconducting down to 0.01 kelvin. This was done 20 years ago and people gave up.”

So, I’m very curious to know what happened. And since no outlets apart from The Wire have picked the story up, we circle back to the question of media coverage for science news in India. As my editor pointed out, the major publications are mostly interested in stuff like an ISRO launch, a nuclear reactor going critical or an encephalitis outbreak going berserker when it comes to covering science, and even then the science of the story itself is muted while the overlying policy issues are played up. This is not to say the policies are receiving undeserving coverage – they’re important, too – but only that the underlying science, which informs policy in crucial ways, isn’t coming through.

And over time this disregard blinds us to an entire layer of enterprise that involves hundreds of thousands of our most educated people and close to Rs 2 lakh crore of our national expenditure (total R&D, 2013).

If Rajinikanth regrets some of the roles he played, and other questions

Featured image: An illustration of actor Rajinikanth. Credit: ssoosay/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Read this about the Dileep-Kavya wedding and the crazy thing the groom said about the bride and why he was marrying her (protecting her honour, apparently). Reminded me of the widespread misogyny in Tamil cinema – as well as the loads of interviews I daydream about conducting with the people who both participate in and create one of my favourite enterprises in India: ‘Kollywood’. So many people have so much to answer for: fat jokes, moral policing, stalking, the so-called “amma sentiment” (nothing to do with JJ), love, superstitions, punch-dialogues, etc.

(What follows is by no means exhaustive but does IMO address the major problems and the most well-known films associated with them. Feel free to pile on.)

Fat jokes – What do actors like Nalini, Aarthi Ravi and Bava Lakshmanan feel about elephant-trumpets playing in the background when they or their dialogues have their moment on screen? Or when actors like Vivek, Soori and Santhanam make fun of the physical appearances of actors like Yogi Babu, Madhumitha and ‘Naan Kadavul’ Rajendran for some supposedly comedic effect? Or when actors like Vadivelu and Goundamani make fun of dark-skinned women?

Moral policing – Applies to a lot of actors but I’m interested in one in particular: Rajinikanth. Through films like Baasha (1995), Padayappa (1999), Baba (2002), Chandramukhi (2005) and Kuselan (2008), Rajini has delivered a host of dialogues about how women should or shouldn’t behave, dialogues that just won’t come unstuck from Tamil pop culture. His roles in these films, among many others, have glorified his stance as well and shown them to reap results, often to the point where to emulate the ‘Superstar’ is to effectively to embody these attitudes (which are all on the conservative, more misogynistic side of things). I’d like to ask him if he regrets playing these roles and the lines that came with them. I’d be surprised if he were completely unconcerned. He’s an actor who’s fully aware of the weight he pulls (as much as of his confrontation with the politician S. Ramadoss in 2002, over the film Baba showing the actor smoking and drinking in many scenes, from which he emerged smarting.)

(Oh, and women can’t drink or smoke.)

Misogyny – Much has been written about this but I think a recent spate of G.V. Prakash movies deserve special mention. What the fuck is he thinking? Especially with a movie like Trisha Illana Nayanthara (2015)? Granted, he might not even had much of a say in the story, production values, etc., but he has to know he’s the face, the most prominent name, of the shitty movies he acts in. And I expect him to speak up about it. Also, Siva Karthikeyan and his ‘self-centred hero’ roles, where at the beginning of the plot he’s a jerkbag and we’ve to spend the next 100 minutes awaiting his glorious and exceptionally inane reformation even as the background score strongly suggests we sympathise with him. Over and over and over. What about the heroine’s feelings? Oh, fuck her feelings, especially with lines like, “It’s every woman’s full-time job to make men cry.” Right. So that’s why you spent the last 99 minutes lusting after her. Got it. Example: Remo (2016).

Stalking – This is unbelievably never-endingly gloriously crap. And it’s crappier when some newer films continue to use it as a major and rewarding plot-device, often completely disregarding the female character’s discomfort on the way.

Respect for mothers – I hate this for two reasons. In Kollywood pop culture, this trope is referred to as “amma sentiment” (‘amma’ is Tamil for ‘mother’). It plays out in Tamil films in the form of the protagonist, usually the male, revering his mother and/or mothers all over the place for being quasi-divine manifestations of divine divinity. It began with Kamal Haasan’s Kalathur Kannamma in 1960 (though I’m not going to hold that against him, he was 6 y.o. at the time) and received a big boost with Rajinikanth’s Mannan (1992). But what this does is to install motherhood as the highest possible aspiration for women, excising them of their choice be someone/something else. What this reverence also does is to portray all mothers as good people. This it delegitimises the many legitimate issues of those who’ve had fraught relationships with their mothers.

The Moment When Love ‘Arrives’ – Stalking-based movies have this moment when Love Arrives. Check out the cult classic Ullathai Allitha (1996), when Karthik Muthuraman forces Rambha to tell him she loves him. And then when she does, she actually fucking does. The Turn is just brutal: to the intelligence of the female character, to the ego of the male character (which deserves only to be deflated). But thanks: at least you’re admitting there’s no other way that emotional inflection point is going to come about, right?

Endorsement of religious rituals/superstitions/astrology – Sometimes it’s frightening how casually many of these films assume these things are based in fact, or even in the realm of plausibility. Example: DeMonte Colony (2015), Aambala (2015), Aranmanai (2014), Sivaji (2007), Veerappu (2007), Anniyan (2005), etc.

Punch dialogues – Yeah, some actors like Vijay, Dhanush, Ajith, even Siva Karthikeyan and *cough* M. Sasikumar of late, deliver punch dialogues on screen to please their more-hardcore fans. But the more these dialogues continue to be developed and delivered, aren’t the actors and their producers also perpetuating their demand of mind-numbing levels of depersonalisation from the audience?

Obsession with fair skin – Apart from the older fair-and-lovely criticisms, etc., some movies also take time out to point out that an actress in the film is particularly fair-skinned and deserves to be noticed for just that reason. Example: Poojai (2014), Maan Karate (2014), Kappal (2014), Goa (2010), Ainthaam Padai (2009), Kadhala Kadhala (1998), etc.

Circlejerking – The film awards instituted by the South Indian film industries are like those awards given to airports: a dime a dozen, no standardised evaluation criteria and a great excuse to dress up and show off. On many occasions, I’ve felt like some of the awardings might’ve better served the institutions that created them if they weren’t given out in a particular year. Another form of this circlejerk is for a mediocre or bad film to have multiple throwbacks to its male protagonist’s previous films and roles.

Miscellaneous WTFs

Manadhai Thirudivittai (2001) – For completely rejecting the idea that a woman has feelings or opinions about something that affects her

Endrendrum Punnagai (2013) – For a male protagonist who never feels the need to apologise for his boneheadedness and its emotional impact on other people

Kaththi (2014) – For portraying a female lead prepared to be part of a strike that cripples an entire state but is okay being slapped by random people

The actor Santhanam – I’ve always found that Tamil cinema’s comedians and comediennes are among the industry’s best actors, and Santhanam is no exception. He’s been extremely successful in the last five years, and it’s been evident of late that he now wants to make it big as a hero. Good luck! Except what hurts is that he’s trying to be the painful-to-watch hero: engaging in stalking, delivering punch-dialogues, telling women what they should or shouldn’t do, etc.

It is as the art critic John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing (1972) – with the following prefix: “In most of Tamil cinema…”

… men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

Workflow: Making a mailer

Some of you might remember that, well before Infinite in All Directions, a friend and I used to send out a science newsletter called Curious Bends. After quickly raking in a few hundred subscribers, both of us lost interest in sending the newsletter even as we continued to believe that doing so would be a valuable service. One of the reasons it may have stopped – in hindsight – is likely set-shifting. From next week’s newsletter:

… the newsletter didn’t take a hit for lack of time as much as for the cost of switching between tasks that require different aptitudes. Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: set-shifting. Research has shown that when a person switches from one task to another, there are two kinds of costs. One is the cost of readjusting one’s mental settings to be ready for the second task after the first. The other is the erosion of our efficiency at performing the second task due to ‘leftover’ settings from the first task. And these costs are exacerbated when the tasks get more complex. In effect, I skipped the newsletter because the second kind of cost was just getting too high for me.

Now, I don’t want that to happen with Infinite in All Directions because when I do compile and send it out, I have a gala time as do many of its subscribers (based on the feedback I’ve received – but feel free to tell me I’m wrong). And this is now making me think harder about mitigating the costs, or even prevalence, of set-shifting.

One way out, for example, is for me to reduce the time it takes to create the newsletter. Right now, I send it out through MailChimp, which has its own editing and formatting tools/area. I didn’t choose MailChimp as much as I chose the email newsletter as a medium through which to deliver information. And my workflow goes like this: See a link I like → Save it on Evernote → Make some points on Evernote → Port them at the end of the week to MailChimp → Format the newsletter → Send → Copy the email and reformat → Publish on The Wire (WordPress).

Now what if I could use one tool – like iA Writer (and its amazing transclusion feature) – instead of two (Evernote + MailChimp) so I can publish what I compile via the same platform, while you – the subscriber – receive an auto-compiled list of posts once a week via MailChimp? I.e.: Ulysses/iA → WordPress → MailChimp. It sounds quite appealing to me but if you think I’m missing something, please let me know.

Featured image: A few server racks with disks and switches. Caption & credit: Alex/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Thanksgiving turkey and drinking water

A tanker-truck explosion effects shot, with the camera chopper filming it. Credit: toasty/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Saw this 20-something-second long video going around on Facebook and Twitter:

By itself, the video, produced by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, tells me nothing apart from what I shouldn’t be doing, no reasons or explanations. Versions of the video were also carried by The Guardian, USA Today, Reuters, NBC NewsWashington Post and Scroll. (Disclosure: I work for The Wire, which competes with Scroll.) So I went looking – and found the answer on mental_floss:

The instant the frozen food hits the oil, the ice crystals melt, then momentarily sink. This exerts an upwards force on the oil. An instant later, these small sinking bubbles of water boil, expanding as they heat up and adding further force to the oil. This bubbling and forcing the oil upwards creates an aerosol of boiling oil and air violently shooting up out of the pan and towards the other parts of the kitchen.

I believe this also has a technical term, though it seems forced: ‘boiling liquid expanding vapour explosion’. The explosiveness arises from a process called flash evaporation (*junior year thermodynamics memories*) – when the pressure surrounding a liquid is suddenly reduced significantly, causing some of the water to instantly turn, or ‘flash’, into vapour (Business Insider has the video explainer). Because gases occupy more volume than liquids, flashing can also be interpreted as an explosive expansion.

One useful application: In most desalination plants around the world, salty water is passed through a throttling valve that converts some of it into salt-free vapour, which is condensed into potable water. The remaining salty water is then sent through another throttling valve at a lower pressure to repeat the process. This is called multi-stage flash distillation. Other applications: fire extinguishers and pressure cookers being able to let off steam. Some unfortunate ‘applications’: boiler explosions and rapidly worsening accidents involving tankers.

Relevant to the case of the frozen turkey: water boils at 100º C and oil boils at 450º C – both at atmospheric pressure. So when the turkey is dipped into a vat of very hot oil, the ice crystals falling off into the container sink beneath the oil but begin to boil on the way because of the oil’s temperature. Because water is denser, the boiling water remains trapped under its hot oil ceiling, although it’s also expanding because of the heat. At one point, the ceiling ruptures and the water flashes out, carrying some oil with it. The real problem begins when the oil is splashed into the fire below the container. Then, as mental_floss writes, “in a matter of seconds after putting your dinner on, your dinner has destroyed a large amount of your property and a significant portion of your, well, life.”

Featured image credit: toasty/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Reporters in Delhi should get a wintertime allowance

Over Delhi. Credit: souravdas/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Featured image credit: souravdas/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I recently moved out of Delhi. The air made it easier to decide to leave. What I’ve learnt is that a source of amusement to many friends in the country’s south is actually a nightmare up north, where a five-minute stroll outside can leave you with an irritated throat, watering eyes and the feeling that something is burning its way through your nose. In the week right after Deepavali, you woke up in the morning smelling something toasty; the view through your window was always more orange than it ought to be. You couldn’t go to and return from work without feeling short of breath – irrespective of how you travelled.

The effects of the disaster are undoubtedly classist – and sometimes more than they need to be. Recently, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that air purifiers would be installed at a few major traffic intersections around Delhi to clean up the air. Sarath Guttikunda, a scientist and environmental activist, wrote for The Wire about how insipid the idea is. His article highlights the vacuity of Kejriwal’s desperation, that he would resort to a downstream solution that would affect so few people in the city instead effecting something upstream – at the sources – that would help everyone. What about those who can’t afford air filters? What about those who live on the roads?

The scale of changes that will have to be implemented implies that Delhi’s wintertime pollution problem will maintain its classist manifestation for a few years at least – assuming that the changes are implemented at all. To quote Guttikunda, they are broadly to increase the quality of public transportation and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. Now, the issue here is that – assuming you’re a middle-class person with a job that pays 25k to 75k a month – unless your boss is perfectly reasonable and considerate (or is a Kejriwal under pressure to be seen to act), you’re not going to get time off work unless the pollution makes you really sick (i.e. enough to have you bed-ridden for the day).

Delhi has four popular public transportation options: auto, bus, metro and cab (Ola/Uber). There are also rickshaws but they operate over shorter distances. Only the metro is immune to traffic jams; the others contribute to and are stuck in one regularly, especially when going from south Delhi, east Delhi and Gurgaon to central Delhi in the morning and the other way in the evening. If you want to get to work on time, the metro is your best option. Even then, however, given the number of stations together with the size of the city, your odds of finding a metro station that’s close to home as well as close to where you work are really low. You’re going to have to walk, or take an auto/rickshaw, through the crappy air over the course of a few arduous minutes.

What’re these daily minutes of exposure going to do, you ask? Deepak Natarajan, a cardiologist in Delhi, has a list of diseases likelier to beset you after short-term exposure to heightened PM2.5 levels:

  1. Acute myocardial infarction
  2. Unstable angina
  3. Increased likelihood of heart attacks by 8-26%
  4. Heightened risk of thrombosis
  5. Endothelial dysfunction,

and a host of other cardiovascular ailments. As Natarajan writes, air pollution kills more people every year than AIDS and malaria. The next time you’re walking through the smog, feel free to imagine you’re walking through a cloud of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Circling back to the fact that there are no laws securing anyone’s choice to not work – or at least to not have to visit the workplace – with that bilious overhang: consider the plight of journalists. Reporters among them have an especial obligation to spend time on the outside, and the more seasoned among whom hardly ever think about the pollution as a vocational hazard. It’s a job that requires a modicum of physiological fitness that’s simultaneously almost never discussed. In fact, the conversation is swept away by the pretext of a ‘reporter allowance’. I used to receive one at The Hindu, a Rs 1,600 to cover intra-city travelling expenses. But it could cover very little that my salary (then at Rs 30,000) already hadn’t. And this was in Chennai, where the cost of living is lower than that in Delhi.

(Just the way poverty makes all the small, niggling issues in life seem more maddening, a rapidly shrinking set of class-sensitive solutions available to those labouring in wintertime Delhi can drive people similarly close to the edge: such as auto-drivers refusing rides to certain areas, a perpetual shortage of buses and surge pricing. We all know these are not immediately fixable, so how about doing a Kejriwal and heading downstream to check in on your local news-bearers?)

The reasonableness and consideration of your supervisors and employers matters in this context because Delhi’s pollution becomes easier to live through the more privileged you are. And if your editor isn’t considerate enough, then she’s probably assuming pollution affects you the way it does her, which isn’t good if she lives closer to central Delhi. Many media houses*, almost all government offices and all the more-genteel things are located towards the centre, a.k.a. Lutyens’ Delhi, which is marked by open spaces, abundant greenery, its radial outlay and wide roads – all contributing to the reduced prevalence of dust. The cost of living drops as you move further away from this area (with a marked drop once you exit the radial areas). This means the hierarchy in a journalist’s workplace is likely to be mirrored by each employee’s residence’s proximity to Lutyens’ Delhi – evidently, a proximity by proxy to healthiness.

And privilege, as has often been the case, often blinds those who enjoy it to the travails of those who don’t. In this case, it is established by having access to the following (at a cost that doesn’t burn holes in clothing):

  1. A house in a clean neighbourhood away from dusty roads
  2. Abundant greenery in your immediate neighbourhood
  3. An air-conditioner
  4. Air filters/purifiers/fresheners
  5. A car to commute in
  6. A proximate workplace
  7. Clean, well-maintained public spaces
  8. Sufficient time and/or resources to keep the house clean
  9. Affordable medicines and medical assistance

Without access to them, daily life can be quite disorderly, unfulfilling and hard to establish a routine with – especially if you can’t really live dirty without such a state of affairs taking a toll on your productivity and peace of mind. As a result, Delhi’s pollution imposes high entry barriers for healthy living on its residents – barriers that become less surmountable the farther away from the city’s centre you are (to add to which you spend longer to get to the city’s centre). And if you’re a reporter, you’re likelier to have it well and truly harder than most others of your means, thanks (in sum) to central Delhi being cleaner, areas farther more removed from it cheaper, air pollution being easier to live through the more privileged you are, and there being no laws to secure your right to a clean working environment.

To address these issues and even out inequities, reporters in wartime wintertime Delhi should receive an additional allowance as well as shorter and more flexible working hours. Other staffers should also be allowed to work from where they feel comfortable apart from receiving an allowance that will help cover medical expenses, to begin with. (These measures make immediate sense for online news establishments comfortable with decentralised work environments – but they aren’t to exonerate newspaper offices that are used to having everyone work out of a common newsroom.) Those who can’t or won’t should be kept mindful of what they’re asking their journalists to give up and compensate them accordingly as and when the opportunities arise. And even so, no amount of fondness or pride for situating themselves in the national capital can save journalism establishments from the steady toll the city is taking on their journalists.

*Offices are becoming more spread out – but that doesn’t matter.

The power of the Sun

This video was pretty cool until the end. “Harness the power of the Sun”? This torch emits 2,300 lumens from a battery that lasts 30 minutes. The Sun? About 98,000 lumens, equivalent to 100 billion megatonnes of TNT blowing up per second for 9 billion years. This is also a chance to marvel at the hypernova, a.k.a. the superluminous supernova: a few billion billion megatonnes of TNT per second, a.k.a. 10 million Suns blowing up per second. It’s the hypernova that actually harnesses the power of the Sun.

We did start the fire

Credit: kabetojamaicafotografia/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

This is one of the dumbest things I’ve seen done in a while:

The Asian News International network tweeted that a group of Indian priests had performed a long yagya in Tokyo for the express purpose of purifying the environment. A yagya (or a yagna, although I’m not sure if they’re the same) typically involves keeping a pyre of wooden logs lubricated with ghee burning for a long time. So a plea to the gods to clear the airs was encoded in many kilograms of carbon dioxide? Clearly these god-fearing gentlemen insist that they will accept only the gods’ solutions to their problems – not anyone else’s, no matter how motivated. I dearly hope that, if nothing else, the event will create an ironic awareness of what’s at stake.

At least the other shit-peddlers back home have had the sense to not force the cow piss down our throats (ignoring the massive public healthcare and R&D funding cuts, of course). If my ire seems disproportionate to the amount of pollutants these yagnas will have released, it’s because I fear someone else will get ideas now, especially those aspiring to get into the record books. (How often have you heard the anchor on Sun TV news croon at the tail-end of the segment at 7 pm everyday, “XYZ கின்னெஸ் சாதனை படைத்தார்” – “XYZ set a Guinness world record”?)

Featured image credit: kabetojamaicafotografia/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Cybersecurity in space

The International Space Station, 2011. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Featured image: The International Space Station, 2011. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

On May 19, 1998, the Galaxy IV satellite shut down unexpectedly in its geostationary orbit. Immediately, most of the pagers in the US stopped working even as the Reuters, CBS and NPR news channels struggled to stay online. The satellite was declared dead a day later but it was many days before the disrupted services could be restored. The problem was found to be an electrical short-circuit onboard.

The effects of a single satellite going offline are such. What if they could be shutdown en masse? The much-discussed consequences would be terrible, which is why satellite manufacturers and operators are constantly devising new safeguards against potential threats.

However, the pace of technological advancements, together with the proliferation of the autonomous channels through which satellites operate, has ensured that operators are constantly but only playing catch-up. There’s no broader vision guiding how affected parties could respond to rapidly evolving threats, especially in a way that constantly protects the interests of stakeholders across borders.

With the advent of low-cost launch options, including from agencies like ISRO, since the 1990s, the use of satellites to prop up critical national infrastructure – including becoming part of the infrastructure themselves – stopped being the exclusive demesne of developed nations. But at the same time, the drop in costs signalled that the future of satellite operations might rest with commercial operators, leaving them to deal with technological capabilities that until then were being handled solely by the defence industry and its attendant legislative controls.

Today, satellites are used for four broad purposes: Earth-observation, meteorology and weather-forecasting; navigation and synchronisation; scientific research and education; and telecommunication. They’ve all contributed to a burgeoning of opportunities on the ground. But in terms of their own security, they’ve become a bloated balloon waiting for the slightest prick to deflate.

How did this happen?

Earlier in September, three Chinese engineers were able to hack into two Tesla electric-cars from 19 km away. They were able to move the seats and mirrors and, worse, control the brakes. Fortunately, it was a controlled hack conducted with Tesla’s cooperation and after which the engineers reported the vulnerabilities they’d found to Tesla.

The white-hat attack demonstrated a paradigm: that physical access to an internet-enabled object was no longer necessary to mess with it. Its corollary was that physical separation between an attacker and the target no longer guaranteed safety. In this sense, satellites occupy the pinnacle of our thinking about the inadequacy of physical separation; we tend to leave them out of discussions on safety because satellites are so far away.

It’s in recognition of this paradigm that we need to formulate a multilateral response that ensures minimal service disruption and the protection of stakeholder interests at all times in the event of an attack, according to a new report published by Chatham House. It suggests:

Development of a flexible, multilateral space and cybersecurity regime is urgently required. International cooperation will be crucial, but highly regulated action led by government or similar institutions is likely to be too slow to enable an effective response to space-based cyberthreats. Instead, a lightly regulated approach developing industry-led standards, particularly on collaboration, risk assessment, knowledge exchange and innovation, will better promote agility and effective threat responses.

Then again, how much cybersecurity do satellites need really?

Because when we speak about cyber anything, our thoughts hardly venture out to include our space-borne assets. When we speak about cyber-warfare, we imagine some hackers at their laptops targeting servers on some other part of the world – but a part of the world, surely, and not a place floating above it. However, given how satellites are becoming space-borne proxies for state authority, they do need to be treated as significant space-borne liabilities as well. There’s even precedence: In November 2014, an NOAA satellite was hacked by Chinese actors with minor consequences. But in the process, the attack revealed major vulnerabilities that the NOAA rushed to patch.

So the better question would be: What kinds of protection do satellites need against cyber-threats? To begin with, hackers have been able to jam communications and replace legitimate signals with false ones (called spoofing). They’ve also been able to invade satellites’ SCADA systems, introduce viruses to trip up software and,  pull DOS attacks. The introduction of micro- and nanosatellites has also provided hackers with an easier conduit into larger networks.

Another kind of protection that could be useful is from the unavoidable tardiness with which governments and international coalitions react to cyber-warfare, often due to over-regulation. The report states, “Too centralised an approach would give the illicit actors, who are generally unencumbered by process or legislative frameworks, an unassailable advantage simply because their response and decision-making time is more flexible and faster than that of their legitimate opponents.”

Do read the full report for an interesting discussion of the role cybersecurity plays in the satellite services sector. It’s worth your time.

Lab test to check for beef works best if meat is uncooked

Looking at molecular DNA. Credit: snre/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Featured image credit: snre/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Ahead of Eid al Adha celebrations on September 13, the police in Haryana’s Mewat district were tasked with sniffing through morsels of meat biryani sold by vendors to check for the presence of cow beef. Haryana has some of India’s strictest laws on the production and consumption of cow-meat. The state also receives the largest number of complaints against these acts after Uttar Pradesh, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. However, the human senses are easily waylaid, especially when the political climate is charged, allowing room for the sort of arbitrariness that had goons baying for the blood of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri in September 2015.

The way to check if a piece of meat is from a cow is to ascertain if it contains cow DNA. The chemical test used for this is called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which rapidly creates multiples copies of whatever sample DNA is available and then analyses them according to preprogrammed rules. However, the PCR method isn’t very effective when the DNA might be damaged – such as when the meat is cooked at high temperatures for a long time.

The DNA molecule in most living creatures on Earth consists of a sequence of smaller molecules called nucleotides. The sequence of nucleotides in their entirety is unique to each individual creature as long as its cells contain DNA. A segment of these nucleotides also indicate what species the creature belongs to. It is this segment that a molecular biologist, usually someone at the postgraduate level or higher, will mount a hunt for using the physical and chemical tools at her disposal. The segment’s nucleotides and their ordering will give away the DNA’s identity.

The Veterinary and Animal Sciences University in Hisar, Haryana, is one centre where these tests are conducted. NDTV reported on September 10 that the university had been authorised to do so only two days before it received its first test sample. The vice-chancellor subsequently clarified that two other centres in the state were being set up to conduct these tests – but until they were ready, the university lab would be it.

What would need to be set up? Essentially: an instrument called a thermal cycler to perform the PCR and someone qualified to conduct the PCR, usually at the postgraduate level or higher. The following is how PCR works.

Once some double-strands have been extracted from cells in the meat, they are heated to about 96 ºC for around 25 seconds to denature them. This breaks the bonds holding the two strands together, yielding single strands. Then, two molecules, a primer and a probe, are made to latch onto each DNA single-strand. Primers are small strands of DNA, typically a dozen nucleotides long, that bind complementarily to the single-strand – i.e., the nucleotides adenine on one strand with thymine on the other, and cytosine on one with guanine on the other. Probes are also complementary strands of nucleotides, but its nucleotides are chosen such that the probe binds to sequences that identify the DNA as being from cows. They also contain some fluorescent material.

To enable this latching, the reaction temperature is held at 50-65 ºC for about 30 seconds.

Next, an enzyme called a DNA polymerase is introduced into the reaction solution. The polymerase elongates the primer – by weaving additionally supplied nucleotides along the single-strand to make a double-strand all over again. When the polymerase reaches the probe, it physically disintegrates the probe and releases the fluorescent material. The resulting glow in the solution signals to the researcher that a nucleotide sequence indicative of cow is present in the DNA.

If the Taq polymerase, extracted from microbes living around hot hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, is used, the reaction temperature is maintained at 72 ºC. In this scenario, the polymerase weaves in about 1,000 nucleotides per minute.

A molecular biologist repeats these three tasks – denaturing the strands, latching the primer and probe on and elongating the primer using polymerase – in repeated cycles to make multiple copies of DNA. At the end of the first cycle, there is one double-strand DNA. At the end of the second, there are two. At the end of the third, there will be eight. So each cycle produces 2n DNA double-strands. When 20 cycles are performed, the biologist will possess over a million DNA double-strands. After 40 cycles, there will be almost 1.1 trillion. Depending on the number of cycles, PCR could take between two and six hours.

These many DNA molecules are needed to amplify their presence, and expose their nucleotides for the finding. The heating cycles are performed in the thermal cycler. This instrument can be modified to track the rate of increase of fluorescence in the solutions, and check if that’s in line with the rate at which new DNA double-strands are made. If the two readings line up, the molecular biologist will have her answer: that the DNA identifies meat from a cow.

The test gets trickier when the meat is cooked. The heat during preparation could damage the DNA in the meat’s cells, denaturing it to a point beyond which PCR can work with. One biologist The Wire spoke to said that if the “meat is nicely overcooked at high temperature, you cannot PCR anything”. A study published in the journal Meat Science in 2006 attests to this: “… with the exception of pan frying for 80 min, beef was determined in all meat samples including the broth and sauce of the roasted meat” using PCR.

At the same time, in March 2016, a study published in Veterinary World claimed that PCR could check for the origins of cooked and raw meat both, and also ascertain the presence of a small amount of beef (up to 1%) present in a larger amount of a different meat. The broader consensus among biologists seems to be that the more raw the meat, the easier it would be to test. The meat starts to become untestable when cooked at high temperatures.

A PCR test costs anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 7,000.

The Wire
September 15, 2016

Corrected: Environmental journalism in India and false balance

Credit: mamnaimie/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Featured image credit: mamnaimie/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

I’ve developed a lousy habit of publishing posts before they’re ready to go, and not being careful enough about how I’m wording things. It happened recently with the review of Matthew Cobb’s book and then last evening with the post about false balance in environmental journalism. I don’t think my blog is small enough any more for me to be able to set the record straight quietly (evinced by the reader who pointed out some glaring mistakes). So this is fixing the false balance post. Apologies, I’ll be more careful next time.

In the same vein, any advice/tips on how to figure when an opinion is ready to go (and you’ve not forgotten something) would be much appreciated. What I usually do is take a break for 30 minutes after I’ve finished writing something, then return to it and read it out loud.


It’s no secret that the incumbent NDA government ruling in India has screwed over the country’s environmental protection machinery to such an extent that there remain few meaningful safeguards against corporate expansionism – especially of the rapacious kind. Everything – from land acquisition, tribal protection and coastal regulation to pollution control and assessment – has been systematically weakened. As a result, the government’s actions have become suspect by default.

For journalists in India, this has come with an obvious tilt in the balance of stories. Government actions and corporate interests have become increasingly indefensible. What redemption they may have been able to afford started to dissipate when both factions started to openly rub shoulders with each other, feeding off each others’ strengths: the government’s ability to change policy and modify legislation and the companies’ ability to… well, fund. Prime example: the rise of Gautam Adani.

In Indian journalism, therefore, representing all three sides in an article – the government, corporate interests and the environment – (and taking a minimalist PoV for argument’s sake) is no longer the required thing to do. Representation is magnified for environmental interests while government and corporate lines are printed as a matter of courtesy, if at all. This has become okay, and it is.

Do I have a problem with this? No. That’s why doing things like asking corporate interests what they have to say is called a false balance.

Is activist journalism equivalent to adversarial journalism simply by assuming its subject is to right a wrong? Recently, I edited an article for The Wire about how, despite the presence of dozens of regulatory bodies, nobody is sure who is responsible for conserving and bettering the status of India’s wetlands. The article was penned by an activist and was in the manner of an oped; all claims and accusations were backed up, it wasn’t a rant. I think it speaks more to the zeitgeist of Indian environmental journalism and not the zeitgeist of journalism in general that opeds like that one have become news reports de jure. In other words: if only in Indian environmental journalism, there is no Other Side anymore for sure.

This advent of a ‘false balance’ recently happened in the case of climate change, where a scientific consensus was involved. That global warming is anthropogenic came to be treated as fact after scientific studies to assess its origins repeatedly reached that conclusion. Therefore, journalistic reports that quote climate-change skeptics are presenting a false balance of the truth. A decision to not quote the government or corporate interests in the case presented above, however, is more fluid, influenced not by the truth-value of a single parameter but by the interests of journalism itself.

Where this takes us isn’t entirely difficult to predict: the notion of balance itself has had a problematic history, and needs to be deprioritised. Its necessity is invoked by the perception of many that journalism is, or has to be, objective. It may have been associated with objectivity at its birth but journalism today definitely has mostly no need to be. And when it doesn’t need to be happens only through the advent of false balances.

Lingua franca

Featured image credit: allypark/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Guilt can be just as disabling as arrogance, however. The political good which Spivak has done far outweighs the fact that she leads a well-heeled life in the States. If complicity means living in capitalist society, then just about everyone but Fidel Castro stands accused of it; if it means ‘buying in’ (as the Americans revealingly phrase it) to something called Western Reason, then only those racist or non-dialectical thinkers for whom such reason is uniformly oppressive need worry about it. … In any case, Spivak is logically mistaken to suppose that imagining some overall alternative to the current system means claiming to be unblemished by it. To imagine that it would be nice to be in Siena is not necessarily to disavow the fact that I am in Scunthorpe.

These lines are from Terry Eagleton’s review of a book by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, called A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. I’ve heard of Spivak but the other two names in the previous sentence I admit ring no bells. And more than that the contents of the book (i.e. the lines quoted by Eagleton in his review) bounce off my head like raindrops off a Teflon boulder. To be sure, Eagleton’s review is about how Spivak is good at what she does but somehow her admiration of political writers past overlooks the lucidity of their writing, having written the book in “overstuffed, excessively elliptical prose”. (However, the word ‘unreadable’ doesn’t show up anywhere in the review.)

Anyway, the acknowledgment in the first half of the third line from the quote above was interesting to read. It’s something I’ve had trouble reconciling with, with Arundhati Roy as a popular example: how do you rile against the sort of passive injustice exemplified by oppressing the so-called ‘lower classes’ from the balcony of a palatial home? The second half of the same line is worse – I still don’t get it (although I am embarrassed by my ignorance as well as by my inability to surmount it). My problem is that the sentence overall seems to suggest that enjoying the fruits of a capitalist society is not complicity if only because it implicates a majority of the elite.

I’m wrong… right?

Thanks to Jahnavi for help untangling some of the lines.