A journey of a thousand miles...

What's 10 days in 8 years? About 1 in 290 in a lazy 3:30 am approximation - <.4%.. Actually technically I have only 2 days to turn in the bloody thesis so that's <.08%.. Unfortunately though in this grad school race there are no prizes for surviving 99.92% of the race - it's a 100 or bust - boo.. Wish me luck!

Nandigram pt. 1 - or Damn the Bloody CPM

Folks that read this space will know will know my eternal fondness for the VHP fascists (yes, I know what that word implies thank you). But, the current object of ire is state terror from a different party, one that claims to speak from the "left" but in practice has long abandoned any pretensions to communist ideology in favour of the authoritarian neo-liberal model favoured by the Congress - so-called "Communist" Party of India (Marxist). I should say that I write from the perspective of a "person of the left" and pretty much all the linked articles are critiques of the CPM from the left.

The state uses colonial laws to displace peasant farmers from their land which is acquired for Big Business, party cadres fire on and sexually abuse peasants while police stand by.. Yawn, this is such old hat, yet another repressive Indian government that doesn't give a hoot about poor farmers - yet this one is from the party of EMS Namboodripad - a man who stands head shoulders chest above any of our current "leaders". They have fallen to truly craven depths. For all the news and analysis you're ever likely to have the appetite to consume regarding the CPI(M)'s state thuggery and ideological bankruptcy do check out the quite excellent Sanhati. A very good summary of the CPI(M)'s political history in Bengal can be found in this well written article(pdf) by Sumanta Banerjee published in the EPW. To quote:
The rot started with the CPI(M)’s using the administration to spread and consolidate its party base by selectively distributing largesse, and forcibly doling out plots of land to sections of the farmers and peasantry, who ultimately became their apparatchiki and retainers. This privileged segment of the rural population has emerged as a tyrannical force in the West Bengal countryside – bullying the villagers into accepting their party dictates, persecuting those who refuse to toe their line, extorting money in the name of collecting party funds, and assuming the role of the sole arbiter in any village dispute....
And their "achievements" after being in power for 30 years:
At the turn of the 21st century, it was revealed that only15 per cent of the net arable land had been distributed in the state. Even among those who received land, on an average 13 per cent had lost it by 2001, and the number of landless rural households increased from 39.6 per cent in 1987-88 to 49.8 per cent in 2000 (according to the West Bengal government’s first Human Development Report). The Human Development Report of the Planning Commission brought to light far more devastating facts – in rural West Bengal 85 per cent of the population did not have pucca houses; women and children were more underfed and anaemic than in other states; 35.66 per cent of its population still remained below the poverty line – all these figures reducing the state to the 20th position in the list of 32 states and union territories in terms of the human development index.

The government’s tall claim of improving the lot of dalits and tribal people was also punctured soon when the Pratichi Trust, headed by no less a person than Amartya Sen, came out in 2002 with shocking revelations about the discrimination against students of scheduled castes and tribes in the primary schools of the state. As for the other Left proclamation of enhancing the status of the Muslim minority (which constitutes almost a quarter of the population of the state), the Sachar Committee found that its share in state jobs was only 4.2 per cent. We must add to this the dismal record of the government’s failure to prevent closure of factory after factory, leading to unemployment and suicide among industrial workers
. A couple more articles on Nadigram one from Ashok Mitra an old and disillusioned CPM member (well worth the time), and another a citizens report

The people of Bengal deserve better than this craven party, for those of the left this is a challenge we must meet. Sumanta Banerjee's article ends with with this lovely poem by Langston Hughes, that serves as a timely "or else"

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fetter like a sore -
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Gates and Jobs at the Nobels..

Snippet of random conversation about the Nobel Prizes:

"The iPod won the Physics prize and Powerpoint the Peace one!"

The whole institution of the Peace prize deserves a rant, but it shall be canned. It's been another long break for me from the blogging world, trust life's been treating y'all well..

Katahdin



Egad, did we really climb up this trail? No photography tricks here, for about a mile and a half it really is that steep.. It's been a long hiatus in blogging space, wish I could say I was away plotting a revolution, or attribute the break to anything other than the routine humdrum grind.. One highlight of the break was a hike up Mt. Katahdin. Before I left I was told it was "challenging". After a 12 hr hike with 80+mph winds, the occasional shower and some lovely fog "bloody f***ing brutal" might be more appropriate..
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We were too busy staying alive to document the really scary parts, but they're seared in the memory for a while.. Will leave with one last shot, taken part of the way down, showing the trail winding down. This was one of those points where I thought we were past the hardest part..



I was hoping to see a moose, but the closest we got to wildlife was mice that kept running around the campsite. But, all in all definitely a experience to savour, Katahdin is a mountain that leaves you with a sense of awe and respect for the mountain. That sounds so cliched, but it's so true. Getting away from civilization even if only for a couple of days is so worth it.

Zionism has an image problem?

Nothing a few naked women can't solve apparently.
Women MPs in Israel's Knesset have criticised the foreign ministry for resorting to "pornography" to promote Israel abroad after a feature appeared in the men's magazine Maxim featuring four former soldiers photographed in their underwear.

The magazine carried the article, The Women of the Israel Defence Force, in its July issue after encouragement from the Israeli consulate in New York as part of its broader campaign to improve Israel's image abroad...

...Israel is keen to sell itself as a western country with beaches and nightclubs rather than a country full of religious zealots which has been in a permanent state of emergency since its creation.

...Staff at the consulate said that they decided a photoshoot would be a good way of promoting Israel to young Americans.

David Dorfman, an adviser at the consulate in New York, told the Associated Press: "Males that age have no feeling towards Israel one way or another, and we view that as a problem, so we came up with an idea that would be appealing to them."
[source Guardian]
Sheesh...

War Criminals - Go Home



So the boffins at the UMass admin. decided in all their infinite wisdom to reward Andy Card (Bush's ex chief of staff) with a honourary degree for "public service". As head of the White House Iraq Group his 'public service' included lying and deceiving a gullible US public into accepting an illegal and immoral invasion. As if surviving grad school wasn't hard enough, only get the same reward at the end as a war criminal, and a man who managed to make John Ashcroft look like a guardian of civil liberties - sweet..

This is one of the most progressive campuses in the US, I have no idea what the fuck they were thinking when the offer was made. I've never seen so many folks on campus - faculty, students and staff agree on anything, but despite all the strident protests, including shutting down admin. buildings, the administrators held firm, and so it came down to commencement day. Outside the commencement ceremony, he was greeted with scenes like:



And inside, with boos and catcalls loud enough to drown out the Provost and President reading out the acutal citation of the degree ( video below). The minute and a half of bedlam was fun while it lasted, but in all honesty felt like a defeat - the jerk got his degree in the end.. Just wish people had put all their energies into blocking the award in the first place.. But oh well, at least it gave the good folks of this town a good target to release the pent-up frustrations of the past 6-7 years, and we will certainly fight another day..



Had dropped off the blogging world for a while - so hello again, hope things have been going well..
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NYC weekend

Ever been on a "quest for the laciest, most crisp-edged lentil and rice crepe, wrapped around spiced potatoes"? A restaurant review posted outside the quite excellent Saravanas in New York claimed that the quest for the laciest etc. ends there.. The dosas are pretty darned good (if you like them the papery-thin Madras style), just thought that review was too funny..

Life has been pretty crazy of late, crazy in a sleep-deprived, slave-driven kind of way. A little weekend break in New York was just what the doctor ordered, not particularly restful, but then it's hard to laze around in a city where so many people work so hard to get ahead in life. Uday, a close friend, lives opposite "Yuva bakery", it never ceases to amaze every night I'm there to see the workers work the night shift baking the bread, cakes and scones for the Upper-East Siders to enjoy come day-break. Took the 7:30am train from Manhattan to Queens, sharing the space with some fellow sleep-deprived folks, 'cept they probably do it every night..

Also saw the Namesake, frankly couldn't really understand what the fuss was about. The immigrant story was fairly predictable, Gogol's character not really fleshed out, and there was this Monsoon weddingy feel to the movie that was completely out of place with the story.. Irfan Khan saves this movie from mediocrity, but even he can't carry a weak script. I haven't read Jumpa Lahiri's book, but have read Gogol's Overcoat, expected something more than the perfunctory nod to Gogol. Overall this is maybe a movie that you could watch on a lazy sunday afternoon at home, not something I'd recommend dishing out the $$ to see at the cinemas. It didn't make me particularly homesick either, but missing the wedding of two of my closest friends certainly does. Bah.

In the end the company of close friends is always something to treasure even if the movies aren't and sleep is scarce, the dosas and Strand Book Store are merely the icing on the cake.

Smell less - learn less, but live longer?

A rare day job related post, a couple of recent high profile Science papers have reinforced for me my decision oh so many years back as a starting grad student to focus on studying olfaction, or the sense of smell.

The first study by Jan Born's group, shows that odours specifically seem to enhance consolidation of declarative (more factual) memories during a sleep phase called slow-wave sleep (named for I guess the EEG frequency). Elegant work from Brice McNaughton's lab in particular had shown that rats seem to replay recent experiences during sleep. They were looking at these 'place cells' in the hippocampus (an area of the brain thought to be the seat of memory formation). These cells are specific to particular locations, so that each time a rat takes a different route through its maze, a different sequence of place cells fires. Subsequent studies found that sequences of place-cell firing that occur as a rat explores a new environment are replayed the next time the rat sleeps, as if the rat were retracing its steps during sleep.

The same may well apply to humans, recently a Belgian team used PET to image brain activity in men learning to navigate through a scene from the game Duke Nukem. Sure enough, the same regions of the hippocampus that were active while task was being learnt were active during slow wave sleep.

What this study did, was to build on all this collerative data, and try and try and boost memory consolidation, by boosting brain activity during sleep. The researchers had the subjects play a video version of the card game Memory wherein they had to learn and regurgitate the positions of card pairs showing the same image in a group of 30 cards. Each matched pair appeared for a few seconds with all the other cards facing down. Some subjects were concomitantly treated to a puff of rose scent, the reasoning being that the scent would be associated with the task in Pavlovian fahion. After going through all the pairs, the researchers tested the subjects' recall by turning one of the 30 cards face up and asking them to find its match.

Once the subjects entered slow-wave sleep, the researchers gave some of them a puff of rose-scented air. The result? To quote this review:
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans in sleeping subjects revealed that the odor activated the hippocampus in those who had experienced it previously, even though the EEG showed no disruptions in the subjects' slumber. Although they didn't remember smelling roses in their sleep, the subjects who got the fragrant prompt remembered the matched pairs better the next day, getting 97% correct compared to 86% for subjects who'd received no odor while sleeping. Subjects who got the rose odor either while awake or while in REM sleep, on the other hand, showed no memory boost; nor did presenting the odor during slow-wave sleep help subjects who hadn't been exposed to rose during the training session...

Born's findings fit with a popular view of how the brain files memories away for long-term storage, a process neuroscientists call memory consolidation. According to this hypothesis, memories are first encoded by the hippocampus and later--perhaps in a matter of hours or days--transferred for long-term storage to the cerebral cortex, or neocortex.
There's also a free to access NYT article about it here

The second smell related paper studied aging in an organism close to my heart, the fruit fly Drosophila. Across a number of systems from worms to flies to rodents it has pretty been convincingly demonstrated that dietary restriction extends lifespan.

What Scott Pletcher's group found was that simply exposing flies to the odour of yeast (fly food) while on a restricted diet resulted in shortened lifespan compared to dieting flies not exposed to this odour. Just the smell of food seems to be enough to offset some of the gains of dieting.They then proceeded to look at a mutant fly that lacks a co-receptor protein that results in flies with a drastically reduced ability to perceive odours, and sure enough this mutant fly strain lived much longer than normal flies, whether dieting or otherwise. It's quite a remarkable finding I think, for it suggests some sort of neural control over the aging process.

Indeed in worms work from Cynthia Kenyon et al, suggestS that mutating different smell and taste receptors has different effects on aging, some extend lifespan, some shorten it. Surprising effects I think of sensory stimulation.

Unfortunately, both the papers were in Science Magazine, which while being a top rated journal and all is subscription only..

Anyways, while I suppose I can give myself brownie points for choice of topic, can't say the same for how the research has panned out :-)