India’s national pastime

Mulla Nasruddin*, the Sufi scholar, returned home from a trip he had taken with his wife to find that his house had been burgled. The thieves had taken every valuable object in the house.

Nasruddin’s wife was visibly displeased. “It is all your fault.” she said to him. “You should have checked to make sure the doors were locked before we left.”

As she scolded him, a crowd gathered outside his house. A neighbor shook his head disapprovingly. “Why didn’t you lock the doors and windows? You shouldn’t have been so careless,’ said the neighbor.

“Your lock is faulty. You should have changed it before you left,” said another.

“You need new, stronger windows. Didn’t you know that?” said another wise passerby.

Nasruddin was flabbergasted. “Wait a minute. Surely, I am not the only one that should be blamed?”

“Who else should we hold responsible?” asked everyone in unison.

“Why, the thieves of course!” said Nasruddin.

The Scapegoat

These days in India, with every nefarious activity, you will find pundits eager to search for scapegoats instead of putting the responsibility at the door of the direct perpetrators.  I definitely advocate letting the judiciary reach a verdict in due course, but if and when the identities of those responsible are established beyond a reasonable doubt, justice should be meted out.

Is this happening? The direct catalyst for this post is the unwillingness on the part of certain power-wielding citizens to implicate the Maoists in the recent train-wreck in West Bengal even in the light of growing (and arguably, insurmountable) evidence.

Unfortunately, this is the new trend. So when Mayawati accepts a garland made from 1000-rupee notes and the media reports it, her champions come out of the woodwork to point a finger at upper-castes for discrimination. When Maoists take innocent lives through horrific acts of violence, the same armchair pundits blame India’s government for lack of rural development. The trend of justifying the acts of criminals because you feel sorry for the perceived injustices faced by them is unconscionable. I understand that voices need to be heard, but India is a democracy. Anarchy as a form of governance never worked. And definitely, shifting blame is not a sign of maturity in modern India.

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*I read the original anecdote in one of Idries Shah’s books. It stayed with me, but of course, I don’t remember it well enough to paraphrase.

Facile technology for warding off the evil-eye: inexpensive “nazar suraksha”

Abstract: The “evil-eye” better known as nazar is a severely detrimental energy field that impacts the well-being of individuals in South Asia. Previously, others have demonstrated the effectiveness of the evil-eye deterring pendant known as Nazar Suraksha Kawach which works by interfering the dangerous frequencies of the evil-eye. However, this is inadequate since the protective rays are blocked by layers of clothing and temperatures above and below room-temperature. Further, the pendant must always be in the line-of-sight of the nazar.  Therefore, an effective evil-eye deterring system which would be effective under all circumstances was desperately needed. Here, were describe a facile evil-eye deterring system that counters both the emission of evil-eye rays of the nazarwale and the reception in the brain of the nazarlagi.

Introduction: The evil-eye is the most detrimental cause of lack of progress in South Asia. Earlier scientific studies including television commercials have demonstrated that when individuals either related or unrelated look at others with jealousy or “extreme love” they case nazar or the evil-eye-induced harm (Figure 1).

Nazar is well known in popular culture too. For example, in the film Sasural, Rafi sahab sang the line “Teri pyari pyari soorat ko kisiki nazar na lage” (Your lovely, lovely face anyone’s evil-eye not touch) which is a very strong argument for the existence of this form of jealous energy.

Figure 1: mechanism of action of evil-eye

Women in South Asia have known this for ages and have often drawn a spot on their face to ward off the evil eye. But this is uneffective. According to the television commercial “extreme neurotic rays” converge on the center of the brain and are shot out of the eyes like red arrows created using Microsoft PowerPoint (Figure 1).  These arrows enter the head of the unfortunate recipient and “cause mental disturbance” which casts a dark cloud on the future. Evil-eye technology and other companies have come up with a Nazar Suraksha Kawach which emits blue cooling rays that intercept the red nazar rays much like arrows in B.R. Chopra’s  mythological television serial Mahabharat. Nazar interception may have also been the driving force behind President Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated “Star Wars” program.

There are a number of problems with the evil-eye deterring pendant that independent observers have noticed. First, it is not effective at temperatures above 24 degree Centigrade or below 18 degree Centigrade. The “ions” get restless under either condition. Second, the protective rays don’t work when the pendant is covered by layers of clothing, humidity is high, or the nazar enters through the back of the head. Finally, the cost for a set of evil-eye deterring pendants can run in the hundreds of dollars.

Therefore it was necessary to come up with a cost-effective method to ward off the evil-eye. In this research paper, we  present facile technology for warding off the evil-eye.

Figure 2: Current protection against evil-eye

Our approach was simple. Since anyone can give off rays through the evil-eye or nazar (even unknowingly), it would be best to filter these rays out completely. So we designed glasses coated with five layers of nazar-protecting material (Figure 3). Now when you wear these glasses (which have been scientifically proven to work), harmful rays can not come out of your eyes. They may look like ordinary sunglasses, but they are not. They have been tested in a nazar chamber with various saas-baahu (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law) pairs from desi teleserials.

To protect the brain from nazar rays already in the atmosphere, we designed the nazar-reflective helmet. This may look like an ordinary baseball cap with a bit of aluminum foil over it, but it is not.  It has undergone extensive testing and bears the ISO 90210 seal of approval. It is a protective device that will reflect all evil-eye rays and boomerang them back to the evil-eye-caster.

To order these two life-saving products please leave your name, address, and credit card information in the comments section of this article. It is our hope that finally, through the use of these two devices the menace known as nazar will finally be eradicated from South Asia.

Figure 3: A new effective system for blocking nazar (the evil-eye)

Can you afford to live your pathetic life in abject despair? We say no! Order now.

This is the second installment of a new series of posts on schemes that will help you either get rich fast or get lynched by an angry South Asian mob. To read the first installment click here.

Disclaimer: I guess I should tell people that nazar is real but the rest of the post is a joke, but I won’t. Go ahead. Do your worst. Cast the evil-eye. I’ll be waiting with my helmet and glasses.

Also worth reading Yogesh’s account of how you can make money by importing the Kawach from other countries.

Fair-use rationale for images: All images are low-resolution. Figures 1 and 2 are used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain where a free alternative does not exist. The new product image (Figure 3) was taken by me and created using PowerPoint. Please feel free to share, but attribute the source, m’kay?

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to get rich by selling “homemade” rudraksha seeds

Prayer beads made of rudrakshas* (also spelled as rudrakshs) are very commonly used by Hindus. My grandfather had one which he used like rosary beads to count the number of times he had recited a mantra. TeleSkyShopping Network, a direct-to-home shopping outlet that sells various charms and amulets in North America for hundreds of dollars mentions the alleged “powers” of the one-faced or “ekmukhi rudraksha” in many of their television commercials.

First, it is useful to know what exactly a rudraksha is. The rudraksha seed comes from an eponymous broad-leaf evergreen found in South and Southeast Asia. The fruit is bright blue and generally of no interest, but the seeds are named according to shape and associated with various unsubstantiated divine powers. According to Indian mythology, when Shiva wept, his tears turned into the rudraksha.

She became an IAS officer by wearing a rudraksha

Still with me? Now TeleskyShopping Network claims to sort through rudrakshas of one particular shape, bless them, claim that they have divine electromagnetic properties, and sell to you for around 150 dollars per seed. And as with other televised commercials there are testimonials portrayed by actors: a partial list of problems that the seed allegedly remedies includes illness, legal problems, failure in competitive exams, the “evil eye”, impotence, evil spirits, and unemployment. I’m curious how anyone ever dies with one around their neck, but I’ll leave that point for the experts.

He made friends with female colleagues because of the rudraksha

They even have someone, presumably a paid actor, who plays a scientist in the commercial. This expert lets viewers know that the seed is “scientifically proven” to work. And because it is shaped like a brain, it is supposed to influence the brain by balancing the hormones. The argument that the  shape of a remedy impacts a similarly-shaped organ in the body is not unique. In fact, a similar claim is made for the ability of the leaves of brahmi to improve memory and cognition. Proponents claim that because it is shaped like a brain, it exerts influence on the brain.

The commercial claims that Rudraksha influences the brain because the shape of the seed resembles the shape of the brain

How to get rich by selling rudrakshas.

I am eating this peach as I write

If you have access to the rudraksha tree then you do not need to read any further. You already have access to a goldmine that will provide for your children’s education  and your retirement since the devout will always believe in the powers of the seed.

If you live outside of South Asia then you have to be a bit creative. Fortunately, people are gullible and with a bit of convincing you can probably pass off a seed of roughly similar size and texture as a rudraksha. For those living in temperate climates, I recommend the seeds of fruits like peaches or apricots.

My rudrakshas are high in Vitamin C

For example, today I bought a pound of peaches from the grocery store. My idea is to wash and store the pits of the peaches after I’ve eaten the edible part of the fruit. Now, not only can I get my daily recommended allowance of Vitamin C, but I can also make some money on the side.

I encourage you to try it too. And if you don’t like peaches, then you can try cherries and claim that the seeds work just as well.

Do share your thoughts and if you have other ideas for passing off unwanted seeds for hundreds of dollars let me know!

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*also spelled as rudraksh from Rudra (or Shiva) + aksha or (eye), though rude + rakshas (demon) sounds funnier.

This is the first installment of a new series of posts on schemes that will help you either get rich fast or get lynched by an angry South Asian mob.

Fair-use rationale for images: All images are low-resolution. Screenshots from commercial are used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain where a free alternative does not exist. Copyright of original works resides with the original creators. Photos of peach was taken by me. The second photo of the peach is used with permission from SxC.

Did Prahlad Jani survive 70 years without food or drink?

As someone actively engaged in the dissemination of scientific information, I find it incumbent on myself to sift through the news to see how science is being represented by the media. Last week many media outlets including the AFP, reported a curious case of an Indian holy man who claimed to have survived without sustenance in the form of food or water for seven decades.

Prahlad Jani, 83, claims that a goddess blessed him at a very early age and since then he has not taken in a drop of liquid or a morsel of food. If you thought this claim was fantastic enough, there is more. India’s Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) confined Jani and observed him for fifteen days during which time, to quote the AFP article, “he neither ate nor drank and did not go to the toilet”. However during this time, he was allowed to gargle and bathe.

It is not uncommon for humans to survive long periods of time without food. Physiologically, the body first uses up glucose and then glycogen. Once these ready sources are depleted muscle-mass starts to decrease. Ketones are used next and after a few days, fat is used in “survival mode.” Mahatma Gandhi fasted several times during his life (including a 21-day fast in 1932) during which times he did not eat any solid foods. There are reports of people surviving 40 and even 50 days without food. However, reports of people living without water or other liquids for over ten days are somewhat rare.

I am firm believer in the maxim that fantastic claims require fantastic proof. While it is possible that Jani has trained his body to live without food and water for days, the claim that he has done so for years is far-fetched and should not have been touted without a healthy dose of skepticism. Further, the fact that he was allowed to bathe casts a cloud of unreliability on the claim that he did not drink or urinate during the time. The experiment should have been performed without the provision of bathing.

Another point is worth bearing in mind. Extrapolating from a fifteen-day experiment to the conclusion that Jani has not eaten for 70 years (as some media outlets have done) is similar to accepting a claim that someone can swim from New York to London across the Atlantic because they can do 100 laps in an Olympic swimming pool.

The AFP report also notes the following:

“During the 15-day observation, which ended on Thursday, the doctors took scans of Jani’s organs, brain, and blood vessels, as well as doing tests on his heart, lungs and memory capacity”

Notice anything strange apart from the poorly-constructed sentence? Yes, exactly! The tests are all fine, but why doesn’t the report mention the one vital statistic that you and I are thinking of? Why is there no mention of Jani’s weight at the start and at the end of the experiment? One would expect his weight to fall, which immediately would rubbish his claim for living 70 years on divine yogic breath.

Finally, the comment by observing physician Sudhir Shah is extremely alarming:

“If Jani does not derive energy from food and water, he must be doing that from energy sources around him, sunlight being one.”

The conclusion that Jani does not derive energy from food and water has not been firmly established, but Shah is already hinting at the possibility of sunlight as a direct source of energy. This concept is easily digestible to Hindus and Jains who share a special reverence for the sun, but is a reckless one to make.  First, a mountain of evidence must be accumulated to support that Jani possesses metabolism unlike all other humans and multicellular animals. That possibility seems unlikely. Second, there would need to be some observation that sunlight is the direct source of his energy. Finally, a process by which it occurs would need to be provided. Contrary to popular opinion, science does not satisfy its adherents by being phenomenological. If I were to claim to live on air alone, I would be required to provide a plausible hypothesis for how I was doing so that either obeyed the known laws of the physical and natural world or under very rare circumstances modified them. Providing outlandish untested hypotheses based on poorly-designed experiments is shameful.

A final word on the state of Indian science. There are many serious, hardworking Indian scientists toiling away in labs that do not get this sort of attention. If India wants to be treated as a country with scientific potential, it must get its priorities straight. A top-down approach in which government mandates how much will be spent in a year is good for building bridges, but not adequate for fostering a scientific temperament. Government institutions like DIPAS should know better than to waste money on poorly-designed experiments.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

The role of scientists in society: thoughts on cholera reduction using sari-cloth.

If you are searching for sarcasm in the following sentences, you will be disappointed. What you will find is sincere appreciation for two landmark scientific studies. In an extreme example of social asymmetry, while privileged individuals can debate whether or not to drink purified bottled water, over one billion others on this planet do not have access to clean drinking water.

I do not need to introduce cholera and other waterborne diseases to anyone from South Asia. These diseases infect hundreds of thousands (and possibly millions) in India and neighboring Bangladesh alone.

We have made strides in eradicating these diseases. In 1854, the British physician John Snow successfully traced the source of a cholera outbreak to a region of London in what is generally considered the first ever epidemiological study. Years later, one of the founding figures of microbiology, Robert Koch isolated and characterized the bacterium that causes cholera. Koch was also able to isolate cholera from contaminated pond water used by a community in India that was in the throes of a lethal epidermic. Koch published these results in the British Medical Journal in 1884 and won a Nobel Prize for other pioneering work on tuberculosis.

Now, a bit of background on the two research papers that I’d like to discuss today. Rita Colwell, a former director of the US National Science Foundation, is a renowned scientist who works on infectious diseases including cholera. In the 70s and 80s, her lab discovered that disease-causing cholera microbes clung to small organisms such as crustaceans in contaminated water. For reference, let me remind you that larger crustaceans that you are familiar with include crabs, shrimps, and lobsters.

Because of arsenic contaminated tube-well water, village populations in West Bengal, India and Bangladesh often drink surface water collected from rivers and ponds that contain small crustaceans. Boiling the water kills the disease-causing germs. On a personal note, I grew up drinking a lot of boiled water, but this approach isn’t feasible for poor people because of associated energy costs.

In a landmark scientific article published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2003, Colwell and others tested a simple hypothesis in the field. Villagers in India and Bangladesh often use sari-cloth to filter water before drinking. Colwell asked a tantalizing question: if cotton sari-cloth can filter out crustaceans, can also it reduce the concentration of cholera microbes below a disease-causing threshold? Using the scientific method, she and other scientists followed villagers in 65 villages in Bangladesh for three years, and found that the low-tech process of filtering water through a cotton sari folded four-times resulted in almost 50% reduction in the incidence of cholera!

Colwell didn’t stop there. Researchers kept collecting data for years. Now, in new research published this month in the new journal mBio, Colwell and colleagues show that 31% of the villagers still use sari filtration. Therefore, not only is this process effective, it is also sustainable. This point is worth bearing in mind for any application to truly have real-world implications.

You may wonder why I mention these two studies today. Call me hopelessly naive, but I sincerely believe that the role of a scientist – especially one hailing from a developing country such as India – is to participate in building a better society through honesty, ingenuity, and dedication. To give you a sense of how I felt reading the two papers authored by Colwell, let me provide an imprecise cinematic analogy. In Asutosh Gowarikar’s Swades, Mohan Bhargava, the NASA scientist (played by Shahrukh Khan) provided an outlandish solution to the problem of lack of electricity in a village in India. The resolution in the film was exceedingly implausible, but the message resonated with me. I fervently believe that scientists and engineers have the wherewithal to come up with ingenious low-cost solutions for problems facing people in South Asia. There are many other examples, but these two papers underscore my belief in science as the only “candle in the dark”.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

ReLAX: you are in the City of Angels

“California: bordering always on the Pacific and sometimes on the ridiculous”                                                                             –  George Carlin

“Lay off California… We have bears and great white-sharks and even our washed-up actors are allowed to kill one blonde chick.”      –    Bill Maher


I’ve been out of the loop for a while and feeling a bit loopy. The reason is a trip to Anaheim, California to attend a major scientific meeting.  Flying to the West Coast I get three extra hours I don’t know what to do with. Flying back I lose three hours I can’t afford to do without.

Anyways, I digress. Instead of boring you with all the details of my seven-day trip, I’m going to bore with only some of the details of the seven-day trip.

Who needs Disneyland when there are discount airlines?

What does Marsellus Wallace look like?

I had never flown AirTran before, but the flights to and out of Los Angeles International Airport were the bumpiest that I’d ever encountered in my life. And mind you, I hop on an airplane around thirty times a year. I’d like to thank the good people at this discount airlines who made me wish that I had been sharing a seat on the bus from Chitrakoot to Panna with various passengers that included one nirvana-seeking Frenchman, two busloads of sleepy farmers, four coughing chickens and three bleating goats.

In their infinite wisdom, the counter-staff also decided not to assign a seat, until a small riot broke out in front of the ticketing counter. It was perhaps only fitting then that their boarding passes resembled receipts to the roller-coaster ride at a carnival. And like at most carnivals I dreaded having a fat lady with a Chihuahua in her handbag and a fat man with Harley-Davidson tattoos on his arms sitting on either side.

Someone please perform the Anaheimlich Maneuver quick!

A walk-on for Mickey

If you are going to Disneyland or attending a meeting at the Convention Center nearby, you will end up in Anaheim. Anaheim is in the County of Orange, California (COOC). That is kook spelled California-style. The airport scene in the weirdly numbing movie Adaptation was shot at the Convention Center. This should tell you all you need to know.

If you are lucky enough to stay at the Hilton next door, you might get windows with excellent views of the Convention Center, so you can be constantly reminded of why you’re in town. Please note that the bottled water costs six dollars in the room, but you can refill bottles for free from the swimming pool.

For dinner try the “mixed hoursdurs” and “tandoori guail” on the menu at Gandhi Palace, an Indian restaurant two blocks away. The “mushroom matter” there is definitely better than the “anti-matter” that is prepared by desi aunties  at Amma’s Kitchen. Or try the breakfast buffet featuring such satwik foods such as bacon, ham, and sausage ala Gandhi. The restaurant says that they have an “all you can eat –  Monday through Sunday.” I’d ask before attempting to sleep under the tables at night.

They even call their airport LAX.

Haalivood!

In Los Angeles I found a shop called Fresh Produce that didn’t sell fresh produce. It sold fruit-themed clothing.  There were a lot of people there with translucent makeup  and a lot of eyeliner. Some looked like they were always ready to strike a pose. And then there were the women.

A word of advice to tourists unfamiliar with Los Angeles: Be prepared for the cheesy side of LA, which is in fact, all of LA. During your stay, your taxi driver may try to get you a prescription for medical marijuana, a washed-out Marilyn Monroe impersonator may try to coax you into taking your photo with her, and you may hear protesters chant, “Jesus is a lie” (Do not worry. They are Korean Christians saying “Jesus is alive“).

You will get caught up in traffic. A lot of it.

And if you happen to be brown you may face another situation. You may actually get yelled at in Spanish for being too good to speak in Spanish. Just smile and nod. Go with the flow. It is no use arguing.

Loosen up a bit if you can and you may end up enjoying your time. Be lax. After all, you may not be used to Californication, but it sure as hell beats Massachusifixion.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban