Friday, July 29, 2011

Summer Reading List 2011

 My Book Shelf # 18

Summer is over in India, the monsoons are upon us, but it is still mid-summer in the U.S. So here is a belated  reading list. These are books I have read, am reading and will be reading..

1) The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold

2) Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

3) The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America by Steven Johnson

4) A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World by William J. Bernstein

5) Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler

6) The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 by Brian M. Fagan

7) Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt

8) The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger

There is a common theme running through most of them and that is exogenous influences on civilization. How climatic and ecological change through millenia have triggered changes in human society with growing and falling populations and a hunt for resources leading to agricultural innovations, migration of people and languages, trade and formation of global exchange networks resulting in confrontations and the evolution of different social, political and religious systems.

The last two are the odd ones out. I have not read much Shakespeare, but Will in the World is an utterly engrossing reconstruction of Elizabethan England and the human ecology in which Shakespeare thrived. 

The Hindus: An Alternative History has been derided by some and praised by others. I have barely flipped through it and have found it interesting. It is as the title suggests the story of Hindus and Hinduism read between the lines of the elite textual corpus. The story as recorded mostly by male Brahmins in the elite literature like the Vedas, the Epics like the Mahabharat and other Sanskrit texts is but one view. The contribution to the evolution of Hinduism of the "other" i.e. women,  the non-Sanskrit populace, the vernacular speaking plebes, and the lower and marginal castes is also immense and has to be gleaned out often from both textual and non textual sources. Not a very comforting thought for fundamentalists, but I can't think how it can be otherwise.

Also See : My Book Shelf


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Earthquake Prediction Possible In Ten Years Says Pres. Kalam

The Hindu reports that Ex President of India A. P. J. Abdul Kalam ( file photo) has announced while talking to a group of students in Trichur South India that scientists will be able to predict earthquakes accurately in about 10 years. 

What does accurate prediction mean? Scientists can already say that an earthquake is likely to occur along a fault in the next 50-100 years. That reflects the limit of the state of knowledge about how stresses build up along faults in various tectonic provinces of the world.  However that is not what the public wants to hear. The expectation is that scientists should be able to tell them that an earthquake is imminent at a particular location in the next few days.  These expectations recently played themselves to an ugly end. Six seismologists and an official of Italy's civil protection agency are being prosecuted for manslaughter on the charge that they failed to give a short term warning of the earthquake that struck the town of LÁquila in April 2009.

The response in Italy reflects a misunderstanding of the state of  our knowledge on earthquakes and a  more general impatience with science. It is a wholly mistaken expectation. It is true that scientists are working towards understanding the causes of earthquakes and they are beginning to monitor individual faults with instruments at a few selected locations. But we just don't have enough data that will help us come to a specific understanding of the causal chain of events that leads to rock failure and crustal blocks eventually slipping past each other.  I have not heard from any geologist or seismologist working in this field that accurate short term predictions will be likely in ten years.

I am not sure if Pres. Kalam has talked to any experts in this field or he is basing his assessment solely on the success rates of predicting other natural phenomenon like cyclones. If that is the case, he is wrong to compare these phenomena. Cyclones and earthquakes are two different beasts. Weather parameters are more easily collected than the measurement of stresses deep inside the earth. We therefore have a good understanding of the physics of the atmosphere and nowadays with satellite monitoring we can image a developing cyclone or hurricane in the remote parts of the ocean and track its path as it makes landfall.

On the other hand we have had little success pinpointing earthquake precursors. Claims of preceding smaller tremors, gaseous emissions, animals running wild, atmospheric pressure changes are presented as reliable indicators from time to time, but a careful analysis shows that there are too many false positives for any of these events to be considered as consistently pointing to an imminent big earthquake.

Pres. Kalam who is also a rocket scientist is a respected public figure in India. His words count and expectations build up around his statements. He could in my opinion make a bigger and more constructive contribution by lobbying and putting pressure on the government to ensure that building safety standards are being adhered to in various earthquakes risk zones and that disaster management plans which the government boasts are all ready are actually being rehearsed and taught in schools. These measures will save more lives than any illusions built around earthquake prediction.

As for the business of accurately predicting the next big one.. the earth's plates grind mysteriously on. It is entirely possible that just like the likelihood of bringing an efficient public transport system to California, earthquake prediction has a great future... and always will.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Visit To The Human Origins Exhibit At Washington D.C.

Blogging has been light the past month. I have been traveling in the U.S. Yesterday I visited the Human Origins Exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Washington D.C.

I am quite familiar with the story-lines of human evolution and I try to keep abreast of new developments, so for me conceptually there was nothing radically new at the exhibit. But still, I had not seen before at close hand the material evidence for human evolution... the skeletal remains, the tools, the musical instruments. So it was a thrilling experience to see all this evidence at one place.

I liked the way the exhibit was organized. There would be a temptation with fossils of hominins of different ages to draw lineages and focus on questions of ancestry i.e. organize the skeletal material especially the skulls in such a way as to propose genealogical relationships between early and later species.

The exhibit mentions possibilities but for the most part avoids that minefield and instead presents  human evolution in terms of grades of development of various traits and characters. So there is a section on development of social skills, a section on tools, a section on symbolism and art, a section on bipedalism and a section on brain size. Each have an internal chronology wherein the evolutionary trajectories of these traits and technology are presented.

Besides these themes there are interactive screens for curious visitors to ask questions and learn about various aspects of human evolution like the human family tree, the similarities and differences between different human species and what's hot in the field of human evolution. There were also some amazing reconstructions of different human species. To the right is me with Grandpa...

I thought the exhibit touched a bit too lightly on controversies. Whether humans and neanderthals interbreed and is Homo floresiensis a distinct species or a diseased "modern" human have been major talking points of recent years, yet these questions were mentioned but not presented in any detail.

Still, these are my quibbles. That does not detract from a very engrossing couple of hours.

Running on the second floor of the museum is an exhibition on human races with the theme "Are we so different". I went up and after two hours of happy contemplation about human evolution got a rude shock.

The exhibit with the American Anthropological Association leading the charge stresses biological egalitarianism to the extreme. I understand the need to highlight the sad and unjustifiable history of racism but the exhibit takes an approach that emphatically discourages any sensible thinking  about human evolution. Just about every section of the exhibit screams "Race has no biological basis", "Race is a social construct".

The argument presented goes something like this. Humans are made up of populations which gradually grade into one another. So dividing them into races makes no sense. Nonetheless it is possible to using details of skeletal morphology to recognize where the persons ancestors came from.  Talk about contradictions!

The stance being taken is that races are very deep divisions of people. Groups must posses "major differences"- which the exhibit never defines - or  unique characters not present in individuals of another group. The criteria set for there to be races comes dangerously close to essentialist thinking where it was thought that objects of nature could be categorized by their essential or unique properties not shared by other objects. This kind of essentialist or unbridgeable gaps criteria was made up in the past to rank peoples in a hierarchy from superior to inferior and to justify discrimination and so the exhibit abhors the thought of any kind of systematic biological differences between human groups.

Biologists recognize though that nature is messy. We humans are one species. In the past populations spread over the globe were isolated or semi isolated for tens of thousands of years and differences between them evolved. Today's populations - east Asians, sub groups within Africa, Australian Aborigines, Inuit, West Eurasian to name a few - are descendants of those once isolated groups. Yes, there are overlaps of traits between groups -  the isolation has not been long enough and humans migrate and interbreed -  but it is also true that different populations have different collections of traits which are correlated and occur in high frequency in one population and not another.  There is no requirement that a trait has to be uniquely present in one group or population to qualify it as a race. So "Humans are made up of populations which gradually grade into one another" fits the criteria for races quite nicely!

Yet there is no space in the exhibit for this thinking.  Political correctness rules.

Leaving aside this though I found the contents of the exhibit quite educational, especially the presentation on the history of discrimination in America from early colonial times to the present.

Monday, July 18, 2011

India's New Environment Minister Makes Plenty Of Promises

Mr. Jairam Ramesh is out. His place as India's Minister of Environment and Forests has been taken by the equally voluble Ms. Jayanthi Natarajan. Here are some snippets of her statements as reported by The Hindu (emphasis mine):

....Jayanthi Natarajan has assured the corporate world that steps will be taken for promoting growth and “one window” fast clearances for big projects. 

at the same time, said she would “do everything” to protect the environment. ...

She said that there will not be “any change” once clearance is given to a project....

Asked whether she could assure speedy clearances for such projects, Ms. Natarajan said she will do so but environment should be protected at “all cost” in all its “dimensions.”  

Dismissing the perception that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed her as a result of a compromise to appease corporate India, Ms. Natarajan said, “My actions will show that there can be no compromise on either issue that I will always act for the best welfare of the country.

If you are looking to write an essay on how many wishy-washy statements and contradictions can be crammed in one paragraph,  then this will be a good example to use.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Indian Remote Sensing Data Policy Has Been Updated

A country that has launched ten remote sensing satellites has finally decided to share some of its riches with the true custodians of that data - its citizens.

The Government of India recently announced its new data policy for the management and dissemination of satellite remote sensing data. Of most interest to users is that data upto 1 meter resolution will be disseminated to all users on a "non-discriminatory basis". Previously only government users had easier access to 1 meter resolution images. Only data upto 5.8 meter resolution was being distributed to private users without permissions and security clearances.  With this new policy, the 1 meter data is still going to be pre-screened by the government to mask sensitive areas, but no further permissions will be required.

This policy although an improvement is still restrictive. If you are a private user or a private company and want data better than one meter taken from foreign or Indian satellites you will need to be approved by the government if you want to buy this best data in India. Several foreign satellites and the Indian Cartosat -2A and 2B collect sub-meter images. Data purchase in India is from the National Remote Sensing Centre.

You can of course purchase data of India taken from foreign satellites outside India also, which was one of the arguments that restrictions of any kind just don't make any sense.

What does this mean for different users of satellite data?

1) If you are a professional user of satellite images and are working with the Indian government then not much. You always had easy access to high resolution data.

2) If you are a private user or a private company then you will find ordering 1 meter resolution images easier. No further screening of your application will be necessary and you should be able to get hold of the data quicker than before.

3) For the casual user- Will Bhuvan - ISRO's flagship web mapping application - start streaming 1 meter resolution images of India?  Until now because of policy restrictions it could stream only 5.8 meter resolution images at best. This affects the non-professional user, people who are currently going to Google Maps or Google Earth for browsing images of India. If Bhuvan starts streaming 1 meter resolution images will more people move from Google to Bhuvan?

I doubt it. Google is streaming superb high resolution images of India and it may even release - or already has - sub- meter images which Bhuvan will be unable to do due to restrictions on dissemination of data better than one meter. Besides there is the problem of usability and performance. I am not very impressed with Bhuvan. The image loading is slow. The one advantage that Bhuvan had claimed over Google was India specific additional layers on natural resources. Yet I found that rendering of these layers is non-optimal and geo-processing tasks are not compatible with all browsers. In short, Bhuvan still has the look of an unfinished product. As far as popular usage of satellite images goes, Google has a substantial hold on Indian users and it looks like it will stay that way.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mapping India: Another National GIS Effort Launched

From a trickle to a flood; the number of government backed initiatives to develop map based applications intended to reach and involve citizens to help manage India's natural and urban resources have increased over the last decade.

The latest as reported by the Economic Times is the National GIS, what appears to be a massive effort to standardize available spatial data and build resource management applications, served out over the web to different users.

I don't have enough details to comment on the particulars, but some thoughts -

The effort is touted as something of a brand new venture, although I suspect that existing applications and ongoing efforts will be grafted onto this new entity. For example, Bhoosampada (new link) allows users to browse and search for landuse and landcover data. And the National Urban GIS Mapping Mission which has promised to build standardized urban data sets is supposed to be underway to map urban areas and develop applications to aid urban governance.

My hope is that the new National GIS is not a massive duplication of efforts and that these older intiatives with some improvements will be brought within a wider umbrella effort.

There is going to a citizen layer in this application which will allow citizens to geo-tag their complaints. The principle is admirable but better governance is more hostage to a mindset than it is to technology. Today, I can either email or call or put up a status on the Pune Municipal Corporation or Pune Traffic Facebook page about a particular grievience, but the response rate is abysmal. Unless a method of personal accountability is tied up with the complaint workflow, I don't see how the citizen layer will lead to a better government -citizen partnership.

Still, it is something of a wonder that more and more government data locked up previously is making its way into the public domain. ...slowly..but that counts for progress nevertheless.