India’s banking system is failing the common you and me


India lost the finals of ICC Champion’s trophy; a cricket tournament that many believe is a mini World Cup. I loved cricket once. I loved it to such an extent that I would rather watch Sachin, Ganguly, and Dravid bat than study for my exams. However, later in my life I fell in love with fisheries sciences and began spending more time reading books and giving less importance to sports that others played. The same education took me from shore-to-shore and I got to see a whole new world with my own eyes. In the year 2012, I received an international scholarship from Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) for a PhD programme in Canada. I was excited. However, there was a catch – to obtain the scholarship I had to furnish a bank guarantee of $10,000 U.S. in favour of ICAR. This would mean that I was required to deposit $10,000 in a bank and sign a legal bond saying that if I failed to finish my PhD the entire sum would be transferred from my account to ICAR. My father had just switched his business from electronic repair to selling bags and we did not have that much money. I also needed money to obtain passport, VISA, study permit, English language proficiency certificate, warm clothes, and a even more money to pay for my room rent and tuition fees because I would be receiving money from ICAR only after one month (I also had to eat, so needed money to buy groceries). I was worried about loosing the opportunity but my parents felt guilty of not being able to provide me enough for my education. I could have probably lived without a foreign degree but my father would have never. I decided to go from bank to bank and ask them for loan against whatever we had. My mother was ready to sell her gold but we did not even have enough of that. We owned a house on a large patch of land that was clearly worth more than ten times the money we needed.

I took all the documents to show to the banks that we owned the house and we were willing to obtain a loan of only $10,000 against it. Every bank refused. It was the month of June – peak summers – and I walked, to every bank, far and near, begging for money. Even though we owned the house, I was made to feel as if I was begging like a peasant from a Premchand’s novel. Most banks thought it was too risky to put our house against the loan and they did not want the hassle of auctioning it in the event of my failure to meet the necessary requirements of the bond. Every bank wanted a 100% cash deposit that I did not have. A bank officer even said that there is no guarantee that I would finish my PhD degree, and that I might jusg fail one of the exams. I showed him all the gold medals I had received for being University topper in my bachelor’s and master’s degree to which he said that I might just die and not finish the degree. I cried within. I really did not want my parents to be thrown out of their home. That would be too much for them to tolerate after bearing my death.

After being turned away by all the banks, my father did what he would have never done – he asked his elder brother to loan us the money. My father knew that by doing this his brother would never miss an opportunity to make us realise that he ‘owned’ us and we were worthless. But he was ready to do that for my sake. Within a day the money was transferred to my account by my uncle. Now, all the banks were more than happy to prepare a bank guarantee for me. Some banks even wanted me to open a foreign currency account with them. I receive calls from such bank even now but I still have a plain savings bank account. I save a lot from my scholarship and when I look back I realise that had the banks allowed us a loan, I would have paid it back to them with interest in 18 months. But, the banks would have not wanted that. They want, in all the cases, to earn money. Pure bloodsuckers. Today I hate to even look at the banks.

So, when India was playing the ICC Champion’s trophy I was still not following the game; however, I was intrigued by the presence of Vijay Mallya in the cricket stadium in England. Vijay had taken millions of money as loans from banks, defaulted on all of them, and fled India to escape being incarcerated. On one hand I am amused to see how people think that Vijay Mallya has audacity to challenge the banks, on the other hand I am angered to see that banks had trust on a businessman and lent him millions but each of those banks refused to loan me just $10,000 against something that was far more valuable. As I said before, I am not interested in cricket but I have still not forgotten the humiliation I received from the banks.

Why the March for Science?


Sketch22616543.pngMarch for science is a way for the scientists to make themselves heard and perhaps, to make the general public realise that the independence of science is under threat. But, what has happened recently that is so wrong that the scientists had to leave their laboratories and field work to protest on the streets. Why is it that the general public is talking about issues such as terrorism, feminism, LGBTQ rights, freedom of expression but not the independence of science? The reason is that the scientific community has failed to create a face of its own to promote its achievements. Let me explain this further. We all eat food and thank the local grower, farmer, and even acknowledge the agro-companies for nature’s bounty. However, how many times do we, even the scientists, think about the efforts of grad students, science technicians, and principal investigators? I am writing this article on a laptop that has a beautiful 4K touchscreen and is running hundreds of processes in the background, and you are reading this on some kind of an electronic gadget that is equally awesome and far more capable than a typewriter. However, the manufacturers such as Apple, Dell, Samsung have become the face of this technology, and very little thought is given to the engineers working day-and-night to bring to us the technologies that are making our life easier. In fact, everything around us and beyond our sight, from a nano-bead in your face wash to a giant spaceship, has been made possible by the scientific community. I even know some scientists who model the properties of ceramic so that our coffee mugs have better design and strength. When everything around us is a gift of scientific research, then what has happened that scientists are on streets demanding the right to conduct better science without political interference? Probably we all have taken things for granted, and unless the scientists come up with something such as the discovery of gravitational waves, it does not make news headlines. Although, a common person may not even appreciate the importance of the discovery of gravitational waves.

March for science is not in response to the latest developments only, but it is an outburst of scientists who have been tolerating wrong science policies since a long time. For a large part, the scientific fraternity is responsible for the current situation. Scientists, for some reason, have lived with the belief that the only way to serve science is by working tirelessly. They have distanced themselves from the political and corporate labels which are the most effective vehicles of public outreach. Strangely, the scientists are also expected to be non-believers or atheists. This is probably because scientific discoveries have usually contradicted the orthodox religious beliefs and the orthodox, religious society has felt threatened by the logical thinking. Since the political system and working of the political class of the western hemisphere have been influenced by the religious movements, the mistrust between politicians and scientists has continued to exist even today. Moreover, most scientists believe that getting into politics is dirty and requires losing moral values. The scriptures from ancient India tell us that scientific research was a big part of their civilization. However, only the famous scientific philosophers (sages/rishis), or the philosophers inducted in the royal advisory group received funding from the ruling emperor; rest of the rishis had to send their students to ask for donations (bheeksha) from the citizens. Fortunately, the philosophers and their students were revered in ancient India and donating to them was considered a pious job. In return, the ancient philosophers kept themselves detached from worldly pleasures so that the public did not blame them for enjoying on the public donations. Unfortunately, the public still expects the scientists to remain detached from the pleasures of the world, politics, and religion. In many countries, the professors are not well paid, and all they receive from the society is respect. Even the scientists have complied to this public notion and have remained detached from interfering in political decisions and governance. This means that the scientists lack the lobby to influence our lawmakers. For example, a company that manufactures nuclear reactors will have a lobby to influence the lawmakers; whereas, the nuclear scientists are expected to wear white coats and work tirelessly in the R&D facility. If the nuclear scientists need a pay hike, they will have to request the business heads, who will then find out a way to influence the government to loosen their purses. Universities and educational institutes are the largest employers of scientists and science teachers. Who lobbies for them? If a province or a state’s budget is in the red, the university budget is the first to be reduced. The administrators of the universities then pass on the budget cuts to the departments conducting engineering and basic science research. Consequently, we are in a situation where a scientist is expected to wait for the breadcrumbs that the corporates and politicians throw at them. The society does not care much because scientists do not strap bombs on their chests or shoot people to attract attention to their cause. Instead, the scientists work day and night in silence to make everybody’s life better. Also, the scientists will never take up violent means to get themselves heard because their analytical skills are better and they understand that violence brings no good. However, the time has come when the scientists will need to walk on the streets and make the public aware of the importance of scientific research and that it needs money. Scientists will also have to do a better job of communicating the importance of research in basic science. The public usually does not have access to science magazines and journals; they read blogs, newspapers and tabloids. Social networking websites will have to be used in a much better way to reach the masses. The scientific community will have to stop pleasing the politicians and corporates and will have to come to the streets to justify the cost of expensive instruments and facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider. Above all, the scientists will have to come forward to join politics because they know things better. A march for science is a step forward in that direction but the scientists will have to be more aggressive in putting forward their agenda and letting people know that scientific system has a rigorous system of peer review to weed off pseudoscience, and therefore they can be trusted.

N.B. the comments and thoughts are welcome. I am a student of science and believe that this article can only be improved through a peer review process.

To that second reviewer: please tone down your harsh comments 😛

Are we documenting our lives better than our ancestors?


Never ever have humans recorded their life the way they do it today. One falls sick, there is a status update on Facebook. Whether it is first birthday or inconsequential 26th, celebrations are shared with everyone over social media. If it is a new guitar or just a bad haircut, there is a record of it somewhere as pictures. When photography was invented, it was a great tool to immortalize an event, art or a person’s achievement. Today, with advent of camera phones, everyone is saving innumerable events every year. However, a pertinent question is – why are we immortalizing ourselves duck-faced? But the more important question is if we are actually immortalizing our moments? Are we really going to preserve the snapshots of our lives? Do you even remember where are the pictures that you took three months ago?

When I was doing my bachelor’s degree, I owned a Canon point-and-shoot camera. I loved taking picture with it and saved them all in DVDs. By the time I finished my degree, I probably had 5 DVDs. I did not print of any of those because all the moments were dear to me and I simply did not have enough money to document them in tangible form. Today, 5 years later, I miss those moments but cannot find the DVDs. I think I lost them or they broke. I clearly remember that 2 DVDs would just not work because they got scratched. When I moved to Canada from India three years ago, I copied all the photos to my computer so that I could see them when I missed my old days. But three days ago my hard disk crashed and I lost everything that I had saved on my computer. More interestingly, I was not even bothered about those pictures when my computer died; I was more worried about the data from my PhD research and all the references that I had collected over the years. Moreover, just because I considered that research data was important, I had it saved it on cloud and was able to retrieve it as soon as I fixed my computer. Why did I not backup my images? It is because I had so many of them that it would have cost me a lot to buy cloud space. Also, I don’t even remember the pictures that I had taken with my smart phone and where I saved them. Although I do remember buying my current phone because of its great camera and ability to take good photos even in low light. But now I wonder if my phone’s camera quality actually mattered to me when I have lost all the pictures that I had taken? In fact, 90% of the pictures that I take with my phone end up being deleted because those moments do not seem to matter much after few hours.

Our ancestors immortalized their moments, tales, events, and stories through tangible and durable records such as monuments, statues, cave paintings, terracotta art etc. In contrast, we are trying to encode our life in magnetic fields and binary numbers. I am forced to think that when the future civilizations will discover silicon and plastic debris, what will they think of us? If our civilization is wiped off and the future humans have to develop everything again, will they be able to develop devices fast enough to see how I celebrated my 30th birthday before my silicon records are decomposed? Finally, are we really documenting our lives better than our ancestors?

Rambling thoughts on Darwin’s birthday


I live in Saskatoon (somewhere in Canada) where I have experienced temperatures as low as -450C and I am convinced that this is not the place where nature wanted humans to live: we are invaders from tropics. I am also convinced, from the stories that my parents tell me of my sickness as a child, that I am also not the nature’s favoured one to have seen last 29 winters. A lot of us are surviving today not because of our physical or genetic fitness, but because of mental capabilities of millions of scientists who have been developing medicine, heating/cooling systems, water filters and what not. Clearly, “survival of the fittest” does not apply only to an individual, but to a population that is ready to fight, physically and mentally, the challenges thrown by nature. I am stretching my thoughts and after enough elasticity I ask myself if mental advancement is the real means to long term survival of a race of biological species? Cockroaches have survived more than 300 million years with just about 1,000,000 brain cells in comparison to humans with about 1,000,000,000,000 cells who have been inhabiting this planet for only a fraction of that time.1 (Not to mention Katsaridaphobiafear of cockroaches in humans).

A normal population curve of naturally fit people (fig. 1) would tell us that the proportion of a population that is naturally fit to survive is very small. A large proportion of population falls under the mediocre category; such individuals may survive but are not the favoured ones as they may lack some characteristics that would eventually be their Achilles heel on the day of judgment. The same curve would also tell us that only a very small proportion of our population is smart enough to contribute to our collective wisdom that helps us to develop technologies for human survival. Therefore, we can say that while a very small proportion of population is fit enough to survive on its own, the rest of the humanity is simply riding on the wisdom of very few geniuses. In other harsher words, our human population primarily consists of weaker people like me who would have not survived had it not been for those very few smart guys.

While I was waiting to join my current lab as a PhD student I tried my hand with growing vegetables. What I figured out was that to make Earth produce food is a tough job and my arms were too weak for that. This simply translates to the fact that some of us would have died of hunger had it not been for some unknown farmers who are sweating it out for people like me. Now, I am not a believer of those apocalypse prophesies but I do believe that there will be a time when the fitness of our population will be tested. On that day humans will be pitched against many other species. Competition will be severe. But, I believe that human race will clip_image002survive because of those few fit people. I am already proud of them.

 

 

 

Fig. 1: The bell curve showing normal population frequency (Handmade!!!)

Biologists are usually good cooks


 

Few weeks back in my department we organised an event called “The Great Curry Cook Off”. For this people had to sign up to prepare curries that others paid to eat and at the end of the event people who had paid to eat would vote for the top 2 preparations. I decided to make chick peas. About a year and a half ago I didn’t even know how to boil rice and here I was cooking for a competition. Though I did not win, I knew that my curry was great. One big lesson was that biologists working in lab can be great cooks.

Why?

Let me explain.

If you are a biologist and work in a research lab then you definitely follow protocols that require long lists of ingredients. Some ingredients have to be prepared fresh while you are working on some other step of the protocol –  multitasking is important here. Few chemicals have to be protected from light and shock, and a lot of them have strict thermal requirements. Your time management skills are very important so that you add each ingredient at the perfect time to continue your reactions in a way that you want. I cannot emphasise the importance of your patience which a lot of us run out of. In short, as a biologist, you deal with a very complex cooking recipe which has to be served to a large number of audience in the form of peer reviewed journals and you better be good else the reviewers are always trying their best to kick your bu** hard.

Now, just like cooking a dish, where does a biologist get the recipe for experiments? They probably get it from senior lab mates or researchers (mothers and grandmothers in case of cooking). Lot of biologists take protocols from peer reviewed research papers (cookery books in case of cooking). In an ideal world, which a PhD student wished (s)he lived in, all these protocols and cooking recipe should work in the very first shot and give the desired results with no error bars; after all these protocols have worked for the rest of the world. However, we all are hit hard by the reality – protocols suck. Another reason why a biologist could be a better cook is that when they follow a protocol in lab they make sure that the function and importance of each step and ingredient is known – what if an external examiner decides to ask you a question on the importance of annealing temperature in a PCR reaction. Similarly, when a biologist is in kitchen (s)he knows the function and effect of each spice, ingredient and cooking conditions such as heat and stirring which leads to a better cooked dish.  Hence, it’s the intuition, time management skills, and most importantly patience that makes biologist a master chef. A biologist also knows that every time an experiment is repeated the error bars tighten up (Error α  1/n) and the same wisdom is applied in kitchen. Therefore, the skills that  biologists learns in lab helps them to make tastier food provided they are left with enough energy at the end of the day to cook and they supervisor pays them enough to buy proper monthly groceries.

How I learned to make my first cup of coffee


What is that first thing you would like to have when you land at JFK International airport after a 21 hour long non-stop flight? If you are from Americas then your nose is probably trying to catch whiffs of coffee and if you are from Indian subcontinent, as I am, you would crave chai. Since JFK is in New York, in the United States of America (duh, even an illiterate who watches Hindi movies would know it), it would be easier to find a hot pot of coffee and that is what I chose to drink. But, seldom did I know that this craving for caffeine was about to lead me into struggle and embarrassment.

You see, ordering tea or coffee in India is a very simple affair. All you have to tell the waiter or chai wallah is that you would like tea or the type of coffee and they will make it for you. When I say “the type of coffee” I mean you just need to tell them if you need cappuccino or a regular coffee. Every coffee/tea house in the subcontinent has their own readymade coffee/tea recipe and customers are usually never asked for their preference. Customers also never ask for customisation unless someone is diabetic and needs to cut down sugar intake. Please mind that I am talking about an average Indian’s experience. Big hotels might still offer you some customisation but not your regular tea shop. Since I have always been a student (aka poor) I have never been to a big hotel to try tea Therefore, I am used to that “Indian” method of ordering beverages but America was going to teach me a lesson soon.

After landing at the JFK I exchanged a pile of Indian rupees for just a handful of US dollars and my first purchase was a coffee. I spotted a coffee kiosk with a girl, definitely of Indian origin, at the cash counter. I approached the girl with sleepy eyes and asked for a cup of coffee to which she said something that I did not catch. I learned my first lesson- your ears also sleep after a very long and tiring flight. I begged for her pardon and asked her to repeat what she had just said.

“What size coffee do you want?” she repeated with a stern look on her face.

Now that was a question completely absurd to me. In India even the size of your beverage is fixed with its recipe and here I was standing in front of a girl who was asking me the size of my coffee with a condescending look on her face. I gulped down my hesitation with some saliva and asked for my options.

“Small, medium, and large,” she replied as if it was obvious.

As a student of science I have always hated such generalisations (and LBS system) of measurements; how would I know how much coffee comes in small, medium or a large cup? I was the only person at kiosk and still the cashier seemed impatient dealing with a foreign customer. I measured my craving for caffeine in terms of small, medium or large and thought I should go with a large coffee.

“Llll-arge please,” I responded with hesitation.

Now I don’t remember how much it cost me but if I could measure it in terms of embarrassment, I would say it was expensive. I also remember myself remembering Einstein’s theory of relativity soon after that; because those few seconds, that I took to decide the size of my coffee, seemed like hours, especially because I was making a fool of myself in front of a beautiful girl.

Paying for coffee, in a currency that you have just been introduced to, was also not easy. If you have ever been to a new country and dealt with a new currency, you would know that identifying coins and their denominations is tough. I fumbled with coins in my hand to find the correct amount. Seeing the cashier’s impatience, I dropped all the coins I could find in my pocket on her desk. She quickly sorted the change, slid the ones she wanted into her cash drawer and asked me to take back the rest. At this moment she heaved a sigh of relief and showed me where the cups were so that I could get my coffee.

What? Now I have to make my coffee? How on earth does one do that? I had never done it before. What the hell was that girl there for? Just to charge for the raw materials? I assumed I had made a mistake and should have settled with bottled water but the cash was paid and I was standing before coffee cups stacked in three sizes – small, medium, and large. Good thing was that I was hidden behind the paraphernalia of coffee making and there was no one else seeing me, especially not the girl at the cash counter. I ran my eyes around and found large flask labelled hot water. I understood that the steps would be similar to preparing a tea from a tea bag. I poured cup full of hot-almost boiling water into my cup and as I moved further I saw a similar flask labelled coffee. I realised then that I had made a mistake. I had to throw water and pour coffee instead. But, I was hesitant to throw water – what if the girl saw me and charged me for taking large cup of water and wasting it. I looked around, made sure that no one was watching and quickly threw that cup with hot water in garbage bin. I clandestinely took another large cup and proceeded towards the coffee flask. I thought that there would be prepared coffee in the flask and I will just have to open the tap and get my coffee. So I opened that tap and saw black, tarry liquid dropping into my glass. It did smell like coffee. Since I had paid for a large coffee I filled the cup to its brim, covered it with a lid and walked towards my seat.

Finally, I was having my coffee. I pulled out some biscuits from my bag, took a bite, sipped my coffee and coughed it all out instantly. Never ever had I drank anything this bitter in my life. I know people drink black tea without sugar in India but that is only when they ask for it otherwise the standard tea or coffee has milk and sugar. My cough had drawn enough attention including of the girl in coffee kiosk. I pretended as if biscuit had choked me (as if people knew I had eaten a biscuit; genius). I wiped my mouth with a handkerchief, and acted as if everything was normal. I looked at my cup of coffee and thought that I, under no circumstances, would be able to drink an ocean full of bitter-black-hot water. But I could not even throw it because I had paid for it and the girl was still looking at me. So, I decided to take big bites of biscuits and gulp it down with coffee. I decided to do that until I felt that I have had enough biscuits to fill my syomach and there after I could throw the remaining coffee.

Few minutes would have passed and I had just managed to gulp one biscuit with few small sips of coffee when I saw a man, in a very shabby denim wear, purchase a large cup of coffee. He disappeared into the same corner where I had poured coffee. Few minutes later I saw him reappear on the other corner of the kiosk adding things to his coffee. Watching him I realised that I had missed few more steps to make my coffee. I let that man go and walked to the same corner and saw sachets of sugar and flask of cream and milk. Alright, I understood then that I had to add all these things to my coffee in a proportion to make my coffee drinkable. I quickly opened the lid of my coffee cup and saw there was hardly any space for anything in it. If I were to add stuff to it I would have to throw some coffee and make space.

If somebody sees me throw coffee they would think that I am an ignorant idiot and didn’t even know how to make my coffee. Okay, I accept that I was not bothered about anyone else watching me but the girl at the cash counter. However, before I could throw my coffee I met another predicament – how much should I throw? I didn’t know how much milk or cream would I need to make this coffee palatable. So now I kept waiting for someone to come and make their coffee so that I could see how much dairy I would need. Fortunately, a gentleman in a suit came soon. He tucked a folder he was carrying under his arms to free his hands. He just had 3/4th of his cup filled with coffee. I watched him add equal quantities of milk and crème but no sugar. I copied him with respect to milk and crème. Since I wasn’t sure of how much sugar would I need I started with 2 sachets. I realised that I would need at least 1 more and so I added. I stirred my coffee and found that I had prepared my first cup of lukewarm coffee to swallow my embarrassment. But, it was an experience I can never forget. Now I have my own coffee maker and I just love my blend.