Tuesday, January 29, 2008
In fact, he admitted that he'd felt a little guilty days before when he wasn't sure whether he really wanted his friends, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, to make it to the top first. They had to turn back barely 300 feet short.
"I wasn't very proud of my feelings," Hillary admitted to me, ruefully patting the old cat in his lap.
Two days later, Hillary and his teammate made it, and all things considered, I'd have to say that I think God picked the right guy to first stand so close to heaven on earth.
The entire text is also available but it is much more fun to LISTEN.
Friday, January 25, 2008
It is astonishing that there was not a single confirmed sighting of this dolphin in the Punjab for about 70 years. These are not some isolated stretches of rivers. Punjab is heavily populated, with extensive agriculture land use along the banks of its rivers. Biologists are not sure if the Indus dolphin is really broken up into semi-isolated sub populations or there are regular encounters between populations in the Sutlej-Beas with those in the Indus main channel. Is it possible that the Sutlej population went extinct and these latest sightings represent a new population recently migrated from the Indus channel. Do the many barrages on the Punjab rivers pose a serious barrier to migration or can the dolphin negotiate these barriers especially at flood times? Many questions and I hope wildlife authorities take this opportunity to extensively study this species. Just to give you an idea of the range of this species the image below shows the Indus river basin from its delta up to the Harike wetlands.
Sightings such as these makes me think about how many species are yet to be discovered. The focus in recent years and correctly so has been on the accelerated rate of extinction. But around 300 new species are being formally described by scientists daily across the entire range of life. A new mammal species is reported once every 3 years and a large new vertebrate from the open ocean once every 5 years. There are currently about 1.6 million species recorded but at the current rate of discovery these could represent about 10% of the total species currently living on earth. What rate of species loss can the biosphere sustain without shrinking overall? It is estimated that about 99% of species that have ever lived are now extinct. The diverse biota today must reflect then a slight excess of speciation over extinction. Using the fossil record the background extinction rate has been calculated to around 2.5 species per year which suggests a slightly higher speciation rate to maintain overall diversity. This estimate should be regarded as a canonical speciation rate and the variance around this mean speciation rate is more useful in understanding speciation patterns and diversity. A recent measurement suggests this approach to understanding the problem. If there are about 16 million species at present then every year the tree of life grows by an additional 16 million years of branch length. The average age of living species is about 5 million years. To maintain overall branch length i.e. to sustain current levels of biodiversity will require not more than 3 species per year going extinct. Measured extinction rates since the 1600's suggest that about 25 species have gone extinct every decade a figure that agrees with the above theoretical expectations. This rate however should be considered an underestimate since many extinctions would have gone unnoticed and has definitely increased recently. For example the last century has seen about 20 mammalian species alone going extinct. The effect of natural extinction on overall biodiversity is very different from a mass extinction such as the one human activity has almost certainly induced. Unlike natural background extinctions the current increased rates of extinction may be non-random i.e it may not just prune the branches of life but wipe out related branches of the tree of life causing similar types of organisms to selectively disappear. The overall structure of the tree of life may change with certain ecosystems or tiers within ecosystems disproportionately emptied than others, causing genuine reductions in biodiversity. Something like this may already be going on, for example amphibians have been assessed to be at greater risk from global warming than other vertebrate groups. Anyways its great to see the dolphins back in Punjab. May the force be with them.
Meanwhile in another wetland that dried up some time back, this sighting of an incredible rare creature.
From NASA Mars explorer image, what looks like a humanoid female clambering down the slope towards a dried up lake bed in search of .... maybe water, food or dry ice? The Indian media has had a field day with this with experts coming and giving long talks on the possibility of martian life. Amazing stuff!
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
KT: So how do you respond to the research done by the ‘Economic Times’ that says in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, the Nano is forty per cent better than the other cars? In other words, if cars are going to increase anyway, it is better if people buy the Nano than any other car.
To which Ms. Narain replied that compared to two wheelers the emissions from Nano are still large. No debate about that but I thought that both of them missed elaborating on this point a little more. For example will the implementation of Euro 4 and later Euro 5 emission standards lead to future reductions in CO2 emissions from Nano and other cars? The answer is very unlikely. This is important since transport will contribute an increasingly larger share of greenhouse gas emissions in India. The reason that Nano emits less CO2 than other cars is primarily because it has a smaller engine. Unlike other pollutants like SOx, NOx and PM10 where quality of fuel and engine technology make a big difference, the amount of CO2 emitted depends upon the type and amount of fuel burnt. Smaller engines use less fuel per km traveled, so Nano emits less. The diesel version of Nano has a bigger engine around 750-800 cc compared with the petrol version which is 624 cc. Diesel emits even more CO2 per litre burned (2.7 kg per litre) than petrol (2.3 kg per litre). As long as we are stuck with petrol and diesel as our fuels, we won't achieve any radical reductions in car CO2 emissions in the future.
Diesel was the main flashpoint in the interview with Ms. Narain coming out strongly against the use of diesel vehicles. Diesel emits much more of particulate matter and sulphur compounds than petrol. What she emphasized in words I have shown as a graph below. The calculations are for per passenger km travelled, which allows different vehicle types to be compared. The figures are for a generic car. I don't have emission factors for Nano, but although the absolute amounts will change, the overall trend shown by Nano will be similar to any other car, i.e. diesel more polluting for particulate matter and sulphur than petrol and CNG and the Nano more polluting that two wheelers and bus on a per passenger km basis.
Source: Emission factors for CO2, PM10 and SOx from World Bank: A Simple Model for Better Air Quality (2005); N.Harshadeep and S. Guttikunda. Assumed Occupancy: 2 wheels-1, Car-2, Bus- 40. A commute of 100 km is assumed.
Update: Figure changed. As a reader has so (un) kindly pointed out, the comparison of car diesel CO2 and car petrol CO2 emissions in the original figure was off by some amounts (it showed diesel CO2 emissions much more than petrol which is not correct) and I have removed that figure. The general trend between car diesel emissions and bus diesel emissions for CO2 still stand, as do trends for other pollutants. Using a more direct method of calculating CO2 emissions from diesel and petrol gives different results. For example a diesel car with mileage around 15km/litre will emit about 180 kg of CO2 for 1000 km use. A petrol car with mileage around 11.5 km/litre will emit about 200 kg of CO2 for 1000 km use. The above new figure represents these corrected results for diesel and petrol CO2 per pass km emissions. I don't know why the emission factors from the World Bank study are giving different results. I will investigate!
Diesel cars which are increasingly taking more of the market share in India are the most polluting per passenger km of travel for particulate matter and sulphur. Looking at the graph the way forward appears obvious. Massive increase in public transport running on clean fuel coupled with disincentives to use private vehicles especially diesel ones. Ms. Narain suggested that Ratan Tata will be a bigger hero if he brings to market an energy efficient bus that can transform public transport. Why is that not happening? An even more general question is why are car makers not rushing to bring a CNG car or a hybrid car to the market? Currently the incentives seem to be highly skewed. There is just no clear policy signal from the government in terms of favoring public transport over private vehicles and alternative fuels over petrol and diesel in transport.
Friday, January 18, 2008
The third chart is a family or genealogical tree as you have clearly identified. Since structurally all three charts use the same technique of depiction, an unwary or uninitiated reader is likely to perceive that, contrary to your lucid commentary, all charts are about speciation. S/he may then wrongly conclude that Harbhajan & Symonds belong to different species. This may lead to an unintended & unexpected outcome where "racism" may be replaced by "specism". An honour indeed to father a new 'concept', but one that you would certainly hold dubious & shun like "Maa ki".
A very valid point. Iconography about evolution has always lead to misinterpretations. Check out this great site for diagrammatic depictions of evolution. In this case Sadanand is saying that since my technique of depicting species and family relationships is the same i.e. branching diagrams, can Harbhajan and Symonds be misinterpreted as belonging to different species? In my defense I can say that the explanation clearly mentions that one is a species diagram and the other is a family one, but in fact the diagram of the family tree I drew is flawed. Species by definition are reproductively isolated groups. Once they originate, the branches remained separate. In contrast, within a species, family branches often come together through intermarriage. This happens at all levels of family relationships, i.e. branches which have been separated for hundreds of years may come together, as when populations which have been living on different continents start intermingling through migrations, or it may happen within closely knit families when cousins marry. So a modified depiction of the human family tree is shown below. Black dotted lines depict intermarriage between different family lines.
Successful mating between even relatively isolated human populations is the reason why Harbhajan and Symonds belong to one species. Thanks for pointing that out Sadanand.
Sadanand also comments:
I wonder if you have been uncharacteristically brazen in using RED for Vajpayee & Newton, though with Bhishma you are on safer grounds. You would have done well to put a sign "(?)" after the first 2 names. It is one thing to say they have left no legal heirs, but quite another to assert that they have no descendants.
Another good point, although my intention was simply to make a distinction between broken and unbroken family lineages. In order to avoid more controversies I will stick to the official version on the reproductive success of the concerned people :-)
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
The root of this perceived insult is the theological notion of the great chain of being (see image to the left) whereby all life on earth is arranged by divine design in a linear hierarchy, a ladder of progress so to speak with lowly animals at the bottom and humans occupying the pinnacle. In order to assert the superiority of the west over other people this chain of being was refined and humans were ranked according to western pre-conceptions of superiority. Since in the past the relationship of Africans to Westerners was mostly one of slave and master, this led to Africans occupying the lower rungs of the human part of the chain with western whites occupying the top. To call someone a monkey meant that you occupy the bottom part of the human chain. You are a human of less worth and are somehow "closer" to the animals than the rest of humanity. You would think that the concept of evolution would have broken us free from this chain, but perversely it seems to have reinforced the notion of a ladder of progress. This because the vast majority of people still think of evolution as a linear process whereby each species on the ladder evolved from the species one rung down the ladder. The thinking goes that since evolution theory tells us that we evolved from the apes in Africa, then Africans are somehow closer to the apes than Asians and Europeans who migrated and evolved "superior" traits.
Darwin taught us to think differently about life. He argued successfully that evolution is a branching process whereby an ancestral species can give rise to two or more descendant branches or species and those in turn can give rise to more descendant branches like I have show in figure below which is an evolutionary tree of the primate family.
In this scenario humans did not evolve from the chimpanzees as is supposed in the chain of being but the human lineage and the chimp lineage arose from a common ancestor some 6-8 million years ago. That ancestor evolved not from monkeys but from an even more ancient ape ancestor which also gave rise to the gorilla branch around 10 million years ago. And so on back in time about 30 million years ago when an ancient primate ancestor gave rise to the ape lineage. This was the common ancestor apes share with the monkey lineage. If you study this branching tree of evolution you will realize that monkeys, orangutans, gorillas and chimps are not intermediate frozen stages of evolution towards humans. They are all species on separate branches of the primate evolutionary tree, representing lineages which have been evolving independently of the human lineage for millions of years. I have shown the human lineage in some detail, but if you zoom into any of the branches that lead to the other great ape and monkey lineages you would likely see a similar branching structure as ancestral species within that branch gave rise to descendant species. Just as modern humans are different from their Homo erectus or even more remote Australopithecine ancestors, modern chimps, gorillas and monkeys have evolved characters different from their remote ancestors.
Zooming onto modern Homo sapiens we encounter an even more detailed branching structure which I have shown in figure below.
This is the family tree of humans composed of individuals and their descendants. This sort of a family tree is not unique to humans. Each of the various branches of the apes and monkey lineages will be composed of similar family trees of ape and monkey individuals and their descendants. Coming back to the human tree, famous people who did not leave descendants are shown in red. Harbhajan Singh, Andrew Symonds and Beckham are representatives of lineages with an unbroken chain of ancestors going back to the dawn of humanity. All family lines converge at this point which is the ancestral population from which modern humans arose. The implication is that since all humans share a common ancestor, then all humans are genetically equidistant from a member of any outgroup. For example, Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds are on average equally related to chimpanzees, or gorillas or monkeys or for that matter dogs, cats and bumble bees. When the West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding remarked in an attempt to diffuse the tension that we all descend from monkeys it really means that we are all equally related to monkeys and not that monkeys are our ancestors.
I would recommend a crash course in evolution 101 to both Harbhajan and Symonds. Harbhajan will realize that calling someone a monkey is really holding a mirror to one's own ancestry, and Symonds will realize how pointless it is to get worked up over something meaningless as this. If international sports bodies are bold enough they would remove the word monkey from the list of racial slurs. Historical injustices are hard to forget but this silly notion of one group of humans being closer to monkeys or being descended from monkeys gives undue importance to the discredited idea of cultural and genetic "superiority". We humans are certainly a very diverse bunch. But that should be cause for celebration and not a futile comparison with some other animal. As for Brad Hogg, that Aussie bastard seems to have gotten away Scot free :-)
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Wanted Geography Clerk: U.S. Census Bureau, Bothell, WA
Reviews source material and identifies the features requiring updates. Moves, reshapes, adds, and deletes features, updates line features, and address information. Uses source materials, various program files, and menu selections to effect updates. Sorts, files, or assembles various documents for further use in Geography operations and performs miscellaneous clerical activities, as needed.
It something of a relief to know that one of the world's most technological advanced nations still has need for clerks. Let's face it. Lot's of jobs even in high-tech are clerical in nature but considering the obsession with political correctness in America, one would have thought that the word clerk would be banished by now. How about: Wanted: Data developer and file relocation specialist. But the wheels of government turn exceedingly slowly even in the United States, and so a few clerks do make it now and then in a high tech job list.
GIS Jobs Clearinghouse is a fascinating website. It's a job board but in its style it is very mid 90's, reminiscent of the early days of the Internet. No style sheets, no ASP, no imagery and no gimmicks. Just a list created in plain old HTML. But what a penetrating glimpse into the American economy. GIS stands for geographic information systems, a technology to create, manage, analyze and produce maps of spatial data. GIS is used as a tool for varied applications, ranging from urban planning to demographic studies to epidemiology to forestry to electrical utility management. Traditionally a tool used by government institutes involved in natural resource management, the use of GIS has penetrated deep into the private business sector as well. GIS makes complex spatial patterns easier to understand, something which is critical for business decision making and so the private industry has embraced the technology for varied applications. Here are few example from GIS Jobs Clearinghouse.
GIS Analyst, Ecology and Environment, Inc, Buffalo, New York
GIS Analyst, Children's Environmental Health Initiative, Durham, NC
Demographic & Mapping Analyst, Newspaper Services of America, Downers Grove, IL
GIS Layer Developer, Global Energy Decisions, Boulder, CO
A few years ago in 2005 I gave a talk to the Rotary Club, Pune on GIS. It was a standard spiel on the wonders of GIS but at the end I showed a revealing graphic, a comparison of the GIS job market in the U.S and India. Only the private sector was compared since data on Indian government job vacancies was hard to come by. My interest was not in the size of the market but in what way is the private sector using GIS. This information I could glean from the job announcements, in the expected job duties section. A 3 month snap shot was taken from several online job boards. Take a look below:
In the U.S. besides a great demand for high-end application developers the other main thrust area was analysis of data. It is in this area that science graduates find employment. If you scroll down GIS jobs clearinghouse you will be struck by the number of GIS analyst positions. What's in a name you'll say, but this position announcement is a rough guide to the diverse ways GIS is utilized in the U.S.
As the figure to the left shows (updated to Dec 2007), all sectors make use of the GIS analyst. Geologists, urban planners, ecologists, biologists, image specialists all are employed for projects that utilize their science training along with GIS for solving real world problems. I can say from personal experience that it is a very satisfying and enriching work atmosphere. In India, along with application development the other thrust area was data conversion. This has been powered by the outsourcing revolution whereby hundreds to thousands of college graduates no matter what their background sit and churn out data mostly for foreign clients. Employment for science graduates in jobs that make use of their science training were far and few between.
Three years later I decided to revisit this comparison when I saw the job vacancy for the geography clerk. Maybe things were changing in India. Again only the private sector is compared over a time period from Oct 2007 to early Jan 2008.
In India, the data conversion juggernaut still rolls on while the demand for science skills is disappointingly low. Some conversations I had with colleagues in the GIS industry and alumni from GIS training institutes seem to confirm my little data collection spree. Most graduates get offered data conversion jobs, only a few get to do real analytical work. There are many reasons for this. Until recently there has been a lack of awareness in much of the private sector about the power of GIS. The government controls much of the base data on natural resources, urban plans, topography and difficulties in getting hold of data in a timely manner has slowed the use of GIS. Our environmental permitting regime has not been very strict, many would say it has been an eyewash. This has meant that companies traditionally did not take environmental impact assessments seriously enough to use detailed and often expensive GIS methods. And finally the government itself has not leveraged the true potential of GIS. In the U.S. government organizations of all levels, from municipalities, state government agencies to federal agencies all use GIS for various purposes. Such a dependence has lead to a flowering of private companies offering all sorts of specialized services to the government. In India such a synergy with the private sector has not developed to its full potential. It has been very hard in India to set up a profitable GIS company that exclusively offers high end analytical and modeling services. Most companies involved in GIS use a profit making data conversion section to sustain a smaller analysis section or in many cases GIS is just one part of a wider IT offering. To be a little optimistic, in all these areas some major progress is underway. Awareness is growing and sectors such as telecom and infrastructure are leading the way in GIS applications. These are sectors with deep pockets and in the absence of data they have resorted to creating base data from scratch. Government is slowly relinquishing its control on data and making it available through online clearinghouses such as the Environmental Information Centre and the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, although the latter online data clearinghouse was not working last time I checked. And environmental impact assessments are now mandatory for clearing any significant development project. This should give impetus to smaller more specialized companies to enter the fray. As the government gets more involved in the use of GIS, there is likely to a parallel growth of the private sector not just as data creators but as suppliers of science backed specialized solutions. The 2008 trend should be seen as an industry in transition. Hopefully by the time of my next survey in a few years, the science graduates will find their skills in demand from the Indian GIS industry.
In the meantime, data conversion jobs will at least for the near to mid term will continue to be the main employer in the GIS business. I was struck by this job announcement
Wanted GIS Executive, New Delhi
Duties: Digitization:- Digitization of Raster Images to produce output in Vector format
Just a routine clerical job. But in this era of India Shining, GIS Executive sounds so much better.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
From Tim Harford's Column in the Financial Times
Esther Duflo, a French economics professor at MIT, wondered whether there was anything that could be done about absentee teachers in rural India, which is a large problem for remote schoolhouses with a single teacher. Duflo and her colleague Rema Hanna took a sample of 120 schools in Rajasthan, chose 60 at random, and sent cameras to teachers in the chosen schools. The cameras had tamper-proof date and time stamps, and the teachers were asked to get a pupil to photograph the teacher with the class at the beginning and the end of each school day.
It was a simple idea, and it worked. Teacher absenteeism plummeted, as measured by random audits, and the class test scores improved markedly.According to UNICEF India, there is a correlation between teacher absenteeism and simply the daily incentives to appear to work. Better teacher attendances are seen in schools closer to paved roads, schools that are inspected regularly and have better infrastructure. Absenteeism in general increases in low-income states. Obviously can't distribute camera's to ten's of thousands of schools across the country. Any ideas on how to improve teacher absenteeism without resorting to tricks like this? Another thought. Maybe if 60 schools that did not get the camera knew such a system is keeping tabs on teachers, would that have acted as an incentive to show up to school so as not to appear worse off in comparison with the schools with the camera? This was a small scale approach in influencing behavior through monitoring, but it does show that holding individuals accountable through some type of monitoring system- something that is never strongly enforced in India - would act as a pretty strong incentive to modify behavior.
Tuesday, January 1, 2008
Whales once walked in Kashmir
Whales evolved from land mammals that did walk. Scientists have found quite a remarkable series of fossils documented through morphological changes this transition from land to sea. The earliest known whale is the 47 million year old Ambulocetus natans, a small otter size creature with short stubby legs. Scientists reckon that whales ultimately evolved from land mammals called artiodactycls, even toed ungulates whose living representatives include camels, pigs and hippos. But before Ambulocetus the fossil record is poor which means we don't know much about the earliest ungulate ancestors of whales and their ecology. Now a new article reports on the discovery of a 48 million year old raccoon size fossil artiodactycl named Indohyus, which would make it one of the earliest known relatives of whales and should throw light on the early environmental conditions in which ancestors of whales lived. This fossil was found in Kashmir by a team of researchers, Sunil Bajpai of IIT Roorkee, B N Tiwari of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun and US-based researcher Carl Buell Hans Thewissen.The article appeared in the journal Nature. Based on isotope analysis of teeth that indicates the type of diet (vegetarian) and morphological characters, Indohyus has been interpreted to have been a creature that spent a lot of time wading through and underwater, munching on aquatic vegetation. Its leg bones are particularly heavy, probably to prevent it from floating up to the surface of water. Similar bone structure can be seen in hippos. Below is an artists reconstruction of Indohyus.
Source: BBC News
The DNA article calls Indohyus the ancestors of whales.Yet if you look at the evolutionary relationships of Indohyus with the Cetaceans (the group that includes whales) which scientists have constructed by comparing the morphological characters of Indohyus with living and fossil Cetaceans and other mammals this is what you find:
Indohyus is not an ancestor of the Cetaceans but a member of a sister group, a close relative. Why does the article refer it as an ancestor? This goes to the very heart of a common misconception of how evolution works. When Indohyus was interpreted to be an ancient even toed ungulate related to whales and sharing some morphological similarities with whales, the report automatically assumed that it must be an ancient ancestor of the whales. This happens because of the long discredited but still popular notion of evolution as a linear process whereby an entire species gets transformed over time into a new species. This view leads to interpreting evolutionary relationships as direct ancestor descendant lineages. But evolution is a branching process. One species can give rise to just one, or two or several new species and continue to coexist with its descendants. Moreover, the rate of morphological change in these different branches may vary. One branch may experience rapid morphological change while a closely related branch may not change too much. The above evolutionary tree also known as a cladogram is basically a hypothesis about the evolutionary relationships between the different organisms being studied. Based on this cladogram, Indohyus and Cetaceans shared a common ancestor in the past. This common ancestor gave rise to two daughter species. One species became the founding ancestor of the Raoellidae, the group that includes Indohyus and the other species became the founding ancestor of the Cetaceans. The branch of artiodactycls that evolved into Indohyus retained many morphological characters of its ancestors. The other branch also retained some ancestral traits such as the middle-ear space called the involucrum. But they also evolved many new characters including carnivory, shorter legs and a more hydrodynamic body shape. Eventually the short legs became modified into the Cetacean fins. The Cetacean branch has undergone dramatic morphological changes. At first the founding species of the two branches would have been morphologically very similar. But since morphological evolution in the branch that lead to Indohyus was limited, it resembles the earliest ancestors of the Cetaceans more than living Cetaceans do. This leads to the common misperception when interpreting evolutionary relationships that a creature with more ancestral traits is actually the ancestor. The common remark that we evolved from chimpanzees is based on just such a misunderstanding. We shared a common ancestor with the chimps 6-8 million years ago. The branch that lead to chimps did not change much morphologically as against the changes that took place in the human lineage. So a chimp likely resembles our very early ancestors more than we do. That doesn't make the chimp our ancestor.
The report also says that
three-member team of researchers, including two from India, claim to have found the missing link between whales and land-based mammals.
I doubt if the researchers made any such claim. Indohyus is a close relative of the Cetaceans. Its morphology and the interpreted ecology in which it lived can tell us something about how the ancient even toed ungulates from which the Cetaceans evolved looked like and the environment in which they lived. The term missing link is now outdated. It used to refer to a species with transitional or intermediate form between any two end-member morphologies thought to be forming an ancestor descendant series. Discovery of such forms is always useful since it allows paleontologists to understand just how morphological evolution took place as one form evolved into another, but one missing link cannot be expected to explain all the evolutionary changes between one suite of morphological characters into another. In modern evolutionary thinking a missing link is really a reference to an intermediate morphology and not to any particular fossil species. Because of the branching nature of evolution, the discovered fossil species with an intermediate morphology may be an evolutionary cousin and not a direct ancestor. There is another reason why Indohyus should not be thought of as a missing link or a transitional form. It was not in transition into becoming more aquatic and whale-like. The terms missing link and transitional fossil are retrospective labels. But evolution has no foresight. It did not build Indohyus and related semi-aquatic ungulates as a stop gap measure towards more full fledged aquatic Cetaceans. Evolution is simply change in response to the environment on a generation by generation basis. Indohyus like any other creature evolved characteristics that were well adapted to its environment. It was a representative of its time and place. Modified descendants of this "transitional" morphology of Indohyus are still with us. We call them hippos.