Sunday, July 29, 2007

Around Shanghai

After long dilemma, I walked out of my home in this weekend at last. I went to see the real and fake marketplaces of Shanghai, as well as the riverside.

I started from my closest Xujiahui metro station. The station has a couple of lines passing through it – line 1 and line 4. My destination was the station named ‘Shanghai Science and Technology Museum’. In the platform, there was a set of ticket counters along with automated ticket vending machines. As a newcomer, I did not risk the vending machines, rather went to the counter and bought the tickets. Then passed through the check-in gate (similar to Kolkata Metro), and took the stairs to reach the platform. The platform looks similar to any of the Kolkata Metro platform except one piece of add-on. There is a single platform shared between up and down lines – and each end of the platform is covered by glass frames. The glass-frames also have doors placed in between. When a train stops, each of its doors stops at one of the doors of the frame, then both opens up simultaneously. The reason is crystal clear: there is no scope for anybody to jump in the line, either accidentally or to commit suicide.

There were five stoppages between Xujiahui and People’s square – the place where I had to switch to line 2. It took around five minutes a station. In People’s square, however, the add-on was missing. I felt probably safety is beaten by the cost – what is affordable for a posh station like Xujiahui, is not affordable for another station. However, I went up and then walked about half a kilometer through an underground tunnel, to reach the line 2 station. The directions are in English and Chinese, so there is no trouble if you follow them. But, please don’t at least expect anybody to speak English. The line 2 actually goes under the river to reach my destination, although there is no unique experience for that as the underground tunnel is as dark as it is in any other places. Ultimately, after five more stations, I reached the destination.

The metro is really crowded, even in the weekend. I can easily project the situation in a weekday – office time. It would be no better than a Kolkata Metro experience. The frequency of trains is high – a train in a couple of minutes. Even in the weekend, all seats are occupied in every train, although standing is comfortable. And there is crowd in the platform, at the escalator, inside the tunnel or at the shops. I heard that China is the most populated country in the world. I saw it today.
Most of the ‘Shanghai hawker’s market’ is underground, attached to these metro stations. The beggars and footpath-sleepers also find comfortable home out in the stairs of the Metro. There are escalators, but they are only to go up. To go down, you have to take stairs. Shanghai streets are almost free of beggars, may be because the authorities are too strict about them. The authority keeps the city ‘look clean’ but the real beggars come out of their den at night. I could see a glimpse of them underground. The pattern of the beggars is same as that in India – ranging from a blind playing a flute to a mother carrying a child. However, it seemed to me, they are a little bit better dressed than their counterparts in Kolkata.

Leaving aside the crowd and beggars, when I reached the station and came up to the open air, I was really charmed. The grand building of ‘Shanghai Science and Technology Museum’ is in front of me. It requires a little knowledge to estimate that it’s been a grand product of a huge investment (later I came to know that the amount is 1.78 billion yuan, i.e. 9 billion Rs) to promote science among the children. Although I am a little bit skeptic of how this kind of museum can promote scientific mind, I have no option but to respect the efforts made. After taking a few photographs, I walked into the market. I had already read about it in a site that asked foreigners to start bargaining at one-fifth of the quoted price. I did it and bought a kimono type dress along with a cotton shirt with Chinese handicraft. The cost was 80 and 100 yuan respectively. I did everything perfectly, from starting with one-fifth to sticking to it and act as I am not that interested in the object. Yet, at the end the owner was happy to sell it, and I was a little bit irritated as it seems I got ‘cheated’. However, the consolation is clear to me - how shamelessly can you bargain? Blaming my ‘shame’ to put lowest digits to bargain with, I started for Nanjing Road, again via Metro.

The interesting thing that I saw in that small market was a shop named ‘Gulistan’. As per the hoardings, it serves Turkish and Uighur foods, but they are no different from Indian kebabs. It is a gift of Chinese western part that is closer to central Asia and India.

The Nanjing Road is the shopping capital of Shanghai. It is said that an investment of $2 billion is being added to this road by 2010. It is not a traditional road as it was a few decades ago. Now it’s a pedestrian road, paved with tiles, with high-rises on both sides. I started walking towards the bund (river) and the old Shanghai came close to me. There are old style buildings, with arch shaped cantilevers, and red colored building supported by additional steel structures outside. The ground floors of these buildings are full of shops, mostly selling clothes, jackets and chop-sticks. It is absolutely a cousin of Kolkata Esplanade area, only missing a couple of cinema halls. The old narrow roads, the market beside, the traffic jams and red buildings, all point to a colonial cousin of Kolkata been nurtured by the British half a century ago.

I took a ride to the sightseeing spot of the bund (river). It was an underground journey, crossing the river in a small single compartment closed trolley. I bought the ticket at 45 yuan and ultimately it was useless. I thought I would see a bit under the river, but it was just another blind tunnel. On the other side, the arrangement for watching the river was fully perfect, with lash green lawns and pavements beside the river. The tallest building of Shanghai is also located nearby, although it’s difficult to recognize it as a ‘building’ at all. It looks more of a tower, with a couple of spherical balls attached to its belly. Later I discovered that those balls are basically restaurants with 360 degree view of the city. I am already planning to visit the place once more and obviously to visit the restaurant in the evening.

The river was another cousin of the Ganges, although less wide. However, the skyline is full of skyscrapers. After spending half an hour beside the muddy river water, I started back.

At the time of return, the Nanjing road looked closer to the fifth avenue in NY than Esplanade of Kolkata. The gorgeous lighting and the innumerable shopping malls does not only show the advances China has made in last couple of decades, but also signifies how we have lost our ways in a harsh, capitalist world. The Nanjing Road Metro station is full of beggars, yet nobody dares to come up and create inconvenience to the rich pedestrians, who are busy in window shopping. Is it a good move for the Government to deny them a few bucks more? Or is it good to keep them away underground? I know, it takes a full-length debate to come to conclusion. However, leave apart morality, that’s how China is going ahead.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Phantoms in the Brain

"Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is." - Bhagavad Gita.

Have you ever heard of Bill Marshal, an ex-Air Force Pilot, who met a stroke and lost some of his brain functionality? Since then, his capability of dealing with numbers was lost. He could explain you the fighter planes and share his experience of flying with them. But once you ask him about what is the value of one hundred minus three, he fails to answer. Not only that he can’t deal with numbers at all.

Did you hear the story of Mirabelle Kumar, a cheerful young lady, who was born without her hands? But she used to feel the existence of her hands from her childhood. Philip Martinez, who lost his arm in a motorcycle accident in San-Diego freeway, feels pain in his non-existing elbow and fingers.

One might not even heard of Diane Fletcher, a lady who survived an accident from carbon-monoxide fumes, could not recognize or count any object - largest letters on an eye-chart or number of fingers shown. Literally, she was a blind - would have failed all standard tests of blindness. But, she could pick up things or walk or even place a letter in the letter box with dexterity - without any help or even without touching the slit of the letter box.

A more interesting case was that of Ingrid, a Swiss woman, who suffered a brain damage to lose the visibility of continuity of motion. She could perfectly read books or cook in the kitchen but if she looked at a person running, she could only have seen a succession of static snapshots of the continuous motion.

The history of James Thurber sounds more common to us. He lost one of his eyes at the age of six, and later lost the vision of the other eye in a gradual process. At the time he became blind, he claimed that he could see a fantastic world full of surrealistic images. He could see bridges rise lazily into air, like balloons. He used his 'vision' creatively and drew a lot of whimsical cartoons and pictures, those became very popular.

There is a story of one-hand clapping also. Mrs. Dodds, who was paralyzed on her left side of the body after a stroke, knew that it was working very well. When she was asked to clap, she just made clapping movement with her right hand and was confident of her action.

Last, but not the least, the amazing story of Arthur, the son of a diplomat from Venezuela, who met a near-fatal accident and went to coma. Once he's back from coma, he could recall all the past and seemed to be normal with respect to outward appearances. But he had one credible delusion about his parents - that they were imposters, posing as his parents - and nothing could convince him. He even recognized the facial similarity with his 'actual' parents, but never agreed that they are his parents - even he conjured up some imaginary reasons as justification as why would they pose as his parent.

All these and much more are the topics of the book I am going through - Phantoms in the Brain by V. S. Ramachandran, an eminent neuroscientist. He explains all these cases in depth without using much of jargons in Neuroscience. He starts with an assumption of our brain as a set of black boxes and then gradually goes onto describe each one's functionality and how they interact with each other and the limbs. More importantly, other than the above mentioned and many more case studies, he devises a few simple experiments those let us understand his point of view properly. In one of his later chapters, he explains the relationship between our brain and the image of God from the angle of Neuroscience as well as Evolutionary Psychology. In his concluding chapter, he deals with the apparent philosophical question - what is a self and what is consciousness - and how these are closely linked with our brain.

The book I would recommend for the readers who like to explore new fields and want to know about a vaguely understood area of science - neuroscience. As a deeply scientific-minded reader, I enjoyed the book from beginning to the end. It gives me the feel that how correct Newton was when he said :"I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, July 06, 2007

Blogs on Scientific Philosophy

A few interesting posts I have come across over wordpress thanks to wordpress tag surfer. The first one discusses how the knowledge was developed in ancient civilizations and wherefrom it started to go dark. The blogger discussed about early socirty, mythology-religion development, trade and economy and also how the religion evolved. He did not forget to mention a few wise men of ancient greece (his writing is Europe oriented).

The next one tries to explain the relationship between stress and development. The blogger diagramatically described how the fear is related to stress-development gap. And he also examplified in support of his hypotheses, with modern day issues and reactions.

The last one talks about the critical thinking - to explain how we accumulate knowledge. I have pointed out the similarity of his writing with Dawkins' letter that I have already discussed and translated too.

Happy blogging, keep it up.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Pollution in Shanghai

It's evening time in Shanghai. The sky is cloudy and the air is misty. The environment is so hazy that I can't see a high-rise a kilometer away. A few days back, I've reported that a heavy downpour has made the air hazy. I think that's not only the downpour - it's pollution too. The particle density in Shanghai is so high that the fog seems to be automatic in the dusk. To me, China developed too fast to ignore the environmental aspects.

The links are the updates on the
1. BBC
2. The International Herald Tribune.

Labels: , , ,

Can Smokers be Wiped out by Natural Selection?

One interesting thought!! Can Natural Selection wipe out the smokers from the Earth after years of evolution? The study results point to a similar direction.

First of all, the smoking habit has to be a genetic characteristic (inherited property in other words) to be qualified to take part in evolution. Scientists, in fact, claim to have discovered the gene linked to smoking habit. The study by Dr Hidetoshi Nakamura of Keio University in Japan looked at a particular gene known to have an effect on how people process nicotine. In the human body, nicotine is mainly metabolized by the gene CYP2A6.If people are not very good at processing nicotine, then they are less likely to be interested in smoking and less likely to continue if they do start. In another study by Dr Robert Walton, of Oxford's clinical pharmacology department, variations of a gene known as the dopamine D2 receptor gene, or DRD2, reveals whether individuals are genetically programmed to be addicted to nicotine. One in three people is born with the gene.

Now let's see how the smoking habit can make us disadvantageous to reproduce. British researchers published a study claiming that a life of cigarette smoking will be, on average, 10 years shorter than a life without it. They also claimed that consistent cigarette smoking doubles mortality rates in both middle age and old age. More interestingly, Men who smoke cigarettes may experience a significant decline in their capacity to father a child, a research by a reproductive medicine specialist from the University at Buffalo indicates. Like other cells in the body, human sperm carry a receptor for nicotine, which means they recognize and respond to nicotine. The results could mean that heavy smoking overloads the nicotine receptor in human sperm and in the testes, leading to a decline in fertilizing potential. Not only that, the same study claims, smoking men also should be aware that smoking can damage their sperm DNA, passing on faulty DNA to their baby.

To sum up, smokers are likely to have less life-span with less probability to father (or mother) a child. If we bring together all theree studies, the platform for differential reproduction rate to wipe out a genetic variety seems to be in effect. Isn't those enough to stop spreading the genes for smoking? To answer in brief : No, as memes are there to manipulate.

This is where importance of memes comes to picture. Let's take an example of Indian women. They generally don't smoke because in Indian societies, smoking by women is almost prohibited. So, they carry the 'smoking gene' to pass it to the next generation as successfully as other women would have done. The smoking gene doesn't stop spreading because of the meme present in Indian societies to prevent women from smoking. The strong Indian social structure defies the Natural Selection on smokers. In a nature versus nurture debate, in this case, nurture seems to have won - and the habit of smoking will last longer in protective societies. To wipe the habit out, we require the introduction of a new stronger meme to stop smoking itself. The meme is: "Smoking is injurious to health" - and we need a strong awareness campaign.

Reference : Meme and it's activities (my old post)

Darwin, DNA, Evolution, Meme, Genetics, Science

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

To Change the Species - Just Change the Genome!!

The news appeared in most of the leading newspapers that scientists have successfully transplanted the entire genome of one species of bacteria to another. This is carried out by the institute lead by J. Craig Ventor, a prominent participant in the human genome sequencing.

The researchers worked with Mycoplasma mycoides (a microbe that infects goats) because it has one of the smallest genetic blueprints of any known self-replicating organism and lacks cell walls, making it easier to insert new DNA. They isolated its entire genetic code - one chromosome that forms a circle-stripping it of all its proteins, and then added genes to make a host organism blue (to make it easy to pick out in a Petri dish) as well as resistant to the antibiotic tetracycline. The scientists added close relative Mycoplasma capricolum (another goat pathogen) to a solution containing M. mycoides' genetic material and gently mixed it for a minute. After three hours of incubation, the resulting microbes were exposed to the antibiotic tetracycline.

The Evolution and Natural Selection are played once more in the labs as the variants having favorable mutations (artificially imposed) survived and the rest perished. After three days, large colonies of blue, antibiotic-resistant microbes had formed. Roughly one in 150,000 of the M. capricolum microbes had absorbed the new DNA and transferred it to daughter cells. The daughter cells displayed no trace of their original DNA while taking on the entire form and function of the original bacterium.

The ultimate goal is to make cells that might take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and produce methane, used as a feedstock for other fuels. Such an achievement might reduce dependency on fossil fuels and strike a blow at global warming.

Scientists remain unable to create synthetic life in the lab. "If we're trying to understand the origins of life and cellular life, it would be ideal to have all the chemical components in a soup to spontaneously go together and form a cell", Venter says, "We're a long way from that."

References :
1. Sciam
2. NYT

DNA, Evolution, Genetics, Origin of Life, Science

Labels: , , , ,

My Third Article on Mukto-Mona

My third bengali article also got published at Mukto-Mona yesterday. The topic was the Dawkins' letter to his daughter, that I have discussed previously. There are a few good Bengali Articles present in the same site. I would recommend one to read Avijit Roy's "Amader Kajer Swikriti" (Recognition of our work), that covers a brief history of atheism along with a history of struggles those Mukto-mona had gone through. The context of the article is the receipt of Jahanara Imam Memorial award, that is given for encouraging free thinking in society.

Coming back to the article, I tried to change the context of the letter so that it becomes acceptable to the public in general, especially to the people of South Asia. I have mentioned the examples (castes and dogmas) to suit South Asian readers.

My next assignment is foing to be a translation of one of my all time favourites - The God Delusion. The first chapter of the same book has already been translated and kept in the mukto-mona site. I am trusted with the translation of at least one chapter from the same. I am planning to take the same route - replace the original examples with the South Asian ones. Given that a Bengali reader is going to be most probably from this region, it's my responsibility to make the translation smooth to him. An overdose of references to the Catholic Church and their activities might not get a warm welcome from people here.

Once I am done, I will definitely come up with the same in my blog.

Labels: , , , ,