Archive for March 28th, 2008

Utterly delightful Atwood

March 28, 2008

Here is a pointer from Jenny:

In general I would have to say that reading literary things on the internet is one of my absolute favorite and most reliably relaxing pastimes, but that really it is more on the time-wasting front than the utterly delightfulness-inducing…

But now and again there is something utterly delightful, and I have just read one of these things with great glee!

A long and thought-provoking (and frequently–characteristically!–sardonic) essay by Margaret Atwood, at the Guardian, on Anne of Green Gables.

I haven’t read the book, Anne of Green Gables myself, and it probably is a bit late now (and, Atwood anticipates it too):

For those of you who did not read this book as a child – are there any? Yes, and they are most likely male …

However, not having read it did not stop me from enjoying Atwood’s piece (who, by the way, is one of the finest stylists I have read):

On top of all that, a fresh edition of the first Anne book is available from the New Canadian Library, complete with the original illustrations. These are unsettling, as everyone in them has a very small head – Marilla in particular is not only pinheaded but practically bald – leading us to wonder about the degree of inbreeding that was going on around Avonlea. There’s a curiously shaped Anne – more like a sort of Mary Poppins puppet than a girl – who turns into a pretty Dresden china figurine by book’s end. But Anne’s original image defects have been corrected over and over in the course of the century. In the many subsequent pictorial renditions of her, Anne’s head returns to normal size – sometimes it gets a little too big – and the hair becomes much more prominent.

Nor is this process at an end: from the Anne of Green Gables Licensing Authority that gives the nod to all collateral products, expect more Anne boxed sets, Anne notepaper and Anne pencils, Anne coffee mugs and Anne aprons, Anne candies and Anne straw hats, and Anne – well, what else? Anne lace-edged pantaloon underclothing? Anne cookbooks – oops, we already have those. Talking Anne dolls that say, “You mean, hateful boy! How dare you!” followed by the sharp crack of a slate being broken over a thick skull, or else, “I hate you – I hate you – I hate you! You are a rude, unfeeling woman!” I always liked those parts.

By the way, apparently, Twain thought that Anne is next only to Alice:

Anne “is the dearest and most loveable child in fiction since the immortal Alice”, growled crusty, cynical Mark Twain …

which makes me wonder if I should get the book and read it after all.

Have fun!

Secrets in the lab!

March 28, 2008

Here is a very fascinating interview (via Bora):

JG: I read your paper from 1985 about sequencing the mummy remains. What was the genesis of that?

SP: I knew there were hundreds and thousands of mummies around in museums and that they found hundreds of new ones every year, and molecular cloning in bacteria was a rather new thing at the time, so I found in the literature that no one had tried to extract DNA from Egyptian mummies, or any old remains actually. So I started to do that as a hobby in late evenings and weekends, secretly from my thesis advisor.

JG: As a lowly graduate student, where do you find a piece of mummy to start this investigation?

SP: I had studied Egyptology, so the professor of Egyptology knew me quite well. He helped me to sample a mummy in the museum in Uppsala. He also had very good connections with a very large museum in Berlin, which was East Berlin at the time. Germany has a long, long tradition in Egyptology, going back to the 19th century. After the British Museum and the Museum in Paris, the Berlin Museum has the biggest collection outside Egypt.

JG: So you went with your professor to the museum in East Berlin…

SP: He had convinced them of our idea in advance. We sampled, I think, 36 different mummies. Small samples, of course.

JG: Had people ever looked at mummy tissue before, at things like proteins?

SP: There had been some work on histology of mummies, and there had been some work on trying immunoreactivity of proteins extracted from it, with very mixed results. I don’t think there were any convincing results from Egyptian mummies.

JG: In what kind of state are the mummies? Are you wearing gloves or masks? What are you doing?

SP: We only worked with mummies that were already unwrapped and with things that were broken, so we were not destroying anything to get to the tissues. With a scalpel we removed a little piece. It was the first time this was done, so we had no big qualms about contamination. I had no idea this could be such a big issue.

JG: What did you do with these 36 scalpeled samples?

SP: We screened them with histology. We looked at both with traditional stainings—hematoxylin-and-eosin staining and staining with ethidium bromide—and under UV light to see if one could see any fluorescence from DNA. In the skin of a particular mummy, you could see that the cell nuclei lit up. So, there was DNA there and at the place you would expect it to be.

JG: Was your interest in this simply the challenge of getting DNA sequence out of it or was there a bigger idea?

SP: It was clearly the idea that if you could study the DNA of ancient Egyptians, you could elucidate aspects of Egyptian history that you couldn’t by traditional sources of archeology and the written records.

JG: Do you mean the relationships between people?

SP: Population history. Say, when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, did that mean there were lots of people from Greece who actually came there and settled there? When the Assyrians came there, did that have an influence? Or was the population continuous? Political things that influenced the population.

Since then it has become clear that it is almost impossible to work with human remains because of contamination. It is very hard to exclude that the DNA you look at is not contaminated with modern humans.

JG: Then, how do we know that this sequence in the 1985 paper is in fact the sequence of a real Egyptian?

SP: In hindsight, we don’t know that. In 1985, I had no idea how hard this is [to retrieve uncontaminated ancient DNA sequences] and thus did not do the controls we now know are necessary. We’ve even published at a later point on this.

JG: But there have been no data to refute the sequence of this mummy.

SP: But nothing to prove it either! It could well have been contamination, and if that was the last that had ever been written on ancient DNA, that would have been a sad state of affairs and the end of the field.

Stories like these bring science the flavour of a thriller — don’t they? Take a look!

In praise of AIR

March 28, 2008

When we were kids, we had no TV at home; even if we had had TV, with a 40 feet or so of Antenna — which is a pain to set up in our kind of homes clay tile roofing — all we could have gotten was DD. So, most of our electronic entertainment was via Radio, and especially, AIR.

Everybody at home had his/her own radio time — my grandfather started at around 5:45 am or so with “Auspicious music”, English News Bulletin, Devotional music, local news and then Delhi news. Then, my mother got to tune to some movie songs. Again, it was time for the English news (in the middle there was an uncomfortable 15 minutes of Hindi news which none of us could understand). Then, it was time for some classical music or movie music depending on our mood and preference. And, in the evenings, it was again news, music, and may be an occasional drama or so. Of course, there were sports programmes — but nobody at home paid much attention to any of that. Any case, on the whole, I have very good memories of AIR, and especially their music and literary programmes.

That is the reason why I found the following sentences (emphasis mine)  in this blog post jarring (link via Desi Pundit):

Their programming needs some serious upgrading to be at the level of a satellite radio station and to appeal to a wider variety of audiences. Talk shows, news, current affairs, finance, sports (cricket, in particular, preferably live) are some of the things that would fit in well should they choose to upgrade. Being the first South Asian channel on satellite radio, they have the potential to draw a sizable audience, maybe they already are. But that audience certainly deserves better, translation we don’t need a clone of All India Radio.

So, who says AIR does not have talk shows, news, current affairs, finance, sports (cricket, in particular, preferably live)? I do not know now; but till recently, they did, and most probably, they still do. So, I find this kind of potshot at AIR  ill informed at best and arrogant at worst.

HowTo: treat your mugger right!

March 28, 2008

A nice story at NPR (via B-squared):

Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.

But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.

He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,'” Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what’s going on here?” Diaz says. “He asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?'”

Diaz replied: “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me … hey, you’re more than welcome.

Take a look!