Monthly Archives: March 2012

ScienceOnline2012 in Review

Nice short video overview of the ScienceOnline2012 unconference I attended last january, just days before my life went into a turbulent period from which I am still recovering. I had several blog posts in mind to record my own experience at the meeting, and summarize the discussion in the un-session I was able to lead there. It is nice to see this video which reminds me of the warmth of that unconference, and jogs memories that should help me write those blog posts… just as soon as I’m done catching up with all the other more urgent scheisse that has piled up at work in my absence! In the meantime, enjoy this video, which even has my own hairy face on camera for a second, laughing at something Brian Malow, the Science Comedian said during lunch on the final day. Its only been a couple of months, but feels so long ago that I have to say: ah, the memories!

Hoodies and the beasts within our multicolored skins

In his very second outing, the newest Doctor Who (a white guy… ever wonder why the last remaining Time Lord in the universe keeps choosing to be reincarnated as a parade of white guys?) and his newest (and whitest; again, where’s the kick-ass black beauty Martha Jones who accompanied him for a season?) companion land on a strange sort of ship which is really home to all of Britain transported into outer space somehow. 

But something is awry (of course), as the Doctor soon notices (of course). Within about five minutes he is out checking glasses of water for something amiss, and suddenly points Amy Pond (his lily-white companion) towards a little girl sitting on a bench all by herself, crying.

The little girl is also white, of course.

The camera pans back towards the Doctor and Amy just before he darts forward. As Amy begins to follow him, from behind her we see a dark hooded figure emerge from the shadows, evidently following them.

Screen_shot_2012-03-27_at_3

This is a point where I should worry about my 10-year-old daughter S (brown like me; too dark-skinned for my Indian parents’ liking), curled up beside me on the couch as I watch this new episode of a show which elicits a mixed fear/fascination response from her. A budding sci-fi fan growing up on the Harry Potter franchise and moving into more grown-up stuff, she loves the idea of Doctor Who – but, at this point, is also rather terrified of the show. Especially its penchant (like much British sci-fi) to throw children into harm’s way as is happening on the screen right now.

Normally, a scene like this one (see from c.6min into this clip) where a girl is crying and a darkly hooded figure emerges to apparently stalk our leads – such a scene would cause S to hold her breath, followed (when the hoodie appears) by her either bolting from the living room, or at least burrowing into the sofa cushions behind my back.

Screen_shot_2012-03-25_at_3

Yet, as this hooded figure approaches the camera, her clutching my arm anxiously, and we can see his dark skin, the whites of his eyes, and then his full black face…

0screen_shot_2012-03-25_at_3

…something surprising, and wonderful, happens: her fingers relax and S lets out her breath in an audible sigh of relief! Not a reaction even the creators of the show would have expected or wanted, I imagine, because the scene is clearly playing on our fears. And what’s more fearful in our culture than a black guy in a dark hoodie emerging from the shadows to stalk a pale white girl? 

So I ask her why she isn’t scared. She says because it turned out to be an African guy, and African-Americans she finds reassuring, so she doesn’t think it is a bad guy. As the story progresses, we learn, of course, that he is indeed not a bad guy. Yet, despite the obvious tropes being used on screen, this ten-year-old brown girl didn’t fall for the manipulation, saw right through it, because her gut told her that black was the color of trust and comfort and reassurance.

I wish I could say I taught her that.

I remember that little moment from a couple of years ago, for comfort and hope now, during these weeks when much of white America has seemingly gone crazy over fear of overly pigmented skin. It is suddenly OK (again) to kill black boys in hoodies. Or to beat brown women (in hijab? does it matter?) to death for simply being in this country. And even outrage over fictional characters in futuristic fantasies turning out to be black in a movie! There is of course also the country’s first black president, who is apparently responsible for every ill in society now. But this isn’t anything new – its just flared up now for some reason, is all. As my friend Danielle Lee (black, and proud!pointed out in a powerful blog post earlier today, having pigment is a hazardous thing even in science, as in many other areas of ordinary life in America (and elsewhere too).

How then did my little girl, born of parents from a culture that is among the most racist in the world (black/white – pffft!! Indians discriminate based on a whole gradient of shades of wheatish in our brown skins! Have even turned our dark-skinned gods blue because that is somehow better than being black! And slavery? Ha! See how elegantly our caste system has made people completely internalize slavery for thousands of years!), raised in a definitely-not-post-racial America, somehow overcome all this cultural programming to instinctively find trust and reassurance in a darkly hooded black face, instead of running away screaming?

She wasn’t even thinking about all this, of course. She has probably forgotten the incident entirely, moved on. At 12, she imagines herself as Katniss now, and will therefore be really righteously angry if she reads what the racist morons have tweeted about Rue being black

Wish I knew where (if) our parenting went right. I would take credit, happily! And if I could, bottle whatever it is that resulted in her healthy human attitude. Because clearly, the world needs more of that.

Yosemite: a mind-blowing high-definition visual journey through an incredible place

A spectacular view of the freshly rain-and-snow-washed Sierra Nevada range had me in its thrall during my morning commute this morning! Just the kind of view that all-too-rarely these days reminds one of the value of living in Fresno, so near to these fantastic mountains. Yet also so far sometimes as we get too caught up in the daily mundane. A view like that, and a video like this one, remind me again that I don’t go up in these mountains as often as I would like to… as I really should! At least I get to see them from my windows more often than most people, though. Besides, perhaps it is better that more of us enjoy getting up close to them via such HD footage than actually crushing those trails (like the one here going up Half Dome which the National Park Service is seriously worried about) underfoot. I also particularly love the nocturnal shots in this film, showcasing a Yosemite that is likely even less accessible to most people, including those who tromp through there on short visits. Therein lies the trade-off in capturing such spectacular footage of such special places, I guess: it is great that some of us have access so they can bring all this beauty to the rest of us!

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/35396305 w=500&h=281]

Welcome to the Anthropocene (a video)

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/39048998 w=500&h=283]

A 3-minute journey through the last 250 years of our history, from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the Rio+20 Summit. The film charts the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes.

The film was commissioned by the Planet Under Pressure conference, London 26-29 March, a major international conference focusing on solutions.

planetunderpressure2012.net

The film is part of the world’s first educational webportal on the Anthropocene, commissioned by the Planet Under Pressure conference, and developed and sponsored by anthropocene.info

PIRATES!! Yes!!! (But hush… don’t mention scientists or Charles Darwin – we’re Americans!)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPJF6mR6krM]

Now that sure looks like a fun movie, doesn’t it? Pirates! Aardman’s brilliant digital claymation wackiness! and Pirates! What’s not to like?

Well, a rather big chunk of the premise of the story, apparently – if you’re American. For the film is based on a novel titled “The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists”. Not just any old scientists either – but the story actually revolves around Charles Darwin, whose Beagle is sunk by the titular pirates who then actually team up with him for some scientific mayhem. Sounds like fun, right? But you wouldn’t know any of that from the above trailer for the film intended for the American market. Not only is there no mention of Darwin (although some of us may recognize him from one tiny glimpse in the above trailer; hint: he didn’t have that famous beard while on that voyage of his youth), the trailer makes it sound like some comic knock-off of that awful Disney Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. With a Band of Misfits!

Why, Sony, why? Is this what your marketing department and its focus groups told you? That mentioning scientists or Darwin would be the marketing death knell for this movie in America? That no one would go to see a movie with scientists in the title? Is this what we have come to in this nation that was once the proud global leader of science? That one must remove not only any mention of philosophers, but even scientists from children’s literature and cinema? I guess the marketers know something we don’t quite appreciate fully – just how low science has sunk in the estimation of the American public! And that is rather sad and quite alarming…

At least the British aren’t as squeamish about science or Darwin, going by this, rather more fun, musical trailer being shown in the UK – although this trailer too doesn’t exactly play up the science bits:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWOFLtsDvbw]

Let’s hope the actual movie itself hasn’t been purged of references to science or Darwin when it hits the screens here in the US. Or I will have to look for ways to pirate that original UK edition myself!

Bonus: David Tennant, who voices Darwin in the film, was on BBC’s Five Live with Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode this week to talk about the film. He said something about having to fight to keep the original title at least in the UK. You can listen to the interview online for the next few days, or download the podast.

Jet-lagged on the ish watch

My favorite, most poetic definition of jet lag, that modern malady of the flying-across-time-zones age, comes from an observation attributed to an Indian (of the American kind) saying which goes something like this: “if you travel too fast, your soul can’t keep up“. 

Not that I believe in souls, but long international flights of the sort I just undertook several days ago do leave me feeling as if some essential part of me hasn’t quite caught up! And so I have to wait for my “soul” to catch up, hoping it doesn’t linger too long over some shiny baubles it may find in the duty-free lounge of whatever airport it is passing through. 

This time, though, the jet lag, this lagging of the soul, seems particularly severe – although not so much in my sleep cycle. No, my teenaged nephew in Mumbai made sure my sleep clock was already offset by many an hour, so its not like I’m up at odd hours – although I am a bit sleepy during the middle of the day. The lag seems far more mental / emotional this time, laced with a strong feeling of disorientation, which may have more to do with my recent escape from the kafkaesque other dimension where I was trapped for weeks.

But its not just my soul that is lagging behind during this episode of jet lag, it seems…

Yesterday, while climbing back into the driver’s seat of my car after many a week, I noticed that the car clock seemed off compared to what my iPhone was telling me. So I reset it closer to what I thought was the correct time, since the phone automatically updates its clock when traveling across timezones, and reassured my daughter that she wasn’t too late for choir practice. Back in my office, glancing at my computer’s clock (also automatically set), I jumped because I was barely in time for my first class! Didn’t think about it much until later in the afternoon when Kaberi admonished me for making her late by following my phone’s clock – and we noticed that her’s was (also automatically) about 17 minutes ahead of mine! 

So I check my phone settings again, turn the auto switch on and off several times, double-check the time-zone setting, and still get the same time, about 17 minutes behind every other clock here! 

Weird…this lag of intermediate duration, not quite a full or even a half time zone! Its almost as if my iPhone got infected by the ish watches so prevalent in India!

It took a total reboot of the iPhone for the clock to find the correct time from Apple’s servers as it was supposed to do all along. No idea why it had got stuck at that odd 17-ish minute lag though… but the reboot seems to have fixed that problem.

Now how do I give myself a reboot? Or must I simply wait for the rest of my soul to turn up, following its own ish watch?

“… the tea would glitter like a garnet waterfall.”

That wonderfully evocative description, in a paragraph about of a cup of chai being made, can be used to describe this entire piece of memoir written by my friend Samina Najmi. It is a beautiful, moving piece about place, displacement, and family, about how families are torn apart, scattered, and brought together in strange, heartbreaking, beautiful ways. And if you let Samina’s words catch the light as you read, they too glitter like a garnet waterfall. Here’s a taste – but go read the whole thing:

          But my great­est con­nec­tion with Abdul cen­tered on our com­mon love of strong, hot tea, no mat­ter how warm the day. He would come in from the bal­cony and, eyes shin­ing brightly, ask: “Should I make some chai?” Most of the time I said yes because I wanted it, and some­times I said yes so he could jus­tify mak­ing him­self a cup. He would make his way to the kitchen and put his favored ket­tle on the stove. It was a small, alu­minum ket­tle with a han­dle that was nei­ther heat-resistant nor firmly attached to the body of the con­tainer and a lid that had an inde­pen­dent life, falling out entirely if you poured at too steep an angle. The ket­tle wavered threat­en­ingly as you guided boil­ing hot water out of its spout and at the same time tried to keep the lid from unleash­ing its scald­ing breath on your hand. Abdul, who dis­missed any glossy whistling ket­tles that my mother or I might have tried to foist upon him, would grasp the over­heated han­dle with one of his many rags, his thin, unsteady hand dan­gling the ket­tle over the teapot. Loose Lip­ton tea leaves awaited as he poured the hot water into the teapot and placed an embroi­dered tea cozy over it to keep it warm–even if he him­self was swel­ter­ing. While the tea steeped, he would heat the buf­falo milk my father had pur­chased from the neigh­bor­ing farm that very dawn. Then out came the mis­matched china cups, into which Abdul would pour the rich, aro­matic tea through a strainer. If it caught the light while he poured, the tea would glit­ter like a gar­net water­fall. Then Abdul would plop milk and sugar into each cup to suit his own taste. He often car­ried sev­eral cups of tea as they chat­tered with their com­pan­ion saucers on a tray, an ensem­ble that made its way trem­blingly to the liv­ing room.

If you’re still lingering here (why?), instead of clicking on the above link to read all of Abdul’s story, allow me to add a personal note of thanks to Samina for catalyzing my own (rather less glittering) forays into more personal memoir-ish writing (especially on this blog of late). As you may have gathered, like so many of us in the diaspora, I too have been preoccupied with questions of place, displacement, home, and identity amid our globally scattered lives. Samina has been a good friend to talk with about some of these notions, over not nearly enough cups of chai (will have to remedy that when I get back to Fresno next week!). She also inspired my very first piece of such personal (as in not having to do with ecology, or science, or my work in any direct way) writing in this post over on Reconciliation Ecology written after my first visit to her home.

“Rights, not privileges, its that easy!” Happy International Women’s Day

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCJ3Q_PcFI8?wmode=transparent]

I just finished watching, once again, “Made in Dagenham” the powerful movie (one of my favorites in recent years) about the fight for equal pay for women in the UK which started in the summer of 1968 with 187 women sewing machinists going on strike in the Ford factory in Dagenham, and ended with the landmark Equal Pay Act of 1970. Stirring stuff for International Women’s Day, which, after all, started as International Working Women’s Day in the first place. It is worth remembering that history lest this day loses its power to become just another hallmark greeting card day when you bring flowers and chocolate to the women in your lives. It should be much more than that!

I am particularly glad I was able to share the film with two of my favorite people who played a huge role in helping shape my social conscience in my youth – my sister Vaijayanta and her husband Anand – and their son Kaustubh. At a time when politicians and corporations are colluding to roll back every hard fought human/worker’s right, especially for women, this is a movie everyone must see, to remind ourselves of those fights that won us the precious rights we do enjoy, and what it takes to keep hold of them.

Here’s one of my favorite moments in the film, when the well educated upper class Lisa Hopkins, married to the manager of the Dagenham Ford plant who treats her like a fool of a trophy wife, tells Rita O’Grady, the woman whose “gob” has made her the leader of the machinists, to make history, and to tell her what that’s like:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rv2hRfqlJaE?wmode=transparent]

As for the men reading this post who are (and also those who aren’t) supportive of women’s rights, and perhaps feel a bit smug about how much they do (including poetry) to support the women in their lives, here’s a little reminder that that is as it should be!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbjSOt7NxIY?wmode=transparent]

“Rights, not privileges, its that easy!”

Indeed it is, lads, indeed it is that simple. Let’s remember that.

Happy International Women’s Day!