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An apology for Columbus Day
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 12 October 2010
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via reconsidercolumbusday.org

Christopher Columbus was looking for a new route to India, that mysterious oriental mistress of spices enticing Europe throughout the middle ages, when he ran into a whole new continent 518 years ago today, and became the “discoverer” of America. Rather unfortunate, that “discovery” turned out to be, for the many native people whose ancestors had already “discovered” the continent and had inhabited it for over 15,000 years. Many of European descent in the Americas, and indeed the US federal government, still celebrate Columbus Day (today) with a holiday in his honor. Others recognize the full extent of his genocidal legacy and refuse to celebrate what should perhaps instead be a national/continental day of mourning.

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In which Alan Rabinowitz made Stephen Colbert cry (and me too)
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 23 September 2010
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After learning about Alan Rabinowitz’s new (and over-hyped by BBC) series about tigers in Bhutan, I re-read my own earlier post about him, and got to thinking again about the efficacy of wildlife conservation in democracies vs. dictatorship, even discussing it with my sociologist comrade Andrew Jones. I guess I should stop wondering, and start compiling some empirical data to answer the question! Meanwhile, you might be interested in my original musings, so here’s a repost of my essay from Reconciliation Ecology:

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[First posted on June 11, 2008]

As an elitist and a conservationist, I was excited to learn that Stephen Colbert, in keeping with his record of interviewing some of the most interesting guests on late night talk TV had Alan Rabinowitz on last night. Rabinowitz, also known as the Indiana Jones of wildlife protection, is a hero to many conservationists (myself included) for his lifetime of fieldwork on conserving big cats, most notably in Burma - the basis of his new book: “Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed” which brought him to the Colbert Report. The interview hit a great high note with Colbert, most unusually, being almost completely disarmed and brought to tears by Alan’s early life story (and I do know and have worked a bit with him, hence the first name…). Pretty rare to see Colbert’s face get so emotional… but then, within minutes, Colbert found his composure and asked another question eliciting a different kind of elitist answer which makes me cry!

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Alan Rabinowitz
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News

Did you guess what part of that makes me cry? Read on…

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So how many species did YOU eat at dinner today?
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 13 September 2010
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Stephen Hale reckons he ate 53 species in a single day recently over the course of 4 meals! And here’s one way he breaks down the biodiversity he consumed that day:

Here’s another way to visualize the footprint of our daily meals, in terms that should make the locavores sit up and take notice:

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Frans de Waal on the evolution of empathy
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 6 August 2010
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To flush or not to flush: that is the (pissing) question!
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 29 June 2010
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Dan ForbesPhoto: Dan Forbes

In a laboratory 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, a mechanical penis sputters to life. A technician starts a timer as a stream of water erupts from the apparatus’s brass tip, arcing into a urinal mounted exactly 12 inches away. James Krug smiles. His latest back-splatter experiment is under way.

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Bill McKibben on how the media is missing the real drama of BP’s oil disaster
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 14 June 2010
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In an excellent essay on finding real meaning in the Deepwater Horizon blowout that the media seem to be entirely missing, Bill McKibben reminds us:

When a well started spewing oil off Santa Barbara in 1969, it spurred the first Earth Day, which in turn launched the environmental movement and a fundamental questioning of the balance between humans and the rest of nature. It turned out, in other words, to be a real Moment.

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International Year of Biodiversity 2010
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 7 March 2010
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via youtube.com

If you are on Facebook, become a fan of the International Year of Biodiversity 2010 page for more information on the issues throughout this year.

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Got a creationist in your face? There’s an app for that!
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 16 January 2010
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The iTunes store has a new Creationist Claims Index app, which at 99 cents might just be the thing I should recommend to my students as I begin teaching Intro Bio (Bio 1B) next week. I just hope I don’t have to keep turning to it myself too often. I also wonder if this might have helped last year when I had a creationist grad student in my very lab?! I do have and recommend the paperback version, but having it handy one a phone might have helped others in the lab who got into head-scratchingly odd conversations with that student.

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Haiti: teetering on the brink of ecological catastrophe even before the earthquake
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 16 January 2010
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When I think of Haiti, the image that comes to mind is of the view I saw from the air, flying over the island of Hispaniola en route between Puerto Rico and Miami in 2003. A striking feature of that island was a sharp demarcatation between a verdant, apparently forested eastern half and a barren dirt-brown western half. Upon glimpsing that demarcation, I first wondered if we were maybe flying over a national park boundary - for that’s where I’m used to seeing such a stark constrast back in India. It turned out that I was looking at an international boundary - between the nations of the Dominican Republic (the green east) and Haiti (the brown west). Here’s a satellite image of this boundary, courtesy of the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center - Scientific Visualization Studio:

via cnas.org

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Of conflicts and coexistence between humans and nature
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 30 December 2009
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As this last year of the so called “noughties” winds down, I would like to share with you a remarkable video, and two stories, of wildlife conservation amid human enterprise, that straddle some of the gamut of conflicting emotions experienced by those involved in any kind of biodiversity conservation during this dismal decade. That entire gamut, of course, ranges from the absolute pit of despair over what we are doing to other lifeforms on this Earth, all the way up to cautious (but ever so skeptical) optimism that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t entirely screwed after all, and there may yet be hope for us all.

Let’s start with the video, shall we? Of the remarkable human presence in Yosemite National Park in California:

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Of conflicts and coexistence between humans and nature
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 30 December 2009
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As this last year of the so called “noughties” winds down, I would like to share with you a remarkable video, and two stories, of wildlife conservation amid human enterprise, that straddle some of the gamut of conflicting emotions experienced by those involved in any kind of biodiversity conservation during this dismal decade. That entire gamut, of course, ranges from the absolute pit of despair over what we are doing to other lifeforms on this Earth, all the way up to cautious (but ever so skeptical) optimism that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t entirely screwed after all, and there may yet be hope for us all.

Let’s start with the video, shall we? Of the remarkable human presence in Yosemite National Park in California:

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A bit of science reading for your holiday: Scientia Pro Publica #18
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 24 December 2009
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028CF91C-54C2-4589-B5AF-CDD794950600.jpegEnjoy your break with some good science readings from the blogosphere in the latest Scientia Pro Publica (issue #18) blog carnival. I posted it yesterday on Reconciliation Ecology, so pop on over there if you haven’t seen it already!

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A bit of science reading for your holiday: Scientia Pro Publica #18
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 24 December 2009
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028CF91C-54C2-4589-B5AF-CDD794950600.jpegEnjoy your break with some good science readings from the blogosphere in the latest Scientia Pro Publica (issue #18) blog carnival. I posted it yesterday on Reconciliation Ecology, so pop on over there if you haven’t seen it already!

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A tale of international geopolitical intrigue, and… fossilized shite!
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 18 December 2009
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Wow! What an incredible tale this is, from last night’s “Moment of Geopolitical Geek” segment of the Rachel Maddow show on the MSNBC network. (Does it air much outside the US? I’ve got no idea! But I hope at least the following embedded video from their website works internationally. Otherwise, here’s a direct link to the video.)

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A tale of international geopolitical intrigue, and… fossilized shite!
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 18 December 2009
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Wow! What an incredible tale this is, from last night’s “Moment of Geopolitical Geek” segment of the Rachel Maddow show on the MSNBC network. (Does it air much outside the US? I’ve got no idea! But I hope at least the following embedded video from their website works internationally. Otherwise, here’s a direct link to the video.)

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Scientia Pro Publica blog carnival: a call for submissions
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 18 December 2009
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Scientia Pro Publica blog carnival: a call for submissions
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 18 December 2009
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Why all the fuss about Darwin and Evolution?
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 16 December 2009
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I’ve been away from this blog, and blogging in general, for a while with grant deadlines and end of semester issues for the past some weeks, but am beginning to catch up again as the holiday break is about to begin. This place looks much nicer since the last time I wrote here - thank you Martin for really sprucing up the joint! I look forward to exploring the new features, and to contributing a bit more often. For now, while taking a break from grading (or is it marking for folks in the UK?) exams and term papers, I want to share something I played a small part in the making of, something you might find useful if you encounter creationism much in your daily lives.

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Why all the fuss about Darwin and Evolution?
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 16 December 2009
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I’ve been away from this blog, and blogging in general, for a while with grant deadlines and end of semester issues for the past some weeks, but am beginning to catch up again as the holiday break is about to begin. This place looks much nicer since the last time I wrote here - thank you Martin for really sprucing up the joint! I look forward to exploring the new features, and to contributing a bit more often. For now, while taking a break from grading (or is it marking for folks in the UK?) exams and term papers, I want to share something I played a small part in the making of, something you might find useful if you encounter creationism much in your daily lives.

read more

This Saturday, Act Locally to Change the Climate Globally
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 23 October 2009
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This Saturday, October 24, 2009, is another day for global action on climate change. And unlike the recent Blog Action Day, this is one where you get to actually go out into the real world, rub shoulders with fellow human beings, perhaps get your boots muddy, and participate in an action in your community to bring the world’s attention to a specific climate goal: bringing our atmospheric CO2 levels below 350ppm, a benchmark deemed relatively “safe” based on our current knowledge of the climate.
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Where are we right now? Around 387ppm! So we’ve already overshot the safety limit, and have to act fast to pull back into the comfort zone if we are to avoid further problems. And don’t tell me that global warming/climate change isn’t real, or that you don’t think we have problems already: tell that to the Maldivian’s whose president last week held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the fact that their entire country is set to sink below rising ocean levels if we in the rest of the world don’t do something to reverse ongoing global warming! Indeed, leaders of the world are meeting in Copenhagen this December for the UN’s 15th Climate Change Conference to make a deal on what they(we) will do about climate change!

So what can we, as individuals do, to get our governments to act?

The environmentalist writer Bill McKibben (interviewed recently here) would like us all to join in a global day of action, the International Day of Climate Action, being coordinated by an organization he set up called 350.org. Here’s a video from the site to explain what the action, and the number 350 are all about:

And here’s another short wordless video if you need further convincing:

Want to find a specific action in your neighborhood that you can participate in? Here’s a map:

View Actions at 350.org

Now get out there, and do something meaningful to change the world!

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Blogging about climate change on Blog Action Day!
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 15 October 2009
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As some of you may know, today, Oct 15, 2009, is Blog Action Day - a global effort to get the blogsphere to act collectively to highlight a single issue. This year’s topic is Climate Change, and as of this writing, 8170 blogs are participating worldwide. Here’s a short video about it from the site:

I’m not sure what the views of our host here at the Lay Scientist are about participating in such collective blog action, so I won’t inflict my rather lengthy contribution upon readers here. Instead, I invite interested readers to visit my main blog, Reconciliation Ecology, where I have just posted some thoughts on climate change.

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An antidote to cynicism from a couple of third world teenagers
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 13 October 2009
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Overwhelmed by cynicism and pessimism about the state of the planet and how little we are doing to fix urgent global problems? Hoarse from calling upon governments and politicians and CEOs to change policies and business practices towards social/economic/environmental justice? Despairing for the world we are leaving behind for future generations? Looking for something to light that fire anew, to inspire you again to keep at it, to show that the world can change for the better, even if only in small steps incrementally?

Well, here are a couple of teenagers from the global south who just might do that: inspire you, perhaps revive your activist mojo, and leave you with more hope for the future. Last week, the Daily Show interviewed an African youth, William Kamkwamba, who built a windmill from a picture in a library book - when he was all of 14 years old:

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<td style=’padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;’ colspan=’2′William Kamkwamba
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Ron Paul Interview

Meanwhile, in another small village in a poor corner of India, a nine year old boy started play-acting “teacher” with his buddies - friends who weren’t as fortunate as he was to be able to attend the free govt. school 6 km away. Play turned into serious teaching when their hunger for learning, as a way out of their rather sorry lots in life, met his desire to lend them a helping hand. Now, 7 year later, Babar Ali has become the youngest headmaster in the world, running a purely volunteer school in his neighborhood for over 800 kids whose lives are otherwise too busy with the mere struggle for existence to have time for formal schooling! And that BBC report, part of a new “Hunger to Learn” series includes some videos featuring interviews with some of the kids in that school. (Sorry the BBC doesn’t enable embedding of their videos, so you’ll have to go watch them there)

So cheer up! Things can’t be all bad if our species can still produce such kids, even in the worst of circumstances, eh?

[Crossposted at Reconciliation Ecology]

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Last chance to get shagged by a rare parrot!
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 4 October 2009
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And it looks like this parrot, also of remarkable plumage, definitely was not “tired and shagged out after a long squawk” then, eh?! Television viewers in the UK (and perhaps most readers of this blog?) have been fortunate these past few weeks, since the BBC began airing the new documentary series “Last Chance to See” where Stephen Fry joined zoologist Mark Carwardine in retracing a journey the latter shared with the late Douglas Adams when they went around the world looking for species literally on the brink of extinction! Adams and Carwardine then wrote one of my favorite books about nature and wildlife conservation, full of delightful stories of strange animal behaviors and wry observations on the business of conservation in different parts of the world. Among the latter, my favorite was probably when they compared the govt. bureaucracies of post-colonial nations to headless chickens that continue to thrash around pointlessly even after being decapitated! Nevertheless, this snippet (and others like it on Youtube which is all that’s available to those of us outside the UK) from the new series suggests that 2 decades on since the original journey, some of these wonderful creatures are still hanging on, i.e., Carwardine did get more chances to see them. I hope our future generations do as well! And I hope we get to see this series on television in our part of the world soon also.

What we won’t see ever again, unfortunately, is the like of Douglas Adams, who considered Last Chance to See as his own favorite book, even though it was something of a “runt of the litter” not selling quite as many copies as his other bestsellers! Here he is speaking about his experience writing the book, and about the oddities of animal behavior and evolution, in one of his last lectures:

{Crossposted at Reconciliation Ecology]

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Homeopathological neglect kills an Indian baby in Australia
By Madhusudan
Posted in syndicated on 29 September 2009
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How unfortunate it is to start a new venture on a sad note! Earlier today I joined this blog as a guest blogger, hoping to sharpen my writing and find a new audience to inflict it upon - thanks Martin, for the opportunity. I look forward to writing here, and being part of a collective - something I never quite experienced in my previous blogging.

So why the sad note?

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It comes from this news item in the Australian Herald Sun which I came across earlier today and which seems appropriate to address in the Lay Scientist: an educated (tertiary - so says the paper) couple, Thomas Sam and Manju, were convicted in Sydney of manslaughter for allowing their 9-month-old baby to die of severe eczema by relying solely on homeopathic remedies because the father is a homeopath himself! How deluded must someone be to allow their own child to suffer a painful death (I can’t imagine eczema killing even a child all that quickly) without trying every available treatment!

As a parent of still small children, I can understand and sympathize with people who turn in desperation to “alternative” medicines when conventional treatments fail. But this really boggles the mind: sacrificing one’s own child to one’s faith in quackery?! The judge was correct in describing Thomas as “arrogant”, and their failure to seek proper assistance as “cruelty”. Then again, this isn’t exactly uncommon among the faithful of various stripes, be they Christian “scientists” or Gandhian “natureopaths” or homeopaths - some parents seem all too willing to put their belief above their children’s lives! I will never understand that.

The other element of this story, the reason it caught my eye, is that this couple apparently came from my home country of India (although the newspaper story never brings up their background, their names and photos hint at south Asian origins). Unfortunately, India happens to be a country where homeopathy thrives along with a wide array of “alternative” medical practices. Combating such quackery and woo is harder in India because there are several indigenous schools of medicine, most prominent being Ayurveda, with deep cultural and religious roots, and varying levels of empiricism and success. It is therefore easy for most people to be suspicious of “western” medicine regardless of the scientific evidence supporting it.

Indeed science itself may be deemed as a “western” or “colonial”/”imperial” project, as if that historical connection justifies rejecting rationality itself! The multinational drug companies don’t make things any easier either, with poorly regulated drug trials on human subjects often carried out in India to evade stricter scrutiny from govt. / institutional review boards in the developed world. (I know someone in my current neighborhood in California who gave up potentially lucrative drug trials in India because of the ethical problems with how poorly it is conducted.)

Meanwhile, you have a malnourished, impoverished, and largely illiterate (certainly about science) populace that is prey to all kinds of purveyors of woo! And its typical of Indian culture that not only do we have ancient traditions prevailing, but also every new kind of woo taking hold among a large gullible segment of the population, from homeopathy to The Secret via Oprah!

Where does one begin to unravel that irrational Gordian knot? How do we, schooled in “western” science, combat this level of irrationality in that climate back home? Let me leave you, on this my first day here, with that weighty question to ponder! And I promise to find cheerier subjects to blog about while I’m here.

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