Archive for the ‘guest posts’ category

A Windmill in high places

1 November 2011
Guest post by
Lt Col Vivek Mundkur (retd)

Vivek Mundkur next to his windmill

It was a symbolic victory for decentralised electric supply: the installation of a windmill and solar panels to light up a monastery  at Komic, Himachal Pradesh located at 15000ft. Even though the State Electricity Board has stretched power lines, at great expense, over high mountains to this tiny village , the hydroelectric power shuts down for much of the year due to subzero temperatures !

Ecosphere , an NGO working in Spiti Valley asked Col Vivek Mundkur  to solve the problem by  installing his  1400 watt wind – solar hybrid on top of  the Komic  Monastery at 15000 ft altitude. Mundkur assembled a small team of ex servicemen to help him. Capt Afzal Amdani and Gautam Deshmukh joined him at Manali for the trip to Spiti Valley.

pLacing the windmill

This is perhaps the highest human habitation in the world to be electrified in this way.  Lamas became solar engineers overnight helping to connect  solar panels, windmill and batteries to 60 LED lamps  in the monastery and the village.

There was  much enthusiasm , and an air of solemnity as they installed the windmill , with the powerful  Buddhist mantra ” Om mani padme hum “, painted  on the blades . The painting was done by  thanka painter, Lama Thukten and volunteer artists.

Sacred symbols have been painted on the windmill blades

Like the  traditional Tibetan  prayer wheel, the windmill  now rotates and spreads positive energy of the prayer into the surroundings, even as it pushes positive electrons into the batteries !!!

Solar cells at the monastery

Another innovation, the pedal generator  was  attached to a battery so  the lamas could   do a workout and charge the batteries at the same time ,  in addition to the solar panel, to light up the main temple and kitchen. They promised to pedal for at least 10 minutes before a meal !!!
Images – copyrighted Vivek Mundkur

Why you (may) dislike Arthropods and I don’t!

4 January 2011

I’m absolutely sure that most of you who see the image above will cringe, shudder or grimace.  These fearsome  (to some) creatures are Arthropods and they are by far the most numerous set of creatures on Earth. Insects, scorpions, crabs, centipedes and shrimp and many others comprise this group. All these have jointed legs – hence their name.

I am talking about a form of “racism” in our human culture – our attitudes to species other than our own.


The wonderful diversity of Arthropods (Image:User xvasquez on Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

Mammals? Like us, they are warm (blooded), furry, and some arey cute. Birds? Interesting creatures that fly  (I wish I could do that) and listen to how sweetly this one trills. Fish? Only good for a meal! Reptiles? Definitely on the other side of midnight along with arthropods.

The origin of our dissonance with the environment is Mankind’s inherently false belief that we are separate from Nature. Since we are the only species that has been able to think about the future and the environment to meet our future needs, we consider ourselves above and beyond it. Our scientific and technological progress, instead of increasing our knowledge and giving us an enlightened view of things, has made us prideful of our ability to range across our realm from the Moon to the depths of the Ocean, to extract our materials from living and non-living things and to fashion with them things which help us create strange and wondrous things, to increase our population way beyond the natural capacity of the Earth and to mine the natural world for even more.

Even though from time to time, Nature sends us reminders that we are finite and an infinitesimal part, but nevertheless a part in the grand scheme of things, in our pride, like the Gods, we see ourselves apart.

Yet, a barf of ash from a once dormant volcano in Iceland has halted all the air traffic over most parts of Europe. And there is nothing our technology can do to prevent this.

Refusing to believe the evidence of our senses, we lumber on ignorantly, confident in our belief that we, as a species, are superior. That Nature is there at our bid and call for the express purpose of our convenience. That we have conquered Nature. That all its creatures exist at our pleasure. That Man is the Measure of all things.

This attitude, surely an express highway to self-destruction, is the reason that we like some creatures and hate or ignore all the rest.

Why do we dislike arthropods so much? The answer to this must surely lie in childhood.

As an infant, we may have had an experience in which an insect or other creature walked on us, tasted horrible or flew into our face. Our caring elders would have hurried us away from them or warned us against them. Should we have been unfortunate enough to have been stung or bitten by one, it would imprint on our tender psyche forever. As time passes, the looks and the activities of these creatures reinforce the negative images about them. We feel that since they are small, they could fly onto us even perhaps into one of our orifices. Their legs, antenna and spikes on the body remind us of thorns.  Their numerous legs make us imagine how it will feel crawling on our hands!  In the absence of anything positive feedback about creepy-crawlies, we develop an abhorrence of ‘bugs’.

Our belief is now firm and irrational. The “mythos” has overtaken our “logos”. Blind belief instilled as fears as a child supercede rational understanding gained as an adult. It will take a conscious act for us to detach the negative feelings that these creatures engender in us. Since we are Man with a developed brain and a conscious mind, we can do so.

As I did many years ago.

In the words of Dr Steve Kellert (read more here) :

Dr. James Hillman, in a classic essay, “Why we hate Bugs?,” provides some psychological insight regarding why these differences between humans and invertebrate scale and behavior might result in feelings of alienation and aversion. Reviewing a long history of prejudicial attitudes and antagonistic behavior of humans toward arthropods, Hillman remarks, “what we call the progress of Western civilization from the ant’s eye level is but the forward stride of the great exterminator.” Hillman suggests four reasons for human psychological aversion and antipathy toward invertebrates, mainly insects and spiders, found among most people in Western society.

First, he emphasizes the “multiplicity” of the invertebrate world, which he suggests threatens our fondly cherished human notions of individuality and independence. He suggests the idea of a bee hive that can include 50,000 individuals, or a large ant colony of half million ants, or an acre of soil with 65 million insects, or beetle species numbering more than one million, represents a fundamental challenge to our sense of personal integrity and individual oneness. He remarks: “Imagining insects numerically threatens the individualized fantasy of a unique and unitary human being. Their very numbers indicate insignificance of us as individuals.”

A second basis for anxiety and aversion, Hillman refers to as the “monstrosity” of most invertebrates from a human perspective. In this regard, he notes the tendency of most people to associate invertebrates, especially insects and spiders, with metaphors of madness and mindlessness. The human presumption, as noted, is to assume invertebrates as incapable of feelings and rationale reflection, and many common terms of insanity employ insect names, while images of madness often involve visions of insects and other arthropods. As Hillman suggests: “Bug-eyed, spidery, worm, roach, blood sucker, louse, going buggy, locked-up in the bughouse – these are all terms of contempt supposedly characterizing inhuman traits… To become an insect is to become a mindless creature without the warm blood of feeling.” A third explanation Hillman offers for dislike of invertebrates originates in their radical “autonomy” from human will and control. A particularly disturbing aspect of their independence or indifference to human hegemony is the willingness to invade human space in unexpected and uninvited fashions.

Finally, Hillman suggests a disturbing element about invertebrates for most humans stems from the quality of “mystery” surrounding them. As noted, invertebrates represent radically different behavioral and morphological strategies in the struggle for survival which for most humans provokes considerable uncertainty, confusion, and a sense of “otherworldliness.” This sense of mystery can be a basis of curiosity, interest, and even wonder, although the more typical reaction is one of disdain and fear of the unknown. For most humans, invertebrates are largely unfathomable and alien.

Hillman suggests conservation of wildlife, especially invertebrates, will necessitate a far greater understanding of why we react with hostile and negative feelings toward various creatures, particularly insects and spiders. To find our commonality with the animal world in its widest diversity, “we must start (with animals) not in their splendor – the horned stag, the yellow lion and the great bear, or even old faithful `spot’ – but with those we fear the worse – the bugs.”

The above paragraph gives many reasons on a psychological level why people regard arthropods as abhorrent. In the same way, people fear snakes and are blind to the amazing abilities that the snakes have evolved despite having no limbs of any kind.

Arthropods are such wonderful creatures in so many ways, I find it hard to select which facts to tell you about them.

Let me start with camouflage.

Insects (and other arthropods) are nutritious food. They contain valuable protein and reserves of fat in some cases. All kinds of animals eat them – birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians. Even man eats them – this is called entomophagy.

As an aside, no matter how strict a vegetarian you are, you eat insects every day. Here‘s why?

In order to avoid being eaten insects adopt a variety of strategies, one of which is camouflage. Camouflage is a method of crypsis—avoidance of observation—that allows an otherwise visible organism or object to remain indiscernible from the surrounding environment through deception. Examples include a tiger‘s stripes and the battledress of a modern soldier. The theory of camouflage covers the various strategies which are used to achieve this effect. (Courtesy:Wikipedia)

A Leaf Insect from Wyanaad, India. Here, the camouflage is used defensively, to escape being eaten. (Image:Sandilya Theuerkauf on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.5)

 

A stick insect - shades of Tolkien's ents! (Image:Fir0002 on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

A challenge - find the pink soft coral crab hiding in the soft coral of the East Timor Sea. (Image:User Nick Hobgood on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0.)

Did not succeed? Okay try again after seeing another photo of this amazing crab – Pink Soft Coral Crab, Hoplophrys oatesii, placed after this one of camouflage used not to hide from predators but to become one! An evolutionary arms race!

 

Camouflage for predation - A perfectly camouflaged jumping spider captures a solitary wasp. (Image:Muhammed Mahdi Karim on Wikimedia Commons, GFDL 1.2)

 

The coral crab now visible on Pink Coral. Image:User Nick Hobgood on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0.)

Camouflage for predation - A crab spider can change its colour depending on the flower it chooses to live in to catch its prey, in this case a wasp. (Image: Olaf Leillinger on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0-DE)

The two forms of the Peppered Moth. Earlier the melanistic (dark) form was uncommon while the peppered form was predominant. The increasing soot on trees in England due to the industrial revolution changed the evolutionary dynamics and today the melanistic form predominates as the peppered form has been selected out due to high visibility on blackened bark of trees.

The Peppered Moth Biston betularia (Linnaeus, 1758) is a text book case for evolution. Changes in environment reduced the viability of one morph and increased that of the other. The insect evolved accordingly to have a predominantly larger population of darker morphs.  This graphic of a related Geometer Moth shows how effective camouflage can become a hindrance once the environment changes. Drag the mouse over the background to see it disappear and show just the moth. The moth is perfectly camouflaged on the tree bark but if the background changes, as in the case when you dragged the mouse, the moth becomes prominent and a target instead.

Want to see more?

Insects have many facets similar to the trades of humans.

If you are an underwater diver, you would be interested in the Diving bell spider.

The diving bell spider or water spider, Argyroneta aquatica, is a spider which lives entirely under water, even though it could survive on land. (Image:Norbert Schuller Baupi on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

If you keep cows or sheep, the ant also belongs to your trade guild . Many species of ants “herd” aphids for honeydew. The ants in turn keep predators away and will move the aphids around to better feeding locations. Upon migrating to a new area, many colonies will take new aphids with them, to ensure that they have a supply of honeydew in the new area.

 

An ant guards its aphids. (Image:ViaMoi on Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0)

 

Ants feeding on the honeydew of the aphids. Notethe dewdrop exuding from the rear of the aphid. (User:jmalik on Wikipedia, Creative Commons 3.0)

If you are a soldier like me, you will be interested in the army ant. The name army ant (or legionary ant or “Marabunta“) is applied to over 200 ant species, in different lineages, due to their aggressive predatory foraging groups, known as “raids”, in which huge numbers of ants forage simultaneously over a certain area, attacking prey en masse.

Another shared feature is that, unlike most ant species, army ants do not construct permanent nests, an army ant colony moves almost incessantly over the time it exists. All species are members of the true ant family, Formicidae, but there are several groups that have independently evolved the same basic behavioral and ecological syndrome. This syndrome is often referred to as “legionary behavior”, and is an example of convergent evolution. (courtesy:Wikipedia)

 

Some safari ant soldiers on the Chogoria of Mount Kenya make a tunnel to provide a safe route for the workers. (Image:Mehmet Karatay on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The amazing number of examples of insects and other arthropods which can illustrate any phenomenon or theme that you want is mind-boggling. Like the scope for thematic collectors in a world of 530,000 or so postage stamps, the many hundreds of thousands of arthropods are more than enough to satisfy the curiousity of any person.

Perhaps the following links will help you to become interested in arthropods and nature :

For children:

For the more enthusiastic:

As a closing quote, let us see another view of the “Age of Man” :

Don’t accept the chauvinistic tradition that labels our era the age of mammals. This is the age of arthropods. They outnumber us by any criterion – by species, by individuals, by prospects for evolutionary continuation.

Stephen Jay Gould, 1988

It is time to shed our inhibitions and accept the notion that these too are God’s creatures and deserve to live on Earth as much you do.

NOTICE : This post has already been published as a Guest Post on Gingerchai.com over here . Special thanks to Lakshmi Rajan for giving a platform for my contrarian views.

Whither India on climate change!

6 December 2009

Snigdha Kar

This blog is graced by guest articles from its readers from time to time. We have already seen articles by Sarabjeet Singh and Shyamal. The guest writer is free to choose from any of the subjects with which this blog is concerned and the topic post is also of his/her choice.

This time, on the eve of the Copenhagen summit, we have a guest post from a young climate change activist – Snigdha Kar who chose to write on the subject closest to her heart – Climate change and India!

Here is a short biodata :

Snigdha Kar is a Zoology graduate who has worked as an Environment Educator with BNHS. While working in Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, she was fascinated by the importance of each species on earth and how each species is interdependent on the other. This experience has motivated her to work for saving the nature specially biodiversity conservation. She believes that awareness is one of the solutions for climate change, a major threat to biodiversity which has not received adequate recognition from the Indian wildlife community. Presently pursuing masters in Geographical Information Systems, Snigdha is a keen birdwatcher and photographer. Snigdha is an active member of the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN), a coalition uniting Indian youth and Indian youth-oriented organisations who are concerned about climate change.

Whither India on climate change!

by

Snigdha Kar

There has been considerable discussion on COP15 arising out of the meetings at Bangkok, Bonn, Barcelona and elsewhere. So many bilateral dialogues between countries, especially the debate between India, China and the global community, their follow-through the net, I am left wondering what exactly is it that we will be discussing at Copenhagen? More specifically, what will India be speaking and expecting : Will it be India’s stand of the developed world taking stringent emission cuts? Or Will it be the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012? Or Will it be common but differentiated responsibility? And Continuing with Annex I and Annex II definitions? Being part of Indian Youth Climate Network, I had the privilege of meeting some of the present and past negotiators like Mr. Shyam Saran, Mr. Surya Sethi, Dr. Nitin Desai, Ambassador Dasgupta and, best of all, informally with our Minister Mr. Jairam Ramesh as well.

We discussed and debate over lots of issues with these honourable negotiators but I am still very, very confused on how Government of India will approach the global negotiators. Obviously, they are not opening their cards at this stage but even after following and tracking the actions in detail over the last few months, I am unable to second-guess them. Right now I feel that our Prime Minister Dr. Singh might participate in the COP15 and through one of my contacts, I have learned that Mr. Pranab Mukerjee will be visiting Copenhagen for a day. (Current news reports have proved my belief right.)

BUT WHAT OUR AGENDA WILL BE AT COPENHAGEN IS STILL A BIG QUESTION!

The discussions have led me to believe with growing certainty that is a tangible difference in opinion between our negotiators. So would Dr. Singh be participating in COP to balance the two sides or will he pass on clear lucid instructions to guide the negotiators’ work?

Or to put it crudely, what’s the deal India desires?

If the US absolutely refuses to do things as we expect, which is quite possible then are we going to keep at it like the tongue reaches for a sore tooth? Will our preoccuation with the US monopolize our focus to the point that we say chuck the whole world, we will work within our borders to become the one developing country which did the best with the resources
available to us?

What are the chances of getting a fair and equitable deal at Copenhagen?

Many experts are predictably pessimistic; but being young, I don’t share their gloomy worldview. Today’s youth has a responsibility to make the policy makers accountable for their actions as whatever they do today will affect our future drastically. I sincerely hope that some kind of sane and positive political agreement will be made at the end of this year.

This is really a crucial time; the effects of global warming are very visible and the developing countries like ours are more vulnerable to the adverse effect of temperature rise. Our agriculture depends on monsoon; change in rainfall pattern has decreased our crop yield. We have a long coast line and will suffer if the sea level rises.

Sad to say, most of us should be aware of these likely consequences and their effect on our lives. I should not need to say too much on this.

Needed – A New Paradigm

Part of our problem is that we are hypocrites! When we talk about inequity in global climate dialogue, our policy makers conveniently forget about the inequity within the nation?

One of the leading Indian negotiators has said:

“I know there is inequity within India but this does not means that I will accept inequity in international forum.”

My question to him is what are you doing to reduce this inequity within our own country? Is it fair to dislocate thousands of people from the area they are living for years to build a nuclear plant? Must people living next to a thermal power plant need to experience the silent and deadly mercury poisoning but not reap any benefits of the electricity as they are not connected to grid?

Whom is this energy security for? The industries or the people who are rich and lives in cities like Delhi or Mumbai? Is it not the correct time to redefine the word “development” for which we are fighting in such global negotiations?

Its not that difficult to shift the paradigm of development toward a low carbon pathway. The National Action Plan on Climate Change has set very ambitious targets but I don’t any action or political will to push for action to meet those targets.

When nothing happens on ground, how can the result be anything but a big ZERO? The solar mission has set high targets which give us hope that poor villages will get clean, cheap and reliable domestic power supply. But once again, no steps has been taken. There is lack of communication between two ministries. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy was not aware about the solar mission until the PM’s document was released.

Similarly the Ministry of Railways doesn’t quite know how to mitigate the overcrowding in the transport sector by multiplying India’s freight capacities manifold! So what the pessimists feel appears to be true! With so much institutional neglect, lack of political will and the myriad complications in Indian politics, what can any citizen of India reasonably expect from Copenhagen?

If the powers that be recognise the essetial need to address energy inequity in our country, then and then alone will our nation be secure even if we get the most favourable terms in Copenhagen.

Can the discussion at Copenhagen be about realising that its the duty of each one of us to save Nature from catastrophic effects of climate change and by each one of us I mean every country of the world. Rather than playing a blame game of who is responsible for what percentage of damage, can we agree on a common responsibility of protecting our future?

We are sailing in one boat, now whomsoever has made the hole, its the responsibility of everyone to repair it otherwise all of us will sink. Somebody will have to come up with material to block the hole and that’s what the developing countries are asking for technology and financial transfer but it doesn’t mean that the developing countries can’t do anything without support. If someone put fire on your house, would you wait for him to support you to reduce the fire, come on its your home and you will have to save it.

There are ways in which each one of us can contribute to save the earth. Yes, I am talking about lifestyle change. I have done this and hope many of you are doing so. We still have the responsibility to make our policy makers accountable. I would like to request you all to raise your voice against issues which you think are critical. We have chosen our leaders and we can, must, will ask them what they are doing for our country.

About the Copenhagen deal, why worry about what America does or doesn’t, KP or not, common but differentiated or not? Are resources really a problem? If India just restructures its leaking and completely illogical subsidy structures then we could be in a position to fund not only our carbon sequestration but also projects in our neighboring countries. So the question of requiring funds from the West is gone. Are we going to have the guts to take leadership on dismantling our subsidies and creating resources within the country for everything from efficient and intelligent public transport to a spread of renewable like never before?

Are we talking technology for doing all this? I thought we had the best brains in the world? And anyway when we have the money from the source above then we can import the best solutions.

Sadly, the discussion in Copenhagen is not about climate change – its about the economics and politics of nations only. Whatever is the result of that deal, the fact remains that every leak has to be plugged in, every little done. There is no respite from responsibility in case of climate change. No sweet Lethe to bemuse us into procastination.

The time is Now for all of us – Copenhagen or not!

I would like highlight Anupam Mishra’s focus on ‘philosophical’ angle to the climate problem. So far, our emphasis has been on scientific solutions, which has caused more problems than it solves.

Science appeals to the mind, but philosophy fills the heart; both approaches are complementary for the optimal solution!

Lets try our best right now so that our descendants may live to see a clean, green world.

Wisdom of the Wiki-Commons! by Ambuj Saxena

3 September 2009

Guest post

Most people use Wikipedia but never get around to knowing that they could actually edit or contribute something. It’s quite easy.

I have been wanting to write about it myself but found that User:Ambuj Saxena had already done it in his blog. Its a bit dated, about three years old, but except for a few statistics and new features, its absolutely as relevant today.

For those who don’t know about my Wiki-connection, please click my avatar (image on the opposite side of the web page).

Published here at my request and Ambuj’s graceful acceptance.

Wisdom of the Wiki-Commons

byWikilogo

Ambuj Saxena

The bottomline first: It works.

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.” – Jimmy Wales

For those who still don’t get it what is being talked about, the subject of this post is Wikipedia and more specifically the English Wikipedia. The quote above is by the founder of Wikipedia, quoted in a Slashdot Interview.

What is Wikipedia?

In brief, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It is the world’s largest encyclopedia and is growing at an extremely fast rate. With more than 1 million articles in English Wikipedia, it can be used as a single point reference to know from biography of Atilla the Hun to ingenuity of the Monty Hall Problem. What’s more a lot of articles also have audio versions also, so one can also sit back and listen to them without having to read anything.

<!– Read about Wikipedia on Wikipedia here!–>

How stuff works?

This is where a complication begins. One would expect an encyclopedia to be written by experts; people who are associated with the topic in concern in great detail. However, Wikipedia is edited and maintained mainly by people like us, who are at best “Jack of few trades”. And there is no deterrent to anyone’s editing. Though registration is optional (though required for starting new articles), anyone can edit any page he/she wants. A big button shouting “edit this page” sits at the top of every article and besides every section welcoming you to edit and improve the articles.

So how does it work when there is no reason it should work? What stops people from vandalizing their hearts out, and corporations from using it as an advertisment board? Or in short, why should one use it at all when all one can expect is nothing more than few sentences of garbled text?

The reason is the philosophy behind Wikipedia and the founding principles of it. Wikipedia is based on three basic philosophies that are complimentary and non-negotiable. They are Verifiability, Neutral Point of View and No Original Research.

Verifiability means that only those things can be written in Wikipedia to which a source can be attributed as reference or can be observed by anyone without susbtantial effort. This directs people who contribute in Wikipedia to quote reputed sources of their articles and hence achieves good amount of reliability.

Neutral Point of View means that articles are to be written without any bias. This means howsever you feel strongly about an article, you have to present it in neutral perspective without adding any personal opinions and flavours to the facts.

No Original Research means that you cannot write things in it that have not been previously reported by a reputed source. Hence Wikipedia is a source-based research and should not create primary sources.

It can be easily seen that with the strong content guiding policy like this, there is a platform created for things to prosper, given the right nurturing is given. It should be noted that Wikipedia strongly disallows copyrighted content (text, image or any form of creative work) to be written in it and licenses all works under GNU Free Ducumentation License Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike License.

Why the name Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is formed by joining the words “Wiki” and “Encyclopedia”. All of you must be knowing what encyclopedia means, so only “Wiki” needs to be explained. “Wiki” is Hawaiian adjective meaning “quick”. The philosophy behind adoption of this word is that a wiki-based system is easy to edit. One of the basic features of a Wiki is that it stores all revisions of the work, so that if anything bad happens (like vandalism or even a genuine mistake), things can be corrected. This can also be used to view how things were in the past, if relevant to the context, and mostly by editors to do things that will be discussed in details later. Wikipedia is based on a Wiki software called Media Wiki.

Adminsitrative Structure

Although most of the editing part can be done by anyone, there are special things like deletion of article or blocking of compulsive vandals that can only be done by Wikipedia Administrators (known as sysops). They are elected on the basis of consensus among the Wikipedia community about the worthiness of the user in concern. Sock-puppetry (creating multiple accounts to support one’s views) is strictly handled by Wikipedia and violators are usually banned.

The Wikipedia Mark-up

Wikipedia uses a markup similar to HTML though customized for a collaborative work with inter-related pages. In case one needs to link to a page in Wikipedia from a Wikipedia article, all that needs to be done is that to add double square brackets to the article name. For example, [[Indian Institutes of Technology]] will create a link to the article on Indian Institutes of Technology. There are similar easy ways of adding images and other useful features like bullets and tables. Although a lot of HTML codes work, their use is generally discouraged in favour of Wiki’s own markup to provide consistency is article formats. Guides for Layout are available to make sure that there is little confusion as to how things are to be presented.

<!–More than the 5,13,496 articles which was the figure for Jul 2009->

Fighting Vandalism

One of the serious problems that Wikipedia faces is vandalism of articles. However, the way Wikipedia is designed, vandalism is largely ineffective. Is is usually seen that most vandalisations last less than 5 minutes! What’s more, I can even quote this from my experience when I have seen vandalisation getting reverted within a couple of minutes. This article can give you a good perspective of the issue being discussed.

The way vandalisation is handled in Wikipedia is really commendable. First of all, since all previous revisions of the article in concern exist, once detected, its only a matter of couple of seconds that the article can be restored to its original state. Also, in order to check vandalism, there is a group of self-appointed people (I am one too), some 1000 in number, who check the recent changes taking place in Wikipedia from the Recent Changes Page. Coupled with a set of tools unknown to vandals and a lot of experience, they are able to weed out vandalism very effectively. In many instances, when I have reached a vandalised page within a couple of minutes, I see that someone has already come and corrected it. Amazingly, very little “garbage” goes through this filter. What does go through is still not spared. Most of the editors in Wikipedia (especially registered users) keep the pages edited by them in their watchlist. So, for example, if a person from Indore tries to advertise his business on Indore’s Wikipedia page (which most likely a Recent Changes Patroller from Utah might not be able to qualify as vanity information), I get alerts of the changes. There are over 1000 articles in my watchlist even in the short span of less than 2 months in Wikipedia. With such multi-layered filtering, the vandalism/nonsense that does gets through is less than one PPM; something that can be considered very good.

Siblings

Wikipedia has a lot of sister projects like Wiktionary, Wikinews, and Wikiquote. These complement Wikipedia’s work as the resource for everything by being a repository of news, quotes, etc. Interlinking between sister projects is also easily done through the Wiki mark-up.

Behind the scenes

If you click on the “discussion” link at the top of any page, you will find what really lies beneath the calm and serene surface of Wikipedia. You will see a lot of discussions between the editors on what is possibly wrong with the article and how can it be improved. The way these discussions are carried out are also very structured and personal attacks are looked down upon. People are given feedback on their edits and suggestion from others (not directly related to the article) is also sought.

All users have their own profile pages and talk pages (for communication). This enables them to communicate with others more efficiently. Many user prefer to use “Userboxes” to tell things about themselves (like mine can be seen in my profile page‘s end and also directly here).

The good editors are rewarded by their peers for work, usually by giving a variety of Barnstars. Wikipedian are also known for their sense of humour and they lighten the mood when things start heating up in controversial topic debates. For example in an RfC (Request for Comments) over Kelly Martin’s high-handed attitude in deleting userboxes that she felt are crap [sic] and should be deleted, also popularly known as the great userbox purge, a lot of people posted humourous stuff like an annoying pastel box.

A lot of things related to wikipedia are prefixed by adding “wiki” before them. For example, any break from wikipedia is known as a wikibreak, the stress caused by it is wikistress and the mood while editing wikipedia is wikimood.

Brilliant Prose

Some 1000 2,596 articles of English Wikipedia’s are categorised as brilliant prose (Featured Articles). This is a extensive and rigorous process of review to establish that the article in concern conforms to high standards. In order to make an article into a Featured Article, it has to conform to a lot of strict guidelines on content and presentation. First there is a Peer Review where authors invite comments and suggestions from their fellow editors on how to improve the article. Once done, it can proceed for the Featured Article Review. Here experts suggest how the article can be fine-tuned to make it a brilliant prose. Once having achieved the FA status, the article also appears on the front page of Wikipedia.

<!–There is a similar feature for providing quality certification to articles, especially those which are never likely to become “Featured Articles” due to any reason. This is called “Good Articles” and GA or ‘Good Article’ is an intermediate quality stage on the path of improvement to “Featured Article”. –>

Comparison with other Encyclopedia

Wikipedia, over time, has been compared to a lot of encyclopedia and the main things stressed are the quality of content and reliability. The points where Wikipedia failed to ensure reliability have been quoted often in the media. But I still use it as a primary source of reference because of my experience with it. When I read something about what was reported wrong in Wikipedia, I feel similar to reading about people who win in gambling. Millions of people buy tickets, but only those who win are featured in newspapers, etc. With a lot of opportunities for having an error, wikipedia scores quite good as compared to other encyclopedias also. In a study, it was found that while Encyclopedia Britannica had on an average 3 errors per article, Wikipedia had 4; a feat considering it is just 5 years old then.<!–Wikipedia is 8 plus years old now and has effectively put the paid encyclopaedia trade out of business. –>

Other criticisms include unequal weight-age of subjects, which I have to accept is true. As Wikipedia is evolving, whenever someone comes to an article he knows something about, he edits it. But almost never does he know everything about it. So the article waits for the next “expert” to come over and edit relevant sections. I feel its premature to compare articles randomly. If a comparison is to be made, it should be made between equals. Like a featured article in Wikipedia and in another encyclopedia. Although Wikipedia has the restriction of using free content only (it doesn’t buy content like text, images, etc), I am quite sure wikipedia will be equal, if not better than the other encyclopedias. The reason behind my belief is that even the best of encyclopedias have a non-neutral point of view, or tend to find a diplomatic way out of the problem by either mis-representing facts or completely ignoring them. While in Wikipedia, care is taken that even minority view is expressed. Wikipedia does not work on voting, but on constructive discussions. If there is an evidence to include a content, it finds its way into the article.

The Real Bottomline

Even with so many potential dangers, Wikipedia scores quite well in both reliability and exhaustiveness because of the sheer large number of people editing it (more than 1 million 5 lakh registered users and innumerably more anonymous ones).

<!–See an animation on the growth of articles in Wikipedias here. The English wikipedia is coded ‘en’. –>

Jimmy Wales once said that –

Wikipedia is like a sausage: you might like the taste of it, but you don’t necessarily want to see how it’s made“.

It will apply to most of you but since I am a chef, I have to oversee it being made it to perfection.

(Note: The author is a Wiki-holic and averages around 35 edits a day.)

<!–Lots of statistics, tables, graphs about the Wikimedia projects here!–>

Suggested Reading

Open science! by L. Shyamal

9 August 2009

Introduction to today’s Guest Opinion Piece

The primary problem Indian naturalists face is lack of access to suitable information and knowledge about their own biodiversity.

Very often, this knowledge exists but is locked up in the minds and notes of experts. The common man is denied access to the fruits of  research, very often most of which has been funded by public money. Among the many inequalities in India, a de facto caste  system separates those involved in science from those interested in science.

Since this blog has by its licensing voted clearly and categorically for open science, I had the privilege of requesting Shyamal, a practitioner of making science open and accessible to all, to comment on this. Being a friend, he has obliged.

Open science!

by

L.Shyamal

Ashwin asked me to write about my rationale in contributing to science articles on Wikipedia and with some reluctance I have decided to try and articulate some of my reasons and it turns out that the linking ideas are more tortuous than I had first imagined.

Trying to think about how one acts requires an “out of one’s mind” experience! Probably the reason for the craziness of philosophers and the unreadability of their writings.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour

In the genre of unreadable French philosophy  are ideas from a French scholar named Bruno Latour, whose obfuscated writings have even prompted academic practical jokes (see Sokal affair), but some secondary interpretations of whose work are enlightening. Latour is a philosopher who has looked at science critically, a discipline that many would imagine is well-defined and not in need of any further thought.

Having been on several Indian campuses that ostensibly deal with science, I have often wondered if there was something completely faulty in the foundations.

India is perhaps unique in having a constitution that prescribes a “scientifc temper” as the duty of every citizen. This is dangerous country to tread on, especially when one does not have the required “clout”, academic or otherwise and even more so when most professional Indian scientists lead double lives, with even biologists (who in some other countries top in atheism) holding strong religious views, believing in miracles and praying that their papers get published. It would seem as if religious hierarchies are reflected in the hierarchies of science.

Indeed, questioning scientists is often made to look like blasphemy. When a scientist/ex-president touts the idea of linking rivers, it has be a “scientifically sound” idea right? Wrong, scientific ideas are always open to question and the scientific legitimacy/authority of an idea does not automatically transfer to all ideas produced by the same person.

Linus Pauling, one of the rare individuals to have received two Nobel prizes, had ideas on prolonging life that are today considered cranky. It is worth examining some ideas on science and breaking some myths. Latour suggests that real progress in science can only be made by breaking hierarchies and boundaries.

Thor Heyerdahl on 'borders'

Thor Heyerdahl on 'boundaries'..

Samuel Johnson - oet, essayist, moralist, novelist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

Samuel Johnson - poet, essayist, moralist, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

A famous quotation by Samuel Johnson, best known for his pioneering work in creating a dictionary of the English language, says –

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries”.

While Isaac Newton said (supposedly during one of his rare moments of modesty, but also disputed by some scholars who claimed he was mocking Hooke) that

“If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants”

Latour essentially clubs the ideas in these two quotes into what he terms as black-boxes, ideas that are used as founding principles to develop other ideas and the networks of links between ideas and their authors. He suggests that scientists gain legitimacy in their writings in journals by providing these linking ideas by citing other sources and stating in effect that-

“if you find me wrong, you are probably finding something wrong in all these others that I quote”.

This kind of legitimacy gain by garnering support is seen in many areas of scientific research. In others, one needs merely to be be descriptive, placing the facts and assuring the reader that the way the facts were gathered is “verifiable” and “repeatable“. Verifiability and repeatability are key to making scientific facts what they are.

Suppose, one heard that “Cherrapunji has the highest rainfall in India” – how does one determine if it was correct ? To determine if that claim was correct, one would actually have to measure rainfall in a uniform way in all parts of the country, but we do not measure the rainfall at every point and secondly we do not know if the man who makes the measurement in Cherrapunji is actually doing it right. (If I remember right, Alexander Frater found the local government guest-house cook in charge of taking the rain measurements and noted that he used used kitchen utensils to transfer water from the rain gauge into a measuring cylinder).

And yet despite the lack of “accuracy” it seems like the readings are “verifiable” in that if one took the water out of the rain gauge and poured it into a measuring cylinder onself, it would probably be the same as what our “cook” produces.

To a large extent, a lot of research data that is “verifiable” or “repeatable” is not actually verified or repeated as it is beyond the needs or means of most.

Now our governments tell us that they spent X million on developing Y which is supposedly good for all the people concerned. All of a sudden we have the Right to Information Act and we expect our government to tell us how they are spending the X million. None of this information is probably “verifiable” but the provision of that information gives us some “faith” in the path taken.

Scientific research takes the same route. Bruno Latour takes a huge step and brings in the thesis that politics and science are indistinguishable and suggests that there is convergent path. A guiding implicit principle in both politics and science is an inherent “equality” in the abilities of individuals.

What does any of this mean for people who are interested in biodiversity?

Most of us look at our natural world, but as “non-experts” we take it for granted that

(1) “experts” know everything

or

(2) as a “non-expert” one cannot contribute much to “expert” knowledge.

There are the fortunate few who are in a good position, for instance, to identify species based on their experience, access to collections, literature and other knowledgeable people. Some of these people have made that knowledge more widely accessible by digesting it into guide books. Field guides and other such literature enable further knowledge gathering by recruiting new observers who aid in refining information on distribution, knowledge on life-history and so on.

This kind of “democratization” of knowledge however can be seen by some “professionals” as undermining their expertise or monopoly.

Knowledge monopolies have been and will continue to be destroyed; Google Earth lets me find my way around, search for addresses of shops. At one level, there is nothing new in Google Earth, the underlying data is merely held locked up by the Survey of India, ISRO and the local telephone directories. Put them all together, make it cheaply accessible, leaving people to help themselves and the results are incredible.

Governments on the other hand are not even able to share information between their departments, a recent road underpass construction in Bangalore which was supposed to be done in a record 48 hours ended up taking two months because nobody could warn the roads departments of the water pipes and telephone wires that stood in their way!

While Governments often complain of the ways that such information can be misused, museum experts tend to point out that the lay public are unqualified to use knowledge.

This kind of circular reasoning has helped knowledge hierarchies sustain themselves and it seems that the flattening trend that has been introduced by Internet based ideas such as Google Earth, Wikipedia and The Internet Archive will have increasingly greater effects on the daily life of individuals and if Governments allow it, greater efficiency in governance.

Someone recently posted a photograph of a moth from Texas and based on a minimal education in entomology and access to information on websites I was able to identify it to down to the species level,   something that one simply cannot do for an Indian species because our experts (Where are they? Where does one find one?) probably expect formal letters requesting identification or perhaps even payments.

A lack of pro-activeness, plain laziness or wilful refusal to divulge information? Hard to tell, but “good science” is not just about a publication record but about making the path to knowledge more accessible and open to all and nothing is gained by obfuscating the path or by sanctimonious claims to knowledge that has been “revealed” to a select few.

Indeed it is hard to understand why the Zoological Survey of India, the Botanical Survey of India, and the Bombay Natural History Society, all of which receive public funds from the Ministry of Environment and Forests should not scan and make its library and specimen collections publicly available. In the meantime, as individuals, one can do their bit by sharing their daily learning and adding a drop of knowledge into the ocean.

Last week I happened on a beautiful and common cockroach. My one-time advisor Professor C A Viraktamath kindly identified it as a ”Therea petiveriana” and a little bit of browsing allowed me to put together whatever little appeared to be known about it on

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Therea_petiveriana

Now you should not trust any bit of information on that page, but the bits of information on that page can be followed up to the original sources and maybe some of the information that has been published in the cited journals will be found to be incorrect. These corrections should be published in a suitable journal and that Wikipedia page should then be corrected by providing a citation to the newly published research.

That to me is the process of making science visible.

Are Indian scientists interested?

Further Reading

* Pearson, D. L. and J. A. Shetterly. 2006. How do published field guides influence interactions between amateurs and professionals in entomology? American Entomologist 52: 246-2.

* Pearson, D. L. and Cassola, Fabio. 2007. Are we doomed to repeat history? A model of the past using tiger beetles (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae) and conservation biology to anticipate the future.
Journal of Insect Conservation, Volume 11, Number 1 / March, 2007  (Copy available on request from the butterflydiaries).

* Kristine  L. Callis, Lindsey R. Christ, Julian Resasco, David W. Armitage, Jeremy D. Ash,  Timothy T. Caughlin, Sharon F. Clemmensen, Stella M. Copeland, Timothy J.  Fullman, Ryan L. Lynch, Charley Olson, Raya A. Pruner, Ernane H.M.  Vieira-Neto, Raneve West-Singh, Emilio M. Bruna (2009) Improving  Wikipedia: educational opportunity and professional responsibility. Trends  in Ecology & Evolution 24(4):177-179.

* http://www.csicop.org/circumnavigations/rockets/

* http://www.worldviewsofscientists.org/IndiaReport.pdf

* http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?237780

* http://amasci.com/weird/sciattid.html

The End

Walk the talk! Some of the images Shyamal made for use freely by anyone! (Free license - CC SA 3.0 ).

Walk the talk! Some of the images by Shyamal made for use freely by anyone! (Free license - CC SA 3.0 ).

Find a list of images already made and to be  made by Shyamal here. His contributions to Wikipedia? Here!

Rambling Round a Forest Fringe

21 February 2009

This blog is about nature & nature-writing, and not about me. So here is a nice piece by a guest and fellow-naturalist.

— x — x — x —

Jamuntola is a typical one-horse, many-cattle Indian village nestling on the border of the Kanha National Park. A well-kept jungle road skirts along a sal forest, bumps across the bed of the Banjar Nadi and wends its way past the village to Thakur’s home. The river has been dry for the past few months. Its huge boulders stand naked, awaiting the gush of the monsoon waters to embrace them. It has rained, unusually, during the “nau tappas” – the nine hottest days of summer and the sun is pleasantly strong.

Birendra Singh Thakur, as his proudly displayed certificate states, is a Bachelor of Arts from Allahabad University. He is employed as a Forest Guard at Kanha. A chance meeting has resulted in our being invited as his guests. If the name brings to mind a big, gun-toting, bristly-moustached character, our real life hero is quite the opposite. He is short, wiry and fair-skinned with eyes that twinkle with animation.

As Ketan and I alight from the jeep, a welcoming smile lights up his face. His abode consists of two rooms, a kitchen, a fenced-in courtyard and a verandah. Towering over the mud-thatch roof are fourteen different species of trees. Thakur rattles off their names with practiced ease. He hustles us through a steaming mug of tea to a pond nearby, anxious to fulfil his promise of showing us wildlife.

On the far side, two Sarus cranes are visible, their grey bodies and maroon heads providing a perfect contrast. Thakur explains that not only is the Sarus India’s largest bird, it also occupies a proud place in jungle lore because of its legendary fidelity to its mate. In fact the Sarus’ attachment to its mate has been commented on even by Emperor Jahangir in his Jahangirnama .The sight of a pair of Saruses bowing and prancing, spreading and closing their wings, reminds one of a graceful polka dance.

Unison! Fidelity and coordination - a Sarus pair!

Unison! Fidelity and coordination - a Sarus pair!

Our hopes of seeing like Noah, a procession of animals is belied. Only the ubiquitous cheetal – the spotted deer, it seems is thirsty that evening. Thakur offers to accompany us again after dinner. We walk back in single file with Thakur reminiscing about life in the wilderness and childhood in his beloved Allahabad. Dinner is everything one would expect a rustic meal to be. The rotis are large and thick, the dal and vegetable hot and spicy and the onions and green chillies pungent. Beyond the wooden fence the trees and bushes acquire ghostly dimensions. The moon has not yet risen and a gentle breeze has sprung. Burps done with, Thakur leads the way, torch in hand.

Far away, a sambar calls. There is no other sound except for the dry leaves crackling underfoot. Thakur cautions us to remain silent as we near the bund overlooking the pond. He trains the torchlight along the periphery of the water. Apart from the gently-swaying water-lillies, nothing disturbs the stillness. The beam moves further inland. No sign of life. Suddenly from out of the darkness, two shining eyes are reflected in the light. Except for the eyes, not even a dim form is distinguishable. My heart thumps – just a deer or could it be a tiger? The eyes are startling blue. They gaze into the light, turn away for a few seconds and then appear to move towards us. We continue to crouch behind Thakur who holds the torch unwaveringly focused on the eyes.

Suddenly, like a man possessed, Thakur screams, turns around arms flailing, and bolts. The beam weaves crazy patterns on the forest floor as Thakur’s yells shock us into action. We race after him. It is some moments before we realize that his cries are ‘ Reech! Reech ! Bhago ! Bhago !’ (Bear! Bear ! Run! Run!). This only spurs us onto greater speed and I quickly out stride Thakur as the dim glow from his hut becomes visible.

Breathless, Thakur explains, whether for dramatic effect I don’t know, that the colour of the eyes and the animal’s movement towards us, are sure signs that it was a bear. He however hastens to reassure us that bears notwithstanding, there is no danger in sleeping in the courtyard. I look up at the star-laden sky and fall asleep thinking of the animals immortalized above by the ancients – Ursa, Taurus, Leo, Pegasus, Lupus ….. Bears and Bulls, Lions, Horses, Wolves ……

Waiting for father! Bears hunted in the Seoni hills - these stories may have inspired Rudyard Kipling's works. Originally captioned waiting for father - this was about a family of bears waiting for their father that was killed. The next day the mother bear was also killed.

Waiting for father! Bears hunted in the Seoni hills - these stories may have inspired Rudyard Kipling's works. Originally captioned waiting for father - this was about a family of bears waiting for their father that was killed. The next day the mother bear was also killed. (Drawn by Robert Armitage Sterndale. Denizens of the Jungles, 1886.)

Morning breaks. ‘ Ku-sum-pa-kha, ku-sum-pa-kha’ – the haunting melody of the kusumpakha awakens us. It is still early by city-dweller standards but the forest has been alive for some time. Small groups of tribals are busy collecting mahua flowers, tendu leaves and other forest produce from which they eke out a living.

Mirror and shaving kit in hand, Ketan and I walk to the well a kilometre away. And while Ketan has a shave, mirror perched precariously among the branches of a tree, I pull a bucket of water from the well and dump it over my head.

We tumble into the jeep and decide to scour the countryside. A stream of villages with exotic names pass by – Khursitola, Sarekha, Chargaon, Kumadehi. The previous day’s weather is now a memory and as midday approaches, the heat builds up relentlessly.

Thakur motions us to stop as we cross a small thatch-roof hut protected from the sun by the shade of a huge mango tree. Inside is the local hooch shop. A grizzled old woman who is proprietress, barmaid and bouncer all rolled into one, welcomes us warmly.

We are given pride of place – an ancient looking ‘khatia’ that probably shares birthdays with the woman. Thakur indulges in light-hearted banter. The woman asks what we would like to drink. The choice of poisons is clear – the starchy, colourless liquid distilled from the flowers of the mahua tree or the milky trappings of the sulfi tree. The latter should be drunk early in the morning as fermentation sets in by midday. So we settle for the mahua. It is common knowledge that bears are partial to the mahua flower, seeking them out with the all the single-minded dedication of a red-nosed tipler weaving his way through the bars of London.

Kanha - Chital in a forest glade!

Kanha - Chital in a forest glade!

Thakur recalls an old tribal belief regarding the sulfi tree – that only one person should do the tapping and if someone else does, the tree dies prematurely. Each tree is therefore zealously guarded and tapping rights strictly enforced. The woman passes round a dried peepul leaf on which rock salt and crushed green chillies are kept. Caviar may go well with champagne, but there is nothing to beat apna desi sharab and mixture.

The morning after all will, of course, look after itself. Two starchy rounds later, the world starts looking a decidedly better place. We wisely refuse a third, realizing that it is time to be moving if we want to reach Jabalpur before dark.

Thakur appears sad that we have not seen a tiger in the heart of Kipling’s India. But as with all wildlife viewing, the reward lies not so much in the quantum and variety of wildlife seen as in the totality of the experience. It can be as exciting learning about an anthill’s intricate ventilation system as in coming face to face with a tiger in the wild. And for us, the memories – of an encounter with a bear, of warmth and friendship and sharing – will remain forever fresh. But Thakur’s wistful eyes do not seem to understand as we say goodbye.

Guest post by : Sarabjit Singh (sabusingh2003@yahoo.com)

Image Credits:

  1. ”Unison – Sarus pair” – Image by J.M. Garg from Wikimedia Commons used under Creative Commons Sharealike attribution 3.0.
  2. ”Waiting for father!” – Public domain image available at Wikimedia Commons .
  3. ”Chital in a Forest Glade” – Public domain image available at Wikimedia Commons, (cropped & reduced).