Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie

Finally a book from Salman Rushdie that I could read and enjoy! I had tried a couple of his earlier works including the 'Midnight's Children' but found them too confusing and complex.

The "Enchantress of Florence" is a wonderful story based in 16th century India during the time of Akbar the Great, the most well known Mughal emperor. The visitor from Florence, Italy comes to the Mughal court with a secret to tell to the emperor and the story keeps the reader enthralled throughout. The contrasting lifestyles and philosophies of the western and eastern world is beautifully brought out by the author. Mr.Rushdie's in depth understanding of history, religion, culture and philosophy is obvious and his ability to mesh them all together to bring out a great book is outstanding. Every line contains so much information that I am astounded on how much research that must have gone into this book.

The history of the Mughals from Babar to Akbar is brought out well and Akbar's reign is covered in detail. The construction of the city Fatehpur Sikri and its final desertion is built into the story of this book. Akbar's famous courtiers such as Birbal and Abul Fazl makes the story even more appealing to Indian readers. Since I had visited Fatehpur Sikri recently, I found the references to this city (which is well preserved even now) even more interesting.

Some pictures from Fatehpur Sikri below:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Water from Air?

A Canadian company, Element Four ( claims to have developed a device called the Water Mill that can generate water from the atmosphere.

The device, meant to be a home appliance works by drawing air through filters to remove dust and particles, then cooling it to just below the temperature at which dew forms. The condensed water is passed through a self-sterilising chamber that uses microbe-busting UV light to eradicate any possibility of Legionnaires' disease or other infections. Finally, it is filtered and passed through a pipe to the owner's fridge or kitchen tap. It claims to be able to produce upto 12 litres of water per day.

The mill ceases to be effective if the relative humidity is below 30%. However the device has a built in computer that increases its output at dawn when humidity is highest. It is not clear how much energy the device will consume, but the web site claims that the device is "energy efficient''. Well, dont try to buy the device now - the company's web site says the online store will be open in 2009.

My engineering 'fundas' are not good enough to comment on whether this device will work effectively. Will some 'real enginners' stand up and comment on this device? I would like to know:

(a) Is this techncially feasible?

(b) If so, how come no one invented it till now?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels, Belgium

If you ever visit Brussels, this is a museum that you should not miss. With over 1500 instruments covering ancient, traditional and modern music, this is a treat that is worth the time and effort – whether you are a music lover or not.

Technology has been leveraged very well in the museum, with infrared headphones providing brief recordings of the instrument when you stand in front of it. No buttons to press! Each recording is of 2 to 3 minutes and will automatically stop when you move away.
For more information about the museum visit

Friday, November 21, 2008

Intelligent people live longer!

( Abstract from Nature Magazine – 13th Nov 2008; Italics are mine)

No kidding!. It is true – or as a wag would say “the thick die quick!”.

It has been proved that Intelligence can predict mortality more strongly that body mass index, total cholesterol, blood pressure or blood glucose, and at a similar level to smoking.
(Here Intelligence denotes scores from cognitive ability tests like IQ tests)

But the reasons for this are still mysterious.

At present there are four explanations:
1. Higher Intelligence normally results in a better education which would result in professional occupations that would place the person in a healthier environment
2. People with higher intelligence might engage in more healthy behaviors (I doubt it !!)
3. Early life tribulations (including prenatal) might be the cause of both high IQ as well as mortality (I cant see the link!)
4. High mental test scores in youth might be an indicator of a well put-together system

I think 1 and 4 are likely.

There is another argument that simple reaction speed (the time taken to press a button when a stimulus appears) may be even a better predictor of mortality risk. Reaction-time tasks do not require complex reasoning, and are so unlikely to be improved by education.

So there is some benefit for the hours we have spent on those computer games after all!

But jokes apart, the question is being seriously researched by many including he author of this article in Nature – Mr. Ian Deary who is the Director of the University of Edinburg Center for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, which opened on Sept 1, 2008. Let us wish him good luck!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Craig Venter - ASHG Conference, Philadelphia Nov 13, 2008

I had dropped in at the American Society of Human Genetics Annual conference at Philadelphia mainly to understand what is happening in the exciting field of Genetics. The most impressive event for me was the presentation from the leading scientist Craig Venter on "My Genome".

Some key points that struck me from his presentation:

1. The variations in the genome between human beings are more than what had been assumed earlier. Now it is expected to be as much as 1.5 % to 2% between two individuals.
2. This also means that our genome variation with the Chimpanzee (our closest relative) is more closer to 5%  (the earlier conclusion was about 2%) - his comment in the presentation that this should be a relief to many evoked laughter in the audience.
3. Understanding the human genome would only be a first step in our efforts for finding cures for many of our diseases. We would need to sequence the whole 'Human Microbiome' which would include all the microbial organisms that live inside the body and which outnumber our cells by a factor of 10.
4. Preventive Medicine would be a key benefit for individuals we understand our genome better. Based on our genetic tendency for various diseases, we should be able to use appropriate medicine as well as life style choices to reduce or eliminate the risk of some diseases.