Another blown weekend in the hospital…

Well, I was looking forward to the weekend to catch up on my lecture preparation and to prepare a midterm for my Computational Physics class. But I was awakened on Saturday morning at 3AM feeling just uncomfortable. Then uncomfortable turned to a sharp pain, low on my right side. Having been there once before, I knew what was coming. Without going into detail, let’s just say that I soon had some visual confirmation of my self-diagnosis of a kidney stone. I took some Panadol (the trade name here for Tylenol) and was able to sleep another hour or so. But after that the pain got bigger than the Panadol could handle and Kris and I were off for our second visit to Lakeside Adventist Hospital.

I was immediately seen by a doctor. With just a short description of the symptoms, he quickly injected me with a very strong pain killer and I was off to la-la land and pain-free. I was “warded” in the men’s ward, the private rooms all being occupied. I would like to think that the high occupancy rate was due to the high ratings I gave the hospital from my last visit. Poor Kris, she suffered more than I. Mostly, I slept. Whatever they gave me, I was zonked. Without benefit of narcotics, Kris mostly remained awake for the duration and must have been bored out of her mind.

I was surprised to learn that they were keeping me overnight. They scheduled me for an ultrasound and an X-ray on Sunday morning. Kris went home to get some much needed rest and I went back to sleep. The wakeup call in the men’s ward is 05:30. By this time I had been sleeping for almost 24 hours straight, so it was something of a relief to be awakened. Being an Adventist hospital, breakfast was vegetarian, of course. But it was a delicious bowl of black beans and coconut meat with a spicy condiment to pep it up, followed by a crisp apple. No coffee, though, sigh…

But then it was off to the ultrasound room. It turned out that the results were of the good news, bad news, good news variety. The good news was that I had, in fact, succeeded in passing the kidney stone on my right side. The bad news was there was one waiting “on deck” in my left kidney. The good news was that it was small. Then it was off to the X-ray room, where I gather not much additional was learned. Unfortunately, we then had to wait until the afternoon for the doctor to view my X-ray and to release me. So, Kris had another tiring, boring day, sitting in an uncomfortable chair and watching me sleep, but we were out of there by 5PM.

Two days, one night, all meals, all meds, all doctor’s fees, an ultrasound, an X-ray, all radiologist’s fees, total cost: $130.

Back in the US, if I feel another kidney stone coming on, I’m hopping the next flight to Kandy’s Lakeside Hospital. It will cost about the same as going to my local hospital and I’ll get to visit my friends in Sri Lanka again. I may stock up on some Oxycodone first though!



The lush tropical vegetation

We had one of our Sinhala language lessons today and the view from the window was of this gorgeous flowering tree.

Yellow creepers on tree

Yellow creepers on tree

Aiming my camera a little to the left, you can see that this tree is not unique.

Yellow creepers on hillside

Yellow creepers on hillside

Well, we have flowering trees in the US, but what we don’t have as much of are heavy infestations of epiphytic plants growing on those trees. All that yellow one can see in the photos above are the flowers of an epiphytic vine that grows on the trees.

Life is just more abundant here in the tropics.


Good, accessible, explanation of global warming

I just ran across the best, most accessible explanation of global warming I have yet to read. In particular, it addresses two common misconceptions that global warming deniers keep harping on, a) that water vapor is a bigger contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide (so why worry about carbon dioxide?) and b) carbon dioxide is such a small fraction of the molecules that make up the atmosphere (so how can carbon dioxide be having such a large effect?).

Art Hobson’s essay makes the point that water and CO2 are the two major contributors to global warming despite the fact that together they make up less than one percent of our atmosphere. The major components of the atmosphere (nitrogen and oxygen) play no role in the so-called “greenhouse effect.” Second, the key difference between water and carbon dioxide is that when water vapor levels get high, water condenses to form rain, and so the water vapor is removed from the atmosphere. This does not happen with carbon dioxide, so it is the level of carbon dioxide that controls global warming, despite carbon dioxide making up such a small portion of the atmosphere overall.

I will say that the essay is not entirely free of misleading language, in that the essay seems to imply that the levels of water and carbon dioxide are not too different. In fact, the water vapor content of the atmosphere is a few percent, while the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere is 0.038 percent. So water vapor molecules are 100 times more numerous in the atmosphere than molecules of carbon dioxide. Therefore, the importance of carbon dioxide levels to global warming is still pretty surprising at first glance.

Art Hobson’s essay is not much longer than a letter to the editor, but it does a good job of getting at the heart of global warming. I recommend it to anyone.


End of writing jag?

I seem to be posting less often these days, something that will come as no surprise to people who know me best and have tried to get me to get back to them by email. I am not sick, the excuse I used for a previous episode of not posting. I am teaching more than I have been up until now. I just finished my four, two hour, Saturday morning lecture contribution to a graduate class in Materials Science today.

I did spend a few hours writing and sending variants on my “Keep the Marines out of Sri Lanka” posting to President Obama and Senators Brown and Voinovich (both Ohio senators). It turns out that both of Ohio’s senators are on the subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that recently held a hearing on the situation in Sri Lanka. The only one to reply to me so far is Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), but it was a canned reply that showed no evidence that my email had been read. For example, the reply included the phrase  “innocent civilians” . I argue that using that phrase is a way of framing the issue in a way that hinders thoughtful discussion of what the right thing is  for the US to do (or not do) about the situation. Rhetoric matters!

Oh! And we are  in the process of purchasing our tickets for our return trip home to Ohio. That is exciting and nerve wracking at the same time considering the expense involved. Our flight itinerary looks like this:

July 2nd: Colombo to New Dehli, India.

July 17th: New Delhi to Amman, Jordan.

July 25th: Tel Aviv, Israel to London, England

August 3rd, London to Columbus, Ohio

I say we are “in the process of” purchasing our tickets because the normally almost instantaneous credit card process had a monkey wrench thrown in. We are using AirTreks again. They did a fine job with our air travel out to Sri Lanka and we are hoping for a similarly smooth arrangement for our flights back to the US. But when they tried to charge my Visa card, the card company balked and declined the transaction. Well, a plane reservation is like raw meat bought on a hot day, it has a short shelf life. So I steeled myself to enter the eighth circle of hell by calling the credit card hotline to attempt to convince them to accept the charges.

For reasons that do not add to the story, I am calling the bank at 1:30AM Sri Lanka time, with a lecture scheduled for 10:15AM. I am using my cell phone, which does not interact well with my hearing aids. (Yes, I know I should invest in Skype Out, but I haven’t yet.) So, to hear the other party, I use the speakerphone feature on the cell phone. Our house is surrounded by hills and the cell phone signal is a bit weak, but better if I am standing in the living room. So, picture me, in my sarong, standing in the living room, in the dark, trying to talk overseas on my cell phone set to speaker phone. I do not know what image comes to your mind, but I sure scared the hell out of the maid.

My bank takes its phone security seriously. So, before they will speak to me, they want to know who I am,  my card number, and my mother’s maiden name. The latter, of course, is a carefully guarded secret in American society that not even a criminal mastermind could ever discover. Once vetted, I tell the operator that the AirTreks people are the nicest people in the world and that the bank can trust them with the money. “OK,” says the operator, “I just need to transfer you to our security desk. Hold on.” Click. Click. Cell phone breaks the connection. Hmm. How annoying. So I call back. I get a different operator. No, he can not transfer me back to the first operator, we must start over. Actually, this is a good thing because after I give him my name, my card number, and my mother’s maiden name, he asks me which attempted charge I want him to allow. There is the AirTreks attempt, an attempt two days ago by a jewelry company to charge $1281 and an attempt yesterday by a hardware store to charge $241. All charges that the credit card company denied.

Good thing, too, because, except for the AirTreks attempt, the others were fraudulent. Obviously, someone has obtained our credit card information and is trying to rip us (Kris and I and our good friends at the bank) off. “OK,” says the operator, “We just need to transfer you to our security people and they will cancel the card for you.” “Nooooo!” I cry in vain, too late, my usual table-tennis honed reflexes slowed by the lateness of the hour. Click, click. Cell phone cuts off the connection.

Thinking that Dante’s Inferno could use an updated edition to add punch to his visions of hell by drawing from modern life, I call the credit card hotline again. Do you suppose this is one of those phone operations being manned by prison inmates? The first two operators off trying to charge my card before it is too late now that they know my mother’s maiden name? Despite the hour, I can now rattle off name, card number, mother’s maiden name. In fact, suspiciously fast, I would say. Certified to talk to operator number three, the first thing I tell her is about the problem of being cut off. She is understandably distraught at the emotional damage that has been inflicted on me and tells me so. She shares my pain. I have the problem description down to a terse sentence or two and she transfers me to security by some different manner (how many different ways do you suppose there are?) that leaves me listening to Musak. So, there I am, in the dark living room, in my sarong, broadcasting tinny Musak into the dark, otherwise quiet house from my cell phone. Our maid, who usually gets up with the sun at 5:30AM, her adrenaline levels surely back to normal by this time,  is probably pretty pissed at me for acting like some kind of Musak DJ when she needs her sleep.

And then I am connected to security. Great! Almost there. But the security guy is not the brightest bulb in the Christmas tree light string. He has some canned scripts to read and, apparently hoping for a raise for being so efficient, reads them at a rate of speed that would defy the NSA to decrypt. Utilizing the time tested method of redundancy in communication channels to reduce error rates (Me: “What?” Him: “Mdunnowvvnvwurw.” Me: “What?”…), I am eventually given to understand that he will immediately cancel my card and mail me another one. OK. So, I just need to give him my address. More delivery people can find a 700 hectare (1730 acre) university than can find a small house tucked away on a side road, so I give him the address of the Physics Department at Peradeniya. Everything goes swimmingly, though, due to sleep deprivation, my normally Pentium-class mind struggles to make up words to help in spelling out Peradeniya (“P as in Peter, e as in Edward, r as in radio, or is that radishes?” ).

Everything goes well, that is, until we get to the zip code. Well, except for the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka does not have any postal codes at all. Even in Colombo, I think the numbers only go as high as ten. (I do not think the numbers in Colombo are really postal codes. They are more useful as an aid to tuk-tuk drivers. Tuk-tuk drivers are too busy lining up to serially ask tourists whether they need a ride to have the time for learning the names of the streets in Colombo. But most of them know the “postal” numbering system and so can at least get you to within a mile of your destination. To get closer than that, you are, frequently, on your own.) The lack of a zip code was too much for the credit card company’s software to handle. It would not accept an address without a zip code, even though it was supposedly set up to work with international addresses. Well, it was getting close to 2:30AM by this point and I would happily have been given the choice to throttle the Web programmer that did not realize that zip codes are an invention of the US Postal Service and are not in use by every postal service in the world, or my operator who would not put in “00000” or something to satisfy the program, or me, my usual feline-quick reflexes slowed by the late hour, for not making something up on the spur of the moment. “Oh, I forgot. In an amazing coincidence the zip code of Peradeniya is identical to my US zip code: 43050.”

So, the credit card company is shipping the card to Kenyon, since, while Kenyon is not close Kenya, much less to Sri Lanka, it does have a zip code. I do not know what this guy was thinking. I’m in SRI LANKA and he spots my Kenyon adddress in his database and thinks that is just as good a place to send the card? Hello? I know that many people in the US could not find Sri Lanka on a map to save their lives, but I assumed that virtually everyone would assume that if they did not know where a country was, it must not share a border with Ohio. OK. I should not be surprised. I did not really believe it until it happened, and it happened more than once when we lived in Los Alamos, that there are people in the US who do not know that New Mexico is a part of the US.

I acquiesced in having the card sent to Kenyon because I knew that not only does Kenyon have a zip code, it also has a fantastically competent, lovely woman who is willing to read my mail. (I sometimes wonder if she thought that reading my mail was going to be more exciting than it turned out to be? Not quite a Harlequin Romance, I daresay.) She will, I have no doubt, figure out how to send me the credit card in the mail, even without a zip code.

Finally, in regard to the question about why I have not been posting more often lately, I considered that perhaps I was just near the end of the freakish writing jag I have been on. Considering that I just spent three hours wringing out 1802 words onto this page, maybe not.


My lunch, our house, and a photo of the most beautiful woman in the world

Unlike most of my posts, this will be more photos than words, at least if you count each picture as 1000 words. These photos are mostly of things in our daily life here and there is not all that much to say about them, but perhaps more than can fit into a caption.

University of Peradeniya's train station

University of Peradeniya's train station

The theme of the first three photos is “My Lunch.” Every weekday, I walk a short distance from my office in the Physics Annex to a small store to buy my lunch. On the way, I pass the university’s train station pictured above. This is the closest train station to our house but we have never caught a train here. The problem is that the only trains that stop here are the “locals” that stop at every stop. So while this station is on the main line to Colombo, we board the train either at Kandy or the town of Peradeniya, both about equidistant from our house. A couple of days ago, I had a flash of realization that the train station would have a scale to weigh parcels. So I visited the station platform itself  for the first time and the baggage master kindly weighed me. My 101.4 kg is slightly below my previous low weight when we traveled to Singapore and Cambodia three years ago, but it was not as low as I had hoped after getting on a scale in my hotel room in Kolkata and seeing a reading of 97 kg.

Milk bar where I get my lunch packet

Milk bar where I get my lunch packet

After I cross the train tracks, I get to the small store (which calls itself a “milk bar”) where I buy my lunch. The milk bar is on the near end of this building. Next to, and part of, the milk bar is a room with tables and chairs for customers who want to eat their lunch on the premises and many do. I presume the owner of the store lives above the store in the flat you see on the second floor, or perhaps he rents it out. To the right of the store is a series of other small shops, including a veterinary office, a stationery shop, and a bookstore.

At the milk bar, one approaches a counter where a clerk will bring you what you ask for. Underneath the counter and behind a glass window is a set of shelves with freshly made pastries and rolls, savory “short eats” (vegetable or meat filled buns), and “packets”. Behind the counter are the miscellaneous stuff of life: laundry supplies, boxed cakes, candy, cigarettes, sodas in the fridge, potato chips, batteries, etc. My “usual” is a vegetable packet and a Coca-Cola ($1.20). While I complete this transaction in English, I have since learned that the Sinhalese words for vegetable packet and Coca-Cola are “vegetable packet” and “Coca-Cola.”

Vegetable packet and a Coca-Cola

Vegetable packet and a Coca-Cola

After purchasing “the usual,” I take my lunch back the the Physics Annex to the faculty lounge. The photo above shows my packet after it is unwrapped. Sugar-free cola has not caught on in a big way here, so the only soft drinks available at the local milk bar (or at any store short of a major supermarket) are of the non-diet variety. In this heat, I “need” a cold soft drink to survive, so I have compromised my usual requirement for my sodas to be sugar-free.

In the photo, it is a bit hard to see what it is that I am eating. The bulk of the packet is rice, the staple of the Sri Lankan diet. The green you see in the foreground is coconut sambal, a spicy condiment. Some of the brown is dal, i.e., lentils, the vegetable that when combined with rice gives you a complete protein source. Some of the other brown is a vegetable in a curry sauce. Note the lack of utensils. This is all eaten with ones fingers. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, actually.

The theme of the next set of pictures is “Our house in Dangolla.”

Front door of our house in Dangolla

Front door of our house in Dangolla

This is a picture of the front of our house looking back along the front towards the garden. The door on the right is our front door. Just to the right of that is a small slice of the garage door. The house is constructed from cement beams filled in with brick to form the walls and covered over with plaster. Note the pavers and the painted cement border around the house.

Dangolla Road house from backyard

Dangolla Road house from backyard

This photo is looking the opposite way across the front of the house (on the right), but giving a view of a part of the garden and the rest of the house structure. All the windows and doors are wood in wood frames, nicely crafted.

Flowers in our Dangolla Road house garden

Flowers in our Dangolla Road house garden


These two photos are a small taste of the beautiful flowers in our garden. Our maid, Rani, devotes at least an hour each day lovingly caring for the garden. There was a man that used to come by to clip the grass (by hand with a knife), but Rani dismissed him when he tried to overcharge for his services. Since the grass stays clipped, I presume that Rani is now doing it herself (by hand with a knife).

Amaya Hills Hotel at sunset, Kandy

Amaya Hills Hotel at sunset, Kandy

Every so often, right about sunset, we take a tuk-tuk up into the hills that overlook our house, to the Amaya Hills Hotel. The Amaya Hills is a luxury, resort hotel. On our first visit, we intended to watch the sunset and then eat in their well-regarded restaurant. Well, we watched a gorgeous sunset only to discover that the restaurant did not start serving dinner until 8PM. This is a characteristic time for Sri Lankans to eat dinner, but we can not survive that long without food. Well, we were told, the bar does have a snack menu that we could order from anytime. Turns out that the hotel has quite a different definition of snack than I have. The menu included burgers, milkshakes, spaghetti, and other goodies. And when they served the “snacks,” they turned out to be almost more food than we could eat. To top it all off, the prices were very reasonable. So this has become something of a habit for us. Usually on the weekend, always at sunset, we have a meal al fresco at the Amaya Hills about once a week.

On our last visit, the most beautiful woman in the world was dining at the Amaya Hills and she was gracious enough to allow me to take a picture of her.

Kris, Amaya Hills Hotel, Kandy

Kris, Amaya Hills Hotel, Kandy


Dancing Naked in the Mind Field

One of the things that I am enjoying this year is the opportunity to do some reading. Maybe it is the lack of committee work, or maybe the lack of TV, but I have been reading more than I generally do in the US.

My friend Charles, generously lent me a couple of books from his personal library. The first I finished a month or so ago: The Exile Returned: a Self Portrait of the Tamil Vellahlahs of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, by S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole. Professor Hoole’s book is a fascinating insight into the complex history of the Tamil people in the Jaffna peninsula. For example, the Tamils in Jaffna were largely farmers and hence of a relatively low caste in the Hindu caste system. For reasons I do not fully understand, there were really no higher caste Tamils on the island. Well, the Hindu caste system really is not exactly friendly to the lower castes, as you might imagine. When Protestant missionaries, missionaries from the Congregational Church prominent among them, arrived in the area, they seized an opportunity and pointed out to Tamil people the really rather insulting restrictions placed upon them by their own religion. For example, people of the Sudra caste were not even supposed to be taught about the most holy books of the Hindu religion. This led to many conversions of Tamils to both Protestant and Catholic Christianity and to a local revision of the rules in Hinduism, as a response. Oversimplifying greatly, the churches established schools, the British promoted the Tamils over the Sinhalese in the island’s civil service, the British granted the island independence, the Sinhalese majority lashed out at the privileged position of the Tamils, and the current conflict was born. Or, as my friend Charles says, with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, the conflict is the fault of those 18th century Christian missionaries establishing schools for the Tamils.

I just finished reading the second book that Chrles lent to me, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Kary Mullis, the 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Mullis, a biochemist, won the Nobel Prize for his work on the “polymerase chain reaction” (PCR). PCR is the foundation for all the DNA tests we hear about these days, most often on CSI. The book is a combination of autobiography and his views on a number of subjects.

He is quite a character. He is an avid surfer and, of course, that was harped upon by the media when he won the Nobel Prize. He tells the story of the morning when he gets the call from the Nobel committee announcing that  he has won the prize. He was expecting the prize the year before, He even had discussions with colleagues about what were the petty political reasons why  he had not gotten it in 1992. When he did get the call in 1993, he at first assumed that a friend of his was playing a joke on him and hung up on the caller. Needless to say, they called back. Receiving the prize that morning did not prevent him from going out surfing, even misdirecting a TV crew to the wrong beach as he left the house.

I am a great believer that science so often takes itself too seriously, so it is fun to read about a non-stuffy scientist. In this, Mullis resembles Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning, bongo-playing, physicist. They both have lives outside science. They do not let the conventions of what a Nobel Prize winning scientist should look like or act like cramp their style. They both frankly write about their interest in women in ways that most people would keep to themselves. Mullis (born 1944) and Feynman (born 1918) grew up and live(d) during very different eras and it is interesting to speculate about how much closer the resemblance between the two would be if they had grown up in the same era.

For example, Mullis received his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1972 and, talks about his extensive use of and synthesis of psychoactive drugs. As a biochemist, Mullis was part of a culture that stayed one step ahead of the law. As a drug was outlawed, Mullis and friends would synthesize a new psychoactive drug and use it until the new drug was banned. Mullis has stated that his use of LSD helped him to come up with the idea of a practical scheme to do PCR. Feynman too tried LSD, marijuana, and ketamine, but for very brief periods and later in his career. Unlike Mullis, Feynman was worried about damage to his brain from drug use, even giving up alcohol when he became concerned that he was showing signs of alcohol dependency. Mullis, on the other hand, was not deterred even after making a factor of ten mistake in dosage for a new psychoactive drug that led to a experience so severe that he thought he would never recover.

Both men could be jerks. Feynman is known for refusing to carry his share of the work of department administration, showing a decided contempt for his colleagues in the process. My own Feynman story does not cast him in a very gracious light. When I was an experimental high energy grad student at CalTech in 1976, the high energy physics lectures were held in a conference room that was way too small. There was a long table down the center of the room with the screen and viewgraph projector on one end. Professors sat at the table and grad students sat on the floor with their backs to the walls of the room. If you  did not get there fifteen minutes early, you might not even be able to find a place on the floor. Before the talk, the visitor would be sitting in a chair next to the viewgraph projector and his host. Just when the talk was to begin, Feynman would walk into the room and approach the visitor. “Hi! I’m Dick Feynman” he would say to the speaker, who would generally be awestruck, nearly speechless, and would stumble as he jumped from his seat to grasp Feynman’s outstretched hand. Then Feynman would say “You are not going to be needing that seat, are you?” So the great man insulted the guest, did not have to arrive early like everyone else, and got the best seat at the table. I’ve already mentioned the trick Mullis played on the hapless media team and there are a few more examples in his book.

Their differences between the two men are striking, though. Feynman recognized the good he could do in the world in his position as a recognized authority/genius and as a gifted scientific communicator. Feynman served on the Challenger Commission, the commission that investigated the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle. He is remembered for demonstrating the core problem at a news conference by simply dipping a piece of the shuttle’s O-rings into a glass of ice water and them showing how brittle and easy to break it had become. Good educational theater, even if he was not the one who  discovered the problem. He did, however, school the NASA engineers about their faulty risk assessment calculations. His first year undergraduate text is a must read for graduate students and professors, even if it was never a very satisfactory text for first year students. It has remained useful for demonstrating Feynman’s ability to find the heart of a physics problem before dragging out the mathematical toolkit. And his books about his life and adventures are delightful reads that illuminate a mind that just works differently than most of the rest of ours.

Mullis’ book has a chapter describing his work as part of the defense team in the famous OJ Simpson trial. A key part of the evidence against OJ Simpson was a sample of blood found at the crime scene that DNA analysis indicated was from OJ Simpson himself. Mullis is withering in his description of the prosecution team and scathing in his analysis of all the ways the forensic team did not follow good scientific practice in collecting and analyzing the sample. His conclusion is that the uncertainties in the analysis make the DNA testing results inconclusive. Mullis is clearly unhappy that he was not called to the stand during the trial and I think I can see why the defense team did not call him. Despite his credentials as the inventor of the PCR process and his Nobel Prize, it seems clear that Mullis wanted to spar with the prosecuting attorneys demonstrating his superior knowledge. As good trial attorneys, the defense team probably knew that he could be a loose cannon and could have ended up hurting their case. Instead, the defense team told him that, after they had presented a series of witnesses that tended to discredit the DNA evidence, more witness would only make the jury’s eyes glaze over.

Outside of biochemistry, though, Mullis loses my respect completely. He describes an experience where he believes he was abducted by extraterrestials. Given his use of drugs, I think there is a simpler explanation that he might consider. He is a global warming skeptic and dismisses climate change scientists as only interested in getting their next research grant. His argument against those who warned about ozone depletion imagines that he is the only chemist who has ever heard of rate equations. He denies that HIV causes AIDS. Finally, and most outlandishly, he believes in astrology.In the HIV/AIDS case, he must take a measure of responsibility for the deaths of thousands in South Africa for being among those who provided the then government of South Africa a rationale for not providing drugs to its people that were of proven effectiveness. In the case of astrology, he undermines the whole scientific enterprise at a time when it is already under severe attack by the forces of superstition, quackery and those who discredit science when a scientific study does not agree with their political philosophy.

They say that it is “an ill wind that blowth no man good” and that is the case with Kary Mullis and his book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Fields. We have a tendency in Western society to glorify individuals, a trait we supposedly inherited from the Greeks. Kary Mullis was glorified by the award of the highest honor, the most prestigious honor,  a man or woman of science can aspire to, the Nobel Prize. And, as Nobel Prize qualifications go, he earned it fair and square.  But we should remain aware of two things. The first is that the Nobel Prize singles out individuals in a field where the real advance of science depends on the community as a whole. It is fine to celebrate those whose vision may be a bit sharper, but we should never forget that they could not have accomplished anything significant working alone. For example, awarding the Nobel Prize for PCR to Mullis alone was not without controversy. The idea was being bandied about the scientific community. There is evidence that Mullis may have learned about the idea directly from another. Give him credit, though, he made the idea work. I find the debates about priority and credit in science tedious precisely because so few ideas are truly the work of individuals working alone and Kary Mullis is no exception. And  Dancing Naked in the Mind Fields should remind us that even if you win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, you may not be a great scientist outside of your narrow specialty, or even much of a scientist at all, in some ways. Yet another reason why we should seldom elevate even the most accomplished among us to the status of heroes.


No, no, and hell no! Keep US Marines out of Sri Lanka!

(Added March 22nd) Kris attended a function in Colombo where the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert Blake, spoke. He was asked whether there was a possibility that the Marines would  intervene in Sri Lanka. Blake said that the news reports were just rumors and Kris interpreted this and his other comments as indicating that there was no way the Marines were coming to Sri Lanka. Hopefully his statements put an end to this subject.

(Added March 17th) The headline story in the Colombo Sunday Times of March 15th is that the Indian government is opposing the use of US Marines to “free” the civilians from the LTTE. This means that the original story may actually have some truth in it. The Indians are not completely against a military intervention, but, if it is to happen, they want it to be a UN operation.

This sounds like the possibility of sending in the Marines is still under discussion, even if it is made a UN operation. So, I hereby reiterate my objections as stated in the original posting below.

Bad, bad idea….


(Added March 10) The government run newspaper, the Daily News, is running a story  this morning in which the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka denies any truth to the Daily Mirror story mentioned below. Here is a quote:

“Foreign Affairs Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said that the Government has not permitted any international forces to evacuate civilians from the Vanni.

“Certain reports published regarding the arrival of US marines in Sri Lanka to transport civilians on the invitation of the Sri Lankan Government are baseless and incorrect,” the Minister said.

Addressing a media briefing in Colombo yesterday, the Minister said that the Government has not made any request to the US Army to support the evacuation process in Sri Lanka.

“We have also not received any proposal from any country in this regard,” the Minister said. He said that US has always extended its support in countering terrorism in Sri Lanka.”

So perhaps a measure of sanity still exists in the world and I have to learn not to respond so quickly to initial, unverified, news stories.  – Tim

My original posting follows:

An even more remarkable story than the one in my previous posting is  in today’s Daily Mirror. US envoy Richard Boucher has been quoted as saying that the US will be discussing with India the possibility of a US Marine expeditionary force landing in Sri Lanka to assist in rescuing civilians being held hostage by the LTTE. I cannot begin to tell you how many reasons there are that this is a very bad idea!

At least the US has consulted with the Sri Lankan government. A week or so ago, there was an item in the local news that did seem a bit strange. The US Agency for International Development (AID) has been involved in building projects in the Eastern Province which recently is back in government hands. For example, AID recently rebuilt the central market in Batticaloa to much applause. So it was not a surprise to read a week or so ago that a delegation from AID was in Colombo for talks with the government on plans for a rebuilding project in the northeastern city of Trincomalee. What was a puzzle was that the members of the US delegation were a combination of AID and US military. A news report explained that the project was going to be a joint project of AID and the US military. At the time, the conservative, Marxist JVP party went public with the not totally implausible claim that the US was trying to gain control of the excellent harbor at Trincomalee for a naval base. (Before Sri Lankan independence, Trincomalee was a British naval base.) Now, assuming this Daily Mirror report is true,  it seems safe to assume that the military contingent was in Colombo to discuss the possibility of sending in the Marines.

So why do I think it is a bad idea? Let me count the ways. First, we are not perceived in Sri Lanka as neutral arbitrators in the conflict and, in fact, are perceived by many Sinhalese as being pro-LTTE. The Sri Lankan government  is against any kind of ceasefire because they feel that every ceasefire in the past has been used by the LTTE to regroup and rearm. The LTTE will not willingly let the Marines evacuate the civilians under their control. So the Marines will not be sure who their enemies and who their friends (if any) will be. They will surely be attacked by the LTTE and even as weak as they now are, the LTTE can not be taken lightly. They have proven themselves to be ferocious, disciplined, and clever fighters. The odds are good that we would lose a dozen or a few dozen Marines. In the worst case scenario, the Marines might be attacked by both sides.

Second, it is not at all established how many of the civilians actually want to be evacuated. Whether because they might actually be loyal to the LTTE or because the LTTE has instilled in them a desperate fear of government troops, no one knows how many civilians would cooperate in being evacuated. As happened recently to the Sri Lankan Army, the Marines should prepare for the possibility that among the civilians being evacuated there will be one or more female suicide bombers who might take out the aircraft she is riding in or kill many people wherever the civilians and their caregivers are congregated after leaving the island.

Third, our relationship with the Sri Lankan government is very cool right now. The Sri Lankan government has recently exchanged presidential visits with Iran. The biggest donor country to Sri Lanka right now is China. The government recently reiterated its close ties to Cuba and, also in the news today, with Vietnam. Remember,  this island is officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government is deliberately seeking to strengthen non-Western ties because they want to immunize themselves economically against Western political demands to conduct the civil war in a certain way or for the West to dictate the terms of a political solution once the conventional war is over. The Indians would be apoplectic if the Chinese military appeared in Sri Lanka, so let the Vietnamese or the Iranians do the job if it is to be “outsourced” to a foreign country.

Fourth, if a foreign country scoops up “civilians” indiscriminately (and takes them where?), this will be seen as a way for the top leadership of the LTTE to escape the island. If we get involved in this and then, at the end of the day, Prabhakaran has vanished, we will have generated bad feelings on this island that will last a generation. Now, it may well be that Prabhakaran has already left, or will leave by his own means, but the US will be blamed for his escape if we get involved.

Fifth, it would be a blow to our new “friend” India’s prestige. They are the local superpower. They have decidedly mixed feelings about the LTTE. The Indians under Indira Gandhi trained the LTTE. (She was repaid when the LTTE assassinated her son, Rajiv, though she did not live to see it.) People in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu are setting themselves on fire to protest the imminent defeat of the LTTE. The people of Tamil Nadu make up 6% of the population of India and national elections are next month. Sri Lanka is just 25 miles off the coast of Tamil Nadu. The Indians have a natural stake in the lives of the Hindu civilians located in the last bit of LTTE controlled territory. But the Indians have been burned before. They sent peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka in the late ’80s as part of a ceasefire agreement, but were forced by the LTTE, the “representatives” of the people the Indians were sent there to protect, to withdraw in humiliating defeat with much loss of life.

So the Indians will have decidedly mixed feelings about the possibility of an American intervention. One the one hand, they would be happy that it is not their army landing in Sri Lanka, but it will make them look weak, in the sense that they will be seen as unable to influence events so close to their own shore.

Can this initiative be the result of the one-sided Senate hearings recently held by Senator Kerry? Kerry held a hearing on the situation in Sri Lanka where all the witnesses were known critics of the Sri Lankan government. The Sri Lankan government was not invited to present its views. The UN Commissioner on Human Rights was not there to present the results of his recent visit to the conflict zone. Please, someone tell me that a) the US ambassador to Sri Lanka was consulted by the committee (even if at a distance) and b) we are not contemplating this intervention as some politcal favor to some supporters of Senator Kerry. I railed against Bush’s fanaticism getting in the way of seeing the facts. Please let us demonstrate that indeed there has been “change we can believe in” in Washington.

And doesn’t the US have enough trouble on its hands right now? This looks like yet another case where, with noble intentions, we want to “help” but where we do not really understand the local situation. When phrased as the rescue of  innocent civilians being held by the evil LTTE terrorists, it sounds black and white. Of course, being the noble people that we are, we ride in on the white stallion and save the day. But easy-to-digest sound bites do not make good foreign policy. We can not use satellite recon to read the minds of the civilians. We can not rely on the LTTE  to act rationally and surrender in the face of superior numbers. No one in Asia today will buy that “we thought we were doing what was right” excuse. Good intentions do not cut it here anymore. We have helped to destroy whole regions of Asia with our well-intentioned but ignorant policies. Asia deserves competence from us and, if we cannot deliver competence, we should just stay away.

It will not be simple if we get involved militarily in Sri Lanka. It is hard for me to envision what good we can do in this situation. The core problem is that the remainder of the LTTE is embedded within a large number of civilians. To defeat the LTTE conventional forces, and the Sri Lankan government will accept no less, someone is going to have to attack them and continue to attack them until they surrender or they all die. It will be messy. There will be a large loss of civilian life, if for no other reason than that is the outcome that the LTTE wants for future propaganda purposes. The only question is, who will get the blame for the large loss of life? If we send in the Marines to do the job, we will get the blame. This might be a relief to the Sri Lankans and the Indians, but is that what we really want?


A remarkable story in today’s Daily News

There was a remarkable story that appeared today in the government run newspaper, the Daily News. The lead was:

“There wouldn’t have been a war today in this country if the three languages Sinhala, Tamil and English were made official languages, said the Minister of Posts and Telecommunication Mahinda Wijesekera.

He said we should work according to the teachings of the Buddha and when all sections of the people are treated equally there wouldn’t be conflicts and then there would be prosperity and peace in this country.”

This is a remarkable statement from a high government official. From an outsider’s point of view, this statement seems exactly correct. That is, from what I have learned, both the Sinhalese and Tamil sides of the conflict bear responsibility for the conflict. What is remarkable is that this is the first time I have heard an official on the Sinhalese side admit that their side might bear some responsibility. It is even more remarkable coming at a time when the LTTE is about to lose all of its conventional military capability, when the temptation for the Sinhalese side might be to gloat.

So, good for Minister Mahinda Wijesekara. As I mentioned once before, the government is saying all the right things these days. As in any political process, the tough part is doing all the right things. I pray they will do so.


Note added March 10: I was saddended  to hear that today’s bomb blast in Matara has left Minister Wijesekara in critical condition. In initial reports, the government has, not without reason given the tactics, reflexively blamed the LTTE. But the attack occurred in the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka in the heartland of  those who would find the Minister’s remarks quoted above to be offensive. However, the Minister was processing with a group of ministers, so it seems unlikely that the attack was intended to single him out personally.

Fulbright Conference in Kolkata

Ritual bathers in the Hooghly River at sunset

Ritual bathers in the Hooghly River at sunset

I have just returned from Kolkata (nee Calcutta), India. The US-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) hosted a three day conference for all South Asian Fulbright Scholars, i.e, those from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. (The security situation in Pakistan is such that the US does not send student Fulbrighters to Pakistan and the two faculty Fulbrighters in Pakistan could not obtain visas from the Indian government in time to attend the conference.)

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed the trip very much. I say “much to my surprise” partly because Sri Lankans seem to have a pretty negative impression of India and they shared those impressions with me when I announced my plan to attend the conference. One of my physics colleagues, for example, insisted that  I take along an antibiotic effective against salmonella because, in his experience, I was certain to need it. My own doubts had to do with my feeling that bringing together nearly 75 people whose only commonality is that they are Americans on relatively long term visits to South Asia did not seem to make a good basis for lively conversations. Many of the Fulbright project titles seemed to me to be odd projections of Western values onto Asia. And I was the only physicist. And, worst of all, while the Fulbright program covered my travel costs, they could not afford to cover Kris’ travel costs. We did a cost/benefit analysis and decided that Kris would remain in Sri Lanka.

Sunset at Negombo, Sri Lanka

Sunset at Negombo, Sri Lanka

For no obvious reason, the  scheduled flights from Colombo to Kolkata are not very convenient. The airport in Sri Lanka is actually an hour’s drive north of Columbo and a two and a half hour drive from Kandy, in the town of Negombo. For the trip to Kolkata, I had to arrive at the airport three hours in advance of my 9:15AM flight. The first flight of the day was from Colombo to Bengalaru (nee Bangalore). There I would have a nine hour layover. The flight to Kolkata from Bengalaru made one stop in Hyderabad on the way. So, in all, I was not scheduled to get to the Kolkata airport until nearly 11PM. Of course there was then an additional hour’s drive to get to the hotel. So a bit of a brutal travel day was in store.

Kris had decided to do some shopping and sightseeing in Colombo while I was away and so we hired a car and driver to take us to Negombo the afternoon before the flight, where we spent the night at the Ice Bear Guesthouse (not recommended). Besides the airport, Negombo is a popular beach resort for tourists and the “home port” for some local fishermen. When we arrived, it was near sunset. The beach was being used as a park: children playing cricket or playing in the surf; young adults showing off for each other and talking together; adults keeping an eye on the proceedings. Very few tourists. I saw just three, sitting in lounge chairs close to the entraance to their hotel, looking out of place in their bathing suits and white, white skin. The last fishing boat was just finishing the day, stowing the lines, repairing the nets, rinsing salt water off of the outboard.

Awakened at 4:30AM the next morning, I sleepily dressed, shaved, packed, downed my pills, and Kris (brave and loyal soul that she is) and I went out to get some fruit and coffee in the guesthouse restaurant. The car came and I headed for the airport. Kris headed back to bed.

The first pleasant surprise turned out to be the airline. The airline is relatively new, called Kingfisher Airlines. The airline is owned by the Indian entrepreneur, Vijay Mallya, who, just the other day, paid millions at auction to bring some of Gandhi’s personal belongings back to India. Mallya has imitated some of the style of Richard Branson who started Virgin Atlantic Airline. I had no idea that airlines had “stars” in the way that hotels do, but Kingfisher Airlines is one of only six airlines in the world to be given five stars (the others are Asiana Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Cathay Pacific Airways). We had been pretty pleased with the service on the Sri Lankan Airlines flight we took from Singapore to Colombo, but, sure enough, Kingfisher was even better. Comfortable seats; individual in-flight entertainment systems; good, hot food on every leg of the flight. The flight attendants are all supposed to be “models”, hand picked by Mallya himself, but, while they were all women, they were all modestly dressed and very business-like. I suspect that calling them all “models” is the usual advertising hyperbole.

Statue of Queen Victoria, Kolkata

Statue of Queen Victoria, Kolkata

We also got a break with the nine hour layover in Bengalaru. The faculty were ready to set up shop in the airport and work on our laptops. However, one of the students announced that Bengalaru was his home town and invited all of us to crash at his family home for the nine hours. As an added inducement, it turns out that his brother is an honest-to-God movie star, having appeared as the lead in two recent hit movies in India. (No not Slumdog Millionaire. By the way, that movie should be rated X for the disturbing scenes of violence, especially those violent scenes that involve children. Absolutely do not take children to see this movie. And you might want to think carefully about seeing it yourself.)

We were traveling as a party of six and the vote was unanimous. We hired a van and driver and headed into the heart of Bengalaru. Mostly we “crashed” once we got to the house, but we did get to meet the movie star and admire his movie star girlfriend. The family cook served us an outstanding Southern Indian lunch and, of course, the house was way more comfortable than the airport waiting area. My limited impression of Bengalaru was that it was bustling and prosperous. There was good freeway between the city and the airport. The airport itself is brand new and very nice. Once again, here is a country that could teach US airport security people much about how to do security in a way that is more effective, more professional, and with much less aggravation for the passengers. Back in the air, eventually we arrived at the Kolkata airport. As at Bengalaru, the airport here was nice and the road into town was modern and high speed.

The next nice thing that happened to me was that upon arriving at the hotel, I was told that they were sold out of double rooms, so instead of having to share a room with another Fulbrighter, I was to be upgraded to a deluxe room on the top floor of the hotel. Nice! It was so swank that it had a little sign by the night stand that read: “Please let us know if you require the services of a Personal Butler.” However, the air conditioner was broken. The problem was that no matter what temperature I set the thermostat to, the air conditioning remained on “High.” It was glorious! And since I had no control, it was guilt-free! (I suppose I should feel a bit guilty for not bringing the malfunction to the attention of the hotel management, but, strangely, I do not.) I spent late evening hours “ventilating” with salubrious effects on my medical condition. I had not slept under a blanket in months and I slept like a baby.

Rickshaw driver in heat of day

Rickshaw driver in heat of day

Best of all of my good luck was that the conference turned out to be very interesting. I suppose that I should have guessed that a conference of Fulbrighters was a collection of outstanding students and faculty with an interest in meeting other people strong enough to drive them out of the comfort of their daily lives and travel as far away as you an get from the US and adopt a totally different life-style. I was especially proud of the students. They had some great and some off-beat projects. One student got to recycle that old joke when he said he was breeding camels “until they caught him at it.” Another of the Fulbright students is helping the Sri Lankans to set up a variant on 911 for medical emergencies. Another is examining slavery of Africans in South Asia and described how different it was from slavery in the US. (Not better, just much different.) All in all, many interesting projects and presentations that were well tailored to an audience with such a diverse range of expertise. It made me proud to be part of the Fulbright program. The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket players in Pakistan happened during the conference and, as you might expect, created quite a stir, especially just after the first reports when the fate of the Sri Lankans was not known.

Statue of Rabindranath Tagore, Kolkata

Statue of Rabindranath Tagore, Kolkata

The last half of the last day was set aside for a sightseeing tour. They loaded us on air conditioned buses and we set out amidst very slow traffic through the streets of Kolkata. Our first stop was the Victoria Memorial which consists of a statue of Queen Victoria and a museum specializing in the colonial history of Kolkata. Then we went to the family home of Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was the center of a thriving arts community in Kolkata during the late British colonial period. He was a writer, a playwright, a painter, a poet, a composer, and was Asia’s first Nobel Prize winner when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. The home was a lovely compound of an obviously wealthy family. The home is now a museum and a university has been built around the home to honor Tagore’s legacy. Our last stop of the tour was on the banks of the Hooghly River. It was sunset and the spot where we stopped had a nice view of the sunset and a modern suspension bridge across the Hooghly. Clueless that I am, I assumed that we were simply stopping at a photogenic site. Then I noticed that the river banks were covered in debris, bit oddly amongst the debris were fresh flowers. As I am photographing the sunset, I notice some men come down and get into the river, immersing themselves. “It is hot, but not that hot!” I thought, looking at the dark river of dubious purity, but I duly recorded their actions. Then, a clue crept over me, tugging on my cortical neurons. I turned to an Indian colleague and said that I knew that the Ganges River is sacred to Hindus and that people ritually bath in it, but was there something sacred about the Hooghly also? He smiled and told me that this was the Ganges River and so was indeed sacred. The Ganges has an enormous delta, most of which is in the country of Bangladesh, but the Hooghly is a branch of the Ganges that happens to meet the sea at Kolkata. I was relieved when he assured me that I had not offended anyone by taking their pictures during their ablutions.

The trip back was long, but uneventful. I rather surprised myself by the unbidden thought that, while I had enjoyed myself at the conference, it would be good to get “home.” It made me wonder. Do I define “home” as wherever Kris is? Or have I started to feel that Dangolla/Kandy/Sri Lanka is “home,” or at least one of my “homes”?


P.S. As a footnote, the photos taken on this trip were taken with my “new” point-and-shoot camera, a Canon A590IS. Actually this was the camera that Kris bought to take along on our year abroad, but she came to feel that it did not fit her well. She is now the proud owner of an Olympus μ 1040 that she is much happier with. This change of cameras for Kris came when I asked Kris if I could take “her” camera to Kolkata since I was not sure that I wanted to lug all my camera gear to Kolkata when I was not sure whether there would be time or opportunities to take photos. So now the A590IS lives in my backpack in case photo ops occur during my day.

I have uploaded more photos of my Kolkata trip to my Picasa website.

Acclimate? Ventilate!

When we first arrived in Sri Lanka, it was hot. I sweated like a pig, especially after my walks to and from campus. “No problem,” people told me. “You will become acclimated soon enough.”

Next week, we will have been in Sri Lanka for five months. Some of you have seen a photo that Kris sent out which shows the results when I simply walk across campus. Those of you who have not seen the photo may get a mental picture from one person’s reaction to the photo: “It looks like he sprung a leak.” So I have officially lost hope in the process of “acclimation.”

In blue collar, American English we have a phrase that, if said in anger to a stranger is extremely rude, but if said humorously to a friend might simply be considered “earthy.” It is said in response to someone pushing some unwanted thing at you, or metaphorically, asking you to endorse an unwelcome idea or plan. You simply tell your partner in the conversation to “stick it where the sun don’t shine.”

I have been pondering this phrase lately for a medical reason. I know that the phrase most often refers to a portion of the anatomy where “the sun don’t shine” because it is actually interior to the body. However, I would like to generalize it to that portion of the nearby anatomy where “the sun don’t shine” because of a nearly universal custom, for both men and women, that this area of the body should always be covered with clothing.

Now my recent near obsession with this region of my body has less to do with the fact that “the sun don’t shine there” as with the fact that, and for the same reasons,  “the wind don’t blow there.” And in a hot, humid, tropical climate like Sri Lanka, that means that “the skin don’t dry there.” And that means, well, I think you all know what that means. I have a condition roughly equivalent to one that my mother last treated me for in 1954.

Kris and I refer to the process of encouraging “the wind to blow there” as “ventilation” and we are both spending an increasing amount of time “ventilating” as the weather warms up. So I now often wear a sarong at home. Often only a sarong, if you catch my drift. Which reminds me, where did the phrase ” going commando” come from? Do commandos not wear underwear? I would think commandos would wear bullet-proof underwear. We do not let Little Leaguers play catcher without a cup, but we send our troops to battle without even that amount of protection? What sense does that make? Oh. Nevermind. There is a discussion on the origins of the phrase “going commando” on Wikipedia. See also: True Scotsman. Pick your favorite explanation for the phrase’s origin. Is there anything that Wikipedia does not cover?

I also spend time that I refer to as “worshiping the air conditioner.” We have no “temple of the air conditioner” at home sadly, so I save this for a hotel room or other public building. In Sri Lanka there is a common type of air conditioner that is is mounted about seven feet off the floor of an office or hotel room and the cold air is directed generally downward. This is the ideal “temple” for my worship rites. I stand immediately in front of the air conditioner and raise my arms, hands pointing at the air conditioner. I then bow slightly at the waist, up and down,  to the air conditioner god. If I am worthy, the air conditioner god will blow cold air down my sleeves, drying my axillary regions.

I have mentioned that I walk to work pretty much every day.  Another act of ventilation occurs when I arrive at my office. I close the door to my office. I turn the ceiling fan to “H” for “hurricane.” I stand directly under the fan. I then assume the Kung Fu fighting posture called “The Stork,” where my arms are raised to the side, elbows slightly bent, hands at shoulder level, fingers splayed and pointing directly downward, feet placed a shoulder’s width apart. I hold this pose for about fifteen minutes until my shirt has mostly dried and I feel presentable in public.

Please excuse me. I have to go apply my medicine. Kris and I hope that, wherever you are, you are all well ventilated.


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