Saturday, September 23, 2006

He may have been an unknown Indian but he was honest, capable and reliable

Today, I am sad and upset at the news that my friend Oswald Chakravorty has passed away from this earth. We knew each other from our early teenage years (he was a little younger than me but we overlapped at St. Stephen's College, Delhi). I am particularly pleased that I was able to speak with him on the phone twice on the last day of his life here.

Not only am I happy to have known him, I am immensely proud to have known him because he was one of what has unfortunately become a rare breed nowadays, an honest and reliable Indian. He knew his capacities as well as his limitations, and whatever he said you could consider done - no silly excuses at the last minute regarding why something that had been promised could not be done.

Oswald had no self-pity or mawkishness about his condition. He knew that health is ultimately in God's hands, and each day is a gift to be enjoyed but also to be used in the best possible way. He was not merely a Christian but he was one of those Christians who is a follower of Jesus the Lord. So, whatever the circumstances, he simply continued on the straight and narrow, focusing on loving God and loving his neighbours in whatever ways seemed possible.

I admired him, moreover, because he had much more practical wisdom than I have.
As a government servant he was, among other things, Secretary of a particular Housing Association, and you may know that there are numerous Housing Associations in Delhi. His was the only one, of which I know, that was completed both on time and to budget, and he did it all for the sake of the community without cadging a single rupee.

An extraordinary achievement in terms of project management of course, but even more extraordinary in the context of our thoroughly venal culture and our highly corrupt environment where most people consider it normal and indeed essential to give and receive bribes. It takes a living fish to swim against the current.

So he may have been unkonwn but he was extraordinary.

Even as he was dying of cancer, he was more concerned about a mutual friend's asthma and what could be done to relieve that, than about his own condition.

I greatly look forward to seeing him again, by God's grace, in the next world, where there will be no more parting.

But, in the meanwhile, we need many more like him here on earth.

As I sit with my memories and my tears, this is my simple and tiny tribute to one who was dear to me, but who was also one of those who makes me proud to be an Indian. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, September 08, 2006

Do marketing issues outweigh medical benefits in decisions taken by pharma companies?

Well, my question is actually phrased as a statement by Life Extension Magazine: "Marketing issues frequently outweigh medical science in drug company decisions."

That is from a revealing article, titled "Pharmaceutical fraud: How Big Pharma's marketing and profits come before consumer safety and wellness" (available at:

Arising from that, here's another question, this time for you: Perhaps being too concerned about your health is itself unhealthy? Sphere: Related Content

Who to sue when your driverless computer-driven taxi takes you to the wrong destination

So the European Union is financing research into the possible introduction of driverless Taxis at Heathrow, "cyber cars" in Rome and an automatic bus in Castellón, Spain.

Interesting question: if the cyber bus or taxi takes me to the wrong destination or causes an accident in which I am injured or killed, who is legally liable for the damages? Presumably the European Union?

The story is at:,1518,435805,00.html Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Though the ecological disaster is relatively new, all other aspects of the global situation today are as they were in the nineteenth century when the global elite first began to emerge. A way of dealing with the resulting dilemmas was pioneered by the Clapham Circle (led by William Wilberforce) - though that was then reversed by the efforts of the global elite from the 1880s, though more spectacularly from the end of the Second World War and even more spectacularly from the 1980s. That is why the global situation today is relatively similar to what it was when the Clapham Circle was prompted to act.

The members of the Clapham Circle were certainly not perfect - and their lack of perfection is over-enthusiastically attacked by their detractors. One wonders why.

Of course, all lack of perfection should be kept clearly in mind. But not to the extent that it clouds our view, so that we see nothing of the good they did.

Those positive things, in the case of the Clapham Circle include:
- the ability of a (very) few members of the then-emerging global elite to be sensitised to the needs of some of the most oppressed people of their times,
- to enable them to work with grass-roots organisations,
- to study the complex issues so as to master them and in order to identify what needed to be done,
- to be realistic enough to know that they could not do everything that needed doing,
- yet to not allow that to discourage them from setting two incredible goals: that of changing the whole economic basis of society through history, and that of bringing about a moral and humanistic transformation of one of the most powerful but also one of the most corrupt countries that the world had seen till then.

Even more incredibly, they largely succeeded in accomplishing both goals.

So we have a lot to learn from them. Till now, most humanitarin organisations concerned about global issues (such as the UN Global Compact) have only words to show, instead of any real achievements.

Though of course even mere words can have large effects - and I am sure that the combined effect of such words is somehow behind the combined donation of US$98 billion by Buffet and Gates to development-related causes.

We may all therefore be encouraged to go on with our words (the Clapham Circle did use a lot of words too, and Wilberforce wrote one book which was probably the key to transforming the whole moral and humanitarian climate of England then).

But let us also seek to supplement, as the Clapham Circle did with such astounding but little-appreciated sacrifice, our words with some real action. Sphere: Related Content

We haven't even learnt to manage the old sciences well

The latest reflection on our inability to manage the "old sciences and technologies" well is found at:

"Before pharma-giant Glaxosmithkline (GSK) was sued by the state of New York in June 2004, over two million children and adolescents in the United States were popping Paxil to treat their depression. Doctors comfortably prescribed the drug because published clinical trials – while showing mixed effects on children – did not reveal anything overwhelmingly negative. It was the best information they had, and it turned out to be completely misleading."

In fact, studies had already showed that taking Paxil might actually increase the risk of suicide, according to New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer.

The Novopress story features, among other such gems, an internal memo that instructed the company to manage the release of the data “to minimize any potential negative commercial impact”.

Apparently, pharma companies don't publish the results of all the tests they run. Nor are all the tests run in an objective way. And the pharma industry sponsors around seven out of every ten scientific studies quoted in the top four major medical journals – Annals of Internal Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Pharma in its modern form has certainly brought enormous benefit to humanity. If it were publicly financed, with IP being licenced by society to efficient producers in exchange for a reasonable profit, with proper monitoring of the results and consequent amendments to the system, pharma could benefit humanity many times more than it does.

In spite of being able to organise "old" pharma in the most efficient and least harmful way, we continue to rush headlong into the newest sciences and technologies even though that we will need to be even more careful if we want them to do good rather than harm. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, September 04, 2006

Scientific hypotheses versus scientific laws

I've always wondered why it is that a scattering or group of people confronted by the same set of facts will usually come up with such hugely different explanations regarding what the facts represent, whether the facts relate to politics, literature, history - or even the physical sciences.

What's caused the latest round of my "wondering" is a discovery in Indonesia over which paleoanthropologists are apparently squabbling "like fifth graders" (according to Time magazine). Or, in the words of Britain's newspaper, The Independent, these scientists are "at war".

The discovery is that of skeletons (though only one of them with a skull) of nine midget-sized humans who lived between 18,000 and 12,000 years ago.

What the paleoanthropologists are quarrelling over is whether this is one of the most significant paleoanthropological discoveries of the last half century (as it would be if the skeletons represent the discovery of a "new human species") or whether this is merely the discovery of a group of prehistoric humans that suffered from certain deformities.

The full story is at:,1518,434604,00.html

The Der Spiegel online story concludes: "How can it be that staid scientists working on the basis of the same measurements reach diametrically opposed conclusions? Who's right? There is a depressing sense in which the little man from Flores is revealing the truth about the paleoanthropologists: It seems as if his bones can provide evidence for whatever hypothesis promises research funds, fame -- or both." Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, September 02, 2006

So Iran's defiance is final

Iran is not the first country to defy the United Nations. Nor will it be the last.

But each time the UN is defied, it provides the institution the opportunity to rise to the crisis and come out of it stronger or weaker.

As usual, the result will be momentous not just for the UN but for what kind of civilisation we want to build for the future.

If regimes bent on doing wrong will not be stopped by diplomacy, it will be interesting to see whether the UN will simply re-write the rules for the future of civilisation or will find sufficiently robust ways to stop such regimes. Sphere: Related Content

Finally, a balanced picture of nanotech risks

I have often mentioned the risks of nanotech and other such modern technologies. The truth is that I am also very excited by the latest developments in science and technology. I studied for my school and university exams by candlelight, so even electricity is a miracle so far as I am concerned. I taught myself to type at the age of 17 or so, because I was so fascinated by the technology, and have kept up with all the transitions from the ancient system of keystrokes to golf-ball typewriters and on to word-processors and the internet and blogging and now podcasting and the rest. I mention all this not to impress you with my knowledge but simply to communicate how fascinated I am by the latest developments in science and technology - though I remain self-taught in a disorganised fashion. However, I do lean against the contemporary view that everything that is possible must be good and we must simply push ahead with it regardless of social, political and economic consequences. As a result I worry that my Blog gives an unbalanced picture of where I stand.

Now, I am pleased to say that I have finally found an article that is accessible and free which gives (to my mind) a balanced picture of the pros and cons at least of nanotech. So I commend it to you:

I will be interested to have your views on it. Sphere: Related Content