30 Dec 2005

knotty and naughty...

Evolution in Action - Science magazine’s Breakthrough of the Year 2005 (Login Required)

Dual-polity - The President tries squeaky cleaning

Some more reading here and here

All my favourite late-night movies to follow ftv to oblivion ?

the ichneumon fly

Bio-warfare - USDA fights invasive fire ants with flies

Ichneumonidae wasps (also called “assassinator wasps”, “ichneumon fly” ) are natural wonders of parasitism and biological population control. The wasps actively hunt for their hosts, sting them into a paralytic stupor and lay their eggs on (or inside) their body. These wasps typically have very long ovipositors and some species even use them to bore deep into wood, seeking out host pupae to inject their eggs.

Larvae hatching from the eggs feed on the host and grow inside them. It appears that the larvae practice selective feeding - they feed on the host’s fatty tissues and muscles earlier than devouring vital organs. The host provides the larvae fresh food while it is being eaten alive from the inside. Studies have reported butterfly chrysalis twitching in agony as they are devoured by the pupae inside. Observation of such instances created great debates in the medieval Church on the subject of the Benevolent Creator - how could God possibly create an animal which so cruelly ate alive another of His own creation ?

i first observed these wasps, years before i read about them, while eating a post-lunch orange on our rooftop one balmy winter afternoon. There was this insect jumping (more like floating) funnily across the roof. Walking nearer, i found it to be a cricket. Now, crickets either crawl or jump, but this one was sort of skipping along! Inspecting closer, i found that a slender wasp was actually carrying the cricket between its legs. The cricket, seemingly dead, was about three-times the wasp’s size and weight. So, it was only able to fly a distance of about a foot at a time. And i had never heard of wasps eating crickets !

The wasp lugged the cricket across the roof to a crack in the wall. Deposited it at the entrance of the crack and dove inside. It soon emerged and with dexterous handling, dragged the cricket into the crack. As i sat there watching, it soon emerged, sans cricket and flew away. Maybe, to hunt for the next hapless prey.

A few years later we saw a Walt Disney movie on hunting animals. And here was this wonderful footage of a duel to death - between a large, hairy, tarantula and a nimble, slender, wasp. The tarantula charges and the retreating wasp falls to the ground on its back. As the tarantula crawls over the wasp to deliver its deadly bite, it is stung in its exposed underbelly by the wasp. The wasp proceeds to drag the huge tarantula to a hole in the ground, lays a pearly white egg on the spider’s abdomen and covers it up with loose sand.

While i have, since then, observed ichneumon wasps on numerous occasions during field trips, one event stand out in my memory. We have a madhabilata (Hiptage benghalensis ?) plant next to the verandah in our compound in Calcutta.
It is a hardy, vigorous climber with clusters of lightly-fragrant, slender-stalked pink-white flowers, which typically bloom at night. Walking out to the verandah one summer night, i was taken aback by a wave of little popping sounds coming from the garden. Walking out to the garden torch in hand, i was astounded to find the madhabilata plant covered by a cloud of slender, hairy, caterpillars - bright red, white and black. The popping sounds came from the caterpillars shaved off leaves from the climber. The noises continued into the night. 

Next morning the caterpillars had vanished almost as magically as they had arrived. Only the madhabilata, now stripped bare of all greenery, bore mute testimony to the invasion overnight.

A few days later, the scrub below the madhabilata was splattered with ghostly exo-skeletons - scaly cases in the shape of caterpillars, complete with the hairs but hollow inside. Some ichneumonidae at work again ?

23 Dec 2005

Tango and Cash

Reactions from afar, to a problem real in our own metropolises

University education is big business in swadesh and beyond.
Britain tries to wake up to the realities of fake degrees and certificates - the sort that drives the Classified clutter in our leading dailies

The world wide web of illicit business - the despicable world of child pornography on the Net

Stardust available from 15th January - the magazine remains available on stands !

Satellite launch milestones - INSAT 4A and Meteosat 9
Two to tango

22 Dec 2005

bugs on grass...

  • Gridlock enters second consecutive day in New York
  • More environmental mishaps from the galloping juggernaut - Cadmium spill prompts water shutdown in southern China

21 Dec 2005

...still looking around...

· Hey, how about me ? A disappointed lover in the US has left a $15,000 (£8,500) diamond engagement ring in a stranger's unlocked car, accompanied by a heartfelt message

· New flight plan - my friend plans to fly back to Bangalore this weekend. Looking forward to the next episode of the Dhakkkan Air saga

· Continuing debates on teaching Darwinism in US schools - A court in the US has ruled against the teaching of "intelligent design" alongside Darwin's theory of evolution

· New York on the move by bike, car, skate, ricksaw or on foot...The city that never sleeps had a 24/7 subway service - until workers went on strike

16 Dec 2005

English as she spake...

The business of live and let die

Dubya-speak : “No advances made in adult literacy” study says, “1 in 20 U.S. adults not literate in English” …About one in 20 adults in the U.S. is not literate in English, meaning 11 million people lack the skills to handle many everyday tasks, a federal study shows. From 1992 to 2003, adults made no progress in their ability to read sentences and paragraphs or understand other printed material such as bus schedules or prescription labels…

15 Dec 2005


The politics of under-development : No one knows how many Nigerians there are - and the authorities are too afraid to find out

The same pictures of under-development…from another wannabe “SUPER-POWER

Archaeologists working in Guatemala have uncovered spectacular pieces of artwork created by the ancient Mayans

13 Dec 2005

love and death...

Did someone say love will survive ? A twist to the tale here from the love machine

Heart rules head on risky calls - Uncertainty activates the brain's sentimental centres

“…The rest of us have to be as concerned for the victims as for the perpetrator. Anything else is a claim to pass a judgement that does not belong to us…” - The arguments over the fate of the convicted murderer Stanley "Tookie" Williams challenge us to decide whether we are all capable of change. While Courts uphold gang boss execution

New research indicates that Killer Whales have become the most contaminated mammals in the Arctic

Researchers have compiled a global map of sites where animals and plants face imminent extinction

10 Dec 2005

Much Ado...

Much ado about nothing

Two men accused over the murder of a US-born nun Dorothy Stang, have gone on trial in the northern Brazilian state of Para.
Sister Dorothy pushed for land to be granted to landless peasants as an environmentally-friendly alternative to large-scale ranching and logging. Many landowners in the area have openly argued that Sister Dorothy's murder was in legitimate defence of property

"The Islamic nation is in a crisis. This crisis does not reflect on the present alone, but also on its future and the future of humanity at large" it said, "We need decisive action to fight deviant ideas because they are the justification of terrorism. We are determined to fight terrorism in all its forms" - quote from the he Organisation of the Islamic Conference meeting concluded at Mecca -here and here

9 Dec 2005

flight plan...

A friend was traveling from Bangalore to Bhubaneshwar. Balancing time and financial constraints, she chose to fly Deccan Air - the afternoon flight from Bangalore to Kolkata and the evening flight from Kolkata to Bhubaneshwar.
That was the plan…

The Deccan Air flight took-off from Bangalore about 6-hours behind schedule and reached Kolkata around midnight. She, of course, missed the connecting flight to BBSR. True to our great national heritage of customer service, Deccan Air failed (refused ?!) to provide her any accommodation for the night.
So here was my friend, calling from the DumDum airport terminal around 1-o’clock at night, taking directions - from me in Pune - to travel from the airport to the Howrah railway station. During the serendipitous 6-hour break in Bangalore, she had the good sense to buy a train ticket (the Indian Railways, time tested…) to travel to BBSR on the Falaknama Express, seven in the morning.

She spent the night on the couches of the swanky Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International airport (quite a mouthful that…) - drinking coffee, chatting-up passengers awaiting early-morning flights, occasionally napping, calling friends on the mobile, surfing the Net from a internet kiosk. In short, living life to the hilt !

i again took a call around 6.00 in the morning. Two gallant ladies riding a cab from DumDum to Howrah. Amazed at all the activities on the streets as the city stirred itself awake (Bangalore is largely deserted that early in the day). Trucks emptying their loads of fresh vegetables, people bathing from overflowing taps by the roadside, clusters around chai-shops, delivery boys sorting newspaper on the footpath, people in mufflers hurrying on their way…

She marvelled at all the heritage (derelict ?) buildings en-route and kept up a constant commentary, reading interesting street names off shop-signboards. Confirming that the driver was taking the correct route. As they crossed the marvellous Howrah bridge, i suggested that she had time enough to take a quick holy dip in the Hooghly, to wash away some of her traveling travails.

She, of course, refused. Citing the inability of her delicate constitution being able to cope-up with the cough, cold and fever that could follow. She could end up being unable to write her final-semester exams the following day !

i wonder if she’s read The Great Railway Bazaar.
Serves her, for choosing Dhakkan Air, right ?

3 Dec 2005


Interesting reading on Dr Singh’s economic policies. Seems marbles are being lost here…
Have money, will ski
The US has carried out its 1000th execution since capital punishment was reintroduced in 1976