Details for the devil

We never ran out of eggs, even during the worst days of the lockdown. Now that the lockdown has eased, and one can get about again, in small ways, we thought of fancier ways of using them. A weekend is a time when you can kick back and relax, and I thought of devilling some eggs.

I’m not terrifically fond of the standard chili-flakes-in-egg-yolk recipe. So I rummaged about in the cupboard until I found something interesting: a sweet pickle of sour lime with chili. My gustatory cortex immediately lit up. This was the secret sauce which completed my recipe. It was only afterwards that I noticed the small print in red on the label: this is part of what an old now-vanished Marathi restaurant near CST used to call “fast food”. The Family popped one of the canapes into her mouth and pronounced it a success.

When you check back on the production of eggs in India, you find references to a revolution in poultry during the early days of Indira Gandhi. I don’t find clear evidence for this in records of government expenditure. All I see is four decades of slowly increasing expense on poultry, from about one part in 2000 of the Plan budget to about a part in 1000. But there is lot of material on the development of large poultry farms in the early seventies (I remember this as conversations between my mother and aunts on how poultry chicken was much easier to cook). The result is that India is now the third largest producer of eggs in the world. This was a key transformation in the nutrition available to children, especially in the school lunch which, for many, was the bulk of the day’s meal. Now that all schools are shut due to COVID-19, the meal scheme is totally disrupted. The resulting malnutrition will be one of the serious long-term consequences.

I like the mild taste of a Corona beer in the relaxed late afternoons of a weekend. Now that we managed to find a case, we can kick back on these lovely breaks in the monsoon and enjoy the long days of late (astronomical) summer. The lime and chili tempered sweetness of the devilled eggs were a nice accompaniment to the mild beer with its slice of lime.

Go to the ant

In spite of taking photos of insects for over a decade, it turns out that I don’t have a photo of an ant. So, now that I want to talk a little about how ants deal with epidemics, the only photo I can use is of a termite. Since termites are social animals too, the photo is not inappropriate.

I came across a two year old paper which observed how ant colonies deal with infections. It seems that ant colonies have a rather modularized structure. Every ant does not meet every other member of the colony all the time. They mostly socialize with a reasonably small set of friends and colleagues. These little social cliques intersect, so that they have the “six degrees of separation” that human networks show. What this means is that messages pass very efficiently from one forager to another, or from foragers to the queen and her attendants.

It turns out that when a forager is exposed to an infection, the social network rearranges itself. Each ant meets a much smaller set of friends. As a result, it becomes harder for messages, and infections, to pass from one to another, or to the queen. It is amazing that these measurements were made and have been known for two years already. Interestingly, the colony does not lock down all activity. It cannot afford to do that for long, like human societies. Foraging, defense, breeding continue, but with appropriate caution, namely defensive distancing.

Who says that there is no proof that distancing is effective against an infection? You can quote chapter and verse now (Proverbs, 6 and 6, if you must know). People have gone to the ant, considered her ways, and learnt from it. The lesson is clear: distancing works against infections.