PPE pollution

We’ve all been very happy with the decreased soot and dust in the air and the lower level of noise pollution. The anxiety of having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic makes these positive changes great things to hold on to. Unfortunately, as life starts again, this will go back to normal. The immense economic disruption that the whole world has gone through will mean that little money will be left to improve soot emissions in the short term. And then there is one invisible bit of pollution which will spread even more. That is the disposable PPE. Already, for several years now, pollution from single use plastics was a major concern. Now we will begin to add more to it. Airports are producing a lot of this every day as air travel has opened up again; market places are full of it too. The Family took a photo of her hairdresser in a disposable kit. This is an indicator that there will be wider use of such things as the economy opens up again.

Fortunately, some people have taken notice. There is a very timely paper from a team of chemists in Dehra Dun who test a solution to this problem. They reduce this to a fuel which is similar to industrial diesel. The simple process was proven in other contexts, and is not new. Another nice thing about this process is that the plastics don’t have to be separated. One can take entire garbage bags full of the kits and use them as starters. So there is a problem, there is a solution. What is needed next is to take this out of the lab and into the world. That needs economic and political will.

To dream, perchance to sleep

The weekend was completely free of rain. The clear skies and wonderful sunsets drew The Family out to the sea shore. She would come back gushing about the light, and the number of people who came to quietly watch the sunset. So yesterday, I took my camera and climbed up to the terrace on the roof of our building. The western edge of the terrace is lined with satellite dishes, and each of them served as a perch for a crow, sitting quietly and looking at the sun. They were a little distracted when I appeared, and were torn between watching the sunset and keeping a wary eye on me.

“When our minds are much affected, so are the movements of our bodies,” wrote Charles Darwin in his book The expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872). This observation started a whole scientific enterprise of understanding the value of emotions by comparing them in humans and other mammals. Much less is known about the emotions of birds. “Birds and mammals are thought to have evolved from different groups of Mesozoic reptiles … during the Carboniferous or Permian period. Yet, birds and mammals exhibit extensive convergence in terms of relative brain size, high levels of activity, sleep/wakefulness cycles, endothermy, and social behavior, among others,” says a recent review of the literature on negative emotions in birds. Little else is known about emotions in birds. But when I see crows watching the sunset, or soaring against the breeze as the sun goes down, the parallel with human reactions to the beauty of sunsets does not seem farfetched.

The clear air of the last few months, and the relative coolness of the last few days meant that the sunset showed a simple gradation of colour in the sky, so different from the strangely beautiful sunsets that we had seen until the previous weekend. As the sun set, The Family and I enjoyed looking at so many different kinds of clouds. The horsetail streaks of cirrus clouds 5 or 6 kilometers above looked white in reflected sunlight because the sun had not set on them yet. As the horizon rose above the sun, the most spectacular were the golden layers of altostratus clouds at a height of about 3 kilometers. Meanwhile, the fast drifting layers of cottony stratus, merely a kilometer or two above our heads, had already started looking black because they no longer caught the sun.

The moon was already up in the east. As colour faded from the sky, the last clouds to turn pink were the high streaks of cirrus: ice crystals condensing out of the air in the cold of the upper atmosphere. The city lights came on, to add a glow to the moonlight. Between the clouds and lights, there is no way we will catch a glimpse of comet Neowise.

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.

Perfect game for the online life

Bugged with the online life? Want new ways to waste time? Follow me. In my effort to waste good productive hours, I made a deep dive into the shallow (but extensive) waters of meaningless web surfing, link clicking, and searching for random words until I came to a gem.

This is a wonderful game which leads to world domination through twitter: https://www.getbadnews.com/

My attention span is very short these days, and I love it when you can become Dictator for life of an online sandbox in ten minutes. It is a fun game. Hope you enjoy playing it as much as you enjoyed the photo of my keyboard made of 22-carat gold.

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.

On pause

I’ve spent a week writing about all that I’m beginning to like about the anthropause. But there’s a part of our lives which is on hold. The Family and I talked about it yesterday after we got a call from one of our friends: a travel professional. What I miss are the long road trips. You may be crammed into uncomfortable cars for long hours, but there is a romance in these trips to corners of India which are never in the news.

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When you take photos of roads, they look entirely charmless: trucks and buses edging out smaller vehicles in the race to reach their end, while you travel endlessly. But there are the charming stops: the little dhabas and chai stalls, which make up for all the discomfort. Even if the stall makes nothing but chai, sometimes you are surprised by its taste, and sometimes by the conversation you find there. Each stop is a little more added to your life, a little more of India.

This sense of unending miles, a world left to see, that’s what I miss in the anthropause.

The world begins again

In April the world’s seas had fallen silent. The shipping lanes which carry the bulk of the world’s commerce had emptied out. We saw signs of that in Mumbai. There were videos of dolphins playing and fishing in Backbay. In the last hundred years there have been no reports of dolphins sighted so close to the shore. The anthropause had begun. Another sign was the lack of ships on the horizon. Normally we see long lines of ships on the horizon, all queued up to dock at Mumbai’s port. They had gone missing.

Now, finally, at the end of July, when I walked out to watch the monsoon sunset over Mumbai I saw the first signs of the end of the anthropause. At the horizon, past Prong’s lighthouse, there were two ships. Appropriately, one was gliding into port, the other moving out. I followed it until it moved over the horizon: traveling to new shores, as I still cannot. But the world has begun again. As we learn how to live safely with the threat of more infections, we will begin to resume our lives, slightly differently.

Foraging

The Family is a great forager. My shopping trips start with a list, and, sometimes, when some of the things on the list are not available, I replace them with the nearest equivalent. The contents of the bag do not surprise anyone. When The Family leaves home, I have no idea what she will get back. The trip that she took to work also yielded some surprises. A few landed up on our table instantly. The samosas and the hot vadas (without pav, unfortunately) were what I liked best. She put it on the last remaining piece of the first table setting we’d bought together. The usual rule of ceramics seems to be holding up: a chipped plate never breaks.

The fluffy hot dhoklas were another surprise. She’d also managed a peek into the kitchen where they had been prepared. As we demolished a large part of her findings, I listened to her stories of foot operated hand sanitizer dispensers, thin crowds in favourite shops, and clean kitchens. The first wave of infections is not over in Mumbai yet. As long as people remain masked, and spend most of their time distancing from each other, there should be no disastrous second wave.

Empty city

The Family had to make a quick trip to work to pick up something that was only preserved on paper. On the way she took the photos of Mumbai slowly getting back to work which you see in the slideshow here. The reported number of deaths in the city due to COVID-19 has held steady at between 50 and 70 a day for the last six weeks. So people are reluctant to move out of home. The roads are as empty as movies of the 1960s used to show. The main visible difference between then and now is that almost every person on the road is masked.

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I have a fantasy vision of the world in 2120. The world’s population will have begun to fall. Even so, there will be more people than today. Drinkable water and tillable land will be harder to find than now. The coastal cities of the world will have drowned, and there will have been unstoppable mass migrations northwards. Most of humanity will have memories of war and loss in their lifetime. But a little before that would Mumbai look like this?

Quick and new

It is still early in the pandemic, with a continuous slow rise in the number of affected. The food supply is still holding up, but with some lack of predictability about what we can get. Freshness is a problem these days, not absence. So we are forced to work a lot on the days when we go out to buy food. That’s why a cabbage soup. The Family had never tried this before, but decided to go with a simple recipe: tez patta (bay leaves), saunf (fennel seeds), and onions sauteed, then half a cabbage and one potato, both chopped, thrown into the cooker, boiled and then pureed, served with chili flakes on top. That gave us time to chop and cut other veggies, and pre-cook some for longer preservation.

The soup was accompanied with a small salad (although the tomatoes and carrots we get now are not very flavourful), and some thawed seekh kabab. A quickly prepared meal, but high in fiber and protein, with just a touch of carbs. We’re still trying to lose weight whenever possible, preparing for the bad times of the second wave. Isn’t it strange that instead of getting in shape for walks in the Himalayas, we are doing it so that our health does not deteriorate when the lockdown is removed but the chaos of the second wave prevents us from going out? We’ll be happy if there is no chaos and we get to enjoy our new trim shape by being able to go for long walks instead.