Oct 31, 2008

Top 10 Snake Movies of all time

As a movie buff, and especially a snake movie buff, I owe it to the world to reveal my top 10 Snake movies of all time. These movies have given me so much in return, besides the invaluable knowledge about our reptilian friends, that I feel obligated to honor them in this very special blog post.
So what makes a great snake movie? What makes it stand out? Could it be the crazy unfathomable plot? Perhaps it is the blonde bombshell scientist....with a heart? Or is it the crazy snake that looks like it was made with Sega Genesis graphics? Is it the lack of a coherent story, a satisfying ending, or the utter randomness of events?

Friends. It's all of the above. Here we go!

10 - Anacondas: The hunt for the Blood Orchid
Tagline: The hunters will become the hunted
Good things: Beautiful dialogue, black guy screaming all the time, cocky confidant white guy that gets eaten first, creative plot (they're hunting for some flower which provides the secret to the fountain of youth), diverse Benetton-like/United Nations cast. And a shitload of man eating anacondas!
Bad things: Movie that it took itself too seriously. I don't like that. Everyone is so angry.

9 - Vipers
Tagline: First comes the slither, then comes the slaughter
Good things: If you have a bunch of scientists making some killer vipers in a lab...whats the next best thing that could happen? That's right. The snakes escape and start killing townspeople. Plus having Tara Reid around doesn't hurt.
Bad things: Gives us scientists a bad name. We're not that awkward

7 - Anaconda
Tagline: You can't scream if you can't breathe.
Good things: Ice Cube, Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight, Owen Wilson
Bad things: Ummm - Does Jon Voight actually think he's going to get an Oscar for this garbage if he tries really hard?

6 - Boa vs Python
Tagline: Two Reptilian Killing Machines Face Off To Fight To The Death-With Humanity As The Prize.
Good things: Oh my goodness! A giant python has escaped! What can we do? Well...I'm no genius but let's send this giant Boa after it!!
Bad things: Too many twists in the story. Can you believe that the python and the boa were of the opposite sex? Couldn't the hottie scientist lady figure that out before. Instead of killing each other, the snakes mate. And guess what? More snakes!

4 - Snakes on a Plane
Tagline: Sit back. Relax. Enjoy the fright.
Good things: Given me more party quotes than Shakespeare
Bad things: Why do snakes like penises so much?

3 - Anaconda III
Tagline: They Can Taste Your Fear
Good things: David Hasselhof
Bad things: David Hasselhof

2 - The Snake King
Tagline: Eternal life is guarded by certain death
Good things: A newly discovered tribe of a hybrid between Aborigines, native Americans, and Italians guard the fountain of youth, which in turn is guarded by a 5 headed snake, who in turn guards something else...I'm not really sure. In 5000 years, this tribe has never encountered anyone. But quick learners of English.
Bad things: So many holes, so many unanswered questions....yet so much potential. Sigh!

1 - Python II
Tagline: The beast is back
Good things: Shows that a sequel can actually get better. But you have mix in a random lesbian scene first...
Bad things: I tried my best. I couldn't find anything wrong. This movie is phenomenal.

Yeah. I've only seen 8. That'll do.

Oct 29, 2008

Average sick days, absenteeism, honest Hungarians and cheating Swedes

For some odd reason, a post in 2006 asking the question, "What is the average number of sicks days per person?", is the most popular post on my blog. I look at my visitor stats once in a while, and for the past couple of years, random people are really interested in 'average sick days'. Anyway, my previous post on this topic was pretty useless and I've been wanting to do some research and update it with some real information and facts. So here goes.
  • In 1996, according to the US Bureu of labor statistics, average paid sick days for small business employees (>70% of the labor force, I think) range from 8-10.9 days depending on the number of years of service.
  • Some people skip work without calling in. That's called absenteeism and the average rate of absenteeism has gone up from 1.9 % in 2003, 2.4% in 2004, 2.3% in 2005 to 2.5% in 2006. The source for this point and the next 3 points comes from CCH INCORPORATED.
  • Absenteeism can cost large companies up to $850,000 a year in lost productivity.
  • If you're happy, you're less likely to skip work. "Companies reporting poor/fair morale have a 2.9 percent absence rate compared to a rate of just 2.2 percent at organizations with good/very good morale."
  • Why are people absent? 35% are sick, 24% have family issues, 18% take time off for personal needs, and the rest are stress (12%), and something called entitlement mentality (11%)
  • A British study shows that smokers take an average of 8 more sick days than non-smokers.
  • People from different countries differ in how honest they are asking for sick leave. A study has shown that the most dishonest people are from Sweden (17.33 days calling in sick when they really weren't), India (15.49), USA ( 3.07), Italy (2.2) and Germany(1.83). Note the disparity between 2nd place and 3rd place.
  • The most honest workers are from Hungary (0.54 days of faked illness a year), Mexico (0.62), Bulgaria (0.67), Turkey (0.73), Belgium (0.93) and South Korea (1.0)

Oct 28, 2008

What are the pebbles underneath train tracks for?

Besides the usual media sources, questions and thoughts from my friends occasionally serve as inspiration for my blog posts. Recently my father brought up a question which has remained on the table for a quite a while now, while I'll now address.

What is the purpose of all those tiny rocks and pebbles that one sees laid underneath railway tracks?

He brought up this question, while my family and I were spending the day in New Hope, PA and happened to come across the historic New Hope train station, shown in the picture below, as we were ambling about. So what are all those rocks for?
In that conversation, I surmised that those crushed rocks were probably there to prevent plants and trees from growing between the tracks, and possibly impeding the path of the train. My dad felt that it had something to do with vibrations, and dampening them while the train moves. The idea is that the vibrations and force from the train on the track, spread across the hundreds of pebbles, leading to less strain on the tracks themselves and thus a smoother ride.

Turns out we're both correct (though his explanation is obviously a lot more clever). A quick glance through the Internet reveals that those pebbles, rocks, etc are called track ballast and according to wikipedia, they are...
...used to facilitate drainage of water, to distribute the load from the railroad ties, and also to keep down vegetation that might interfere with the track structure. This also serves to hold the track in place as the trains roll by.
Some other interested soul on Yahoo Answer's gives a couple of additional advantages to using ballast...
  1. It prevents the rails from moving sideways which would be the natural tendency around most curves - the train would normally push the lines outward and the ballast stops this happening for the most part.
  2. It is an easy way to make a level running surface for trains - special track tamping machines are used to re-pack these ballast rocks around and underneath rails where they have been pushed out by the constant passing and vibration of trains. Much easier than trying to make a completely level track bed on the earth, and cheaper than using concrete beds all the way too.
Right. So now we know...

Oct 26, 2008

Definition of an "Armchair Pakistani"

Pakistan is currently in the midst of financial crisis, with the government close to defaulting on its upcoming debt payments. With the US financial crisis, the elections, and Sarah Palin on my mind, it gets difficult to follow the news of my country. But things are getting progressively worse, with the prices of basic foods increasing daily, security lapses and the quality of life deteriorating with load shedding almost every 2 hours. But what can one do thousands of miles away? Well, if anything, one can be the most annoying of all critics, an "Armchair Pakistani".

Hmm...What does that mean and who are these "Armchair Pakistanis"? Well, for one thing, it certainly doesn't apply to just one country. By all means, apply it to your favorite foreign student whiner, your annoying neighbor or your teaching assistant in school. I know plenty of "Armchair Indians", "Armchair Chinese"...etc.

A simple google search will point you to my friends blog, who wrote about the subject at hand. I certainly cannot express myself as well as him, thus his post is worth revisiting.
I was at a yuppie Paki(stani) dinner recently.

Which means I have recently been subjected to much discussion about the 'state of the nation,' as it were.

Of course, we, as concerned citizens, using a bird's-eye-view from our perch 7,470 miles away, debated most fervently the topics that affect us least. The rights of women, the state of education, recent news bites, how to eradicate feudalism, fundamentalism, and other deep-rooted problems that we are all so qualified to fix.

For the most part, it was intelligent conversation. Granted, it was not only hypothetical but also hypocritical -- what could be more hypocritical than an expatriate teacher complaining about the lack of good teachers in the country? Yet, as far as such things go, it was of a reasonable caliber. Except the one girl who would offer up her views in neat little platitudes, like "women are treated so badly in Pakistan," or "there is so much violence in Pakistan," without any examples or follow-up comments.

Which brings me to my point. Why do people talk when they have nothing to say? Did she think people were going to respond "Oh, what a wonderful point, I hadn't thought of that?" Did she think that she was saying was particularly groundbreaking? I just don't get it.

Much to my delight, however, she, and we all, were chided by an older member of our party, who proclaimed us to be "Armchair Pakistanis," loaded with empty opinions and devoid of meaningful action.

Of course, in the true tautological manner of an Armchair Pakistani, it makes me sad and concerned that there are so many of us. I'm not, however, planning to do anything about it anytime soon. Surely this makes my country weep.
It's laughable how often scenarios like this occur in my life, as it has with my friend. It's not just my generation but older generations too, that preach subjects with no substance. Everyone has a damn opinion, thinks they have the greatest solution, but when push comes to shove, there is no action, no charitable donations, just empty talk.

Are you an "Armchair Pakistani"? Well, you are if you answer 'yes' to any of these questions.

Q - Do write a blog about the state of affairs in Pakistan, constantly updating it with your expert opinion and you haven't visited the country in over 10 years? In fact, even if you visit the country every year, but are happily working in DC or London, never planning to work or live forever in Pakistan...you're included too.

Q - Amongst a group of non-Pakistanis do you assume yourself to be a beacon of information when its comes to South Asian affairs? Are your claim to expertise is a degree in Economics and a grandmother in Lahore?

Q - Do you constantly feel the need to defend Pakistan, when really....honestly...besides talking a whole lot, you haven't really made any difference whatsoever on the ground? And you're talking shit?

I feel raising awareness of the issues with blogs, conversations and so forth is admirable, but when one claims to be anything more than an armchair critic of the country, without having done anything for the country, without having a single inclination to do anything for the country in the future, and just talking non stop about it... it's just idiotic. I am an armchair Pakistani myself, but I certainly do not try to use this blog as a source of anything more than humor, sarcasm, and irritation when it comes to Pakistan related talk and certainly not self righteous preaching and complaining. I have done nothing much for my country thus far, so I can't walk the walk.....just yet. I am, however, an armchair Pakistani, so I know am justified in slamming this misguided group that I am part of.

Once you use your own funds to put poor kids back home through school, or use your knowledge and expertise to return to the motherland to work there and pay taxes to that government....then, in my opinion, you can talk. Because only then do you deserve to, and only then will we listen to you, and only then will we respect your opinion. But until that day comes around...shut the **** up.

Everyone's a hypochondriac nowadays

Someone sneezes near me. Uh oh! Does she have a cold? Is it the flu? No...maybe its just the allergies.

Hmm....Maybe it's serious. Did she travel abroad this past month? Let me get away and take a sip of dayquil anyway!

Thoughts like these run through my head whenever someone displays symptoms. I'm a weird chap anyway. My close friends will tell you I'm always thinking up strange scenarios in my head, conjuring up situations, repeating phrases in my head, repeating dialogues and conversations...That's why I murmur so much! But assuming that perhaps someone has some strange ailment, or something contagious around me is something i feel, I'm not alone in thinking.

Diseases are getting harder to tackle, and outbursts are getting more sporadic in random regions of the world. The world itself, is getting smaller. There are businessmen and Paris Hilton types that could be seen on 3 different continents on the same day. Who knows what they are carrying? I believe that we, as humans, are becoming a lot more panic-stricken when it comes to symptoms and health related issues. Even the smallest of symptoms are dealt with in the most therapeutically tough way. We've overloaded our bodies with antibiotics, so much so, that we're born allergic to them. I, for one, was born allergic to penicillin.

A not so recent NYTimes article about the "Epidemic of Diagnoses" caught my eye last year and I've been meaning to highlight it on this blog. The writes bring another angle to this issue by claiming its the fault of the medical community for over-diagnosing us. We have medicines for the oddest of 'illnesses' now. I remember back home, when one couldn't sleep, you'd count sheep or have a glass of milk. Nowadays, you can take a bunch of drugs promising you 8 hours of distraction free sleep. I watch TV late at night sometimes, and I see commercials for the strangest of ailments, restless leg syndrome, unhappiness, poor sex lives...to name a few. Call me insensitive, but my cure for these would be to get better shoes, adopt a puppy and find a girlfriend, respectively. According to the article there are 2 main reasons for this:

Two developments accelerate this process. First, advanced technology allows doctors to look really hard for things to be wrong. We can detect trace molecules in the blood. We can direct fiber-optic devices into every orifice. And CT scans, ultrasounds, M.R.I. and PET scans let doctors define subtle structural defects deep inside the body. These technologies make it possible to give a diagnosis to just about everybody: arthritis in people without joint pain, stomach damage in people without heartburn and prostate cancer in over a million people who, but for testing, would have lived as long without being a cancer patient.

Second, the rules are changing. Expert panels constantly expand what constitutes disease: thresholds for diagnosing diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and obesity have all fallen in the last few years. The criterion for normal cholesterol has dropped multiple times. With these changes, disease can now be diagnosed in more than half the population.

I think this needs to change. We are pumping our bodies full of drugs, for which we're not 100% certain what the side effects are or what the future implications could be. The writers of the NYTimes article recommends the following... I know most of my peers are usually put of with scientific and health related subjects that I write about, but I strongly encourage us to think about this:
As more of us are being told we are sick, fewer of us are being told we are well. People need to think hard about the benefits and risks of increased diagnosis: the fundamental question they face is whether or not to become a patient. And doctors need to remember the value of reassuring people that they are not sick. Perhaps someone should start monitoring a new health metric: the proportion of the population not requiring medical care. And the National Institutes of Health could propose a new goal for medical researchers: reduce the need for medical services, not increase it.

Oct 2, 2008

Why is protein folding so important?

I work in a lab that works, in part, on understanding protein folding and misfolding. I'm not involved in this project, but I still find it fascinating and enjoy talking about it. Being around people who are working on it, is obviously interesting too. Anyway, not everyone in my life, outside of the field understands the complexity of the problem, as the language of scientific discussion can pose a barrier, so I thought I'd break it down as best as I can...

Proteins are essential to life and carry out a multitude of tasks in the body; carry the oxygen you breathe, break down the food you eat, attack antigens that could harm your body etc. Each protein is made up of a specific sequence of amino acids and could range from 10 to 500 amino acids long. Now imagine this: Let's say a protein is 100 amino acids long. Since there are 20 kinds of amino acids, there are 20 choices for every single position on that sequence. Which means that there are 20 choices for the first position, 20 for the next and so on, till all the 100 positions have some amino acid on them. Each amino acid has unique chemical characteristics, ranging from how much it likes water, how many electrons it has, whether it is polar (has a negative and positive charge on it) or not, which give the eventual protein its function. The number of combination's of amino acids to make up a sequence of 100 is a massive number. So much so that my calculator can't figure it out. However, it's fascinating in its own right, how nature and evolution have found 1 specific ideal combination of amino acids for whatever purpose that protein is about.

Anyway, this sequence of specific amino acids now has to fold a specific structure in order to function. In vivo and in vitro, proteins fold on the microsecond timescale or lower. That's crazy. So in a tiny, tiny amount of time, no matter how many times one tries it, this seemingly random sequence of amino acids, fold into a specific structure every single time! Think about it. If you had a thread that was 100 units long, with each unit made up of up to 20 colors, would you be able to fold this thread into a shape within a few microseconds into the same shape every single time?

The picture I have shown above is a cartoon of HIV Protease, a 99 residue long dimer (it is made up of 2 chains), and is an example of a folded protein.

So folding is tough, but why is it important?

Well for one thing, proteins are extremely important for our biological function and it would be great to know exactly how they work. And the protein folding issue was initially considered a theoretical problem but now it has medical implications. When proteins don't fold correctly, or misfold, diseases occur. Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis, Mad Cow disease and some cancers are caused by misfolded proteins. So in order to therapeutically tackle these diseases, it is important to understand why they occur. As a result, understanding the process of folding, and misfolding, will undoubtedly aid us in our quest to cure these diseases.