Saturday, November 20, 2010


It's that time again. I'm back in the U.S. and even though everyone assumes that it should be easy to come home, it's not. "Adjust-panne" is the Tamilization of the English verb "to adjust". And that's what I'm doing now, and will be for a while, I think.

It's not easy to radically shift in time zones, climates, cultures, people, foods and everything. Even though this is my "native" culture.

For one thing, things have changed in America since I left. When I left for India last November, there was no "Tea Party," at least not a recent one. Russ Feingold was my Senator, and people as far as I knew, expected he still would be. Some of my friends who were single, are now married. Some who weren't even pregnant when I left now have infants. Friends have moved states, whole lives have been transformed by the loss of jobs, and new jobs, etc.

There is an inclination, when you leave a place, even for a year, to expect it to be the same when you get back. But that is never the case. Time does not stand still for the people you leave behind.

I know that after a year spent in India doing research for my PhD, I should feel a sense of accomplishment. I should feel like I've really done something. Maybe it just hasn't hit me yet. Right now I feel like I'm standing still, and the trees, everything in the world around me is flying by at a million miles an hour. It's a strange sort of relativity.

In my imagination the world in America stood still while I was gone, and now that I've come back to it, all the changes that actually took place over the course of that year seem to be taking place at light speed.

I have changed too, though that's harder for me to recognize. I fell in love again for the first time since I was 18. I fell hard and fast, and stupidly, gleefully floated on a cloud of oxytocin-induced bliss. I felt I had never been so happy. It was long-distance love, and inevitably the oxytocin wore off and I fell again, this time into anguish, tears and insomnia. Then I started to pick up the pieces of my heart. I think I got all of them. I might have left one in India.

I turned 30. I started brushing my teeth more regularly. I became more or less vegetarian, with the exception of eggs, and some fish. I remembered how much I love origami. I decided I want to get a dog, even though everyone tells me how hard it will be, how unstable my life is, and how I have no concept of the responsibilities involved.

I worked on accepting the fact that my life is unstable and unpredictable, that I don't have a true home, and I may not have one for a very long time. I spent a lot of this past year daydreaming about stability, about how nice it would be to lead a predictable life, with a home, with a dog, with god-willing someday, a family. I spent a long time feeling home-sick for a home I do not have. Then I spent the rest of my time disparaging that boring life, which I do not lead, and trying to convince myself that I really do love the adventure and unpredictability.

I spent a lot of time pondering a lot of things, and even though I can't put a finger to each and everything thing, I know I've changed, I've grown. And so has everyone else.

Nothing is the same. Not really. Not even the things that seem to be the same. They've changed, because everything around them has changed, and that changes everything. Some people might not have changed, but I have changed, and therefore my perception of and relationship to them.

I come back to find (or be reminded) that there are many elements of American culture I dislike. I am overwhelmed by the consumer culture. I can't believe how much time and money people spend buying things they don't need, and might not even want. I can't believe the abundance of bad and greasy fast food. I can't believe the limits of obesity that can stretch the human body to a larger circumference around the middle than a persons height.

There are things I love to come home to. Recycling. Peace and quiet. Natural spaces (nearly) empty of other people. People driving in a more-or-less orderly manner. Avocados. Sushi. Black bean burritos with lots of guacamole. Raspberries.

There are also things I already miss. I miss the cows, goats, dogs, cats, monkeys and (occasional) elephants that wandered the streets. I miss idlis and tengai chutney and takaali chutney, and sambar, and podi. I miss the amazing varieties of bananas and mangoes, the fresh coconut, the jack fruit. I miss the bright colors. Some part of me even misses the cacophony of the roads and streets.

I miss the chaos of it all.

That's the thing, I guess. When I'm in India I miss America. I miss the ordered roads, and garbage collection. I miss the peace and quiet. I miss efficiency. I miss decent chocolate chip cookies, and I miss the people that I love over here.

But when I'm in America, I miss India. I miss the chaos and the noise of the streets. I miss the the dogs that used to live at the end of my block. I miss the rice meals, the tiffin, the chutneys, the smell of frying onions, mustard seed, and curry leaf wafting through my window. And I miss the people I love over there.

Now that I am "home," I will adjust. Adjust-pannevain. But it will be a struggle, the same way it was a struggle when I landed in India last November. I will adjust because I have to. But it's by no means easy.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Scientists Suggest To Save Energy, Stop Wasting Food

In other news, the sky is blue.

Now that I have my snarky remark out of the way, I want to point out that the authors of this study are right. Especially in America, we waste an incredible amount of energy in wasting food. To quote them:
Analysis of wasted food and the energy needed to ready it for consumption concluded that the U.S. wasted about 2030 trillion BTU of energy in 2007, or the equivalent of about 350 million barrels of oil. That represents about 2 percent of annual energy consumption in the U.S.
The basic point is good. And maybe kind of obvious. To make it more useful, and help individuals and corporations develop ways to avoid the problem, I think someone needs to do a more detailed, system-wide, analysis of food production, consumption, and efficiency. I would argue that loss is both in the production of food which is then wasted - when someone's ham sandwich sits out of the refrigerator for too long, and gets thrown out. But also in product packaging. Product packaging is a huge investment of energy to produce, and a huge problem in landfills. While we frequently complain about the amount of waste produced in packaging, it's also the packaging that frequently keeps food from spoiling and getting wasted. We need better packaging, more efficient packaging, and less packing waste.

Health nuts and environmentalists shop at places like Whole Foods, where they buy dry goods in bulk, which they keep in their own re-usable, and often highly effective containers. This kind of conscientious use of food, packaging, and storage is great for those who have the time, money, and willingness to invest. But the people who do that are clearly a small portion of the population over all. I make this effort, but sometimes it turns out to be too expensive. Though I don't see a reason why it should be. I'm fairly certain it's just the fact that Whole Foods (and other stores like it) have especially high mark-up.

Ineffective or inefficient packaging is actually one of the food industries ways of trying to ensure that you will purchase their product more often. Whether the food and packaging gets wasted is really not their problem. Cereals could easily change their packaging to add a zip-loc type of closure to the cereal bag inside the box. This would ensure your corn flakes would last longer without getting stale. It might also mean you'd be slower to consume them, or less likely to throw out stale corn flakes, and buy a new box. It goes against what the manufacturers want you to do, which is consume more, no matter how much gets wasted. Corn flakes are just one obvious example, but the problem is pervasive. Either in excessive packaging - in "serving size" containers, or poor packaging which lets the product spoil more quickly, the food and packaging industries need a kick in the pants. I'm not sure if the answer is regulation, or changing consumer demand. I suspect both would help.

The problem of food storage and food spoilage is a problem as old as humanity, though it became more of of a problem with settled village life. Being an archaeologist, I can't help but think about this question, and how it's been solved over the millennia. These days it's hard to imagine a life without plastics. What would you do without your tupperware, your zip-loc bags and containers? What would you do without a refrigerator?

View of the Settlement area of the Early Historic and Early Medieval Periods at Kadebakele, Karnataka.

Archaeologists have been studying food storage practices and technology around the world for a long time now, and there are several techniques that were pretty much universal across cultures around the world. The problem of food storage really only came along when people started producing (or collecting) surplus. Without having more than you need on a given day or at a given time, you wouldn't have the problem of storing it. But once you start making more than you need on a given day, or even for a given year, you have to find a way to store it. Here are some of the solutions that people have used across the world in the past 10,000 years.
  1. Pottery. Ceramic vessels appear pretty much everywhere around the world, especially once people started to settle down in villages and farm. Ceramics are not very efficient for nomadic life, but they work great if you stay in one place. They can be used to store liquids and dry goods. They can keep out pests - at least rodents, if not always insects. They can be made to various sizes and shape specifications, and compared with older technologies of containers - they can be more durable. Prior to pottery, it appears people used organic materials, such as baskets, possibly cloth and leather bags, and gourds. These materials have another set of benefits, as well as drawbacks.

    A large storage vessel excavated at the Danish Fort of Tranquebar.

  2. Storage pits. These features of archaeological sites are also ubiquitous, and sometimes mystifying. It's hard to imagine digging a hole in the dirt, and wanting to keep your food in a hole in the ground. But storage pits often provided a natural source of cooling, as well as potentially saving space compared with above-ground storage of goods. Storage pits also frequently were inside dwellings. Archaeologists often interpret this to mean that people wanted to protect their private ownership over the food which they had produced, making it difficult for other people to get to.

    Part of a large round storage pit, early centuries BC/AD, Kadebakele, Karnataka

  3. Storage bins, granaries and public storage. In contrast with the private storage pit inside a home, archaeologists have uncovered large buildings they interpret as granaries or public storage for grain. They have variously been interpreted as state controlled centers which would function by taxation paid in grain, and as grain savings banks. A public depository, which you could come and withdraw from later. In Mesopotamia the temples often took grain as part of donations, gifts or offerings, and then used that grain to support the labor of various other kinds of producers who lived in and were attached to the temples. The collection of surplus grain which supports other kinds of non-food production and activities is the basis of a specialized economy. It allows for monumental constructions, works of art, and military conquest.

  4. Livestock. Live animals are a great form of storage. As long as the animal is alive, it is its own machine of creating and storing food energy. To the extent that an animal ages, and will someday die naturally, it "spoils" very slowly. Keeping the goat alive until you want to eat mutton is a great way to prevent the meat from going bad. You can also feed animals with surplus grain, agricultural bi-products like hay, and benefit from their secondary products like milk, or wool. Keeping livestock - and keeping it alive, has always been an effective and efficient way of keeping food from spoiling.

    A man holding a newborn goat up to its mother to suckle. It's still too weak to stand.

  5. Pickles. I've never been a huge fan of pickles myself, but they are an age-old solution to the problem of vegetables and meat spoiling. What to do with all that extra cabbage? Sauerkraut. What to do with an abundance of cucumbers? Dill pickles, sweet pickles, any sort of pickles. One thing you'll need: lots of salt. And also, you'll need vinegar - which comes as a byproduct of number 7, below.

  6. Drying. Drying only works really well in certain kinds of climates, but it can be made to work even in the tropics. You can dry fruit (who doesn't love a fruit roll-up), or fish, or meat. Jerky, which is sold today in silly plastic packaging near the checkout counter at the 7-11 is actually an ancient technological solution. Even before or without agriculture, people all across the world have dried the excess meat from animals - especially hunting migratory animals that you can only hunt and kill in one season. Buffalo jerky on the high plains, caribou jerky in the arctic and sub-arctic, mammoth jerky in Ice Age Europe. Dried foods lose their water weight, are easier to transport, and don't spoil nearly as quickly. Fruits and nuts have also been important items of trade in the ancient world. Dates, apricots, pistachios, cashews, all were products of different regions of the Mediterranean and Near East. They were shipped all over the world.

  7. Fermentation. Grain, fruit, milk, almost any food product, given enough time will start to ferment or break down. The process is usually catalyzed by various agents, some of which are naturally present in the food itself. Food, especially the plant food we eat, is actually meant to be food for the plant itself. It's a way for the plant to store energy, usually to feed its offspring in the form of seeds. A peach is tasty to a person, but the fruit sugars and flesh are actually meant to nourish the seed, the pit in the middle which may become another peach tree. Built into the fruit are enzymes which naturally cause the fruit to ripen, a process which breaks down the sugars, and ultimately becomes rotting. Add to that various bacteria, yeasts, and fungi, and you have a million ways in which food will naturally break down. Instead of letting fruits and grains break down in the way that they would if left to themselves, humans learned to control the processes of fermentation to make beer, liquor, wine, and cheese. Controlled fermentation is a great way to take something that's going to spoil anyway, and cause it to ferment in a way that produces a product which itself will keep longer, store useful calories, and be mighty tasty in the process.
  8. Host big parties. What archaeologists call feasts, (or more high-falutin' term "salient consumption") is a great solution to having a lot of surplus. If you happen to have a lot of extra food, you can always throw a big party, (preferably utilizing some of the above-mentioned wine or beer), and distribute that surplus, making sure it gets eaten and consumed before it goes to waste. The principle is one of "pay-it-forward" altruism. It pays to throw big parties, and invite the whole community. This year you might be the one with surplus, and you might help someone else who's crops didn't do so well. Next year, when your yields are not as great, (or in the modern world, you're unemployed) your neighbor can throw a party, where you can come and stuff your face. Everyone benefits, and less food gets wasted overall.
    (I considered posting a picture of some friends at a party, but decided it might be too embarrassing/incriminating... so just make a mental picture, ok, people?)

  9. Get fat. This is actually the evolutionary solution to times of excess and times of scarcity. When humans (and other animals) lived without as much control over their environment, and without the ability to produce surplus, we evolved to store the excess when it was available, and keep it for later, when resources were scarce. You can probably be assured that our hominid ancestors never got truly obese. But they did utilize fat storage as a way to make it through lean seasons. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on how you see it) in the modern and developed world, most people never experience the scarcity. They only ever experience surplus, and the system is no longer really adaptive for modern conditions and habits. (Disclaimer: I'm not in any way endorsing getting fat. I'm simply pointing out that is one of the ways in which humans have dealt with surplus food in the past.)

  10. Don't produce as much surplus. This also may fall under the category of "the sky is blue", but it's worth mentioning. If you can't keep surplus without it going to waste, and you can't dry it, pickle it, ferment it, feed it to livestock, or share it with your neighbors, maybe you shouldn't produce that much excess. As the authors of this contemporary study pointed out, energy is wasted in making more than you can or will actually use. So whether that energy is your own sweat, out in the fields, tilling more land, and producing more zucchini than you can possibly ever use, or distribute, or whether that energy is in the electricity and petroleum products used by factories to make cornflakes which will go stale and wind up in the garbage, we should work on calibrating our production to our actual consumption needs.

After my top ten list of ways humans have dealt with surplus, and found ways to avoid waste, I want to add two points. One is that, given all the resources we have now, and the number of people in the world who still go hungry, I see no reason why we can't practice some of that pay-it-forward altruism, and give away the surplus. I don't see any reason why there should be any waste at all. India recently went through a scandal, in which grain was rotting in government store houses, and poor people were starving on the streets. With enough public outcry, the government was forced to distribute some of that grain. Clearly, hunger in the world today isn't a problem of actual shortage or scarcity. It's a problem of distribution.

My second point is more of a musing. In thinking about all the foods which are fermented, I realized that some of my favorite foods in the world are fermented products. Good beer and wine are wonderful things. So is cheese. Oh, I miss cheese so much. It's also interesting that fermentation is a process which some kinds of primates also appreciate. Remember the youtube video of monkeys getting drunk on the beach? There are also monkeys that wait for fruit to ferment on the tree before eating it. They delay gratification and wait long enough for the fruit to become fruit liquor. They don't control the process, per se, but it's interesting to think that fermented foods might be evolutionarily older than the human species.

If we can't figure out a way to send surplus grain to starving people around the world, maybe we can ship them some beer instead? Ok, I hope everyone gets that that was sarcasm. But seriously, lets figure out a way to solve the problems of waste, surplus, and starvation, all together.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one
- John Lennon

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bugs and Super-bugs

Clearly I'm in the wrong line of business. If I were an entomologist, or bacteriologist I would be in heaven, and I don't even believe in heaven. It's been starting to rain again, and though I think it's quite early for the monsoon, I'm (mostly) not complaining because the rains bring much cooler temperatures, especially at night. Finally I can fall asleep before 5am, and sleep without sweating. Hallelujah! (Again, I'm not religious, but what is it that we secular types can say that carries the same feeling as "I'd be in heaven" or "hallelujah"?) Unfortunately the rain also brings bugs (and news of superbugs).

Anyway, I posted before about the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the need for a paradigm shift in medicine towards developing pro-biotic treatments. Not just vague advice to "eat yogurt" (or in South India, curd rice - yummy), but a wide variety of healthy happy bacterial treatments to fight the good fight against the bad bacteria.

Curd Rice instead of antibiotics? Sound crazy? Maybe. Maybe not.
Photo Credit:

The bad bacteria are getting worse, and getting stronger. There are now multiple reports on the identification of a new antibiotic resistant genetic strain called NDM-1 (New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase). Aside from a zombie apocalypse, what could be worse than a pandemic outbreak of antibiotic-resistant necrotizing faciitis? (The wikipedia article on necrotizing faciitis has a photo of what this bacteria does to human tissue. If you really want to freak yourself out, check it out full size - but beware, it's really not for the faint of heart, or I would just insert it in the post.)

The problem with this, in case you hadn't noticed, is that NDM-1 is a gene, not a particular type of bacteria. It is currently identified in strains of E. coli, and pneumonia, but that's not all. The gene is highly adaptive in an environment in which antibiotics kill off the bacteria which lack that gene, and can be spread through horizontal gene transfer. In other words, there is strong selection pressure for this gene, and it is likely to spread.

Now let me again make the disclaimer that I am not a physician, or a medical expert of any kind, but it seems to me that the development of new adaptations at the level of genes that can spread across species of bacteria indicates that antibiotics, at least in the form we currently have them are not going to be the now-and-forever solution to illnesses in human populations.

I'm not a big fan of Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (I'll save why for another post), but he is right that germs - and one might add, antibiotics - have shaped human history. And they may yet again, in unforeseen and unpleasant ways. Unless we start to think differently, radically differently, about how to combat bacterial disease. Maybe it's just the wishful thinking of a complete non-expert, but it seems as though bacteria have been fighting other bacteria for hundreds of thousands of years. Not only that but many beneficial bacteria exist inside the human body, co-evolved over those millennia, and now are necessary parts of a healthy human digestive system, etc. If bacteria fight other bacteria, and we can live with many different kinds of bacteria in our bodies at healthy, tolerable levels with no detrimental effects, then maybe we should use fire to fight fire? Just a suggestion.

Anyway, in addition to noticing the hubbub around superbugs, I thought I'd take this opportunity to also post a picture of my most recent bug discovery. It's some sort of centipede that I've never seen before.

Unidentified centipede. Red stripe. Fast walker. Suggestions anyone?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hosting, and guesting in the 21st century

I've been a member of for several years now, and I think it's a great idea, and a great community of people. The general point of the site is to connect travelers with people willing to host them, on a sort of "pay it forward" principle that you participate by hosting people in your home town, and then if you want to travel you can utilize this network to find people to stay with all over the world. It is truly a global network, and it has a safety/security system built in, with reviews of how someone is as a host or a guest. So it has the effect of regulating whether people are going to be cool/friendly/safe or not.

I have had many good experiences with hosting people here in India, and aside from being really busy with research I am definitely willing to host more. The main challenge is going back to show people sites that I have seen a million times by now. Still the temple here in Thanjavur is so beautiful, I don't really mind.

Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu

Even though I have had all good experiences I wanted to post these links: How to be the perfect host in the 21st century, and How to be the perfect guest in the 21st century, both by LifeHacker. I found both articles to be great guides, especially conscious of changing etiquette in the modern world.

For instance, as a host, they suggest you create an information card with contact numbers, emergency numbers, and basic info like the WiFi password to your home network. If such an info card is pre-prepared it saves both host and guest a lot of time. They also suggest taking a lot of cues from the hotel industry in providing towels, and free toiletries. While I think you should provide a clean set of sheets and towels for your guests to use, I don't know if I have enough money to provide a complete kit of toiletries like the hotels do. I guess I could start taking the hotel packs and saving them for later to offer to house guests. Usually I just tell people they're free to use the shampoo and stuff if they need to.

For a guest, they point out that you need to respect house rules, and not expect your host to actually play host all the time. You should have your own plans worked out, an itinerary of stuff to do, especially if your host warns you that they'll be busy with work. They also emphasize that you should communicate as much as possible about your schedule, about any special food allergies or requirements, and that you should offer to pay for things as much as possible. They also point out that you should be conscientious when packing to travel, so you don't have to make too many demands of your host. Use this tool to create your own customized universal packing list. For India in particular I posted a detailed discussion of what to pack.

To add to what they have posted on LifeHacker, I think it is important to work out some system of keys or getting in and out of the home or apartment. If you know your guests well, and trust them, you can give them a spare set of keys. Unfortunately people sometimes forget to give them back. You can point them to the spare set of keys hidden somewhere nearby, or with a neighbor if the neighbor doesn't mind. Otherwise you have to coordinate schedules so that the guest doesn't arrive at your place without you there or a way to get inside. This has been one of the hardest and most frustrating bits about hosting with I am happy to host people from the site, given they have good recommendations, but I don't always want to give out spare keys, at least not right away. I don't know that there's a perfect solution to this one, but it's something to think about, and be sure to communicate with the person you're hosting.

Lastly, I think you shouldn't host if you're going to be too busy to spend at least a little time with your guests. Guests need to understand their hosts are busy, and can't hang out all the time, but if you can't have dinner with your guests once or twice, or go out with them to do something around the town, you probably shouldn't be hosting. If I find I'm too busy to actually host someone, I always recommend affordable hostel or hotel options nearby, and try to offer to meet someone out for dinner while they're here, even if I'm too overwhelmed to have them stay with me at home.

That's my 2 cents. So, Happy Hosting and Guesting in the 21st century!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Profile in SPAN Magazine

"Fulbright grantee Gwen Kelly is analyzing beads, bangles and pottery pieces from the 2,000-year-old Kadebakele excavation site in Karnataka to discover how and why economic and social connections changed in that ancient society. Preparing her Ph.D. thesis for the University of Wisconsin, Kelly has also lectured, in Tamil, to students at the Tamil University in Thanjavur and has founded the International Association for Women Archaeologists Working in South Asia. A talk on her research is scheduled at Fulbright House in New Delhi on July 31."

This is the profile of me in SPAN Magazine, the U.S. State Department in India's monthly magazine. It's short, and not entirely accurate. But oh well. The photo is indeed from the site of Kadebakele, in Karnataka, though that's not where I do my primary research. Also Kadebakele is much more than 2000 years old, it's at least 3000 years old. At least they got the name of IAWAWSA out there, along with the URL. Plus the magazine is online, and the piece about me can be found here.

It started in June when someone from the magazine contacted me and said they do a series on Fulbrighters, and they'd like to do a profile on me. Below is the (abridged) email correspondance that went into producing this piece.

In order to give my readers the kind of information that might have been in the profile (that I sort of hoped would be in the profile), I'm attaching an abridged version of the email correspondance here. In these emails I tried to explain what it is that I do, and why it's important. I am mildly annoyed with the magazine for the briefness and the inaccuracy, but my reason for putting up this email correspondance isn't to accuse them of anything. I understand they probably only planned a one-paragraph short profile anyway, and that's fine. But because I spent a significant amount of time writing these emails, trying to put what I do in to a non-academic, non-jargony framework, I thought maybe that effort shouldn't go to waste. What I wrote about myself and my work might still be of some use and interest to people, even if it didn't get printed in the magazine.

Dear Mr. Y,

I am honored that you have asked, and I would be happy to appear in
your magazine. I am attaching my CV, which may give you some
additional information about my background.

I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was 7 years old. I became
interested in South Asia while studying in my first year of my
bachelors degree. I first came to India in 2001 as a volunteer on an
excavation in Rajasthan. Starting during my undergraduate studies, I
was most intensely interested in South India, and this led me to study
Tamil language intensively both in the US and in India, and focus my
research interest in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. I have worked
on archaeological projects in these three states as well as in

My dissertation research developed because of my interest in the
connection between society and economy. It became clear after reading
about the Iron Age and Early Historic periods in South India, that
there still is no consensus about the nature of social and economic
organization over this long time period, or how it changed. In order
to begin to address this question, I decided to focus on a site that
had already been excavated. The site is Kodumanal, located in Erode
District, Tamil Nadu, near the foothills of the Western Ghats. This
site is important, and useful for trying to understand social and
economic organization because there is evidence that people at the
site were involved in the production of beads and ornaments in
semi-precious stones, and that they were linked to the Indian Ocean
and Roman trade in the Early Centuries AD. By analyzing the
archaeological materials, beads, pottery, shell and glass bangles,
etc., I am hoping to be able to reconstruct aspects of the social and
economic organization of the time. In addition to looking at
artifacts, my methodologies also include interviewing modern potters
about their craft and techniques, and conducting experiments in the
manufacture of all of these crafts, to better understand how they were
made in the past. This understanding of technology, and the different
stages of production can tell us how that production can be organized
in different ways, reflecting aspects of social and economic control
or exploitation.

In addition to my research, I have also started an organization, the
International Association for Women Archaeologists Working in South
Asia ( The organization is inclusive of both women
and men, but aims at supporting and encouraging women to pursue
careers in archaeology in South Asia. The goal of the organization is
to promote women's rights and equality in the workplace and the
professional domain of archaeology. One aspect of this is to connect
researchers from both inside and outside South Asia who share research
interests. It is an international network with members currently in
seven countries, both in South Asia and abroad.

As for the picture, unfortunately most of the time I am holding the
camera, and there aren't that many pictures of me doing my work.
There are a few pictures of me taken by others, and one in particular
that I'm thinking of, and I will contact them to see if they are
willing to have that picture published. I assume they will say yes,
but I want to make sure first.

Please let me know if you have any other questions, or would like a
longer or more detailed description of my work. I tried to be brief,
but I really don't know what you are looking for. So do let me know if
there is anything else I can tell you.

Gwen Kelly

Dear Gwen,

The editor and the studio has approved the photo quality and thanks for the additional info. The editor wants to know more about your work here on your current Fulbright and what are you doing at the university or with them.

Thanks again for your patience and time.



Dear Y,

It would really help if you (or the editor) could ask specific questions. I don't know what to say in regards to "more about my work on my current Fulbright". In what way more?

I am primarily based in Thanjavur, and my work is mostly here, looking at artifacts, pottery, beads, etc, from their storage room. It is very meticulous and slow work. It doesn't sound as glorious or exciting as most of what people hear about archaeology. But it's the kind of work that really produces the data that allows us to take what is found from excavations, and make something meaningful out of it.

As for what I'm doing at or with the Tamil University: I am doing my research independently, with the help of one student research assistant. In addition, I taught a short course on Archaeological Method and Theory to the Masters, M. Phil and some of the Ph.D. students. The lectures were in Tamil.

If you want more, it would really help to have some specific questions. Or perhaps this would be best done by phone. If you want to, you or the editor or whoever, is welcome to call me.


Hello Gwen,

Wondering if you received the attached mail I forwarded to you by the Editor.



---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: L
To: Y
Date: Wed, 9 Jun 2010 11:16:14 +0530
Subject: RE: Fulbrighters in India

Thanks, Gwen for the additional information.

1) Once you look at the artifacts, then what? Do you note things down about them? What do you note down? How will what you have observed and recorded be used? Who will use it? For what?

2) 2) Regarding your research, what are you researching? (theme, focus, aim, etc.?) Will you be producing a paper? If so, for whom? A lecture? If so for whom?

3) Thanks again. And great picture.

Hi Y,

Actually, I didn't get that email forwarded. I am just seeing it now. So here goes:

1) Once you look at the artifacts, then what? Do you note things down about them? What do you note down? How will what you have observed and recorded be used? Who will use it? For what?

Looking at artifacts involves looking at a lot of details. I have several databases which I designed, which allow me to enter data about each sherd of pottery, or each bead, or each bangle. For pottery, for each piece, I record the diameter of the mouth of the pot, the maximum diameter (if possible), the height of the rim, the thickness of the rim, the angle of the rim, the color on the exterior and interior, the surface - whether it's polished or not, if there is any decoration, what kind of decoration is there, and finally assign it to a shape or vessel category. I have defined about 100 categories of kinds of things (modern equivalents would be soup bowls, pasta bowls, cereal bowls, saucers, salad plates, dinner plates, creamers and sugar bowls).
This data gets collected for several thousand pieces of pottery, and then it can be analyzed by separating and combining different elements, including where it was found in the site, how deep/old it is, and all these various kinds of data I collect. This allows me to compare how many bowls there are compared with how many cooking pots in a given area of the site. It also allows me to look at fine-grained change over time in things like the shapes of vessels, the angles of the rims, the sizes that they come in. For instance, modern plates are standardized, even between different brands and producers, there is a standard size for a dinner plate. With smaller non-industrial producers we can see this as a process, standardization over time is considered an indicator of increasing scale of production. The less a person makes pots, the more irregular they are likely to be. The more they make pots, the more regular and standardized in their shapes and sizes.
In addition to pottery, I also collect similar kinds of attributes for beads, bangles, spindle whorls, and other artifacts. All this data is combined together, and analyzed using basic statistics, looking at different proportions of things, how those proportions change over time, etc. These kinds of patterns, whether they are patterns in space, or in time, at the site are the basis of interpretations. Using a set of theories and models about people, with different forms of social and economic organization, I then interpret those patterns to try to answer questions about how many different groups of potters might there have been at the site of Kodumanal, how much time were they spending making pottery? Each of those questions has implications in the larger interpretation of how the society and economy were organized, and how that organization changed over time.
I then take those data and interpretations, and write them into my doctoral dissertation, and into articles that will be published in journals in India and the US.

2) Regarding your research, what are you researching? (theme, focus, aim, etc.?) Will you be producing a paper? If so, for whom? A lecture? If so for whom?

The goal is to try to understand aspects of the social and economic organization at the site of Kodumanal, and in South India in general, during the period spanning the last few centuries BCE and the first few centuries of the Common Era. As a means to understanding society and economy, I'm focusing particularly on technologies of production, since techniques and technologies of production directly relate to the organization of production, and the society that they were produced for. Technology relates to both production and consumption, and it helps us identify different aspects of who was producing something like pottery, and who - meaning different groups or sectors of society - was consuming it.

I will be writing my PhD thesis, and submitting it to my academic advisor and committee at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, as well as producing papers for publication. I also will be giving lectures and conference presentations. In the near future, I'll be giving a short presentation on my research to the members of my organization - IAWAWSA - at our first ever meeting in India, which will be held on July 31st, 2010, at Fulbright House in New Delhi. I will present the results of this work at other conferences, wherever and whenever they are held around the world.

3) Thanks again. And great picture.
Glad you like it. :)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Time-Lapse Photo software for the Mac? ImageCapture!

I (somewhat) recently bought a new DSLR camera: the Nikon D3000. I had no idea what was best, and didn't have the time really to do very in-depth research about which camera to purchase. Usually before buying a new camera, or any expensive piece of equipment, I would prefer to do such research, but I was buying this one with just a few days to go before leaving for India, and was overwhelmed with other preparations on my way out of the country. I took the advice of my cousin Jon who is a professional photographer (his amazing website here), that Nikon is the best brand, and with that alone, went to a camera specialty store in LA. I allowed myself to be persuaded by the salesman to buy Nikon's new D3000 model, something he said which was in between their previous amateur and pro- lines (what they call 'pro-sumer'). It was at about the right price-point for what I wanted to spend, and it had all the features I thought I would need. It also came with what seemed like a desirable lens: 18-55mm. I needed a macro for research purposes, and so bought a separate (thankfully used, but in excellent condition) AF macro Nikkor 60mm 1:2.8 lens. It is much heavier, and higher quality than the camera body. So much so, that though the lens supports auto-focus, the camera does not have a motor strong enough to drive the auto-focus mechanism, and therefore it is not able to auto-focus with the macro lens. I was warned of this, and it didn't really matter, because I usually prefer to manually focus on my macro subjects: beads, pottery, etc, because I prefer to select the focal length, and what element of the object is in focus.

I have since read reviews which call the D3000 Nikon's 'worst camera ever'. But it's too late now. I'm not really a pro- user, so there are plenty of really fancy things that I'm not even aware that I'm missing. I've been really happy with the camera in general, until now. Now I wouldn't say I'm unhappy with the camera, but I ran into one particular need where my old relatively 'crappy' digital point-and-shoot was better. Video. Not that the quality of video taken by my old point-and-shoot (PAS) was very good, in fact it was pretty awful. But at least it was video, and for some things, video captures better than still. Even when the quality sucks.

I ran into this problem when I started visiting a local potter to begin doing some experiments in firing pottery to try to recreate some of the ancient pottery that I've been studying. I wanted to shoot some video of his various activities, laying out the pots to be fired, or making them on the wheel. Without the ability to shoot video, I thought the best option would be to take something like time-lapse images, which I could later stitch together into a video. The frame rate would be low, but at least I could capture a series of images over time, showing the activity in progress. My first attempt was manual - I set the timer on my cell phone, and walked up to press the shutter button on the camera (on a tripod) every time the timer on my phone went off. This got pretty old pretty quickly.

It was recommended that I download Nikon's own Camera Control 2 software, which I did (30 day free trial), only to discover that it doesn't support the D3000 model. I started searching for "time-lapse software for mac" or "remote shutter control software" and any other phrases I could think of to google, that might find me something I needed. I came across a few free and paid apps, supporting various lists of models, none of which supported the D3000. Some of them looked great. I would have downloaded them, if they listed my camera among the supported models. Then I came across this review which said "I should point out that the D3000 cannot be controlled from your Mac or PC, unlike Nikon's more expensive models."

I was becoming discouraged, and almost ready to give up, when I came across the software Icarus Camera Control. I went to his list of supported cameras, and found only three supported cameras, though the developer suggested that it may well work with others. On going to the support wiki I found his narrative of how he developed the product:
Icarus Camera Control came about because I have a Nikon D80 that I want to connect to telescopes and control via my MacBook. Nikon sells software for camera control (Camera Control Pro) but it is expensive and getting more so, it is terribly slow, and is a horrible battery hog. It is completely unusable for portable work. So I started writing my own camera control tool.

Linux has gphoto2 infrastructure for controlling cameras. That works well for a wide variety of camera, including my Nikon D80, but it works very poorly on Mac OS X. It compiles, but it can't really get at the camera due to Mac services that already grab access to the camera. So while I could surely use gphoto2 to make a Linux application, I need something more native for the Mac.

Mac OS X, it turns out, has the Image Capture Architecture that is exactly for this purpose. The ICA provides an abstract interface to locate and access cameras, as well as a means to get at the lower level PTP commands to do the more interesting things that one wants to do with a camera. And this is the level where Icarus Camera Control operates. It uses the ICA to locate the camera and images on the camera, get thumbnails, and perform basic camera control functions. It then uses PTP messages passed through the ICA to perform more direct camera activities, including probing device features and capabilities.

Which led me to think to myself 'Image Capture Architecture' meaning, it has the built in utility 'ImageCapture'?? Is this another example of something where the app I'm looking for is already installed on my Mac?? Indeed it is.

Image Capture (found at ~Macintosh HD/Applications/Image Capture), though it is not fancy, does exactly what I need for remote (USB connected) timed shutter release. It allows me to set the interval in seconds minutes or hours, and it allows me an option to determine a directory where those files should be saved - directly to the harddisk. It doesn't allow me to control any of the cameras settings, light, aperture, speed, ISO, none of it. I still have to manage those settings on the camera itself. But once it's set up, all I have to do is click start, and it begins taking pictures at my determined interval.

To stitch the pictures together into a time-lapse movie, I am able to use another pre-installed app: iMovie.

None of these are "pro" apps, none of them allow the control that someone might want if they were going to get really technical with the thing. But I'm not at a stage where I want to get technical. And I am amazed at how, after all this searching, the applications that I needed, with the functions I wanted, were on my computer all along, and they work great.

In addition, I found these online guides to time-lapse photography and movie-making useful: and

I promise I'll post the results of this time-lapse stuff soon. :)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Future of Higher Education: YouTube Lectures, Distance Learning, and Open-source Education

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece called "A Self-Appointed Teacher Runs a One-Man 'Academy' on YouTube: Are his 10-minute lectures the future?" by Jeff Young. This piece suggested that Salman Khan, an MIT graduate with a bachelors degree, who one day decided to start creating 10-minute YouTube lectures on various subjects, was the beginning of a trend, and possibly a paradigm shift in higher education in the US. Like most articles of its kind, I think it is intentionally written to be provocative. Especially when considering the audience. The Chronicle of Higher Education is primarily read by academics. In other words, professors and administrators, people who are highly invested in the system of higher education, and as such, probably to some extent invested in the status quo. They, especially the old and stodgy types, are likely to reject that technology is the answer, or in fact, that there is anything wrong with the system at in the first place.

What follows is my attempt to answer Mr. Young's question, whether 10-minute, informal YouTube lectures are somehow the future of higher education.

First, I should start out by saying that higher education does have problems. Plenty of them. The current system (in the US), the status quo, is by no means satisfactory to many of the participants, teachers and students alike. Some of the complaints are as follows (from my personal experience, first as an undergraduate student, then as a graduate student, and a teaching assistant). Undergrads (and their entire families) wish that college wasn't so expensive. Now that going to college seems to be a prerequisite to get a job, practically any job, it has become a necessary cost to most Americans. Without a college education, in modern America, as in the past several centuries, you are at a severe economic disadvantage. The educational gap is part of what (at least seemed) to create the gap between rich and poor.

Actually, access to education has for most of recent history been a symptom, rather than a cause of economic differences. The GI Bill, and the increasing availability of federally subsidized student loans created a huge increase in access to education. There is no doubt that this was a good thing. But, it didn't really change the structure of universities, and instead of economies of scale making education cheaper (as one might think), the cost of education seems to have gone up. Universities definitely have costs, they have the cost of the classrooms, the buildings, dormitories, libraries, lab equipment, etc. Now, with computers, they have the cost of constantly maintaining and upgrading computer systems for student and faculty use. In addition they have the cost of faculty salaries, highest for the law schools and medical schools, since those folks could be getting much better paying jobs practicing instead of teaching. They have the cost of paying salaries to all their administrators. I'm sure that's not all. There is no doubt that there are huge costs, some of them of value to students (teachers salaries, teaching materials, access to research equipment etc), but also some costs that have no apparent benefit to students.

More and more, students, especially those who pay from their own pockets (or their parents), have started to look at their education from the perspective of consumers. In this way, education is becoming increasingly commodified, and courses, majors and degrees are evaluated by students and prospective students in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Students get mad, if when paying for their studies, they are not satisfied with a course or a professor, they feel as though they have been ripped off. I don't necessarily agree with this perspective, but I do understand where it's coming from. But, like any large society, democracy, or bureaucracy, a course with lots of students can't possibly please them all. Some students may love a course. Others may hate it.

The increasing access to education, and the increasing number of students going to college has created a problem of scale. Educational research (not to mention common sense) tells us that different students learn better in different ways. Some of us are auditory learners. We learn best by listening. Some are visual learners, and learn best by seeing. Some people learn best by touching and working with something hands-on. I think it's fair to say we're all experiential learners. But with so many students now, its difficult to serve all these needs with a single model for teaching or education.

So if the question is posed as: "Do 10-minute lectures on YouTube serve a purpose?" I would say the answer is yes, obviously. They give people - not just "students" - access to information in a short, easily consumed package. They are free to the user (minus the cost of the computer and/or internet access), as are many thousands of lectures on iTunesU - where universities are posting course lectures as podcasts, or MIT's OpenCourseware Consortium. Providing content for free is great. The opensource concept which lies behind many of these efforts is great. But I don't think it's going to replace or supplant the current system of colleges and universities, at least not in the near future.

What can such digital online educational media provide? Lots of things. They can be used as supplementary tutorial material for students who are studying a subject, and need help understanding it. They can be introductory pieces, giving information and background on fields of study, and the kinds of results those fields can obtain. They can give access to knowledge and information to people who might otherwise have no access whatsoever. And those are all wonderful things.

But there are lots of things, at least with present day (2010) technology, that a 10-minute YouTube video lecture CAN'T do. For instance, it can't give students hands on access to labs or other materials. In anthropology we teach many courses with hands-on activities. For human evolution we look at casts and reproductions of fossils of our hominid ancestors and the skeletons of contemporary primates. For archaeology we give students a chance to look at ancient pottery, beads, stone tools. We can teach them how to flake stone tools, not only by showing it, but by giving students two rocks to bang together, and guiding them through the process. You can watch as many videos - or Discovery, History, Nova/PBS, or NatGeo TV shows you want about human evolution or archaeology, but this doesn't replace the experience of being able to hold such things in your hand and observe them directly with your own senses. Without this sort of hands-on access, everything about education would be purely conceptual. And while lots of knowledge is purely conceptual, that's certainly not true for everything.

Another drawback is the ability, or lack thereof, to simply raise your hand and ask a question. The YouTube model, and other social media models, do give the opportunity for feedback, through a comments system, but it is much more difficult to engage in a full scale question and answer session, or even debate over a topic, at least with the existing software. Even with an (oldskool) IRC style chartroom, at least, such a discussion might be possible.

The last, and perhaps most important aspect of education that is missing from a 10-minute YouTube video model for higher education, is the opportunity, or even necessity of students to do their own work, their own research, to think, and write, and then have that product be evaluated by their peers and their professor. A frequent end to a college course is the submission of a final paper and a class presentation. Ideally, students should be submitting their own work, their own thoughts and responses all along, during the course of a semester. In large scale education, this does get cut back, and that's definitely a problem, but not one that's solved by a 10-minute YouTube video.

Many universities are now offering distance learning courses. They are modeled on the traditional method of giving 1-hour lecture two or three times a week. Students submit questions by email, or post to a message board, and watch online videos, or sometimes audio-accompanied powerpoints, in a relatively low tech solution. It works passably, as a system, as most any student who's taken a distance learning course will tell you. But it's got serious drawbacks. Is it possible that 10- or 20-minute chunks are more digestible than the current hour-long discourse? Definitely.

I think that learning at a distance, is one answer among many, to the question of the future of higher education, and how to get information, or perhaps better thought of as knowledge, to more people. I think that to reach the level where distance education can meet all of the same requirements, and provide all the same things as in-person, physically present education, technology needs to advance a LONG way. For instance, technology, such as in a virtual reality simulation, could potentially bring students the same level of interactivity with each other, the professor, and "hands-on" experiences with lots of things. But that sort of virtual reality is decades if not more away from us, and may never develop in the way it has been envisioned in science fiction. Even if high-quality virtual reality were possible, I still think I'd be advocating real, human, in-person, direct contact for the best quality of education.

But that's just the thing. Even if we take that some version of in-person education is the best, potentially the most rewarding for both teacher and student, we are again stuck with the problem of scale. The worlds population is currently almost 6.9 billion people, and counting. It's growing, and will continue to grow (though that's a debate for another post entirely), and we want to educate everyone, or as many people as possible. In order to do that, we have to diversify the ways and means of distributing knowledge and information - this is definitely already changing in the digital age, with YouTube, Wikipedia etc. And we need to change the model of university education, to reduce those costs.

But, if you've ever listened to any NPR station, podcast, or YouTube video lecturer asking for donations and support, you know that there will always be costs involved. There are costs to creating new knowledge - otherwise known as research, there are the costs of supporting teachers to live and buy food for themselves and their families, there are costs of distributing knowledge, especially bandwidth, which is a cost both to the distributor and the consumer. These costs will never go away. It is now mainly a question of who will shoulder the burden. Will we someday have advertising supported education: "This lecture brought to you by Cyberdyne Systems"?

I personally would like to see the college and university system miniaturized rather than super-sized. I think that many, many small colleges and institutions could do a much better job serving peoples needs for education, around the globe, with less overhead, fewer administrators, etc. This would bring education to the people, rather than bringing the people to the education. In the sense that small colleges, and community colleges already exist all over the US, this need is to some extent already being addressed. Community and vocational colleges are providing good basic education, at a much lower cost than the larger universities. They are much more numerous, more locally accessible, and open to all. This system could potentially be replicated abroad.

Another solution is to diversify the approaches to content. Some students want or need a liberal arts education - with courses in a wide variety of topics, outside of the one they ultimately select as a major. Other students may not want or need those courses. Offering programs that are more targeted on one particular topic, without requiring students to take courses in other areas could also reduce the number of years in education, and the cost to the individual. I believe the option should be left open. I personally loved my liberal arts degree. I loved taking courses in many different disciplines. But such programs are not even available in the UK or India, where degrees are solely in the subjects that they are listed under. A student in a bachelors in physics, for instance, will study nothing but the discipline of physics. Not to say that there aren't diverse fields within physics, but still, a student in India taking such a course will at no time be expected to think about politics, or read a novel. This can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing, depending on the individual, and the topic.

There is a lot to appreciate behind the idea of free, online, 10-minute lectures. And maybe, with increasing technological developments, these sorts of environments will be able to offer some of the aspects of in-person education that are lacking. Whether or not a person is giving accurate information is another thing to worry about. But I think, in the future of social media, crowd-sourcing, and potentially open-source education, I'm not sure that will be the biggest concern. I think my biggest worry about a digital age, open source, distance education, is that education isn't just about gaining knowledge or information, it's about learning how to think for yourself. It's about learning how to communicate those thoughts well to others. Having personal contact and relationships is hugely important. Having a mentor, a person who responds to you personally, and with insight, and care, is something that will become increasingly difficult to find in a YouTube/Wikipedia model for education. That is why I don't think these technologies can ever really replace the relationship between teacher and student.

With more and more students, we need more and more teachers. We cannot attenuate this link to nothingness. One professor cannot teach us all, because one professor, (or ordinary citizen like Salman Khan) can never REACH us all, in the way that, at least sometimes, professors reach out to students and not only impart information, but guide us into becoming better people, better thinkers, and better citizens of the world.

Because of the benefit that mentoring relationship has brought me, I want like to thank all of my teachers, and especially my mentors, who were and still are more than just teachers. Anyone who has ever had a great teacher, or a great mentor, and I hope that's most people, I think we all understand the value of that relationship, which is something that a YouTube lecture can never provide.

Thank you to the teachers who have touched my life: Ms. Trout (2nd grade), Mrs. Dever (6th grade), Jennifer Shikes-Haines (7th grade), Mr. Halpern (9th grade English), Mrs. Grover (10th grade History), Mr. Panasenko (10th grade Biology), Dr. Cohen (11th grade History), Dr. Linda Grimm (Oberlin College, Archaeology), Dr. Michael Fisher (Oberlin College, History), Dr. Perween Hasan (Oberlin College, now University of Dhaka, Art History), Dr. Lynn Fisher (Oberlin College, Archaeology), Dr. Lipika Mazumdar (Oberlin College, now U. Pittsburgh, Anthropology), Dr. J. Mark Kenoyer (U. of Wisconsin-Madison, Archaeology), Dr. Sissel Schroeder (U.W.-Madison, Archaeology), Dr. Carla Sinopoli (U. Michigan, Archaeology) and Dr. Kathy Morrison (U.Chicago, Archaeology)…. just to name a few.

I don't think I would be the person I am today, if I had simply listened to lectures online, even if those lectures were given by the very same professors and teachers I am listing here. These people have done more than lecture material at me, they have taught me how to think, and how to write, and how to be a better person. Maybe my list is exceptionally long. Maybe I have been extraordinarily lucky. I hope not. I hope everyone has the opportunity to have such wonderful teachers and mentors as I have had, on and on, into the digitally mediated future…

Update 6/8/10: Recently was linked to this article, which argues for a return to truly "classical" education.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Why is it that we humans seem to want, or even need to belong? What is belonging, and how do we measure it?

The music swells at the end of the film, the young man joins his tribe, his group, his people. He finally belongs. Members of the group greet him like an equal, like a friend. He is reunited with the girl he loves, and now he can be with her. They hold hands, walking with the group towards a new future, through the ashes of the past.

This could be the end of many movies, but in particular I'm reminiscing on the end of Avatar (by James Cameron). Like many Hollywood movies before, the themes of love, hardship, and belonging carry the film about an otherwise ordinary, and perhaps uninteresting character.

I almost hate to admit it, but in that moment at the end, (sorry folks, spoiler) where he is accepted, and his soul transferred from his human body to his Na'avi body, and the music swells, and he gets up and walks away with the girl, hand in hand, in that moment tears welled up in my eyes. Now maybe I'm extra sensitive, maybe I'm more emotional than some people, but I don't think I'm the only one. It felt like an almost autonomic response. There seems to be something deep and universal about this need to belong. Something that pulls at us, that identifies deeply with the need to belong, and the relief, satisfaction, contentment that Jake Sully feels when he finally does belong.

I am fascinated with this subject because I have always been fascinated with things that are universal in human nature, and simultaneously fascinated with the things that make us different.

It seems to me that the need to belong is universal, but the act of belonging, the groups, tribes, cultures, languages, religions, political parties, to which we belong, are part of the immensely diverse manifestation of that need.

We've come up with so many solutions to belonging, we can't avoid the fact that many of them are contradictory: Religions that each proclaim to have exclusive truth, cultural and ethnic identities defined in opposition to the other. Sure some groups are non-exclusive. You can be a member of a book club, and also a member of a volleyball team. But you can't (at least technically according to both groups) be both a Muslim and a Hindu. Some of these groups are in friendly, or not-so-friendly competition. Others are at war.

I have come across many examples of this problem recently. For example, apparently India used to allow multiple citizenships. Now, it seems, they are demanding NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) who have obtained other (such as U.S.) passports to surrender their Indian passports, and pay a "processing fee". Apparently, you they are just now choosing to enforce a rule that you can't have dual citizenship in both countries. (Petition for NRIs to sign here).

Anthropologists have long examined the ways in which people define their identities, as members of various groups, frequently nested within societies. What function today as the major categories of identity were not always the most important ones. Today, it would seem broadly, that religion and nationality are the most important identifiers. At least these are the ones that divide us the most.

Within nations, there are political groups. Parties, and perhaps more strongly in many countries, the "right" and the "left". In many places, party politics depend heavily on other aspects of identity to mobilize and form their membership. Ethnicity, language, religion (or sect of a religion), these elements are all used, played like strings on a harp to make people feel like they belong.

Most world conflicts, wars, civil wars, massacres, colonizations, invasions, and battles, though they may, at their root be about money or resources, most conflicts are played out, and defined in terms of "us" and "them". Because "us" and "them" are really arbitrary terms, accidents of birth, of time and space. I think this is partly why it fascinates me so much.

Even though the categories that make up "us" and "them" are arbitrary, and in some sense illusory, they seem very real, and people act as though they are real. The same is true of international boarders, lines on the map.

To be asked to belong, might be the greatest feeling in the world. To be invited to join something, to be told you have something to contribute, that we value your presence, provokes a powerful feeling. A recent NY Times article talked about the marginalization of young Muslims, and how this relates to their radicalization. The article made this seem like rocket science, that someone had figured out, if you don't want people to join the 'enemy', you might want to ask them to join you instead.

But to me this isn't rocket science. People want and need belonging. And if they feel marginalized and pushed out by one society, they are going to seek another that accepts them, that validates their views, that gives them vindication, and perhaps even one that gives them the opportunity to retaliate. The solution? Not to marginalize them further, to accuse, to arrest, to put them in jail, but instead to offer them a place at the metaphorical table.

As modern nations become a jumbled up mix of people migrating and immigrating from other nations, bringing their different identities, and with them, different practices, beliefs, languages, and ways of life, it seems like a growing problem of figuring out how so many different people can belong together to something greater.

In the United States of America, the solution to this problem has always been to tell immigrants that the something greater is America itself. To become a U.S. citizen, to be American was a chance to belong to something great.

But, as I've said before, it's not clear to me that the nation-state is the best solution to this problem. We unite everyone in America as Americans, and (we used to, more or less) make them feel welcome, and wanted, and to feel like they belong, but we do this in counterpoint to other nations. This is a tact that seems to me to be designed to foment and facilitate war.

In reading the news, I am faced with many different versions of apocalypse. Nuclear disarmament activists warn of the risk of impending nuclear war. Environmentalists warn of the changing climate, the rise in sea-level, extinction of animals, the total transformation (or annihilation) of earth's ecosystems. These are just a few of the ways in which I am told the world, or civilization, or everything as I know it may come to an end. And while I agree that many if not all of these causes that are news-worthy are important, and something should be done, I believe that if we are to have any chance at surviving ourselves, at avoiding nuclear holocaust, etc, we must also find a new way of belonging.

If we are not enemies, if we all belong to the same 'tribe', then we won't need nuclear weapons. If we join together, and decide to belong to something greater than religions or nations, then we have a much better change of being able to do something about climate change.

It shouldn't be to hard to see what I'm pushing at, the unification of humanity, the concept of belonging to us, to our species, to unite us above and beyond everything else.

Strangely enough, it had actually occurred to me recently (and before watching Avatar), that what Stephen Hawking said about the fact that we probably shouldn't try too hard to contact aliens, since they might just come over here to kill us, wouldn't necessarily be such a bad thing. My strange and totally flawed reasoning was that an alien threat would help to unite humanity. Maybe, if we had something truly "other" to fight against, and define ourselves in opposition to, we would learn to embrace our unity, and get over our differences.

Taken further, to its ultimate conclusion of inter-species warfare, that solution isn't really a good one either. But then I'm not the first person to think of that either. Avatar represents it, and vilifies humans for their destruction and exploitation. Even if we're fighting another species, that doesn't necessarily make us the good guys. This is a point most effectively brought home by Orson Scott Card in the book Xenocide.

So, what can I say? It is clearly human to want to belong. Perhaps it is even biologically programmed. Maybe such needs are also programmed in to other social species, dolphins, whales, parrots, wolves and primates. Maybe it would be there in alien species as well. If our species isn't the answer (or our planet), then we are stuck in an ever expanding universe of inclusive belonging, a plan that doesn't seem very tenable either.

By needing to belong, we seem to need to define the other. We need not only to belong, but to define that to which we do not belong. While this may have been an adaptive strategy for early hominids, defining the hominid social group, in juxtaposition with competitors, or predators, it's not a good working model for the future of humanity.

At some level, I love the things that are universal. I am fascinated by the things that we share. These things are probably to some extent defined by our biology, and evolution. But they are not all good. We are universally capable of hatred, and fear. We are universally inclined to belong, and in doing so, define others, against ourselves.

Even though belonging is this thing that unites us, and watching a movie about some young guy finding himself, finding that sense of belonging with an alien species tugs at some heart strings, I think we need to find a way to rise above it. Not necessarily to find bigger and bigger entities to which we can belong, but to stop feeling that need so strongly. Or at least to stop feeling it in a way that requires defining the other in opposition to the self.