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: Sulkha.com

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 CouchSurfing.org 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 CouchSurfing.org. 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. www.iawawsa.org"

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 (
www.iawawsa.org). 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. :)