Sunday, 17 January 2016

#startupindia

Many days back my uncle +Bhoo Thirumalai received an invite for an event called Startup India and asked me if I was interested in tagging along. He would make the necessary arrangements for the acquisition of an invitation for me, he said. I was more than just happy to say I was in on the plan. After all, who would miss an opportunity to visit Delhi? :D So I did as he asked me to - sent a few emails and voila! A week and a half later I was invited to the event. So I started planning my Delhi trip. Called up a friend of mine and made plans to meet with her when I was in the city, found out that a school friend of mine who I had not seen since 2010 was also in Delhi. So made plans to meet her too. I was excited to go! For my folks at home, the agenda was, "He's going to listen to the Prime Minister speak" but for me it was primarily, "Delhiiii!!" :P So when my college deigned to let me go home for Pongal, I took the chance to fly out to Delhi the very day I landed in Chennai. But before I could leave, deliberations ensued as to what I would wear to the event. Formals? Semi-formals? "I don't know. I've never really worn formals. Let me just go in some random clothes!" But my mom had already sown the seeds of suiting up, in my head. So suit up I did! I packed some random formals (I ended up looking like I'd stolen clothes but forgot to check the size before I did) and departed to the capital of our country.
Day 1 was chill. Quite literally. I had underestimated the winter, my parents had overestimated it. So I ended up walking out with socks and sandals but a sweater meant for NYC! First stop - some place called the "Kingdom of Dreams". I can assure you it did not bring to life any dreams of mine but I managed to pass the time. The entrance was resplendent with enormous diyas filled with water and floating dandelions where couples and families decided they needed to update their Facebook statuses with a picture attached to it. Then again, I really shouldn't be the one to talk about Facebook statuses because I happened to get one up before we went in! :P
At around 2.30pm I broke off from the group to embark upon my own journey through the area. The others went for a Hindi play. I loitered around Gurgaon for about two and a half hours before I wound up at the metro station at which we had landed to get to the ill-named "kingdom". Seems I had walked 4 and a half kilometres when I could've reached the same place through a shorter 500m route. No regrets there though. I made a few discoveries about Delhi, and Gurgaon.
1. There are larger junctions at intersections than there are anywhere in Chennai.
2. People are used to walking very fast.
3. There are more stray pigs than stray cats or dogs!
One can never really get enough of a new city. So at 5pm I decided that I had to go to Delhi. I purchased a ticket to "New Delhi" from IFFCO Chowk and started off on my adventure of sorts.
The metro ride was a pain in the back. I didn't get a seat for an hour (the train ride turned out to be quite an ordeal) and when I did get a seat, some old man came to me, tapped my shoulder and pointed to the sign above the seat that said "For old and disabled persons". Seems the Delhi metro has seats for ladies, old people and differently abled people only. None for me. So I remained in nikkals for the entire journey. I get off at New Delhi and realize I don't know how far from the station Connaught Place was. I knew I had to get to Delhi, and I had successfully reached the city. I was still many feet below ground level but I was at the right place, or so I thought. Seems "Rajiv Chowk" and "Connaught Place" are the same thing. They didn't tell me that! So I walked to the other side of the platform and boarded the train back to Rajiv Chowk, which wasn't really a pain because it was just a station away. (The underground stations are just splendid in Delhi! If that is how the Chennai Metro's underground stations are going to look, I really can't wait!)
Connaught Place was quite the happening place. There were shops on every inch of road and people at every stall and store. I even saw some foreigner-looking dude (he looked like a hippie) playing the guitar on the street. Bloody, he had more money in his guitar bag than I did in my wallet. Seems playing the guitar on the road is a fine occupation indeed! I spent a pleasant evening with my friends at Connaught Place and headed back to Gurgaon later on.
Day 2 was D-day. I was woken up with a rough kulukkal by my cousin and was shoved into the bathroom and asked to "get ready quickly" (Wasn't literally shoved but you get the idea). I managed to get ready, suit up and leave in time to get the 7am metro into the city. Again, I wasn't given a seat till the train had crossed Sikandarpur but we had to alight at the Central Secretariat station to switch lines so my legs didn't get much respite.
We needed to get to this place called the Federation House to collect our invites for the event. Now here's the thing. I am not really an entrepreneur for an upcoming startup. So I was a little spooked by the fact that they might ask me questions and that the cat would be out of the bag. More than not being allowed to enter the venue, I was scared I would be taken to a little red building with men dressed in khaki inside. But that didn't turn out to be the case. The lady asked me what my name was and handed me the invite. *phew* Dodged a bullet there! (I later found out I had done nothing illegal. Many invites were given out to people who had applied despite not being a part of any startup).
The venue for the event was Vigyan Bhavan. The place was teeming with security personnel. You weren't allowed to take anything inside the venue except yourself, your clothes, the invite and your phone. There were 2 layers of "show me your photo ID proof and the invite" security followed by a metal detector and a pat down of my clothes. Finally, after roaming around the building for a while (one can easily get lost there), I found the hall where the event was happening and entered just as Arun Jaitley began his opening address.
The hall was jam packed. I couldn't spot a single seat that was vacant. My uncle and I decided to wind our ways up to the gallery and seated ourselves on the stairs near an exit door over there. The event went well. I particularly enjoyed the talks by Adam Neumann, founder of a company called WeWork and Travis Kalanick, founder of Uber.
At around lunchtime, we decided to step out for a walk and maybe also grab a bite some place but to our dismay, the military was all over the place near the India Gate area. Seems they start beefing up the security in the area from November, in preparation for the Republic Day parade. There were exactly 3 civilians I could spot all the way from where we had started off (Vigyan Bhavan) to our destination (Andhra Bhavan). 2 of them were us, though technically I can't really "spot myself". The rest of the people I saw along the way were all dressed in camo.
Andhra Bhavan threw up another surprise. I was under the impression, until I had had lunch there, that these canteens at the Bhavans were for the people who worked there - the minister(s), secretaries, etc. Seems the canteen is open to public. After a sumptuous meal we wound our ways back to Vigyan Bhavan and I managed to get inside the hall (my uncle couldn't) just as the PM's security retinue took over the responsibility of crowd control in and around the venue. I even spotted a few sniffer dogs poking around the bushes outside the building. Again I was not given a seat. I sat down on the floor near a journalist (I peeked into his laptop and found out his name. A quick Google search once I got home let me know who he was) named Madanmohan Rao. He was furiously typing away at his laptop, tweeting, noting down the highlights of the speeches, etc.
When it was about time for the PM to show up, the organizers at the venue began distributing headsets for people who needed translation for the Hindi speech that Modi was about to give. Unfortunate for me, I didn't manage to get a hold of one. So when he entered and finally started talking, I was the only mute, expressionless section of an auditorium filled with people laughing and thoroughly enjoying the jokes he cracked and the punch dialogues he delivered. Thankfully, the announcements he made were shown on the screen in English.
I made my way out after his speech ended and managed to get a hold of the Action Plan 2016 for Startups that he had launched. Fancy green book with new regulations (or rather, the lack of it thereof) that the government was going to go ahead with.
From there it was a walk to the Udyog Bhavan metro station in the bitter nighttime cold. My teeth were chattering and my hands were so cold I could hardly feel the tips of my fingers. Pulling my coat tight around myself hardly did anything to warm me or my poor fingers. This time however I managed to get a seat right opposite two men (who I could recognize as some famous journalists but I still can't place their names) engaged in a heated discussion with another man in a yellow sweater. They disembarked at the same station that I did but I couldn't really think of how to ask them their names without sounding completely stupid. I tried rehearsing it in my head, "Excuse me but I know I've seen you on TV but i can't quite place your names. Who are you two?" sounded very lame. So I let it slide.
Overall, I enjoyed my trip to Delhi and the day-long Startup India conference. It's great that our government is ready to promote startups to this extent. The next 4 months will tell us how they are going to implement their promises. Let's see what happens.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Social behaviour

Politics. The one topic that will get that random stranger’s tongue wagging – wherever it may be. The tea shop. The saloon. The bus stand. And the discussion very often revolves around one theme – corruption. We all lambast the system that feeds us. People don’t pay taxes, they steal, etc. What if I were to tell you that such misdemeanors of social behavior are not restricted to the human species alone? Bacteria also have social behavior. They cooperate with each other. They work together to build a community. But not all of them live in harmony. Some cheat the system. There are counter measures in place to sideline such cheaters. Contrary to traditional thought, bacteria also have such societies and exhibit “human tendencies” of social behavior. A recent paper published in Frontiers of Microbiology suggests just that. The group provides experimental proof that bacteria exhibit such traits and show that such cooperative behavior is essential to some of their functions.
To explain the concept of social cooperation, I would like to draw upon an easy-to-understand parallel in human society. Take into consideration a hypothetical community with a road connecting the 10 families that live there. All of the families donate a certain amount of money to a common fund that is used for the upkeep of the road. Now if one of the families decides to default on their payment (tax), the other 9 will be none the wiser. But once we have a number of people failing to pay up, the road falls into neglect. This can be compared to a biofilm of bacteria where harmonious individuals cooperate with their neighbors, ideally, to establish infection, grow, derive nutrition as well as protect the community from antibiotics. The “tax” paid is in the form of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) which helps in resilience against antibiotics, adherence to a substratum as well as in protecting the “taxpayers” from the defaulters.
The paper shows that when producers of EPS are grown along with non-producers, the biofilm is weakened and establishment of infection is either unsuccessful or hampered. An important implication for this finding is in medicine. The field of medicine is plagued with the issue of biofilms. Their growth has proved to be harmful to health and also, difficult to disrupt. Biofilm lifestyle of bacteria can cause cystic fibrosis and many dental problems as well. Biofilms also develop on stents and other surgical implants, disturbing their functions. Methods to prevent or cure these growths have proved either ineffective or impractical. However, if we take into account the findings of this paper, biofilms can be disrupted by individuals of their kind. These cells would have to be engineered to act as cheaters of the biofilm community and would be introduced to the infection. According to their experiments, such a method will weaken the biofilm and make it more susceptible to removal through the deployment of antibiotics at the site of infection.
In nature, bacteria prefer living in biofilms (communities) as opposed to a planktonic (free-living) state. These biofilms need to be protected from intrusion much like our homes need to be prevented from being burnt to the floor. We have in place barriers such as walls, gates, etc. Biofilms employ an EPS component called cellulose as their wall against intrusion by cells that do not produce EPS. In this way, they are able to maintain the integrity of their community and the tenacity of the biofilm. Such policing mechanisms to curb the development of cheaters can also be seen in higher animals such as mammals – between cells in an individual as well as between individuals in a community.
It remains to be seen what more can be deduced from these findings. What we do know now is that social behavior is not an advanced characteristic we acquired over the course of evolution. We also know that this cooperative behavior in bacteria helps in their pathogenesis and that tweaking their genetic code can help us fight this menace to the medical fraternity. Let us hope that infiltrating the bacterial social order will help us win the arms race between pathogenic bacteria and humans.
Vishvak Kannan


Reference: Srinandan, C. S., Elango, M., Gnanadhas, D. P., Chakravortty, D., Chakravarthy, S., Elango, M., … Chakravortty, D. (2015). Infiltration of Matrix-Non-producers Weakens the Salmonella Biofilm and Impairs Its Antimicrobial Tolerance and Pathogenicity. Frontiers in Microbiology, 6. http://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2015.01468