Friday, December 21, 2012

Tips for Field Expeditions

Over the years I came across many tips that I have been using quite often in my algal field expeditions around the coasts. Here is a summary:

Always plan the trip with an expedition pack-list

Have a plain-text master pack-list with appropriate sections (Before Travel/Hotel Stay/General Items/Cloths/Research/Electronics/Footwear/Documents) and fine-tune with some serious brain-storming at least 5 days before you leave! Websites like Don't forget your toothbrush might help you to get started.This is a section on "Research Expedition" in my pack-list:

Binoculars (Carl Zeiss Inc Victory)
Point-and-Shoot GPS Camera (DSC-HX20V)
Ziplock bags
Permanent Marker
Gum boots
Combination carabiner
Garmin eTrex 30
Swiss army knife-Victorinox
Documents with appropriate permissions
Ice box with freeze packs
Sun glass with case
Water resistant notebook
PS: I do not carry my powerful Canon DSLR (EOS 60D) for two reasons;

  1. Camera with lens pack/tripod are indeed bulky and eats space and time from my valuable expedition. 
  2. I normally go to field trip alone with some tricks to deter thieves  so carrying an expensive and bulky camera will surely give a "steal me" signal!

Start the day with a cuppa!

Cup of tea, in addition to all the refreshment and taste, work as a basic barometer and help you forecast the weather!
"If the bubbles move to the edge of the cup rather quickly, that's a good sign. Expect clear skies for the next 12 hours. 
If the bubbles hang around in the center of the cup, get out your rain gear. You can expect rain in 12 hours. 
If the bubbles slowly move to the edge of the cup, you may get a bit of weather, but it should be clearing in a few hours. 

Principle is simple; time taken for the bubbles to move towards the edge is directly proportional to the atmospheric pressure; lower the pressure (=chances of storm), slower the bubbles move to the edge and burst.

Sock trick

Who says you can't wear sock over the shoes! That is exactly I have been doing while criss-crossing over slippery intertidal rocks. Socks provide excellent friction that the best anti-skid shoes never give. After a tip from National Geographic many years ago. Also see news from New Zealand where this is used for walking on ice.

Be a "four legged animal" with cotton glove.  

Tip from Charley on FHL Field Course 2007. If you are an intertidal ecologist, you better be "a four legged animal" (with cotton gloves) on the slippery rocks.

Using condoms as underwater camera housing

under water camera housing 00
If you have a point-and-shoot camera and want to do some (ameteur) underwater snaps on the go or just to use on "splashy zone", a tip from DIY Photography might help, putting a pair of condoms over the camera, sealing and there you go! Make sure to cover lens hood with a PVC pipe little over the zoom range if you are using a super-zoom camera (mine is 20X optical zoom, and PVC is 1.5" 10 cm). In my experience photos look a bit hazy, but worth to have some serious money savings! Housing can cost double the camera price.

Estimating directions looking at satellite dish

If your sampling points are near some  residential area, satellite dish can be of great help in guessing directions on overcast days. Here in India almost all dishes point towards east (I've checked in Tata Sky, AirTel, Dish TV and Reliance DTH). Comment here if you know any exceptions. I heard that in US it points towards South. Check out the pattern in your country!

Resurrecting wet gardgets using a bag of rice.

Testimonial: Rice Resurrects Even the Most Soaked of GadgetsIt happened to me so many times in past that some of the gadget I carry accidently slipped to the water/drenched in rain/intertidal splash; now how to resurrect them? A bag of rice helps the best, a tip from one of my favorite blogs, Lifehacker. It really works, I have checked this tip on my smartphone that has taken the entire cycle in washing machine due to my sheer negligence! Rice is an excellant dehydrating agent. Or try silica if you are back in the lab from field trip!

Estimating time till sunset using hand

Tip from Groovy Matter, it is quite possible to estimate minutes till sunset pointing your hand towards horizon.
All you need to do is extend your arm fully and count the number of finger widths between the sun and the horizon. Each finger is about 15 minutes, which means each hand width should be about an hour. Remember that this is just an estimate, so if you want to be conservative, make sure to give yourself a bit more time than you measure if you want to get home before dark.

Use clothes hanger with a ziplock bag/PET bottle as a weighing balance

Approximate the Weight of Any Item Using a Clothes Hanger
A "genius little tip" from Lifehacker; if you are working on algal biomass or just to dispatch some of your samples over express courier, use clothes hanger and other supplies available in your hotel room to estimate the weight. Hang the hanger, tie one side with the weight standard ( specific gravity of water being close to 1, equate this with volume of water, measured using easily available PET bottles!) and the other side with sample, both in similar zip-lock bags.

Any other helpful tricks that you know? Disclose them in the comments!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Promotion Quota Bill: the iFlex Take

Yesterday Indian parliament lower house (Rajya Sabha)  passed 117th constitutional amendment for reservation in promotions for SC/ STs,  (aka Promotion Quota Bill)  with overwhelming majority despite stiff opposition from the Samajwadi Party (SP). My take on this issue is straightforward, do we need to jeopardize quality for the sake of equality?

I always consider that academic institutions, medical firms, governments and business have their main obligation to promote quality, not equality. Here in India, we have quotas for nearly everything; religion, caste, financial status and so on, a strategy promoted by corrupt politicians in an attempt to fish votes and ruining the quality. Many bright students lose out to getting admissions in good universities because of reservations, many bright candidates do not get jobs because of reservations.. it is just getting sick day by day.

We Indians call ours the largest democracy in the world. I wonder how you can call it democracy and yet dictate the kinds of people who should get selected and promoted? In a democracy, what's the point of a quota for gender, or religion, or race? It gives someone an unfair leg up when votes count the most. Unfortunately like a beauty queen contest, democracy and popular vote do not always settle on the most qualified people - and prejudice can keep under-represented from representation. I don't understand why people or legislative members do not realize that by increasing this segregation of the society they are promoting inequality and not equality that it is supposed to promote. One caste gets reservation, the other one says it's neglected and starts hate mongering. This has been going on for too long now, and not going to stop any time soon either. It will not be long before there will be a billion and a half quotas of reservation in India, everyone claiming that they are disadvantaged because they have been neglected in the other quota.

I foresee that the bill makes absolutely no difference in empowering backward classes; it will, their masters instead; corrupt politicians who drive India into a bureaucratic mess.

This is a ridiculous law and should be consigned to the scrap heap. You don't achieve democracy or equality with quotas.

Indian Railways, Scrap Western Out, Please!

Everyone in India knows it, experienced it, that the western toilets in trains are virtually useless. Western toilets are for "dry" type, to be used with tissue papers; while a vast majority of Indians prefer water over tissue . Indian/Asian toilets are built for just that; to clean with water. Western toilets with washlet are on rise in Punjab  (you turn a knob to spray water underneath, a miniature version of TOTO); it works fine as well. But all western toilets comes with a big catch; it obviously not good for public toilets comparing with Asian toilets; know why? Contact Transfer! Skin contact is the "silk route" for microbes to transmit contagious diseases and avoiding surfaces that are exposed to skin contact is the best practice for public hygiene- the very reason why infra-red based automatic water faucets were invented.

Coming to Indian Railways-world's biggest open toilet, everyone knows toilets are dirty and emanates ammonia stink such that spending a few minutes is sufficient for your cloths to absorb the stink. This is especially true for toilets in long haul trains that are approaching the destination without proper water supply. Look Udyan Abha Toofan express or Avadh Assam express, I have travelled more than 30 times in both of these trains in Sleeper class and never saw leaver for flush or got it working. What about western toilets? No one uses them; these are safe havens for smokers. Obviously Railways won't provide papers. Even if they do, western toilet seats are extremely soiled, wet, and you will spend good one hour just to clean it. Another reason why seats get soiled is that most of the male travellers just pee on to the toilet without lifting the seat (why to blame them, who dare to touch the seats!) With a million travellers daily, toilets in Indian trains are so much used and even in a perfect case scenario with properly clean and dry western toilets with alcohol sanitizing sprays/wipes, these under performs microbiologically comparing with Indian counterpart.

So come Railways, lets get rid of these nasty western toilets and convert them to Indian for the sake of public convenience and above all personal hygiene! Half of us in India have mobile phones but no toilets; let us use some common-sense to make existing toilets at least usable!