Book Review: Indica by Pranay Lal


Balancing the nuanced and involved intricacies of the scientific method versus proselytizing the fantastic “factoids” of popular science is a tough act. Having to straddle this line to focus on the geology and geobiological history of the Indian subcontinent, an ambitiously multidisciplinary topic, on which there are scant accessible texts (popular science or not), is an even tougher act to follow. Fortunately, Pranay Lal manages to achieve such a balance and convey his infectious enthusiasm about the subject matter rather effectively for the most part of Indica’s ~400 pages.

It was refreshing and enjoyable to learn about new geological and paleontological “factoids” of the Indian subcontinent - a topic dear to my heart. The detailed place-markers and the McPhee-esque narratives of sites where geological features are found scattered throughout India was highly interesting. The accompanying photographs and schematics are also very nicely done. You can quickly see that Lal put in hours and hours of (non-book-based) research into Indica — it shows. It felt as if Indica was an attempt to channel Sagan) or Bryson or Winchester but with a focus on the history of the Indian subcontinent — a fantastic idea, and frankly, it’s puzzling that it took someone so long to do so. However, it becomes apparent through Lal’s reporting that it is quite challenging to piece together and chronicle information on such a vastly “big-picture” topic, especially when construction, urban expansion, and apathy are on their path to eroding many of India’s geological marvels.

Lal is a geneticist by training and his disposition towards anthropology, biology, and paleontology becomes discernible as his writing on these topics shines. For example, his narrative on the evolutionary history of the recently discovered Indian purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahayadrensis), its evolutionary ties to another frog found in Seychelles, and its parallels to the tuatara or kiwi was a treat to read. Moreover, the lengthy descriptions of India’s Phanerozoic paleoenvironment and the medley of dinosaurs that walked on the subcontinent were entertaining. The closing chapters on hominid evolution and India’s potential contribution to this story was thought-provoking.

As a downside to Indica, there are many small inaccuracies and factoids conveyed with certainty that are really more uncertain than presented. My friend Suvrat Kher has an excellent blog post on many problematic sections that mainly deal with sedimentology, tectonics, and mantle dynamics. I can echo Suvrat’s concerns in the paleomonsoon and paleoclimate domain where, amongst other things, Lal makes it seem as if we have a more concrete picture of the vagaries of the monsoon, its initiation, and its intensification than we actually do. Many of these points amount to more than sheer nitpicking. Ultimately, these inaccuracies are a significant downside to Indica, and I wonder about more such errors revolving around geobiology or other realms far removed from my own field. Nevertheless, these inaccuracies did not prevent me from puzzling about them for a few minutes and moving on, driven by Lal’s ardor (one day, on my second read, I might find the time to write down my concerns as well and as thoroughly as Suvrat did).

As a closing statement, Indica is for anyone and everyone interested in the geological natural history of the Indian subcontinent. It should be mandatory reading for anyone working on the topic, and more importantly, for students/workers who do read it, I recommend trying to spot the inaccuracies and perhaps making a list.

Review: Note-Taking Apps on the iPad

I've been a little late to the party after having acquired an iPad (I'm using an iPad Mini 4), but I've finally delved a little deeper into (handwriting) note-taking apps. Although I am a big proponent of putting pen on paper, taking digital notes to boost academic productivity makes a lot of sense for many reasons including a lighter load to carry, optical character recognition, easy digital access to your favorite file management system, quick incorporation of media into your notes etc. Currently, I still prefer my fountain pen and paper for brainstorming and refining ideas, but over the last few weeks, I’ve found that note-taking apps have been very useful in navigating the day-to-day activities of academia including meetings, seminars, and Skype sessions.

When it comes to handwriting apps on the iPad, in my opinion, a stylus is essential. I haven't caved in yet for an Apple pencil but I have found a really good stylus which I would recommend (and is much cheaper!) A stylus is especially useful because most of these apps have a magnifier feature which makes it easier to write neatly and organize your notes. I've tried out three different apps and this post details the pros and cons according to my experience.

The apps I've looked into:

  1. Penultimate (Free)
  2. Notability ($9.99)
  3. GoodNotes ($7.99)


 An example screenshot from Penultimate.

An example screenshot from Penultimate.


  • It's FREE!
  • Seamless sync with Evernote
  • Great variety and breadth of templates to choose
  • Colors and lines are visually pleasing
  • Handwriting algorithm renders a rather crisp display which is aesthetically pleasing


  • No Optical Character Recognition (OCR) feature
  • The "auto-scroll" option while on magnification is really clunky
  • Difficult to organize and subcategorize notes
  • No multi-tab feature and overall basic customization
  • Cannot set different margins for return on magnifier
  • No sound recording option
  • Not intuitive to incorporate images/media
  • Cannot edit the notes via freehand option on Evernote

Verdict: Penultimate was the first app I tried out because it was free and synced with Evernote (a file management software I use heavily). It is a good app to get your feet wet but with several missing features that make note-taking apps work for academic productivity, such as OCR, organization utility, and smooth movement on magnification, it doesn't make the final cut. 


 An example screenshot from Notability.

An example screenshot from Notability.


  • You can record notes with your microphone! Furthermore, you can playback the audio with an in-situ note-taking sync!
  • The design is clean, minimal, and effective
  • Highly customizable backgrounds
  • The handwriting algorithm is really smooth


  • It's expensive as far as iPad apps go...
  • No OCR feature
  • No auto-shape tool which can be very useful for annotation and organization
  • The margins on magnifier can't be changed (useful for column-type note writing)
  • Subcategorization and bookmarking features aren't available
  • Not a lot of diversity in templates

Verdict: Notability is a great app on the whole, with its design and interface being truly top-notch. The real winner for Notability is its note-sync-enabled microphone option and if this is something that appeals to you, it' really the way to go. The dealbreaker for me was the lack of OCR, where you can select your handwritten text and convert it into characters. 


 An example screenshot from GoodNotes.

An example screenshot from GoodNotes.


  • OCR enabled! This gives quick access to a multitude of workflows and avenues for sharing (tweet on the fly etc.)
  • Magnification mode works seamless and ability to set different margins is very useful
  • The ability to bookmark and subcategorize 'notebook shelves' makes organization a breeze
  • Colors and point sizes are highly customizable
  • The freehand tool that produces automatic shapes (lines/circles etc.) is really useful
  • Multi-tab feature is highly effective for multitasking
  • Plenty of templates including mobile+guitar templates
  • Integrating media (PDFs/images) into the app is intuitive and effective


  • No microphone recording feature
  • Background paper color is fixed
  • Doesn't have as many bells and whistles as the others, making for a rather "plain" interface (although, this isn't really a problem for me)

Verdict: GoodNotes emerges as an easy winner for my needs. The balance between customization, features, and utility makes it simply "work" when needed and this is a huge plus for me. The magnification mode on GoodNotes proved to be the smoothest interface (with customizable margins) and sometimes you forget that you are (in the future!) and writing on a glass tablet. The lack of a recording option is unfortunate but honestly, even while I was on Notability, it was not something that I used frequently. Over the last few weeks, I have written several notes using GoodNotes and its organizational structure along with Evernote workflows caters to all my note-taking requirements.

TL;DR Verdict:

  • If you are picky about organizing your notes and want a great interface that simply "works",  GoodNotes is a fantastic bet.
  • If recording audio while taking down notes is something that appeals to you (can be useful to students in classrooms), go with Notability.
  • If you want to stick with a free app and get the ball rolling with handwriting apps, Penultimate is a solid option.

Sediment Traps and Plankton Tows

A very pretty Cocodrie sunset with the R/V Pelican.

Better late than never I suppose, but I wanted to document our short research cruise aboard the R/V Point Sur that happened early last month. It was another routine sediment trap operation, but this one really stood out because we happened to see some really cool critters at sea!

As usual, the northern Gulf of Mexico sediment trap crew (Eric Tappa from the University of South Carolina, Julie Richey and Caitlin Reynolds from the USGS, myself, and another helping hand from Michael Lis, an undergraduate student from UT Austin working with me) made our way down to LUMCON at Cocodrie, Louisiana and boarded the R/V Pelican to start our transit to the sediment trap mooring site. However, things did not go as planned (as is common in the field) and our overnight transit was halted short, as we had already turned back towards port after leaving it only some hours before! It turned out that there were some serious engine problems on the ship which entailed something we could not afford - delays. Luckily, as we were sulking around LUMCON taking an in-depth look at their impressive library, the R/V Point Sur came to our rescue and their crew graciously agreed to charter our operation. 

 Relief as the sediment trap comes up to the surface. Picture credit: Michael Lis.

Relief as the sediment trap comes up to the surface. Picture credit: Michael Lis.

This time, apart from sediment trap redeployment operations, we had an additional exciting task: using the plankton tow. A plankton tow is a vital tool used to sample plankton that floats freely in the surface ocean. It is, in essence, a giant net with a fine mesh that we can trawl around and look at what comes up. We intended to sample some plankton at the sediment trap site. In any case, here’s a picture collage of some of the amazing creatures we were lucky enough to catch in our plankton tow:

I'm really excited about the upcoming science from this research trip. Hopefully, we can find some interesting results! Until my next voyage, I will certainly miss being out at sea!