Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Drugs based on antibodies have been in use for a long time now. So far, almost all these antibody-based drugs have been derived from animal sources -- usually mammalian cells from hamsters -- and then grown in large stainless steel vats. US-FDA has approved around 30 such drugs, including blockbuster cancer therapies such as Avastin and Rituxan (Roche).

The ongoing Ebola epidemic has brought into focus antibodies derived from plants (aka Plantibodies!). In the absence of any credible therapies, Mapp Pharmaceuticals (San Diego, USA) has been permitted to produce experimental 'Plantibodies' to treat two infected medical workers. Despite lower costs of plant-based production (~1/10th!) not many companies are into this area. The only such FDA approved drug is Elelyso, an enzyme produced from genetically engineered carrots, manufactured by Israel's Protalix Biotherapies, and marketed by Pfizer.

Which are the ~30 animal-derived drugs currently in the market? Why is it that major pharma companies are shying away from plant-based production lines that is supposed to be cheaper?


* Plantibodies (Reuters, 18Aug14) --  http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/17/us-health-ebola-plants-analysis-idUSKBN0GH0DU20140817

* Ebola puts focus on drugs made in Tobacco plants -- http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/latestnews/Ebola-puts-focus-on-drugs-made-in-tobacco-plants

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Say Cheese!

This is one of the best selfie's I've come across. Last week a random simian in Indonesia triggered a huge debate on copyright and IPRs.

I am so glad to know that the monkey won! :)

Say Cheeese!

New Yorker (8 Aug): Wikipedia Defends the Monkey Selfie

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Extra Special Economic Zones

When it comes to productivity and export-competitiveness of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), clearly some states in India fare a lot better than the others.

How much better? If today's official press release (PIB) is to believed, more than 10 times!

18 SEZs in Gujarat exported, on an average, Rs. 12,500 Crores (US$ 2 billion) worth of goods & services. Its employees were by far much more productive too, with each employee sending out stuff worth nearly Rs. 3 Crores.

There are states with more than twice the number of export-zones with a fraction of Gujarat's productivity. Andhra Pradesh (pre-division) has 42; Tamil Nadu has 34 SEZs while Maharashtra and Karnataka have 25 each. Yet, for the latter three states average exports-per-SEZ hovers in the range of just Rs. 2000 crores.

What accounts for this huge difference? Is it that industries like diamond-polishing have export margins much more than any other goods or services?


* "Functioning of SEZs" (6 Aug 2014) - PIB Press Release from Ministry of Commerce & Industry - Response to Rajya Sabha unstarred question No. 2919 - URL - http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=0

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Cost of a Fruit Fly

This fruit-fly (Bacterocera dorsalis) has cost Indian farmers and horticulturists Rs. 50 Crores in export earnings this year.

Quarantine officials in the European Union detected traces of fruit-fly larvae in a consignment of mangoes and promptly placed a ban on imports. They want to avoid, as far as possible, the chances of their own fruit & vegetable patches getting infested with this particular insect.

Is the fear unfounded? Can this tropical insect survive the European winters? If 400 hundred years of trade did not transmit it, it is rational to believe that by just closing the dock gates to this fruit-fly will be of any help?


* Verma, Varuna (2014): PEST CONTROL, The Telegraph, 4Jun14 -- http://www.telegraphindia.com/1140604/jsp/opinion/story_18476634.jsp#.U4_14vmSwSM

* Note on Non-Tarrif-Barriers imposed by other countries - http://www.apeda.gov.in/apedawebsite/Databank/NTBs_July_08.pdf

* The EU Combined Nomenclature (CN) -- http://ec.europa.eu/taxation_customs/customs/customs_duties/tariff_aspects/combined_nomenclature/index_en.htm

* International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) -- https://www.ippc.int/

* Compliance standards of USDA-APHIS (Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service) - http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wps/portal/aphis/home/

Hello Finland!

How did Finland become home to Nokia?

On the face of it seems like an unlikely picture - a frigid, Nordic country as large as Thailand or Rajasthan state, with a population less than a third of Delhi's, it has managed to build an amazing manufacturing industry, centered on sophisticated equipment.

In a recent article, Ricardo Hausman, points out that the Finns started out quite logically by building on their biggest strength - its forests. So it was hardly surprising that a country with the highest forest-cover (75%) in Europe, would have a stong lumbering industry.

Yet, it went much, much beyond timber-based industries. It take good tools to bring down the huge trees, so they make excellent cutting machines; It is easier to transport paper than wood, so they have an advanced paper manufacturing industry.

A snowbound country with a population density of just 16/sqkm can be tough, so they built a good transportation, and a wireless communication industry.

How many other countries have transformed their weaknesses into strengths?


* Ricardo Hausmann - http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/ricardo-hausmann-advises-poor-countries-not-to-focus-solely-on-adding-value-to-natural-resource-exports

* Trade in Finland - Imports & Exports - http://atlas.media.mit.edu/profile/country/fin/

* Examining Benefication - http://ricardohausmann.com/?p=878

* Forest Cover in Finland - the highest in Europe -- http://www.forest.fi/smyforest/foresteng.nsf/allbyid/BE3C5576C911F822C2256F3100418AFD?Opendocument

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Two Books on Africa

It is a coincidence that two of the books I have 'read' over the past weeks have both been on Africa.

The first was Chinua Achebe's 1958 classic, "Things Fall Apart", and the second one, Dorris Lessing's part fiction, part memoir, "Alfred and Emily". Both the books were connected in strange ways.

The Achebe's book is set in the pre-colonial Nigeria of 1890's. It is about a warrior named Okonkwo whose life and social standing is altered by the arrival of the White Man. The first one who turns up an amiable, gentle priest who wants to introduce Christianity to the remote villages of the Niger delta. He is something of a curiosity, worthy of being engaged and disdained at the same time. By the time it dawns on Okonkwo's community that this is just a soft, probing tentacle of a formidable British colonial administration, it is too late. Guns and machete's have been drawn, blood is spilt, tribes have been set against each other....and Things Fall Apart.

In Lessing's narrative, the view is from the other side of the fence, a few decades later. Countries like Kenya and Rhodesia have emerged out of the the same process that transformed West Africa. An apartheid system is well entrenched. The white farmer now lords over large tracts of land and employs locals as farm laborers, cooks, servants and menials. Tribal hierarchies have been decimated and the most coveted position a local can aspire to is that of the "Boss-Boy", an overseer to other laborers.

For the European settlers, this is a heaven they wouldn't trade for anything that Europe has to offer. Yet, once again, change is just around the corner. African freedom movements sweep aside the white settlers and the rich farmlands return to the bush. Things fall apart once again but for the ordinary Africans who want to pick up the pieces and start over again, there are no social structures to fall back on.

These two books tell stories that have perhaps been repeated a thousand times over in Asia, the Americas and Australia...

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Patagonian Worms

There has just been a shoot-out in the FIFA World Cup. Brazil has squeaked past Chile in a tournament that is now almost completely dominated by the South Americans.

Over the past few days, my mind too has been dominated by a book on the same region -- Bruce Chatwin's classic 1977 travelogue: In Patagonia.

It is the sort of book that makes you want to take the first available ship across the oceans to the "New World". The book begins with one man's quest for fossils and prehistoric civilizations but soon
swerves into the  age in which migrants, pirates, gold-hunters and farmers - most of them fleeing Europe - dislodged and decimated the Indians to make themselves home in a cold, hostile region.

The story of John Davis, in particular, caught my attention. He was the captain of a bunch of mutineers, abroad a ship called the "Desire". Off the coast of Patagonia (now S. Argentina and S. Chile), he came came across an island full of Jackass Penguins. The crewimmediately set about clubbing more than 20,000 of these penguins to death.

Davis and his comrades then stuffed as many of these carcases as possible into into their ship's hold and set sail again. As they approached the warm tropics, certain worms appeared from the decaying penguin flesh.

"There was nothing they did not devour," wrote Davis. "They destroyed shoes, clothing and then they began to eat the ship's timbers, threatening to gnaw through the sides. The more we laboured to kill them, the more they increased. At last we could not sleep for them; they would eat our flesh and bite like mosquitoes."

Out of a crew of 75 men, just 16 managed to reach Ireland.

What were these maggots or worms? has anybody studied them?


Miller, Mara (): DRESSED TO KILL

Wiki -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Patagonia

Life of John Davis -- http://www.forgottenbooks.com/readbook_text/A_Life_of_John_Davis_the_Navigator_1550-1605_Discoverer_of_Davis_1000694547/313

Patagonia - A Cultural History -- English Mariners: Cavendish, Davis and Byron -- Google Books

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Up & Away: Para-gliding in Himachal Pradesh

"It is quite easy....just lean, put your weight forward and run."

In any other place this seemed like an easy instruction to follow, but I was standing on a cliff 2500m high in the Himalayan foothills, preparing for tandem para-gliding jump, with an instructor standing behind me.

A few minutes earlier, we had driven up from a Tibetan settlement called Bir, near Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. A friend had called up a people she knew and were now waiting for our turn to jump. On the barren hilltop called Billing, a young woman was screaming that she did not want to jump while her boyfriend giggled nervously, putting on a brave face.

While the couple sorted out their nerves, our instructors quickly laid out parachutes on the hilltop, strapped us to the bucket-like suits, and before we knew it, our family of three had 'leaned forward' and found our feet feet suddenly dangling limp as the parachute soared into the skies.

It was an amazing experience. Each of us swirled over the hilltops in gentle circles and slowly glided over thick forests, monasteries, villages and wheat-fields before touching down at Bir.

As soon as we landed, the pilots gathered up the billowing parachutes, folded them back into their bags and guided us back to our starting point.

We had a  hearty lunch, picked up a few bottles of fruit wine and drove back to Palampur, stopping for a few minutes at the picturesque Binsar temple.

A few days after got back home we got a bit of news that rattled us. Our friend in Palampur had jumped off the same cliff and his parachute had developed a snag. Both the instructor and the student had plunged into the forest below and had been lucky to get their parachute tangled on an oak tree. It took more than two hours for them to disentangle themselves and clamber down the 60ft tree.

Considering  the fact there there were plenty of bald, deforested hills in the Bir-Billing area, this had been a close shave indeed!

Now, looking back, we realized that there had been absolutely no paperwork involved in our little adventure. We had not registered ourselves with any adventure company, we did not know if our instructors and pilots were adequately qualified for tandem flying and we had not received any receipts for the Rs.1500 each of us paid for the jump.

Was there any accountability in this line of adventure tourism?

As always, there are two sides to the story. The entrepreneurs who organize these adventure camps are quite wary of government oversight. The tourism-department 'inspectors' have neither the stomach nor the aptitude to handle the outdoors. Most of them would just be interested in squeezing the entrepreneurs for handing out permits and clearance certificates.

So, as of now, it appears that the para-gliding entrepreneurs just "insure" themselves offering free para-gliding trips to friends and families of the local decision-makers.  If you want a free-ride, all you have to do is turn up at Bir and flaunt your 'connections'.

In the long run, we all lose. Fewer people will try out this amazing sport. The total absence of paperwork or any form of oversight also guarantees we will not learn the right lessons when para-gliders suddenly drop off the skies.

Listen Up!

I just discovered an entirely new dimension to "reading books".

You can be washing the dishes, ironing the clothes or just pacing up and down on the terrace, while your mind is far-far away -- on a steamer chugging down the Congo river in Africa, or a strange hotel room in Sapporo-Japan or on a chilled pina-colada on the sun-kissed beaches of Hawaii. Audio books are just amazing.

All you have to do is to download the MP3 files on to your mobile phone, keep a set of earphones handy, and plug in whenever you have a few minutes to spare during the day.

My first audio book "Arabian Days and Nights" by Naguib Mahfouz,  the second, VS Napaul's "A Bend in the River". Today I finished my third book - Haruki Murakami's "Dance, Dance, Dance".

The two were quite distinct from each other. Naipaul's book was set in Africa and narrated by a person who seem to have really put himself into the shoes of Salim, the main protagonist, an ethnic Indian trader trying to make a name for himself in the dark interiors of Africa, at a town located at the 'bend of a river'. The book was fairly straightforward and so was the narrative.

Murakami's book was far more complex. It had almost all the usual ingredients - complex emotions, gourmet food, wine, sex, music, mysterious women, and surreal experiences. Cats were conspicuously absent. However, in narrator here is just not able to do justice to the women characters, all of whom uniformly sounded like transvestites.

Yet, this is just a minor quibble.

The convenience - and the advantages - of having interesting books readily available in your mobile helps you squeeze out much more out of your 24-hours, than ever before. You can give your eyes too some rest, for good measure!