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 --

Life of John Davis --

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!

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Behind the Optic Fibre Networks

A hot summer afternoon in New Delhi. Next to a roadside manhole sit three youngsters under a rainbow colored umbrella. Clouds of dust swirling around them as they worked on dozens of strands of optic-fiber, each almost as thin as human hair.

Sweaty hand were deftly picking the strands one by one. They would be clipped using a small machine, wiped with a piece of tissue paper and then inserted into another unusual piece of equipment. Readings were being taken on a screen and then the process would start all over again with the next slender fiber.

The workers were apparently from Tata Telecom. They were just checking on a customer complaint on slow internet speeds. The equipment had come from "Fujikura" - 'Fuji's warehouse'. 

Fujiwara's equipment had customer-focus written all over it. Here was a semi-literate worker working in a dusty ditch in Delhi, using a sturdy piece of equipment made a company located 6000km away in Japan.

The wonders of technology -- and human ingenuity!

Friday, May 23, 2014

FDI and the Export of Polluting Industries

An interesting article was posted on Academia today - "Japan's Global Environmentalism: Rhetoric and Reality".

It was a bit dated (1998) but the topic dealt with a time-period when I worked with Japanese ODA, and of how Japan deliberately advocating high-tech solutions to environmental problems in developing countries simply in order to maximize purchases of capital-intensive technology and high-tech production services from Japan.

Numerous I-wish-I-knew-that-before points turned up, for instance -

  • The disastrous and ultimately aborted Narmada Dam project of theWorld Bank was closely linked to hydroelectric facilities funded by Japanese ODA (Kuroda, 1992).
  • Japanese environmental problems have been transferred along with FDI in mining and manufacturing operations to developing countries like Malaysia and the Philippines (Harada, 1991; Kojima, 1994;Nester, 1990; Ofreneo, 1993; Ui, 1989).
  • Kawasaki’s transfer of its iron ore sintering plant to the Philippines after environmental lawsuits were filed by local citizens near the original location in ChibaCity, Japan (Yokoyama, 1992).
  • Japanese-made pollution filters do not work because the energy inputs are from low-grade coal, instead of the higher-quality fuels domestic Japanese corporations use. Therefore, dirty industries have been transferred overseas without the environmentally cleaner—but more expensive—technology which would be used if these industries were located within Japan (Harada, 1991). 
  • Japanese practice of dumping of hazardous waste in the oceans, and exports of waste to Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand (Kumamoto, 1994). 
  • Japan is the only OECD country not to adopt the decision on the Control of Trans-frontier Movements of Wastes Destined for Recovery Operations (Hopp and Olson,1994). 
  • 15% of Japan’s landmass has been slated for resort development as a consequence of the 1987 Resort Act (Beasley, 1992), and much of this land has been used for golf courses. Recently, high land prices in Japan have fueled the expansion of golf courses across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
  • In the early 1990s some of the world’s highest rates of deforestation occurred in Sarawak, Malaysia, where over 66% of logs were being exported to Japan to fuel demand for logs and pulp(Thompson, 1993).
  • In fact Japan leads the world in the importation of tropical hardwoods by a large margin (ITTO, 1995). Japan also has extensive FDI in wood chip and pulp production in Chile, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the USA.
  • Instead of banning tropical hardwood imports or urging its Southeast Asian neighbors to ban exports, Japan’s solution instead has been to offer environmental aid for reforestation. Reforestation, however, usually consists of particular species of imported trees (primarily eucalyptus) which are most profitable for export (Ui, 1989: 396).
  • In the Philippines, Japanese aid has modernized the fishing port and market facilities and most of the large commercial fishing operations are Japanese owned (Ofreneo, 1993). As a result of over-fishing and ocean pollution,small-scale Filipino fishermen’s annual catch has been reduced dramatically (Broadand Cavanagh, 1993).
  • Mitsubishi was a major contributor to Indonesian deforestation (Hurst,1990) and currently owns large shares of interests in logging companies, saw mills,and dangerously polluting industries in Malaysia (Karan and Jasparro, 1998).

The complete paper, published in Political Grography is available here.

> Taylor, Jonathan (1998): Japan's Global Environmentalism: Rhetoric and Reality, Pergamon Political Geography, 18, 1999

Monday, May 19, 2014

What is Biotechnology?

Recently, I was witness to an interesting exchange between two professors. One was using Tissue Culture to raise orchids, and sell them to farmers, while the other ran 'Biotech Park' where the latest gene-splicing technology was being used to make recombinant-DNA products. The latter insisted that Tissue Culture was merely 'agriculture' and that it did not qualify to be called Biotechnology.

So what is Biotechnology?

According to the United Nations,

"Biotechnology refers to any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use."
(Article 2 of the Convention of Biological Diversity and Article 2(d) of the Nagoya Protocol)

OECD says the same thing a bit more precisely:

Biotechnology refers to activities that apply scientific logic and technologies to organisms, parts or part of an organism, products, and product-related models in the process of modifying living organisms or non-living things with the aim of producing knowledge, goods, and services (OECD data, 2004)

Government of India has a definition colored by socialism:

"Biotechnology... refers to tools and technologies that address the problems of agriculture productivity, food production, nutrition security, health care and environmental sustainability by providing new and emerging products and services at affordable prices, generate employment opportunities and make India globally competitive in the emerging bio-economy."
(DBT - Vision)

Wikipedia prefers to keep it short and simple:

"Biotechnology is the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make useful products"

Whichever way you look at it, Biotechnology seems to include everything from TC to gene manipulation.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Behind that Yummy Crust

Is there a connection between Asparagus, the golden-brown crust on breads, and... cancer?

Its amazing how our understanding of organic chemistry can change the way look at the most ordinary things in life.

Among the 20 most commonly found amino-acids (the 'bricks' that make proteins) is one called Asparagine. It was the first AA to be isolated and it was originally found in - no prizes for guessing here - Asparagus juice. Since then asparagine has been found in many places - especially in starchy foods.

When starchy substances are baked or fried, asparagine undergoes a process called Maillard Reaction, responsible for giving baked/roasted/fried foods their brown color, crust and toasty flavor. Unfortunately the reaction also produces carcinogens like Acryamide and some heterocyclic amines.

How does one deal with this problem? Apparently, if you add an enzyme (Asparaginase) to break down Asparagine in the starchy substances,  the amount of Acryamide can be reduced by 90% without any change in food taste, color or 'crustiness'!

The problem is that food-grade Asparaginase does not come cheap.

Until public-awareness matches with buying power, perhaps we will all continue to consume carcinogens with each bite into a crusy morsel!


- Mannitol - sugar derivatie used to prodce medicine -
- Tumor cells too cannot make their own Asparagine, a non-essential  amino acid. L-A removes it from the blood and starves tumors to death!
- Present marketshare of for therapeutic recombinant proteins is around $200 billion
- Erythropoietin - A glycopptotein hormone / cytokine (protein signalling molecule) that controls RBC production (erythropoiesis). Mkt leader - Amgen ($2.15b)


An enzyme in India -

* Mohan, Vishwa (2014): Unique enzyme discovered by CSIR institution to increase shelf life of fruits and vegetables, ToI, 11May2014
- CSIR-Institute of Himalayan Bio-resource Technology (CSIR-IHBT), Palampur has signed a MoU with its industry partner— Phyto Biotech, Kolkata, to formalize technology transfer for production of unique enzyme which may be used in developing anti-ageing cream.
- enzyme — Super Oxide Dismutase (SOD) — may also be used in food and pharmaceutical industries for end applications like extending shelf life of fruits and vegetables.
- Medicinal plant based research, discovery of APIs and related molecules
- enzyme — Super Oxide Dismutase (SOD) — may also be used in food and pharmaceutical industries for end applications like extending shelf life of fruits and vegetables.
- Source - 10,000 feet in the Western Himalayan region from Potentila astrosangunia, plant growing under snow cover
- work over the years has resulted in the isolation of the SOD gene -  a protocol was developed for cloning of the gene in E Coli.
- stability and functionality ranging from sub-zero to high temperature (above 40°C) with varying specific activity