Saturday, July 25, 2015

Nalanda: A University or Just a Large Monastry?

Nalanda University seems to be in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Last year Arun Shourie mocked Marxist historians for their version of how the ancient monastry had been destroyed. Then came the drama around the resignation of Amarya Sen as the Founding Chancellor of the new avatar of Nalanda University.

Today I read an interesting book review by Andre Wink which asks a more basic question. On what basis are we claiming that Nalanda was India's greatest Buddhist monastry or as the world's first university?

According to Frederick M. Asher, author of "Nalanda: Situating the Great Monastry" there is insufficient credible evidence to even claim that the monastry at Nalanda ever was a university that taught a diverse range of subjects. Many of the structures we see today were built in the recent past using over 100,000 bricks of "large Gupta size"!

Since much of our understanding og Buddhist history is based on Tibetan and Chinese texts, perhaps we should continue to have tracking surveys on Nalanda alumni, and take all  tall claims with a pinch of salt..


* Arun Shourie (2015) -

* Asher (2015): Nalanda - Situating the Great Monastry, Marg -

* Wink (2015 review): Learning to unlearn, Indian Express -

WiFi Internet Connectivity

We just graduated from a dongle to a wifi router.

I must thank BSNL, MTS, Reliance and Tata Docomo for forcing us to take this quantum leap. All four of them have been providing such pathetic internet connectivity in Noida that we never really experienced a broadband internet connection at home, until today.

BSNL had everything going for it. It was the first one to lay down optic cables and hubs in the neighborhood and it was offering the most competitive rates too. Unfortunately they also had a bunch of linemen moulded in the licence-permit Raj. Since they just could not kick the habit of demanding  "baksheesh"from customers, they always ensured that the last-mile connectivity was primed to fail, as frequently as possible.

The telecom corporates fared no better. The slick ad campaigns from Reliance, MTS and Tata Docomo offered high-speed internet of "up to 21 Mbps". In reality this meant that the speeds could be anywhere between 0 Kbps and 450 Kbps, well within their promised range!

Our new service provider, a franchisee for Triple Play, simply promises a download speed and then delivers it. We now have a plan for 4Mbps speed till 25GB for Rs. 800/month. Speedtest has consistently confirmed that - at least so far - they have exceeded promises.

Unlike last time with BSNL, we have picked a wireless router on our own from the online market. A Netgear N150 (JNR1010v2) marked with an MRP of Rs. 1600 was available in Atta Market for Rs. 1200. The same thing is on Snapdeal for Rs. 784!

How on earth do they figure a pricing strategy in a market like this?


An attempt to make sense of the technical hocus-pocus:

Q. What is the radio frequency used by wifi routers?
A. Usually 2.4 GHz. for a maximum link speed of 150 Mbps. It is interesting to note that 'larger channel widths do not result in higher range, just faster speeds at close range'. So it is just as well that I did not buy a dual antenna N300 model for double the price!
Netgear's classification - details here.

Q. What is an "External 5dBi antenna"?
A. dBi stands for 'decibels relative to isotropic'. It represents  the direction and efficiency (Antenna Gain) with which a transmitter sends signals across distances. More here.

Q. The router conforms to four sets of international standards: Safety, EMC, Radio Spectrum and RoHS. What are these?
A. EMC = Electromagnetic Compatibility (European Standard - EN and International Electrotechnical Commission or IEC);
RoHS = Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive  - also known as the "lead-free directive" it restricts the use of six substances in manufacturing.




Friday, July 10, 2015

Plotting the History of Power

This remarkable graph has been doing the rounds on the internet.

I wonder who actually thought of this... Quite a bit of effort - and imagination - seems to have gone into creating this and it does give an idea of how people perceive the waxing and waning of power across history.

Please click to enlarge the JPEG file.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

A Butterfly in Sagar

This beauty was spotted atop Hari Parbat Fort in Srinagar, last month (June 2015).

What is it called?

My search led me to this US website called Discover Life. Despite its user-friendly search options the number of possible options stands at 120!

Then there is Butterflies of India. It seems like a great initiative by subject-specialists but most of its relevant pages are under construction now.

Even a scientific paper from Sher-e-Kashmir University did not seem to have this on their list...

Update - 27 July 2015

The answer is in - Indian Tortoiseshell Butterfly (Aglais kaschmirensis)

(Many thanks to Dr. Z.H. Khan, Associate Professor at SKUAST-K!)


* Khan (2011) - Diversity and Distribution of Butterflies in Kashmir Himalayas --

Monday, June 29, 2015

An Offer to Work in India

How difficult is it for science & technology to thrive in India?

Everytime I see a news article or TV reporter gushing about the achievements of a scientist or entrepreneur of Indian origin, I am reminded of Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. In 2009, soon after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Prof. Ramakrishnan declared, "Nobody has approached me about an offer to work in India. However, I can categorically state that if they did so, I would refuse immediately.”!

What explains this vehemance, this deep disenchantment?

Perhaps a part of the answer lies in the way we build and run our public-funded scientific institutions. Some of them are run like personal fiefdoms with no succession plan in sight ("after me the deluge!"), and in many others dedicated individuals find themselves embroiled in a constant battle with ted-tape.  

A couple of years ago, the official press release on the prestigious Marconi Prize  awarded to Prof. Paulraj, actually stated that he was driven out of India because "bureaucratic battles began to take their toll"... This was one scientist who returned to India, in 1986 from Stanford-U, and set up two institutions - CAIR and CDAC - before being hounded out. So he just went back to USA and went on to create the MIMO standard which is at the heart of 4G mobile technology we all use today.

Our short-sightedness was also highlighted recently in a widely circulated blogpost by Dheeraj Sanghi. Having been a member of numerous selection committee's, he describes how "Participating in...committee meetings can be very depressing as they expose this myth about India being the largest producer of scientific manpower."

Add to this the daily tussle we witness between the IITs/IIMs and the hon'ble Cabinet Minister for Human Resources Development, and the disheartening picture is all too complete.


* (12 May 2015) - Dheeraj Sanghi - The Quality of Faculty --

* (Firstpost, 2014): R. Jagannnathan -
- We need to ask ourselves: why does our system kill future heroes, while the US helps raise even ordinary Indians to iconic levels
- The short point: our system is designed to keep people out, not get them in. The true value of an IIT or IIM is not the intellectual capital they produce, but their filtering expertise

* (Hindu, 2009) - Nobel Laureate bemused by deluge of goodwill --

Sunday, May 31, 2015

2015 May - Interesting Articles & Links

* On GMOs -

* Intelligent jokes --

* On periods -

* Explained - Heat waves in India -

* Himalayas - a drone's view - Treton Sports -

* Ms. Abe in #India - the face of #Japan’s global engagement #DelhiMetro #TunnelEngineering -

* Five thins your Resume should convey --

* Technies in rural Japan -
- Kominka - ??? ?????? (n) old Japanese-style house

* TB: India study confirms Xpert diagnostic test's superiority --

* Weak Yen - good news & bad news --

* Indian Elite in USA --
- Remittances - $70 billion a year to their home country, more than any other group of expats. That adds up to 3.5% of India’s GDP, outstripping foreign direct investment.
- 91,000 Indian-born people with PhDs are now living in America

* Pritish Nandy - The Invisible Middle-class --

* Infrastructure: Asia's new battleground (Amitendu Palit, FE, 27May15) --
- China's overseas FDI is becoming larger than inbound FDI
- China's $40b Silk Road Fund -- AIIB $100b investment
- Japan's $110b for building infra in Asia

* Japan - Transfer Pricing Disputes -
- Royalty, tax dues, profitability of trading houses, and the commission paid

* J Robeiro in IE again - Strong and Small -

* Jumpa Lahiri on voluntary exile in Spain --

* Brilliant - Warplanes and counter-intuitive design --

* Risk-taking: Yes, you can. But should you?  --

* Why I dont want my child to be a doctor in India --

* Five Indian Journalists to follow --

* Masturbation - Health Benenits -

* Squatting is better -

* The limits of meritocracy --

* Malcom Gladwell on the surprising upside of being a loser --

* - calculate your dowry --

* Maggi - India's favorite comfort food -

* Daughter of the Meiji Samurai in USA -

* Labnol - best sites to learn coding -

* HowIndiaLives - data visualization -
- JohnRaja -

* Why the Rajputs failed miserably --

* Tips to get more for less from air travel (20May15, Hindu - Pradip Jayaram) -

* Follow-up on the "I am 20" documentary --

* Nepal quake - media was part of the problem -
* #NepalQuake - An unnatural disaster --
* Nepal before and after the quake --
* Nepal quake - helicopters rescuing only foreigners --

* The spectre of Anuna Shanbaug ---

* 7 Habits of Likable People --

* Tushaar Shah - Lessons from MP's bumper harvest -

* New GSK Shingles Vaccine may challenge Merck after strong test data (YahooNews 18Dec14) -

* Visvanathan, Shiv (18May15, Hindu) - The Commodification of Violence -

* Which is the most radioactive city? --

* Indian biotech firms turn the corner -
- A 'fail-fast' culture takes root in India -

* A handshake - coming to grips with it -

* The Sun though a NASA telescope -

* Nepal Quake - Wired article on the Yellow House hackers -

* MIT Tech Review - Innovators -

* Hyderabadi's don't give a damn about culture -

* Your DNA changes with the seasons --

* This should set alarm bells ringing for @makeinindia - #India #TechnicalEducation

* The perfect color combo app (Wired) --

* Knife-fish - wavy fins and the 20-to-1 ratio --
- NYT Science Videos -

* Bastar, Naxals and rich traditions -

* Online ad-injectors -

* Hersh, Seymyor (2015): The killing of Osama Bin Laden --

* #SalmanVerdict -- Story of a hit-and-run survivor --

* P Thakurta - on legal notice from the Ambani's on Gas Wars -
- In legal jargon, such notices are called SLAPP or strategic lawsuits against public participation – that is, litigation meant to harass, intimidate and silence critical writers who are expected to give in after they are faced with prospects of incurring high expenditure on legal defence.

* H1N1 Swine Flu - Extraordinary breakdown of public health --

* Fallout of Shourie's blast on Modi govt --

* Gawande - an avalanche of unecessary medicare -

* 11 habits to radically improve your life right now! ;) --

* Paronjoy Guha Thakurta on Prof. T.J Joseph - mutiliated by islamists in Kerala for a question-paper --

* How to draft your will --

* Bumblebees - India has 48 species! -

* Senegalese writer on immigrants --

* GMOs in the US --

* Nepal video --

* Dunning-Kruger Effect -
- a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

* Guha remembers an early birder - Zafar Futehally -
- environmental activists in India, I can confirm that they tend to be intensely self-regarding and extremely disputatious.
- he acted as a bridge between generations and between men with a larger sense of self-worth

* Darlymple - Lost Kingdoms - Indian influence in 700-1200AD -
- Met museum - Buddhism along the silk route -

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Drug Discovery in Noida

Recently, a small company I admire - Curadev Pharma PL - signed a $555 million deal with Roche, one of the oldest and largest bio-pharma companies in the world.

Amazingly, the news seems to have gone completely unnoticed by India's 'mainstream media'.

To be sure, there are a number of good reasons why this development was "newsworthy", especially when everybody seems to harping on the "Make in India" mantra:

Curadev is based out of Noida, a New Delhi suburb, miles away from the nearest biotechnology park or national lab. It has created and sustained world-class R&D facilities in a neighborhood prone to extended, unscheduled power outages;  It has built a team of dedicated professionals in an industry where loyalties are fickle at best and, now, it has entered into a partnership with a pharma major at a time when industry counterparts have settled themselves into making "copycat" drugs & formulations.

So what exactly has Curadev achieved?

An Investigational New Drug (IND) developed by Curadev holds the promise of medical treatment for a wide range of cancers. IND is an FDA technical term for a drug that is 'the subject of an approved marketing application' before it is transported or distributed. In this case the IND is for new drug molecule that could inhibit IDO1 (indoleamine-2, 3-dioxygenase-1) and TDO (tryptophan-2, 3-dioxygenase) -- two enzymes that mediate cancer-induced immune suppression.

Cancer cells grow and proliferate because they are able to fool our immune systems. Many different types of cancer cells produce enzymes like IDO1 and TDO which break down our neurotransmitters before they can alert our immune systems. The new molecule discovered by Curadev would inhibit IDO1 and TDO produced by cancerous cells, allowing our immune system to do its job of marking and destroying unwanted, dangerous cells.

Most Indian companies that reach the IND stage do not have the financial stamina to run the drug discovery marathon. They usually end up selling their discoveries to Big Pharma. Curadev has bucked this trend and entered into a strategic partnership for the next stage.

Lets hope this will lead Curadev to a real blockbuster that is 'Made in India'!


Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Emergency Evacs

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, is it fair to permit emergency evacuations based on nationality?

Five year's ago we faced a similar set of questions in Japan. One of the biggest quakes of the century (9.0) had just struck Japan while we were at the University of Tsukuba. The city was about 300km away from the epicentre we had just seen a high-tech, wealthy prefecture reduced to a helpless, confused silence.

At the evacuation centre, students from various countries seemed to naturally gravitate towards their own compatriots. The Bangladeshi's quickly organised themselves into a self-help group, all the Africans huddled together in one hall, the EU folks in another corner, and everybody else tried to figure out places from where they could get food, drinking water, or even a bath.

Then came the news that the Australian government was sending a bus to ferry all the Australians from Tsukuba to Narita airport. At the time we greeted the news with a mix of envy and relief. Envy for those who found an easy way out, and relief that there would be so much less strain on limited supplies.

The recent earthquake in Nepal brought back these memories, and raised them to an altogether different level.

A friend in Kathmandu operates a travel company that promotes social tourism. Since many of his clients had got stranded in remote rural areas, he spent considerable money and time in hiring helicopters to get them out. When the locals realised that the rescuers had come in to pick up only foreigners, and that they did not have space to accommodate even the seriously wounded villagers, they had started pelting stones at the choppers. Luckily, in this case, an air crash did not add to the body count.

Then came this news about Langtang village in northern Nepal. The entire village was flattened, burying about 100 foreign trekkers and 150 Nepali's. Here is a excerpt from the report -

On the third day after the quake a helicopter landed, but hopes of rescue were dashed when the pilots said they were only there to evacuate Japanese nationals.
A few hours later two more choppers came, this time with an order to evacuate only Israelis -- although they did agree to take the two wounded Nepalis after the hikers protested.
After another 36 hours had passed with no sign of helicopters the mood in the village grew increasingly sombre, until (somebody) finally spotted a US chopper, which made multiple trips and flew them (foreigners) all to safety.
I keep wondering how the tourists felt about their cut-and-run response...