Monday, October 13, 2014

A Nobel for Triole's Economics


An excellent article explaining the work of this year's Nobel Prize winner in Economics - Jean Triole.

Cassidy, John (2014): WHY JEAN TRIOLE WON THE ECONOMICS NOBEL, The New Yorker, 13 October, 2014, URL - http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/worthy-economics-nobel-jean-tirole.

After seeing the profs at Tsukuba-U in action, I loved this opening jab on the subject:

"....setting aside the merits or demerits of individual awards, the very existence of the prize has contributed to the pretense that economics can, with the application of enough mathematics, be converted from a messy social science into a hard science along the lines of physics and chemistry."

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MORE LINKS:

Business Standard Editorial (14 Oct'14) -- http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/a-nobel-for-incentives-114101301276_1.html
"PPP contracts [between a bureaucrat and a company] need to be carefully reviewed by independent authorities that can expose hidden rent backloading... PPPs can be expected to entail higher transaction costs." It is worth noting that this paper has been available since June 2007. This insight is something that Indian policymakers are only now accepting after considerable pain - though a clear independent authority is still not even on the anvil.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Kashmir before Haider



Yesterday, I saw the movie "Haider". I liked it.

For the first time Bollywood seems to have made an attempt to present a balanced picture of the endless cycle of violence in Kashmir. It is the story of a doctor who cares more about saving lives than about political affiliations; an army officer who reckons its better to blow up a home to kill a militant than to lose his men to sniper fire; an aspiring politician who snitches on his own brother so that he can marry his sister-in-law, and a son who goes through all this in a daze...

Yet, the image that is etched in my mind is that of a temple in ruins. It lends a dramatic backdrop to a mediocre song-and-dance sequence but as the cameras pan in and out of the broken stonework, questions come pouring out: Who built this massive shrine? When? Who brought it down? Why? What did the original structure look like?...



The Martanda Sun Temple stands on the Anantnag plateau, overlooking the Kashmir valley. The original temple is said to have come up around 370AD. A few centuries later, it was expanded by a king named Lalitaditya Muktapida (725-756AD). It stood for a thousand years before it was destroyed by Sikander But-shikan (idol-breaker).

During his reign (1389-1413AD)  -
"Hindu temples were felled to the ground and for one year a large establishment was maintained for the demolition of the grand Martand temple. But when the massive masonry resisted all efforts, fire was applied and the noble buildings cruelly defaced." 
Who would have thought that the same site would be used to portray yet another round of vicious violence...

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REFERENCES / LINKS

* Review - First Post - http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/no-haider-isnt-fair-but-that-is-no-reason-to-boycott-it-1743811.html

* Review - Mint - http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/L25cl1PxL2DGCxZdZ2xwWK/The-thing-thats-wrong-with-Haider.html

* Lalitaditya on Surekha.com -- http://creative.sulekha.com/lalitaditya-muktapida-an-omnipotent-indian_101799_blog

* The Connecting Link: Hamlet, Aligarh Muslim University and Wittenberg Univrsity -- http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/the-connecting-link/article6485003.ece

Delhi Metro Kickbacks - Whudunit?

Another corruption scandal has come to light. Once again it is a foreign court that informs us that bribes were paid to Indian officials for a project in India.

This time, unfortunately, it is Delhi Metro that stands on the dock. According to UK's Serious Frauds Office, Alstom-France paid Rs 52 crore over six years to win transport contracts in India, Poland and Tunisia. Between the period 2001-2006, Alstom had won  a Rs 255-crore signalling contract for the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC).

Details of this scam have been trickling down slowly over the past couple of months. Yesterday, we finally got a  rebuttal from DMRC. The venerable Dr. Sreedharan stated unequivocally that the "Bribery story hold no water". His point was that in his time, DMRC had sufficient checks and balances in place. "If at all bribe has been paid" Dr. Sreedharan pointed out, "It must have been to individuals outside DMRC with a view to siphon back the amount to individuals of Alstom Network, UK".

So who got the moolah?

Outside DMRC, there were two other key players involved - a consulting firm called Pacific Consultants International (PCI) and JBIC (now JICA). It is interesting to note that around the same period (200-2006), PCI has been indulging in activities that did little to enhance company credibility.

Consider the following -

* Viet Nam, 2003: In 2008, Huynh Ngoc Si, former deputy director of the Ho Chi Minh City’s transport department and head of a major Japanese ODA-backed highway project, was convicted of taking bribes in 2003 by receiving $262,000 from executives of Pacific Consultants International, which was hired as the project consultant.
* India, 2004: PCI lost a case to the Joint Commisioner of Income Tax who held it liable deduct tax to the tune of Rs. 3,26,99,128 for various financial years involved. PCI had been claiming tax-exemption for its expat employees in India without any legal basis.
* Japan, 2008: PCI was fined JPY 70 million (approximately USD 680,000) by the Tokyo District Court, and three former PCI executives were given suspended sentences of imprisonment for 18 months, 20 months, and 2 years, respectively, for paying bribes to Vietnamese government officials in order to obtain consulting contracts for a highway project also funded by ODA and distributed by JICA.

India is now sending its officials to SFO-UK to collect details on the kickbacks.

For the sake of Delhi Metro, let us hope that DMRC officials come out squeaky clean!

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REFERENCES:

* (ToI, ) -- Bribery Story Hold No Water -- http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Bribery-story-holds-no-water-Sreedharan/articleshow/44635674.cms

* http://www.talkvietnam.com/2014/04/rethinking-aid-and-corruption-in-vietnam/

* Soni, Anusha (BS-11Sep) - Bribe charges link Alstom to firms from Singapore, Hong Kong --  http://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/bribe-charges-link-alstom-to-firms-from-singapore-hong-kong-114091100996_1.html
- Indo European Ventures Pte Ltd, Singapore and  Global King Technology Ltd, Hong Kong

* http://indiankanoon.org/doc/1477231/

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Cold Gradations of Decay



An interesting article on ageing: "Why I hope to Die at 75".

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REFERENCES

http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/09/why-i-hope-to-die-at-75/379329/ 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

From Orwell to Al Qaida




George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" (1938) is an interesting read. For a book written before WW-2, it has a very contemporary feel, especially at a time when the Western press is full of indignant outrage about the wholehearted participation of their own citizens in Al Qaida and ISIS.

A few days ago ISIS brutally beheaded the second US journalist it had captured in Iraq / Syria. The executioner had given his two bits about Jihad in British accented English with a dagger flashing in one hand.

Osama bin Laden and his deputies may have lived in caves, dodged smart-bombs and married local women in Afghanistan. Orwell, on the other hand, went to fight his Jihad against fascist dictators in a more relaxed manner. He sailed across the Straits of Gibraltar with his wife to the Catalan coast, lodged her comfortably at the Continental Hotel in Barcelona, and then got himself enrolled in a local militia called the POUM.



After ten months in the trenches, he came away with a nasty wound. A sniper had shot him clean through the neck, damaging his vocal chords and missing his jugular by a millimeter. So he returns to Barcelona, recuperates, does a bit of street-fighting, picks his wife from the hotel, drives across the border to France, and to safety.

What was Mrs. Orwell doing for 10 months in the Barcelona while her husband was away on the front? Who paid the bills? The book is less than eloquent about all this and more.

If some the 'foreign fighters' in Al Qaida or ISIS got around to writing their own stories, I guess it would not be very different from 'Homage to Catalonia'.

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REFERENCES & LINKS

* Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) 
* Book -- PrintAsia 
* Wiki --  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homage_to_Catalonia
* Fighting a war in the neighborhood - Turks in ISIS / Syria -- http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/16/world/middleeast/turkey-is-a-steady-source-of-isis-recruits.html 




Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bionic Limbs


The 'Jaipur Foot' looks so far away...
An amazing video on the latest bionic limbs -

Insect Season


It has been an unusual combination of summer and monsoon this year. The dry heat lasted for a lot longer in May-June, and then, after a few showers, most of the rainfall happened in August-September.

Last year, at the Sector-105 park in Noida,  all the Arjuna trees were loaded with plump, green, Tussar Silkworms. This year there were none. Instead, we had some other unusual guests.

(All ids by Shaku @ Florida-U)


Parthenium beetle, Zygogramma bicolorata, Family Chrysomelidae.


Common Silverline, Cigaritis (Spindasis) vulcanus, Family Lycaenidae
Note the "false head" at the back of the wings - excellent defense mechanism..

Common Silverline (top view)

Flower beetle, Mylabris pustulata .  Family Meloidae (blister beetles or oil beetles, because they secrete a pungent, oily substance when attacked, that might cause blisters in predators body; feed on flowers, so also called flower beetles ).

Most likely, Small Cabbage White, Pieris rapae, definitely Family Pieridae. These are really delicate, and lose their, already pale, wing coloration very fast, its usually difficult to find a fresh and intact specimen.
Treehopper, (possibly, Centrotus sp.), Family Membracidae.  Fascinating little insects, also called cow bugs (horns, obviously), or thorn bugs. 
Indian or Asian Honey bee, Apis cerana indica
Common emigrant, Catopsilila pomona (Family Pieridae) 

Lemon or Lime swallowtail, Papilio demoleus
This one seems to have lost part of its wings to a predator!  The bottom part of the wings have red or orange, eye-shaped spots that often serve as a defense mechanism, to fool predators.  So the predator attacks from the tail end of the butterfly, and gets only the wings, while the butterfly can escape!  This is one of the papiolionid butterflies that does not have a tail-like extension to its wings (that give the family its name - swallowtails).

Friday, September 12, 2014

Remembering Borlaugh

Last year, India set a new record in wheat production -- 95.85 million tonnes. This took the total food-grain production in the country to 264.38 million tonnes - another record in itself. To put the figures in perspective, consider a simple fact: At the time of independence we produced just 6 million tonnes of wheat.

All this we can trace back to the vision of one man - Norman Borlaugh.

As a young American plant pathologist he went to Mexico in 1944 to help fight hunger. Fifteen years of research in classical, selective breeding led him a dwarf variety of wheat which not only resisted rust, but also had a new plant gene that made them shorter with sturdier stalks which were able to withstand the weight of more abundantly grained wheat ears. His efforts resulted in a six-fold increase in Mexican wheat production.

The Indian government invited Borlaugh in 1966, at a time when the country had been reduced to a basket-case by successive droughts. He came in with a sackful of Mexican  wheat seeds. The rest, as they say, is history -- and the Green Revolution.

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REFERENCES & LINKS

* Tribute - http://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/tribute-to-a-saint-who-did-miracle-with-wheat-114091200028_1.html
*Gene Revolution - the Antecedents - http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/shreekant-sambrani-gene-revolution-the-antecedents-113012200098_1.html

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Plantibodies


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?

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REFERENCES /LINKS

* 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