Monday, November 23, 2015

In a Wynk

In our everyday lives, there are few things as magical as wireless networks.

Each time I swipe my credit card I find myself counting the seconds before the mobile phone in my pocket gives me a buzz. A few seconds for the transaction to go from the swiping device, over the city's telecom networks, across a satellite hovering 36,000 km away in the geostationary orbit, to check with a database sitting in a server on the other side of the world, before a digital confirmation finds its way back into my mobile phone -- all within about 10 seconds!

The magic works on much smaller scales as well. Bluetooth devices on speakers and earphones, IR remote controls for potato couches, and RFID tags for shoppers, workshops and marathon runners.

Last weekend I came across something new - Lenovo's app for high-speed, peer-to-peer sharing of files and folders: Shareit. I was walking out of the ADHM-2015 bib-distribution area when I saw a kiosk distributing free earphones. It was music company called Wynk and you had to download their app to get the earphones. The only hitch was that I had run out of my data quota for the month and I could not connect to the Google Playstore. "No problem", said the Wynk guy, "I can just share it from my mobile."

At first I thought this was another form of Bluetooth - near field communication and data transmission at 2.4 GHz. But no, this was not Bluetooth. Even with the WiFi and Bluetooth turned off, a file bigger than 15 MB jumped across thin air in less than three seconds! How did this happen?

Turns out that this 5 GHz band is not special to either Lenovo or Wynk. It is a part of the WiFi bandwidth that is less congested compared to the ones used by Bluetooth devices. So it is a lot faster but this transmission-frequency is efficient only at less than half the range of 2.4 GHz devices, which is less than 5 ft..


* List of 2.4 GHz Radio Use --

* What is the difference between a 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz WiFi? --

* Lenovo Shareit FAQs -

Friday, November 13, 2015

#OccupyUGC - A Protest

Last week, while walking down the ITO crossing, I was dismayed to see a newly constructed Delhi Metro station defaced with spray paint.

Cryptic messages lined the freshly painted and polished walls - "Human Killing" said the first one with four bulls stencilled alongside. Further down the sidewalk things got worse - "Thrash Caste! Thrash Brahmanism!" and a slogan against WTO. Then came the first clue on what this outrage was all about - a twitter hashtag: #OccupyUGC .

I vaguely remembered reading something about students protesting against the withdrawal of a scholarship scheme. But why on earth did they have to deface a beautiful new station to vent their anger against the University Grants Commission?

Next to the station I noticed some mats spread on the road, a few police barricades and a bunch of students sitting on the footpath. "Did you guys really have to do this?", I asked them, "Will scrawling on public property restore your scholarships? Who will clean up this mess if your demands are met?"

They looked at each other and smirked. One of them said, "You find the graffiti ugly? We actually think they are beautiful!"

And so, a long discussion was set in motion. I told them that as a taxpayer who footed the bill for the scholarships as well as the railway infra, if this was the best way in which they -- "accomplished scholars" - could express themselves, it only convinced me that government money was being wasted on them.

ITO station, 13 Nov., 2015

The arguments went back on forth on how the students could make the public take notice of their greivances, their not being able to afford the cost of large hoardings, on the government "sell-out" to the WTO, and on how poor students would be deprived of higher education if they did not get the scholarships...

What were the numbers involved? I was told that about 35,000 students would be affected by this UGC decision. At ₹8000/month this comes to about ₹ 336 Crores (~ $ 500 million). Not really not a big amount when the union budget for education (2015) was about ₹ 69,000 Crores.

What had been achieved by the scholarships so far? Has there been any ground-breaking research that has transformed our thinking? Has it made life any easier for the millions who do not have access to a previleged education? The students murmured something about Gayatri Spivak and "Subaltern Studies". Their arguments seemed immature, disjointed and unconvincing.

Perhaps this protest is a reflection of the sad state of our primary and secondary education . If the protestors had been better grounded we may have seen more convincing forms of protest and argument in our public spaces. Instead, the juvenile defacement of a new metro station seems like a public acknowledgement that money was being wasted on these scholars.

Will the money saved on these UGC scholarships be diverted to primary and secondary education - especially teachers-training and incentives? I certainly hope so.


* Education as a commodity --

* Kafila article --

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Mitsubishi Zero's

"The WindMiyazaki Rises" (Kaze Tachinu) is perhaps the first Miyazaki movie I've seen which is actually based on real-life. It is a biopic - with lots of extra masala - on Jiro Horikoshi, the man behind the famous Mitsubishi Zero fighter planes.

By all accounts, the Zero was a formidable fighter plane in WW-2. It was one of the key elements of the Japanese military-industrial complex that the Allies struggled to control. The fact that the entire city of Nagoya - among other cities -  had to be burnt to cinders with incendiary bombs, indicates the level to which the allies went to destroy all the aircraft factories.

The movie portrays a mild-mannered kid dreaming about planes, his education at Tokyo University, of being sent to  Dessau and of the reluctance amongst the Germans to share technical knowhow with the Japanese. It shows the patriotic company-man toiling through repeated mistakes to create an aircraft that went on to become the A6M Zero - the best carrier-based fighter in the world.

A6M Zero (source - Wikipedia Commons)

The biopic also portrays a alternate view of the relationship between Japan and Germany -- partners who were taking on the established world order, and yet, competitors who were not willing to share technology on a platter. It also tries to show Horikoshi as an anti-war skeptic who played along knowing fully well that it would be disasterous for Japan.

Hindsight is always 20:20. No wonder this aircraft is the first showpiece that wlecomes visitors to the war-memorial museum attached to the Yasukuni Jinja shrine at Tokyo!


* Review in the Guardian (2014) --

* Jiro Horikoshi --

* Wiki -

Monday, November 09, 2015

How Sweet?

There is a scale for measuring nearly anything in this world. For hardness in minearals, you have the Mohs scale, for the pungency of spicy foods you have the Scoville scale, but was is the scale for sweetness? Surprisingly, there is none.

All we have is a reference point of "1" for sucrose (table sugar). Everything else is relative to sucrose. Among carbohydrate molecules, the various combinations in which Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen arrange themselves gives a range of sweetness but there is a also wide range of non-carb molecules that can shock our tongues with their sweetness.

Perhaps the most common non-carb sugar is Aspartame. It is 200x sweeter than sucrose and it was originally synthsized by a scientist looking for a an anti-ulcer drug. Then there is Steviol Glycoside, a chemical extracted from a plant that was used by the Indians in Paraguay. It is 300x sweeter than sugar. At the far end of the scale there is Lugduname, a Guanidine compound extracted from guano, or bird-shit. It is 300,000+ times sweeter than table sugar!

Chemical wizardry can produce incredible levels of sweetness (at zero calories too!), but are these chemicals safe for consumption? Here again scientific opinion is non quite conclusive, so different countries have their own ways of handling sweetness.

Aspartame is widely marketed in USA under the brand-names Nutrasweet and Equal, and is being used in everything from chewing gum to cola's and puddings. On the other hand, Japan has actively discouraged artificial sweetners and promoted the use of naturally occuring compounds like Steviol. This Stevia-derived compound now accounts for more than 40 percent of sweetners consumed in Japan!

Japan's import of Stevia is so huge that last year it imported the entire lot harvested in Paraguay -- about 600 tonnes, worth about US$ 1.5 billion! Even then, the largest producer of Stevia is not Paraguay, but China, which produces more than 8o percent of global production of Stevia.

Recently, the Government of India has also tossed its hat into the ring by approving the use of Stevia in foods.

Will this result in a sharp increase in the cultivation, processing and use of Stevia as an alternative to cane sugar in India?


* Aspartame --

* Sweetness Scale --

* Wiki on Sweetness -

* GoI Gazette notification on Stevia (May, 2015) -- * GoI Gazette (2015) - Approval of Stevia - "Madhu Tulsi" --

* * (2015) - Japan to buy all of Paraguay's Stevia --
- 600-700 tons a year and a value of about US$1-1.5 billion  (= $ 2500/kg = ₹ 1,62,500)


Saturday, November 07, 2015

Energy Poverty

According to the World Bank, 78.7 percent of the population in India has access to electricity. Another report states that by 2012, the national electricity grid has reached 92 percent of its population, i.e., 880 million people.

On the face of it this bit of data may sound impressive for a country with 1.2 billion people spread across 3.2 million square kilometers.

Now you look at the statements more carefully, your realize that it does not hold much meaning on the ground. When an electricity line is pulled into a village it does indeed get connected to the grid, enough for a village to be declared as "electrified", but it certainly does not mean that every household has access to power supply when they need it the most.

Neither does available data give an indication of the quality of power supplied to the village. For instance, a village in Westren Uttar Pradesh, not too far from the National Capital Region of Delhi, may have electricity poles running along one of its roads, but its of no use to the villagers if even the streetlights do not light up at night.

A major part of this problem is the way in which state-level electricity agencies are managed. Over the years, their level of reliability - and credibility- has dropped so low that people are just now willing to pay for poor service. With little money coming in from its customers, these agencies do not have the capacity to buy electricity from the power plants. So we now have this amazing situation where the country has an installed power generation capacity of 272,503MW, but out of this, only only around 145,000MW is operational -- just 53 percent! -- because the distributors do not have the money to buy what is readily available.

This brings us to the issue of cost of power generation, profit margins, and the tariff that the customers are ready to pay for reliable electricity supply.

Is there any data available to show the number of hours of "reliable electricity supply" in the rural and urban areas, across the country?


* WB (2011-15) - Access to Electricity -

* WB (2015) - Power for All - India -

* Andhra Pradesh - Power for All ( PFA 2015) --
- Energy and peak demand -  43,684 MU & 6,158 MW

* Bhaskar, Utpal (2015): India's per capita consumption of electricity reaches 1010 kWh --
- India has an installed power generation capacity of 272,503MW, but out of this, only only around 145,000MW is operational -- just 53 percent!

* Bhaskar, Utpal (2014): India faces daily power outage of 30,000 MW --
- Even with one of the lowest per-capital electricity consumption in the world (India 940 kWh; Chine 4000 kWh), power plants in India run far below their capacities because it customers (state electricity agencies) just cannot afford to buy the quantum they need!

* Much of rural India still waits for electricity (2013) --

* Chakravorty, Pelli and Marchand (2013) - Does the quality of electricity matter? Evidence from Rural India --

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Japan - South Korea Rivalry in India

It is interesting to see the various ways in which the Japan-Korea rivalry is being played out in India.

Prior to 2009, Japan used to have a strong presence across the country, both in terms of trace & commerce, as well as 'soft-power' projections.  This was quite apparant in the number of public hoardings advertising products from Suzuki, Sony and Toshiba, it was evident from the number of people who thronged to Siri Fort to see Japanese films and in results of market surveys which claimed that in the Indian market, Japan topped amongst all foreign investors in India.

Cut to 2015 and it seems quite clear that whatever the Japanese can do, the Koreans can do it better. The mobile phone market has exploded and it is now dominated by Samsung, the number of non-Japanese cars on Indian roads has risen sharply and in any mall, the number manufactured household goods -- refrigerators, flat-screen TVs, laptops, etc., -- from Samsung and LG far outnumber those from Hitachi, Sony or Toshiba, by a wide margin. Now the Koreans seem to have stolen the Japanese thunder for quality and reliability.

On the PR front, Japan seems out of touch with the times. If proof were needed, all you had to do is to walk down from the Moolchand Metro Station to the national cultural centres run by both the countries.

Long before the Koreans got into the game, in 2006, the Japanese had got themselves a buuilding in pole position for the Japan Foundation, right next to the metro line (also funded by Japan). By the time the line became operational, the Koreans created a much more impressive centre, less than 300m from  Japan Foundation.

The Korean Centre is located in a beautiful, spacious building on the Ring Road. Careful thought has gone into its design and layout which includes a big reception area (with a grumpy receptionist, unfortunately); it has dedicated floors for Taekwondo training, exhibitions, a lovely library, office spaces and a 'secret garden' for friends who want to have chat on the terrace, under the a Silk Cotton tree. The building has plenty of natural lighting and lots of artwork on the walls, including a huge technicolor panel commemorating K-pop.

In sharp contrast, Japan Foundation look cramped, colorless and drab. A building specially designed to turn off visitors. Its tiny, unfriendly spaces it seems to attract only a small cross-section of language students cramming for their exams. While the Korean Centre library has the most essential thing in a library - silence - at  Japan Foundation, you are constantly disturbed by the desk-staff chatting amongst themselves. Where  Japan Foundation directs visitors to other venues for its cultural outreach (book releases at Oxford, CP, films somewhere else), the K-centre draws in visitors with a wider range of interests. The only thing  Japan Foundation has in common with the Korean Centre is the grumpy receptionist. Maybe they are all hired from the same place...

Another proof of the sharp contrast between Japan and South Korea is evident in their approach to the digital media. In an era of smart-phones and slick websites, the Korean KCCI website wins hands down over the created by Japan Foundation, New Delhi.

My Japanese friends often complain about Koreans being mere copycats. "Why can't they do something original?", they ask, "We started an industrial township at Neemrana, and they too started one right next to it...We started a cultural centre in South Delhi, and they build theirs in the same neighborhood..".

For those who have seen both sides of the story, it seems clear that while the Japanese start early, think carefully, they end up doing things in a stingy, half-hearted way. The Koreans merely outdo them by implementing things on a scale, style and self-confidence level that eludes the Japanese in India.



* Korean Cultural Centre, New Delhi --
* Japan Foundation -

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Whataboutery and Me Ne Frego!

"I don't give a damn!"

Mussoluni's famous Blackshirts charged into Indian living-rooms this week. Images of the Italian facists, led by Il Duce with the motto, "Me ne frego!", has now been used to describe the attitude of the BJP government led by Narendra Modi.

The man who brought in the blackshirts to Indian living-rooms is not one of those discredited, fork-tongued politicians from the opposition parties but one of the most credible public intellectuals in India - Arun Shourie. He was using them to describe the audacity with which BJP leaders, including MPs and Cabinet Ministers, are vitiating an atmosphere that is already charged with communal tensions.

Until now, most of the arguments had gone down the whataboutery way:
Q. Why have more than 400 national artists returned their awards following the Dadri killings?
A. What about the anti-Sikh riots of 1984? Why were awards not returned after 2002?... such hypocricy, such double-standards! 
Q. Why is beef banned in so many Indian states?
A. What about the Congress party? - they are the ones who brought the legislations in the first place...the executive is merely implementing the existing law.

Now Shourie has raised the bar. He has brought the focus back on the here-and-now. Modi, he says, is not a helpless 'Under Secretary at the Homeopathy Department'.

By comparing the conduct of Modi to Mussolini, he has brought back public attention to the tacit encouragement being provided to the zealots and bhakts, by accusing the PM of fiddling with inane tweets while burning moral issues are at hand.

Where will all this end? Will this madness end after the Bihar elections? I don't know.

But I do hope they will continue to serve beef-curry at Kerala House.

* Full text of TV Interview -


* Kerala and its meat --