Monday, January 19, 2015

Open Sesame!

Long ago, when 40 thieves decided to hide their treasure in a cave, the chosen password was "Open Sesame!"

Unfortunately they were rather lax in their security protocols and Ali Baba ran away with all the gold. But a question still hangs in the empty cave, and in my mind - why did they choose the name of a tiny oil seed?

In today's world of international trade, sesame still holds the secret to a treasure trove. Consider this -

  • Until recently, India was the biggest exporter of sesame seeds (now Myanmar is top dog)
  • Japan still holds the record for the biggest importer in the world.
  • Sesame can grow in places where most other crops fail, and yet it has the highest oil-contents of any seed.
The North Indian market is dominated by the white colored sesame while, in in the South, the most commonly available variety is the black one. Ditto for South East Asia and Japan. Why so?




* (BS-2No14) -

* Sesame on Wiki -

Friday, January 16, 2015

On the MAT

"There were only two things certain in life: death and taxes."

Ben Franklin was quite right when he said this. In India, however, some certainties turn up as an after-thought. MAT is one of them.

Minimum Alternate Tax (MAT) was a term that was perhaps coined by the Americans, and borrowed by the Indian taxman in 2010. The dilemma he faced was fairly straightforward. Under the Income Tax Act (1961), he was expected to tax companies at a standard rate of ~ 30 percent.

Yet, when he went around checking with companies on tax deposited, he found that even the most profitable companies (including those paying dividends), were showing nil or negative income in their tax returns - thanks largely to various provisions under the Companies Act that permitted deductions, depreciation, etc.,

So we had a strange situation where companies would proclaim to its own shareholders about how well their company was performing, but when it came to the tax man, it was a different tune.

The solution was to give the tax payers two choices - calculate your returns the normal way, under ITA(1961), or at 18.5 percent of your book profits under MAT - and pay whichever was higher!

Now the problem with such a blanket rule was that firms located in the so-called "duty-free" zones like SEZs also had to shell out MAT, adding to their woes about doing business in India.

No wonder the SEZ developers are praying for some relief during the forthcoming Budget Session of the Parliament!



Monday, January 12, 2015

Encryption and Internet Security

The nuts & bolts of the internet may be for geeks, but in the world of e-commerce, ordinary folk constantly face gratuitous emails. Here is one that dropped in today -

Dear Customer XXXX  maintains the highest standards of safety and security on its online trading platform. It undertakes continuous assessments and has precautions in place to ensure that the website's operational readiness and security are not compromised for any reason. Researchers have found that a version (3.0) of a component (SSL) on web browsers which secures your connection is not secure. Hence, ever committed to secure your browsing experience, XXXX will only support higher versions of this component, i.e., TLS 1.0 and above with effect from 21-Nov-2014. This will not affect your trading experience on the  XXXX platform. However, it is strongly recommended to update your browser to its latest version specially if you are on older versions of Internet Explorer (versions 6 and below) and Opera (version 4 and below) to ensure un-interrupted and secured trading. Meanwhile we would request you to kindly change the browser settings as given here to enable TLS 1.0. Please contact our customer care for any assistance. 
Thanking you XXXX

Now what on earth is SSL and TLS?  How can I be sure that one is better than the other?

It seems SSL stands for "Secure Sockets Layer", an encrypton system launched in 1994 by Netscape. It encypts data in a 40-bit or 128-bit format, and sends it across to a sever which has the 'key' to decoding it, based a SSL Certification system.

TLS on the other hand, is "Transport Layer Security" which is based on Netscape's SSL, but, somehow, supersedes it. Like SSL it starts with a system involving an Asymmetric Protocol involving two unequal parts - a 'public key' (in your PC), and a 'private key' (in the vendor's server), but then adds a new layer involving a Symmetric Key, shared like a private secret or a special "handshake". This apparently makes it a bit more difficult for hackers to steal your passwords.

So, until XXXX comes with an email warning that TSL too has been compromised, we shall sing peans to TSL.

* SSL -
* SSL- Your key to e-commerce security --
* TLS:
* ICICIDirect - directions for enabling TSL 1.0

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Dash of Caustic Soda

Caustic Soda (Sodium Hydroxide) from Wiki

Right on top of my things-to-do this weekend was 'Clean kitchen baffle filters'.

The last time I tried it had turned out to be a right royal mess. I spent a couple of hours with strong detergent, hot water and scrubs, only to see bits of grime wedged deep in the aluminum netting.

This time around I tried a simpler, more elegant procedure from the web. All it took was a dash of caustic soda, rubber gloves and 30 minutes of soak-time. The filters came out looking brand new.

Somewhere along the way, a careless tilt of my gloved hands sent some of the caustic soda dripping down my exposed elbow and upper arms, and I instantly understood the meaning of the term "alkali burn" -- a  soapy, stinging feeling that makes your skin crawl.

What caused this burn? Why was this soda so damn caustic?

The key apparently lies in the sodium ion which is so fond of water that it can bond with as many as 25 H2O molecules! This is enough to break down anything that contains fats or proteins into a gooey mess within minutes.

Here is an excellent article from BBC on how caustic soda has been used by chemical industries, bakers, doctors, cleaners... and murderers!


Friday, January 09, 2015

Being Mortal in India

A peaceful, painless death is one of life's greatest blessings.

Atul Gawande's latest book is born out of experiences with those who, for most part, did not have this blessing. It discusses the way in which medical technology and social norms tend to mislead, dictate or overrule the options available to those who are terminally ill.

The book also brought back deeply disturbing memories of my father's last days at a hospital in Kerala. Much like a patient described in the book, he to was shuttling between hospitals and diagnostic labs, with an irreversible nervous system failure. Towards the end it was appalling to see somebody who stayed away from hospitals "drugged into oblivion and tubed in most natural orifices as well as a few artificial ones".

Gawande, with his focus on the prevailing healthcare system in USA, misses on some of the more disturbing aspects of what the urban elderly face in India. The fact that my father retired from the central government service prolonged his suffering in more ways than one. The first question they asked you at hospitals was - "He is fully insured under CGHS, isn't he?".

A comprehensive health insurance package seems to have prompted private hospital docs to prescribe drugs, diagnostics and procedures that were completely unnecessary. Towards the end, all the family members had to give a signed undertaking to get him out of the ICU, back into the pay-wards.

The priorities of the elderly, and the terminally ill in India may be the same as those in other countries -- to avoid suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others,

The challenge is trying to ensure that these priorities take precedence over those of the doctors, the healthcare service providers, pharma & diagnostic companies, as well as 'loving' family and friends.


Homepage -

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Miyazaki's Arrietty

Today's family movie was Miyazaki's Secret World of Arrietty.

Hayao Miyazaki's Ghibli Collection is a fascinating melting pot of cultural identities. For an animation company named after a wind that blows out of Sahara desert (Sirocco to the Greeks, Ghibli to the Libyans), I wondered where he had picked such a distinctly un-Japanese name as Arrietty.

Turns out that this time Miyazaki had borrowed the name from a 1952 British novel called "The Borrowers"!


The Borrowers -

Why is Albumin Expensive?

Almost every egg has two parts -- a yellow yolk, and a clear, viscous liquid that turns into Egg White when heated. Egg white also goes by the name Albumin.

The human version is called human serum albumin, and it normally constitutes about 50% of human plasma protein. It is made up of water-soluble globular proteins, and it is unusual in the sense that it is not attached to any sugar molecule (not glycosylated), because of which it degrades easily.

Inside our blood, Albumin serves as molecular "taxis" ferrying hormones, salts, fatty acids, and a long list of drugs to their target sites. It also helps regulate the colloidal osmotic pressure of blood, controlling the amount of water in our bodies.

If the albumin molecules are so plentiful in nature (plants, animal tissue, eggs, milk), why is it so expensive in packaged form? Is it the manufacturing process that makes it so expensive? Or the Intellectual Property Rights?

There is no shortage of manufacturers, nor is there a shortage of demand. Albumin Serum is necessary to treat shocks, liver disorders, kidney disorders, and a host of diseases that result in an imbalance of body fluids.

Yet, a locally manufactured product like Alba-20% costs Rs.3900 / 100ml infusion. According to a recent report human albumin is currently scarcely available with prices ranging between Rs.3897 and Rs.4092 respectively.

A part of the problem is policy and regulations. Last year, the government brought out an order (DPCO-2013) which stipulated a price control formula for a list of "essential drugs", including Albumin. This brought the cost of 1ml (20% albumin infusion) to Rs. 36.6.

Considering the prevailing sales price, this does not seem like a huge cut (Rs.39- Rs.36), but many drug companies responded by just stopping the manufacture of Albumin for the domestic markets.

So, thanks partly to a well intended policy, we now have a huge artificial shortage of an essential drug.

The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions... :(



* MJ (2002) - The role of albumin in critical illnesses -

* The Drug Price Control Order 2013 -
* Blood Banks supply plasma to sustain supply of Albumin -


Sunday, January 04, 2015

Birding Tips from Bharatpur

In 1938 a hunting party led by the British Viceroy, Linlithgow killed 4,237 birds in one day at Bharatpur. From the look of it, the bird sanctuary is yet to recover from the assault.

Keoladeo National Park does has its bright side, even on cold foggy mornings. Despite the poor infrastructure and facilities, the guides are quite sharp with their spotting scopes. If you find the guides too expensive at Rs.250/hour, the rickshaw drivers (Rs.100/hr) are quite good too.

Plastic bags and packaged eatables are banned in the park. At the far end of KNP, you find a tea stall that stocks biscuits and chips but if you decide to buy a flex-packet, the shopkeeper neatly empties its contents into an less-than-glamorous looking newspaper-envelope before handing it out. So he keeps the packet and you get the chips!

A few other travel tips:

  • Ashok hotel is the best location - it built right inside the park. However, you cannot drive your car in... getting there needs the help of rickshaws
  • The best way to go around is on bicycles. The best ones are usually rented out as soon as the park opens at 6:30 AM... almost none are available by 10AM
  • Take your own snacks (eco-packed), flask along...there is practically nothing available inside
  • The Memento shop has nice pullovers and jackets
  • The surrounding countryside has lots of birds too (like the Sarus Cranes atop)

Deeg Palace

If you thought the old forts and palaces of Agra and Delhi were big, try Deeg.

It is just over 20km from the tourist magnet called Fatehpur Sirki, on the outskirts of Agra. Yet, Deeg seems to attract hardly any visitors.

On the face of it, the town appears to be yet another decrepit urban settlement in Rajasthan. You drive along the familiar dusty, dirty lanes, the same overflowing servers, past the same garbage dumps and pigs....and then you come across this massive piece of work - fortifications, lakes, gardens, pavilions and fountains, right in the middle of nowhere!

What could be the forces that led the Jat kings to invest their  attention, time & money in Deeg?



- ASI -
- Braj -