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'.


* Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) 
* Book -- PrintAsia 
* Wiki --
* Fighting a war in the neighborhood - Turks in ISIS / Syria -- 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bionic Limbs

The 'Jaipur Foot' looks so far away...
And 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 succesive droughts. He came in with a sackful of Mexican  wheat seeds. The rest, as they say, is history -- and the Green Revolution.


* Tribute -
*Gene Revolution - the Antecedents -

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


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?


* Plantibodies (Reuters, 18Aug14) --

* Ebola puts focus on drugs made in Tobacco plants --

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Say Cheese!

This is one of the best selfie's I've come across. Last week a random simian in Indonesia triggered a huge debate on copyright and IPRs.

I am so glad to know that the monkey won! :)

Say Cheeese!

New Yorker (8 Aug): Wikipedia Defends the Monkey Selfie

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Extra Special Economic Zones

When it comes to productivity and export-competitiveness of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), clearly some states in India fare a lot better than the others.

How much better? If today's official press release (PIB) is to believed, more than 10 times!

18 SEZs in Gujarat exported, on an average, Rs. 12,500 Crores (US$ 2 billion) worth of goods & services. Its employees were by far much more productive too, with each employee sending out stuff worth nearly Rs. 3 Crores.

There are states with more than twice the number of export-zones with a fraction of Gujarat's productivity. Andhra Pradesh (pre-division) has 42; Tamil Nadu has 34 SEZs while Maharashtra and Karnataka have 25 each. Yet, for the latter three states average exports-per-SEZ hovers in the range of just Rs. 2000 crores.

What accounts for this huge difference? Is it that industries like diamond-polishing have export margins much more than any other goods or services?


* "Functioning of SEZs" (6 Aug 2014) - PIB Press Release from Ministry of Commerce & Industry - Response to Rajya Sabha unstarred question No. 2919 - URL -

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Cost of a Fruit Fly

This fruit-fly (Bacterocera dorsalis) has cost Indian farmers and horticulturists Rs. 50 Crores in export earnings this year.

Quarantine officials in the European Union detected traces of fruit-fly larvae in a consignment of mangoes and promptly placed a ban on imports. They want to avoid, as far as possible, the chances of their own fruit & vegetable patches getting infested with this particular insect.

Is the fear unfounded? Can this tropical insect survive the European winters? If 400 hundred years of trade did not transmit it, it is rational to believe that by just closing the dock gates to this fruit-fly will be of any help?


* Verma, Varuna (2014): PEST CONTROL, The Telegraph, 4Jun14 --

* Note on Non-Tarrif-Barriers imposed by other countries -

* The EU Combined Nomenclature (CN) --

* International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) --

* Compliance standards of USDA-APHIS (Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service) -

Hello Finland!

How did Finland become home to Nokia?

On the face of it seems like an unlikely picture - a frigid, Nordic country as large as Thailand or Rajasthan state, with a population less than a third of Delhi's, it has managed to build an amazing manufacturing industry, centered on sophisticated equipment.

In a recent article, Ricardo Hausman, points out that the Finns started out quite logically by building on their biggest strength - its forests. So it was hardly surprising that a country with the highest forest-cover (75%) in Europe, would have a stong lumbering industry.

Yet, it went much, much beyond timber-based industries. It take good tools to bring down the huge trees, so they make excellent cutting machines; It is easier to transport paper than wood, so they have an advanced paper manufacturing industry.

A snowbound country with a population density of just 16/sqkm can be tough, so they built a good transportation, and a wireless communication industry.

How many other countries have transformed their weaknesses into strengths?


* Ricardo Hausmann -

* Trade in Finland - Imports & Exports -

* Examining Benefication -

* Forest Cover in Finland - the highest in Europe --