Wednesday, April 15, 2015

On Hexagons

If you wanted to cover a large flat space with with equal pieces, without leaving any gaps, which shape would you choose?

In 300 CE, Pappus of Alexandria said that it was best to use Hexagons, just like bees do.  Pappu's idea remained a conjecture for 1700 years when in 1999, Thomas Hales proved that proved the Alexandian right through the honeycomb theorem.

I heard this for the first time in this TED video by Eduardo Sáenz de Cabezón:

But how did bees determine that this was the best shape? And how do they pass this knowledge across generations?


* Why do honeybees love hexagons?

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Apathy Chronicles

Today's Indian Express has a telling cover story on the state of governance in India. It is a classic case of adopting the proverbial ostrich-like attitude: pretending that a problem does not exist, and hoping that, somehow, it will disappear on its own.

I just thought it would be interesting to list some of them to see if there is a pattern that could lead us to possible solutions.

First, the IE story today:


The Central Pollution Control Board identifies a potential problem area and commissions an independent agency to examine the air quality in Delhi, through an exhaustive study involving 11,000 schoolchildren from 36 schools, across three years. Yet, despite detecting an alarming rise in pollution levels, everybody is still busy "studying the report".

- Landmark study lies buried -
- Chatterjee, Pritha (31Mar'15), IE: Seven years ago, everyone saw Delhi’s air take a deadly U-turn but no one did a thing


Over past two decades, hospitals across India have been witnessing a sharp rise in new and re-emerging diseases: Chikungunya, bird flu, swine flu, monkey flu, Ebola, MDR TB and Malaria, etc., This year along we have lost over 2000 lives to H1N1 swine flu.
What have we done about it? The health ministry had figured well in advance that our total dependence on imported diagnostics and medicines would hamper containment efforts. So it decided to develop indigenous technology and succeeded in getting entrepreneurs to produce test-kits for a tenth the cost (Rs. 400 vs. minimum of Rs.4500/test). And then, amazingly, after handing out the necessary regulatory clearances, it does nothing to encourage states to adopt cheaper, more affordable diagnostics and medicines.
Predictably MNCs like Applied Biosciences are quite pleased with the state of affairs. While low-income patients balk at the cost of getting reliable tests and drugs, the MNCs are laughing all the way to bank, happy to serve just those who can afford it.

- Nagarajan, Rema (18Mar'15), ToI: Two Indian firms develop cheap H1N1 test kits, but find few takers
- Singh, Jyotsna (31Mar'15), DTE: When flu turns fatal -


Inspired by Curitiba (Brazil) and Bogota (Colombia), and goaded by IITD academics, the Delhi government decided to ease the urban transport problem by building a BRT corridor in South Delhi. The first phase of construction (2008) was so haphazard and unplanned that vehicles kept crashing into unmarked barriers that had come up overnight, constriction of road space forced bikers on pedestrian pathways and VIPs appropriated the bus-lanes for themselves.
Now there is talk of just scrapping the whole project. So what if the project cost a few millions?

- BRT May be Scrapped -

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

2015 March - Interesting Articles & Links

* On 5G Telephony -

* Nagoro - a Japanese village where life-size dolls outnumber people! -

* DOS - Denial of Service attacks on the internet --

* Solar on your roof - 101 -

* Photography - Karen Knorr - India Song --

* Mes Aynak - an ancient Afghan city being lost to Chinese copper mines ? --

* Iceland - the world's greatest genetic lab --

* Meet Cyanogen -- the Android Killer --

* Discarded medical devices flood Indian markets --

* MRI Scans of Vegetables -

* Best Headphones --

* Salil Tripathi on LKY and Singapore -
* LKY's Singapore - lessons India did not learn --

* On development aid in Nepal --

* Saudi's and the Swedish minister -

* Wishes for desi's you hate --

* Getting rid of Bunions --

* How to Write --
* Use of Good Words --

* (26Mar15, Hindu) - Corruption in governance breeds antibiotic resistance
* (26Mar15 ToI) - China agrees to supply more Japanese Encephalitis shots -

* On foreigners in Japan --

* Italian cheese made by Sikhs --'s-famous-Grana-Padano-cheese

* When India ate Beef --

* Tharoor on Indian Railways --

* Photography - Nikon35mm
- The best 35mm for DX -

* Japan's policemen with big sticks -

* 10 Indian poets --,-listen-to-the-works-of-ten-Indian-poets

* LinkedIn - What kind of pain can i solve? --

* WSJ - India's fight against Big Pharma is a Just War --
. Last week, GoI withdrew patent protection for an emphysema drug marketed by Germany’s Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH
. The country’s pharmaceutical sector was expected to grow to at least $48.8 billion in sales by 2020 from $11 billion in 2012
. India’s law sets a higher bar for protection than in some other countries, limiting the ability of companies to get patents for new versions of drugs whose active ingredients were previously known unless they can show significant therapeutic benefit.
. In 2006, India’s patent office refused to give Novartis AG a patent for Gleevec, an extremely effective drug for a rare cancer.
. In 2012, India’s Intellectual Property Appellate Board revoked a Roche Holding AG patent for a hepatitis C drug saying technology involved in the drug’s invention was “obvious” and could be replicated easily.
. In January, India’s patent office rejected a patent application from the U.S. biotech firm Gilead Sciences Inc. for a hepatitis C treatment, saying it lacked novelty and didn’t show significant efficacy over previously known compounds.
. The collective effect of a low bar for patents drives up healthcare costs and insurance premiums for patients.

* Ram, Vidya (19Mar2015): An answer to Fund-Bank domination -

* Kanjilal, Prateek (19Mar15): Borrowing from Nature -

* A reality-check from @RahulJacob -- @MakeInIndia #Manufacturing

* Horizontal Gene Transfer -
- Many of the matches are to genes of unknown purpose—for it is still the case, more than a decade after the end of the human genome project, that the jobs of many genes remain obscure. But some human transgenes are surprisingly familiar. The ABO antigen system, which defines basic blood groups for transfusion purposes, looks bacterial. The fat-mass and obesity-associated gene, the effect of which is encapsulated in its rather long-winded name, seems to come from marine algae. And a group of genes involved in the synthesis of hyaluronic acid originates from fungi. Hyaluronic acid is a chemical that is an important part of the glue which holds cells together. (It is also a frequent ingredient of skin creams.)

* 13 ways to eat Maggi noodles --

* Shyam - Elephant Trails , Tvm --

* Churpi -- Yak cheese as dog snack in G8 --

* Top 15 websites for free images download --

* BBC's Hypocrisy --
. we need to break free from the vicious grip of the merchants of the black imagery who earn their fortunes by marketing globally some of our weakest chinks.

* Mighty Mites --

* Paul Kalanithi in WP - Before I Go: A Stanford neurosurgeon’s parting wisdom about life and time --
- "Everyone succumbs to finitude.... The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed."

* WSJ - Smart-enough Watches --

* What ails Indian Science (2014, R Prasad) --
- in the case of the U.S., the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are outside the government bureaucracy.
- the malaise of promotion based on years of service, and not by achievement

* Origin of expressions --

* Bangladesh vs. MNCs -

* Cricket - sledging --

* Salil Tripathi -- An Argument Without Beef --

* WSJ - 11Mar15 - Four Years After Tohoku --

* NYT --

* FT - India Healthcare --

* Cabron's prob --

* On Virgil's quote on 9/11 memorial --

* Science as art -

* Why are only white people called expats? --

* Its never too late to start a venture --

* Words --

* Is most of our DNA garbage? --
- Genomes are like biological books, written in genetic letters known as bases; the human genome contains about 3.2 billion bases.
- the onion’s genome was five times bigger --
- why do the broad-footed salamander (65.5 billion bases), the African lungfish (132 billion) and the Paris japonica flower (149 billion)?
- The human genome contains around 20,000 genes, that is, the stretches of DNA that encode proteins. But these genes account for only about 1.2 percent of the total genome. The other 98.8 percent is known as noncoding DNA.
- 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson published a short paper in the journal Nature setting out the double-helix structure of DNA.
- In 1964, the German biologist Friedrich Vogel did a rough calculation of how many genes a typical human must carry --  6.7 million
- 2001 - The Human Genome Project team declared that our DNA consisted of isolated oases of protein-coding genes surrounded by “vast expanses of unpopulated desert where only noncoding ‘junk’ DNA can be found.”
- John Rinn @Harvard -  studies RNA, but not the RNA that our cells use as a template for making proteins -- studies an RNA molecule (hotair) that, somewhat bizarrely, was produced widely by skin cells below the waist but not above.
- Rinn’s research revealed that hotair acts as a kind of guide for Polycomb, attaching to it and escorting it through the jungle of the cell to the precise spots on our DNA where it needs to silence genes.

* History in perspective - a great piece by @DalrympleWill on the supreme act of corporate violence in world history
- - on 28 August 1608, William Hawkins had landed at Surat, the first commander of a company vessel to set foot on Indian soil.
- Sir Thomas Roe, the ambassador sent by James I to the Mughal court, is shown appearing before the Emperor Jahangir in 1614
- 1739, when Clive was only 14 years old, the Mughals still ruled a vast empire that stretched from Kabul to Madras. But in that year, the Persian adventurer Nadir Shah descended the Khyber Pass with 150,000 of his cavalry and defeated a Mughal army of 1.5 million men.
- Three months later, Nadir Shah returned to Persia carrying the pick of the treasures the Mughal empire had amassed in its 200 years of conquest: a caravan of riches that included Shah Jahan’s magnificent peacock throne, the Koh-i-Noor, the largest diamond in the world, as well as its “sister”, the Darya Nur, and “700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses carrying wagons all laden with gold, silver and precious stones”, worth an estimated £87.5m in the currency of the time.
- August 1765, when the young Mughal emperor Shah Alam, exiled from Delhi and defeated by East India Company troops, was forced into what we would now call an act of involuntary privatisation.
- Within a few years, 250 company clerks backed by the military force of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers had become the effective rulers of Bengal.
- sing its rapidly growing security force – its army had grown to 260,000 men by 1803 – it swiftly subdued and seized an entire subcontinent.
- The first serious territorial conquests began in Bengal in 1756; 47 years later, the company’s reach extended as far north as the Mughal capital of Delhi, and almost all of India south of that city was by then effectively ruled from a boardroom in the City of London.
- In many ways the EIC was a model of corporate efficiency: 100 years into its history, it had only 35 permanent employees in its head office.
- After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, a victory that owed more to treachery, forged contracts, bankers and bribes than military prowess, he transferred to the EIC treasury no less than £2.5m seized from the defeated rulers of Bengal – in today’s currency, around £23m for Clive and £250m for the company.
- Clive... committed suicide in 1774 by slitting his own throat with a paperknife
- By 1803, when the EIC captured the Mughal capital of Delhi, it had trained up a private security force of around 260,000- twice the size of the British army – and marshalled more firepower than any nation state in Asia.

* Fall of the Ottomans --

* INDIA's DAUGHTER - (5Mar15) - Salil Tripathy -- why it should be seen in India --

* USA - dollar spending on diseases --

* A scientist and an artist --

* Nikon camera with a 83X zoom! --

* #Genes that adapt and remember -- an excellent book review -- #Epigenetics #Methylation

* Economic Survey 2015 -- file:///C:/Users/Dinakar/Desktop/EconSurvey-2015-vol1.pdf
- Subsidies to the poor (pp23) -- Rs.377,000 Cr (4.2% of 2011 GDP)
- Agri - area, production (pp 78-79) -- Foodgrains - 126mHa; 265 mT-- Oilseeds 28mHa; 33 mT-- Pulses 25 mHa; 19mT
- Agri extension -- 59% of farmers have no access to govt research & extension (NSSO data)
- GM crops - rethinking needed (pp80)

* BCG-CII Report on the Indian IT Sector (2013) -

* Regulating Genome-Edited Crops (not-yet GMOs) --

* China Cement production --
- From less than 50 mT (1978) to over 2000 mT now.... India is no.2 at 360 mT

* Budget 2015 -- Speech
- India's Annual Budget INR 17,774,770,000,000 to USD = 287,129,901,878 US Dollar  (17 Lakh Crores = $ 287 Billion)
- Rs. 1 Lakh Cr = US$. 16 Billion

* 1995, Newsweek -- A prediction that went haywire --

* Labnol - Removing password protection from PDF files --

* Indian shrines in SE China --
- traders from south India made Quanzhou and its surrounding areas their home during the reign of the Song (960-1279 AD) and Yuan (1279-1368 AD) dynasties when Quanzhou was the busiest port in the world.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Power of QA

How far will you go to buy a quality product?

According to the Economist, Chinese tourists are flying in droves to markets in Tokyo to purchase... toilet seats!

On the face of it this may seem a trivial or even whimsical thing to buy. But to those who have used to this piece of working art, it is difficult to see the regular plastic and ceramic contraptions as anything but retrograde.

However the point of interest is not the art or electronics but the fact that many of the seats the Chinese buy from Akihabara and carry back home, actually carry the label "Made in China".

Aparently, many Chinese consumers do not trust the reliability of such items sold at home—and refuse to pay the often higher prices charged for export-standard goods. Prime minister, Li Keqiang, has told Chinese firms to raise the quality of their own seats. “At least that could save consumers the price of a plane ticket,” he said.

Saving plane tickets is besides the point. It took a Chinese reader to hit the nail in the head:
I bought many stuffs in Japan even it says Made In China, but nothing in China itself because I know if the Chinese want to sell their stuffs in Japan, they must go through the rigorous Japanese quality assurance procedure, whereas there is none in China.
How do companies, and countries, acquire a reputation for accepting and delivering nothing less than the highest possible quality?

The Japanese embraced the ideas of an American guru, Edward Deming, to pull itself out of the morass of exporting poor quality umbrella's, matchboxes and textiles.

In India it appears that many outward looking, export-oriented companies have grasped the importance of perception, and understood the power of QA. There are also exceptional organisations like Aravind Eye Care and Narayana Health/Hrudayalaya that have blended high quality with affordability and public access.

What will it take for this idea to seem through our government and the vast network of institutions it controls?



Thursday, March 19, 2015

IPO - Like a Rock

In the early 1990's when I visited the Indian Patent Office (IPO) for the first time, it was as gloomy and depressing as any other dysfunctional sarkari office. Over the years, it certainly seems to have changed for the better.

Now, at a time when, "advanced industrialised countries are ratcheting up global standards for intellectual property protection with monotonous regularity, keeping in view the interests of the dominant corporate interests" (Biswajit Dhar, FE), our patent office has been standing its ground.

Section 3(d) of Patents Act ensures that rights cannot be obtained for minor innovations, and this is being implemented quite effectively -

  • 2006 - India’s patent office refused to give Novartis AG a patent for Glivec (Imatinib), an extremely effective drug for a rare cancer - CML
  • 2012 - India’s Intellectual Property Appellate Board revoked a Roche Holding AG patent for a hepatitis C drug (Pegasys) saying technology involved in the drug’s invention was “obvious” and could be replicated easily.
  • January 2015 - India’s patent office rejected a patent application from the U.S. biotech firm Gilead Sciences Inc. for a Hepatitis C treatment (Sovaldi) , saying it lacked novelty and didn’t show significant efficacy over previously known compounds.
  • March, 2015 - IPO withdrew patent protection for an emphysema drug (Spiriva) marketed by Germany’s Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH, in response to an objection filed by Cipla.

What (or who) is the driving force behind this transformation of the Indian Patent Office?  What mechanisms do they have in place to ensure that Big Pharma do not get away with Evergreening? And, most importantly, what can the patent office do to improve our own abysmal record in encouraging innovations, and building innovative, world-class products?

Perhaps organisations like the Lawyers Collective had a strong role to play here.


* Key Medicines -  Patent Status in India --


* India Patent Office --

* (19Mar15) - WSJ - India's fight against Big Pharma is a Just War --

* Biswajit Dhar (2014): IPR policy must drive innovation --

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Yella's Discoveries

One of the simple pleasures of life is to find an Indian-sounding name in a piece of work that touches excellence. Quite often, I find myself waiting for the credits to roll at the end of a great movie, or flipping through the 'acknowledgements' section of a book, or a computer app, just to take delight at the number of such names that turn up.

Yesterday, I started on a book that had such a name right on the front-cover: Siddhartha Mukherjee's "The Emperor of All Maladies". It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 but, until now, I had put it away, assuming that it was a work of fiction that was somehow connected to Jumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies". Never have I been so wrong about titles!

The book actually combines three things that I would never tire of -- history, science and technology. It is a biography of a disease we all dread - Cancer.

Right at the beginning of the story, amid 20th century scientists of Europe and USA struggling to understand this strange disease, an Indian name pops up in the most unlikely place and time - Yellapragada Subbarow at Harvard Medical School, 1923. Yella was a product of Madras Medical College, but his degree was not recognized, so he started all over again at Harvard as a biochemist, supporting himself by working as a part-time janitor, cleaning halls and toilet-bowls.

Down the road, he went on to discover the role of phosphocreatine, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as an energy source in the cell, and developed methotrexate for the treatment of cancer. He discovered polymyxin widely used even today in cattle-feed and aureomycin (the first broad-spectrum antibiotic), and the first of tetracycline antibiotics. SubbaRow and his team of organic and biological chemists isolated folic acid from liver and a microbial source and then synthesized it in 1945. As Director of Research at Lederle, he  found in Hetrazan  (diethylcarbamazine (DEC), the cure for filariasis. The method for estimating phosphorous is called the Fiske-SubbaRow Method.

According to Banerjee, "Any one of these achievements should have been enough to guarantee him a professorship at Harvard. But Subbarow was a foreigner, a reclusive, nocturnal, heavily accented vegetarian who lived in a one-room apartment downtown, befriended only by other nocturnal recluses".

How is it that we never heard about him in our own school science textbooks?

  • Mukherjee, Siddhartha (2011): EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES - A BIOGRAPHY OF CANCER, Scribner, 2011 -- url -- 
  • Indian Academy of Clinical Medicine --
  • Wiki -
  • Yellapragada Subbarow (12 January 1895 – 9 August 1948) --
  • Miracle Man of Miracle Drugs -- 

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Merchants of Rosy Imagery

Joseph Goebbels would have been quite pleased with this illustration.

It shows a somewhat effeminate Shah Alam, one of the last Mughal emperors in an opulent court , handing over a scroll - the "Treaty of Allahabad" - to Robert Clive, representative of the East India Company (EIC), in 1765.

Under this treaty, Clive was appointed as the new governor of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar, with full rights to collect taxes as EIC pleased -- one of the earliest cases of a sovereign state subcontracting its own work to a multinational corporation (MNC).  It was also a legal fig-leaf to cover a plunder that had started a few years earlier, after the Battle of Plassey (1757).

According to William Darylmple, "The entire contents of the Bengal treasury were simply loaded into 100 boats and punted down the Ganges... Clive transferred to the EIC treasury no less than £2.5m seized from the defeated rulers of Bengal – in today’s currency, around £23m for Clive and £250m for the company."

Recent research goes to prove that there had been no grand court scene at the court of Shah Alam. The scroll had actually changed hands at Clive's tent pitched in a parade ground. "As for Shah Alam’s silken throne, it was in fact Clive’s armchair, which for the occasion had been hoisted on to his dining room table and covered with a chintz bedspread."

EIC had commissioned an illustrator to create a grand image for the benefit of the British parliamentarians, and the general public. It worked beautifully. Over the next hundred years EIC reinvested the 'revenue' from East India, and public loans and grants, to build an vast army to conquer, subjugate and plunder the subcontinent.

According to Darlymple, the EIC merchants were merely taking advantage of a power vacuum in India. Between the time the first EIC ship sailed into Surat in 1608 with William Hawkins, and Robert Clive's 'treaty' of 1765 came a disaster that crippled the Mughal empire. Persian adventurer, Nader Shah had trotted down with 150,000 horsemen, defeated the Mughals at the Battle of Karnal (1739), and carried away treasures worth over GBP 87.5 million.


* WD - East India Company --
* Rajiv Malhotra - Debating foreign funded NGOs --