Saturday, February 21, 2015

Swiss Dance

Wish I could understand modern dance.

The title of the performance we attended today was - "Re-mapping the Body - hear the movement / see the music", presented by Compagnie Linga, Switzerland, at the FICCI Auditorium. The work was supposed to make use of the 'dominant role of science and technology as adjuncts to the human body'.

The stage setting was quite dramatic. Placed on at centre of were half-a-dozen devices that looked liked pagers with their LEDs blinking. The show started in a rather un-Swiss way -- 15 minutes late -- with sound effects that seemed almost completely out of sync with the movements on stage.

At first we got the impression that the LED devices were movement sensors linked to sound system. This impressed gathered weight when the dancers were seen adjusting the settings carefully from time to time. The ticket had also claimed that the music was to be created entirely by the movements of the dancers. However the sounds seem to emanate from another altogether disjointed universe...

The dancers themselves were superb - each of them was amazingly lithe and agile. Despite the scratchy sound system and the squeaking chairs of FICCI auditorium, they managed to leave a lasting impression.


Caterpillar Snake

(Pic - by Daniel Janzen U-Penn/GrindTV)

Recently, I was stunned to see this photograph -- a caterpillar pretending to be a snake!

Cuckoo's can fool crows into hatching their eggs, hermit-crabs can learn to use discarded shells for protection, and even lung-breathing whales could have evolved over time to life in the oceans. But can an organism that cannot see very well, evolve to mimic one of its numerous predators in the forest?

Can the Theory of Evolution really explain this?

As if to mock this theory, this is what the caterpillar eventually becomes - a drab looking moth (Hemeroplanes triptolemus) that depends on its sense of smell to mate and survive.

(Source - Wikipedia)


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Self-love of the Great Indian Male

Earlier this month, Ramachandra Guha had written a brilliant piece in the Telegraph.

It started out with the Emperor's new clothes but much of the piece was focussed on the stalwarts of Indian Science & Technology community: CNR Rao's move to get a landmark outside IISc to be named after himself; RA Mashelkar's editorial in Current Science showering praises on his own 'achievements'.

Guha contrasted this with the conduct of scientists like Obaid Siddiqui who founded the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), and an anecdote starring JBS Haldane - "You only talk about yourself. But science begins with an interest in the world outside yourself."

This reminded me of PK Kelkar, one of the founding fathers of IIT Kanpur who had strongly discouraged any form of sycophancy or hero-worship.

And now we have RK Pachauri of TERI. The 74-year-old scientist is under police investigation for sexually harassing his Research Assistant.

Where are we headed?


* Guha, Ramachandra (2015) - The Self-love of the Great Indian male --

Sunday, February 01, 2015

War - What is it Good For?

Why did Yugoslavia break-up?  According to a Croat "...we had lived in peace and harmony because every hundred meters we had a policeman to ensure that we loved each other very much".

Ian Morris's latest book takes this line of thinking way beyond the alleys of the former Yugoslavia to an analysis of war and conflict across history, and comes to a startling conclusion. According to him, War is good for humanity.

Large-scale, organised violence apparently makes way for extended periods of peace and prosperity. It encourages trade and economies of scale. At their height, the greatest of empires - the Roman in the West, the Han in China and the Mauryan in modern India and Pakistan - each covered about 1.5 - 2 million square miles, governed 30-60 million people.

For some reason, the technology that drove organised violence seems to have grown much faster in Eurasia than in the Americas. Sticks and stones gave way to swords, spears, war-horses, chariots, the composite bow, and then the great jump to cannons, fire-arms and missiles. Morris seems to agree with Jared Diamond's argument about latitudes in Guns, Germs and Steel.

Somehow his arguments seem to fall apart when it comes to explaining how warfare will evolve in the present context. How long can the American globocop control the world through its grip on the internet, and drones raining hellfire through joysticks held in Arizona?

As always, hindsight is 20:20.


* Amazon - Ian Morris - 

* Review in the Telegraph -- 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

2015 - January: Interesting Articles & Links

* Why is academic writing so academic? --

* Literature - 50 Quotes -

* Anti-Fracking --

* Biotech - unboiling eggs! -

* Blue LED's inventor's advise to Japanese youngsters (get out!) :) -

* Kiran Bedi's mythmaking -

* Ajit Sivadasan - Big data lessons for global brands -

* Ama pearl divers, Japan - photos -

* Atul Gawande's BBC Reith Lecture Series - download -

* Entrepreneurs at 40+  --

* NYT - The Secret Life of Passwords --

* TED - 20 Most Popular -

* Project Management - PRINCE2 -


* A site for web-designers --

* A journalist flogged --

* The Strange Existence of Ram Charan --
- He knew from Sanskrit teachings that "fear, anger, laziness - these are the downfalls of human beings"; that peace of mind alone is worth striving for; that dedication and mastery are their own rewards.
- At Harvard Business School - MBA student - share notes?  "I'm not going to do that," Charan said. "I'm spending my own money. I don't care if I flunk. If I learn something, I'll succeed."
- Gas company, Honolulu - "Reduce pressure from 10PM-4AM and you will makde dividends" - he combined financial acuity with engineering know-how and an eye for the role played by interpersonal relationships to solve a vexing problem.
- He was interested more in cause and effect than statistical correlation. His aims were practical: How can I solve this problem? How can I help this person? This company?
- Skeptics liken him to Chauncey Gardiner, the simple-minded hero of the 1979 film classic Being There, who gets a lot of mileage out of utterances...
- a three-item agenda following a script devised by Charan: What unique thing happened in your store last week? What issues did you face that kept you from serving your customers better? How can we fix those issues right now?

- I truly believe in the Indian culture of dedication. It has served me well. Do the best you can and learn to be the best. Focus. It will take you there.
- Keep your eye on the big prize and what it takes to get there. In outsourcing we lead. I believe we can lead in generics.

* Amazing CT Scans --

* In defence of the chronicler of Kongu --

* 13 Signs of a Disengaged Employee --

* Demand for synthetic biocompatible polymers will increase 4.7 percent annually to $3.2 billion in 2018-
- Hyaluronic acid will generate the fastest revenue gains

* Exploitation in the Cotton Industry --

* The stories the West tell itself about #Ebola -

* Indian  Patent Office grants 90% of its patents to foreign firms --

* Can Fracking handle oil below US$50/barrel --
- Great graphics -

* Swaminathan R (2014):  TIME TO COUNTER TROJAN HORSES, GovernanceNow/MPost
- Intelligence stumped by spoofed IP addresses

* The Problem with Meaning - David Brooks, NYT/Hindu 7Jan15 -
- Speech to Stanford Alum by John Gardner

* Spicejet lessons for Aviation - Amber Dubey, FE 7Jan15 --

* Training Aircraft - Scuttling a 'Made in India' project: The case of the HTT-40 Trainer, BS-7Jan15 --
- Scuttling of Hindustan Turbo Trainer (HTT-40) for a Swiss Pilatus PC-7 Mark-II
- 2009 IAF decision - requirement 181 trainers >> 75 to be purchased abroad, and 106 to be purchased locally from HAL (PC-7 Mk-II)
- 75 Pilatus cost IAF SFrancs 557 million (Rs. 3600 cr) -- Rs. 40 cr per aircraft
- HAL aircraft had engines from Honeywell (TPE-33112B) -- Pratt & Whitney refused licensed mfr in India

* Why PK is OK - Vanita Kohli Khandekar, BS-7Jan14

* How volcanic eruptions happen --

* 32 Truths presented beautifully --

* Narisetti - Minds that should matter -

* TED - Sending Money Home -

* Seven minute workouts --

* The secret to raising smart kids --

* Tharoor explains tweets on ancient Indian science -

* Mana Nayestani's cartoons -
- more -


Friday, January 30, 2015

Mango Exports: The Cost of a Fruit Fly

 Copy of cover story published in IndiaSpend on 30 Jan., 2015

R. Dinakar, January 30, 2015

Last summer was a bonanza for mango lovers in India. Shoppers were pleasantly surprised to find the king of them all, Alphonso mangoes, piled up on street-carts, alongside the more affordable range of Langra, Dashehari, and Chausa.

Alphonso prices had crashed, thanks to a European Union (EU) ban on mango imports from India.

At the heart of the ban was a tiny fruit fly. Importing countries feared that this exotic pest would infest and destroy their local crops, such as lettuce, cucumber and tomato.

India is the world’s largest producer of mangoes. Its annual output, at 18-19 million metric tonnes (MT), is about 40 per cent of the world’s production.  Yet, only a tiny fraction of production, 41,280 MT in 2013-14 or 0.2%, is exported.

Compare this to the world’s no.1 exporter, Mexico. This South American nation produces some 1.6 million MT of mangoes, and exports about 270,000 MT. That’s around 17 percent!

Productivity in India is low and wastage is high, as our accompanying story explains.

India’s exports were worth Rs 285 crore in 2013-14 and Rs 265 crore the year before, according to APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) data. About 60 per cent of its exports are to the United Arab Emirates. Shipments to the EU were around 4,000 tonnes, valued at Rs 50 crore in 2012-13.

In April last year, plant quarantine authorities in Brussels found Indian consignments infested with fruit flies. Mango imports were banned in May, until December 2015.

This week, an EU committee endorsed a proposal of the European Commission to lift the banon the import of mangoes from India, citing “significant improvements” in its certification system.

Export of fruits and vegetables is a complicated business, more so when each country has its own set of requirements.

Japan insists on mangoes being subjected to treatment with hot vapours. The US and Australia buy only irradiated fruits, while others, including the EU, specify hot-water treatment.

These diverse requirements obviously add to export costs. In its advisory to exporters, APEDA specifies that the costs of positioning foreign inspectors, whether American or Japanese, must be borne by export-facility owners.

Last year, India raised these requirements as a “specific trade concern” at the World Trade Organisation, pointing out that the high cost of certification, on account of supervision by US inspectors, made Indian mangoes uncompetitive.

Two developments have somewhat turned the tide in India’s favour.

The first was a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in October and, more recently, a clarification issued by the EU that its ban is being lifted this year on an assurance from India that all consignments would be processed in APEDA’s hot-water treatment facilities and duly certified before being exported.

The FAO report is quite significant. Until recently, it was assumed that fruit flies were pests unique to India. The EU, USA, Japan and Australia had imposed similar restrictions on imports from other tropical countries, citing infestations from Oriental, Philippine, Invasive and Asian Papaya fruit flies.

A multinational research effort was launched by FAO in 2009 involving nearly 50 researchers from 20 countries. In October 2014, the research team came to an unequivocal conclusion: four of the world’s most destructive agricultural pests are actually the same fruit fly.

Therefore, all four previously-considered distinct fruit-fly species will now be combined under the single name: Bactrocera dorsalis, the oriental fruit fly.

An oriental fruit fly laying eggs in a papaya, Credit: Wikimedia

“This outcome has major implications for global plant biosecurity, especially for developing countries in Africa and Asia,” said Mark Schutze, lead author of the FAO study. “The fruit fly has devastated African fruit production with crop losses exceeding 80 percent and has led to widespread trade restrictions with refusal of shipments of products into Asia, Europe and Japan, and significant economic and social impacts on farming communities”.

Precise identification of pests is central to pest management. Now scientists can focus their attention on developing standard protocols introducing bio-markers and insect birth-control techniques. Standard methods like the introduction of mass-produced sterile Oriental fruit fly males can now be used against all the different populations of this major pest.

Trade barriers based on fears of ‘exotic fruit fly infestation’, may soon become a thing of the past. This season, Alphonso mangoes may not be available for discounted prices in your local market, but the summer of 2015 may turn out to be a happy one for mango farmers, as well as other fruit & vegetable exporters in India.

(Dinakar R. is deputy general manager with Biotech Consortium India Ltd. These are his personal views.)


* FAO: Four in One – New Discovery on Pest Fruit Flies (28 Oct., 2014) --
* WTO – Meeting of the Committee on Sanitary and PhytosanitaryMeaaures (15-17 Oct., 2014) -
* APEDA Advisories-
* Mint (8Jan 2015 -LiveMint) –EU agrees to lift ban on Alphonso mangoes -

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!