Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Self-Cleaning Glass

This photo was a revelation - an answer to a problem constantly faced by car drivers during the monsoons. When you are driving through rain, wind-screen wipers and air circulation can deal with raindrops and fogging but what about the rear-view mirrors? How is it that this mirror looked like half of it was wiped clean?

Photocatalytic Technology has the answer. Half of the mirror is coated with compound that is abundant in nature - Titanium Oxide. For a long time now, TO has been used as a white pigment in paint, cosmetics and food additives,. Now people was warming up to its uses as a photofunctional material. Compounds that are perfectly functional and yet, do not harm the environment.

Useful properties & applications: -
  • When TO absorbs ultraviolet light, any organic dirt or grime on its surface is decomposed through a process called photo-induced decomposition. Perfect for coating glass windows in high-rise buildings.
  • TO surface has an affinity for water (photo-induced hydrophilic effect). Buildings coated with it decompose organic dirt under sunlight (UV light) and are easily washed away by rain.
  • On a TO surface, water spreads into a thin film and does not form droplets -- a very useful property when used on automobile glass and side-mirrors.
  • Combining TO with a safe anti-bacterial agent such as silver and copper makes a material with high anti-bacterial properties when it is irradiated with weak UV light from regular indoor lighting. Very useful in hospital emergency rooms and senior-citizens homes.
(Source: JJ Environment Report, Oct., 2007)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Chanel, by Chance

I was stalked this week - by a perfume.

An unusual smell that kept reminding me of a weekend shopping trip; it kept coming back time and again – while working at my desk, while driving to work, through meetings and during my lunchtime, until I got back home in the evening.

It took a while for me to realize that the culprit was a Parisian creator of olfactory promises – Chanel. On Saturday, during a visit to a local mall, I had loitered towards the perfume section while waiting for the shopping to finish. The whole floor looked radically different from my last visit; previous occupants of prime-space had been shoved to the periphery and the center was now occupied by a few eye-catching, black & white, dramatically lit Chanel counters.

I must have been immediately identified as a potential sucker – just as I was wondering why the famous No.5 bottles were displayed like crown jewels, a salesman sided up, “Looking for something special, sir?”

“Uh?”, I mumbled something about being just curious and was about to slink away when he quickly offered to show me around. The fellow looked sincere and affable, without a hint of superciliousness. He introduced himself as Al-tamash. Yes, a namesake of the sultan who once ruled North India from his citadel in Mehrauli. “It means 'Leader of Men’, and is often mis-spelt as Illtutmish by ignorant historians”, he said. Bonded instantly by the love for history and etymology, I asked him about the hype behind No.5.

The Leader smiled and took out a bottle with a flourish, sprayed the contents on a strip of white paper, waved it in the air and passed it to me. I took a whiff and immediately felt hungry. Not a reaction worthy of classic perfumes but how could I confess this to the Leader? My thoughts went to Pavlov and his dog. Perhaps my mind associated the floral smell with formal parties and weddings where the food and drinks were just around the corner.

Having found an eager student with a hungry expression, Al-tamash proceeded to introduce me to something called Chance. “This one is special”, he said, “It is floral, spicy and woody depending on which of its ingredients makes an appearance - hyacinth, white musk, pink pepper, jasmine, vettiver citrus, iris, and patchouli.”

Patchouli! That rang a bell - hunger all forgotten, my mind now wandered off to a little shop in CP that sold perfume oils in tiny bottles. I remembered being interested in a bottle of patchouli – an interest that was quickly extinguished the moment my eyes met the price tag.

Al-tamash told me that each bottle cost over Rs. 5900 - hardly surprising considering the brand-building effort involved. He told me the difference between eau de toilette and perfumes. Toilettes are cheaper but they contain only a fraction of the active ingredients, so you need to spray copiously for the same impact.

I was introduced to a few more perfumes and I dutifully tucked away the paper strips in my pocket notebook, and removed them as soon as I got back home. But the brief encounter seems to have given my shabby dog-eared scratch pad the airs of Coco herself.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Family Saga: Keemuree le Appachi

Keemureele Appachi has always had a special place in our childhood memories.

During the summer holidays, a certain trio collectively known as DinuDooniVijoo used to go tramping around all over Thrikodithanam, looking for fun, fighting boredom -- clambering up assorted trees; raiding cupboards for upperis and squash; spotting turtles & snakes in the pond; wading through streams trying to catch little fishes called Mannathukanni (മാനത്തുകന്നി : eye-to-the-sky); hiding in corners, waiting for forbidden ice cream-candy vendors; looking for bicycles on hire and new places to explore...

The neighbors were, of course, wary. In the entire locality, if there was one place that always welcomed the brats, it was a house just across the paddy fields -- KeeMuree. The was an abbreviation of Kizhakke-Muri (കിഴാക്കെ മുറി  or literally `Eastern-Room`) with reference to the erstwhile location of the original family mansion.

A genial, friendly old lady always invited us in. She would open her cupboards and treat us to home-made jams and allow us to stuff our pockets with all the upperi  we would carry. On the day we were to return to Hyderabad, she would turn up with a big bunch of bananas and say, “Remember me when you gobble these in the train! - one for each station!!”

Reminiscing is what we were doing yesterday evening. That was when one Ammavan (അമ്മാവന്‍: maternal uncle) came up with this amazing story about KeeMuree, and I just thought of repeating it here for the folks who may not have heard it. It has all the ingredients of a thriller - friendship, violence, secret love, impossible journeys and dramatic reunions.

The story begins with a rather oddly named school in Thrikodithanam, - the Vocational Bias Secondary School, better known locally as “Ookkan-Bayaas”. It was a private institution built in early 1900s by a person named Kuttan Pillai, who made his fortune as a Surveyor for the princely state of Travancore. Pillai's local influence and standing was directly proportional to his wealth.

One day, Pillai found something missing from his house and his needle of suspicion fell on a brash teenager in the neighborhood – Appukuttan of Lakathekkethil. There must have been some previous grievances as well, so Pillai had Appukuttan hauled up by the police, who promptly proceeded to beat him black and blue.

Appukuttan had a very dear friend named Prabhakaran Menon of KeeMuree. Prabhakaran was tall, strapping, athletic lad of 15 or 16, and deeply in love with Apukuttan’s sister, Bhavani. The friendship between the boys was known to all and sundry but the romance with the sister was a well-kept secret and both the families were completely unaware of it.

When Appukuttan returned home after his ‘treatment’ at the police station, Prabhakaran was absolutely furious. He swore revenge and within a few days he ambushed the owner of Okkan-Bayaas and let him have it. It is said that Okkan-Pillai got such a trashing from the teenager that he barely escaped with his life.

Prabhakaran ran away from home the same night – staying back only guaranteed trouble from all quarters. He traveled by bus and rail to Madras in a few days, and from there he boarded a steamer to Malaysia. So in circa 1937, when Bhavani began refusing marriage proposals one after the another, the secret came out wrapped in an ultimatum – she would either marry Prabhakaran or not get married at all.

Bhavani then started her long wait for news from across the Bay of Bengal. Pressure from the family kept mounting for a few years until one fine day an acquaintance came up with news of our hero in Malaysia. Prabhakaran had found a good job in Penang and wanted his sweetheart to join him ASAP. He was unable to come to Kerala for getting married, so he sent forth an audacious suggestion – could Bhavani join him in Penang?

To somebody who had never stepped out of Thrikodithanam without an escort, Penang was in another universe. Her family objected vehemently but she was adamant. She had to go. Immediately.

Appukuttan volunteered to take her to Madras, from where she traveled alone by ship to Malaysia. A week or two later, she landed in Penang where the grand reunion was quickly followed by the marriage ceremonies. Bhavani now became KeeMuree le Appachi  (`Appachi` അപ്പച്ചി = father`s younger sister).

Soon after he returned from Madras, Appukuttan too ran away from home and joined the British Indian army. A few years of active service during WW-II and he returned home one day to get married. It is said that he was so smitten the pretty bride that he decided not to report back for duty. The government did not take kindly to deserters and soon Thrikodithanam was swarming with police & army personnel, as well as local bounty hunters.

Appukuttan went into hiding. He kept changing hideouts and disguises; rarely ventured out of dark granaries, lofts and sacred groves during daytime. Children knew that he was somewhere around when food disappeared from the kitchen and books vanished into thin air. The hiding continued until 1947 after independence, when the new Indian army decided not to trouble men who had deserted the British.

Prabhakaran & Bhavani visited Thrikodithanam every few years; laden with wonderful gifts for everyone at home: ball-point pens, perfumes, watches, dresses, nylon umbrellas and gadgets.

Soon after their two daughters were born, life got progressively tougher in Malaysia under the “bhoomiputras”. So the family moved back to KeeMuree in the 1960s and life shifted gears into settle for a more sedate, predictable pace.

Adventure on high seas and foreign lands gave way to harvesting paddies, banana's and mulberries - and to pampering skinny brats on the prowl.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Islamic Finance - Sukuk?

What is Islamic Finance? If Sharia prohibits lending of money based on interest, how will bankers survive?

This paradox disappears when you’re sitting on a pile of petrodollars. When you have financial assets of more than $500 million, expanding at 15-20%; when global banks vie with each other for your funds, you’d better take a closer look at Islamic Finance!

The religious view is that receiving high rates of interest on money lent to a poor debtor violated justice. Underlying this precept is the view that money was something that symbolized economic value and was significant only as a means of preserving that value. Therefore true value was preserved only if it was invested in real assets. So, under Islamic finance, transaction in real assets is based on sharing of profit and loss between the lenders and the borrowers.

This may sound Utopian fact is that there is a growing market for innovative instruments offered by Islamic finance. Some of them are –

Murabaha: Similar to installment sales contract

Istisna: A variation of Murabaha applied to housing loans

Ijara: Corresponds to a lease agreement

Musharaka: Similar to investment trust;

Takaful: A kind of casualty insurance covering capital transactions in banking, securities and insurance

Sukuk: ‘Islamic bonds’ mobilizing funds from a large number of investors

Thanks to these innovations, Malaysia now has the largest Islamic financial market in the world, surpassing Bahrain.

In the 1980s repatriation of petrodollars through the London market became a catalyst for the formation of the Eurodollar market. In 2004, FSA-UK starting pushing aggressively for repeat performance for a piece of the IF cake. Japan too is jumping into the fray using JBIC.

Restriction imposed after 9/11 have diverted money flows from USA to illiquid infra projects in the Persian Gulf through IF. Now the emerging market in India is attracting the attention of Islamic petrodollars...

I guess it all goes to prove yet again that IF there is a will, there is a way!


Ref.: T. Maeda’s note – “A Strategic Approach to Islamic Finance”; JJ 10/07]

NOTE - 10th September 2008
According to the Economist (04 Sep. 2008), Islamic assets under management now stands at $700 billion. S&P thinks this could go up to $4 trillion. However, the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) has objected to Sukuk in its present form as it contravened Sharia principles. This could lead to problems...

Monday, December 03, 2007

Interesting Excerpts -- Nanotech, Black Color

Nanotechnology: A little risky business (The Economist, Nov 22nd 2007)

In the past few years the number of consumer products claiming to use nanotechnology has dramatically grown—to almost 600 by one count....Some nanotechnology products are applied directly to the skin, as cosmetics and sunscreens. Titanium dioxide is commonly used as the white pigment in sunscreen. When it is ground into nanoparticles it can still block harmful ultraviolet radiation, but it allows visible light to pass straight though, which means modern sunscreens can appear completely transparent, while offering the same protection as the old white stuff.

Many products are now embedded with silver nanoparticles. At such small sizes, silver can have antimicrobial properties. Silver nanoparticles may come in handy wherever you want to kill germs—for instance, in things as diverse as children's dummies (comforters to Americans), teddy bears, washing machines, chopsticks and bed linen. Hence nanotechnology can be used in food production, most often as nanoparticles of silver in food-preparation equipment. The food industry is also trying to restructure ingredients at the nanoscale so as to include particles of trace metals in food supplements and to produce less-fattening foods.

Research on animals suggests that nanoparticles can even evade some of the body's natural defence systems and accumulate in the brain, cells, blood and nerves...Half of the atoms in a five-nanometre particle are on its surface, which can make it many times more toxic than expected by weight alone.

Carbon nanotubes have been used for years in industry. They have been embedded in materials like plastics to increase their toughness and provide electrical conductivity for components that are electrostatically painted. But it remains unknown, for instance, if they can enter groundwater when the products that contain them are dumped or broken up.

Painting it Black (Japan Journal, Oct., 2007)

For long, the color was a secret symbol of virility and power. Along with gold, it was the most favored color among warlords, the prime example being Oda Nobunaga (the first warlord to unify the nation), who refused to dine off anything but the blackest of lacquered tableware. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries women blackened their teeth, initially to emphasize their sexuality. Later, during the Edo period (1603–1867), wives dyed their teeth black as a sign of unavailability (a Japanese version of the wedding ring), though in many cases this served as the ultimate turn-on—much of Edo pornography (both art and literature) features black-teethed wives in the throes of ecstasy. Women drew the line when it came to dress however; black was too ceremonial, heavy, and laden with male aesthetics/subtexts.

The black boom of today has its roots in the revival of Japanese charcoal (sumi - 炭). Once the most ubiquitous of household supplies, Japanese charcoal (used not just for fuel but also for medication and as a purifier) had given way to mass-produced, high-tech products...

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Taxes and Domestic Airfares

In a few sectors Indian domestic airlines have been offering tickets for Rs. 5,. But even for the cheapest tickets, you actually end up paying more than Rs.2500 extra for taxes and surcharges. Now, what are these extra charges?

Jet fuel accounts for 40% of the operating costs for domestic airlines; the domestic industry spends about Rs.7543 Crore on fuel bills. With the latest hike, the additional costs/ticket is Rs. 2025/ and the break-up is something like this:

Fuel surcharge = Rs. 1650/-
Congestion surcharge = Rs. 150/-
Passenger service tax = Rs.225/-

Also aviation fuel is much more expensive in India - 70-90% higher than international rates. At Delhi it is Rs.47,444.14/kiloliter and at Mumbai it is Rs.49,061/kiloliter.

The Federation of Indian Airlines (FIA) estimates that the rates were brought closer to international rates, it would result in an annual saving of Rs.2496 Cr. ($624m).

Why the big difference?

Source: P.R Sanjai, LiveMint, 1 Dec., 2007