Monday, July 28, 2008

Old Dragonfly

I was moved by this old dragonfly that found a resting-place on our balcony.

With its beady eyes and frayed wings, it held on to its umbrella until the rains finally stopped in the evening.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Prof. Randy Pausch Passes Away....

Randy Pausch - inspiring teacher, builder of Alice, creator of ETA - passed away today in America. He had been suffering from Pancreatic cancer.

The first time I heard the name Pausch was in Tehelka (Oct., 2007), in an article by his former classmate turned writer, Dilip D’Souza. I wish I had not waited until Dilip came up with book review to download and read the much-celebrated lecture at Carnegie Mellon, titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”. It was a real eye-opener on the nuts & bolts of US leadership in science & technology.

Some excerpts -
  • About persuading NASA to take him on a zero-gravity flight - “have something to bring to the table”.
  • About Coach Graham Graham at football – “Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. You’ve got to get the fundamentals down because otherwise the fancy stuff isn’t going to work”
  • “When you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up.”
  • Power of enthusiasm – “When you’re only doing it for one play and you’re just not where you’re supposed to be,and freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, boy are you going to clean somebody’s clock for that one play.”
  • “When you do something young enough and you train for it, it just becomes a part of you”
  • 'Head-Fake' and playing football - “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”
  • Head-fake or indirect learning. We don’t actually want our kids to learn football…we send them out to learn much more important things. Teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, etcetera, etcetera..
  • Getting a reject letter from Walt Disney Imagineering – “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people.”
  • About his own impatience and temper - “When you’re pissed off at somebody and you’re angry at them, you just haven’t given them enough time”
  • Dealing with students who exceeded your expectations – “…you obviously don’t know where the bar should be,and you’re only going to do them a disservice by putting it anywhere.”
  • “One of the biggest gifts you can give somebody – the chance to show them what it feels like to make other people get excited and happy. I men that’s a tremendous gift.”
  • "Apologize when you screw up an focus on other people, not on yourself."
  • About hard work and getting an early tenure - "'Junior faculty say to me, you got tenure early. What's your secret?', I said, 'It's pretty simple. Call me any Friday night in my office at ten o'clock and I'll tell you."

References -

YouTube Recording of the Last Lecture - 1 hour 16 mts
OBITUARY Chicago Tribune - Randy Pausch, 47; terminally ill professor inspired many with his 'last lecture'
Personal Histories - Dilip D'Souza in Tehelka13 October 2007 - ‘Dying’s just another step through life, another chance to celebrate life’
THE LAST LECTURE - Book review by Dilip, Tehelka 12 July 2008
Dilip D'Souza's Blog

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Which Butterfly?

Jahanpanah Forest was teeming with butterflies this weekend. Cabbage Whites, Grass Yellows, and Common Tiger's swarming all over the oleander's and other seasonal, wild flowers.

One curious sight was this strange looking caterpillar on a cactus plant, making a rather feeble attempt at mimicking the thorns. What could this be? Which butterfly or moth finds it worthwhile to seek food a cactus plant?

No answers so far...

Related sites -

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Din and Tonics in Delhi

The Harvard Din & Tonics had their first performance in Delhi yesterday.

Just a few days ago, while reading Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat", a few unfamiliar words had made me reach out for a dictionary. In a paragraph about how Georgia Tech improved its performance by encouraging its undergrads to take on musical pursuits, there was something about "Glee clubs and Capella Bands". Capella had turned out to be something like karaoke ("empty orchestra"), except that the performance rested entirely on vocals. I had imagined it to be something like the erstwhile "Cochin Mimics" in Kerala, but that was way off the mark.

Stein Auditorium at IHC was already jam packed by the time I got there. The hall was dark, the music was already on, but something was wrong... Instead of a bunch of Americans, a group of glum Indian students stood under the spotlights crooning a Hindi song.

Was I in the wrong hall? I checked Arshia's invitation again - "7:00 PM, Din & Tonics" is what it said. It looked like a filler anyway, so I squeezed into an empty seat and took a closer look at the bunch.

The poor fellows looked like they had been dragged away from a cricket field, handed some instruments along with a threat - "Sing! or else...". They sang well but the voices barely managed to get past the loud drums and synthesizers .

This turned out to be a fine way to introduce the Capella. It was a relief to see the offending instruments dragged off stage and replaced by a bunch of eleven sprightly, quaintly dressed undergrads from Harvard - and none of whom carried any instruments.

They were sharp, articulate and completely self-processed. As the program got going with their carefully coordinated singing, dancing and antics, I couldn't help wondering - were these delicate, effeminate and amazingly talented kids from the same country that is sending out troops and bombers to bully Iraq? Are these the guys who are still debating the merits of detention and torture at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and Eastern Europe?

But the performance was awesome!


Din & Tonics Homepage


Friday, July 11, 2008

A Purpose

How often do you stumble upon words that express the very thoughts that run in your mind? Words that cut through the clutter and tangle, tie-up the loose threads and put them in a perspective and pattern that startles you into saying, "Hey, this is exactly what I wanted to convey!"?

I found this today at under "Why Mean Anything?" -
"...One might still choose to lead a purposeless existence, but I don't want to. Having an underlying purpose creates motivation for action; it makes some things imperative, and provides a framework within which to make decisions. Without a purpose, the world seems less colorful, less tragic, less hopeful. Choosing a purpose makes both progress and disappointment possible, and I would rather risk disappointment in exchange for a chance of progress than assure myself a zero sum existence. Sharing a purpose with others creates community, and as a social animal, I enjoy that community. The experience of it is good, even in disappointment."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

World Rice Shortages – Taking India’s Green Revolution to Africa

It’s a quixotic world out there – especially when one takes a closer look at international commodities trade. Thanks to a maze of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), WTO rules, national subsidies, trade blocks and bilateral pacts, massive quantities of food grains rot in western silos while food riots erupt in parts of Asia and Africa. Nothing illustrates this farce better than the rice trade.

Despite being largely self-sufficient in rice, developed countries like Japan end up importing rice from America to maintain some semblance of ‘balance of trade’. 1.5 million tons of high-grade American rice is currently idling in Japanese silos. As long as the Japanese have the money to buy local 'sticky-rice' varieties like Sasanishiki and Koshihikari, they would rather pay over Yen 600/kg (~Rs. 200/kg) than suffer the indignity of eating American rice. And as long as the US-Japan agreement prevents resale of this rice, a lot of it is destined to either rot or be disposed off as animal feed.

Total world rice production is about 646 million tons (2007, IRRI), of which only 6% or 38 mT is traded internationally. About 50% of rice exports come from three countries - Thailand (26%), Vietnam (15%) and India (10%).

This year, a shortage of rice has sent the world markets into a tizzy. A crisis that worsened after India decided to ban exports (non-Basmati rice) in order to build sufficient buffer stocks. How much is sufficient? Food Corporation of India (FCI) has announced plans to raise the rice buffer stock to 27.5mT, i.e., about 70% of recent world rice exports.

If this seems like a huge buffer, consider one point - FCI distributes around 2 mT of rice every month under the national Public Distribution System (PDS). The system is notorious for its inefficiency, corruption and leakages, but it still remains a political hot-potato that nobody wants to touch – let alone the thought of making it more efficient.

Across the Arabian Sea, in Africa, millions of lives depend on rice imports. Despite producing about 14mT (2006, FAOSTAT) it imports about 7mT annually. According to an International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) report - "With only 13% of the world's population, Africa accounts for 32% of world rice imports, which makes it a big player in the international rice”. The report goes on to say, “In 2006, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) imported more than 9 million tons of rice worth an estimated $2 billion. With world rice reserves at their lowest level since 1983-84, international rice prices are expected to double in the next couple of years. This is especially alarming for SSA nations, which need to import about 40% of their rice to satisfy local demand."

Africa Rice Center (WARDA) in Benin is one the 15 international agricultural research Centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). It has been working towards improving the productivity and profitability of rice production in Africa by popularizing a hybrid called NERICA (NEw RIce for AfriCA), a variety that has high yield potential in a short grown cycle. The Center’s website has a long list of international collaborators and India is prominently absent. Having benefited enormously from the Green Revolution, one would have expected India would take on a leading role in teaching Africa how to lead farmers from hybrids to bumper crops.

There was no trace of such generosity in the recently concluded India-Africa Summit (8-9 April 2008), even though Agriculture figures prominently in the joint framework for cooperation. The framework broadly outlines sustainable development of agricultural and animal resources, capacity building, water resources management, disease control and processing/storage technologies. Surprisingly, there is no mention of the ongoing commodities crisis or of any collaboration in rice production.

India has a wealth of experience in rice production. We owe a large part of this to international collaborations that helped us improve our research capabilities, our expertise in breeding and seed production, agricultural extension, use of improved seeds, fertilizer and equipment, as well as post-harvest handling and marketing. It is time we returned the favor and extended our wholehearted support to African countries in their efforts towards self-sufficiency in food grains and reduction of imports.

Setting our own house on order also help. Efficient management of Indian public institutions like FCI and the PDS system would not only reduce wastage but also reduce the necessity of maintaining huge, expensive buffer stocks. Releasing our surplus rice into the international markets would go some way in easing the pressure on those who are worse off than us – especially the countries of Sub Saharan Africa.

There are, of course, no short-term, quick-fix solutions to the problems of food security. While India curries favor with Africa for its natural resources, and trade concessions, it would be helpful to remember what Cervantes noted in Don Quixote - “There's no sauce in the world like hunger”.