Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cracking The Maya Code

`If a script has 20 to 35 signs, it is probably alphabetic, representing simple sounds. If there are 80 to 100 signs, it is probably based on syllables. But if a script has several hundred signs, it is surely logographic, or based on signs for whole words.`

But how do you decipher is an ancient language, which, after surviving 1,500 years, was systematically obliterated by over-zealous conquerors?

Here is the amazing story of some amazing individuals (German, American, Russian) and their effort to decipher the Maya logographic-script.

Transcript of the PBS program telecast in 2008 -

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Denial of Service

It is really fascinating how the Wikileaks issue is playing out...After spending decades lecturing the Russians and the Chinese on the joys of a free press, the US government has now doing everything it can to kill the messenger - Assange.

It started out with 'distributed denial of service' (DDOS) attacks on Wikileaks sites, then forced governments to hunt him down with an Interpol lookout, and now, it is forcing private companies to sever links with Wikileaks.

And then, over the past week, faceless netizens started fighting back. A group calling itself AnonOps brought down Visa Inc’s site throuh a DDOS attack. Another group called Anonymous has targeted mainly companies which have decided for whatever reason not to deal with WikiLeaks, and their hit-list includes Amazon, MasterCard, Visa and PayPal. Some of these "hacktivists" called this Operation Payback.

How do DDOS attacks work?

According to CERT, denial of service attacks can take three forms:
  1. consumption of scarce, limited, or non-renewable resources (usually bandwidth)
  2. destruction or alteration of configuration information
  3. physical destruction or alteration of network components
In the case of Operation Payback in support of Wikileaks, new tools are being adapted to make DDOS attacks easier. One of them is called the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) software available as a free download from SourceForge (Hive Mind LOIC). This one, according to the Register, can be used to launch attacks even from an iPhone!
Today, the Dutch police arrested a 16-year-old for such an attack on MasterCard and Visa. So the hacktivists are changing is one that was published yesterday by BoingBoing:

Wonder where this will lead to...


Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Gems from the Pali Canon

I have always wondered...what is it that inspired Chiense scholars like Fa Xian (c.337-422 CE) and  Xuanzang (c. 602-664 CE)   to undertake that ardrous trek across the Tibetan plateau, and over the Himalayas to the monastic universities of Bihar? What was so great about getting an education at Nalanda?

 A part of the answer can be found in the Pali Canon, in documents like the Samannaphala Sutta. It gives you a glimpse of the great depth and power of ideas; of concepts communicated in a language acessible to kings and slaves alike; of prose that cuts though 'eternal questions' with startling simplicity.

The Chinese walked thousands of kilometers to understand the Pali Sutras. Some of these documents are now available online, in English translations that also reveal much about life & times of ancient Magadha.

Documents from
This Sutra describes Buddha's response to King Ajatashatru's question:
"Lord, there are these common craftsmen: elephant-trainers, horse-trainers, charioteers, archers, standard bearers, camp marshals, supply corps officers, high royal officers, commandos, military heroes, armor-clad warriors, leather-clad warriors, domestic slaves, confectioners, barbers, bath attendants, cooks, garland-makers, laundrymen, weavers, basket-makers, potters, calculators, accountants, and any other common craftsmen of a similar sort. They live off the fruits of their crafts, visible in the here and now. They give pleasure and refreshment to themselves, to their parents, wives, and children, to their friends and colleagues. They put in place an excellent presentation of offerings to priests and contemplatives, leading to heaven, resulting in happiness, conducive to a heavenly rebirth. Is it possible, lord, to point out a similar fruit of the contemplative life, visible in the here and now?"

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Discovering Ozu

Classics from the Japanese film director, Yasujiro Ozu:

Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953)

And a few more:

Higanbana (Equinox Flower) - - Death Poem

Floating Weeds-
Tokyo Monogatari (1953)

Early Spring -

Tokyo Boshoku (Tokyo Twilight, 1959) -



Setsuko Hara -

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kaii Higashiyama

Wonder why some of the best programs on NHK are broadcast late at night...

 In Japan, as is the case in India, prime-time national television seems to be reserved for mindless drivel - endless foodie shows, teenagers screaming "kawaiii!" (so cute!), and the usual line-up of show-piece occidentals holding forth on everything from current affairs to hair-styles.

If you want to see real home-grown gems, perhaps its better to hit the remote-control early in the morning (kids programs) or late lights (eg. the five-minute filler called "11:55")

Yesterday they were showing the works of a painter named Kaii Higashiyama, and the program was presented by a well known pianist, Shinya Kiyoduka. It was superb.

On the web, I could not find most of the  lithographs presented in the show, but here is one titled "Hakuba no Mori" from gallery-sakura-


Friday, November 26, 2010

Marathon Monks

Which is the toughest, institutionalized, human endurance test?

If you thought it was the ultra-marathon, here is something you should see -

These marathon monks (Kaihōgyō) are Tendai Buddhists and followers of Fudō Myōō (aka Achala-natha or the `immovable-lord` in Sanskrit) - the protector and aide in attaining goals. For them, the ultimate achievement is the 1000-day challenge in which they cover 40 to 84km per day for 100 days a year, for seven years!

Only 46 men have completed the 1,000-day challenge since 1585 AD.


Tibetan Buddhism has a similar practice called Lung-gom-pa ("Wind Meditation", lung = “wind, gom-pa = “meditation") which allows a practitioner to run at an extraordinary speed for days without stopping. Milarepa is said to have been one of its exponents.

Yantra Yoga - Tibetan yoga of movement

Hōnen (法然 1133-1212) -  religious reformer and founder of the first independent branch of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism called Jōdo shū (浄土宗?, "The Pure Land School").

Tendai Marathon Monks - The Run of A Lifetime by James Davis, The London Observer

Thursday, November 25, 2010

`Rail Technology Digest`

In 2010, six years after Japan`s Kawasaki Heavy Industries won its first order for supplying high-speed trains to China, a new world record was announced. A  train called CRH380A clocked 420 km/h (262mph).

`CRH` stands for China Railways High-speed and their officials were quoted saying that all the technology, design and equipment for this train had been created in China.

The Japanese、of course, were livid. To them, the CRH series was just a modified version of JR East`s E2-1000 series, but the Chinese were now saying that the technology had been `digested` and that the new trains are fully indigenous.

Deja vu?

This may be exactly how the Americans & British reacted when they saw  the first Japanese three -cylinder steam-engines. In the 1920s Japan had imported some engines from ALCO (built under license from LNER, UK). These were called Class-8200 or  C52, and some of them were completely dismantled and reverse-engineered into a `new`, `improved` model called the C-53. By 1934, Japanese Imperial Railways in Manchuria - the Mantetsu - inaugurated the "Asia Express", a high speed train from Dalian to the Manchukuo capital of Hsinking. This train had a top speed of 134 km/h (83 mph), and was the fastest scheduled train in Asia at the time.

More recently, Siemens too reacted the same way when they saw the first `GreenMover Max` 100% low-floor light transit vehicles (LF-LRVs) in Japan. In 1998, they had supplied Hiroshima city with their Combino-series, which was, at the time, one of the most advanced tram systems. By 2006 a consortium of Japanese manufacturers (J-Tram) came up with the GreenMover Max. The technology had by now been fully `digested`.

When it comes to international technology transfers, I guess it helps to have a good `digestion` :-)  


Kawasaki Wins High-Speed Train Order for China, KHI News, 20 Oct., 2004

How Japan Profits From China's Plans, Forbes, 26 Oct 2009 -

Bullets and Trains: Exporting Japan’s Shinkansen to China and Taiwan, Christopher P. Hood in Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 1 March 2007. 

Discussion on CRH Specs - -

262mph train sets speed record in China: China celebrates the new ultrafast CRH380 train., 26 Oct., 2010.

Discussion - CRH380 -

The Japanese C53 Steam Engine -

Overview of Japan`s Modern Steam Locomotives - Saito Akira -

More Details:

Nigel Gresley - First 3-cylinder steam engines

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Startling Yellows


During autumn, how do the Ginko trees (Ginkgo biloba),come up with the brightest yellow foliage?

Botanists refer to this phenomenon as "leaf senscence in deciduous trees"  and is linked to the changing seasons (a "phytogerontological phenomenon"). The change in leaf coloration is generally due to the progressive loss of chlorophyll cells coinciding with the partial retention of carotenoids.

The big difference between the Ginko and other leaf-shedding trees like Maples and Lindens is that, as the green chlorophyll disappears, as much as half of total carotinoids originally present in the leaf is retained by the time of shedding, which give it a bright yellow color. In the other tree species, carotenoid retention is less pronounced but still high enough to cause a golden appearance of the autumnal foliage.

Now, if you were to ask the why question, explanations are not so easy to find...

It has always intrigued me that as far as plants are concerned, the green color - so soothing to inhabitants of concrete jungles - belongs to the  a wavelength that is practically useless for photosynthesis. And so plants & trees absorb all other wavebands and rejects the green color.

Much the same way, carotinoids appear yellow-red in color but they absorb the blue light. So why is there a longer retention of carotinoids in the Ginko leaves??


Matile, Philippe (2000), Biochemistry of Indian summer: physiology of autumnal leaf coloration. Experimental Gerontology 35 (2000). pp. 145-158

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chase Jarvis & Cameras

"The best camera is the one in your hand"

If I didn't think it was too expensive, maybe I'd have this my my hand...the new Nikon D7000 promo video shot by CJ & friends:

Other interesting pages from his website:
Chase Jarvis Website - especially staff, porfolio and campaigns

Blog Posts - 7 Creative Habits and Proof Vs. Promise

Friday, November 12, 2010

Exhibition Spaces

Yesterday, I visited Makuhari-Messe for the first time to take a look at the "Mass-Trans Innovation Japan 2010".  This exhibition occupied just one hall of this sprawling international convention complex - and what a huge place it was!

While taking a look around, I wondered how it compares with similar sites in India.  But what do we compare? Pragati Maidan in Delhi, spread across 150 acres (0.61km) and has 18 halls with 72,000 sq.m. of exhibition space. At Hyderabad, the first (and only?) privately owned Hyderabad International Convention Centre (HICC) has one hall covering 6,450 sq.m.

If we were to take the quality and service at HICC, and multiply it a few times over with the area available at Pragati Maidan, the result might be something like Makuhari-Messe. Its exhibition space alone covers 210,000 sq.m.!  And to think that this place is smaller than the space available at Tokyo Big Sight (230,000 sq.m.), right in the heart of the city...

Add to this the facilities on offer - logistic support, connectivity, accomodation and recreaction...and that thought (deja vu?) comes once again - "We have such a long-long way to go..."!


Makuhari-Messe, Chiba, Japan -

Tokyo Big Sight -

Pragati Maidan / ITPO -
PM at Wiki -

Hyderabad International Convention Centre (HICC) -

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Seeking Orion

My anchor to the night-sky in Delhi, or for that matter anywhere else in India, has always been the `belt` of Orion the Hunter (aka Mriga in Indian mythology). The simple, staggered array of three bright stars (Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka) could be spotted even when the sky was hazy...

Where should I look for the hunter in Tsukuba?

Here is the map for the Tokyo night-sky:

current night sky over Tokyo
Sky map by AstroViewer®

Since Tsukuba is close to Tokyo, perhaps the hunter is sitting somewhere along the edge of the eastern horizon...


Your Sky from Fourmilab, Switzerland (lots of great science stuff here!)
- Horizon view of Tokyo (35°45'N 139°34'58"E)

Stellarium - free, open-source planetarium downloads

AAAD - Amateur Astronomers Association Delhi -

AstroViewer - (pretty basic, with limited locations, but the maps can be embedded)

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Tech Capability Gaps

Sometime back, while commenting on the BlackBerry encrypton controversy, Saubik Chakrabarti (IE 11 Aug.2010) had pointed out :

"...not all Big Brothers are equally capable. Some tech observers say BlackBerry does not pose a problem to some major countries because their security agencies are in the masterclass of decryption...

"This raises a question for India — a middling power with a self-narrative of technological capability. To what extent are India’s security services’ anxieties a reflection of their less-than-stellar technological capabilities? Do India’s espiocrats sound slightly desperate sometimes because at the high end of the national security business we have a capability gap just as we do at the low end (fighting Maoists with ill-equipped, lowly-paid forces)?"
This thought keeps coming back to me again and again, whenever I read something about India's efforts at absorbing technology, or when I compare it with the proactive way in which Chinese soak in advanced technology. While our neighbor is busy "digesting" foreign technology to create its own high-tech industries - aerospace, high-speed railway networks, communications and logistics - we seem to be busy tying ourselves in knots.

And now Obama is coming to help us with another knot - its called the End Use Monitoring Agreement (EUMA).  This may effectively bar us from retrofitting and adapting equipment to our own needs without the Original Equipment Manufacturers' (OEMs) consent and participation for the entire duration of its service, which, in the case of the U.S. has almost never permitted.

This brings us back to Saubik's point about India's self-narrative about technological capability. For decades fooled ourselves into believing that our bureaucrats knew all there is to know about "indigenous expertise". Along the way we have stifled and red-taped not only public organisations like HAL and DRDO but also our best engineering schools.

And now its time to pay the price - in royalties and license-fees -  for our delusions and day-dreams.


Berry, berry complicated (Saubik Chakrabarti, Indian Express, 11 Aug.2010)

Threat to innovative fix-dependent system (Rahul Bedi, The Hindu, 3 Nov. 2010)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Chinese Superlatives

Over the past ten days, there has been yet another deluge of Chinese superlatives:

The Biggest, Most Expensive World Expo Ever: Shanghai Expo attracted about 73 million visitors over six months; built at the cost of $ 45 billion

World`s Fastest Train: The high-speed railway link between Shanghai and Hangzhou now covers the 200-km distance in just 45 minutes (av. speed 350kmph)

World`s Fastest Computer: The Tianhe-1A supercomputer at NCS-Tianjin performs 2.5 Peta-flops is about 50% faster than its closest US rival.

Yet, the Western media seems to be busy underplaying these achievements on one hand and feeding that frenzy about the Yuan valuation on the other. It makes you wonder if such a response is out of petulance, resentment, fear, paranoia...or all of the above!

So it was interesting to see the paragon of American enterprise & ingenuity, Bill Gates, take a contrarian position. In an interview to UK`s Financial Times (30 Oct 2010), this is what he had to say about the speed and energy with which China is developing:

“If all you care about is the US or the UK’s relative strength in the world, then it’s particularly scary...In the US case, 1945 was our relative peak. Since then other countries from Europe to Asia have rebuilt and become more prosperous...but I guess I’m just not enough of a nationalist to see it all in negative terms.”
And he reserved his sarcasm for those who complain about rising Chinese energy use –
“I mean, these Chinese are actually using as much energy per capita as the average in the world today, how dare they! How did that happen? The US uses four times the average and the Brits double. But now these Chinese are trying to use the average.”
Here is another rare columnist who prefers not to play the Blame China Game - Zachary Karabell in Time (30 Oct., 2010) - `Blaming China Won't Solve the U.S.'s Economic Woes`


Lunch with the FT: Bill Gates (Gideon Rachman, FT, October 30 2010)

Breaking records, Shanghai Expo closes doors (Ananth Krishnan, The Hindu, 31 Oct 2010)

China unveils world's fastest train (Ananth Krishnan, The Hindu, 26 Oct., 2010)

China Claims Supercomputer Crown (BBC 28 Oct 2010)

China Unveils Powerful, 2.5-petaflop Supercomputer (PCWorld 28 Oct 2010)

`Blaming China Won't Solve the U.S.'s Economic Woes` (Zachary Karabell, Time, 30 Oct., 2010),9171,2025568,00.html

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Today evening I entered the 3K-Kenkyu to find Shambi discussing guitar chords with Hideki. The piece: Carlo Domeniconi's "Koyunbaba".

The unusual title, it turns out, is the name of a place & clan in Turkey and the composer is an Italian with a lifelong fascination for that part of the world.

So here we have a sample of how borderless music can be - a Kenyan lady learning about Turkish music that inspired an Italian composer, from a Japanese friend...and then you have a curious Indian  uploading the version he liked best - an interpretation of Koyunbaba by a Chinese lady, Li Jie:


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Takidaira's Art

There is a bulletin board next to the entrance Tsukuba Public Library, full of colorful exhibition posters. A few days ago I was by this particular illustration:

It was bold, simple, stark...and so expressive!  :)

Was this a woodblock-print? Who was the artist?

The artist, it turned out, was a son of Ibaraki prefecture - Takidaira Jiro (1921-2009), and this particular piece is titled "Baby Powder" (1974).

A retrospective on his work is to be held at the Ibaraki Museum of Modern Art from 3 November 2010 to 1 January 2011:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Crucibles

What is so special about Japanese steel crucibles?

At the recently concluded India-Japan summit meeting, one of the top items on the table was the issue of nuclear cooperation between Japan and India. Since India refuses to sign the NPT, Japan has been cagey about allowing its companies to participate in what is being billed as the biggest emerging N-energy market in the world.

One would imagine that if Japanese companies are unable to enter this market, well, too bad for them...companies from USA, France, Germany or Canada would be glad to do the honors in a market that was worth GBP 150 billion in 2008. However, for some reason, nearly all  transnational firms in this business depend on one company in Japan - Japan Steel Works (JSW), Hokkaido - for the most critical component of their nuclear power stations: the nuclear-reactor cores.

The JSW reactor-cores are common to all four 3rd generation nuclear-power-plant designs:
  1. ACR 1000 (CANDU II) of Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. (AECL)
  2. European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) built by EDF/Areva
  3. ES Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) by General Electric/Hitachi
  4. AP 1000 of Westinghouse/Toshiba

JSW has between 80 to 100 per cent market share for its large reactor components in countries where they are sold. Nearly all of 237 nuclear reactors planned worldwide till 2030 depend on this one company. Why? What is so special about these cores or crucibles?

The 40-year-old way (still used in China) of making these crucibles is to weld together two smaller forgings using explosive techniques. The `new` JSW crucibles are forged from a single 600 ton steel ingot; they are 12 inches thick with a stainless steel cladding.  The forgings are uniformly strong with their metal crystal lattices (grain) perfectly alighed (in a normal casting process, would get randomly jumbled).

The process is said to be `partly art and partly science`, involving at least the following steps:
  1. Scrap steel is heated in giant electric furnaces to 2,000 degrees Celsius (3,600 F)
  2. Five giant ladles are filled with 120 tons of orange-hot molten metal
  3. Argon gas in injected to eliminate impurities, and manganese, chromium and nickel is added to make the steel stronger
  4. The mixture is poured into a casing to form ingots 4.2 meters wide, in the rough shape of a cylinder
  5. The ingots are then pressed, heated and re-pressed under 15,000 tons applied by a machine that rotates them gradually over a three-week period
Sounds like the perfect `secret recipe`...but how long will such a huge market continue depend on a single supplier for their most critical component?



Pressurized Water Reactors (Ragheb 2008) -

JSW - Product List-

Capacity crisis at Japan Steel Works threatens global nuclear power plant production (Times-UK 17, March 2008)-

A New Generation of Nuclear Power Stations (Fells, 2008) -

Economics of New Nuclear Power Plants (Wiki)

Nuclear Power Reactors: A Study In Technological Lock-in (Cowan 1990) -

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Japan - The Other Side

In Japan, appearances matter...but are things really what they appear to be? Is really a safe, crime-free country?

According to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 8,120 women filed sexual harassment complaints with equal employment opportunity offices in 2008, compared with 7,706 in 2004 and 2,534 in 1997. While the might be negligible compared to similar complaints in, say, New Delhi alone, it may also be a pointer to the actual number of cases that may be routinely unreported or brushed under the social carpet of `convention`, `honor` & `shame`?

Here is an interesting report -
THE ZEIT GIST - Foreigners Victims, Perpetrators of Sekuhara (Japan Times 26 Oct., 2010) PS: Sekuhara = Sexual Harassment

And here is a slick info-graphic video. If you too get an impression that it is blatantly biased and racist, please remember that it is allegedly made by one Kenichi Tanaka (Japanese) to portray the foreigner`s view of Japan:


One of the most fascinating TV series I've ever seen, is available online for free!  :-)

James Burke's BBC series - "Connections" and its sequels were telecast on DD-India, a few decades ago. Here are links to the entire blessed series, on YouTube:

Episode I - The Trigger Effect

Part 1/5 - Intro questions - dependence on tech networks - Eg. Manhattan, NY
Part 2/5 - Niagra power-station Adam Beck 2 - a Relay trips on 9 Nov., 1965
Part 3/5 - Grids shut down; black-out in hospitals, subways, ATC controls - Technology Trap - escape to the countryside? can you use a plough?
Part 4/5 - 12,000 years ago - migration to river valleys - invention of the plough; bread > oven tech; straw mats > cloth weaving;  laws & weapons to protect ownership. Building canals teaches you to work stone, geometry and mathematics > then you can build pyramids - step-pyramid of King Djoser at Saqqara near Cairo (2700BC)
Part 5/5 - Nile flooding - astronomy - Sirius rises before dawn on the 17th of July every year - one day before the annual flooding begins - Karnak - centre of a 4000-year empire built on simple technology - tech that `tied us for good`; Kuwait's dependence on technology - built in 4000 days!

Why those inventions happened between 6000 yearsago and how...or where they happened or when they happened, is a fascinating blend of accident, genius, craftsmanship, geography, religion, war, money, ambition...above all, at some point, everybody is involved in the business of change - not just the so-called "great men" no point of time did an invention appear just like that. You had to put together a number of things that were already there..
Episode II : Death in the Morning

Part 1/5 - Lydia (Turkey) - touchstone for testing gold purity - Alexander`s standard gold coins - Alexandria Library - 500,000+ books, ran for 1000+ years - Crafty law - `if you came to the port with a book, it had to be copied by the library` - Ptolemy`s (150AD) calculations & astronomy - star catalogue - 1022 stars.
Part 2/5 - - Lateen sail vs. old roman square sail - 1200AD -  Chinese stern-post rudder + lateen sail + Ptolemy`s star-charts - not used widely until 1456AD when the Turks took Constantinople and blocked East-West trade - triggered 16th Century - Voyages of Discovery -  - Francis Drake`s (1540-1596) - sea-captain, pirate, politician - the queen got 50% of the booty and pirates became `nobles`)- Portolan charts - mostly made in Majorca -  the Compass and the inaccuracies between `True North` vs. Magnetic North! - Elizabeth-I`s (1558) England - `worthless money, plague, filthy cities...stimulated a depressed economy by encouraging privateering sea-dogs - Drake, Raleigh and Hawkins...they went about with a gutsy disregard for convention which we describe today as `criminal``
Part 3/5 -1581 - compass-maker Robert Norman`s puzzle about a stationery needle > doctor, William Gilbert`s book on magnetism > Otto von Guericke`s invention of Vacuum Pump > Impressed Ferdinad-III (Holy Roman Emperor). Guericke`s spinning suphur ball (sparks) led to the discovery of electricity & telegraph! Many facinating branches - (1) Vacuum pump > discovery of gases > oxygen > how lungs work > respiratory medicine (2) Vacuum Pump > steam engine > railways (3) Vacuum pump > testing for sparks > modern radar.
Part 4/5 - Electricity - lightning strikes on gunpowder stores - Benjamin Franklin - lightning rods - interest in weather stations - hot-air balloons-  Ben Nevis in Scotland - morning `Glory` - Charles Wilson 1896 - International Cloud Atlas
Part 5/5 - Charles Wilson`s Cloud Chamber 1895 > X-ray clouds > Watson Watt - Radar + Rutherford`s - atom disintegration in cloud chamber + B29 bomber --> Hiroshima 6 Aug., 1945, 8:15AM....death in the morning.

Episode III - `Distant Voices`

Part 1/5 - Normans knights beat the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings (1066 AD). Advantage -  the stirrup
Part 2/5 - Henry-V ends the 400-year domination of the knight on horseback at the Battle of Agincourt (25 Oct., 1415). 8000 vs. 30,000 Frenchmen - secret weapon - the Welsh Longbow. Three inventions that bossted agriculture productivity - mouldboard plough, horse-collar and horse-shoe...and the 3-field system
Part 3/5 - Gunpowder from urine and dung (Urine > ammonia; bacteria+dung + nitrate; mix with woodash, filter with water = saltpetre crystals (KNO3);  So gunpowder = KNO3+sulphur + charcoal  /// Why didn't China not transform the world with its inventions?...
Part 4/5 - Cannon mania needed cash which came from the silver mines of Jachymov (aka Joachimsthal) in the moutains of northern Czech (1536) - produced 3m ounces in silver coins a year (Thaler > Dollar) -
Problem of flooding mines refered to Galileo who sends his student, Toricelli.  Experiments on  air pressure and effect on vacuum - Fr. Matin Mersenne connects with  Blaise Pascal (mercury dish experiments)> invented the Barometer! French astronomer Jean Picard carrying his barometer observed sparks...
Part 5/5 - Luigi Galvani (1783) sees frogs legs jump with charged scalpel // Volta's "pile" for electricity - Oersted's (1820) class with compass needle - electricity has a magnetic field - 1825 - first electomagnet in England - 1875 - A. Graham Bell reaches patent office just 2 hours before competitor...and people start hearing distant voices.

Episode IV - Faith in Numbers

Part 1/5 - Aqueducts that fed the gain-mills at Barbegal near Arles (28t of flour/day)- ruined when the Roman empire fell apart 1500 years ago -  burden of taxes -  The church held together through the chaos of middle ages - it was the `telecom dept`
Part 2/5 - Water wheels- Bennedictian monks  - systems management - best sheep rearing techniques - best wool - 2 key inventions - the foot-loom (too fast - no enough yarn!) and spinning wheel - Bruges  became a huge wool-textile centre - surplus cash  spent in Champagne Fairs  -  Italians most active - 15 cities had consulates in Troyes - until 1340s famine - 1347 - attack by death! arrived in a ship from Crimea - before receding four years later, it killed 40 million people, 200,000 villages wiped out.
Part 3/5 - Prosperity again after black-death - old linen > paper. Paper became cheap but clerks were few (black death) so printing evolved - a goldsmith named J. Gutenberg (1450s) invented inter-changable typeface - this democratized knowledge - most influential:  an Italian named Aldus Manutius  came up with the first `pocket edition` in Venice. Also invented the `italic` type to fit more into his pocket editions - Venice - richest city in Europe, full of businessmen...and Greeks- refugees from Turkish conquest of Constantinople (1453)
Part 4/5- Greek workers in printing presses popularized the classics...arts and architecture.
This got people like Michaelangelo into big prestige projects...1615 - building in Salzburg - mechanical toys, fountains - Lyon - craze for Chinese silk weaving patterns - perforated paper and cards.
Part 5/5 - The Jacquard loom  did not catch on in France because of the was a hit in England...paisley shawls became popular - automatic riveting machines helped build great iron ships...corssing the seas became easier! Ships moved the `poor huddled masses of Europe` to 1870s more than 7000 per day....8 million between 1850-1880! - 10 year census - John Shaw Shillings - Herman Hollerith  > Tabulating Machine ...1890 census was done in half the time - US pop 62m.

Episode V: Wheel of Fortune

Part 1/5 - Priest-astronomers observing the moon - told farmers when to sow - also observed planets (from `planeta` Greek for `the wanderers`!) - dusted out Ptolemy`s chart for 1022 stars -  Arabs - Astrolabe
Part 2/5 - Khalif Al Mansur - founder of Baghdad, got sick as a dog in 765 - cured by medico-astronomer from mountain monastry - Jurgis ibn Bakhtishu - First European medical school at Salona (?) in Italy - on the route of returning crusaders -- conflict between the traditionalists (church) and new thinkers --> nasty inquisition. Astronomy also helped in telling the time (replacing sundials and candles) - for praying at the right time - water clocks! But water froze in they used just the weights and came up with the verge & foliot!
Part 3/5 - Clock - machine telling people when to pray, when to work - a tapering "fuzee" to help a spring unwind evenly - main centre for watchmaking - Nuremberg (eg. Nuremberg egg by Peter Henlein) < good at metal work < because it was in a mining area -- produced best armor + best trinkets - Hans Lipperske - offers a looker (telescope) to the Dutch army (1603) -- Galileo used it to see Jupiter`s moons, questioned the catholic church`s earth-is-centre view and got imprisoned (1609) - Pisa cathedral 1681? swinging lamp.....Christiaan Huygens  1656 invented the pendulum....but it was not useful for the mariners.
Part 4/5 - Irregular spring problem - glass makers and refractory furnance...technique taken to steel furnaces by a clockmaker called Benjamin Huntsman  for making better springs - Jesse Ramsden - marked precise measurements on a sextant (1774) -- using screws made of Huntsman`s steel
Part 5/5 - America did not have skilled workers so they borrowed the Factory system and the idea of interchangeability parts from Honoré Blanc - then came Frank Gilbreth`s time & motion studies - went crazy seeing the inefficiency of bricklayers - The price of mass consumption...loss of individuality. Is there anything in your pocket (paraphelnaria of people`s pvt lives) that is not machine-made??

Episode VI: Thunder in the Skies

Part 1/5 - Rising prosperity in England - chimney, plastered walls, drapes and glass panes of Hardwick Hall. Kitchens & glass factories - flue drafts, mini-turbines..

Part 2/5 - Queen-E desperate to make bronze cannons - Copper from Bristol mines (1566) - Zach`s coal furnaces for making glass - 16th century property boom - shortage of wood for navy ships, so glass-makers packed off to cut forests in America for their charcoal, to Jamestown, Virginia.
Part 3/5 - History of Steam Engines - Bristol entrepreneurs: Miner Sir Robert Mansell helps Zach with money; 1699,  a young Quaker called Abraham Derby  turns up, makes brass utensils and then iron-ware, then copper at Coalbrookdale --- ends up making iron without impurities. The problem of flooding in coalmines solved using the Neocomen Engine (Thomas Neocomen building on T. Savery`s idea). Improved further by James Watt with his double cylinder, using John Wilkinson`s (1773) cannon-boring technique to make sturdy cylinders.
Part 4/5 -  Wilkinson`s BiL, Joseph Preistley tinkers with gas in brewery next door, makes soda, writes to Alessandro Volta about sparks. Volta, roaming around the Italian lakes of Cona and Maggiore uses `marsh gas` (methane) to fire his  uses his Glass Electric Pistol - 1850 Arctic ocean - whaling - oil for lamps replaced by an alternative discovered by Edwin Drake  - petroleum.
Part 5/5 - G. Daimler  and W. Maybach working at Otto Engines near Stuttgart, make first motorcar engine 1892 fuel spray (based on perfume spray!) in the Carburetor. Daimler`s distributor, E. Jellinek , comes up with a better idea(1899) for fuel ignitition using an electric spark! New car named after Jellinek`s daughter - Mercedes!
Summary: Neocommen`s piston + Drake`s oil + scent spray + Volta`s pistol = better engine. Wilhelm Kress tries to use it in a flying-boat 2 yrs before the Wright idea that evolves into `thunder in the skies` -- a Concorde. `Invention capable of annihilating both distance and people...`

Episode VII: The Long Chain

1/5 - Freight transport - Fluyts from Holland (warehouse of Europe) - developed in Horne (1595) - stripped the fighting galleys to basics, added control & automation (block & tackle); 1648 - Edward Llyoyd started an insurance company - categorized ships according to soundness of its hull (AEIOU - U =bad), and equipment (Good, Middling, Bad) - protecting wooden hulls against worms with a mix of pitch & tar...America becomes supplier - buys slaves as labor - to cut pine trees, bury them in pits and roast them...tar bubbled out with turpentine
2/5 - 1776 - tired of being ripped off, the Americans declared independence...and so ended cheap pitch & tar; Karl Ross, Earl of Dundonald,  tried recuperating fortunes by going into the inventions business...found way to make coal-tar -- discovered that gas from coal ovens was flamable...told J.Watt, who told his employee William Murdoch, who became the `inventor` of gas lighting -- Artificial colors from coal-tar + waterproofing material with rubber (1823) - Macintosh

3/5 -
- Mackintosh and Hancock started delivering waterproof everything all over the country - approached Kew Botanical Gardens for growing rubber in colonies
- Penang, Malaysia - nutmeg plantations....hacked forests - exposed, warm ponds - anopheles, malaria
- 1852 - malaria epidemics - the cure - Cinchona grown in A.America or Java - neither belonged to the Brits
- Cinchona powder (quinine) + sugar + water + gin = malaria cure = gin & tonic invention!
- So Kew was not keen on rubber because the GovGen of India had demanded production of Q in India
- Royal College of Chemistry - William Perkin - finds a way to make synthetic quinine
- 1856, while playing with a bye-rpduct of coaltar...he got a molecule very close the Q but it was the worlds first artificial dye -
- In 1982, most of these well fed, complascent, middle-class victorians regarded themselves and their country as the rightful guardians of anybody in the world they could muscle in on militarily or economically, to save them from themselves, of course!
- Chemistry was a very low-class thing to do...that is why Perkins teacher was a German, who were very good at promoting merit...
-But the Brits blew the opportunity ...and the Germans grabbed it!

4/5 - - By 1870 Germans were leaders in color chemistry - BASF, Hoechst, Bayer, Agfa
- You learnt much about chemistry though color - painkillers
- Green color which a crafty designer got the empress Eugene to wear
- Combine harvesters invented by American Mccormi -- dropped price of wheat sharply
- But the Germans ate black rye bread made by Prussian aristrocrats - the Yonkers?
- But rye was being exported in leaving a growing population short of they tried growing wheat but that needed fertilizer from Chile
- By 1890 all the money made by the industry was going to import food and fertilizer
- 1900 Fritz Haber tried to make fertilizer...succeeded in making sodium nitrate
- 1909 - Haber and Bosch were making tons of fertilizer

5/5 - - Germany - chemical industry + metal industry + now discovery of coal in Rhur moved her into the major league
- It bacame a major steel manufacturer - weapons and the first monorail in 1900
- Growth reflected ambitions of Kaiser Wilhelm, who brought the country to the edge of greatness all because of coal-tar and the way German chemists had used it
- Also in 1900 W-II started building a big navy...arms race with Britain that ended in war in 1914
- First major battle was off the coast of Chile because it was the biggest source of sodium nitrate. NaNO3 + sulphuris acid = nitric acid, which is essential for making explosives ....but Chile had been blockaded by Britain, so the Germans came up with the Haber-Bosch process
- WW-I lasted four years...
- What happend to the Acetylene, discovered by but he flushed it down the later a polymer - plastic, nylon -- unveiled by DuPont at Chicago WorldExpo 1933
- Acetylene also became a welding tool - oxy-acetylene

 Episode VIII: Eat Drink & Be Merry

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tsukuba Summer Bugs

The missing ids are finally here! - many thanks to Shaku (Univ. of Georgia)

The wasp is an ichneumonid, very common family that includes a lot of parasitic wasps that parasitize other insects and are therefore very important in biological control of insect pests.  The sub-family may be Banchinae 

 This is a bug (Hemiptera).  I'm pretty sure this is the kudzu bug.  It was recently discovered here in Georgia and is the current sensation.

Longhorned beetle or Longicorn beetle.  I think it is Batocera lineolata or White-striped Longhorn Beetle = shirosuji-kamikiri ( Can also be yellow striped  Batocera is a genus of Cerambycid beetles that are pests on several tree crops. Batocera rufomaculata is the mango stem borer common in India.  Also refer for info on Longicorn beetles in general.

Immature Hemipterans of Fulgoridae or Membracidae. (Hemiptera: Auchenorrhyncha).

 That looks like a sphingid caterpillar, but I cant identify it from the picture.  The anal horn is what identifies it.

Snout Moth. .  Looks like Euthrix sp.  

Again immature Hemipterans of Fulgoridae or Membracidae. (Hemiptera: Auchenorrhyncha).

 A kind of zipper spider.  Argiope species.  You can see the start of the zipper pattern on its web.  Species may be could be a subspecies of that.

 Looks like a slug caterpillar, but not sure...

Moth Fly.

Green Slant-faced Grasshopper.  Genus is most probably Acrida.. These may be mistaken for green katydids which are long horned grasshoppers because they are so slender, but they are actually short horned.

Asian Longhorned Beetle - Another current sensation in the US. 

A Hymenopteran .  The most I can say from this picture is Suborder Apocrita.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

From Ants to Human Behavior

At a time when I`m grappling with the prevailing `theories` in the Social Sciences, it was a great to see this wonderful video on the life and work of E.O. Wilson.

He spent a lifetime studying ants but to describe him as just a naturalist would perhaps be akin to calling Einstein a patent office clerk. About 40 years ago, at that time sociologists had come to a consensus that the human brain is a blank slate; that human behavior, including social behavior is determined by accidents of cultural evolution and by learning alone, and that instincts do no exist and that there was no such thing as human nature, EOW published a book titled Sociobiology, which suggested that human behavior is affected by genetic traits.

All hell broke loose. It was, of course, a very politically incorrect thing to say - even for a Harvard academic. But today, after much evidence has been collected, the consensus in Social Sciences has shifted to accommodate EOW`s ideas.

Here is the video (NOVA - PBS): 


E.O. Wilson

Pheidole - most abundant genus of ants in the Western hemisphere. EOW discovered nearly half of the 600 -odd species of this genus

Oleic Acid - the "smell of death". One the many pheromones used by ants to communicate. Dead insects 'smell' of oleic acid. So if a live ant is dabbed with it, its companions will just grab it and dump it out of the colony, into their garbage heap!
The Encyclopedia of Life - A project initiated by EOW, it is meant to be an online compendium of all life on earth. About 1.8 million life-forms are 'known' to man - this is a fraction (~1/10) of what is still 'unknown'. "Our present understanding of life on earth", EOW says, "is like trying to diagnose a man when you know only 10% of his organs!"

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

China's High-Speed Rail Projects

High-Speed Railways (HSR) seems to be becoming a favorite coming-of-age symbol for many countries. Japan started this with its "bullet train" lines in 1964, followed by Germany & France. The system has since been replicated in many countries including Portugal, Spain, Taiwan & South Korea. Now China is rolling out what a demagogue might call the Mother of All High-Speed Rail Networks.

View China High-Speed Rail Network in a larger map

Right now, China is implementing the most extensive HSR network ever built. In two year's time, the Chinese government plans to build 42 lines, with 5,000 miles of track for passenger trains at 215 miles an hour and 3,000 miles of track for passenger and fast freight trains traveling 155 miles an hour. This is expected to cost about US$ 300billion - the largest component of its two-year (2009-2010) economic stimulus package of $585 billion stimulus package and about about 13% of 2008 GDP.

This brings forth quite a number of interesting questions:
  • How does China expect to benefit from the HSR projects?
  • Is HSR really a more efficient alternative to its nearest competitor - air travel?
  • How did China develop the technical expertise for such a project?
Lets try to figure this these questions one by one..

1. How does China expect to benefit from the HSR projects?

Apart from the prestige and brownie-points that come from such grand, symbolic projects, it is expected to significantly bring down the cost of freight and mass-transport.

In 2008, the first high-speed, 70km rail-link between Beijing and Taijin brought down the travel time to just 30 minutes. Beijing-Shanghai Line (1070 km) is expected to bring down the travel-time from 10 hours to just four. Also the huge budget of $300 billion, just  for HSR construction projects is expected to boost many related industries, including steel, cement, and real estate businesses.

2. How did China develop the necessary technical expertise for such a project?

Quite simply, by brilliantly playing off multinational engineering firms against one another.
In 2004, a consortium led by Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI + Mitsubishi Corp, Mitsubishi Electric, Hitachi, Itochu Corp and Marubeni Corp.) agreed to provide the technology to build the E2-1000 to local partner Nanche Sifang Locomotive. Also the Qingdao Sifang Kawasaki Rolling Stock Technology Co. started to build new trains with KHI's technology for Hayate bullet trains, which currently run on Japan's Tohoku Shinkansen line. Soon, other Japanese railway parts suppliers such as Hitachi, Toyo Electric and Nabtesco Corp. warmed up to the prospect of increased business in China

Around the same time, Canada's Bombardier Sifang won a 27.4 billion yuan ($4 billion) contract from the Chinese Ministry of Railways for a signaling system on the network as well as for work on 40 high-speed trains. Siemens of Germany and France’s Alstom, were also persuaded to part with their high-speed rail technology at a cost “clearly below” standard prices.

The trains that emerged from Sifang’s plant in Qingdao looked identical to the E2-1000 that the KHI-led consortium sold under licence in 2004. But state-owned Sifang insisted that underneath their distinctive Shinkansen exteriors, they are Chinese, and that it only uses technology that it had "fully digested" on its own.

Parallel to the foreign collaborations and JV's, China has also been training and recruiting a large number of engineers. In 2009, China Railway Construction Co., the nation's largest railroad builder, hired 14,000 new university graduates - mostly civil and electrical engineers.  This year, the company may hire up to 20,000 new university grads to cope with the company's intensifying workload.

  • The Beijing-Shanghai HSR would cover a distance is 1070km in four hours (av. speed 267kmph). The fastest train between Delhi-Kolkata, the Rajdhani Express, covers a distance of 1447 km (811 miles) in about 17 hours, at an average speed of 87kmph.
  • Distances & transit-time in China -- here.


China: A future on track - Mure Dickie (FT 23 Sep. 2010)

China to invest billions in new high-speed rail (AFP) – Jul 28, 2010
Japan Inc shoots itself in foot on bullet train--- By Mure Dickie FT --- July 8 2010

Shanghai - Nanjing high speed line opens - 07 July 2010

China Is Eager to Bring High-Speed Rail Expertise to the U.S.- Keith Bradsher (NYT April 7, 2010)

China Sees Growth Engine in a Web of Fast Trains  (NYT Feb.2010)

How Japan Profits From China's Plans -- Vivian Wai-yin Kwok, (Forbes 10.26.09) 

IBM Opens Global Rail Innovation Centre (July 2009)

China`s Amazing New High Speed Trains - CNN (Aug 2009)

IBM rides the high-speed rail (CNN June 22, 2009)

Friday, October 01, 2010

Ports in Myanmar

Its amazing how macro-economic models assume a life of their own...

A number of research papers being produced by an Asian think-tank is based on a time-series analysis prepared by Centennial Group - a well known US consulting firm. This model covers 32 developing countries in the Asian region and makes projections for infrastructure requirements for the next eleven years (2010-2020).

Much is this data from this model is being quoted in a number of research papers promoting the need for integrating transport and energy related infrastructure in Asia. Recently, while preparing a paper for East Asia - South Asia connectivity, I happened to notice that for Myanmar, the econometric model projects that there would be no investments in its port sector. Zero for eleven years.

Puzzled by the strange gap, I wondered why there was such a disconnect from reality. I got two answers - (1) the model is built on historic data, so maybe no data was available for Myanmar, and (2) all port investments in Myanmar are funded exclusively by foreigners.

Was this true? A brief search on Google revealed a completely different picture.

View Myanmar Ports in a larger map

Myanmar has been improving its port infrastructure for more than 60 years now. From 1956 to 1981, it was funded by World Bank loans; HPH - a private company is a prominent player, so is ADB;  China and India have also been providing partial funding for port construction for a long time now..

So does this point to a major goof-up in the much touted econometric model? Or is it another case of economic models taking precedence over ground realities?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Kindle 3, Day 1

Our Kindle 3 has arrived!

First Impressions:

Great idea, neat product.

Starting with the simple, yet effective packaging, the lightness, touch and feel of the reader; ease with which the equipment starts-up; the way it fits into is book-like cover, down to the cool bar-code design (incorporates a book-reader under a tree, in silhouette). Impressive.

The 3G connections are pretty fast. We started by downloading two books from Project Gutenberg and another four free ($0) books from the Amazon-Kindle Store.

The  matted screen display has the look and feel of paper, and the LED lights built into the cover are perfectly adequate for helping you read in complete darkness.

I like the idea of hassle-free connectivity - no worries about service-providers, data-transfer rates and compatibility. With this one little book you can stay connected to your email, search engines and browsers anywhere in the world - for free! :-)

The external speakers are good. The `screen savers` remain on when you shut down the machine and mimic fresh pencil illustrations.

Second Thoughts:

The cursor movement is a bit bizarre - maybe the directional-pad takes some getting used to...Some downloads happen without any on-screen indication (not even the whirl @ top left) - there is nothing on the screen to tell you that the process is still on. Many useful functions are hidden away under `Experimental` - especially the web browser and audio-reader. Even though the audio-reader can be activated with a two-key combination, all too often, the male voice sounds bland and robotic and seems oblivious of commas, full stops, exclamations and pauses.

When it comes to web-browsing this is certainly not an alternative to a laptop. Page downloads are slow - especially those heavy on pics and graphics. Sites like FaceBook will ask you to go through a verification process - perhaps because the IP address is not fixed on a 3G network.

The Let-Downs:

The Kindle Store seems to be rather fickle on special offers. While checking the Amazon-store simultaneously on a laptop and the Kindle, special offers that were displayed as available (eg., `because you purchased Edgar Allan Poe`s Poems`) on the laptop screen,  would not shown up at all on the Kindle screen!

The USB connector/charger cable smells toxic - air it for a few days before tucking it in your bag.

Kindle is not upfront about quite a few things and the user-guide leaves you with more questions than answers : how much does the lighted-cover weigh? how long will the battery last? - a pertinent question since it cannot be changed by the user; how much will a replacement cost? In case there is a software/hardware glitch, how does one get the equipment checked or repaired?

Why is Kindle selling copyright-free books that are available as free-downloads?

No answers.


Yet to Figure Out:
  • How does the Kindle offer 3G connectivity for free, worldwide?
  • Will 3G be free in India? - especially after the operators paid huge fees during the recent spectrum auctions?
  • How does Whispernet work?
  • How secure / insecure is this network when you cannot pinpoint the service provider?

Kindle Global Coverage with 3G / EDGE, GPRS:
Kindle Boards - Discussion forum,3520.0.html

Kindle - Official Site for Customer Discussions -

Cool Barcode Designs -

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Mess in Kashmir

Over the past few months, as the civic unrest in Kashmir went from bad to worse, it had become increasingly difficult to find Indian opinion-leaders with a sense of proportion.

Is it morally justified for security forces to gun down stone-throwers?

All the news channels seemed uniformly nonchalant, flippant and even irresponsible, in their commentary. Only the Hindu  (especially Siddharth Varadarajan) seem to have taken a meaningful position. And now there are two more Voices of Reason - Madhu Kishwar and  Prem Shankar Jha in Tehelka-