Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Heat-pads that Click

A kitschy "Crafts Exhibition" in Thiruvananthapuram yielded something intriguing - an unusual heat-pad.

Packaged as green, viscous liquid in clear plastic pouches, each pouch has a coin-shaped piece of metal, which, at first glance, looks like something that got sealed-in by mistake. It is, in fact, the "switch". Click this with your fingers and a chemical reaction is triggered, rapidly turning the whole pack into a hot, crystalline colloid!

What is inside the packet? How does it work?

The salesmen had no idea. Their mandate was only to parrot a sales-pitch and to ensure that each packet got sold for no less than Rs.250 ("..or Rs.499 if you buy it from a drugstore").

So, once again, we have WWW to the rescue. According to one of the respondents at PistonHeads, the pouches contain Sodium Acetate Trihydrate:
Sodium acetate trihydrate crystals have a melting point of 58 °C. When they are heated to around 100 °C, and subsequently allowed to cool, the aqueous solution becomes supersaturated. This solution is capable of supercooling to room temperature without forming crystals. By clicking on a metal disc in the heating pad, a nucleation center is formed which causes the solution to crystallize into solid sodium acetate trihydrate again. The bond-forming process of crystallization is exothermic, hence heat is emitted.
The answer is presented in more detail (with a video) at HowStuffWorks. Sodium acetate is also called "hot ice" and is food additive, commonly used in "salt and vinegar" flavored chips.

The heat-pads make excellent gifts - especially for the elderly.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Bayh-Dole Act

In the popular "Open Page" section of the Hindu (24 Jul 2011), there was recently a piece by S. Vaidhyasubramaniam, titled, "IT IS TIME WE REWROTE INDIA'S RESEARCH STORY".

The article presented various ratios and numbers to show how poorly India compares with the rest of the world in terms of research productivity. Nothing new here...but what caught my interest was a glowing reference to a legislation in USA - the  Bayh-Dole Act of 1980.

This single Act is said to have "unlocked" lab research in US, by permitting public-funded projects in universities and non-profit organizations to own patents to their inventions. As a result, university patents jumped from 200 in the pre-1980s to the 1600s in the 1990s.

The Act was the culmination of long drawn efforts, starting from 1968, by many non-profit organizations, led by the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They successfully lobbied for agencies (Health & Human Services & NSF) to enter into Institutional Patent Agreements (IPA), which, among other things, allowed universities and non-profits with approved patent policies to retain title to their inventions. The Act was finally passed in 1980.

According to the Economist, since 1980, American universities have witnessed a tenfold increase in the patents they generate, spun off more than 2,200 firms to exploit research done in their labs, created 260,000 jobs in the process, and now contribute $40 billion annually to the American economy. Some examples: MRI body scanning, the vaccine for hepatitis B, the atomic-force microscope and even the technique behind Google's search engine!

Wonder if there have been any efforts to come up with something similar in India...


Vaidhyasubramaniam, S (2011): IT IS TIME WE REWROTE INDIA'S RESEARCH STORY; The Hindu 24 Jul 2011 -

Innovation's golden goose (The Economist, 12 Dec., 2002) -

Intellectual property: Baying for blood or Doling out cash? (The Economist, 20 Dec., 2005) -

The Law of Unintended Consequences (Fortune, 19 Sep 2005) -

Monday, July 18, 2011

Patents for Software in India

The Indian Patent Office does not allow patenting of software-related inventions. Given the size of the Indian software industry, what is the opportunity cost of such a stance?

According to the Economist, WIPO data shows that between 2003-07, USA topped the list for business-software patent applications at around 33,000, followed by Japan (!) at 26,000, South Korea (12,000), Germany (4000) and China (3000).

The Indian IT software and services industry has been pitching for patenting of software embedded with hardware arguing it would help increase commercial value of domestically developed software and augment exports. The counter argument is software processes are just mathematical algorithms  that do not qualify as inventions.

Ironically, even those who favored the counter argument would have sent each other congratulatory messages using patent-fee-paid software...

  • Economist (2011): INNOVATION IN JAPAN: SAMURAI GO SOFT, The Economist, 14 Jul 2011 -
  • FE (2011): Software patents under Ordinance face reversal, Financial Express, 29 March 2005-
  • Ruby - A Programmer's Best Friend -

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Treasure

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Over the past few weeks, we have been having a refresher course on why M/s Ghauri, Ghori & Co., and other assorted medieval marauders, found the temple-raiding business in India, so very lucrative.

At the temple that gives the city of Thiruvananthapuram its name, a court-enforced inspection of a few underground vaults has revealed a booty that would have made the conquistadors drool. The value of this "treasure" uncovered and tabulated so far, is being put at US$ 27 billion!

The newspapers have been busy putting this amount in perspective, even while they wait for the main vault to be opened. $27 billion or Rs. 100,000 Crores is -   half of Kerala's GDP, the whole of India's national education budget; it is  more than the state budget of Delhi, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand; 50% more than the proposed Posco investment in Orissa and  almost same as Wipro's market capitalization.

In a state that is famous for its appalling financial mismanagement, it will be interesting to see how this discovery pans out. Will there be a new public museum? ( I hope so!)  Will all the stuff remain hidden under the temple?

I just hope not too many Keralites would be knocking the back doors of Christie's, with brown bag or two in hand.

  • Chakravarthy, Pradeep (2011): LET THE TEMPLES KEEP THEIR SECRETS, The Hindu, 17 Jul 2011
  • Padmanabhan, Chitra (2011): ACROSS THE SILENCE OF THE CENTURIES, The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 17 Jul 2011
  • Sarasa, Beena (2011): TALES THAT THE FABULOUS COLLECTION IN THE VAULTS TELL, The Hindu, 17 Jul 2011
    - Marthanda Verma: ascended throne in 1729; renovated the temple which had been damaged in the fire of 1686; 1741 - Captured Dutch commandant Eustachius D'Lannoy (later became C-in-C of T army);  in the Battle of Colachel by 1749, his territory extended from Kanyakumari to Kochi-border; On 5th Mararam ME 925 (1750), he became a vassal to Padmanabha
    - Earliest recorded donation by Parantaka Pandya after he vanquished the king of Kupakas (Venad) - 10 gold lamps and the revenue from Tayanallur for its upkeep
  • Staff Reporter (2011): TELPE ASSETS BEST PRESERVED IN MUSEUM, The Hindu Sunday, 10 JUl 2011
    - Royal acquisitions by way of donations, fines and war booty
    - Temple dates back to 9c as one of the 13 Vaishnava shirines sung by the Alvars - expanded during the reign of Marthanda Verma (1729-58)
    - The Union Govt is the sole authority over any potential treasure of national heritage value - Indian Treasure-Trove Act 1878, Ancient Monuments Prservation Act 1904, 1958, Antiques & Art Treasures Act 1972, 1973
  • Subramanian, T.S (2011): THE PROVENANCE OF THE TEMPLE TREASURE, The Hindu, 7 July 2011
  • Padiyath, Sneha (2011): GOD'S OWN TREASURE - OF INDIANA JONES MOMENTS AND COBRA CURSES, The Hindu BusinessLine, 9 July 2011
  • Narayanan, MGS (2011): God's Own Kingdom, Indian Express, 9 July 2011, URL -

Friday, July 01, 2011

'Soft Arrogance'

This is a new one - 'soft arrogance'. I came across this phrase for the first time in an interview given by Subroto Bagchi, founder and VC of Mindtree, and author of the book "Go Kiss The World".

According to Bagchi, “India is respected for two things. The IT industry told the world that Indians are smart, intelligent people. Two, the day India exploded a nuclear device, people in the world changed their perception. India right now has what I call soft arrogance. Arrogance is bad, but soft arrogance is important, but it cannot be on a weak plinth.”

What is “soft arrogance”?

“Soft arrogance is when you are expertise-led, when you have self-confidence, the belief that you have value — real value — to offer… no shortcuts, no workarounds. It comes when you believe in a cause, when you know that you can stand your ground.”

This makes sense. If the phrase "soft arrogance' had come from anybody other than Bagchi, it would have been dubbed as an oxymoron!


"India has Soft Arrogance" - Interview in theHindu Business Line with Rasheeda Bhagat -

Zen Garden: Subroto Bagchi's Blog in the Forbes Magazine -