Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Farish Jenkin's Fauna

Farish Jenkins - paleontologist and polymath, died on Nov 1, aged 72.

While reading an obituary put up by the Economist for Jenkins I was struck by awe and envy in equal measure. I awed by the fact that a man whose primary vocation was that of a soldier could also transform himself into great teacher & scientist in a totally unrelated field - paleontology. And envy towards folks who are able create an environment where you can defy categorization into narrow specialism.

As US Marine Corps captain, Jenkins trained as an artillery officer.  As an academic “hybrid”, he was anatomist, zoologist and vertebrate paleontologist in equal measure.

It is said of him that "he had no time for academic squabbles and protocol, brushing off rebukes and bureaucratic constraints. Charm was his first weapon, obstinacy his second. It was not just his clothes and vocabulary that were old-fashioned. He prized thoroughness. Unusually for modern academia, he showered praise on colleagues and deprecated his own triumphs. But he was a mighty foe when roused. He could swear like a Marine, “without repeating myself” and helped oust the abrasive Larry Summers from the Harvard presidency".

Farish Jenkins also left behind some quirky, memorable names for the new life-forms he discovered -
  • Tiktaalik roseae (Tiktaalik = Inuit for a large freshwater fish) - a 375 million year olf fish with legs, a rudimentary ear and a snout for catching prey
  • Gerrothorax pulcherrimus ("the most beautiful wicker chest") - An animal that opens its mouth by lifting its upper jaw - crucial to discovering the world's earliest known frog. FJ called it the ugliest animal in the world.

The entire text of Economist's memorable obituary can be accessed here.


The Economist (17 Nov., 2012) on Farish Jenkins -

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chasing Rainbows

What is the story behind this iconic photograph of the Patola palace in Tibet?

The photographer, Galen Rowell was leading a tour-group when it suddenly started raining. From his years of experience, he anticipated this frame and invited the rest of the group to join a one-mile-run to get the right vantage point for the perfect frame. They all preferred to stay back at camp and have dinner instead.


Rockwell, Ken (2011): RISK - You Have to be Willing to Lose to Win, url -

Galen Rowell -

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Jet Engines

According to industry specialists, China will spend $49 billion on jet engine development over the next two decades.

There is a clear economic logic behind his huge expenditure: Going by the present trends, engines for new aircraft delivered to China would be worth over $100 billion during the same period. There are only a handful of companies that manufacture these engines - General Electric (USA), Snecma (Safran, France), Rolls Royce Plc (UK), Pratt & Whitney (UTC, USA), and a few Russian agencies. As in any other hi-tech area, none of the established players want to part with their technology.

About a decade ago, China solved a similar problem in high-speed train technology by playing off the Kawasaki-Japan against their German competitors. It is a different story - and rather unfortunate - that China's "digestion" of this technology has been mired by frequent accidents and corruption in high places. The point here is that concerted effort is being made to dilute the stranglehold of a few companies.

Is India making similar efforts?

We do have something called the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE). This DRDO agency has been working on on jet engines since the 1960s, but there is precious little (GTX-Kaveri) to show for all the time and effort. We blame the American regime of technology restrictions, and then go on to sign numerous 'collaboration agreements' with Western companies, to continue the vicious cycle of path dependence.


* Lague, David and Charlie Zhu (2012): INSIGHT - UNABLE TO COPY IT, CHINA TRIES BUILDING OWN JET ENGINE, Reuters, 29Oct12, url -

* Wines, Michael and Keith Bradsher (2011): CHINA RAIL CHIEF'S FIRING HINTS AT TROUBLE, NYT, url -

* Reddy, C. Manmohan (2002): LCA ECONOMICS, The Hindu, url -

Thursday, November 01, 2012

'I did it for my kids'

What drives people to do something extraordinary?

For some folks, the challenge itself is the lure. When George Mallory, a famous mountaineer was asked in 1920's , "Why do you want to climb Mt. Everest?", his wan reply was, "Because it is there".

These days Indian's seem to be on a different trip...

Right now, a government official working with the Planning Commission is running across the length of India. Arun Bharadwaj started out from the Himalayan town of Kargil on 1st October, and has been keeping a steady pace of about 70 km of running everyday. He expects to complete the 3000+ km to the tip of the Indian peninsula, Kanyakumari, within two months. Why would somebody want to set aside a desk-job for something like this?

Bharadwaj's response - “I wanted my children to take up running and I thought what better way to motivate them than to do it myself.”

A few weeks ago, another bureaucrat, Harsh Mandar visited a CPR-PRS forum as an invited speaker. After giving details of his work among the poorest and marginalized communities in India, he clarified that he was no altruist. He was driven, he said, by selfishness. He wanted his daughter to live in a more humane world, where we are not callous and insensitive towards the plight of the poor.

And yesterday, it was the actor Irrfan Khan (of the Slumdog Millionaire fame). He announced that he acted in the movie "Life of Pi" for his kids.

Its interesting to see how motivations evolve as move from one stage of life to another...


* First Post (31Oct12): I DID 'LIFE OF PI' FOR MY KIDS: IRRFAN KHAN, url -
* Indian Express (28Oct12): Loneliness of an Ultra-Marathoner, url -
* Arun Bhardwaj - Brining Ultra-running to India -