Monday, September 30, 2013

Insurance Frenzy

All through this week I was overwhelmed by the attention I got from ICIC-Pru Life Insurance Company, and - this is even more surprising - from the Insurance Regulatory Authority of India (IRDA).

At first came the calls from IRDA. Vivek, an IRDA employee (Ref.8231), wanted to know details of my insurance policies and seemed rather unhappy to know that my insurance agents had not been passing on a part of their hefty commission to customers like me.

"Finally", I thought, "Here is a regulator who is actually reaching out to check for customer feedback".

I had forgotten about this conversation until Vivek called again to say that my agents (Sachin Jain and Gera Wealth Creators for LifeTime and Lifetime-S respectively), ought to have paid me back 30% of each of the annual premium payments I paid them!

Just when the numbers were sinking in, I got a call from ICICI-PruLife. A very persuasive Kulvinder Singh Dhillon (Id 1086918) told me gravely that the value of my market linked insurance policy had eroded substantially over the years. Would I be interested in converting it to an endowment policy? This, he insisted, was the only way in which I could hope to recover the money I had lost.

Dhillon then put me on to his boss in Mumbai. The boss turned out be an amazingly rude woman who kept telling me that she was "very, very, very, very senior to Dhillon", and that she did not have the time to provide explanations about this rush up.

Confused, I reached out to Vivek of IRDA. "Did they ask you to open a new account?...and pay up Rs.20,000, upfront?" he laughed, and cautioned. "Don't sign up for anything new until you get all the information on email."

Vivek also put an end to the frenzy of calls from ICICI-PruLife.

IRDA is all set to enforce new insurance-sector norms from 1 October 2013. Traditional products are being brought at par with unit-based ones; commission is being linked to policy term and coverage will now depend on the age of the insured persons.

All through this, I still have not figured out why a giant insurance company should bully existing customers, and why the national insurance regulator was reaching out to one-in-a-million suckers like me.



* BS --

* ET --

* IRDA Homepage --

Friday, September 27, 2013

Down the Digital Memory Lane

Copy of a Book Review published in the Hindu Business Line on 27 September 2013

Digital memory of a billion-plus nation
R. Dinakar

Digital Republic: India’s rise to IT power — History and Memoir By Mathai Joseph Publisher: Power Price: Rs 299

September 26, 2013:  

"Computing”, says Mathai Joseph, “has become a metaphor for what can be achieved in India. It has given recognition to India as no other science or technology has.”
He would know, as he was one of the country’s first computer scientists, was a part of the nascent Computer Group at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), and a former head of research at TCS. Having spent over 45 years understanding the capability and behaviour of computers — from an era where ‘memory’ meant rolls of perforated paper, to the advent of cloud computing — he stands at a unique vantage point to narrate the story of India’s tryst with information technology.
Joseph’s book Digital Republic — India’s rise to IT power, is a memoir for our times. Starting with the early 1960s, Bombay provides a colourful backdrop to his college-years, the beginnings of an enduring love for literature, theatre and music, and to his long stint with TIFR. It is here that the freshly minted PhD from Cambridge struggled to convince the scientific establishment that computing deserved strategic support, alongside nuclear energy and space science.
The bosses at TIFR, however, refused to set aside their blinkers. While major strides were being made elsewhere, 1960-1975 marked the lost decade for Indian computing. Stuck in the fog of the Cold War, it lost not only the momentum gained from the first indigenous computer — TIFRAC (1960) — but also a great opportunity to create a manufacturing base for computer hardware in India.
Much like the story of IT in India, the book too has its ups and downs. The initial chapters might seem rather pedestrian, with their cryptic titles (Self at BBVT, Byculla Byeways) and rambling descriptions that almost make you wonder if you picked a Chetan Bhagat by mistake. However, if you persist beyond Chapter 3, Digital Republic gets back on track, and offers a fascinating narrative of computing through its formative years.
Initially, Joseph had been confounded by digital computers — “How could programs and data lie together in the computer memory?” he wondered, “just like a librarian stacked on a shelf with books!” Hands-on exposure helped. For the first time, at Cardiff, he had access to the latest machines of the time — ESDAC-1 and the Stance Zebra computer, and to the latest programming language — Algol 60. Expertise built on these systems helped him gain admission to Churchill College at Cambridge for a PhD. Later, a recommendation from Cambridge, and a fervent wish to avoid becoming an “immigrant”, brought him to TIFR in 1968.
The author returns time and again to the frustrations of working at TIFR. Initial admiration for the team leaders’ managerial acumen seems to have given way to a growing sense of disappointment. Instead of working on operating systems, Joseph was asked to work on computer graphics, where he found himself treading on a colleague’s zealously guarded turf.
So he moved on to experimental computing, seeking faster methods to translate programming language into machine language; better methods of allocating storage, and trying new synchronisation techniques in designing operating systems. Here again he found his team’s efforts being compared poorly against the experimental physicists who seemed to be on their own “serendipitous jaunt”, busy fitting “a few more pieces into an already well-understood mosaic”. Joseph sadly notes that “Science at TIFR was run as a collection of fiefdoms with the suzerainty of each leader unquestioned and unchanged till his eventual retirement”.
Finally, in the 1970s, when the Government set up a separate Department of Electronics, the career bureaucrats ensured it would remain under their thumb — unlike nuclear energy and space science. In the name of “self-reliance” they continued to make technologically unsound decisions, until companies such as TCS redeemed IT for India, with their world-class products and services.
This self-published book holds valuable lessons, not only for those with interest in science and technology but also for policymakers and bureaucrats. It is certainly a reminder of opportunities lost, and of what could yet be achieved in India, if only we can shake some of our institutions out of their smug, self-serving complacency.
A more fitting title for the book might have been, “India’s Rise to IT Power — despite the Government”.

The reviewer is an independent consultant specialising in ‘Technology for Development’.
(This article was published on September 26, 2013)

Printable version | Oct 2, 2013 10:40:57 PM | © The Hindu Business Line

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The End of Special Status States?

All of us like to feel special. If you are in India and if you happen to one of the states in the union, being marked out as 'special' brings not only warm fuzzy feelings, but also a bigger dollop of funds from the central pool.

Until now 'special status' states meant that you were either one of the seven sisters from the North East, or one of the northern Himalayan states of J&K, Himachal Pradesh or Uttarakhand. It meant that your state fulfilled each of the five conditions required to earn the title: (i) hilly and difficult terrain; (ii) low population density or sizable share of tribal population; (iii) strategic location along borders with neighboring countries; (iv) economic and infrastructural backwardness; and (v) non-viable nature of state finances.

The special states are able to give corporate tax and excise duty waivers. It gets them 100% central funding for infra schemes like PMGSY. But the cherry on the cake is the larger chunk of central funds - Normal Central Assistance (30% shared by 11 special states; 90% of this is grant), and Special Central Assistance.

The game changed a few months ago when Bihar demanded special status. Not to be left behind, Orissa and Rajasthan too joined the chorus. The reigning czar of planning, Montek,  then took out the checklist and showing them that they fulfill only the last two of the five-point criteria. The states continue to grumble anyway.

All is this is likely to end with today's announcement that "special status" is going to disappear completely. According to a PIB press release, the Report of the Dr. Raghuram Rajan Committee for Evolving a Composite Development Index of States (another of those titles!) submitted its recommendations to the government today.

RaRa's committee has come up with a new index for measuring backwardness based on per-capita consumption (NSSO data). It simply divides all states into three categories - Relatively Developed, Less Developed and Least Developed.

All the special category states would now be placed in the decidedly less endearing category, Least Developed.



* PIB Press Release --

* Bhattarharjee, Subhomoy (2013): WHAT IT MEANS FOR A STATE TO BE COUNTED AS SPECIAL, Indian Express, 14 Jun 2013--

* Indian Express editorial (30 Sep) on Rajan's new Index: HOW CONVENIENT --

Monday, September 23, 2013

Two URLs

Consider the following two URLs:


The first one takes you to a page on Turkey. The second one takes you to exactly the same webpage using a far more compact address, quite unlike the ones you get from sites like TinyURL. The difference is that the first one was approached through a link on Twitter.

The extra elements in the URL, starting with "?", seem to contain three distinct components separated by a and ampersand "%", and each of these describes something called "utm". So what exactly is this?

It seems UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Modules created by Google Analytics to help track traffic sources. These tags apparently help you create unique links for different campaigns and enable them to be tracked while they are being distributed through emails, banner ads, or even offline marketing campaigns.

Good to know.. :)


* Google Analytics - Traffic - URL Builder -

* UTL Link Tracking Explained -

* Explain the Internet to a 19th century Street Urchin --

Short Trip, Sharp Eyes

Is there something about short trips that sharpens your powers of observation?

This is the thought that crossed my mind after reading Anu Garg's latest posts on AWAD, which has been aptly described by the New York Times as "The most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace"!

Over the past few days, Anu has been posting Japan Special's after a brief visit to the Far East. Despite having stayed and traveled extensively in Japan for two years, some of his observations have come as a big surprise to me.

I did not know, for instance, that "skosh", "honcho" and "tycoon" were all English words borrowed from NihonGo. Neither did I notice that each of the 47 prefectures in Japan has its own cutesy police mascot, created to "win the affection of the people and make them feel safe"!

Japan's 47 Prefectures and their 47 police mascots! (pic source:

The one for Ibaraki is neither a frog, nor an owl but a skylark named Hibari-kun.



* Japan's Mascots --

Sunday, September 22, 2013

PDCA Motors

Until today I knew of only one version of PDCA - the iterative, management method of plan-do-check-adjust cycles for continuous process improvements popularized by Deming.

A search of something more mundane - kitchen chimney's - brought me to another PDCA. These were
Pressure Die Cast Aluminum motors that apparently make the kitchen equipment a lot less noisier than their normal metal bodied cousins.

Why so?

Unlike the traditional machining method of producing motor shells, in the PDCA process, molten aluminum alloy is injected at high speed and pressure into molds. The components that emerge from the mold dies is apparently a lot more precise in terms of dimensions, strength and surface finish.

The growing popularity of this technology can be attested by the fact that even Government of India's MSME Training Institute is promoting this as a high investment, high return business proposition.

But still, how does this make the motor more efficient in terms of noise output?



* Dargusch (2006) - article in the Materials Science Journals --

* Pressure Die-Casting - MSME Training Institute, Allahabad --

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Cactus called Sabra

It is difficult to imagine Indian cooking without tomatoes & chilies, both of which came in from the 'New World' - thanks to the Portuguese. No less critical are some of the other plants that came from the Americas -- potatoes,  avocados, corn, cocoa, tapioca (manioc/kappa), artichokes, and squashes of all sorts.

Now it turns out that an entire country - Israel - owes its dominant social identity, ethos and national spirit to a cactus plant that originated in Mexico!

I was browsing through "Fortress Israel" - a new book by Patrick Tyler - when I came across a new word: Sabra. It is apparently a tough species of prickly-pear that clings to the Mediterranean coastline.

 Opuntia Sp. (aka Sabra) - pics from Wikipedia

This is the plant that the Zionist pioneers chose to describe and differentiate themselves from the mass of Holocaust survivors and immigrants who flooded into Israel from Europe, North Africa, Iraq, Yemen and Morocco. The Sabras saw themselves as new Jews, no longer a 'caricature of passivism, dependence, and weakness, but a people determined to take its fate into its own hands'.

In a hostile and unstable region, the sabras saw themselves as tough and self-reliant fighters, never as interested in debate as in taking action, less interested in accommodation with the Arabs than in seizing objectives and creating facts on the ground. And yet, just like the Sabra cactus, they wanted to be tough on the outside, but delicate & sweet inside.

It is amazing to recall that clumps of this very cactus species lined the roads leading to our school at Uppal, Hyderabad. During the summer holidays, we used to scratch names on their flat, thick leaves, and extract the viscous sap for fixing glass powder on to the 'maanja' strings used for competitive kite-flying.

I always imagined these cacti to be the original inhabitants of every arid landscape in the country. It is mildly shocking to know that this plant too came from the Americas!

The prickly pear (Opunta Stricta) is also a the centerpiece of one of the most successful examples of 'biological control'. In the early 1900s a despairing Australian government signed up an entomologist named Alan Todd, as a last resort to deal with Opuntia that had invaded over 260,000 of farmland. In 1925, Todd brought in the Nopal Moth from South America to feed on these cactii, and within a few years, Opuntia was no longer an 'invasive weed'.

Perhaps they came with unknown Portuguese sailors who stocked them in their ships as a handy veggie to prevent scurvy; or maybe the birds brought it into the heart of the India peninsula, and to the Mediterranean to become a mascot for the Jews in their new homeland!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Innovation by Govt Order

"Innovate!", said the government, "And they all went forth and innovated."

Does it really work this way? Is it really possible for innovations to emerge from government orders?

Sam Pitroda tweeted today that he was 'delighted to have 24 State Innovative Councils taking the innovative agenda forward'.

This was news to me. Even though I was aware of the existence of a 'high-power' agency that had been created to instill the joys of innovation to all the boring copycats in India, I never knew that it had been functioning like yet another government department.

Perched in the ivory tower called Planning Commission, the National Innovation Council was conceived in the early years of UPA-II. Sam Pitroda was appointed the chairman, a dozen or so eminent personalities were roped into the advisory committee, and they have been 'promoting innovation' ever since.

So what does the NIC/SIC do? It seems these councils would "drive the innovation agenda in the states and harness the core competencies, local talent, resources and capabilities to create new opportunities".

How? Through seminars, workshops and speeches exhorting people to 'innovate'? By ordering government agencies to submit their 'innovation road-maps'??

Even a cursory look at some of the most inventive and innovative societies will tell you that innovation is not something that can be extracted by bureaucrats. In Israel, the armed forces help in building multi-disciplinary networks among talented youngsters. In Estonia, the government set the pace through a reliable, affordable WiFi network that covers the entire country.

In contrast, our approach to innovation sounds a bit  like the Chinese approach to manufacturing steel during the Great Leap Forward!


* National Innovation Council -

* Innovation "Action Plan" for MSME -

* Innovation Clusters
- Furniture Industry in Ernakulam, Kerala --
- Moradabad Bass Cluster -

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Going Gaga over RaRa

"Let us remember", said the new RBI governor, in his maiden speech, "that the goal is having greater financial access in all parts of the country, rather than meeting bureaucratic norms."

Music to our ears!

In Raghuram Rajan, we may finally see a leader who not only has a clear vision but also the ability to communicate it and the gumption to see it through. Almost immediately after the speech was telecast yesterday, the Rupee stopped sliding, and the markets which had been down in the dumps for weeks, perked up.

While it was pleasure to read his speech, carefully crafted like a fine motor engine, I found in it many unfamiliar terms. Since I am likely to be following RaRa very closely hereon, I need to find out more about --

* Electronic Bill Factoring Exchanges: For electronically receiving and auctioning MSME bills - what does that mean?
* Inflation Indexed Savings Certificates linked to the CPI New Index
* National giro-based Indian Bill Payment System: What is "giro-based"? And I thought electronic bill payments were already quite popular..
* “White” POS device: How is this different from the usual point-of-sale device


* RBI Press Release - Statement by Dr. Raghuram Rajan on 4 Sep., 2013 --

* First Post - R. Jagannathan --

* Mint-WSJ: The Morning After --

* Takshashila - Beginning with an A+ --

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Right Swallow

What a remarkable coincidence!

Just the day after I struggled to identify an unusual, elegant bird perched on an electric line, it turned up as the IBC bird-of-the-day!

Wire-tailed Swallow

Pic by Sid Adhikari
Source: Internet Bird Collection -