Thursday, March 27, 2014

Shutdown in Japan

Three years ago this month, we were huddled in an evacuation center in Western Japan, bracing for the next aftershock.

A television flickered to life, and a newsreader wearing a bright yellow helmet, announced that there had been explosions at a nuclear power plant a 100 miles away.  In the days and weeks that followed there were extended power outages. People in the Kanto area were advised not to waste electricity. Escalators stopped working at metro stations, lighting in public buildings was reduced to a bare minimum.

Japan's power situation then turned from bad to worse as all its nuclear plants were shut down one-by-one. Import of fossil fuel shot up.

What is the situation now?

The loss of nuclear capacity resulted in a shift in Japan's energy mix toward oil and natural gas. Japan is now the third largest oil consumer and importer in the world behind the United States and China. It also ranks as the world's largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and second largest importer of coal behind China.

(source - EIA, 2013)

The import comes to about 18 quadrillion (10^15) BTU every year.

How long can this be sustained?


- EIA on Japan -
- EIA on India --
- Japan - Rising Trade Deficit --
- Difference between CNG / LPG / LNG --

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

CDRI & Drug Discovery in India

India is currently a world leader in the manufacture of generic drugs. These are generally off-patent medicines marketed under their original chemical name, without advertising.

Since these drugs are usually produced and sold in bulk, profit margins are wafer thin. The real meat in the pharmaceutical business lies in the branded block-buster drugs that have taken years to develop.

How many new drugs have been developed or discovered in India, since 1947?

According to the Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI, Lucknow), the answer is 16. Nearly 70% of these have been developed in CDRI itself.  They are --

  • Centchroman - world's first non-steroidal oral contraceptive  - marketed by Hindustan Latex Ltd under the trade name, Saheli and as Centron by Torrent Pharma.
  • Arteether: antimalarial, from the plant Artemisia annua. Marketed by Themis Chemicals Ltd. under the trade name E-Mal. 
  • Standardised Herbal Remedy (can this be called a drug?):  memory enhancer derived from the plant Bacopa monniera. Marketed as Memory Sure
  • Consap (spermicidal cream) derived from soapnut
  • Bulaquin, an antirelapse antimalarial, comparable to primaquine. Marketed by Nicholas Piramal as a combination therapy along with chloroquine under the trade name Aablaquin. 
  • Gugulipid, a hypolipidaemic, is a standardised fraction of the plant Commiphora mukul. Cipla is marketing it under the trade name Guglip.
  • Chandoniun Iodide - ??
  • Cent bufinodole - ??
  • Centpropazine (antidepressant) - ??
  • Centbucridine, a local anaesthetic mktd by Themis Chemicals Ltd. as Centoblok. 
  • Centimizon -??

The CDRI list seems to be in descending order to oblivion. The further you're down the list, the URLs too go wonky, linking you to completely unrelated pages.

In any case, the only one that remembered seeing at a medical store, was Saheli, and Memory Sure.

If this is what we get after spending public money for 64 years at CDRI?

Which are the other five drugs discovered in India? Do they - hopefully - fare better than CDRI's star-performers?


* "New drugs" from CDRI --
* Centchroman / Saheli --
* (ToI, 18 Feb 2012) --

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Tastiest Fish

An excellent TED talk starring the stand-up comedian + chef + scholar, Dan Barber.

...and this is the 'fish-farm' he talked about - Faro, Southern Spain

Monday, March 17, 2014

Fracking Away

Everybody knows the importance of technology & innovation. But when it comes to turning theory into practice, very few countries have been able to actually create an enabling environment that encourages real innovation.

In recent times, nothing illustrates this better than Fracking.

Geological surveys had revealed decades ago that vast reserves of energy lay hidden beneath impermeable layers of rocks. It took a geologist named George Mitchell nearly 50 years of persistence to find a cost-effective way of extracting shale gas and oil from these rocks.

Today, nearly 40% of USA's natural gas comes from fracking. It has not only made the country a net gas exporter but also changed international power-politics by reducing the bargaining strength of Russia and the Gulf states.

The interesting part here - one that is often sidelined - is that Mitchell's technology would not have been a success without the support of various government agencies. Three key inputs that he got were -- mapping and confirmation of large volumes of gas reserves available underground; development of diamond-studded drill bits and a tax credit (part Jimmy Carter's 1980s law to tax 'windfall profits'), for drilling out unconventional natural gas.

On the sidelines of this revolution, there have been some unexpected success stories in India. Farmers who cultivate Guar (cluser beans), have seen their profits shoot up. Last year (2012-13) 90% of India's production - 406,000MT of guar-gum, worth Rs. 21,000 Cr (~US$ 5 billion) - was exported to USA, China and Australia.

What is the connection between a legume grown as cattle-feed in arid Rajasthan and Gujarat, and the newfangled oil-drilling technology?

Well, somebody found out long ago that guar-gum is a pretty strong water-soluble lubricant. In 1998, when Goerge Mitchell was in his 80s, his team started using guar-gum with water instead of expensive foams and drilling gels. The rest, of course, is history.


  • The Economist - Schumpeter - The Father of Fracking --
  • Interview (Aug, 2013) --
  • NYT Obituary on George Mitchell -- He Fracked Until It Paid Off --
  • Why Guar Beans Matter --
  • APEDA on Guar Gum Exports --


If there is one image that screws-up your world view at a very early age, it must be the Mercator Projection.

About five hundred years ago, the Flemish cartographer did a brilliant job for the seafarers by projecting the globe on a flat surface. But for the rest of us, it continues to be a distortion of epic prroportions - especially for continents further away from the equator. Greenland, for instance, look four times the size of Australia when it is actually it is just the opposite!

Africa, however, takes the cake. It takes a map like this to show how things really stand -

You can fit 18 large countries, including India, China and USA into Africa, and still have plenty of room to spare.

'The True Size of Africa' is really an eye-opener.



* 8 Maps that will change the way you look at Africa --

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Electronic Fund Transfer: Spoilt for Choice

I never cease to wonder at the way in which our lives have been transformed by the internet.

Take net-banking for instance. We stay in Delhi NCR and our housemaid, Basanti's family is based at Murshidabad, West Bengal. Last week, her daughter took ill and had to be taken to a hospital in Kolkata. Money was urgently needed for the travel and medical expenses.

Until a few year's ago, Basanti would have taken a wad of notes to the nearest post-office, stood in a line for her turn, written out an application form, and hope that a week or two later, the postman would not take a 'cut' while handing over the cash.

Today, anybody with an internet connection can be the intermediary. It was my turn today. An SMS was sent out to the family asking for details of their village bank account. Five items were requested - name as in bank records, account number, name of bank & its branch, and its IFSC code.

It was already past 8PM when these details came in. On ICICI Bank's webpage three options were available - NEFT, RTGS and IMPS. The first two work only during office hours. So I used the last option - IMPS - which was a 24x7 service. Within a few minutes the money was already accessible at an ATM 1500 kms away!

Hats-off to all those who put this amazing system in place!


Note: Efficiency of service varies across banks. I had first logged on to HDFC bank. Six hours later, they were still flashing "Authorization Awaited". ICICI Bank was a lot faster.

Decoding the alphabet soup:
  • IFSC - Indian Financial System's Code. Each bank participating in the national electronic fund settlement system as its own unique code.
  • NEFT - National Electronic Fund Transfer. RBI FAQ on NEFT - // RBI's NEFT FAQs
  • RTGS - Real Time Gross Settlement. Unlike NEFT this is final and irrevocable.
  • IMPS - Immediate Payment Service -- 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Science of Spiciness

A neat animation from TED-Ed

The Capsaicin and Piperine found in black-pepper and chilly-pepper are made up of heavier compounds called Alkylamides, and these mostly stay in your mouth...

Those found in mustard, wasabi and horse-radish are made of smaller molecules called Isothiocyanates that easily float up into your sinuses.

The toppers on the Scoville Scale are the Tobago Moruga Scorpion and the Carolina Reaper...these are 30 times more fiery than the common Guntur Chilli!

The hottest chilli in India is the Bhut Jolokia from Assam-Nagaland.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Siege: Mumbai 26/11

I've never cringed so many time while reading a book.

"The Siege - The Attack on the Taj" by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, is a gripping narrative of the way in which 10 brainwashed blokes from rural Pakistan created havoc in a city of 12 million people.

The book seems to dig deep into the names and antecedents of most of its characters - terrorists, their handlers in Karachi, the hotel employees, Mumbai police...and yet some details are conspicuously absent.

Who, for instance were the Indian Members of Parliament who "were throwing their weight around, talking loudly and threatening people" in the midst of the siege?

Who was responsible the unbelievable tardiness with which NSG commandos were sent to Mumbai? The soldiers had been unofficially mobilized at 10:05 pm, on Wednesday, 26 Nov., 2008, just twenty-two minutes after the first shots were fired in Leopold's.

Why was it so damn difficult to find a plane to transport the soldiers? Even when a plane was found, why was the crew missing? why was there a delay in fueling the IL-76?

Why was the NSG Chief, Jyoti Dutt ordered to take a detour into the city, just to pick up the Home Secretary, Madhukar Gupta, when he could have saved some time by reaching Palam airport directly?

When the plane finally landed in Mumbai the next day at 05:30, who was responsible for transport convoy that failed to turn up?

Where is the 'Honey Bee' now?  Has anybody been held accountable for all the goof-ups?

Its amazing to think that if such an attack were to happen again tomorrow, we would be just as unprepared... :(


Thursday, March 06, 2014

CC Fraud -- Club Group of Hotels

Recently, we got conned into 'buying' a time-share holiday scheme from a company called "Mountain Club Resorts PL, New Delhi", Club Group of Hotels.

Their game was pretty simple -- and beguiling. First they dangled a "free holiday" at the end of an hour-long marketing pitch. When you decline to take up their offers, the smooth-talking gets smoother, and the prices keep going down until you take the bait on the basis of "zero interest" payments of multiple installments spread across a couple of years.

Then they take your credit cards and charge you the full amount saying that the CC company would be converting them to 'easy installments'. You are hurriedly made to sign at the bottom of some legal papers. It is only later that you kick yourself for being so gullible -- especially when you notice that the legal doc has blanks spaces that have not been filled, and the bill from the credit-card company is for full, upfront payments!

A rather belated internet search reveals that RBI had banned "zero interest" many months ago.

You desperately contact the company. The smooth-talkers are Mountain Club Resorts now feign ignorance. "Is there a new RBI rule? They must've introduced that after you signed up". When that line fails to convince, a new offer comes up - "We'll pay up the interest charged by the CC companies". When you ask them to send confirmatory emails, they just dissappear. Phone calls go unanswered; emails are ignored.

Is it too late? What do you do?

First, inform the credit card companies. In our case, the process with Citibank was a lot easier than HDFC bank. Citi just blocked the credit card, issued a new one and then initiated a "dispute" inquiry. The very next day, there was a follow-up call to assure us that no payment was required for this transaction. HDFC was a lot more cumbersome. They wanted to have a written application, signed and submitted to a local branch. Customer-care service was tardy and a test of patience.

Next, inform the Reserve Bank of India. The RBI Ombudsman page had officers listed city-wise to take up the complaints . Our case has now been forwarded to the Department of Non-Banking Supervision (DNBS).

What happens next? Watch this space.


* RBI bans zero-interest payment schems (26 Sep., 2013) --

* Fraud membership offered by Club Group of Hotels --

* Complaints registered online --
and  (Club Group of Hotels / Gold Star Hospitality)

* ...and  more! -- (Club Group of Hotels / Destination Resorts PL)

* RBI --

* Banking Obudsmen - RBI -