Thursday, September 24, 2015

Roaring and Bleating

Bharat Karnad launched his new book today: "Why India is not a Great Power (yet)".

I had been looking forward to this event ever since the CPR invitation hit my inbox. I had expected thisto be another of those dour events where folks landed up late, where a flunky praised the author and his book to the skies, the author read some excerpts, everbody clapped, chatted over some coffee and dispersed.

As expected, the event started 30 mts late, but everything else was refreshingly different. The author made some opening remarks, positioning himself as a military "hawk" and then went on to paint a dismal picture of India as a world-power-wannabe. An aspirant unable to muster the will, either to have a global vision, or to implement it. A lion in that bleeted like sheep, and acted like one.

Karnad's views on the subject are well known. Interestingly, while all the panelists agreed that it was a great piece of work, not one of the agreed with his conclusions. And the best part of it was that Karad had personally invited experts who had a diametrically  opposite world view.

Jairam Ramesh, a Congress-man and former minister in the UPA government, felt that Karnad had erred in equating military might with being a global power; Shiv Shankar Menon presented elegant and coherent agruments on why all the policy recommendations of the book were signs of a declining power, not a rising one; Adm. Raja Menon read out a note from which it was difficult to separate exerpts from his own views, and Maj.Gen Narasimhan thought that Karnad's conclusions were flawed because they were based on a limited interaction with those who knew better.

All through the wit, sarcasm and sage advise, the experts agreed on one point: There is not much  internal coherence within Government of India - each ministry and department has its own ideas on what constitutes "national interest", with many of them working at cross-purposes.

Like the 'Blind Men of Hindoostan', they all hold on to their own views and miss the elephant in the room.

Some interesting takeaways:
  • Nehru, despite all proclamations on non-alignment gave the first go-ahead for the nuclear weapons program. This was part of a vision which withered away after 1964
  • 23% of Indan Army budget goes towards maintaining armoured corpes. Two mountain divisions can be maintained for the cost of one armoured division;
  • Despite all its war-games, the IAF was completely unprepared for Kargil. It had never envisaged a was on the Himalayan frontier. Even today, the focus remains on 'short, decisive' wars along the Western border, despite rising alarms about the Tibet border.
  • Our military brass seeks approval from a Western audience, not its domestic stakeholders. It took an MIT case-study and GE's initiatives, for to realize the value of "frugal innovation";
  • Everybody realises the need for a strong private sector reducing our dependence on imports but there is not sufficient motivation (read "trust"), to see this through.

- OUP Book -

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

On Batteries

How do batteries work?

Until today my understanding had been confined to high-school lessons in physics: lead anodes, cathodes, and of charged electrons swimming through sulphuric acid.

Now an enquiry from a friend in Japan is beginning to improve my understanding of an essential device that has become so common place that we not only take it for granted but also miss out on the wide range of batteries in the market now.

Here is an interesting video produced by EngineerGuy - Bill Hammack, University of Illinois:

If you decide to move on from lead acid batteries, the videos take you tthrough other interesting stuff like - the various uses of copper, Qweerty vs. Drovak keyboard layouts, magnetrons in microwaves and the connection between nutmeg and tantalum (!).

Coming back to batteries, they now come in serveral types -  AGM or dry, deep cycle or solar batteries. Unlike automotive batteries which are designed to give out a big burst of energy to start the engine, the AGM/Deep Cycle/Solar batteries are designed to discharge over a long period of time.

This is quite useful when you want to have, say, a streetlight running on solar panels. The panels absorb energy during the day, and keep the roads lit up all night on a single charge.

What if the such energy could be stored to run power-hungry equipment like freezers, microwaves and flatscreens? How would that work?


- AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) battery technology -
- Running a microwave on a 12V battery -
- Winiversal Inverter -

* Power Inverter FAQ -
- AMPS X 120 (AC voltage) = WATTS -- This formula yields a close approximation of the continuous load of the appliance
- WATTS X 2 = Starting Load
- Induction motors such as air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers and pumps may have a start up surge of 3 to 7 times the continuous rating.
- The auxiliary battery should be connected to the alternator through an isolator module to prevent the inverter from discharging the engine start battery when the engine is off.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Murthy Vs. Rao

Is there one invention from India that has become a household name in the globe? 
Is there one technology that has transformed the productivity of global corporations? 
Is there one idea that has led to an earth-shaking invention to delight global citizens?

These were some of the questions posed by Narayana Murthy at an IISc convocation ceremony in July 2015. As expected, it provoked loud yelps of protest from India's scientific community, including the big daddy of them all, Prof. CNR Rao, who countered it by just tossing the question back to Murthy - What has the industry contributed to S&T in India?

CNRR's rhetorical response does not, of course, answer any of the questions posed by Murthy. So a one can come to the concusion that the short answer to NM's questions is "Sorry, none at all."

Perhaps a part of the answer to Murthy's questions lies in the way scientists like CNRR are reacting to his convocation speech. A touchiness that comes from being insecure, a misplaced sense of self-importance, and an attitude that would do the proverbial ostritch very proud indeed!

Oddly enough, less than a week after Murthy's speech at IISc, CNRR stated (20 July) almost the same thing in different words. “The IISc. is characterised by very mediocre research", he said,  "mainly because they have a lot of facilities.” I guess the man who had a traffic circle outside IISc named after himself decided to change tack because he thought the institution was being criticised by an outsider who was a capitalist, and a bourgeois to boot.

Fortunately NM has refused to be drawn into a debate with CNRR. His simple response was, "He is a great scientist...So when he says something, all of us should listen to him with respect”.

Anybody who has read the full text of NMs speech would realize that his target audience was a whole generation of young scientists who who were going to seek greener pastures in the West. Even if  a few of them return home with one technology, one invention or one idea, it would still be a great outcome for India.



* Copy of the speech delivered by NM -
* CNR Rao's response -
* CNRR on IISc -

Monday, September 07, 2015

On 3G, 4G and LTE

Airtel has become the first telecom service provider to launch 4G-LTE services in India.

As expected of any 'early bird', the company has been aggresively promoting this with a tagline - "If your network is faster, we will pay your mobile bills for life.". This, coupled with a free offer to switch to a 4G SIM and avail higher network speeds at 3G rates, has been attracting customers in droves.

The process is quite simple for mobile phones. You just slip in a new SIM, send a text message to designated number and you are hooked to the 4G networks, wherever available. For devices that cannot sent text messages to Airtel (eg. iPads), the activation process takes a couple of hours.

I liked the simplicity of the process. On top of this, the new SIM cards do not have to be clipped to fit into a smartphone or tab. It now comes pre-punched in three sizes - normal, mini and micro. All you need to do is to push out the size that fits your device -- no more of those crude clipping and crimping tools.

Physical processes apart, the Airtel 4G campaign has one glaring omission -- none of the adverts put a number to their claims. Instead of clearly stating that connection speeds are above a certain threshold, they just rely on the general sloth in internet speeds that we have now come to take for granted in India.

So what exactly is '4G speed' supposed to be?

The benchmarks set by UN-ITU clearly states that 4G should have speeds ranging from 100 Mbps to 1Gbps. Actual speeds are anything but dazzling. In the Airtel showroom, the maximum speed I could get was 11 Mbps. Back home, the maxmum speeds dropped to 5Mbps. Then again the 4G connections were tenuous at best. The signals received by the mobiles seemed to keep changing, making the devices switch frequently between 3G and 4G

No wonder the wireless pipedream is also called Long Term Evolution (LTE). We still have a long-long way to go!

Speeds across the Gs (Source - 


* Airtel 4G -
* 4G-LTE Status in India -
* ITU paves way for 4G technologies -
* TechAdvisor - difference between 4G and LTE -

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Extreme Fasting

In ancient Indian history, one of topics that fascinates me is the reign of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya (340-298 BCE), and the manner in which it ended.

Chandragupta, the first ruler to unify most of Greater India into one state, decides one day to renouce his throne. He then dons the garments of a Jain monk, steps out of his former capital city Magadha and walks 2184 km to a hill near Sravanabelagola, and slowly, deliberately starves himself to death.

I always thought this was a one-off event. Perhaps the last display of a man's iron will, to prove to himself that just as he could kill and conquer a sub-continent, he could just as methodically conquer his own desire to eat, drink and, to stay alive.

Imagine my surprise when I came across a report in the papers that an elderly doctor in Rajasthan was locking horns with the Indian judiciary because he wanted to follow his father's example by doing exactly the same thing!

It is a living tradition that goes back 2500 years. The Swetambara's call it Santhara while the Digambara sect calls it Sallekhana. Both refer the act of self-purification when an individual decides that all the purposes of life have been served, or when they figure that their body is unable to serve any purpose in life.

On 10 August 2015, the Rajasthan High Court ruled that this Jain practice was illegal because it amounted to 'abetment of suicide' punishable under sections 306 and 309 of the Indian Penal Code. Last week, on 31 Aug., 2015, this decision was stayed by the Supreme Court which noted that the RHC decision lacked a basic understanding of the tenets of Jainism.

In a country where religious practices are often reduced to gaudy publicity stunts, it is good to know that there are traditions at the other end of the spectum as well!


* Sallekhana -
* I too want a beautifu death -
* Chandragiri Hill -

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Oliver Sacks, Polymath

I am a sucker for obituaries.

Whenever I access magazines like the Economist or the New Yorker, this is one column I rarely miss. But last week I came across one in the Indian Express (originally, an NYT piece), and since then, I have been devouring just about everything I can find - opeds, features, and, of course, more obituraries. I found myself going all over the internet reading as many obituaries and articles I could find on one man: Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks passed away a few days ago. During his 82-year life-span, he was described as a world-renowned neurologist, a world-champion weightlifter, a best-selling author, a naturalist, and a lifelong enthusiast of physical chemistry.

How many talents can the Gods bestow on one man?!?

NYT describes him as a person who - "...leapfrogged among disciplines, shedding light on the strange and wonderful interconnectedness of life — the connections between science and art, physiology and psychology, the beauty and economy of the natural world and the magic of the human imagination."

Now I find that Sacks was an old friend to another science writer I admire - Vilayanur.S. Ramachandran, author of Phantom in the Brain. In a conversation between these two profs, other famous authors are mentioned - George Gamow, Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas and Peter Medawar -- all of whom, I am ashamed to admit, I had never heard before!

This must be the first time an obituary is leaving me with such long list of authors and books to read!


* Website -
* Oliver Sachs - Obituary -
* NYT Obit -
* Raghavan, RK (The Hindu) -
* The Wire -


- 1967 - On Migraine
- 1973 - Awakenings - on patients who suffered from a condition known as Encephalitis lethargica
- 1985 - The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
- 2007 book, “Musicophilia,” looked at the relationship between music and the brain
- 2001 memoir
 “Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood”
- “The Island of the Colorblind” (1997) about a society where congenital colorblindness was common, “Seeing Voices” (1989) about the world of deaf culture, and “Hallucinations” (2012), in which Sacks discussed his own hallucinations as well as those of some patients.
- gave us case studies of patients whose stories were so odd, so anomalous, so resonant that they read like tales by Borges or Calvino.
-  illnesses and disorders “can play a paradoxical role in bringing out latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life that might never be seen or even be imaginable in their absence.” A young woman with a low I.Q. learns to sing arias in more than 30 languages, and a Canadian physician with Tourette’s syndrome learns to perform long, complicated surgical procedures without a single tic or twitch.