Thursday, March 31, 2016

An Almost Happy Country

Tshering Tobgay is an amazingly gifted communicator. As the Prime Minister of Bhutan, he comes through as a person with a fine sense of humor, one who has an endearingly hesitant, modest way of connecting with his audience.

Seeing this TED presentation brought back memories of my own trips to Bhutan in in the late 1990s as a part of the JICA team for evaluating the Paro Valley Agriculture Development Project. Of the crisp, clean air, chunky furniture at Tashi Delek hotel, cheerful government officials in white woolen shawls, and of the surreal feel of a country where the citizens were told what to wear, how to build & decorate houses, and what to see on television.

Tobgay's eloquence on Gross National Happiness also made me wonder about the 100,000 ethnic Nepali's who had been expelled from Bhutan in the 1990s. That is one in every seven Bhutanese. Perhaps it is easier to find happiness after a successful round of ethnic cleansing... or perhaps such a move only rankles those who have lived most of their lives in multi-everything countries.

I am also curious to learn more about "Bhutan for Life" which is being described as 'an innovative funding initiative' for ensuring conservation of natural resources, in perpetuity. WWF-Bhutan provides a sketchy outline of the scheme and Tobgay's had claimed in his presentation that the fund - "multi-party single-closing deal"  - based on Wall Street practices, would be ready by the 'end of the year'.

Where can I find details of the this fund? Who are the donors involved here? What is their pound of flesh?


* Tshering Tobgay, PM of Bhutan -
* TED Talk transcript -
* Dowling, Tim (2015): Unhappy? Welcome to Bhutan - the nation of 90% Joy --
* Forbes () - Bhutan for Life -
* WWF Bhutan -

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

WiFi and Basic Needs

This illustration says it all.

It might be stretching things a bit, but it does indicate how staying connected seems to have becomesome sort of a desperate, visceral need. We now choose hotels and eateries based on their ability to provide reliable bandwidth as much as the quality of accomodation or food. There is now a joke going around that, even at home, the best way to have a family get-together is to switch off the wireless router!

In an earlier post, I had figured that all WiFi devices talk to each other in the 2.4 GHz frequency, and that as per international protocols this band is divided into 79 channels (each 1 MHz wide) which the devices can change up to 1600 times per second, just to keep a data connection going.

I still have no idea how the scientists managed to create anything that sends out 1,000,000,000 vibrations per second, let alone how they go about slicing it like a cake and passing it around with all the icing and toppings intact.

Perhaps it is easier to understand things that are happening at an individual device level. Here are two parameters from my WiFi analyser:

The first screenshot shows that the signal strength ranges from -100 dBm (decibel milliwatts) to -40 dBm. The key unit here is that of power - Watts. It takes a thousandth (1/1000) of a Watt to send out signal equal to 0 dB.

The negative sign comes from the log scale. To quote WirelessAnnonymous:
Under a log 10 scale, a value of -2 represents 10 to the -2 power, which equals 0.01. Likewise, a negative dBm means that you're applying a negative exponent in your power calculations; 0 dBm equals 1 mW of power, so -10 dBm equates to 0.1 mW, -20 dBm equates to 0.01 mW, and so forth. It's a lot easier, and more useful in some calculations, to describe a weak signal as -100 dBm as opposed to 0.0000000001 mW.
The following shot illustrates how the signal strengh drops the further you move away from a router. The closest ones are sending out signals stronger than -50dBm while the farthest ones have the green bands diminishing into the -90 dBm range.

Then you have the next most important thing: the media access control (MAC) address.

When you have millions of data signals riding piggypack on radio waves, it is necessary to ensure that they reach the right destinations. For this, each WiFi device comes with a unique MAC address and they all use the address resolution protocol (ARP) to avoid cross-talk. If we compare the whole set up to city traffic, MAC represents the final destinations (a mall, home or fuel station). Vehicles (data packets) traveling along the roads (the internet protocol/IP) are capable of reaching anywhere but get an entry only to those places which have a matching MAC address.

This brings us to the next basic need - how do we stay safe from the carjackers, and hackers hiding in the dark streets?


* Reading signal strength --
* How to Geek - MAC Address -
* Ask Leo: IP address vs. MAC address --

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Talking of Raw Deals

In my scheme of things, a conference is worthwhile if it can give you at least one extraordinary takeaway. At the South-South Conference organised recently by RIS in New Delhi, I was pleasantly surprised to come across at least three great presentations.

The first was by Prof. Thomas Pogge of Yale University. Quite unlike the regular Indian academics who drown the audience with high sounding jargon and bombast, Pogge started out on a modest note, and put forth a few statling facts:

  • 62 richest individuals have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the world population
  • Corporate lobbying for a tax holidays -- for every $1 spent on lobbying the corporations saved them $220 in taxes
  • Globalization is increasing inequality

Contrary to the official government position of USA, Pogge congratulated the Indian government for standing up the evergreening and bullying tactics of bigpharma!  

Then came Branislav Gosovic. He was introduced as an expert on South-South issues but prefered to call himself 'just a student' with a Montenegro tribal instict to stubbornly resist anything that was perceived as injustice.

Gosovic talked of his 40 years of witnessing how the UN system - particularly institutions like the UNCTAD was subverted by the developed countries. According to him, the 1960s was the 'Golden Age' during which poorer countries - the G77 - were consolidating themselves under the UNCTAD banner.

Then came the Heritage Foundation, a US-based think-tank that put out a 2000 page report highlighting how such a consolidation would harm the interests of the reining world powers. Inspired by this report a series of steps were taken to throttle UNCTAD. Its dynamic leaders were removed before the Uruguay Round, funding was curtailed and steps taken to undermine the G77.

According to Gosovic, what remains of UNCTAD is just a hollow shell. The only global think-tank that now stands up for the G77 is the South Centre, Geneva.

A representative from the South Centre, Manuel Gomes and Jomo Kwame Sundaram of Malaysia, reinforced some of the points mentioned by Pogge and Gosovic by presenting data on -

  • Base Erosion Profit Shifting (BEPS): Tracing of  Illicit Financial Flows -- MNCs in developing countries charge their loal subsidiaries all kinds of fees....and in the end claim that there is no income to be taxed at all!
  • Aid allocations have gone down from the promised $ 0.7% of GDP to $ 0.29%

  • TPP Treaty -- Bilateral Investment Treaties now allow private companies to sue governments and force them to act against national interest:
    • French in Egypt over increase of wages
    • Robert Schillier's book -- Malaysia herbicides -- carcinogenic, and a mild form of agent orange. Action by the government to protect the health of its citizens drew them into an expensive legal battle with the MNCs
The RIS conference was a great way to bring together bring together countries and people who do not  (yet) have the money, power and institutional support enjoyed by the OECD. Whether it will takes things beyond the talking and report-publishing, into the realm of real action, remains to be seen.


* RIS Conference on South-South Cooperation -
* Wiki - Thomas Pogge -
* TED Video - Medicines for the 99 Percent with a "Health Impact Fund" - -
* Jomo Kwame Sundaram -

Monday, March 21, 2016

Daryaganj Monster

In the City of Djinns, there is a new monster sitting in the middle of one of its oldest streets. Arms outstretched into the sky, this yellow giant towers over the buses, trees and buildings, like a punk teenager waving out to the minarets of Old Delhi.

Step closer and you would see that it is a huge crane mounted on an oversized truck.  "Liebherr" says the modest logo one one side, and the name of the construction company telescopes into the skies. 

What does this machine do? 

According to the locals, it has been brought in to pull out the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) which has been burrowing under the streets. The DMRC website says that the Daryaganj-Delhi Gate line has the largest TBM assembled so far. 

Where can I get some reliable information on these Liebherr's? How much weight can they carry? Why do they need to have those huge arms?


* Liebherr Cranes --

* Delhi Metro - 96m long Tunnel Boring Machine -

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Solar Powered Vendors

The world is moving on -  coconut vendors are now equipped with solar panels!

Until last year the most popular - and affordable - lighting technology available to the vendors was the "petromax" lamp. Messy, polluting and hard to maintain, these kerosene powered lamps also thrived on a blackmarket for fuel siphoned from the public distribution system. 

Most of the kerosene lamps have now been replaced by LED panels.   A supply chain had evolved around this model in which entrepreneurs had started supplying a complete LED lighting set (light panel + battery + stand), to the street vendors for about ₹20 a night. After 10:00 PM they would go around collecting the lamps, and then getting all the batteries recharged again from an AC outlet.

Now vendors - especially those on the open roads - have progressed to next logical step: charging the batteries using solar panels. 

In this case, the vendor, Kasim, set himself a budget of ₹ 3000 and got a 40Wp panel, a refurbished 12V battery of unknown Ah rating and two LED panels.  He has also paid extra for a charger-box with a 2-pin plug. He got conned on three counts - the seller sold him mobile charger calling it an "inverter", the LED panel cost him ₹200 (available at ₹80), and the worst of all - nobody told him that he needs a Solar Charge Controller (SCC).

Since the SCC controls the fluctuating voltage coming in from the panels, and optimises the charge that a battery can take, Kasim's entire investment s likely to go kaput in a few weeks. 

Kasim's case illustrates the problems most of face while adopting a new technology. He is, of course, an early starter. While most of the other vendors prefer a battery-rental model (₹300/week), he must have worked out that an investment in panels would spare him rental expenses within two months. 

I have tried to help out at bit by checking at Lajpat Rai Market (Old Delhi), and telling him that SCC's are available at ₹ 350 (Shop no. 40, 6Amp, DeepSolar brand). Will he get one installed before it is too late? Or will he continue with his "jugaad" setup, get disillutioned with his panel set and return to the regular mode?

And then, even if he does get himself a SCC, it would be yet another component which comes with no quality assurance, standard ratings or guarantees. 

We have set ourselves ambitous targets for increase in renewable energy capacity. The focus so far seems to be on big companies and on turning vast areas into solar-energy farms. While this is necessary, it is also important to ensure that entrepreners like Kasim have access, not only to solar equipment of reliable quality, but also to information and guidance that helps avoid unnecessary loss of faith in a good source for off-grid, renewable sources of power.


* Charge Controllers -
* Do I need a Charge Controller? --
Battery AH * 2% * Vmp = Panel Wattage
* Do I need a controller? -
* Solar Panel Selection Guide -
* MNRE Achievements - 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Apathy Chronicles - II

Last year I had listed a few instances of the chronic apathy that cripple governance in India.

T.N. Ninan's latest book, "The Turn of the Tortoise" (2015, Penguin), describes cases of far larger magnitude. The most striking of these is the case of River Kosi on the India-Nepal Border.

Not unlike the Yellow River in China, the Kosi has always been known as the 'Sorrow of Bihar'. Over the past few centuring, it has changed course by up to 250km, sweeping away everything in its path. In the 1950s India and Nepal decided to mitigate this old problem by agreed on the construction of a 350m barrage on the Nepalese side of the border. The barrage was to be managed jointly by Indians and Nepalis.

In early 2000s, an Indian diplomat visited the barrage. He was shocked to find that two dredgers were lying in disrepair. A housing enclave for Indian officials was deserted and the barrage's control room had a solitary junior engineer from Nepal. No action was taken on the diplomat's report.

In 2008, the inevitable happened. Kosi burst its banks, changed its course, destroyed homes, fields and left nearly 3 million homeless!

Have we learnt any lessons from this? Do we now have a better system of incentives in place to ensure that government officials take their jobs seriously?



* 2008 Bihar Floods - Wiki -
* Negligence caused 2008 Floods (2014) -

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Black & White

What is it that makes black & white photographs so... compelling?

Yesterday evening  sudden downpour sent me scurrying into the Visual Arts Gallery of the India Habitat Centre. At first I thought the gallery was closed - it was dark and foreboding, and yet the doors were open. I stepped in to see the hall transformed like never before.

Jet black cloth covered all the walls, the space inside had been partitioned to create a maze of stunning photoframes, sheer fabric, projections, light and shadows.

This exhibition by Shailan Parker was called "Kavadsa", an evocative Marathi word to describe that fleeting light that which filters into a room to turn the most ordinary things into beautiful works of art.

Parker is what one could perhaps describe as an upmarket photographer. The exhibition underlined not only his ability to push understated elegance to the limits, but also his access to corporate sponsors and wellwishers with deep pockets, and access to the best equipment and material.

Could such images be created with more modest equipment?

William Dalrymple has brought out his first book of photographs, "The Writer's Eye", a collection of 60 B&W photographs shot only using his Samsung mobile, and edited with a free app, Snapseed.
His inspiration came from the bleak and grainy war photography of Don McCullin, the landscape work of Fay Godwin,  and Bill Brandt, whose "brooding images were marked by a stark chiaroscuro, a strong geometrical sense of composition, a whiff of the surreal, and a taste for the uncanny and unsettling".

I wish I knew what all these words mean, but in a world where we take color for granted, B&W images that just leave us with the bare essentials of light and shadows,will always have an attraction that is difficult to explain.



Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Crowdfunds at Work

What is common link that connects Glif, a nifty stand for smartphone cameras, a wooden remote-control stand, a touchscreen stylus and a whole range of cocktail party accessories?

The latest issue of Wired profiles a two-man company called Studio Neat which is focused on "solving interesting problems and delighting customers". For the past five years they have been creating and selling a diverse range products out of a garage in Austin, Texas.

However incredible this may sound, the fact is that Studio Neat has been one of the pioneers in a space that is now known as "crowdfunding". It all stated with a video pitch posted by the duo on Kickstarter, an online forum that helps 'bring creative projects to life'. When the crowd response turned out to be three times more than anticipated, the founders decided to meet the demand by outsourcing everything.

Manufacturing went to Dragon Innovation, and then to a more value-for-money outfit called Premier Source. A company called Shipwire was contracted for order-fulfilment; Shopify handles all of the shopping carts and credit card numbers, and Amazon acts as the main shopfront on the global marketplace.

Does such an ecosystem exist in India?

According to Quora, we do have a dozen crowdfunding platforms in India but obviously it takes more than just crowdfunding to get an innovative product on the market-shelf.

Dragon CEO Scott Miller conveys this gap very eloquently:  “If A is the idea and Z is the product in somebody’s hands...everyone assumes that by the time they have a prototype they’re at M. In practice, they’re at D. At every one of these steps, a small miscalculation or oversight can cost a company money."

We have a long, long way to go.


Monday, March 07, 2016

Peanut Gallery

One of the highlights of this week was a gem of a retort:

"It is quite rich to sit in the peanut gallery, pass comments and throw empty shells at those who are actually rolling their sleeves up and working on the ground" 

Rohan Murty said this while defending Sheldon Pollock, an American Academic who heads a pioneering project for the translation of Indian classics into English.

Earlier this week I had leafed through a few paperbacks in the "New Books" section of the Dayal Singh Public Library. Among them were three new books published by the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI). I remembered my sense of awe, gratitude and amazement. Finally we had access to our own classics, not only in a format we could easily relate to (local language on the left, English on the right), but also at a very affordable price!

The petition against Pollock at

Why on earth would anybody object to  such a remarkable initiative? And who were these "132 academics and public figures" behind the online petition against Pollock and MCLI? What were their objections?

The online petiton can be still be accessed at . It was started by Prof. Ganesh Ramakrishnan of IIT Bombay, and, apart from the 132 "Scholars and Intellectuals" who have put their weight behind this petiton, it also claims to have garnered 12,500 supporters.

Their objections boil down to two points:

1. Pollock is not sufficiently "steeped in the intellectual traditions of India", and is therefore incompetent to be the Chief Editor of MCLI
2. He has objected to the recent police high-handedness at JNU, and is therefore politically biased.

To think that 132 + 12,500 people would sign up a shallow petition like this, tells a lot about the current status of "intellectual traditions" in our country.

A few months ago another bunch of 100 academics, this time esconced in the universities of USA and Western Europe, had objected to Prime Minister Modi's visit to Silicon Valley. Here the objections were about "lack of safefuards about privacy of information" and the Gujarat violence of 2002.

Online protests, petitions, and carefully handpicked outrages make you wonder about the real motive of folks who initiate such campaigns. Is it merely an attention-seeking tactic, or is there more to it?


  • Paranjape, Markand (21Mar16): The Problem with Pollock --
  • Dasgupta, Swapan (2015): If we won' save Sanksrit, why stop foreigners? ToI Blogs, 3Apr2016 -

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Little by Little

Two long journeys passed through Delhi last week: one a 'Walk of Hope' led by a spiritual leader, and the other a festival of Street Art.

The 'Walk of Hope' was started by 'Sri M' (aka Mumtaz Ali), covered more than 5,900 km across the length of India, made its stop-over before continuing towards Kashmir, and Street+Art completed its first mega-scale insallations in a drab government colony, and transformed it into the most stunning open-air art gallery in India. Both seemingly unconnected events had one thing in common. A dogged sense of purpose and persistence that brought to life Mao Zedong's famous quote - "The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step."

The Walk of Hope owes its origins to one man's promise to his teacher. Sixty-five year-old Mumtaz was just eight when he had the first 'meeting' with a Hindu ascetic at his home in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. In his late teens he travelled to the Western Himalayas in search of this ascetic, and stayed on for over three years as a a wanderind mendicant, and an "Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master".

Street+Art operated on an altogether different plane. According to one of its founders in India, Hanif Kureshi, it is a collective of artists who used public spaces - often illegally - to express themselves. Last year they had come up with a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi in the most unlikely place possible -- on a large blank wall of the Delhi Police HQ. In a city that already sufferes from an overdose of Gandhi memorials, perhaps this was a strategic - or cunning - move to co-opt that most formidable of all life forms of this planet - the  Indian bureaucracy.

The tactic seems to have worked beautifully. This year, the New Delhi Municipal Committee (NDMC) set aside 60 years of SoPs to permit Street+Art to put up large government-owned buildings across the city.

According to Kureshi, this is the culmination of eight years of behind-the-scenes work. Apart from persuading the bureaucrats to tweek their old rules and approve each installation, Street+Art also managed to get various embassies to sponsor the various artists; the paints were gifted by Asian Paints, and a small band of students and volunteers ensured that the right set of paints and support equipment reached each artist at the right time.

For instance, when Senkoe from Mexico set to work, there was a crane + operator at his disposal for three days (rent - Manlift, ₹10,000/day), two students from MSU Baroda recording the whole thing with a GoPro on time-lapse, and a group of volunteers led by Arunima helping with the coloring, and making sure that everybody got their food and snacks on time.

In few months time, memories of the Walk of Hope might fade until the next Guru comes around, and street artwork may last a few more monsoons, but both will be remembered for the power of incremental efforts!


St+Art India -

* Menon, Aparna (2015): Shipping Containers in  Drab Container Yard --

 Walk of Hope --!/