Monday, June 26, 2017

Compromise Managers

"Angamaly Diaries" is a fabulous movie.

A 2017 crime-drama film in Malayalam, directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery, it tells the story of internecine conflicts, and gang-wars in a small town in Kerala. What makes the movie outstanding is the way it brings out the color and celebration of life - eating, drinking, singing, dancing - with the darkest of out instincts, of murder, vendetta, and strikes a fine balance between the two.

It is the last part that really caught my attention here - especially the role of individuals who are designated as "compromise managers" by the warring factions.  These are people who are allowed to step in when the cycle of murder and retribution reaches a stalemate where there can be no winners, or when it is clear that if the fight were to continue into a war of attrition, the winner would be an "outsider".

The one person designated as the Compromise Manager is an insider, a person who, despite being identified with one gang, has over a period of time, won the trust and confidence of the rival gangs as well. From this precarious position, he tries to make the key decision-makers, often the most violent individuals, recognize their own long-term selfish interest in agreeing to a compromise formula.

Thanks to this arrangement, the role of the state law-enforcement agencies and its ponderous legal system gets sidelined in favor of solutions that are more local. Money and business opportunities stay within the community, and the focus shifts from settling scores in the neighborhood, to putting up a joint front for challenges that come from outside.

Needless to say, CMs can be effective only when the costs (including bribes, jail-terms) of using the official legal system are much more than the benefits. In this case the town does have an active police officer, but the CM understands that in increasing crime-graph reflects poorly on the career of government officers. Similarly, the lawyers find it more lucrative to extract fees for striking a compromise rather than legal charges.

If the small town or village represents a microcosm, the UN perhaps represents the defunct legal system that is simply not in a position to resolve conflicts. This movie makes you wonder - who would be best positioned to be a compromise manager in conflict between nations-states?


* Movie - Angamaly Dairies (2017)

* Director - Lijo Jose Pellissery -

Friday, June 23, 2017

An Award Ignored

Strange are the ways of the Indian media.

A few days ago, an Indian scientist-entrepreneur based in Japan won the country's top environment award for 2017, and it was barely mentioned here. Bits of the news appeared on the web-editions of India Today and DNA, both apparently sourced from a newsfeed site called UNIIndia.

Dr. Shrihari Chandraghatgi, CEO of EcoCycle Corporation, was awarded the Environment Award for 2017 in Japan for "developing cutting edge technologies to address burning environmental problems". This award is the highest honour given every year jointly by the Ministry of Environment, Japan, National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES), Japan and The Nikkan Kogyo Shinbun (a media group). What is more,  Chandraghatgi is the first foreigner to win this award.

What exactly is the cutting edge technology developed by Chandraghatgi to address 'burning environmental problems"? According to information available at his company website, EcoCycle has developed a unique technology for environmental remediation and recycling of organic solvents in semiconductor industries. It uses microorganisims to clean the soil and groundwater contaminated with chlorinated solvents and hexavalent chromium. The company has also developed unique on-site emission analytical techniques for semiconductor industries.

India does not have a significant semiconductor industry. Much of its requirements are imported. While this may have been a reason for the rather tepid response here, it fails to see the larger picture. In one of the interviews, Chandraghatgi gives an open offer aimed at India - "Now it is my turn to work in India where large scale health problems are reported because of consuming toxic groundwater. If any organization, government or NGO, wants to take up such cause with concern of public health, I am ready to provide my technology and vast experience free!"

Will this offer be taken up in right earnest? Or will we continue to wear our blinkers and look-up towards the West - USA, Europe - technological breakthroughs that are relevant to India?


* (20Jun17) -UNI - "Agri. Microbiologist Dr Shrihari Chandraghatgi gets Japan Award"
- Dr Shrihari is currently helping Ministry of Industry, Thailand in forming environmental regulations and educate with remedial technologies.
- In 2017 he established a NGO, Kibono Hikari literally means Ray of Hope to help under privileged children in India with educational and medical support.

* (21Jun17) - IndiaToday - "Indian Agri-Microbiologist given Environment Award in Japan" -

* (21Jun17) - DNA -

* (2015) - Son's donation for Scoriosis treatment -

* EcoCycle Corporation, Japan

Friday, June 09, 2017

"Tatkal" Railway Bookings

It is amazing how the Indian railway reservation system has evolved over the last two decades.

Today I tried my hand, for the first time, at a system called "Tatkal". It is a system for last-minute bookings, for travelers who have not planned their journey in advance. The computerized system turned out to be a lot easier than expected.

I needed to make a quick trip to Mumbai, which is about 1400 km from New Delhi. There are about 20 trains connecting the two cities, giving you a wide range of options. You could start your journey at midnight, or take the last train after 11:00PM. You could cover the distance in 15.15 hrs in the fastest train, the Rajdhani Express (no. 12952), in 1st class AC comfort, for INR 4755, or reach there at a more leisurely pace in the Amritsar Express (no. 11058), which takes no less double the time - 31.15 hrs. A journey on the latter, on a 'sleeper' ticket would cost you just INR 600 (USD 9.30!).

You also realize that in the egalitarian world of Indian Railways, even the slowest train is called an "Express" :)

My travel priorities were quite straightforward:I did not want to start my journey at unearthly hours, and I waned to travel cheap. This brought down my choices to five trains, all of which were fully booked. So I opted to go for "Tatkal" which is a option that sits discreetly as a narrow banner, alongside the others: General / Ladies / Handicapped.

The first option was Paschim Express (22 hrs) and it showed 17 seats available when I logged in at 11:00AM. However, by the time I reached the payments page, the IRCTC website went into its 'daily maintenance' mode. When I returned an hour later, all the seats were gone!  The next best option seemed to be the 12284 'Nzm Ers Duronto' (20 hrs), and this too was running on a waiting list.

Now, a surprising thing happened when I opted to take a wait-listed ticket. The IRCTC servers now gave me a pop-up "Vikalp" option - in case this ticket was not confirmed, I had three other trains to choose from, all of which were the next available trains to Mumbai. This saved me the trouble of going back, retracing all the steps to make an alternate booking. Cool.

The ease with which the whole process was completed reminded me of the late 1990s when the only option was to line up at the railway reservation counters. You had to reach the station two months in advance, stand in a long line, and wait for your turn at the counter. There had been times when the bookings closed by the time I reached the window, or was shortchanged by the ticketing officers. Either way, you lost at least half a day for rail bookings.

Now, thanks to IRCTC, the online booking system has become amazingly simple. So much so that it is easy to forget that it represents just a small fraction of the effort put in by a government agency, CRIS (Centre for Railway Info Systems), to help railways carry 6 billion passengers, and 6 million tons of freight, every year!

Scope for Improvement:

* Acronyms are confusing - it would be useful to have the full-form appear on a mouse-over. Eg. Train no. 12172 s described as "HW LTT AC SF", which is no better than Morse-code. Turns out that this is "Haridwar Lokmanya Tilak Terminus Air-Conditioned Super Fast Express"!


* VIKALP Scheme -

* Raghuram (2007): Turnaround of the Indian Railways -

* Tatkal Booking Guide -

Thursday, June 08, 2017

GST Explained by the Revenue Secretary

In less than a months' time, the tax system in India will take a radical shift to a comprehensive Goods and Services Tax (GST) model. In most countries, GST is understood as a single indirect, comprehensive, broad-based consumption tax. In Singapore the GST rate is a flat 7% while in Australia, it is 10%. Other countries have a graded VAT system with different tax slabs.

The Indian model GST is going to be unique - and seems rather confusing. From 1 July 2017, we are going to have a GST with five different slabs, ranging from 0% to 28%. The norms for reporting and compliance too seems quite formidable. This impression is getting reinforced by 'expert analysis' on YouTube and the social media.

This was the background and context to a recent meeting organised by the Indian Express, to bring Dr. H. Ardhia, the Revenue Secretary himself, to interact with the pubic. It was a decidedly anxious audience  of about 400 people who assembled at IIC on 6 June, 2017.

It was a packed hall, ringed with people who could not find vacant seats. The two empty chairs on the stage were taken up Vishwanathan from IE, and Dr. Ardhia, who was described as a PhD in Yoga!

First came the big picture: The long legacy of Indirect Taxes (Customs, Excise Duty, Service Tax, VAT, Stamp Duty, Entertainment Tax, etc.,), how the division of responsibilities between the central and state governments had resulted in various inefficiencies, and how steps were taken to gradually move from VAT to a nation-wide, common GST system.

The total tax collection for FY 2015-16 was INR 14600 billion (Rs 14.60 lakh crore), of which indirect tax revenues was Rs 7.11 lakh crore and direct tax collection came in at Rs 7.48 lakh crore. In India, the ratio of direct vs. indirect taxes was 35:65 - just the opposite of what it ought to be, and the sheer absurdity of the fact that in a country of 1.2 billion people there are only 2.4 million people who earned an annual income of over INR 1 million!

A substantial part of the session was set aside for answering questions from the audience. Surprisingly there were hardly any long-winded queries - most of them were short and sharp, with matching responses from Dr. Ardhia, with a dose of good humor. At the same time, it was a bit disconcerting to note from the responses, that the Revenue-Secretary too was not entirely clear on how the government would cope with various interpretations of the GST Act 2017.

Starting from 1 June 2017, we are sure too see many months - and perhaps years - of GST-related turbulence and turmoil.


* Taxes to be subsumed in GST -

* (2017) - Dept of Revenue - collection during current year -
- 2011-12 Corporate tax 3.2 LCr -- Income Tax 1.7 LCr = Total 4.9 Lcr
- Customs 1.44 LCr -- Central Excise 1.4 LCr -- Service Tax 0.97 LCr = Total 3.9 LCr

* E&Y on GST Compliance -

* Global VAT / GST Rates -

* (2016) - Tax collection in 2015-16 exceeds target by Rs 5,000 crore -

* State Tax Revenues -
- Total for all states, 30,331 billion (30L cr)
- Top five - WBengal (4518b), AP+Telengana, UP, TN, Karnataka
- Kerala is at no.9 at INR 1382b

* (2017) Budget Explained --

* Revenue Secretary -
- Dr. Hasmukh Adhia

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Breathing Life into Statistics

There is lies, damn lies and statistics. And then there is Prof. Hans Rosling.

Rosling was Swedish specialist in Global Health, and a tireless evangelist for the cause of statistics - especially the art of presenting dull, boring numbers in stunning visualizations.

The first time I saw Rosling in action was in this TED video, made about 10 years ago:

Earlier this year, in February 2017, I was saddened to know that Rosling had died of pancreatic cancer. And today, for some reason, I found myself going through a BBC documentary on him, followed by an urge to revisit a few of the simplest statistical tools that I had learnt to use, but forgotten from disuse and disinterest, over a period of time.

While I could sail past the concept of Averages, and even wrap my head around the Normal (Poisson) Distribution, I had forgotten all about Standard Deviations (SD), Statistical Correlation and Dependence..

As explained in this video, the SD process consists of (1) collecting data (2) calculating the average/mean of the data set (3) subtracting this mean from each of the data units, and squaring the differences, (4) calculating, once again, the mean of the squared units, and, finally, (5) calculating the square-root of the 'mean of differences' to get the Standard Deviation, which tells you how diverse the numbers in your data-set are.

Why exactly do we go through this five-step process? What is the logic behind all this squaring and subtracting? I still don't know...but it does remind me that I had asked the very same question in a classroom many years ago, and failed to get a satisfactory answer. Then, as now, the whole thing seemed like a form of gymnastics with numbers.

And yet, Hans Rosling seems like the sort of guy who would have given me a clear, logical answer, and triggered in me a passion for data. How wish I had come across such a teacher, a few decades ago!


TED Video - "The Best Statistics You've Never Seen!" -

Don't Panic: The Facts About Population -

Gapminder Foundation -

Obituary (Feb., 2017) - Hans Rosling: Data visionary and educator dies aged 68 -

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Travelers to Tibet

The Great Himalayan Range has always been a formidable barrier that limited India's interaction with Tibet and China.

Unlike the North West frontier, it has not been a thoroughfare for invading armies. Instead, it has always been the doughty traders, monks and herdsmen who connected the tribes living in the Tibetan plateau to those on the vast, fertile plains of India. The rivers that cut through the plains have always always been important for us, but did we really care where exactly they originated from?

Among the 20 longest rivers in the world, five flow though in Asia. Three of these have unique names: Yang Tse (no.3, 6300km), Huang He (Yellow River, no. 6, 6464km), Mekong (no.12, 4350km). The remaining two are hyphenated because they by one name in one country, and another name as it flows into a distinctly different region - the Brahmaputra–Tsangpo (no.12, 3848km), and Indus–SĂȘnggĂȘ Zangbo (no. 19, 3610km).

Charles Allen's book, "A Mountain in Tibet" tells the fascinating story of how these hyphenations came to be. It is about a few officers and agents of the British East India Company who are obsessed by shikaar (hunting), the desire to escape boring desk-jobs, and by the lure of the Great Unknowns. These young men (most, less than 27) venture into the mountains, hoping to accurately map new places, and opening new trade routes into Asia.

People and places come alive in Allen's narratives. It starts from the earliest expeditions by Moorcroft and Hearsey, the Schlagintweits, and then, to the undercover, spying expeditions undertaken by the Bhotia pundits from Milam village in the Kumaon mountains - Nain Singh Rawat, and his clansmen. It takes you through remote mountain villages and passes (Mana, Niti, Dakeo), across the the sacred lakes of Rakas Tal and Mansarovar, to Mt. Kailas and beyond.

One common thread that runs through Allen's narratives is that if it were not for the European - mainly British -  adventurers, armed with sextants, compasses- and musical snuff-boxes -  the world would not have known anything about the Tibet, or about the real origins of the great rivers that sustain life in South Asia.

Is this really true?

Some of the oldest surviving Sanskrit texts from India are being discovered in ancient Tibetan monastries. "Mulamadhyamakakarika", a 2nd century founding texts of Mahayana Buddhism, was found in Drepung Monastry. The Lankavatara Sutra was found in the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The Bhadrakalpika Sutra, dating back to the 4th century was found in Xinjiang. An Indian monk, Bodhidharma (5-6 century CE), is recorded as being one who popularized Buddhism in China, and then on, to Japan.

Obviously, a lot of people have been going to and fro, long before the first Europeans set foot on the Himalayas. And yet, Allen would like us to believe that until his heroes stepped in, Tibet was 'unknown to the world'.

Today, in the age of Google Earth and satellite pictures, this is common knowledge that can be verified by anybody sitting in front of a laptop screen. Yet, it is intriguing to know that despite a history spanning at least 4000 years, the origin of these rivers was not common knowledge.  People living in the Indus or Bramhapurta valley may not have known that their river originated in the barren Tibetan plateau, thousands of kilometers away. Then again, in the vast web of Himalayan rivulets and streams that feed a river, is it a significant discovery to claim a single-point source?

"A Mountain in Tibet" is a really interesting book. It is also another reminder that we continue to look at ourselves through the purple blinkers worn by the Europeans, and that this will continue until we start producing great non-fiction writers who tell our side of the story.


Friday, June 02, 2017

Microwave Ovens and WiFi Routers

I never cease to wonder about the electromagnetic spectrum. Much of it is invisible to our senses, and yet, we have reached a stage when it is quite impossible to survive without it.

The microwave oven in out kitchens sends out waves at around 2.45 GHz (2,450,000,000,000 vibrations/second!), heating up food at the molecular level. The ubiquitous WiFi that keeps us connected to the internet - and the rest of the world - are "harmonized" worldwide in the 2.4 and 5GHz bands. Even without getting into the world of electronic waves that send signals across great distances (radio, satellite and space probes), getting a grip on regular household devices seems complicated enough!

Both the equipment's - the microwave oven and the WFi router - produce signals in the Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) bands that have been allotted by ITU for non-communication purposes. There seem to be 12 frequency ranges in the ISM band that ranges all the way from 6.78 MHz to 245 GHz. Out of this, home equipment like ovens and WiFi routers use the frequency range 2.45-2.5 GHz.

Since a licence is not required for equipment produced in this range, the part of the spectrum is also crowded with radio-communication services, including amateur satellite services. Thanks to this dual-use, the WiFi equipment you purchase from one country country is likely to interfere with the microwave oven imported from another country. So, if you are heating a mug of coffee in your microwave oven, your internet connection may get disrupted.

International standards - especially IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n - tries to deal with this problem:
  • 802.11a supports bandwidth up to 54 Mbps and signals in a regulated frequency spectrum around 5 GHz. More expensive, usually used by businesses. Higher frequency makes it difficult to penetrate walls, so its best for open areas.
  • 802.11b supports bandwidth up to 11 Mbps, comparable to traditional Ethernet. Usually for home networks.
  • 802.11g supports bandwidth up to 54 Mbps; uses the 2.4 GHz frequency for greater range
  • 802.11n is an improvement on 802.11g in the amount of bandwidth supported by utilizing multiple wireless signals and antennas (called MIMO technology) instead of one.

It is still mind boggling to think that we have actually figured out ways to precisely control devices that produce more than a trillion vibrations per second! How do we do it? And why is it that microwave ovens need chunky magnetrons to produce the same kind of signals that are produced by lightweight WiFi routers?

In an emergency, can I rig up my WiFi router to heat up a mug of coffee? :)



Wireless Standards -