Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Mistaking Action for Progress

Politicians and bureaucrats the world over have an unfortunate proclivity: they tend to react to an event by announcing some action. No matter that the action makes not even the remotest contribution towards the solution. It is important to appear to be in control by doing something. We have three instances within the last few days.

(a) Post the Headley case embarrassment, the Government had to be seen to do something. So, instead of doing something to prevent terrorists or terror suspects from entering India, they tighten visa norms of multiple-entry visa holders -- stipulating that they cannot return to India within 2 months of leaving India. So if a relative from London flies into India, and takes a 2-day detour to Dubai to meet some other relatives  based there, they cannot enter India -- unless they apply for an exemption from the new 2-month rule. Let us for a moment suppose that these people were actually here in connection with planning a terror attack. How would this new rule prevent them from carrying out their nefarious designs?

(b) Post the attempted bringing down of a plane in Detroit by a person who was on the watch list of the UK, but was yet somehow allowed to board a US-bound aircraft with incendiary material strapped to his leg, the much-vaunted strictness of the security system was exposed in the US. So what do they do? They don't try to see how it was that he was allowed to board the US-bound aircraft.

Instead, the US Department of Homeland Security now have proposed rules that passengers during even a trans-continental flight should not keep anything on their laps during the flight; and that they should not leave their seats in the last one hour of the flight. Flying and air travel are indeed becoming memorable experiences in themselves!

As it is, racial profiling and data mining in the name of security caused even a person so well-known as Shah Rukh Khan to taste the ruthless, intrusive aspect of visiting the country that embodies freedom the most. We now cannot carry a drinking water bottle through airport security even though we are supposed to check in 3 hours before an international flight (could be a liquid bomb, you know!). We have to remove our shoes for inspection to see if there could be shoe bombs secreted in them. And very soon, it is likely that the X-Rays will become clearer and privacy-violative, with operators being able to see how we are beneath our clothes (in silhouette only, we are assured!).

And finally,

(c) The brouhaha over Shashi Tharoor's latest tweets on the visa regulations tweaks. Let me add my penny's worth to this discussion where every person and his father-in-law have expressed opinions.

Methinks it all comes from the acute discomfort of the existing political class from being in the cerebral and overpoweringly articulate and insightful company of someone who narrowly missed being elected to the world's top diplomatic job.  The best way to cut him down to size is to bring him down -- by rubbishing whatever he says or does, and making him out to be undiplomatic!! Nothing to counter what Tharoor actually tweeted --
  • the 26/11 terrorists really did not enter India with visas; 
  • delaying frequent visitors by 2 months is really over the top  and as a solution bears no relation to the problem sought to be addressed;
  • the Government had already announced having gone back on it by the time Tharoor tweeted; and
  • the UK and the US had already formally lodged protests by the time Tharoor tweeted.
What Tharoor did was express a correct personal view, and publicly. He broke no protocol of any kind. In his position, he is not dis-entitled  to do what every Indian is entitled to, viz. speak his mind openly. He did not mention anyone in particular or give away state secrets -- he stated only his stand on a particular proposal that was already in the public domain. If the Government was embarrassed, it was due to the nature of their action, in all probability taken by riding roughshod over Tharoor's objections, or by keeping him out of the loop. The embarrassment cannot be ascribed to Tharoor's tweets.

Bankers' Honesty or Stupidity?


My wife recently wanted to close one of her salary accounts (opened by her former employer and not used after she changed employers). I sent my office assistant to the bank with the relevant letter and authorisation.

There was hardly any money in that savings account, but I was surprised when the assistant told me that the bank had told him to pay Rs.5 being the negative balance. I presumed it must be because of the unused cheque leaves, or some account closing charge that I was not aware of, and promptly forgot about it. But the bank did not -- they actually discovered that there still was Re.1/- in my wife's account and hence sent her a letter signed by some authorised signatory, and accompanied by a multi-city Banker's Cheque signed by no less than two bankers in the sum of Re.1/-.

I do not know whether to laud them for being so punctilious and honest, or to laugh at the system's stupidity.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The newsgathering ways of modern TV channels

Quite some time back, I remember Julia Roberts, playing a Hollywood star in Notting Hill, explaining why she was so worked up at newspaper reporters capturing embarrassing photographs – they never forget; they have dossiers, and every time anything has to be written about her in future, it would come up, or words to that effect anyway.

This article takes the example of one recent story – the confirmation of Supreme Court judge, Sonia Sotomayor, as the first lady Hispanic judge appointed to the Supreme Court, supported by the new Obama administration. All channels ran the same two clips showing her in a bad light, without giving sufficient context, and these clips were 4 and 8 years old – that were fed to all broadcasters by interested groups. The article deals in detail with how this news reached every news channel before the confirmation. Moreover, it dwells at length on the motivations of the person who dug up the clips and circulated them.

They say, no man is a hero to his valet. In similar vein, none of us would be able to stand up to this kind of scrutiny if even balanced (ie, without twisting context) clips about our past lives were to be available, kept ready and shown at the pinnacle of our careers. In the future, then, we will all have our 15 minutes of fame followed by 15 minutes of notoriety, with apologies to Andy Warhol.

This biting cartoon says it all!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Atlantic Monthly Archives -- What a Resource!

I recently came across the . What a resource! The last 15 years' Issues are available for free. This is a rich resource for the avid, inveterate reader.

Here are the URLs:  Atlantic Monthly website; Back Issues

I am glad that it is still around today, alive and kicking, when print media all over the world are struggling.

In just one day, I read what Orville Wright said to reporters immediately after his epoch-making first flight, what Churchill said to Eleanor Roosevelt over dinner, discovered Edward Lear, read about the stirring story and poem of Barbara Fritchie and many, many articles that are both, readable and informative.

Plus, it links me to literally hundreds of books that I would not otherwise read - I shall acquire and read most of them one day.

Oh! Why do we have only 24 hours in a day? Why do we need to sleep?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Who says the recession is over for the US?


The Wall Street Journal reported on 24 Nov, 2009, that one in four homeowners in the US is “underwater” – meaning that they owe more on their mortgages than their home is worth.

A full 40% of those who took a home loan in 2006 are underwater, according to this report.

Douglas McIntyre, an editor at 24/7 Wall Street writes, “The news about underwater real estate is nearly as bad for banks as it is for homeowners. Default rates and foreclosures will almost certainly continue to rise. Banks will end up owning more and more properties that they are ill suited to sell. Many of those homes will be auctioned off at a fraction of what their values were two or three years ago.

Who's saying that the worst of the recession is over for the US?

Anybody who understands human behaviour will also understand that it does not make a difference to a person under 7 feet of water to be under 9 feet, or for that matter, 25 feet of water. Enough of those borrowers, following this dictum, would have tanked up on personal loans, credit card debt and any other form of borrowing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Body Donation is easy!

 My mother passed away on Saturday afternoon.

In deference to  her oft-expressed wishes, my sister and I decided to donate her body for medical research, despite some personal misgivings, especially about whether there would be a dignified treatment of her remains. As such, there would be necessarily be no "funeral" or cremation, if this were to happen.

We had never thought of how to implement her wishes, but these were our first thoughts when we were forced to come face-to-face with her not being with us any more. We knew that eyes needed to be donated first, so we located an eye bank in Thane with the help of the nursing home. A doctor with his assistant arrived within the half-hour, during which we elevated my mother's head and placed wet cotton wool on her eyelids.

We then asked about the body donation, but no one seemed to know. We talked to three doctors whom we knew. One of them phoned up the coroner in Rajawadi Hospital and we were told that JJ Hospital is the place to go. But then, we remembered the big ruckus that had happened when one of our ex-neighbours passed away at his place of work in Mumbai, and his body was brought to Thane  (a neighbouring city) for cremation. No one allowed the cremation in Thane because he died in Mumbai. We were averse to having jurisdictional issues to deal with.

A second doctor told us the same, but a third doctor spoke to his friend in Rajiv Gandhi Medical College attached to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Memorial Hospital in Kalwa (within the Thane Municipal Corporation limits) and were told the usual procedure, and the exception procedure because it was a Saturday afternoon and the medical college would be closed, which was to deposit the body in the morgue and actually do the donation formalities on Monday morning. We decided that this seemed the most promising alternative which we woudl investigate first. We had also thought to ourselves that we would have a normal funeral if we encountered too much bureaucracy.

Since we decided to wait for 3 hours for my aunt to arrive from Pune to have one last look at her younger sister, during this time, there were discussions -- and many more misgivings. One person told us that the body would decompose over the weekend, as there were probably no proper storage facilities. Another told us that they will refuse the donation because the donation request was not pre-registered with the medical college. Then, another person asked, is it not possible to only donate a few organs so that the rest of the body can be cremated? A fourth said, why go to all this trouble? In any case, body donation is not part of  Hindu culture, so why not just go ahead and call a priest? The funeral rites require ashes, and here there will be no ashes. And so on.... I am recording all these misgivings because they will be issues raised for almost anyone proposing to do this.

The procedure, as it turned out, was simple: We were to go to the Casualty Department, meet the Casualty Medical Officer, and he would guide us about the rest of the procedure. We did that, and Dr. Gangwani, the CMO on duty, told us that we would have to pay Rs.100 for 2 days of renting a controlled temperature compartment in the mortuary to store the body. On making that payment, the morgue would accept and store the body. (That was more than one misgiving out of the way). We told him that we will be back in 2-3 hours, and hurried back to the nursing home. Later that evening, we gave a copy of the death certificate, paid the fee, and on the strength of that receipt, got an entry made in the Bodies Received register maintained by Security, and we were allowed to deposit the body in the mortuary, which was surprisingly clean and odor-free except for a certain staleness due to its being closed. This whole process took no more than 20 minutes. It took longer than that for all those who accompanied the ambulance to pay their final respects.
On Monday morning, my sister and I came at 10 am to the Anatomy Department of the Medical College, who gave us a form of an affidavit in Marathi that we had to execute on Rs.100 stamp paper, which took us around 35 minutes outside the nearby District Sessions Court. Another 10 minutes to get it notarised before a Notary Public and we were back at the Anatomy Department before 11 am. It took us 10 minutes for the polite Dr Anagha Apte at the Anatomy Department to fill out, get signed and give us a Certificate for Body Donation. That was done and finished by 11:15. That was all!

I found that they also have a facility of pre-registering for body donation -- they will issue the donor a Body Donation Card, which will make the procedure even simpler. That records the intent before death.

While I was waiting for the certificate, I saw some old newspaper clippings about body donation, which explained that any organs good enough to use for transplantation would be "harvested" first; including the skin for grafts for burns victims. The rest of the body would then be used to teach dissection to medical students, and later the skeleton and any other body parts not suitable for transplantation would be preserved in formalin for benefit of students.

One of the doctors I was talking to told me that technology existed to shave the cornea into three layers, and use each layer for grafting to three different patients, so a pair of eyes with good corneas could restore sight to as many as six persons!

I have decided that I shall do the same, following my Mother's last lesson imparted by personal example.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

When Technology Runs Ahead of Laws and Ethics

Ever since safe abortions were made possible and test-tube babies happened, our laws and ethics are being left hopelessly behind by technology.
I wonder why all these people are seduced by technology into uncharted moral and legal waters when a perfectly acceptable solution called adoption exists?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Did you know what artificial strawberry flavouring contains?

Just read this in a 2001 Issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

A typical artificial strawberry flavor, like the kind found in a strawberry milk shake, contains the following ingredients: amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone (10 percent solution in alcohol), a-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, g-undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent.

Yummy, isn't it?

Monday, November 02, 2009

How small is a carbon atom?

Here's a fantastic, interactive way of trying to comprehend the relative size of a coffee bean and a carbon atom, and several other things in between. Just slide the slider control to the right slowly.

PS: there are several other equally beautiful interactive applications on that same site. A must for the precocious primary school kid and for slow higher-secondary kids.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A fresh way to take the salt out of seawater

Sounds too good to be true. But if it is, it can change the world as we know it.

Deserts can bloom, and the world can have all the fresh water it needs, where it is needed.

An article in The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/14743791) outlines a new technology simpler, cheaper, and much less energy-gobbling than reverse osmosis, the pre-dominant desalination technology currently in use.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I recently got an email listing 31 things that those who grew up in the '60s through the '80s would feel nostalgic about.

I added my own list of 25 items, given below:
1. In short recess at school, those of us who had 5 paise to 25 paise pocket money enjoyed buying red-and-white bubble gum dispensed from the top of a thick bamboo. The rest of us acted as if we hated the stuff.
2. Sometimes, some of our classmates would saunter back to class minutes after the bell went off after enjoying jeera goli and having the jam-like red churan jelly smeared on our faces.
3. Some of us also enjoyed thin slices of raw mango with salt and chilli powder.
4. No Lays, no Kurkure, no bottled water. We drank straight from the tap, and had no stomach upsets.
5. No coaching classes till Class IX at least.
6. School-bags were canvas, and lasted 3-5 years. If they tore or the seams gave way, we got them repaired/stitched from the cobbler.
7. We cheerfully walked kilometres to and from school, and then, immediately after our return, went out to play.
8. Outdoor games with simple props included a variety of marble games, including one with heavy iron balls as marbles; usually we use cement marbles (3 for 10p), not glass. We also played with catapults ("catties").
9. Sparrows were more plentiful than crows and pigeons. When is the last you saw a sparrow in Bombay?
10. We still had coconut trees to climb in Bombay.
11. Our parents usually had enough money to last till the next salary, though the mind boggles on how Mom made both ends meet, what with 3-figure salaries being quite common. Yet they had enough to spare for donating for causes like cyclone relief, earthquake relief, etc. through schools.
12. Cutex nail polish, Cuticura or Ponds Dreamflower talcum powder and Tata Eau-de-cologne were the mega-cosmetics brands. Who remembers Patanwala ka Afghan Snow, regularly advertised on radio?
13. Those of us whose Dads shaved regularly saw them sporting nicks equally regularly. After-shave treatment was not lotions, but a piece of alum. Some of us had Dads who were satisfied with shaving soap or even bath soap doing double duty, to save on shaving cream. No shaving foam.
14. No computers, no video games, no playstations or wii-s. Instead, we had miniature pinball, magic "disappearing egg", and a game where we arranged numbers 1-15 by moving square pieces using the sole blank spot on a 4x4 matrix. Another one involved putting 5 tiny iron balls into the innermost concentric circle all at a time.
15. We played barefoot, or at most, with chappals. No sneakers, walking shoes and running shoes.
16. The area around the apartment buildings was open -- hardly any cars were parked because very few people had cars.
17. There were at least a few bungalows/ independent houses in each locality in Bombay. They have all but disappeared in Bombay.
18. No swimming pools (except municipal), no basements. Some enclosed garages so you could lock your car out of sight of your envious neighbours' eyes.
19. 100% cotton was much cheaper than terry-cot or synthetics; and we hardly had ready-mades. Everyone had a fixed, favourite tailor.
20. Ready-made Shirts made of cotton gauze (!!) (fashionably called cheese-cotton) were available at Handloom House in Mumbai (since burnt down).
21. Clothes with multiple colours that ran -- "bleeding madras", I think it was called, were also in fashion.
22. Who can forget "double-knit" pant pieces smuggled from Japan sold by the neighbourhood tout?
23. Radio mostly meant Vividhbharati, Bombay A or Bombay B on Medium Wave.
24. Sunday morning 11 am was Bournvita Quiz Contest time on Vividhbharati, with Hameed Sayani, and after his death, Ameen Sayani compering the show. The timer's tick-tock still rings in my ears, and we had great fun when we knew the answer, but the team on radio did not. We kept repeating it, till we were told the answer -- as if they could hear us!
25. Listening to Voice of America or BBC Radio when conditions were just right, at night on shortwave, was another treat.

Monday, October 26, 2009

My experience at the Passport Office, Thane

Was simply superb. I had visited the office to apply for a duplicate passport as I had lost my passport. The process was smooth. Very similar to the system for grant of US visa. The applicant has to fill up a form online, and she gets an appointment. She has to print out the form and carry the same with her. Token numbers are allotted at the outset, after a quick confirmation that all necessary documents are attached. (This process could get a bit friendlier and better-managed, though). Then, one waits for one's turn in an air-conditioned hall. The most one has to wait is about 45 mins to 1 hour, if you have got the token number before 11 am. The important thing is, you know where you are relative to those being served; and you know that the first-come-first-served rule is being scrupulously followed.

Then, a week after I had applied (not tatkal; ordinary class), I found my lost passport. So I wanted the process of issue of new passport to be cancelled. This was an exception process, and I expected it to be a bit of heavy weather. I was surprised there, too.

I enquired at the enquiry counter (there was a queue there too, but I was early, so it did not trouble me). I was directed to meet the Asst Passport Officer in a particular cabin. The Officer concerned (R Vijaykumar) was exceedingly soft-spoken and polite. I saw that he treated everyone the same way. He told me that he would have to check the status of my application; if it was already marked on their record as lost, then I would have to address to him a letter along with my old passport, and request that both passports (old and new) be returned, so that the visas in the old one remained valid. Else, he would cancel the process.

As it turned out, even though it was barely a week since the application for new passport was filed by me, the passport had already been marked as lost on their record, so I submitted the letter and got an acknowledgement on a copy thereof, and was out of the office in little over than 90 minutes, including the time to procure blank paper, write the letter, photocopy it, etc..

I now am looking forward for this process to smoothly complete without any hitch.

India is on the move, and I am proud to be an Indian. I am proud to say that at least some Government departments are getting more efficient and less corrupt.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Shocking -- Rape Victims Denied Recourse to Court in the USA

Republicans are opposing an amendment to deny government contracts to companies that force their employees to accept binding, mandatory arbitration; i.e., forgo their right to go to court, including, inter alia, women who are alleging that they have been raped, assaulted, etc.. Why is such a salutary provision being opposed? Because the companies that would be hurt the most would be Halliburton and KBR, the contractors who have got uncounted billions worth of US taxpayers' moneys to support the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has come out that several women have alleged gang rape by male employees of these contractors, and all these cases have been hushed up by the mandatory binding arbitration. See this devastating cross-questioning of a KBR attorney by a Sen Frank Allen.

It is difficult to believe that in a country that prides itself on upholding human rights that this can be allowed to happen.

It has taken 10 years of war for this state of affairs to emerge into the public domain in any meaningful way other than armchair discussions.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Some advice I gave today

Exchanged email with a young girl, who is still in her first job, and was a colleague a few years ago.  She showed very good command over English in her brief emails.

She had given up her pursuit of a Masters degree in her discipline, and had stated on another PG degree. I thought she was a bit too casual about her career choice, so I gave her some unsolicited advice. I wrote: 

I am ANGRY at your being so casual (or so it seems!) about your career. Even if it is unsolicited, I will write some things below which I hope you take constructively.

There are two parts to getting the benefit of any learning:
(1) Learn the stuff. That, to some extent, you have done.
(2) Get an external "Stamp of Approval". That is what the Masters would be for you.

Why is it required? you may ask. Again, 2 major reasons:
(1) When you learn, you get theoretical insights into the practical stuff you do, which can surprise you. Sometimes, you will get moments when, involuntarily, you go, "Aha !!!" -- this is worth much more than the fees -- because at that moment, some part of your understanding deepensor broadens, PERMANENTLY.

(2) No organization is worth getting "hooked on" to; i.e., do not fall into the trap of being dependent on any organization. For you to be 'mobile' if needed in your job, you have to have your resume attractive enough to get another job very soon. Organisations are never worth being loyal to. Choose a fine husband, and be loyal to him. That is fine. But never fall in love with organizations.

Your interest in, and command over written English is a rare gem: nurture it. There will ALWAYS be demand for someone who can write and speak good English.

If you want to move into another sphere, by all means, do so. But remember, you will start at the bottom of a new ladder. ... So decide what you want to do, and then be willing to slog for a few years.

Have you started writing? Why don't you blog regularly, and send me a link? I would like to see your thoughts once in a while.

And then I sent her a link to this blog, saying that I got satisfaction in writing it, even though nobody read it!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

IPR takes centrestage in WTO dispute on cotton subsidies

The developed world is learning that the legal framework supporting and honouring the western IPR regime in a developing country cannot be taken for granted.

Brazil has been permitted by the WTO to retaliate against the injustice done to their cotton farmers by the generous subsidies doled out by the US to their cotton farmers, making it possible for them to undercut and underprice the cotton. And what form is this retaliation taking? Not new anti-dumping on US imports, or trade embargoes. 

Brazil has been permitted to allow their country's pharmaceutical companies to manufacture medicines in Brazil in deliberate violation of patents held by US companies. This one is a below-the-belt hit for the vibrant US pharma industry. Brazil is a huge market, and very lucrative too. All the lucre will disappear overnight in their Brazilian operations, if this were allowed.

This is very unfair, or very fair, depending on your point of view. 

For US companies, it will seem very unfair, because, for no fault of theirs, they are losing patent protection in a lucrative, large market (there aren't too many of those nowadays!). 

However, Brazil, and most of sub-Saharan Africa, which includes really poor countries like Chad, Mali, Liberia and Burkina Faso, will be cheering. They have cotton they cannot sell thanks to under-priced US cotton flooding international markets; they don't have factories that can add value to the cotton; and they have huge AIDS affected populations. Their cotton farmers and the AIDS patients will like the prospect of better times ahead.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nobel for Obama -- Definitely Premature; Possibly Immature

First, for sure, the Nobel Committee has lowered the prestige by choosing an awardee based on hope for what he could do, than what he has actually done. 

Second, it is a travesty of the original intent of the Prize -- the Commander-in-Chief of an army that is involved in two high-profile, high-casualty wars, is rattling sabres against yet another state (Iran), and is continually complicit and involved in the happenings in Israel/West Bank/Gaza and Pakistan, other nations not at peace, is awarded the Peace Prize. And how do they conduct the wars? They have minimal on-the-ground presence, but pummell people who they call "insurgents" and "the enemy" on defenceless people on the ground, using unmanned drone aircraft. 

Third, the decision is the result of Groupthink, I am sure. I doubt if, privately, any of the Nobel Committee members agrees about the award, though they decided otherwise in the Committee.

Nothing's changed!

See the 2008 story of Andrew Hall's compensation here. And another story

He indicated that he would  move back to his roots -- UK -- if he does not get his dues, because the whole of America is balking at paying his eye-popping profit-share in commodities trading. So guess what, Citi has sold off Phibro rather than handle the controversy and embarrassment of paying him $100Mn when they still haven't repaid the Government bailout money. Now, Occidental Petroleum, the buyer, will have to handle the embarrassment. He's that valuable!  Is he, really?? 

True, his bets have gone right much more than they have gone wrong. What if they had failed? Would his employer be able to claw back the losses from his past pay? 

The inability to rein in "star traders" such as Hall  and "star-CEOs" is one of the biggest continuing governance failures that the developed world has still to get its hands around. 

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Article on Geographical Indications in Business Line

Please see my article in Business Line on Geographical Indications, a form of Intellectual Property Protection, published in the Opinion Section in the Issue dated 3rd October, 2009.

My articles in Business Line Opinion Page

On this post, you will see links to my Opinion Page pieces published in Business Line. Three Finance articles were written through 2008 even as the unprecedented banking crisis in the US and the rest of the world developed. As we know now, the crisis rapidly grew into a global recession.

The links to the individual articles are given below: