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 ( 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: