Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tomorrow's World by Clint Laurent - Book Review

Predicting the future through Demographics!

Clint Laurent, the founder of Global Demographics Ltd attempts to predict the socio-economic future of the world in 2032, through the lens of demographics. Along with that he gives the reader an insight into the dominant trends that are emerging across different regions of the world in terms of demographic profiles, distribution of households by income, expenditure patterns and labour force. Suddenly it become obvious to you that the most critical metrics to evaluate a country are through (a) the age of the population, (b) household consumption and (c) total income of the country. And then Clint shows that how these factors change over the next 20 years, is not that difficult to predict but its effects are very contrary to what most 'experts' have been forecasting. Now, in this perspective, China and India do not look that attractive for future business growth or investment. Many other common 'truths' such as 'China's GDP needs to grow continuously to keep its population employed', 'Japan's old age population is a big challenge' , 'the young affluent are the big spenders', 'India's young population is a big asset' are shown to be largely myths of our own creation. His projection that even after 20 years India contribution to the global spending will be only 5% , is something that we should all take note off.

Clint's advice : Though there is money to be made in the East, it would be advisable to make sure that you maintain a strong base in West where the riches already exist.

The book is very impressive due to the clarity of the thought processes, effective segregation of data, proper description of sources of information, simple frameworks, and clear articulation of assumptions. Some of the important conclusions are visually highlighted with easy to understand graphs.

Only on a couple of points I find myself not happy with the author's analysis. Firstly, though we can agree that Demographics is one of the fundamental criteria to forecast a country's future (maybe as critical as how the genomic code would drive the development of an organism) , many other factors like a country's economic policies, political structure, technological innovation and global events can create dramatic changes in very short time. For example if Clint had used this model in 1970 would he have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years into the future? Or in 1990 would he have predicted where India would be in 2010? What if China blows up due to internal contradictions in the next 10 years? Secondly many of the soft factors that many countries posses do not make it into Clint's analysis. I think India has a big strength of its diaspora spread across the world - with many of them in excelling in Business, Technology & Science. If they are leveraged well, the country can jump into a next trajectory of growth (maybe as an Indian, this may be my biased hope, but i believe that this is a possibility).

The book is definitely worth reading for any one interested getting a glimpse of the future, and should be a must reading for the political leaders of countries like India. I don't think that the Indian leaders articulate to their followers that the female employment in India is only 39%, while in China it is 79%. And while they continue to disparage China's single party system, they should look at what it has done to promote education, women empowerment and so on, while in India over 50% children are undernourished and its education system is unable educate properly even a small percentage of its population. Why is a democracy unable to deliver while a 'communist' dictatorship seems to be able to deliver the goods better to the common man?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

I want my ‘Hindu law’ back……

                                                                                                                    (A Short Story)
I was in Kerala recently and came across an interesting news item in the front page of a local newspaper. All Muslim groups in Kerala had submitted a joint petition to the Indian Supreme Court requesting that the minimum marriage age for women be reduced from the current 18 years (to what age, was not specified), as per the ancient  muslim ‘Sharia law’. As can be expected this raised a storm of controversy with TV channels and the social media getting very worked up. All kinds of opinions were being aired and it was getting me very confused.

Luckily I have a good friend who knows everything – in fact we call him ‘know all’.  (He does depend on Google and always goes around with a phone or tablet in one hand – squinting with one eye on the screen while talking to you. Not that I have not tried to do the same but any search I try in Google results in millions of hits! I wonder when the folks at Google will be able to give you only what you are searching for). I got back to the U.S the following week and called my friend over to update him of these developments and get his advice.

My friend looked very thoughtful – ‘it does raise a lot of interesting possibilities’ he said.  ‘Do they say why they want this’?
‘That is not very clear’ I replied.  ‘But I think it is mainly to protect the women – the more you wait to get the girls married off, the more chances that they may not be able to control their natural urges’.
‘That is true’ agreed by friend. ‘I have also read that it is getting very dangerous in India for women to move around, without getting molested’.
‘But’ he continued, ‘they are asking this change of law only for the Muslims – right?’
‘Yes’, I replied – ‘that is why I can’t figure out why every one is so upset about this’. ‘Is this something we should fight against?’

‘Well’ said my friend ‘It is very difficult to fight against religion based demands – you will be criticized for being ‘anti-muslim’. It would be better to go with the flow. Why don’t you take advantage of the situation? Demand something based on your religion!

‘Wow!’, I was amazed at his brilliance. ‘That is very smart’.
‘I was born a Hindu – and our Hindu law goes thousands of years back’. Meanwhile my friend was squinting furiously at his screen.

‘Let me see – you used to have Child Marriage – getting the girls married off when they were 6 or 7….’
I was now getting very interested. Kids tuition bills are very high nowadays.

‘Wait – there are many strange things in your religion – caste system, untouchability – and here is something even more strange’ continued my friend  - ‘you guys used to have something called ‘Sati’ or ‘Suttee’ – widows jumping into the funeral fire of their husbands and committing suicide!’

‘Yes ‘, I agreed. ‘I remember – very cruel custom; it was originally meant to protect the women from invaders – you know India kept being invaded by many foreigners. Sati was later abolished by the British – who were also invaders.’

‘Protecting the women is off course very important.’ My friend commented.

I was now silent – a number of thoughts were rushing through my mind. I had been a little worried recently about how young my wife looked while I was looking and feeling much older. I could hear my wife in the kitchen – cooking my dinner. Though she had a full time job, she also took care of the cooking and all household chores. What would happen to her when I died? Who will protect her?.

‘What are you thinking’ my friend asked.

‘I think I want my Hindu law back’ I said. ‘We Hindus need to protect our women!’
I felt proud to be a Hindu.

The noise from the kitchen was getting louder. I wondered whether my wife had overheard our discussions.  ‘What is up my dear? Anything wrong?’ I shouted to my wife. ‘Dinner is ready, dear’ she shouted back from the kitchen. ‘I have made some special chicken curry for you – with some new herbs from Kerala’.

My friend quickly got up to leave. He was looking rather pensive as well. ‘Hey! – Not staying for dinner? ‘ I asked? ‘No – I need to go’ he mumbled. I walked him to the door. Just before stepping out, he turned back and whispered in my ear – ‘Watch out – I have read that some Kerala herbs are poisonous.’.

‘Ha, ha’ I laughed. ‘That is a good joke’. Why would my wife ever poison me? I saw my friend out and walked to the dining room with utmost confidence.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Borgias - The Hidden History by G.J.Meyer; Book Review

In Defense of the Borgias

Who are the Borgias?

Here is what Wikipedia has to say

"The Borgia family (aka Borja, Borjia and Borges) became prominent during the Renaissance in Italy. They were from Valencia, the name coming from the family fief of Borja, then in the kingdom of Aragon, in Spain.

The Borgias became prominent in ecclesiastical and political affairs in the 15th and 16th centuries, producing two popes, Alfons de Borja who ruled as Pope Calixtus III during 1455-1458 and Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, as Pope Alexander VI, during 1492-1503.

Especially during the reign of Alexander VI, they were suspected of many crimes, including adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). Because of their grasping for power, they made enemies of the Medici, the Sforza, and the Dominican friar Savonarola, among others. They were also patrons of the arts who contributed to the Renaissance.

Today they are remembered for their corrupt rule, and the name has become a synonym for libertinism, nepotism, treachery and poisoners."

Anyone would agree that this is not a very attractive description. Most of the other sources in the internet has only worse things to say. One well known site even puts Pope Calixtus III (Alfonso Borgia) among the twenty five most evil people of the 15th century. Most published books of the history of the Borgias are also in the same vein,

Now in this book, Mr.Meyer tries to set the history straight. With thorough research, excellent analysis and trying to keep a neutral line he explores how much of the legend is true and what has been made up. He quickly arrives at the conclusion that most of the terrible stories about the Borgias were made up. But then he goes to find out what were the forces acting at that time and later, to twist history and depict the Borgias in such a cruel manner.

Very well written, this story is better than many fiction that I see. Not only are the Borgias exonerated, but Meyer also gives a fascinating account of Christianity and the Church in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the history of Italian nation states like Florence, Venice, Naples, Milan as well as a host of smaller independent city states. Many chapters come with a succinct background summary - thereby giving a quick overview of the history of the church as well as the states for a few earlier centuries as well. Just reading about how the Popes were elected (this book covers about 6 elections) itself would make any Christian shudder. The lives and actions of the Popes and Cardinals will make anyone wonder how any organized religion can survive. I was reminded of Matt Ridley's statement in his book 'Irrational Optimist' on how 'Priests, Chiefs and Thieves' come into existence as soon as people start living in groups.

Some parts of the book are not an easy read - the stories get frighteningly complex with a large number of characters with similar names, fast changing alliances, numerous side stories and their different versions - that it can beat most mythological stories in complexity. But if you are interested in any of the subjects mentioned above, this book is definitely worth reading.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Interview in Future Medicine Magazine


‘Genome man’ of India

Sreekanth Ravindran | 10-March-April-2013
Detailed News

Sam Santhosh is the Chief Executive Officer of SciGenom, a genome company based in Kochi, which specialises in DNA sequencing. In an exclusive interview withFuture Medicine, he says that genomics will fuel the next revolution in medicine

By Sreekanth Ravindran

What inspired you to start SciGenom?

The completion of the first draft of the human genome by the International Human Genome Project in 2001 originally attracted me to this field. With my background in software engineering, I was intrigued by the opportunity produced through understanding and leveraging the genomic source code which is the language of life for all living beings. However, I had no connection with biology after high school and so it took a few years of reading and evening classes to get a thorough grasp of the subject. During this period, the DNA sequencing technology went through a revolution by exponentially reducing sequencing cost while increasing processing speed. For example, sequencing the first human genome took 10 years and cost about $3 billion, while, as of now, one can sequence a human genome in two weeks for $5,000.

With the advent of these new technologies called Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), I saw the opportunity of creating a company for genome sequencing and data analysis. Genomics can create dramatic changes in healthcare, agriculture, environmental protection, bio-fuel, and so on. Understanding the ‘language of life’ now is a momentous turning point just as the development of language itself for communication was a major tipping point in the history of our species about 30 to 40 thousand years ago. By deciphering the genome, humanity will be able to move to the next level of evolution.

This belief gave me the inspiration to start SciGenom– the name meaning ‘Science of the Genome’.  Though I have been living in the US for the last 20 years, I felt that with the changing global economic climate, I should start my new company in India and since I am from Kerala, I chose Kochi as the starting location.

How progressive and developed is the Indian genome industry and what are its advantages or shortcomings in comparison with the West?

The Indian genome industry is still in its infancy and has yet to fully develop. At the same time, we have many advantages compared to the West, includinglower manpower cost, strength in information technology and a growing economy which makes us unique. The disadvantages are lack of scientific leadership and research expertise, and unpredictable regulations driven by populist politics. The first can be overcome by attracting Indian NRI scientists back to India and by collaborating with other research institutions in different parts of the world. The second requires time and improvements in education throughout India.

What are the ethical issues preventing genome research companies from going the whole hog?

A critical issue is patient confidentiality and ensuring the individual understands what their genetic results mean. Another dilemma is ownership of genomic data. With advances in genetic testing for disease prediction, a major question arises over what becomes the information and who determines its use.

Tell us about your tie-ups with international companies, agencies and governmental bodies, and your areas of research. Are you faced with any policy bottlenecks?

We have research collaborations with Dr Schuster’s lab in Penn State College, Pennsylvania, and with the University of Toronto in Canada. Our areas of research are in molecular diagnostics, cancer treatment and metagenomics. In molecular diagnostics, our goal is to reduce the cost of genetic tests and make it affordable to all sections of the population. In cancer, we are looking at familial cancer and some forms of cancer that are more prevalent in India and hence have not attracted much attention in the West. In metagenomics, we are exploring the microbial communities in several water sources and soil samples to better understand the effect of bacteria and other microbes on human health and society.

Policy bottlenecks have not significantly affected our operations till date. However, some outdated rules like the restriction on sending human samples abroad as well as lack of regulations in medical diagnostics creates confusion in the field.

Were any of the Indian companies or individuals part of the international human genome project? How much of the research findings have made it to the mainstream medical practices so far and how far is India in making these solutions available to the common man?

India was not part of the original human genome sequencing project. However, CSIR sponsored Human Variome Project starting in 2003mapped variations in1,000 medically important genes across various groups in India.  Currently, India is part of the International Cancer Genome project where scientists from across the world are using sequencing technologies to understand cancer.

Research findings from the human genome project and the cancer genome projects are starting tomake personalised medicine a reality. However, given that such applications are in its infancy,it will be sometime before all the information is fully applied in mainstream practice of medicine. For those interested further on this topic I would urge them to read “The creative destruction of medicine” by DrEric Topol.

Is India lagging behind in streamlining genomic education and research? Do you have any suggestions?

India is definitely lagging behind in genomic education and research. In this regard, I have a few suggestions to make. When it comes to research, we need to follow the US model which has proved to be successful. The Indian government has already done well in the area of funding by providing large number of grants and creating public-private partnership schemes. What we need to do is attract not only NRI scientists to come back but also foreign scientists to set up labs in India and provide them sustained support with grants covering longer periods of time.

In education, we need to develop our own model. With the world’s largest youth population, poor infrastructure, lack of qualified teachers, etc we have significant challenges. One way to solve this gap is by leapfrogging over older models as we did with computers and telecommunications. We need to enable long distance learning, leveraging the internet and modifying the education system so that what the student learns matches the industry requirements. Furthermore, greater emphasis needs to be given to science – I would even recommend having a science track in MBA programmes like they have for Finance, Marketing, HR, IT etc. This will generate more business managers with a proper understanding in science who can lead our country into the next decade.

What are your future plans?

SciGenom will continue to build its current offerings in DNA sequencing, Bioinformatics and Medical Diagnostics. Later this year,we plan to spin off our medical diagnostics division (MedGenome) as a separate company with a CLIA certified central lab in Chennai and satellite labs in all major cities throughoutIndia. We plan to raise about $5M for this expansion.

Do you think India can emerge a leader in the area of genomics with its scientific manpower edge over others? How can we arrest brain-drain and make brain-gain in this field?

It will be difficult for India to take leadership in this field, but we can become a strong player if we play our cards well. At present, we don’t have an edge in scientific manpower– we lack expertise and leadership. However, brain-drain in the short term still works well for us, as we lack the facilities to teach them all, our youngsters can go out and learn in the best labs across the globe. What we need to do is to attract them back,along with already-trained NRI scientists,with advantageousopportunities in India.

We also have to have a realistic understanding of where we stand today. India, at present,has less than 5,000 qualified biology scientists in the whole country.The US, on the other hand, has that number in one of their largeruniversities and they have hundreds of such universities. Their spending on research is also astronomical compared to what we can afford. So we need to be clever in developing a strategy. It will be good for India to understand how smaller countries like South Korea and Singapore are contributing by focusing on a specific area critical to their national interest. For example, Singapore faces a shortage of fresh water – about 70 per centof it comes from Malaysia. Singapore has made it their goal to become self sufficient within the next five years. They aim to do this by achieving 100 per cent reuse of waste water, by using genomic technologies in waste water treatment. Arguably, they can achieve world leadership in that field. India can learn much from these approaches.

Do you think Indian hospital and healthcare chains are at par with their Western counterparts in the field of genomics? Is there a difference in the Indian and Western approach towards this emerging science?

Applying genomics to healthcare is new everywhere in the world. However, the Westis adopting it much faster than us but they also have their own challenges due to the more complex healthcare systems and role played by insurance companies. The problem with our approach is that we lack a clear plan. We have to make a cohesive approach taking into account our genetic heritage, diversity and challenges.

Is the common man in India aware of the real benefits of genomics? Do you think there should be awareness campaigns to generate more interest in this subject?

Even in the West, the common man has yet to become aware of the full benefits of genomics. In India, we definitely need to have awareness campaigns and other schemes for all sections of society to understand and take advantage of this knowledge. For example, farmers can breed better varieties of crops if they understand the genes that affect many of the traits that they are looking for.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Last Crusade - The epic voyages of Vasco Da Gama' by Nigel Cliff - Book Review

Journey from the end of the world!

Medieval Europe considered Lisbon in Portugal to be the end of the world. Vasco Da Gama's discovery in 1498 of the a direct sea route from Portugal to South India and his epic voyages from Lisbon to Calicut in Kerala, India marked a turning point not only in global commerce but also signaled the start of European colonialism which would convulse the world for the next many centuries. These facts are well known. However Nigel Cliff in this book clearly explains how christian religious fundamentalism also played a major role in motivating this small country of around 1 million people to undertake this fantastic endeavor in the face of high odds, as the final crusade of their centuries old war against Islam. Now it is hard to imagine that it took the English and the Dutch another 200 years to overcome the lead the Portugal established in commerce with the East through this sea route.

Vasco Da Gama is a well known figure in Kerala as well as the rest of India. Growing up in Kerala, the impression I had of Gama was that of a brave but cruel explorer out for adventure, glory and financial gain. A few books and a couple of movies on him that are available in India do not portray anything different. The local christians in Kerala maintain that the Portuguese were 'surprised' to see Christians in India and since the Kerala Christians were following the Persian (Syrian) rituals, the Portuguese fought them and burnt their churches (this did happen, but that was over a 100 years later). But Nigel Cliff paints a much different story. One of the major hopes of the Western World was to find Christian strongholds in the East and use their help in continuing their fight against Islam. Further their world view was so limited at that time (maybe even now to a large extent when you see the Christian right in mid-west US) that they imagined the all non muslims were christians! It is really funny to see Gama and his crew visiting Hindu temples in Calicut and seeing them as crude versions of Christian worship!!

The 'Last Crusade' provides a clear explanation of Gama's motives and actions, and the hatred of Muslims and Islam that led to his antagonistic behavior with the local kingdoms of Kerala who were having centuries of good relationship with Muslims. Not only Muslims, but Christians and Jews as well were enjoying a safe sanctuary in Kerala where complete religious tolerance was practiced. It will need another book to understand how in a place that supported the horrible 'caste' system of Hinduism where a large segment of the population was mentally and physically subjugated, could at the same time welcome all religious faiths from across the word and live with them in perfect harmony. One reason might have been the fact that being a small strip of land in the coastal peninsula, protected by a mountain range on one side and the mighty ocean on the other sides, only refugees or traders could come to Kerala - till the time larger ships and canons starting with Gama could venture in.

Well researched and well narrated, the Last Crusade is a good read. Definitely written from a Western point of view, it hardly covers the Indian (or Kerala) perspective. However that is understandable. But I was disappointed at the lack of maps which should have been rather easy to include. Since a significant part of the book covers the various voyages a few maps (both current and the old) would have given the reader much more enjoyment. Fortunately with wikipedia access it is not a serious problem.

Religion has played a major role in all human civilizations and unfortunately continue to do so today. In spite of generating continuous conflict and inflicting tremendous harm, it is not difficult to imagine it having helped humanity many times in the past in battling and surviving unimaginable odds where maybe only 'faith' was the final weapon. But now with a much better understanding of what we are and how we became us and our place in the Universe, it is high time that we as a species find better solutions. Books like these are good steps in the right direction for understanding our past mistakes.