September 26, 2010

On My Niger Trip...Al Qaeda..Military Coups..and Charming Diplomats

I was in Niger these last couple of days. Stayed at the Hotel Gaweye in Niamey.
Staying with us at the Gaweye, was a largish contingent of French Military Troops and a sizable number of foreign correspondents tracing the unfolding hostage scenario there.

Suspected to be behind the abduction of Seven hostages including five French nationals is the Al-Qaeda Islamic Maghrim (AQIM) headed by Abu Zaid. France of course has a rathe large contingent of Expats staying and working with Niger which has large uranium reserves currenty being exploited by Areva  Inc. some of the hostages are indeed working for  this French Nuclear Energy Firm.

Not too far back in the past there was a bloodless (IIRC) military coup that unseated the former President  and placed him under house arrest, leaving the governemnt to be run by top bureaucrats and Military Junta, from my reading of the ground there, it seems a quite peaceful and seamless transition to democracy will happen by sometime  next June (2011).

Met one such top bureaucrat  along with a business partner over Dinner at the rather fancy "Le Pilier" (even though the restaurant was choc full and we had to make do with sitting outside in the open air section on a rather sultry evening). The man was a real charmer and explained over a rather excellent Italian dinner, how despite the Miltary coup, Niger was amongst the most democratised and peaceful societies in Africa with a track record of policy continuity despite government shifts.

Here's hoping he's right, coz IMHO Niger seems to be a really excitng place to do business.

September 18, 2010

On Countries visited so far...and in the future

Ok so with a count++ on the list of countries I've been to accomplished as a result of shifting base from Cotonou to Ouagadougou, let me enumerate the countries I've visited so far. For sake of clarity let us exclude airports transitted and stick to thos countries where I've atleast:
1) Stayed a night at a hotel/ friends place
2) Spoken to atleast 10 locals and interacted meaningfully with at least 3 locals to get their views on what works and does not in their country
3) Had a meal at a restaurant
4) Done business/ had professional interaction
5) Done something fun

So Kenya is out of my discussion on counts #1&4 .

The countries that qualify as visited :
India, Singapore, Indonesia, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Nigeria and latest addition to the list : Burkina Faso

The counties I hope to add soon to the list:
Am hoping to add Niger (probability- 1) &amp [ Update : Already visited Niger!!] ; Cote d'ivoire( probability - 0.9)and to lower probabilities Chad & Cameroon to this list pretty soon. On my wish list but with undefined probabilities in order of wishfulness are - China, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Japan,USA / Canada, UK, Malaysia , Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Algeria,France, Italy, Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, Ethiopia, Algeria, Denmark, Netherlands and Korea rounding this list to a nice round figure of 40.

Now would be thrilled if this list was attained by the age of 35 but will settle for 40 as well .

More on what I've seen and why these countries in particular on demand ( just leave a comment) , time permitting...

September 14, 2010

On the Common Wealth Games Delhi 2010.. and it's Anthem

Everything to do with the CWG games is now controversial.

Preparations for the games have been mired by  corruption, tardiness, inane media hoopla and what not. Sittng here in Africa, I am luckily not overly subjected to our amoebic intelligence level mainstream media(MSM). However, we do get a couple of news channels that I tune into once in a while, and what depresses me more than the stories is the journalism - it ain't yellow any more buddy, but some sickly colour inconsistent with proper digestion and the smell is beyond nauseating!

But when copious amounts of Bio waste were being hurled at one of my heroes A R Rahman for his contribution to the games, I did take notice. Twitterers/ Tweeters /Twitters/ Twits were actively tweeting on same too and I cottoned on to the fact that "apparently" ARR's latest effort for the CWG anthem was (1) a real dud, (2) cost the exchequer in the vicinity of 5 Crores which is outrageous and that (3) he handed in his submission late, well past the deadline too boot!

My thoughts on this:

(1) It's not a dud , Rahman's melodies grow on you. The world danced to " Jai Ho! " didn't it?..Was it his best effort?- Not by a long long shot and that from me a self confessed absolute lover of anything that ARR dishes out. If albums like " Gentleman " (which first catapulted Rahman to glory IIRC?) and "Roja" (OMFG what an album!!) hit you immediately with their awesomeness, then equally with Rahman you have efforts like "Rangeela", "Minsaara Kanavu / Sapnay", "Daud", "The Legend of Bhagat Singh","Lagaan" - OK, so the list is going to get reaalllly long here so let me sum it up by saying- and a gazillion others that on a first suno sound like as if ARR's lost his touch but after a couple of days (or after a couple of more hears) suddenly- WHAAMM!!! the songs take over your brain and nothing  goes on in your head other than his melodies. The CWG anthem falls  into the first category for me, but, if you dont like it yet.. you will.. just wait and watch !!!

(2) 5 Crores for this particular anthem. About a million dollars? Maaan that's probably the only money that the CWG committee can slap their chests with pride and say they've spent well. This anthem is worth its weight in Rhodium ( I AM a metallurgist by education, and have to show off once in a while no?) and you're crazy if you think Rahman overcharged the GoI for his effort

(3) OK with the state of readiness for the games what they are ..are you (MSM..that's you in particular) seriously expecting a bloke sitting here in Africa like me to buy into this again nauseous colored and smelling bio substance ????

Enough said on that. To finish off:

A R Rahman is GOD level
The CWG Anthem Rocks Big Time
Hope the CWG itself lives up to the standard of excellence set for it by ARR with his composition
It's all I'm humming all day nowadays (Click on the title of this blog post to hear it yourself , AND the official video is really good as well ! )

September 05, 2010

On Mir Publishing house

Back when I was schooling in Chennai, books from MIR publishers were the rage..they'd dominate book fairs at our schools and at such dos I'd usually return home with bagful of goodiees from the house of MIR.

Of course my introduction to MIR happened much earlier with the magazine Misha(Are they not from MIR?..can't be sure but I think so!) and of course, an awesome book I'd read as a kid call "When Daddy was a little boy"

But this post to share my gratitude to two books in particular:

The first called " Barankin's Fantasy World", a rather large sized hard bound tome gifted to me by my Mama (who is a big shot Gyn-obs doc at Chidambaram) when we used to stay in Adyar.The exact timeframe eludes me, but this was definitely before I was in my 4th standard. Written by Valeri Medvedev the book is actually two novels individually named "Be a man Barankin" and a part two by the name "The super-adventures of a Cosmonaut".This book shaped my attitude towards learning. A review here is meaningless , go find the book and read it to understand its awesomeness!!

The second one is another hard bound (though significantly smaller in size) tome called "Tales about Metals" by S Venetsky.Again given to me around the same time by Mama. Now, this particular book, is no book for a fourth standard (or lower) kid,but, even as a youngster, this book was an awesome read with amazing trivia and snapshots of how various metals were discovered, profiles of their discoverers, how metals are mined, refined, their interesting properties and uses. Did it shape my ultimate desire to become a metallurgist?..I think so.

The next time I re-read this book was when I was in junior college, in Eleventh standard , the book was given to me by my Chemistry teacher Padmini Iyer maam (I'd lost my copy by this time and was thrilled to see it again) along with a lot of other reading material,when she handpicked a team of three of us to represent Hindu Junior College at the prestigious national level Prof. Brahm Prakash memorial Metallurgy and Materials Quiz. This quiz has local quizzes organised at the IITs/ other prestigious engineering colleges [The Pune venue has been COEP for a few years (and maybe still remains?) and I remember helping my Quizzing and College super senior Niranjan Pedanekar organise the very first Pune leg of this Quiz at the TRDDC when I was later studying Metallurgy at COEP] by the local chapters of the Indian Institute of Metals with the top two winners at each of the local quizzes going to the national finals usually held at a prestigious Research Institution. In my year, we'd won the Chennai chapter quiz which was organised at IIT Madras ( and this was also the first time I seriously considered that it would be fun to study at an IIT) and had gone to the National finals at the awesome IGCAR Kalpakkam Nuclear Plant (where we did reasonably well but didn't win the national title..though we did rub shoulders with the absolute who's who of the Indian Materials science establishment and made it to local televison to boot,and from here on in I wanted to be nothing but a materials scientist -DO NOT ask me why i'm selling food products in Africa today)

These books are a must read.

Again when I was prepping for IIT (not really as hard as I should have but still!), MIR books by Irodov & a host of other Russian authors were irreplaceable in my preparation.

When in Engineering my introduction to Superconducting Materials and their physics, Quantum Mechanics & quantum chemistry, Applied Mechanics, Plasma physics etc. were all largely again due to MIR books. While at COEP we had a huge number of book fairs at the IE convention hall across from our hostel gate with again a fair representation of scientific titles from the MIR stable. I had amassed a huge trunk full of the most excellent and treasured books over four years ( a trunk that unfortunately was stolen before I quit college by one of our hostel peons , the b!@%#$d must have sold them as scrap to make a few bucks and entertain his friends with booze on a weekend - one of the greatest losses i've suffered in my life)

Anyways, on teacher's day, my thanks to MIR publishing house for providing me with a huge number of my most influential teachers

September 01, 2010

On Democracy in Africa and the future of its Economy

For the longest time I've been meaning to pen my thoughts on the phenomenon of country after country in Africa celebrating their 50th Anniversary of Independence. It has been close to two years now that I've been residing in Cotonou, a port city in a country called Benin in West Africa. Benin celebrated it's 50th Anniversary of Independence from France on the 1st of August 2010. No less than fourteen countries ceased to be French colonies in 1960.The very same year,Belgian Congo became the independent republic of Zaire , and Somalia and Nigeria ceased to be part of the British Raj. With a billion plus inhabitants, massively well endowed with mineral resources and agricultural potential, and increasingly better governance, Africa is clearly the next big thing. May I humbly be the first to submit that Africa and its Billion be compared favourably in terms of its potential growth story with the other two billions that every commentator/wise ass with an opinion tirelessly fails to talk about viz. India and China. With abundant land, adequate water resources and more than adequate mineral resources (I'm reasonably confident that on a per capita basis Africa scores comfortably over India and China on each of these parameters) all Africa needs to be the next engine of world economic growth is access to good education and effective governance. On both these counts, I'm optimistic and believe that things are only improving.

Already in terms of GDP growth rate , African countries rank right up there. Have a look at the World GDP growth Rate comparison Map.Of the 54 recognized states that comprise Africa no less than 39 States figure in the top 100 fastest growing economies of the World ( Real GDP growth). Ethiopia one of the fastest growing GDPs in Africa clocks in at a nifty 5th , just ahead of India's 6th place and just behind China's 4th place. While South Africa remains the largest GDP in both real and PPP terms; countries like Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria aren't too far behind. All of these are vibrant and dynamic economies (South Africa included). Nigeria for example, with it's large population is an economy that drives or at the very least indirectly boosts the economy of several neighbouring countries like Benin, Niger, Cameroon,etc.

So the economic future of Africa, but for the rascally of its political classes, is well and truly something to watch out for.

The questions that go begging then, at this stage of the discussion, are quite clearly-What is the political scenario in these economies? How do they fare in terms of Governance? What is the score on poverty alleviance? How thus far, have governments here fared on social welfare metrics and indeed, on health care?

Answering these questions will surely deserve a more involved and better researched post than this one,but, for the moment , let me cap this article by coining an acronym rather akin to the famous BRICS but with fewer letters , it's one that's already familiar albeit in a different sphere but one that to my mind bears an important guiding light to the future of the world economy.

That acronym is CIA - or China, India and Africa. This is the new CIA of shifting  world economic power. If this century is storied as the Asian Century, then barring human annihilation I can safely wager my all without an ounce of doubt that the next century will be the African Century.

Maybe CARIBINS to include Brazil, Russia, Indonesia & South Africa ? Dunno..but this is going to surely have more follow up posts that's a promise!!