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Yearly Archives: 2015

Spreading the Sunshine 1: A New Year Message

Even today, in the first half of the twenty-first century, thousands of villages in Africa and Asia (mainly in India) remain off-grid and have no access to electricity. Ever since a three-month stay in Kenya and Tanzania in 1985,  I have dreamt of bringing solar lighting to the smallest villages on these two continents. In Kenya I was astounded to see that, as early as 1985, a few rural families had bought individual solar panels connected to used car batteries to power a single light bulb and the occasional television set. They did this because they had no hope of access to grid electricity in their lifetimes. It’s even more astounding to think that in affluent countries today, the majority of people who drive $ 20,000 cars consider solar power unaffordable without government subsidies. No wonder the world is hotting up! Such economic calculations show how skewed our thinking is.

Of course it was obvious that this journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Less obvious was what this first step should be. Mhairi made the first step on a recent (November 2015) visit to a village on the outskirts of a tiger sanctuary in Rajasthan. She made contact with the owner of a handicrafts shop on the edge of the Ranthambore national forest and tiger reserve who helps village craftswomen earn a living by marketing the beautiful tiger paintings, patchwork quilts with mirror designs and appliqué fabrics they make. Dharamveer was thrilled to hear about the idea of installing solar lighting for the nearby villages. He immediately took us to visit three of the 10 surrounding villages. These villagers have limited or no access to electricity. Even the few homes connected to the grid have power only 2 or 3 days a week, so they end up spending 2 to 3 hundred rupees a month on electricity bills or on kerosene for inadequate lighting with lamps. The proposal to pre-finance solar lamps for each household in the village was met with much enthusiasm. They were quite willing to pay 200 to 300 rupees a month for reliable solar lighting. And they were delighted to hear that, at a price of just 499 rupees (US $ 7 at current exchange rates), the lamps would belong to them within three months. Apart from the environmental costs of burning kerosene, the biggest drawbacks are cost and inadequate light for children studying or doing homework.

The Pico lamp, US $ 7 with a 2-year guarantee.

The Pico lamp, US $ 7 with a 2-year guarantee.

The idea we propose is quite simple. We plan to finance around one hundred of these solar lamps initially, to be distributed to a number of households in the ten target villages. Presumably they will be paid for in 3 months from the money the villagers save from their kerosene and electricity bills. We will request voluntary contributions for another 2 months and use the extra money to expand the circle of recipients till all households in the villages are covered. After which one can think of more elaborate systems, for example, like the model shown here that costs 7000 rupees or US $ 100 at today’s exchange rates. Greenlight is a for-profit company started in the US by three engineers, two American and one Indian. Their products have received good reviews in the international press.

The Sun King Home 120 is priced at approx US $ 100.

The Sun King Home 120 is priced at approx US $ 100, can power USB devices and mobile phones.

We have decided on Greenlight’s Sun King model range, based only on our own internet research and news reports. Readers of this blog are invited to give feedback or share their own experiences with different models. I can envisage offering a range of different systems based on cost and reliability. I look forward to hearing from you.

For more by this author, see his Amazon page here.

Deeg: The Palace that Time Forgot

A pleasure garden in a timeless corner of a forgotten palace. Deeg did not much impact the history of the wider world outside, but in this palace can be seen glimpses of the glory it reflected after Suraj Mal’s victories over the Mughal emperors and conquest of Delhi. He brought back several buildings entire, marble and all, cut into numbered blocks and skilfully reassembled in his palace grounds. The seams are invisible, and the buildings include Nur Jahan’s favorite marble perch from which she presumably contemplated the blue flowing waters of the Yamuna River. Today that truly is a dream.

A timeless pleasure garden in a forgotten palace

A timeless pleasure garden in a forgotten palace

The Maharaja's pet tiger lived in adjoining quarters

The Maharaja’s pet tiger lived in adjoining quarters

What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to lie down and stare...

What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to lie down and stare…

The artisanal excellence embodied in the Taj Mahal is to be found here too

The artisanal excellence embodied in the Taj Mahal is to be found here too

Doorways to Neverland

Doorways to Neverland

Three thousand fountains powered by gravity feed from tanks with water from the River Jamuna still flow twice a year.

Three thousand fountains powered by gravity feed from tanks with water from the River Yamuna still flow twice a year.

For more by this author, see his Amazon page here.

The Banquet and afterwards…

The wedding banquet was a long drawn out affair that began at seven in the evening in a brightly lit and freshly decorated marriage garden. Guests trundled in from 7.30 on, with a constant stream of arrivals greeting friends and relatives. Street food was prepared fresh by a handful of cooks who constantly replenished the buffet tables. Small molded plates were available, pressed from the large dried leaves of a local tree, the ultimate in recyclable convenience. Marriage gardens are a big business in India, by the way, and even the most modest ones enjoy a healthy cash flow, while upmarket ones in urban areas are more like themed parks that can cost € 50,000 a night or more. It was mind-boggling for me to think of the amounts of money being spent on the most lavish weddings. In contrast, the one we attended in Agra was a masterpiece of careful budgeting that looked three times more expensive than it actually did.

The ultimate in re-cyclability: compressed leaf bowls

The ultimate in recyclability: compressed leaf bowls

Delicious street food made to order

Delicious street food made to order on demand

While all this cooking, eating and socialising went on in the marriage garden, the groom arrived in a carriage drawn by two white horses, accompanied by lights and music. A short while later, bride and groom mounted a raised platform where the actual ceremony is to take place. Traditional Indian weddings are a delight for the guests, who enjoy hours of free food and fraternity, while the bride and groom endure a long drawn out ceremony dictated by religious rites and countless local traditions. The couple are finally wedded at dawn, by this time numbed to exhaustion. This could be a reason why arranged marriages last and divorces are rare. However, as traditions die out, there are many signs of change.

The groom arrives in a horse drawn carriage

The groom arrives in a horse drawn carriage

The raised platform on which the exhausted couple will finally be wed.

The raised platform on which the exhausted couple will finally be wed.

Signs of change next morning everywhere, ubiquitous cell-phones, ads for online shopping, fat cars muscling their way into narrow, overcrowded streets. But after last night’s banquet, we will rest a couple of hours and then drive to Deeg, the palace that time forgot. More in the next blog.

Monkey Business at an Indian Wedding

We were privileged to attend a traditional Indian wedding at a marriage hall in Agra, just a stone’s throw away from the Taj Mahal. The chief cook was busy with two assistants in a couple of small enclosures adjacent to the main hall. They labored over a gas cooking fire, preparing sweetmeats and the main meal for the 300 guests expected to attend. Watching over the cooking fires perched on an adjacent wall were two handsome gray langurs who occasionally bared their teeth at someone or something in the distance.

Watching over the cooking fires: Hanuman Langurs

Watching over the cooking fires: Hanuman Langurs

They were watching over the cooking fires and keeping a troop of a dozen marauding rhesus macaques at bay. The two langurs belonged to the cook who kept them as pets for this very purpose.

Not invited to the banquet: Rhesus Macaques

Not invited to the banquet: Rhesus Macaques

These itinerant cooks are specialists who travel around during the wedding season carrying their large cast-iron vats, giant ladles and woks. They are in great demand during the wedding season from November till July, and are often booked out months in advance. They can churn out meals for hundreds at a couple of days notice.  A preliminary tasting convinced us it would be a meal to look forward to. More details after tonight’s banquet.

Saving Trees: Grace in the South China Sea as a Kindle edition

20140926_180742“Grace in the South China Sea,” is now available as an e-book on Kindle. For copyright reasons, it won’t appear on the i-Tunes bookstore or Google Play books for 3 months, till mid-February. Potential readers are encouraged to buy the electronic edition rather than the paperback. One, it’s much cheaper, at US $ 3.21 (€3, or £2.30 at various Amazon sites), as opposed to $10.63 plus postage. Two, no trees have to die for the sake of a few hours of escapist reading pleasure. Hint. Trees play an important part in the story.



For more by this author, see the Amazon page here.

Why Fossil Fuels are for Dinosaurs

Pity the poor middle management engineers at Volkswagen who are getting it in the neck for doing what their bosses told them to do, either explicitly or implicitly. There is a tremendous pool of superb engineering expertise at VW and at all the hundreds, if not thousands of ancillary companies worldwide that provide VW with components for the range of cars produced by the group. For decades they have been honing their skills, shaving ever-decreasing slivers of efficiency out of a mature technology that has been continuously refined for more than a hundred years. And now this technology has reached the end of a glorious innings. The automobile, driven by the internal combustion engine, has changed the face of the earth, has transformed the lives of every one of us. Let’s stand up and pay homage to all the brilliant men and women who developed and refined this means of individual transportation that gave us so much freedom to move, to explore the world.imgres

And before we sit down again, let’s observe a minute’s silence for all the thousands of people who will be out of jobs unless they are flexible enough to retrain, whose expertise will no longer be needed. The VW scandal shows, more clearly than any technical study, that the internal combustion has finally reached its limits. It can no longer cope with the air pollution standards demanded by the finite limits of our planet. Locomotion by means of controlled explosions within a confined space, the basis of internal combustion engines, cannot compete with the smooth power of an electric motor.

I first rented and drove an electric car six years ago. It was an expensive car, very basic, and the battery drained alarmingly quickly. Nevertheless, I could see the potential of the electric motor, and was immeasurably thrilled as the partially drained battery re-charged on a long hill descent, putting back nearly 50% of the power it had used to climb the hill. Not only that, but I hardly touched the brake. The speed of descent could be controlled by selecting between various levels of regenerative braking. That was the epiphany. Range anxiety is like fear of flying. Very real, but irrational.

For a conventional car company like VW, the imperative to continue doing what it knows best is irresistible. Otherwise what are they going to do with the hundreds of specialists on their payroll because electric motors are compact and virtually maintenance free? e-cars don’t need elaborate cooling systems; regenerative braking reduces wear and tear on conventional brakes; service intervals are much longer and costs are lower… the list goes on. What about batteries and range I hear you say? Yes. Batteries are a weak point, but they are getting better all the time. In 2010 my electric bicycle had a range of 25 kilometers with a 7-kilo lithium metal hydride battery pack (the battery pack was susceptible to the memory effect. i.e. it had to be completely drained before recharging). By 2012, my bicycle had a range of 50 kilometers, the lithium ion battery weighed less than 2 kilos and could be charged at any time without worrying about the memory effect. With ICE’s the fuel has to come from far away (often from troubled parts of the world). With an electric car, you can potentially make your own fuel at home and then it’s virtually free. Apart from concern for the planet, the biggest argument is when you think in terms of efficiency. The operating efficiency of an electric car is around 88%. For the best ICE’s after accounting for friction, losses in transmission, combustion, etc., the comparable figure is 15% to 30% (Energy Trends Report, 2008)

So if you have to buy a new car in the near future, project your thinking a little bit into the future and ask yourself: do I want to invest in a dinosaur?

The Island: Grace in the South China Sea

Grace entered the world yesterday. Readers take note. Grace entered without fanfare, a good omen in these days of multi-level international conflict, air disasters and general gloom. This is the first book in a trilogy.

Boats, sampans in Abderdeen Harbor, Hong Kong. Cover photograph by M. MacInnes

Boats, sampans in Abderdeen Harbor, Hong Kong. Cover photograph by M. MacInnes

Grace is a young woman of twenty-six when she discovers her unusual gift, a gift that enables her to find a lucrative job and acquire a modest fortune over the next five years. She sees at close quarters the environmental destruction caused by the company she works for, resigns from her job, and retires to an idyllic island in the South China Sea while trying to decide what to do with her life. A chance encounter with a lonely old woman grieving over the death of her beloved pet mongrel sets her unwittingly on a path where she has to use her burgeoning powers to avenge a murder and save her own life.

Although part of a trilogy, this is a complete novel  in itself. The second book about Grace, The Trees of Ta Prohm, is forthcoming in 2016. See the Amazon page here for more details. The e-book version of this novel will appear  in mid-November.

The Power of Words

I promised to post more about Grace several weeks ago. I apologise for the delay. Life intervened. In the interim, I also had feedback from readers of the manuscript that suggested a few changes. One change led to another and an extensive re-write ensued. This work is now almost finished. In the meantime, my sincere thanks to the several readers who invested so much of their time to proofread and comment on the manuscript. They will remain anonymous here, but will be acknowledged in the book, when “Grace in the South China Sea” finally appears a month from now.

There is a story by Arthur Clarke that Hemingway, challenged by fellow writers at a dinner table to write a moving story in less than ten words, did it with six. His short story read: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it takes words to say it. The power of words. Grace, a young woman slowly becoming aware of her powers. Grace: def:. The exercise of love, kindness or goodwill; disposition to benefit or serve another. Hemerocallis_lilioasphodelus_flowerWatch this space.

Sudarshan’s Gift: A short story about a novel

Way back in 1982, industrialist Clive Sinclair was at the height of his business career. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was among the first and most successful mainstream home computers in the world, ultimately selling more than 5 million units world wide. Clive Sinclair is credited with launching the UK IT industry and products like the Spectrum and its successors earned him a knighthood. In that same year, he instituted a literary prize, the Sinclair Prize for Fiction, to be awarded to an unpublished manuscript of social or political significance. Two of the five judges (including the Chairman) thought that a novel called ‘Chasing Cursors’ by an unknown Indian author was the clear winner. The other three judges demurred, saying the novel was of no social or political significance. They took the problem to Clive Sinclair, who threw some additional money into the pot and said the novel in question should be given a special award. The Sinclair Prize ultimately was awarded to an author whose book about battling the apartheid regime in South Africa was clearly of great social and political significance.  ‘Chasing Cursors’ won special mention for merit and was awarded a small cash prize.

Since this is a short story, a long story is omitted here about two literary agencies (one in the UK and the other based in the US) seeking a publishing home for ‘Chasing Cursors’ in its new avatar of ‘Sudarshan’s Gift.’ According to the agencies, the manuscript was rejected by more than four hundred publishers on four continents over the next ten years. In 1999, a new e-publishing venture called Online Originals picked it up for their list of e-books to be sold online in pdf or PDA formats (Anyone remember the Palm Pilot, the Psion or Apple’s Newton?).Sudarshans_Gift_Cover_for_Kindlejpg

Publisher David Gettman, convinced of the book’s literary merit, nominated it for the Booker Prize in that year, perhaps the first ever submission of an e-only book for the prize. The Prize committee rejected the nomination, on the grounds that the author had changed nationality since the book was written, was no longer a Commonwealth citizen, and hence could not be considered for the prize. Fast forward to 2015 when publishing rights revert to the author and it now appears as a paperback and Kindle edition on Amazon. Here are headlines from the 8 reviews of the books so far.

Powerful, lasting story…..  Heartwarming….. a Lesson in Love and Tolerance…..  Intriguing…..  Such a gift is pure….. A Well-Written Tale…..  A journey through India and the human heart.…. Great Storytelling ….

The re-publication of Sudarshan’s Gift and its first appearance in paperback has meant that the appearance of “Grace in the South China Sea,” has been delayed by several weeks. More about Grace in the next blog.

The Life of the River

The source of the Wien River in Lower Austria

The source of the Wien River in Lower Austria. Image courtesy Werauchimmer

Perhaps it is the sweeping power of the iconic waltz composed by Johann Strauss the Younger, that most people associate the Danube with Vienna. In actual fact, the Donau flows along the north-eastern periphery of the city and the river that runs through its heart, from West to East is the Wienfluss, a 34 kilometer-long stream that gives Vienna its name in German, Wien. Although the stream is often overlooked, its catchment area lies in hilly country to the west of the city, so in case of heavy rains, its level can rise very quickly. Despite this risk, the stream is normally so placid that the city has built a concrete bicycle path along its dry bed beside the water. In 2009, the stream’s depth rose by 1 meter in just 10 minutes during a rainy spell. The stream becomes a raging river and its water flow has been known to increase more than 2000 fold (from the normal 200 liters per second to 450,000 per second).

The river is covered up at Hietzing in Vienna's 13th district

The river is covered up and flows underground from Hietzing in Vienna’s 13th district… (Image by Doris Anthony)

...and emerges into the open again where it joins the Donaukanal.

…and emerges into the open again where it joins the Donaukanal near Schwedenplatz.

Cycling west along the bicycle path, the stream flows along a paved channel with very little vegetation. At the outskirts of the city, the paved channel is wider and attempts have been made to naturalise the banks and dismantle some stretches of paving. Immediately, the stream takes on character. A profusion of plants, reeds and trees have taken root along its banks in the space of a few years. It’s amazing how quickly life has returned to this stretch of river, how the river meanders once man-made constraints are removed. There are more birds and, presumably, insects and other forms of small animal life in the new undergrowth beside the stream.

Seeing this changed stream evoked the thought that perhaps the life of this small river was a metaphor for all of us, for the rivers of our lives. How many of us are locked into barren channels, afraid of change; perhaps stuck in a 9 to 5 rut, afraid to break free or change jobs, trapped by the need for money to feed a family, or fearful of unemployment, of abandonment; the reasons are endless. There is something wrong with a world awash in industrial and consumer goods, where food is wasted while millions starve, where millions are unemployed and those that have jobs are more overworked than ever. So here again, without going into the interminable discussions of classical economists, of trade flows or balance-of-payments, is a river metaphor for our lives. A meandering life will indubitably be richer. If we dare to break free, life will become richer, more full of meandering turns, with lots of unexpected surprises certainly, but we will be better equipped to cope with surprises.

Thoughts along these lines reminded me of a book by Mark Boyle entitled “The Moneyless Man,” a courageous year-long experiment in living without money. I highly recommend buying this book, but if you don’t want to commit to buying the book just yet, take a look at the book-length sequel, “The Moneyless Manifesto,” which is available free online at the link below.

Moneyless living by choice is a form of grace. I will return to the other Grace, the one in the South China Sea, in my next blog.