Are cell phones more dangerous than terrorists?

Is there a connection between cell phones, bees and global food security? By Zafar Anjum
17 Mar 2010

The cell phone and bees? What’s the connection, you might ask.

If you already know the connection, you are welcome to waste your time somewhere else.

If you don’t, like I didn’t, then read on. My thanks in advance for reading this piece. And apologies to those who work for mobile phone companies, directly or indirectly. Nothing personal here.

Before we explore the connection, first a little backgrounder.

I discovered the connection between the cell phones and bees while watching a Bollywood film, My Name is Khan (MNIK).

I know that sounds weird but please don’t laugh it off.

MNIK is a remarkable film (albeit with typical Bollywood songs) set in the US, kind of India’s Forrest Gump—only here the main character suffers from Asperger’s syndrome.  But like in Forrest Gump, this Karan Johar film focuses on an individual character, Rizwan Khan (played by Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan) who happens to be a broadminded Muslim. Rizwan, despite his deficiencies, is affable and is a great mechanic, who finds success and happiness in the land of opportunity, that is the US of A. Then 9/11 happens and his life goes topsy turvy just because he happens to have a Muslim name. The Holy Grail that Khan is after in this movie is a meeting with the US President. He wants to tell the President that though his name is Khan, he is not a terrorist.

My Name is KhanThat is the plot of the film.

But dude, where is the bee in the movie? Where is the cell phone? Good question.

No, I didn’t lose the plot. Here buzzes in the bee. In one of the scenes of the film, Khan asks another character not to use her cell phone while jogging in a park. Horrified, she asks why. Because the cell phone’s signals (radiation) confuse the bees, they forget their way back to their beehives and they die. Then he says, Albert Einstein once said that if bees disappeared, “man would have only four years of life left.”

I was stunned to know this. Was Khan joking, trying to impress the girls? Thought that this was a lie, a scriptwriter’s poetic licence.

I came home and googled it. And lo and behold, there it was: “Are mobile phones wiping out our bees?”

The story’s standfirst was: Scientists claim radiation from handsets are to blame for the mysterious ‘colony collapse’ of bees.

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There is someone more interested in your mobile phone than you are

And it’s not the cyber criminal. It’s the mobile marketer. By Zafar Anjum
15 Apr 2010

Remember the old rotary telephones or even the land line sets sitting in your drawing room? Well, they just sat there like a piece of dead furniture.

You could not carry it with you (I mean the fixed phones; cordless instruments offered some flexibility). And you didn’t do anything with it except talk through it.

All that changed with the advent of the mobile phones. Soon we learnt to do many things with the little device—talking (voice traffic) was just one of them.

The small device is now so popular with the earthlings that apparently there are more mobile users (4.5 billion) than there are owners of toothbrushes (4.2 billion). And even in developing countries like India, there is more than one device per middle class household.

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My previous blog posts

Ahead of its official release, imported iPads are selling like hot cakes in Singapore
28 April 2010

Coming soon to your computer screen

If talks between Hollywood studios and YouTube don’t break down, film buffs would have less reason to make a trip to the pirated video sellers.
3 Sep 2009

Your DNA? Thanks but no thanks

So far DNA tests have been accepted as the last words in forensic evidence to establish identities. Not any more.
19 Aug 2009

Eastern Promises

Is it fair to let people exploit immigrant IT workers?
9 July 2009

Tweet your politics

Twitter has enabled cyber civil unrest in Iran but is it free of the danger of being misused?
22 June 2009

What women want?

Promotions, job security or work-life balance? What is it that matters to the female workers?
2 June 2009

Will Singapore drive tech innovation in Asia?

Singapore seems to be emerging as the next hotspot of tech innovation in the region.
18 May 2009

Outsourcing and its discontents

President Barack Obama’s new tax plan aims to discourage outsourcing. Will it?
8 May 2009

Social networking and the Indian elections

How Web-savvy are the Indian politicians and how some of them are using Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to connect with the electorate.
15 April 2009

Come, let’s tweet

We are on Twitter now!
6 April 2009

In a war for survival

Management guru Ram Charan talks about the new rules for getting the right things done in difficult times in his new book.
24 March 2009

When ‘growth’ is not good

In a world of finite resources, the greed for infinite growth has got us into today’s global financial crisis. It’s time we asked some tough questions about the nature of the financial systems that control our lives.
13 March 2009

Baby or briefcase?

Yesterday (8 March) we celebrated the International Women’s Day. It made me reflect on the issue of women at the top in general and women in IT in specific.
9 March 2009

Making sense of ‘packaged’ terrorism

It’s not the acts of terrorism that matter most in the post-9/11 world, it’s what we are told to think about the acts of terror.
19 Feb 2009

The venture misadventure

In the process of engineering a financial recovery, there are two issues that are not being paid enough attention.
17 February 2009

The big escape

Looking at the way the financial crisis is being (mis)handled by world leaders, there does not seem to be any escape from misery in sight. This is the first part of a series of blog posts on this theme.
4 Feb 2009

The curious case of B. Ramalinga Raju

Satyam’s disgraced founder may not be a nice man to know. But trying to understand his rise and fall might throw some light on how business is conducted in a new, shining India.
22 Jan 2009

How to talk about books you haven’t read

Where there is a will, there is a way—as far as talking about books one hasn’t read is concerned.
19 Jan 2009

The art of war

In the Israel-Gaza conflict, the Israeli side has embraced the new media to relay its viewpoint with great success.
8 Jan 2009

Welcome to ‘Prison Earth’!

Is our quest for more security at the cost of our privacy?
16 Dec 2008

A pyrrhic victory

Will online media’s triumph over the print turn out to be a pyrrhic victory in the long run?
10 Dec 2008

Terror and technology

Technology connecting lives in the November 26 terror attacks in Mumbai.
28 Nov 2008

Obama’s way

Web 2.0-savvy Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is inspiring politicians all over the world.
14 Nov 2008

Deducted at source

If Obama is against outsourcing, why were Bangalore techies rooting for him?
7 Nov 2008

When “The West Wing” meets the “Man of the Year”

Or how Barack Obama can still lose the election?
4 Nov 2008

The Indian Renaissance

Why did India take so long to rise from a deep slumber?
23 Oct 2009

The return of the native: India’s reverse brain drain

Unfortunately, like all exits cannot be clean and all exiles cannot be painless, all returns too cannot be rosy.
13 Oct 2008

A dark cloud looms over India’s economic transition

Technology, industry and politics often play hide and seek to the amusement of none—Tata’s struggles in Singur, India is a case in point.
29 Sep 2008

Are we on the road to perdition?

If you ask me in terms of imagery, this financial crisis is akin to the 9/11
19 Sep 2008

Understanding the femme factor in Asian I.T.

There is a behind-the-scenes secret I want to share with you, that emerged when I was researching my CIO Asia September 2008 story on women in Asian IT.
12 Sep 2008

The success secret behind Wall-E

Andrew Stanton’s Wall.E will always remain a special film for me.
8 Sep 2008

Why this iPhone fever?

Why did people go crazy after the iPhone? Why did it generate so much public hysteria?
29 August 2008

‘Boss, give me face’

It turns out that this phrase carries a great weight in the Chinese business circles.
25 August 2008

WCIT 2008

I have not been able to recently update this blog due to many reasons. The biggest amongst them is the World Congress of Information Technology (WCIT 2008). 

WCIT is the grandest event for the techies of the world–also dubbed as the Olympics of IT. The venue was KLCC, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

So, you figured it right. I was in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) for about a week covering the World Congress of Information Technology (WCIT 2008). Clearly, it’s not that I was not blogging. I was but elsewhere.

We (our company, FBM) were the official media partners of the event and as such, I was part of the team that produced the show dailies (newspapers that are produced everyday for thousands of delegates attending the conference). In addition, I was maintaining a blog, complete with videos (check them out under Multimedia on the blog) and pictures. It was all so hectic but quite fun on the whole. I even tried podcasting and ran some trials but when the actual event kicked off, there was hardly any time to produce podcasts. Reporting, production of videos and the blog consumed all my time and energy.

The event was a great success–said to be the best ever in the history of WCIT. Even Bill Gates made a virtual trip to the show through his holographic presence.

There were many discussions, in and outside panels. Among the many panel discussions, there was one that got me most excited. It was about the future of the internet. One of the panelists, a Microsoft representative, summed it up so beautifully. The internet that we have now is just the beginning, he said. It’s like language has been invented but Shakespeare is yet to arrive, he said. Doesn’t that make you think about the future of the net? Doesn’t that sound so thrilling?

Bend it like Asia

Is Asia the new hub of innovation?

This is what it seems like.

Asia is rising fast as a hub for innovation, led by countries such as China, India and Singapore.

I think it was last year when the Newsweek magazine did a cover story on how the USA was losing its edge on patents. Asia was coming up fast with new patents, threatening to knock the USA off its leadership position in this area.

Now there is some fresh evidence to make this claim sound truer.

In a report ‘China innovation: The next big surprise’ CIO Asia’s managing editor Ross O. Storey notes that innovation will be the next ‘big surprise’ out of China.

He was quoting Jack Perkowski, the chairman and chief executive officer of ASIMCO Technologies, an important manufacturer in China’s automotive components industry.

Speaking at an American Chamber of Commerce lunch in Singapore, Perkowski said there is a ‘tremendous pressure’ in China to find more affordable products, than those offered by the west, which will inevitably lead to innovation.

Here’s the main point that he made: 400 million Chinese people, who now earn more than US$7,000 a year can afford notebook computers, but they’d rather not pay what the West pays for them.

“The other 900 million people can’t afford notebook computers,” Perkowski said, “so everyday you have 1.3 billion Chinese waking up trying to figure out how to make these things cheaper.”

Helping them figure this out are the Asian researchers. This is true not just about IT but lot of other sectors.

Writing in The New York Times on May 4, columnist Thomas L. Friedman also highlights America’s losing its hold on research and innovation (Who will tell the people?):

A few weeks ago, my wife and I flew from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Singapore. In J.F.K.’s waiting lounge we could barely find a place to sit. Eighteen hours later, we landed at Singapore’s ultramodern airport, with free Internet portals and children’s play zones throughout. We felt, as we have before, like we had just flown from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.

How could this be? We are a great power. How could we be borrowing money from Singapore? Maybe it’s because Singapore is investing billions of dollars, from its own savings, into infrastructure and scientific research to attract the world’s best talent — including Americans.

And us? Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, just told a Senate hearing that cutbacks in government research funds were resulting in “downsized labs, layoffs of post docs, slipping morale and more conservative science that shies away from the big research questions.” Today, she added, “China, India, Singapore … have adopted biomedical research and the building of biotechnology clusters as national goals. Suddenly, those who train in America have significant options elsewhere.”

Can Asia really make it or will crises like the energy and food crisis and the shifting sands of global finance spoil the party?


Bollywood rides the blogging wave

Aamir Khan

I recently wrote about the blogging boom in Asia. It is a report on a panel discussion on blogging in the region organised by IDC in Singapore the last week. Click on the link and you can read the report.

In this post, I want to talk about blogging by Bollywood’s celebrities.

Do you know of any Hollywood biggie who blogs? I have never heard of the likes of Tom Cruise or Robert De Niro blogging.

But turn to Bollywood and you would be surprised to see how many big Bollywood actors and filmmakers have taken to blogging.

In this case, Bollywood has adopted Web 2.0 with great alacrity.

Top actor Aamir Khan has been blogging for some time. He has been doing it quite successfully, with thousands of his fans interacting with him online. This was an important development as Aamir is seen as a very sensitive person–he is not your normal Bollywood actor and yet he is one of the top 3 actors of Bollywood: he largely stays away from the mainstream and film gossip media, does one or two films a year and completely avoids all kinds of Indian film functions (he is okay with the Oscars though).

Recently, India’s most respected actor Amitabh Bachchan also took to blogging (he is 60 plus, mind you). It made quite a splash in the media. I checked his blog yesterday and he had received more than 800 comments on his latest post.

Basu's blog

Even Bollywood’s reigning superstar has got a blog. Shahrukh Khan blogs on but some have expressed doubts if he does his own blogging. SRK, as he is lovingly known, is a tech savvy guy and was one of the earliest Bollywood personalities to have started a web portal. He wrapped up this venture after his home production, Asoka, bombed on the box office.

Bollywood’s other celebrity bloggers include Rahul Bose, Anupam Kher, Rahul Khanna, and Bipasha Basu.

Among directors, on top of my list is director Shekhar Kapur, who sort of straddles between Hollywood and Bollywood. His blog is as much about cinema as about life, death, mythology, spirituality, etc. It’s a great read.

There are a lot of younger generation Bollywood directors and writers who blog in a blogging community, Passion For Cinema, led by director Anurag Kashyap.

All these blogs are helping these film personalities directly connect with their fans all over the world. Lets them have direct feedback from them. Not only that, they can also clarify baseless rumours in trade magazines and MSM which is the staple of film journalism. Things..they are a’changing!

Can ‘Green IT’ help save the planet?

Yesterday was the Earth Day and most newspapers and magazines around the world ran stories on climate change. We also ran some green IT related stories on our websites. I have provided links to a few of them at the bottom of this post.

Needless to say that climate change has become an irrefutable truth, however inconvenient.

Many writers, including scientists, economists, and commentators of all colours are pondering over the issue. While I was searching for stories on climate change, I came across this brilliant article in the New York Times, Why Bother? by Michael Pollan.

It makes some pertinent points; asks us to do something about it. In this connection, I want to ask what role ‘Green IT’ can play in containing this global crisis?

Is ‘Green IT’ just a fanciful term or can it actually make a difference?

But more about it a little later. First, let me summarise what I think about the climate change crisis.

Climate change and food crisis

Call me an alarmist but in my view, the way the climate is changing (rising temperatures, melting of the polar ice and rising sea levels) and the impact we are seeing on the global food production patterns (droughts causing a food crisis: for example, 98% of rice production in Australia has failed this year) is nothing short of a calamity. I think we are already into the third world war.

An expert recently said in a report in a Singapore newspaper that the food crisis is more dangerous than terrorism!

An economist, the managing director general of ADB Mr Rajat Nag cites many reasons, mostly economic and policy-related, to the current food crisis: World rice prices have surged, not only because stocks have hit their lowest level in decades, but also because of growing disposable incomes, high fuel prices driving production costs, erratic weather and stagnant yields. The era of cheap food is over, he said.

The Economist calls the current food crisis the silent tsunami, and it has some figues to support its claim.

Business as usual

Whatever epithet you give to the phenomenon, the question is: If the problem is so grave, what are we doing about it (compared to what we are doing about terrorism)?

Hardly anthing.

We are conducting our lives as if nothing has happened. We think it is business as usual.

Look anywhere around yourself. People are increasing their carbon footrints. Evermore number of people are travelling in jets (Travelling has become so plebian, Naipaul has said).

In the developing economies, as the ranks of the middle class are increasing, people are eating more meat (it takes 7 kgs of vegetable to produce 1 kg of meat) and buying more cars, burning more fossil fuels. Tata’s Nano car, for instance, will contribute to it in India.

Even developed countries are adding to their energy consumption bills. A small country like Singapore, for example, has increased its electricity consumption by 78% between 1995 and 2007. The reason: Greater ownership of electronic appliances and gadgets. In 1998, about 58% of households owned an air-conditioner compared to 72% in 2003.

The people in the developing countries say, those who had never tasted the pleasure of creature comforts, never owned a car before, never had a lavish lifestyle (conspicuous consumption) before will complain:  Now that it is my turn to have fun, you are talking about climate change! I don’t give a damn. Let me have my fun. Don’t spoil it!

Fair enough, one could say—but only for historical reasons.  What about the future that is common for us all? In other words, is black smoke white man’s burden?

Does it mean the onus of bringing the earth temperatures down lies with the people of the developed world alone? Is global warming just a first world problem?

People in the developed countries are aware of this expectation but will this realisation save any trees. Pollan in his NYT piece puts it across so succintly:

Let’s say I do bother, big time. I turn my life upside-down, start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low I need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard, trade in the station wagon for a hybrid, get off the beef, go completely local. I could theoretically do all that, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?

Need Vs Greed

Mahatma Gandhi had said that in this planet, there is enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.

All faiths teach us the lessons of frugality and contentment. Greed creates its own problems and we are seeing the outcome now. How long can we plunder mother earth? Is this ever sustainable?

NYT columnist Paul Krugman, in his recent column, Running Out of Planet to Exploit, asks:

Last week, oil hit $117. It’s not just oil that has defied the complacency of a few years back. Food prices have also soared, as have the prices of basic metals. And the global surge in commodity prices is reviving a question we haven’t heard much since the 1970s: Will limited supplies of natural resources pose an obstacle to future world economic growth?

Won’t it?

(I am not even talking about an analyst’s claim in BusinessWeek that the US has been unable or unwilling to regulate oil markets because it is a convenient way to contain the growth of China and spur energy conservation in the country).


So what can be done?

Many things at many levels—personal and institutional, including at the community (NGOs), governmental, and corporate levels.

While the responsible amongst us can change our light bulbs (thanks to Al Gore), use less paper, grow our gardens, eat less meat or travel in public transports, the governments need to intervene with rules as they do while tackling terrorism (most people need to be told to stay in the queue, for example, for the greater common good).

The government can also penlise people for excessive use of energy. Why should petrol be subsidised in some countries to enable people to drive cars? In Singapore, petrol is about $2 a litre, nearly same as a 1 litre bottle of packaged drinking water. Does it make any sense?

Governments and corporates can explore encouraging alternative sources of energy. How about wind power? Solar energy?

Make things better. For example, make public transport (an unconvenient truth?) convenient and sexier. Convert all vehicles to less polluting technology users. Make cars run on heavy water. Better still–encourage telecommuting to work.

What can ‘Green IT’ do?

Green IT can play a role in all this and more.

As our life is becoming increasingly dependent on technology, my biggest hope is digital nomadism (is it hope or will it be our only choice?).

For an ever-increasing global workforce in a globalised knowledge economy, like it or not, digital nomadism is the emerging reality. Notes the The Economist:

The nomadism now emerging is different from, and involves much more than, merely making journeys. A modern nomad is as likely to be a teenager in Oslo, Tokyo or suburban America as a jet-setting chief executive. He or she may never have left his or her city, stepped into an aeroplane or changed address. Indeed, how far he moves is completely irrelevant. Even if an urban nomad confines himself to a small perimeter, he nonetheless has a new and surprisingly different relationship to time, to place and to other people. “Permanent connectivity, not motion, is the critical thing,” says Manuel Castells, a sociologist at the Annenberg School for Communication, a part of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

So, our lives will be connected with the world virtually through ubiquitous wirelessness. We will work but in virtual offices (which means, no office politics!). We will travel but mostly virtually and so on. Imagine, how much Green IT can contribute to building up such a lifestyle?

The challenge is immense. So is the opportunity.

Some Green IT stories:

Green technology: hype or must-have?
It’s enough to make some IT managers dismiss green technology altogether, but even those who are concerned about the environment and their own energy costs have a tough time separating product hype from reality.
Jon Brodkin

Saving the environment can’t stop at the data center
IT already contributes substantially to the energy efficiency of organizations, but it could do more.
Simon Mingay

The 5 quickest returns on your green investment
Most companies are talking a good game but not really going green where it counts.
By Darrell Dunn