Algae, open source and India

Phytoplanktonic petroleum and the reincarnation of Tenali Ramakrishna.

Published August 23, 2006 8:02PM (EDT)

See if you can follow this thread. A reader points to an article about a Spanish company with bold plans to transform the ocean's phytoplankton into an unending oil gusher. I wrote briefly about the prospect of deriving oil from algae early on in this blog's history, and have been keeping a sidelong eye trained on it ever since. But one has to be a bit skeptical of claims involving a process supposedly 400 times more productive than any other biofuel generation scheme, so I scurried to the Web to see if there had been any critical consideration of the news. I came up empty, distracted from my primary task by the discovery of a blog devoted solely to the topic of algae-oil.

(Digression No. 1 -- we are but moments away from the full realization of a Borgesian Blogosphere in which there will be a blog covering each and every discrete phenomenon that has or will or could ever exist in every possible universe, including those that are as yet busy being born, and blogs that cover all the potential intersections between any of those phenomena, as well as an infinite number of blogs dedicated to organizing, analyzing, providing context for the aforementioned blogs, and otherwise filling in all the rest of the gaps. This will keep people like me busy for the foreseeable future.)

The unfortunately named Oilgae blog had little to offer with respect to quixotic Spanish plans for biofuel world domination, but that was OK, because I was immediately distracted, again, by a side project promoted by the blog's maintainer -- a proposal to apply open-source methodologies to creating new oil-from-algae technologies. I've always been a sucker for open-source projects, even if the likelihood of a feasible algae-to-oil conversion process arising from hobbyists sharing tips protected by the GNU General Public License might seem, itself, a bit Man-of-La-Mancha-ish. But heck -- did not the Gates Foundation recently announce a quasi open-source approach to finding an HIV vaccine, when it required the scientists who would be receiving its funds to share all their research with each other? If all the oil/algae people collaborated freely, rather than close-mouthedly each going their own way in the hopes of striking it rich with their proprietary alchemies, might it not be possible that progress be golden-goosed?

By this point, I was getting a little curious about the man behind the blog, advertised on the site only by an e-mail address, My powerful powers of deduction led me to suspect that this meant he was Indian. Little did I realize: Mr. Narasimhan Santhanam is the marketing director for a Chennai-based company that provides both "sourcing" and "outsourcing" brokering services. In my globalization-obsessed world, this meant that he was a paradigmatic way-new Indian, and I had to fire him an e-mail, which shortly produced, in response, a note in which the self-described "sales guy" discussed his passions for biodiesel, open-source software and, somewhat unexpectedly, castor oil. Mr. Santhanam also maintains, which aspires to be the "one-stop resource for all info about castor and castor products."

(Digression No. 2: It is not every day that How the World Works exchanges e-mail with an outsourcing, open-sourcing oil-from-algae enthusiast and castor oil fan who resides in Chennai, India, but when it does happen, is is a good day.)

In addition to his other talents Narsi Santhanam also happens to be a fine writer. I know this, because while stalking him via Google, I found his own personal blog, which included a recently written story titled "The Taming of an IIT-ian."

(Digression No. 3: IIT is an abbreviation for Indian Institute of Technology, a network of educational institutions across India that have been critical to the nation's emergence as a computing science powerhouse. Which raises a classic question of developmental economics -- do we attribute India's economic growth surge in recent years primarily to economic reforms that opened up the nation to the world, or to decades of strong government support for education and targeted incentives that encouraged the software industry? Or confound it all, could it be a complicated mixture of both factors that resolves to no easy platform of policy recommendations satisfactory to ideologues of either the right or the left?)

(Digression No. 4: In the first paragraph of "The Taming of an IIT-ian" the narrator makes reference to his great great great grand uncle's nephew having been "a peon at the same court where Tenalirama had enraptured his audiences." Always desirous to expand my knowledge of obscure trivia that appears to have nothing to do with globalization, but is great for cocktail party conversation, I googled Tenalirama and discovered that he was a famous court jester during the time of the great Mughal Emperor Babur, and that he is regarded as one of the most beloved (and funny) characters in Indian culture. So beloved, in fact, that a couple of years back Cartoon Network India (which is part of Time-Warner) even launched an animated series -- "The Adventures of Tenali Raman." But now I'm digressing even within my digressions. In any event, while I am mortified and abashed that at the reasonably advanced age of 44 I had not the remotest whisper of a clue as to the very existence of one of the most beloved and popular figures in the culture of one of the world's oldest and most populous civilizations, I am still content in the knowledge that a couple of years from now, when my nieces and nephews start watching "The Adventures of Tenali Raman" on the Cartoon Network in the U.S., as a diversion from the usual tales of teen superhero angst and madcap underwater sponge exploits, I will be able to provide context and analysis. Did I ever tell you the story about how Tenali Ramakrishna made Babur laugh?)

By now, my day was getting rather alarmingly into the afternoon, and I had learned little about new oil-from-algae conversion technologies, the applicability of open-source software methodologies to alternative energy technology development or the current state of outsourcing in India. But, I felt somewhat compensated by having read a description of IIT graduates as "scientists with tentacles coming out from their teeth and brilliant chappies who reportedly receive Nobel prizes thrice a week" not to mention having mulled over "the story of an African emperor who committed suicide by jumping off a palm tree because his monkey was bitten by a rabbit. Your monkey being bitten by a rabbit, many ranks its inferior in the ladder of evolution, you will agree, is humiliation at its worst."

Maybe you had to be there. But I was laughing out loud, which is something that I don't often find myself doing while reading Indian blogs after having been lured away from delusions of Spanish phytoplankton-petroleum grandeur. And I am feeling more than a little suspicious that if Narsi Santhanam is not the living reincarnation of Tenali Ramakrishna, then at the very least he has a dab of the cultural DNA of that long ago jokester coursing through his veins. And I feel, at the end of the day, that I understand India an infinitesimally small bit more than I did this morning. Which, considering it is one of the oldest and most populous civilizations in the world and looks set to be one of the Big Players of the 21st Century, makes today a really good day.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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