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10th January 1999

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Listed companies asked to comply

By Mel Gunasekera

The SEC has sent a directive to all listed companies to provide a specific Year 2000 disclosure in their annual and quarterly reports. This is part of the companies' continuing listing obligations, SEC Director General, Kumar Paul said.

The disclosure is required in all quarterly accounts commencing fourth quarter December 30th, 1998 and the annual reports commencing December 31st, 1998 and March 31st, 1999.

The disclosure should include the potential impact of the Y2K issue on the company's business, cost and revenues. In addition to providing a description, companies should indicate the significance of the problem on the following scale: no impact, insignificant impact, some impact, substantial impact, serious impact and very serious impact.

If the company has not made any plans, that fact should be disclosed. The disclosure should be reasonably specific.

The information should also include the company's Y2K plans with regard to its business and operations, and if material, its relationship with suppliers, customers and other relevant parties; and whether the company is tackling the problem using in- house technical expertise or is relying on external IT consultants.

The progress of Y2K efforts and the expected date of compliance, including the period of testing should be mentioned.

The report should include the estimated cost of the Y2K efforts, including the period of testing, a statement on whether and how these costs have been accounted for in the financial statement.

Companies should also describe what contingency plans if any, the company has or will be developing. In the event a contingency plan has now been established, this too should be disclosed.The disclosure should be specific and quantified as far as practicable. We suggest that the disclosure be as clear and comprehensive as possible in non-technical language and endeavour to answer important questions such as 'will the company be ready and what progress has been made in this regard', Mr. Paul said.

Slow take off for Namunukula

By Shafraz Farook

Namunukula Plantations IPO which opened last Thursday had attracted only 1.7 million shares by close on Friday.

The issue is for 4 million shares at Rs. 15 per share.

Managers to the issue, Waldock Mackenzie told 'the Sunday Times Business' that the general downward trend in the Colombo Stock Exchange, particularly in the Plantation sector and a change of profitability in the company could be the chief reason for the sluggish response to the issue.

The plantation company's June 30th 1998 profit of Rs. 141,787 mn had turned into a Rs. 19 mn loss by September.Waldock Mackenzie officials said that the offeror and the company agreed to make a disclosure after the propectus was issued with the June 30th results so that investors could make an informed decision.

Brokers believe that this disclosure would have directly resulted in the poor response to the issue.

The downslide in plantations shares which once used to be snapped up began with Kahawatte Plantations offer which was barely oversubscribed. The shares now trading below par would also have an effect on the Namunukula issue, brokers said.

Both Kahawatte and Namunukula Plantations come at a time when the sector's performance is hampered due to last year's Russian economic crisis resulting in tea prices reaching record lows, brokers said.

The tea industry however is now recovering from the turmoil but stock prices have not seen much change, they added.

Investors looking for a quick buck would rather invest in bullish stocks available at the same price rather than subscribe to the IPO, brokers believe. Namunukula plantations is expected to do well in the long run since JKH has invested heavily in the company, JK Stock Brokers said. They also expect tea prices to go up with the new financial year in April.

MBFSL launches money broking arm

A new subsidiary, MBF Money Brokers Ltd. (MBFMBL) has been set up following last week's strategic alliance between MB Financial Services Ltd. (MBFSL) and Commercial Capital Ltd. The new company will deal exclusively in inter-bank money broking and augment the services of the new alliance, a top company official said.

MB Financial Services Ltd. (MBFSL) last week announced a strategic alliance with Commercial Capital Ltd.(CCL).

The alliance has been achieved through the re-structuring of Commercial Capital Ltd. (CCL) which was jointly owned by Commercial Bank of Ceylon (CBC) and the Singer Group.

CCL purchased 30% of Merchant Bank's 80% shareholding in MBFSL.

A consortium of investors thereafter purchased 50% of the shares of CCL from Commercial Bank of Ceylon.

MB Corporate Services Ltd. (MBCSL) which is wholly owned by MBFSL, forms a part of this consortium and now owns 27% in CCL.

The rationale for this alliance stems from the proposed legislation under Registered Stocks and Securities Ordinance Regulation No1 of 1998 for primary dealers, currently being drafted by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka requiring dedicated capital, a company source said.

The proposed regulation states that primary dealers should engage exclusively in government securities, be a public limited liability company and a suggested minimum capital of Rs.150 million to be increased to Rs.200 million by the year 2000. Since the said legislation will require dedicated capital for primary dealers, MBFSL will be restricted to dealing solely with government securities, the company source added.

However, consequent to the alliance with CCL, MBFSL will be able to continue to develop a market in corporate debt, including commercial paper, promissory notes and debentures, he added.

MBFSL is confident that this comprehensive restructuring and the island-wide marketing network provided by the Singer Group will enable it to play a catalytic role in developing the debt market in Sri Lanka, he said.He said that Merchant Bank is still the single largest shareholder and the alliance would give the retail investor a better deal and enhanced bottomline profitability to shareholders.

Interbatch left in the lurch

The American partner of Interbatch Porcelain Ltd. has indicated a desire to withdraw citing lack of funds for marketing, shareholders said.

Interbatch an unlisted BOI company, is a joint venture between Interkiln Incorporation USA and Carsons Cumberbatch. The company was incorporated in July 1996 to produce porcelain tiles for the export market.

Shareholders include Interkiln USA (49%), Carsons Cumberbatch (30%), Asian Finance and Investment Corporation (7%) Capital Development Finance Corporation (5%), Vanik Incorporation (4%) and others (5%). Total investments todate amount to Rs. 1.6 bn or US$ 25.5 mn.

Since inception, Interkiln Inc. secured the management and marketing contract for Interbatch Porcelain. They also brought down the necessary machinery for the project.

The company commenced production last year, but has yet to export tiles. Production has also come to a standstill and the management is in the process of drawing up a re-structure plan to revive the company, shareholders said.

Company sources said since the major partners are pulling out, the local partners are on the look out for alternative marketing arrangement for the company.

Interkiln's proposed pullout has made Interbatch's local shareholders nervous, uncertain and suspicious, they said.

The Americans have borrowed heavily to set up the factory and most of the funds have been invested in capital expenditure leaving them next to nothing for marketing, inside sources said.

Scientists to grow a human heart

Scientists are planning to grow the first human heart outside the body. An international team of experts proposes to construct the living organ within a synthetic mould.

The scientists from Britain, America, Canada and Switzerland say advances in the past five years have made possible the growth of living human organs in a laboratory.

They aim to raise 6 billion, primarily from governments, which they hope to persuade of the importance of the project. If successful, it could end the acute shortage of donor hearts and lengthen many people's life expectancy.

The out-of-body techniques overcome one of the biggest drawbacks of transplantation by growing heart tissue taken from a potential recipient. At present, to prevent organ rejection, patients have to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives.

The team includes scientists who have pioneered the growth of human skin, cartilage, bone and muscle in the laboratory as well as researchers involved in grafting an artificially grown human ear onto a mouse's back. "It is one of the most important scientific investigations of our time," said David Williams, a leading member of the group and professor of clinical engineering at Liverpool University. "We're moving from being able to produce little bits of skin or cartilage to whole, functioning organs."

The initial funding for the project, entitled Living Implants From Engineering (LIFE), will come from trusts and industry. The scientists believe it will take 10 years before the first patient receives a heart through the technique.

They propose to grow living tissue from the patient's own cells in foam templates. These will be dissolved and the pieces assembled into a fully functioning heart.

"We're galvanising the best laboratories in the world to take on this massive challenge," said John Davies, a Welsh bioengineer at Toronto University. Last week his team became the first to synthesise a three-dimensional bone structure in the laboratory. Michael Sefton, a Toronto University bioengineer who is also behind the project, said: "We intend to create the ability to grow hearts, as well as other organs such as livers and kidneys, so that when a patient goes to a transplant surgeon there's no longer any wait for a donor organ. They'll be able to take one off the shelf as easily as one changes a carburettor."

About 150,000 people die every year of heart disease. In the first six months of this year, 295 patients joined the waiting list for a new heart but there were only 131 transplants. The announcement was welcomed by the British Heart Foundation. "Twenty years ago, nobody would have anticipated the work that's going on developing mechanical hearts and genetically modified animals for transplantation," said Paul Fawcett, of the foundation.

New cheaper space shuttle

MOSCOW (AP) A Moscow company is developing a new space shuttle that can deliver cargo into orbit at a fraction of the price of existing U.S. and Russian shuttle systems, the Interfax news agency reported Saturday.

Moscow's city government plans to help fund the project by purchasing 34 percent of the Molniya company's shares, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said during a visit to the company, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Molniya has designed a smaller copy of the Soviet Buran space shuttle.

The new model can carry eight to nine tons of cargo to a satellite, and at about one-tenth the price, Interfax said.

The original Buran, modelled after the U.S. space shuttles, was scrapped for lack of funds after its only unmanned space flight in 1988. Unlike its prototype, which needed the powerful Energiya booster to be carried into space, the new shuttle would be launched horizontally from a space station, Interfax said.

It will be able to fly with and without pilots.

It was not clear when the new model would be completed.

Toons in silicon transistors

In a place few could ever hope to visit, Michael Davidson found Waldo, the popular cartoon character who hides himself in a sea of human faces.

Davidson who runs a business photographing objects in microscopic detail slid the exposed innards of a silicon graphics microprocessor under his hybrid camera-microscope.

Amid the city-street-like layout of the silicon chip, something caught Davidson's eye, like a building that didn't belong.

"I cranked up the magnification, and then I realized it was a little rendition of Waldo," Davidson said.

"Two hundred microns (or 200 millionths of a meter) away, I found a rendition of Daffy Duck."

Each image had the altitude of a dust particle, between 10 and 30 microns high.

Both had been printed, along with the processor's minuscule transistors, in that photographic moment when an engineer's design is born as silicon.

As Davidson has come to discover, the designers of printed circuits have been enhancing their intricate circuit-scapes for decades.

The images from Waldo to the graphics in a personal wedding invitation are one way chip designers add ghosts to their machines.

The hidden image is created along with the rest of the image that is a printed circuit, just another line formation in the labyrinthine layout.

The creative add-ons are simply fitted in where unused surface space is available.

"Some chips have quite a bit of [extra] room," Davidson says, silicon voids between a chip's memory registers and data caches. Many chips also have a signature area, normally used to identify the chip, its designers, and manufacturer.

Davidson has been hunting for hidden chip images since discovering the first one three years ago. As his online exhibit will tell you, he's spotted a hummingbird on a Hewlett-Packard RISC design, a California license plate on a MIPS 4000, and one of his oldest finds on a chip used in Macs circa 1988 the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man (a protagonist in the movie, Ghostbusters).

The oldest known image appeared 20 years ago, when Mickey Mouse took silicon form on the chip of an early calculator.

"It's a passion," says MIPS spokeswoman Constance Sweeney, who confirms that the extra artistry is common among chip designers.

"It's a way of putting a signature on their work.... After putting so much time and effort into a particular design, it's a means of personalizing it."

Few chip designers are vocal about the practice. And Davidson says it's not something every company encourages.

Of the estimated 90,000 chip images Davidson has discovered, not one has turned up an Intel chip.

"Intel may be more stringent," he says. "Some companies say, 'That's not the kind of thing we do.' It's not real consistent."

Davidson has seen interest in the images surge since October, when he started to post them in his company's Web photo gallery.

For a gallery that averages a thousand hits a day, Davidson says the chip section has lately gotten the greatest response.

Davidson doesn't claim to be the first industry outsider to discover the extracurricular designs but, as he says, "I'm probably the first to turn it into an art form."

Paper cheque or plastic?

Ever wondered how cheques are processed.

Here in Sri Lanka we have the automated clearing house. This too only from a few years back.

Before that it was done the old fashioned way, where bankers representing a bank met somewhere, and spent hours settling rupee to rupee among each other.

Even though the Sri Lankan system is automated, some developed nations are still doing it the old fashioned way. In fact most of the 65 billion cheques written in 1997 in the U.S worth more than US$ 1 trillion found their way around the U.S economy with a lot of anolog elbow grease. Chartered planes, armoured cars, trucks, trains and lots of labour went into an enormous effort to get cheques from bank to bank.

Research had found that on average 13 people handled a single cheque before it is finally laid to rest.

This old system does not come cheap, around 75 cents to $3 is spent to process a cheque in the U.S. Bankers and merchants have been trying for years to replace the paper cheque with electronic banking, but with no success.

The new year promises to change this. Several initiatives, backed by banks and transactions processing companies, are scheduled to get under way to test systems that might reduce the use of paper.

If they succeed, the banking sector and the U.S economy could save billions of dollars.

The bankers call the process of converting paper cheques into electronic pulses as "truncation" which can occur in three places, with the consumer who writes the cheques, the merchant who accepts them and with the financial institutions that have to pay up in cash.

So far the most radical change has come in the last catagory.

Here is how it works: a consumer at a grocery store writes a cheque.

A scanner reads the bank code at the bottom of the cheque and calls the financial institutions handling the payment system for instant authorization. Upon approval, the transaction is electronically debited to the customer's account within a few days, just as if the purchase had been done with a debit bank card or a credit card.

The best part of the system is that consumers not have to buy anything, don't have to download anything and don't have to learn anything.

Military tracks down Santa

A military agency took on the merrier cause of monitoring the wintry skies for a foreign object bearing happier tidings this Christmas.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the US military scans the skies for possible missile launches or air attacks aimed at North America. The North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) the joint US-Canadian agency whose task is monitoring incoming missiles, has used an intricate web of resources to give kids a blow-by-blow account of Santa's whereabouts during the 24 hours of Christmas.

Santa-tracking started as a fluke in 1954 when a wrong number printed in a newspaper connected kids wishing to speak to Santa with a previously top-secret national-emergency hotline.

Instead of disappointing the callers, the voice on the other end answered questions regarding Santa's whereabouts. Today's techno-savvy kids however, are too smart to fall for a voice on the wire, so NORAD launched a Web site last year. The multi - lingual site uses MPEG files with digital animation, video, and still images updated every 15 minutes.

"Santa's got a fairly good historical pattern. He's been doing this for hundreds of years," said Major Mike Birmingham of NORAD.

Based on flight-profile configuration data gathered from 43 years of NORAD's radar and satellite tracking of Santa Claus, scientists have made several important conclusions about Santa, including his sleigh's thrust and his cookie consumption throughout the night.

According to the agency, Santa does not take a commercial flight, so his sled appears on its DSP satellite system as an unknown object. After the object has been pinpointed, special digital cameras reveal the object's identity.

"We don't positively ID Santa until he gets to North America," explained Bob Hall, director of technical services at Analytical Graphics. "After the satellites pick up the object in Canadian airspace, they send up F-18s to go meet him."

This year's site, hosted by IBM and Analytical Graphics, has 24 MPEG files, so kids can see everything: ground radar stations, Santa's trek across the Himalayas, and F-18s scrambling to take off in a snowstorm.

This is the information age," said Birmingham. "We can track Santa now on the computer with our world-wide system of satellites, we can detect infrared signatures, and by happy coincidence, we can also track Rudolf's nose."

Giving 3-D Objects a dose of reality

A team of computer scientists at the University of Florida says it has found a way to make digital objects behave.

Specifically, the researchers have developed a new tool for creating virtual images that not only look like, but behave more like the physical things they represent.

The tool, called MOOSE which stands for Multimodeling Object-Oriented Simulation Environment - is meant to improve upon existing VRML (virtual reality modelling language) technology.

"VRML does a pretty good job, but there's no modelling capability built into it," said Paul Fishwick, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Florida. "You can always build a code that says here's how to update something over time. The problem is that that really isn't sufficient.

You need a modelling approach where you can support graphical modelling and dynamic representations of the behaviour of objects."

While VRML allows developers to create three-dimensional representations of objects on the Web, the MOOSE system allows users to model the dynamic behaviour of a 3-D object, according to Fishwick.

MOOSE contains a special modelling language called distributed modelling mark-up language, or DMML, which Fishwick hopes will become a standard in Web-based dynamic modelling.

Built using C++ and technology from Sun Microsystems, Web developers could use MOOSE to create dynamic object libraries, according to Fishwick, which will benefit both developers and end users.

Reusable libraries, he said, could dramatically reduce the cost of creating simulated products on the Web, as well as allow users a better way of viewing digital representations of movable objects - like a car or the insides of a watch.

"Imagine a world where you have published digital objects. VRML can show the geometry of an object, but now you can represent something at many more different levels. Simulation will be a lot cheaper as result," said Fishwick.

Although Fishwick said his new system is meant to be an adjunct to VRML, not a replacement, some VRML experts say the improvement isn't necessary.

"All of this has already been done in VRML," said Mark Pesce, one of the original architects of VRML and chief technology officer at Blitcom, a Web developer for the entertainment industry, in Santa Monica, California. "There are probably advantages to [MOOSE] in some environments, but I'm sorry, you can already do this in VRML.

I think some people are not as familiar with VRML as they think they are because VRML isn't a programming language like Java."

Fishwick, however, stands by his software. "There's no modelling capability built into VRML. You could use VRML to write a lot of code, but that's not the level at which people want to use [VRML]."

An alpha version of MOOSE will be released on the Web in about five months with a commercial version of the software sometime thereafter, said Fishwick.

Award for Emirates MD

The Royal Aeronautical Society, the aerospace industry's most venerable institution, has awarded an honorary Fellowship, the industry's ultimate accolade, to Maurice Flanagan, Group Managing Director of Emirates, the international airline of the UAE.

The award was presented to Mr. Flanagan recently at the Society's London headquarters by its President, Captain Jock Lowe. Mr. Flanagan joins an elite band of just under 50 people worldwide on whom an Honorary Fellowship has been conferred since the 1950s, an airline release said. Mr. Flanagan's career in civil aviation spans the last 45 years, a period which has seen the introduction of the jet engine and the development of air travel from a luxury for the well-heeled few to a means of transport accessible to everyone.

SIA and SAA pact

Singapore Airlines (SIA) and South African Airways (SAA) announced their intention to form a strategic alliance that will provide passengers of both carriers with a wide range of improved benefits and seamless travel, effective April 1,1999.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) confirming the alliance was signed by Dr. Cheong Choong Kong, Deputy Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of SIA and Coleman Andrews, Chief Executive of SAA on October 21, 1998, an airline release said. The alliance will cover code-share services, frequent flyer programmes, network and schedule co-ordination, joint promotions and marketing. The alliance partners will explore opportunities for human resource development and training, and other joint opportunities. The alliance between SIA and SAA will allow both carriers to offer efficient connections and excellent services between the Singapore and Johannesburg gateways and beyond to Asia, Africa and South America, respectively.

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