Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rice Trade & Japan

Strange are the ways of world trade…Japan buys expensive rice from America and then uses it as animal feed. In today’s BusinessLine, the following caption accompanied the photo of a man examining grain samples::

The Japanese Government is "favorably" considering a request to sell 200,000 tonnes of rice to the Phillippines. The rice will come from stocks that Japan imported reluctantly from other countries under an agreement to provide minimum international access to its rice market every year. This has led to softening of prices a little.

Japan’s economy depends heavily on international trade, which is very often skewed in its favor. So other countries try to balance their trade by 'encouraging' Japan to buy products from them.

A couple of decades ago France was so upset with the huge number of Japanese VCR’s, TVs and electronic equipment being imported that they threatened to raise tariff barriers. Japan conceded that it had to import something in return from France and agreed to import wine. The Japanese were not too fond of wine but, over the years, they have developed a taste for it – much to relief of trade negotiators from both countries.

Similarly, the Americans forced Japan to import Californian rice. Unlike wine, the Japanese have not been able to cultivate a taste for foreign rice. They have a strong preference for locally cultivated “sticky” rice, and they don’t care much for the long-grained, fragrant rice that the rest of the world consumes.

NK tells me that even amongst sticky rice, there is a hierarchy in Japan. Brands like Sasanishiki and Koshihikari command a premium of over Yen 600/kg (~Rs. 200/kg) depending on the prefecture in which it is grown. The same variety from Thailand or Nepal sells at a discount of Yen 300/kg and Yen 200/kg respectively. What about the American rice? “Oh, nobody in Japan wants it. The sembei (rice-cracker) manufacturers buy some of it; some goes as animal feed, but huge quantities just lie unused.”

In 2006, Japan produced about 10mT of rice most of which was consumed domestically. Even though other countries produce much more - China (182mT), India (136mT), Thailand (29mT) and Myanmar (25mT) – but Japan has one of the highest per rice consumption at over 60 kg/year.

According to reports, about 1.5 million tones of American rice are idling in Japanese silos, thanks to a “complex and wasteful lattice of rules, subsidies and pacts that have knocked global agriculture markets so badly out of kilter”. Compared to the total world rice production of 646mT (2007, IRRI) this may look like a small figure but only 6% or about 38mT traded internationally. This year it is a lot lesser – a crisis that has been worsened by the cyclone in Myanmar, which has turned it from a rice exporter to a net importer.

Everybody is looking for ways to increase supplies, and suddenly, everybody wants a slice of the 1.5mT of rice rotting in Japan...


Interesting Links from International Rice Research Institute:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Palika Bazar - The Shrinking Grey-Market

Three years after I purchased my first digital camera from Palika Bazaar in Delhi, I returned last week to look for an exchange. The bazaar had changed – the number of shops selling cameras had shrunk – they now preferred selling DVDs or MP3 players instead. Now only a handful of shops sold “grey-market” digicams and that too at a discount to MRP that had shrunk substantially.

When I was working in the Connaught Place area, Palika Bazaar used to be a regular haunt. I liked to walk in the underground maze, past aggressive salesmen peddling leather belts, fake Ray-Ban glasses and pirated videos,. But I never got around to buying anything electronic. I couldn’t bear losing money over equipment that was not covered by any warranty.

Then came DelhiBird and its numerous recommendations for Nikon equipment from Shop no.269 – Alpha Photos. The salesman here had a compelling argument against warranty papers, “You get only limited warranties for electronic goods. If you buy a camera with bill and warrany and if, god forbid, the camera drops from your hand, it is as good as gone – the warranty is useless…the equipment is not worth repairing anyway”. He had a point. I overcame my jitters and picked up a Nikon Coolpix 5600 for Rs.8500. The same model was selling for Rs.15,000+ at the photo studio’s in CP and Khan Market.

It turned out to be a pretty good bargain.I used it quite intensely for three years, shooting over 6000 pics, in all kinds of situations. It survived trekking trips, marriage functions, boat rides and unkind handling in Jakarta, Bangkok and Japan. I loved the way it fit into my pockets; the ease with which you could charge and replace the batteries (normal AA) and the hundreds of memorable prints that came out of it.

All these years I had been using only a SLR (Nikon F-65) and a point & shoot (Kodak Kroma), both used wet films which had become expensive to process. So it was an amazing convenience to have a digicam in which you could check photo immediately after clicking, rather than wait for the studio to give you the thumb prints.

Even though the Coolpix-5600 become obsolete within an year of purchase, I still could not part with it for better models with bigger LCD, higher megapixels and much more sophisticated CCDs. All was well until last month, during a school reunion at Bangalore, I was using the macro function to photograph a praying-mantis when the shutter cover got jammed. I did manage to repair it with a blower but the camera could no longer focus on anything less than 30cm away.

So the search for a new digicam started. An article in NYT (reprinted in IE) had recommended Fuji Finepix 50D or Canon 850-IS. In the last three years, Nikon compact digicams has slipped far behind Canon, Panasonic and Fuji. But in Palika Bazaar, nobody stocked Finepix 50D; only one shop (CamZone, M8), had 850-IS but they were asking for Rs.16500 (with bill & warranty) in Palika Bazar. Most shopkeepers lamented that the grey-market had been steamrolled by the OEMs. Many shops had 860IS, 960IS, etc., but the starting price was still above Rs.15000.

Yesterday, we finally picked up a Canon 860-IS from …Electronic Hut (No.15, central hall) for Rs. 12,000. This was the only shop that was willing to reduce the price to Rs. 14000 and to pay .2000 for the old camera.

We loved the black and silver styling, the large LCD and the super-fast response time, but we'll miss the optical viewfinder and the ubiquitous AA batteries. Hope this one lasts like the 5600.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Deciphering Blood Test Results

For the whole of this week, Diya has been down with a strange fever. Spurts of high temperature touching 103F, stomach aches, intermittent shivering and sleepless nights. The pediatrician first suggested the usual combination of Calpol and Ibugesic, but when the fever carried on beyond a week, he told us to get the blood-tests done. Typhoid is what he suspected.

The results came in yesterday and, thankfully, typhoid has been ruled out. But the fever still lingers. While we keep our fingers crossed, hoping that this is another benign viral fever that dropped out of the crazy summer rains, I was wondering what all those blood-test acronyms actually meant...

Here is the alphabet soup, decoded and simplified:

Packed cell volume (PCV) or hematocrit (Ht or HCT) or erythrocyte volume fraction (EVF) is the proportion of blood volume that is occupied by red blood cells. It is normally about 46% for men and 38% for women.

Leukocyte Count. Leukocytes are commonly called white blood cells, which are the workhorses of the immune system. They defend the body from infection and foreign material. Low leukocyte counts indicate that your immune system is not functioning optimally and that you may be more susceptible to infection.

DLCDifferential Leukocyte Count. This test measures the composition of each type of White blood cells (leucocytes) that come in assorted shapes and sizes:
  1. Polymorphs ('Poly'=many, 'morphs'=shapes) aka Neutrophils ('neutro' = neutral, 'phil' = loving) because they are neither acidic nor alkaline. Normal range - 40% to 80%.
  2. Lymphocytes ('lympho' = lymph, 'cytes' = cells) are the cells that have the ability to recognise foreigners in the blood. A false alarm sent out by lymphocytes is called an allergic reaction. Normal range - 20% to 40%.
  3. Eosoinophils ('Eosin' = the name of a red dye, 'phil' = loving) contain poisonous chemicals (toxins) for destroying parasites. Cause a false alarm in Asthma and Eosinophilia. Normal range - 0 to 3% of whitle blood cells.Normal range - 1% to 6%.
  4. Monocytes ('mono' = single, 'cytes' = cells) These single-blob cells break up foreign particles and substances for the lymphocytes, which can then handle the recognition of the small fragments. Normal range - 2% to 10%.
  5. Basophils ('baso' = alkali, 'phil' = loving) release histamine when such an allergic reaction happens, resulting in the dialation (widening) of cappillaries.

Platelet Count

Blood platelets, ('little plates') are some of the tiniest components of blood, vital for clotting of the blood and protection from bleeding. Normal range - 0.15 tp 0.4 million/

ESR Westergren's
ESR stands for Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate which measures the extent of inflamation in the body. Anaemia, TB and cancer are known to spike ESR readings. Normal range - 3 to 13 mm/hour for children and for adult males below 15mm/hr and women, below 20mm/hr.
Westergren's is method for estimating the sedimentation rate of red blood cells in whole blood by mixing venous blood with an aqueous solution of sodium citrate and allowing the mixture to stand in an upright standard pipet and, after one hour, reading the millimeters the cells have descended.

RBC Count
Number of Red Blood Copuscles (RBC) RBCs contain hemoglobin, which carries oxygen. How much oxygen your body tissues get depends on how many RBCs you have and how well they work. Normal count - Male: 4.7 to 6.1 million cells per microliter (cells/mcL); Female: 4.2 to 5.4 million cells/mcL

Haemoglobin Count
Measures the amount of oxygen-carrying protien in blood.
The normal haemoglobin count is 12-16 grams of haemoglobin per deciliter of blood in females and 14-18 grams of haemoglobin per deciliter of blood in males

Mean corpuscular volume (MCV)
Measures the average size of your RBCs. The MCV is elevated when your RBCs are larger than normal (macrocytic), for example in anemia caused by vitamin B12 deficiency. When the MCV is decreased, your RBCs are smaller than normal (microcytic) as is seen in iron deficiency anemia or thalassemias.

Mean corpuscular hemoglobin (MCH)
Measures the average amount of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin inside a red blood cell.

Mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC)
A calculation of the average concentration of hemoglobin inside a red cell. Decreased MCHC values (hypochromia) are seen in conditions where the hemoglobin is abnormally diluted inside the red cells, such as in iron deficiency anemia and in thalassemia. Increased MCHC values (hyperchromia) are seen in conditions where the hemoglobin is abnormally concentrated inside the red cells, such as in burn patients and hereditary spherocytosis, a relatively rare congenital disorder.

Red cell distribution width (RDW)
A calculation of the variation in the size of your RBCs. In some anemias, such as pernicious anemia, the amount of variation (anisocytosis) in RBC size (along with variation in shape – poikilocytosis) causes an increase in the RDW.

Among the most sensitive and widely used liver enzymes are the aminotransferases. If the liver is injured, the enzymes spill out, raising the enzyme levels in the blood and signaling the liver damage. Two key enzyms are AST and ALT. The enzyme aspartate aminotransferase (AST) is also known as serum glutamic oxaloacetic transaminase (SGOT); and alanine aminotransferase (ALT) is also known as serum glutamic pyruvic transaminase (SGPT). Normal range - SGOT - 8 to 40 units/ litre; SGPT - 5-35 units/litre

More Information -

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Designing to Succeed - Ideas from Japan's Manufacturing Sector

CSIR has come up with a brave new scheme to encourage entrepreneurship among its scientists and researchers. As one of the largest publicly funded R&D organizations in the world, we can expect, in the years to come a surge in scientific entrepreneurship. If there is one area that desperately needs a strong dose of entrepreneurship, it must be the manufacturing sector, which is essential to absorb a growing workforce and to ensure sustainable growth of our economy.

In India, not many places have the tag ‘low-cost manufacturing hub’ - that prize has already been taken by the coastal provinces of China and South-east Asia. While we dither with our infrastructure and regulations, the Chinese have grabbed a good chunk of our market for manufactured products. While some of our manufacturers struggle to compete with the Chinese, we often forget they are merely running on a path that was originally laid by the Japanese a few decades ago -- copy, counterfeit, innovate, and succeed.

These are points on a learning curve that has many lessons for India – especially if we, like the Chinese, examine and learn from the proactive role of the government in promoting the Japanese manufacturing industry.

In the 1950's the Japanese were ridiculed for their cheap and counterfeit products – brittle toys, shoddy bicycles and electrical appliances that anything but durable. An image we now associate with Chinese products that have flooded the international markets. How did the Japanese manufacturing industry metamorphose and create for itself a diametrically opposite image of high-technology, quality, workmanship and durability?

From the outset, the Japanese Government has been honest in identifying the country’s weaknesses and creating policies, institutions and incentives to overcome them. Keeping the manufacturing sector focused on exports has always been an economic imperative for a country that was short on natural resources – they had to focus their efforts on efficiently managing what was available, while keeping a sharp eye on the international markets. Take, for instance, their approach to an important aspect of manufacturing – product design.

In a white paper on the economy published in 1956, the Japanese government singled out Design as a serious weakness. It was recognized that design awareness was quite low even at the corporate level, among companies that aspired for the ‘exporter’ status. A Good Design Selection System (commonly called the "G-Mark" system) was instituted by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI - the forerunner of today's METI).

Leading designers were called in to the selection committees; young graphic designers like Kamekura Yusaku was invited to design the G-Mark logo that went on to become a widely recognized design classic- just like his posters for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Wide press coverage helped enhance the credibility and transparency of the entire selection process.

In its early years, the G-Mark system encouraged simple and functional modeling - a blend of modernist design principles and postwar populism that came to be recognized later as something uniquely Japanese.

Once the system got a foothold in the collective consciousness of the Japanese manufacturing industry, as well as the general public, MITI threw open the competition to the public. From its seventh year onwards, in 1963, G-Mark started advertising for nominations from anybody who could think differently.

Applications started pouring in from individuals, small companies as well as mega corporations. Newspapers started chasing stories and fuelling an abiding public interest in the nominations – much like the Oscars for the movie world. Today, the G-mark awards are an event eagerly awaited annual event in Japan.

Over the last fifty years, the G-Mark has singled out over 30,000 products for design excellence, in products ranging from the classic Nikon-F camera (1966), Sony TR-610 transistor radio (1968) and Walkman (1979) to the latest, energy efficient N700 Bullet Trains (2007) that travel at over 300kmph, setting new benchmarks in rail transportation. Public recognition and commercial success have turned out to be attractive incentives for individuals and companies to come up with newer, more energy efficient designs.

Having successfully built the credibility of G-mark, METI privatized the system in 1998. It is now operated entirely independent of the government, by an agency called Japan Industrial Design Promotion Organization (JIDPO).

The surge in innovation and manufacturing was backed up by a strong patent’s office. By keeping Japan Patent’s Office under MITI - the same ministry that created the G-Mark system – the government not only ensured synergy but also minimized the time required for an innovation to move from the labs to the marketplace.

Given the competitive environment that has been created at home, it is hardly surprising that Japan's manufacturing industry is one of the major driving forces behind its economy. Manufacturing accounts for 22.5% of Japan's real GDP, employs 18% of the country's working population, and more significantly, manufacturing goods account for 93% of all exports from Japan.

India has a long way to go. Manufacturing sector contributes 17% to India's GDP and 12% of employment. Our National Strategy for Manufacturing (NMCC, March 2006) clearly recognizes that a substantial manufacturing base is essential to absorb the workforce and ensure sustainable growth of the economy. It goes on to say that India should aspire to be a global leader in agro-processing, textiles & garments, automobiles and auto components, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and petrochemicals, leather & footwear.

The decade 2006-2015 has been declared the Decade of Manufacturing for India. The Prime Minister has also announced the launch of a ten-year National Manufacturing Initiative with a focus on firm level and macro economic initiatives required to the domestic industry globally competitive.

While aiming our sights at global leadership in, we need go beyond the role of playing second fiddle in the global outsourcing model. We have to create credible institutions that encourage innovation and public participation towards creating a product design paradigm that is uniquely Indian.


1. Economic Survey 2006-2007
2. The G Mark and Good Design, The Japan Journal, April 2008
3. National Strategy for Manufacturing", National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council (NMCC), March 2006
4. Guide to Japan’s Patent System - U.S. Department of Commerce (November 1995)
5. Good Design Award website -

Friday, May 09, 2008

Orwell's Burma

Random surfing has its perks - I was looking for information on the cyclone in Myanmar and ended up with a hanging.

Latest reports say that over 80,000 people would have died after Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy delta last Saturday. There is still no news from our friend DKK Oo in Yangon. So I was just looking up the net when I stumbled on some accounts of George Orwell, from his days as an officer with the British Burma Police.

His essay, “A Hanging”(1931), was particularly moving. The thoughts that cross a man’s mind when he sees a nameless convict being walked fifty yards from his jail cell to the gallows. Thoughts that momentarily reflect empathy, humanity and guilt; sentiments that are so easily obliterated in another moment by the prison-routine, black humor and a shared bottle of whiskey.

Another good one - Shooting an Elephant.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Reforms and Self-Interest

Janaagraha has an interesting document on its website, titled Administrative Reforms Commission.

It attempts to find common ground, and possible solutions to problems arising from the rapid urbanization taking place in India. More than 30% of India's population now resides in its cities - about 350 million people for whom the "urban political and administrative leadership is unprepared to provide adequate governance even in the current situation, let alone in the chaotic future.".

In December 2005, the Indian government launched JNNURM, a massive Rs. 50,000 crore initiative that focuses on integrated development of infrastructure services in cities and provision of basic services to the urban poor. The mission period is spread over seven years, 2005-2012, with 63 qualifying cities and nine eligible sectors. The thrust of the JNNURM is also to ensure improvement in urban governance and service delivery and therefore envisages a set of mandatory reforms that the State Governments and the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) shall have to enact as a prerequisite for accessing the Central assistance.

How are the state governments and ULBs responding to this huge opportunity? Annex-e (page-243) of this report voices the doubts and dilemmas of each of the stakeholders - the urban poor, middle class, business community, bureaucrat, city politician, state politician, national politician, etc..

It is interesting to see how each group views a civic problem from its own self-interested point of view...

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Japanese Words in English

Ever wondered what these Japanese words actually mean?


俳 句 【はいく】 actor + phrase (n) haiku poetry (17-syllable poem, 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables);

俳 【はい】 (n) actor, 句 【く】 (n,n-suf) phrase


漫 画 【まんが】 vague+pictures (n) comic; cartoon;

漫 ろに 【そぞろに】 (adv) (uk) in spite of oneself; somehow

散 漫 【さんまん】 (adj-na,n) vague; distracted; half-hearted; diffuse


折 り紙 (P); 折紙 (P) 【おりがみ】fold + paper (n) origami (paper folding);


忍 者 【にんじゃ】endurance+person (n) Ninja; Japanese secret agent of old (very good at hiding);

忍 【にん】 (n) (arch) endurance; forbearance

忍 術 【にんじゅつ】 (n) {MA} Ninjutsu (fighting art of the ninja);

水 遁 の 術 【すいとんのじゅつ】 (n) ninjutsu art of water-escape

TORA-tora-tora! (movie)

【とら(P); トラ】 (n) tiger (feline, Panthera tigris);

寅 【とら】 (n) third sign of Chinese zodiac (The Tiger, 3a.m.-5a.m., east-northeast, January);


盆 栽 【ぼんさい】tray + planting (n) bonsai;

梵 妻 【ぼんさい】 (n) Buddhist priest's wife

梵 語 【ぼんご】 (n) Sanskrit

凡 才 【ぼんさい】mediocrity + ability (n) mediocrity; ordinary ability


天 麩 羅 ; 天 婦 woman 羅; 天 ぷ ら 【てんぷら】 heavenly. Imperial + wheatbran/mash+ savior? (pt:) (n) tempura (pt: tempero, temporas); deep-fried fish and vegetables in a light batter


柔 道 【じゅうどう】meek + way (n) judo;

柔 らか (P) 【やわらか】 (adj-na,n) soft; tender; limp; subdued; gentle; meek;

柔; 和 【やわ】 (adj-na) poorly-built; weak; insubstantial


歌 舞 伎 【かぶき】song+dance+skill (n) kabuki; Japanese classical drama

舞 【まい】 (n) dancing; dance

伎 【き; ぎ】 (n) deed; skill


改 善 【かいぜん】Change + Better (n,vs) betterment; improvement; incremental and continuous improvement. Its five steps (5-S):

  1. Sei-Ri 整 理 【せいり】preparation + reason (n,vs) keeping things tidy (整 え 【ととのえ】 (n) preparation; arrangement; execution; 理 【り】 (n) reason
  2. Sei-Ton 整 頓 things in order, in an efficient layout
  3. Sei-So 清 楚 【せいそ】 (adj-na,n) neat and clean; tidy; trim
  4. Sei-Ketsu 清 潔 【せいけつ】 (adj-na,n) clean; standardization
  5. Shi-Tsu-Ke 躾 【しつけ】 (n) (uk) home discipline; training; upbringing; breeding;