Friday, January 29, 2010

Music at Nova

There was a concert today at Nova Hall, Tsukuba.

About fifty amateur musicians played the following pieces with their gleaming instruments - 
  • St. Paul's Suite - Gustav Holst
  • Hayao Miyazaki - Animation Medley arranged by Masahiro Joya
  • "Nabucodonosor" Sinfonia - Giuseppe Verdi
  • "Pomp and Circumstance" March (No.1 Op.39) - Edward Elgar
What struck me was that not one of the musicians betrayed any signs of enjoying what they were doing. Not one smile or a sparkle-in-the-eye...even when they were playing the Tonari-no-Totoro animation medley!

Is there some rule that you have to wear a grim face while playing classical music?

    Links - for a rough idea of what the music sounds like...

    St. Paul's Suite - Gustav Holst -

    "Nabucodonosor" Sinfonia - Giuseppe Verdi

    "Pomp and Circumstance" March (No.1 Op.39) - Edward Elgar

    Thursday, January 28, 2010

    Away on a Segway

    Today I set my hands - and feet - on a remarkable piece of engineering...a Segway.

    I had just stepped out of the library for lunch when I saw somebody floating past on two wheels. It looked like one of those toy scooters but the wheels were large, the pedestal was compact and the rider was certainly not making any effort to move along.

    At first I thought it was one of those experimental robots that roll out from time to time from the engineering department, but then I remembered seeing pictures of this is some magazine...about somebody describing it as the eco-friendly answer to the world's commuting problems.

    I sided up to the rider (turned to be a budding product designer) and asked if I could take a photograph but he just said, "Do you want to try it?".

    I jumped at the offer! :)

    Not sure of how the thing worked, I gingerly stepped on to it.The rubberised pedestal felt nice, but the handle seemed a bit wobbly. There were no intuitive buttons or dials - just a smiley round display indicating battery charge. The left handle seemed a bit like a throttle but I was told that instead of accelerating this is what helped you turn. I twisted it slightly, and sure enough, the rubber wheels silently turned to one side.

    But the basic question still remained - "How do you move?"

    "Just lean forward!", said the amused designer.

    I tightened my grip on the handle and shifted my weight towards the front. The wheels slowly started moving, and sensing the angle of my tilt, it would roll faster or slower. To stop or decelarate, you just had to lean backwards.

    By now I had gained some confidence (of the machine & the designer) and ventured down the 30-degree slope towards the cafe area. Halfway down the slope I tired turning the wheels to go back uphill and it sensed the shift in centre of gravity just perfectly. The simplicity of it all was just amazing!

    Later I learnt that the Segway has been around since 2001-02 but its popularity has been impeded by the fact that it is just too expensive. In Japan costs around Yen 900,000 (Rs.4.5 lakhs - the cost of nice car or many-many-many bicycles!) and that its not permitted on the roads because it does not have the usual brakes or lights.

    So until they change the laws and start manufacturing it in China, I guess we'll all find it more convenient to just walk or bicycle around.



    Tuesday, January 26, 2010

    Pandits, Nairs, Advisers

    While reading Guha's "India After
    Gandhi", it was interesting to know about the influence wielded by Kashmiri Pandits during Indira Gandhi's tenure. Collectively known as the 'Pancha Pandavas', these five 'hero's' were -
    1. P.N. Haskar - LSE graduate, a student of mathematics, keenly interested in history (diplomatic & military); Indian ambassador to Austria, first High Commisioner to Nigeria, Dy. High Commisioner to UK (1967) before being called by Indira Gandhi to become her Principal Secretary.
    2. T.N. Kaul - politician turned diplomat
    3. D.P. Dhar - politician turned diplomat
    4. P.N. Dhar - economist turned mandarin
    5. R.N. Kao - policeman turned security analyst; founding Director of RAW

    Equally fascinating was the description of V.P. Menon's role - first, before Independence as reforms commissioner and constitutional adviser to successive viceroys (including Lord Mountbatten), and his key role in drafting the Indian Independence Bill. And then his subsequent role in the integration of Indian states, as Secretary to India's first Home Minister, Sardar Patel. He was, according to Guha -

    "...a small, alert and ferociously intelligent Malayali from Malabar. Unusually for a man in his position, Menon had come from the ranks. Far from being a member of the elite Indian Civil Service - as other secretaries to the government were - he had joined the government as a clerk and steadily worked his way up...His peers in the ICS derisively called him 'babu Menon', in reference to his lowly origins."

    Times, it seems, have changed. Yesterday, the Indian Express came up with a piece under its Monday column, Delhi Confidential, titled, "The More Things Change..." referring to the number Nairs who occupy sensitive positions in the present administration:

    • M.K. Narayanan - former national security adviser (NSA), now governor of West Bengal
    • Shivshankar Menon - MKN's protege; former foreign secretary, present NSA
    • Nirupama Rao - Foreign Secretary
    • G.K Pillai - Home Secretary
    • T.K.A. Nair- Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister
    • (J.N. Dixit - the first NSA was born a Nair before taking his stepfather's surname)

    The only name missing in the Express list was Shashi Tharoor. But then, he is neither an advisor nor a bureaucrat. He India's just India's irrepressible twitter-in-chief disguised the Minister of State for External Affairs, committed to unraveling the cocoon of myths & yarns of hypocrisy in the Indian political discourse... :)


    Links / Reference:

    Guha, Ramachandra (2007), India After Gandhi [Picador India pp.40-41, 434-435]

    "The More Things Change...", Indian Express - Delhi Confidential - 26 Jan 2010

    "Manmohan - The Mallu Connection", T.V.R Shenoy, - 2 June 2004

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    International Trade Theories

    My head is reeling - I'm just out of a three-hour session dedicated to mathematical derivations of three theorems under International Trade Theory:

    • The Heckscher-Ohlin (Factor-Proportions) Model
    • The Stolper-Samuelson Theorem
    • The Rybczynski Theorem

    As is usual, my enthusiasm & interest diminished as soon as the discussion moved from the world of real-life, practical problems to the world of 'proof by equations'. What was unusual, however, is that I felt guilty about not paying attention because the logic behind the proofs did look interesting until I lost track and felt sleepy.

    I needed to get back to brasstacks, and thankfully there is a website that deals with theory without losing sight of practice.

    About International Trade, it said, "lessons that are most interesting and valuable are those that teach something either counterintuitive, or at least contrary to popular opinions". Here are some counterintuitive points -

    1. The main support for free trade arises because free trade can raise aggregate economic efficiency.
    2. Trade theory shows that some people will suffer losses in free trade.
    3. A country may benefit from free trade even if it is less efficient than all other countries in every industry.
    4. A domestic firm may lose out in international competition even if it is the lowest-cost producer in the world.
    5. Protection may be beneficial for a country.
    6. Although protection can be beneficial, the case for free trade remains strong.

    More at -
    * Intl. Trade Theory & Policy by Steven M. Suranovic -

    Sunday, January 17, 2010

    Hero Hirani

    Interesting articles on the movie director, Rajkumar Hirani and his latest blockbuster, "3 Idiots" :

    * No Idiots - Rajni Mohanty Iyer in the New York Times/IHT (15 Jan. 2009)

    * The Doctor of Sweet Angst - Knight in Comic Armour - Shoma Chaudhury in Tehelka (18 Jan., 2009)


    Saturday, January 16, 2010

    Random Pics



    Bright Crow

    Ice Needles

    Windy Day

    Koban (Police Post)




    Friday, January 15, 2010

    Making Mochi at Azuma

    At Azuma Yochien (kindergarten) I had expected the event to some kind of `fathers day` with all the daddies helping make Mochi (new year spl. rice cakes), for the kids. I was expecting big, boisterous crowds but when I reached there, all was calm and quiet - the kids, in caps and face-masks, were getting ready for lunch-time and there was no sign of any Mochi anywhere.

    I must have been lingering around looking lost when a staff-member spotted me and led me to the principal`s room where there were four (only!) other dads sipping green-tea and waiting for the action to begin.

    It took me a while to get a hang of things but the whole process was something as follows -- rice was being cooked on two stoves outside and two large mortars (usu, made of solid, heavy wood) and mallets (kine) of assorted sizes were readied on the side. First we carried the mortars out and placed them on two straw mats in the playground. A sticky block of cooked Mochi rice was then placed on the wet mortars.

    For a while this rice was just kneaded using the mallets by two of us just pushing it down as we walked around. And then, after the rice had reached a certain consistency, the pounding started with two of us banging away alternately while a third man gingerly scooped the rice paste, which was getting smoother and stickier until it was one steaming hot, silky white glob.

    Once the Mochi was ready it was the turn for the kids to try their hand at it using miniature mallets while a photographer recorded the event for posterity. Of the two groups in the kindergarten, the juniors were a lot more enthusiastic - standing around in a circle chanting `Gambaare! Gambaare!`. The seniors (6 year-old`s), on the other hand, had a bored, been-there-done-that attitude about the whole thing, and just chatted around until it was time for them to return to their class.

    The whole process was good fun - for the first 30 minutes. The heavy wooden mallet had a nice feel to it and was good to see the sticky rice squelching under each blow and bits of it splattering on my specs and face.Then, as the first round went into the second, third and the fourth, the mallet became heavier and too slippery to hold with one hand; my right arm started hurting, bits of skin on my palm tore away leaving a bloody mess and my fingers just refused to budge. Thankfully, the fifth was the last round and I was happy to finally clean my hands under stinging, ice-cold tap water, and recuperate.

    This was my second tryst with Mochi-making this winter. The first one was with the Michikawa`s (my host-family) at Mimori village near Mt.Tsukuba. At the village we had used an outdoor firewood-stove to cook the rice but instead of heavy, wooden usu-kine, we had used a kneading machine. Coming to think of it, it was so much more convenient - the only muscle-work required was for chopping the firewood and for cleaning the machine after each round!

    The Michikawa`s had offered the first round of `maru-mochi`s` (round mochi`s) to the family altar inside the house; the second one to the dieties residing in miniature shrines under a big tree outside, and the third one was for friends and family. The last set was distributed in two forms - sweet lumps dunked in brown sugar-bean powder (delicious!) and the second with a pungent radish paste.

    It was a great experience - but I`m glad Mochi is made only once a year! :)



    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    Innovation in Israel

    After a glimpse of Taiwan a couple of days ago, here are some interesting facts about Israel -

    • With a population of just 7 million, Israel attracts more Venture Capital than France & Germany combined.
    • Between 1980 and 2000, Egyptians registered 77 patents in the US. Saudi`s registered 171. Israel registred 7,652.
    • Israel has more high-tech start-ups per capita than any other nation on earth.

    Wonder how many were registered by Indians during the same period...


    References / Links:

    Friday, January 08, 2010

    Economics and Deception

    The closer you get to Economics the more you wonder why some people take it so seriously. They call it a `science` and yet, most of the mathematical modelling that goes into it is based on assumptions that are anything but solid.

    Aruna Roy summed up this dilemma pretty well in one article -

    There are two current myths that need serious examination. The first is that the economists have scientific answers and know best. The second is what the news and media now project—that people are largely mindless absorbers of glitter. Both these insult the intelligence of people.

    Economics is not mathematics, it is more interpretative than absolute. Every economic argument has a counter argument. The power behind economic positions is determined by political ideology, the backing of power, money—sometimes ill-begotten—and a variety of motivations. The tragedy is that this group, which prides itself on its objectivity, has become the new God. Opinions are made by selective perception and, in their language, by data, sample size and schedules. The media helps reinforce the view that this is the whole truth.

    Till two decades ago, it was accepted internationally that economic designs emanated from political priorities. But today we have conveniently elevated economics to a science, and we peddle it—consciously, hypocritically and ruthlessly for the well-being and reinforcement of a ruling elite, far more frightening than Big Brother ever was in Orwell’s 1984. We need to honestly question ourselves. As the Mahatma said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, not for everyone’s greed.”
    Joan Robinson, a Cambridge don who was consulted by P.C. Mahalanobis while framing India's Second Five Year Plan, made another interesting point - "The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists."


    Links / Reference

    Taiwan - Quietly Brilliant

    Two separate news-items - both about the dynamics of the mobilephone market - caught my attention today:

    It's interesting that even though Nokia sells more earns less. While Apple simply designs ONE phone and has it built in Taiwan by Foxconn, Nokia designs and manufactures dozens of models and has factories in several countries even though the most expensive models are still made in Finland. (The Economist, 4 Jan 2010)
    Google entered the smartphone market with NEXUS ONE, which runs on the web giant's Android operating system and is made by HTC of Taiwan. (Ditto)

    In this battle of corporate goliaths one country is the clear winner - Taiwan - a country with a population of 23 million (~Delhi+Mumbai) and a land area of 35,980 (Kerala is 38,863

    Taiwanese companies like HTC and Foxconn are not the exception - they are just two of the numerous, unglamorous companies that keep the global high-tech marketplace humming. Here are the prominent ones -

    • Quanta Computer - the No. 1 global maker of notebook PCs and a key supplier to Dell (DELL ) and Hewlett-Packard;
    • Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSM )- the biggest chip foundry on the planet, an essential partner to U.S. companies such as Qualcomm and Nvidia (NVDA );
    • AU Optronics (AUTO ), - big supplier of liquid-crystal display panels;
    • Hon Hai Precision Industry (aka Foxconn) - makes everything from PC components to Sony's (SNE ) PlayStation 2, and which is a fast-rising rival to Flextronics International (FLEX ), the world's biggest contract manufacturer;
    • HTC - a pioneer in mobile hardware with a catchline that could represent all Taiwanese Industries - `quietly brilliant`.

    In 2005, revenues of Taiwan's 25 key tech companies was about $122 billion. To put this figure in perspective, the whole of Reliance Group had a combined revenue of $28 billion and Tata Motors, $16 billion.

    How did Taiwan position its technology industry to play such a key role in the global economy?

    By what master-stroke of pragmatism do Taiwanese companies manage to outsource most of their production to factories in mainland China - their biggest political foe?

    History gives a part of the answer - Japanese rule prior to and during World War II brought forth changes in the public and private sectors of the economy, most notably in the area of public works, which enabled rapid communications and facilitated transport throughout much of the island. The Japanese also improved public education and made the system compulsory for all Taiwanese citizens during this time.

    Also, when Chiang Kai-shek`s Koumintang (KMT) government fled to Taiwan in 1949, it brought the entire gold reserve and the foreign currency reserve of mainland China to the island which stabilized prices and reduced hyperinflation. More importantly, as part of its retreat to Taiwan, KMT brought with them the intellectual and business elites from mainland China. The KMT government instituted many laws and land reforms that it had never effectively enacted on mainland China.

    A more relevant explanation was found in this old article in the Business Week:

    The island combines an entrepreneurial culture with effective government involvement. The Hsinchu-based Industrial Technology Research Institute is a collection of labs that works closely with local companies. It has 4,300 engineers striving to match the best that the West, Japan, and Korea can offer in fields such as microelectronics and optoelectronics. The government-backed Institute has alliances with scientists from MIT, the University of California at Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. Companies such as TSMC and cross-town rival United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC ) have their origins in ITRI technology.

    `Effective government involvement` that is a difficult dance!!


    References / Links:

    Thursday, January 07, 2010

    Getting Used to Canon PowerShot G11

    Amazon has delivered the G11 a lot faster than I expected!

    I had placed the order on 5 Jan., and the confirmation email from Amazon had said that delivery would take place on 7 Jan. However, I received a call from Sanawa Couriers at 11:00AM on 6 Jan. itself and I soon found myself looking at a neat little case strapped to the bottom of an oversize carton.

    This boxy, black camera with retro dials reminded me of my first camera - a Kodak-Kroma film camera gifted by B'man in 1993. The G11 was, of course, a lot heavier (360g) than either the Kroma or IXUS-80, and had a much more chunky, solid feel to it.

    The User Manual in the box was only in Japanese, but thankfully, the whole thing can be downloaded from Canon-USA at -
    Now, I'm checking out the Guide and brushing up on the basics of manual control from, BestPhotoLessons, TheTechLounge, and an Apple (!) site - Aperture- Digital Photography Fundamentals.

    Other Links -
    * Canon Camera Museum -

    Tuesday, January 05, 2010

    Hunt for a New DigiCam

    The Canon 860-IS we had picked up from Palika Bazaar in New Delhi in December 2008, is still working but only just.

    The camera has survived numerous falls but the day after it dropped from my pocket and crashed on to the granite slabs of Shivananda Ashram at Rishikesh, its LCD-TFT screen had developed a 'dead-spot'. The pictures continued to be pretty good though. But recently something seems to have gone wrong with its CCD itself. Any contrast of brightness seems to spill into rest of the frame, making the pictures look like this -

    Shifting to the manual mode seems to help but the images lose their depth and contrast.

    So, two years and 7000+ pics later it was time to look for another camera...but the big question was - should it be a 'replacement' or an 'upgradation'? Another compact digicam or a Digital SLR?

    After a few window-shopping trips to KS-Denchi and Yodobashi Camera (Akihabara / Ueno), I shortlisted three compact camera's and two digital-SLR's: Compacts - Nikon P6000, Canon G11 and Lumix (Panasonic) GF1, and among DSLRs - Nikon D-90 and Canon EOS 7D.
    • Nikon P6000 was neat and light with a built-in GPS device; it was launched last year and the reviews were mixed.
    • Canon G11 was launched just a few months ago and was upgrade from G10 which was reputed to the favourite compact for professionals, war-correspondents and fashion-designers. This model had reduced the MegaPixel count from 12 to 10 and added a swivel screen. Price - Yen 54,800.
    • Panasonic Lumix GF1 was just a month old and the pro-photo mags were full of glowing reviews about is SLR-sized sensor. But it was expensive at Y62,000 and I was not too thrilled about the fact that it was being promoted as a `ladies camera`.

    The SLRs were, of course, beautiful pieces of equipment but they were expensive (Yen-80,000+... just the body!) and heavy. It was no fun lugging around a 1kg camera everywhere.

    Since I wanted somthing that I could carry in my bag everyday the expensive SLRs were out of the reckoning straightaway. The Nikon P6000 was nice but it had features like the GPS which I didn't really need. I would have loved to have the Lumix GF1 but it was as expensive as some SLRs.

    While I was gravitating towards Canon G11 and brooding about the prices, Go.Y suggested that I take a look at , an online retailer. Everything was selling here at a surprisingly generous discount. The G11 was Yen 41,700 here - about Y-15,000 less than the prices being offered by huge retailers like Yodobashi-Camera. Even after considering the point-card system at Y-C (10%, so a 'discount' of Yen 5400) it was much more expensive than the prices being offered by retailers at .

    Was there some catch? Were the kakaku-retailers selling the equipment without the standard accessories like the battery-pack and cables? (This is what folks at Palika Bazaar would do!).
    I asked around and learnt that people purchased regularly from had faced no such problems - the price difference was perhaps due to the huge overheads for off-line retailers. The clincher was that online purchases could be paid through COD (cash on delivery), for a nominal extra fee.

    So, finally, today I placed an order on through I can`t wait to get my hands on the new camera! :P

    Update and Cautionary Note    (3 August 2010)

    Seven months and ~3,400 clicks later the buttons on my G11 suddenly stopped working. Despite full charge, none of the buttons - "on/off", "menu", "display"...nothing worked except the "playback" button. And when this was pressed the calender-cubes animation would come on the screen. If you pushed the same button once again, the playback function would get activated. But everything else, including the lens cover, remained unresponsive.

    The software needed a reset but neither the use-manual not the internet revealed any solutions. One user on DP-Review seemed to have encountered a similar problem under "Wierd Canon G11 Issue".

    Luckily, I happened to be working in Tokyo now. So I took my camera to the Canon Service Centre at Ginza, and they repaired it within four working days, for free. It seems to be working just fine.