Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Kindle 3, Day 1

Our Kindle 3 has arrived!

First Impressions:

Great idea, neat product.

Starting with the simple, yet effective packaging, the lightness, touch and feel of the reader; ease with which the equipment starts-up; the way it fits into is book-like cover, down to the cool bar-code design (incorporates a book-reader under a tree, in silhouette). Impressive.

The 3G connections are pretty fast. We started by downloading two books from Project Gutenberg and another four free ($0) books from the Amazon-Kindle Store.

The  matted screen display has the look and feel of paper, and the LED lights built into the cover are perfectly adequate for helping you read in complete darkness.

I like the idea of hassle-free connectivity - no worries about service-providers, data-transfer rates and compatibility. With this one little book you can stay connected to your email, search engines and browsers anywhere in the world - for free! :-)

The external speakers are good. The `screen savers` remain on when you shut down the machine and mimic fresh pencil illustrations.

Second Thoughts:

The cursor movement is a bit bizarre - maybe the directional-pad takes some getting used to...Some downloads happen without any on-screen indication (not even the whirl @ top left) - there is nothing on the screen to tell you that the process is still on. Many useful functions are hidden away under `Experimental` - especially the web browser and audio-reader. Even though the audio-reader can be activated with a two-key combination, all too often, the male voice sounds bland and robotic and seems oblivious of commas, full stops, exclamations and pauses.

When it comes to web-browsing this is certainly not an alternative to a laptop. Page downloads are slow - especially those heavy on pics and graphics. Sites like FaceBook will ask you to go through a verification process - perhaps because the IP address is not fixed on a 3G network.

The Let-Downs:

The Kindle Store seems to be rather fickle on special offers. While checking the Amazon-store simultaneously on a laptop and the Kindle, special offers that were displayed as available (eg., `because you purchased Edgar Allan Poe`s Poems`) on the laptop screen,  would not shown up at all on the Kindle screen!

The USB connector/charger cable smells toxic - air it for a few days before tucking it in your bag.

Kindle is not upfront about quite a few things and the user-guide leaves you with more questions than answers : how much does the lighted-cover weigh? how long will the battery last? - a pertinent question since it cannot be changed by the user; how much will a replacement cost? In case there is a software/hardware glitch, how does one get the equipment checked or repaired?

Why is Kindle selling copyright-free books that are available as free-downloads?

No answers.


Yet to Figure Out:
  • How does the Kindle offer 3G connectivity for free, worldwide?
  • Will 3G be free in India? - especially after the operators paid huge fees during the recent spectrum auctions?
  • How does Whispernet work?
  • How secure / insecure is this network when you cannot pinpoint the service provider?

Kindle Global Coverage with 3G / EDGE, GPRS: http://client0.cellmaps.com/tabs.html#cellmaps_intl_tab
Kindle Boards - Discussion forum http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,3520.0.html

Kindle - Official Site for Customer Discussions - http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Amazons-Wireless-Reading-Device/forum/Fx1D7SY3BVSESG/-/1

Cool Barcode Designs - http://infosthetics.com/archives/2009/11/visually_designing_barcodes.html

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Mess in Kashmir

Over the past few months, as the civic unrest in Kashmir went from bad to worse, it had become increasingly difficult to find Indian opinion-leaders with a sense of proportion.

Is it morally justified for security forces to gun down stone-throwers?

All the news channels seemed uniformly nonchalant, flippant and even irresponsible, in their commentary. Only the Hindu  (especially Siddharth Varadarajan) seem to have taken a meaningful position. And now there are two more Voices of Reason - Madhu Kishwar and  Prem Shankar Jha in Tehelka-

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Forex Games

Our decision to invest in a Kindle-3 has been hastened by unexpected macro-economic forces.

Over the last few days, the Japanese government has pumped over $20 billion into the money-markets in a unilateral attempt at lowering the price of the Yen. By spending about Yen 4 trillion a day, it has managed to pull the Yen-$ rates from 83 to 85.

Why is the yen getting stronger against the dollar? Why did Japan have to act unilaterally?

James Saft of Reuters has some interesting answers. In a rather nicely written piece (NYT 17 Sep., `Japan Plays a Game that Others Win`), he explains how China precipitated the ongoing crisis by checkmating the Japanese.

Over the past few months China has been increasing its purchase of Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) so as to diversify its forex portfolio which is, at present, heavily invested in US Dollar Treasury Bonds. During the same period China has been under pressure from the US to buy more dollars to ease a long-standing criticism about exchange rates that peg the Chinese Renminbi at an artificially low rate to the US dollar.

Now, by buying into JGBs it has triggered a chain-reaction resulting in a sudden spike in Yen-USD rates, due to which Japanese exports are becoming increasingly uncompetitive. To bring down the exchange rates, the Japanese government is buying loads of USDs, helping China continue its high exports riding on a cheap Renminbi...


James Saft, NYT 17 Sep., `Japan Plays a Game that Others Win`

Monday, September 13, 2010

Old Country

Japan celebrates 20 September as "Respect for the Aged" day - its a national holiday.

This summer there have been numerous reports about "missing" centenarians, and about officials from municipalities and  local governments going around checking on the elderly. The news made headlines for a few days before disappearing into the back pages. This is a growing problem in a rapidly aging nation - 23% of the population is 65 or over; by 2055, the government predicts, half the population will be pensioners.

Japan is also home to some of the most vigorous old folks in the world. It is home to one Mr.Keizo Miura who celebrated his 99th birthday in 2008, by skiing down a glacier in the French Alps. His son, Yuichiro, at 70 became the oldest man to climb Mount Everest. Then there is the physician and writer Shigeaki Hinohara, who continues to be very active at 99...

Here is an interesting article on the topic from yesterday's Japan Times: "Aging Through The Ages" by Michael Hoffman.

Turns out that "respect for the aged" is a fairly recent concept .  Not too long ago, before the Meiji Reforms, it was nothing out of the ordinary for folks to abandon their aged parents on mountain-tops - there is still a hill in Nagano called "Oba-sute" (literally 'throw-granny')! This was also the theme of a 1983 movie - The Ballard of Narayama.



"Aging Through The Ages" - Michael Hoffman, Japan Times (12 Sep. 2010) - http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20100912x1.html

Order of Culture - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Culture

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Rare Earths vs. Common Sense

There has been an interesting new move on the chessboard of world trade & politics.

Advanced economies have been hoping stay ahead by maintaining their lead in innovation & technology; by keeping the know-how and copyrights tightly guarded on one hand, and outsourcing their grunt-work to emerging economies, on the other. It is now turning out that some of the basic raw materials required for hi-tech - the rare earths - can be used as a potent bargaining tool in international trade.

'Rare Earths' is a strange term. They refer to 17 elements of the periodic table that are not actually 'rare'. Some of these elements are a lot more abundant than, say, lead or silver. But, as in the case of all metals, it takes a good deal of effort to excavate, mine and produce them, and what has been happening since 1990 is that China has been positioning itself as the dominant player in the Rare Earth Metals (REM) market.

In 1990 China ramped up its REM production & output from mines & foundries in Inner Mongolia (eg. Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare-Earth (Group) Hi-Tech Co). Then, over the next twenty years it successfully flooded the world markets with REMs, running most of the other REM producers out of business (in USA, Australia). China now has 97% of the market-share and calls itself the "OPEC of rare earth metals."

The analogy with OPEC and oil is rather apt. Easy availability of REMs has been one reason for the recent spurt in manufacture of more 'eco-friendly' and commercially viable hybrid cars (each Toyota Prius uses 25 pounds of REMs), solar panels, fuel-cells etc., Just when the future of the so-called "green" technology looked promising, China announced that it was cutting down the production of REMs due to "environmental concerns".

Last month China cut its export quotas for rare earth by 72 percent for the second half of this year. Shipments will now be capped at 7,976 metric tons, down from 28,417 tons for the same period a year ago. The sharp decline of the export quota will cause a shortage of around 20,000 tons of rare earth for international users this year.

China is also considering banning the export of yttrium (used in color TV tubes and to halt corrosion in steel), terbium (used in lasers and semi-conductors), and dysprosium (used in high temperature magnets that are required for electric motors in vehicles). Now, as the prices shoot up and the hi-tech companies struggle to survive in a competitive market, China is effectively using REMs as a bargaining tool. The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said last week that while China has used a "technology for market" strategy before—offering foreign companies low labor costs and access to its fast-growing market—"now we have the expression 'technology for resources.'

Where does India stand here?

Out of the total world production of 127,000 tonnes (2007), China produced 120,000 tonnes and India, at 2nd postion, produced 1700 tonnes (1.3%). We don't seem to have a significant presence in the manufacture of semiconductors or "green" high-tech goods.

It is also very unlikely that the government-run company Indian Rare Earths Ltd., would have anticipated this move in Chinese Checkers and positioned itself as a alternate source for REMs. The company website itself is outdated, and studded with self-congratulatory messages - "IREL is making profit since 1997-98 with its sales turnover reaching a peak exceeding Rs. 3600 million in 2006-07, with export component of above Rs. 1000 million (~US$ 21m)."

Looking back it does seem that we lacked  the common sense to anticipate and prepare for this opportunity. Perhaps this is what is called "Kupa-manduka Nyaya" in Sanskrit – the rationale of a frog-in-a-well...what a pity! :(

Some REMs and their Uses
  • Yttrium - used in color TV tubes and to halt corrosion in steel
  • Terbium - used in lasers and semi-conductors
  • Dysprosium - used in high temperature magnets that are required for electric motors in vehicles.
  • Molybdenum - additive to create specialty steel products.
  • Indium – required for products as LCD (liquid crystal display) televisions. Price hike - 8.5 times (2002-2009)
  • Tungsten- which is used to make light-bulb filaments and increase the hardness and strength of steel, rose 4.7-fold during the same period.
  • Neodymium -
  • Europium -
  • Cerium -
  • Lanthanum -

Rare Metal Mining - http://www.raremetalmining.com/?p=269

China, Japan Debate Restrictions on Rare Earth Exports -- August 30, 2010 People's Daily Online



* Fallout of the Trawler-Crisis on Chinese REM Exports to Japan (25 Sep 2010, Asahi Shimbun)
Prosecutors to release Chinese trawler captain URL - http://www.asahi.com/english/TKY201009240209.html 

...From November, Showa Denko KK will jack up prices fourfold for cerium abrasives used to polish substrates in liquid crystal display panels.

A prolonged ban would have also affected automobile and appliance manufacturers. An executive of a major trading company said Toyota Motor Corp. uses about half of the rare earth imports to Japan for hybrid vehicle motors.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. plans to double production of the i-MiEV electric vehicle next year, while Nissan Motor Co. will begin selling its Leaf electric vehicle in December. One big fear concerning China's export ban was the supply of cerium, a metal used in LC flat screen TVs, sales of which have been leading Japan's economic recovery.

Tsutomu Toichi, senior managing director and chief executive researcher at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, said the fallout from the trawler incident underscores the dangers in depending on a single nation for rare resources. "The government should use this as an opportunity to consider creating a stockpiling structure," Toichi said. Some companies are trying to move away from the dependence on China for rare earth metals. Panasonic Corp. and Sharp Corp. are turning to other materials and developing new technologies.The trading companies Sojitz Corp. and Sumitomo Corp. have heightened efforts to mine rare earth metals in Vietnam and Kazakhstan.
* Japan seeks new options on rare earths (BBC 10 Nov. 2010)

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Swami Vivekananda & Japan

Many monsoons' ago, a schoolteacher at Hyderabad had narrated to us an anecdote from the life of Swami Vivekananda. The monk was traveling around India with a friend from Japan, who remarked that the country seemed to be a very rich indeed. After a while, when the visitor kept on repeating the same thing, Vivekananda asked him, "Why do you keep reiterating the same thing, even after seeing for yourself the destitution and poverty all around??". The visitor replied, "Yes, but I also see so many young men sitting around idling their time away...you wouldn't see that in a poor country, would you?"

I don't know if the story was concocted to make a point, but it is a fact that Vivekananda had friends from Japan, and it is also well documented that he had pretty strong things to say about India, after his visit to Japan in 1893.

Vivekananda travelled to Japan on his way to the Parliament of World Religions at Chicago. He reached the port city of Nagasaki in mid-1893, and boarded a steamer to Kobe. From here to took the land route to Yokohama, visiting along the way, the three big cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. He called the Japanese "one of the cleanest people on earth", and was impressed not only by neatness of their streets and dwellings but also by their movements, attitudes and gestures, all of which he found to be "picturesque".

The visit happened at a time when the Japanese themselves would not take "picturesque" as a compliment. A band of youngsters - the Meiji reformers - had just completed the first phase of a major transformation of everything in Japan. Anything that was traditional - religion, social structure, education, government - was being considered decadent, and was being replaced with Western models.

This was also a period of rapid military build-up in Japan - a prelude to the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904). These preparations did not escape the attention of Vivekananda, who wrote - "The Japanese seem now to have fully awakened themselves to the necessity of the present times. They have now a thoroughly organized army equipped with guns which one of their own officers has invented and which is said to be second to none. Then, they are continually increasing their navy". About the industrial progress he observed, "The match factories are simply a sight to see, and they are bent upon making everything they want in their own country.".

Contrasting the rapid progress of Japan with the situation back in India, he urged his countrymen - the "offspring of centuries of superstition and tyranny" - to come out of their narrow holes and have a look abroad -
"Only I want that numbers of our young men should pay a visit to Japan and China every year. Especially to the Japanese, India is still the dreamland of everything high and good. And you, what are you? … talking twaddle all your lives, vain talkers, what are you? Come, see these people, and then go and hide your faces in shame. A race of dotards, you lose your caste if you come out! Sitting down these hundreds of years with an ever-increasing load of crystallized superstition on your heads, for hundreds of years spending all your energy upon discussing the touchableness of untouchableness of this food or that, with all humanity crushed out of you by the continuous social tyranny of ages – what are you? And what are you doing now? … promenading the sea-shores with books in your hands – repeating undigested stray bits of European brainwork, and the whole soul bent upon getting a thirty rupee clerkship, or at best becoming a lawyer – the height of young India’s ambition – and every student with a whole brood of hungry children cackling at his heels and asking for bread! Is there not water enough in the sea to drown you, books, gowns, university diplomas, and all?"
Yet, on his return to India in February 1897, when he was asked by a correspondent from The Hindu, "Is it your wish that India should become like Japan?", Vivekananda's response was unequivocal - "Decidedly not", he said, "India should continue to be what she is. How could India ever become like Japan, or any nation for the matter of that? In each nation, as in music, there is a main note, a central theme, upon which all others turn. Each nation has a theme: everything else is secondary. India's theme is religion. Social reform and everything else are secondary. Therefore India cannot be like Japan. It is said that when 'the heart breaks', then the flow of thought comes. India's heart must break, and the flow of spirituality will come out. India is India. We are not like the Japanese, we are Hindus. India's very atmosphere is soothing. I have been working incessantly here, and amidst this work I am getting rest. It is only from spiritual work that we can get rest in India. If your work is material here, you die of — diabetes!"

More than a hundred years later, the question is perhaps still open - when will India`s heart break?



Paranjape Makarand (2005), Penguin Swami Vivekananda Reader, Penguin India 2005, isbn 143032542, pages = 246-248

The Hindu (1997) The Abroad And the Problems At Home (The Hindu, Madras, February, 1897), Wikisource - The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda/Volume 5/Interviews/The Abroad And The Problems At Home, URL- http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Complete_Works_of_Swami_Vivekananda/Volume_5/Interviews/The_Abroad_And_The_Problems_At_Home
Life Timeline - http://www.thecircleoffire.com/vivekanandatimeline.html

Nikhilananda Swami (1953), Vivekananda - A Biography URL - http://unirs.mywibes.com/Books/Biography/Biography_Of_Swami_Vivekananda

Sen Amiya (2005), The Indispensible Vivekananda - An Anthology of Our Times, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2005