New Product: Berries, Memories

The other day, I found this new product at our local grocery store: Pichuberry (TM). The box described it as a “newly-discovered Super Fruit.” It came from Colombia. The Latin name is Physalis Peruviana.

newly discovered pichuberries

I hadn’t seen these newly-discovered berries in years. They were abundant in season in Delhi, when I was a kid. We called them “gooseberries” and ate kilos of them. They were cheap enough that my Mom made preserves from them – enough to last us most of the year. It was a lot better than Kissan’s mystery-fruit jam we had otherwise.

Had Delhi discovered them before anyone else?

Not so, it would seem. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about this plant, called the Cape gooseberry (South Africa), Inca berry, Aztec berry, golden berry, and a host of other names:

  • The plant was grown by early settlers of the Cape of Good Hope before 1807. In South Africa, it is commercially cultivated; canned fruits and jam are common, often exported.
  • Not long after its introduction to South Africa, Physalis peruviana was introduced into Australia, New Zealand, and various Pacific islands.
  • It is also cultivated and naturalized on a small scale in Gabon and other parts of Central Africa.
  • It is grown in India where it is called ras bhari.
  • The Cape gooseberry is also grown seasonally in Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China, harvested in late August through September.
  • Its Turkish name is altın çilek.
  • It is grown in Thailand, particularly on Doi Inthanon.
  • In Egypt where it is known locally as harankash or as is-sitt il-mistahiya (the shy woman, a reference to the papery sheath).

The store price here was the equivalent of several pounds of apples, but I bought a box of the ‘newly-discovered super-fruit’ anyway. For old times’ sake. It brought back memories of sitting with my Dad while he spread a toast with cream and, for our amusement, made designs on it with Mom’s home-made Gooseberry jam.


Posted in General, Intriguing Products | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Surprise for 2013: Corruption in India, China, US and Myanmar

I was browsing the Transparency International website, and realized they have their 2013 data up. This organization tracks corruption, and each year they make a ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’ across 175-180 or so countries. For 2013, it was 177 countries. This measures how business people both local and international perceive corruption in each country. The map below shows the findings graphically – lighter is better. (The Transparency website has a larger interactive map. Take a look if you want to browse.)

2013 Corruption Perceptions Map - Transparency International

2013 Corruption Perceptions Map (from Transparency International)

Each year I calculate a few normalized scores to see how India – and China, the US, and Myanmar for comparison – have done over time. (Technically, TI says you can’t compare pre-2012 scores with later scores, but I’ve made an adjustment that I think makes it good enough.)

Interestingly, India, China and the USA hadn’t changed much compared to 2012. Their ranks were in the 53rd, 45th, and 11 percentiles respectively. Their scores had hardly budged from the previous year. I’ll be very interested to see if the new government in India significantly affects corruption perceptions in the next survey.

Meanwhile, in the 2013 survey, the big surprise was Myanmar. In 2012, its rank was dismal – in the 98th percentile, it was among the worst in the world. This time, it was still dismal, but had improved distinctly, bringing it to the 89th percentile.

Corruption perception ranks comparison 2013Its score had risen from 15 to 21 between 2012 and 2013, while India remained flat at 36, the US flat at 73, and China moved only one point from 39 to 40.

Corruption perceptions scores comparison to 2013While a normalized rank of 89 is nothing to brag about, the improvement is. If Myanmar can keep this up for a few years, people will be able to dismiss corruption there as no worse than anywhere in ASEAN.


Posted in Asia, Doing Business in India | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Fire, Drones, and 3-D Printing: Maker Faire, SF Bay Area

I’d never been to the Maker Faire before, though it’s held annually and I’ve been hearing about it. It’s a fair for people who make things, whether from Legos or junk or fabric or wood or electronic parts. It sounded intriguing, and I thought my still-an-engineer-at-heart husband would find it interesting too. So we went.

It was huge, occupying all of the San Mateo Event Center. It was awesome.

This tower of flames is a strength machine. You hit a lever with all your strength, and depending on your strength, you get 2, 4, 6 or 8 bursts of fire. The small kids were getting 2-4, the 10-12 year-olds usually managed 6, and the teenagers easily achieved 8 flares. Like this picture.

strength machine flames


I’ve been reading about 3-D printing for a while now, but this was my first chance to actually see it in action. I lost count of how many booths there were with 3-D printers, mostly making small plastic objects. One was working with organic materials; 3-D printing is being developed as a possible way of making human organs.


The other big theme was drones – flying objects that have multiple propellers and a lot more capability than remote-controlled toy planes. Some have cameras. One booth had a drone fitted with a 3-D camera, with the idea that it could record and then 3-D print people’s faces. He couldn’t demo it because his remote control used infrared, and the outdoors area was too bright.

Inside the pavilion, there was a Drone Wars area. We didn’t stay for the main heats, but we did get a chance to watch several kinds of drones flying inside the netted arena. They seemed a bit delicate. One crashed, slightly damaged, and looked for all the world like an injured dragonfly trying to get off the ground again.

This thing is really taking off (no pun intended). Only, regulations haven’t kept pace and right now, no one knows what exactly is legal or not. In the US, commercial use of drones requires permission – but people are already using them for aerial photography. In fact, there’s a 2-minute clip of the Maker Faire, taken by a drone. It’s called “A Drone’s Day at Maker Faire.”


Some of it was sheer spectacle. They had kinetic sculptures, moving monsters made of recycled metal junk. They were powered by batteries, presumably lithium ion, or propane. Some emitted gouts of flame. This one is called El Pulpo Mechanico (and the video linked above shows it flaming from its tentacles).

el pulpo mecanicoThis dragon breathed fire – and so did the umbrella-shaped flower beside it!

flaming dragonI’d love to see this water-dragon on a lake; it looks like it would work. But that day, it was marooned on a parking lot.

sea monster with floatsThis is the Titanoboa, a mechanical representation of a now-extinct snake.


Not too sure what this was, but it looked like a metal fish monster and people were lining up to go aboard.

metal fish monster


They had a whole bunch of creative conveyances. This buggy was I think pedal-powered.
There were two of these mobile serpents racing around the grounds. The black one was more impressive, with fins on every segment and scales, but I didn’t get a good photo of it. Here’s the white one.
drum serpent
This mobile rocking horse worked with person power, only the rider had to post like he was actually riding, rather than pedaling in a circular motion. It looked exhausting. But the horse was cute and got a lot of attention.

mobile rocking horseThese two are “creature quads” – pedal-powered four-wheelers “drawn” by fuzzy monsters. This is Hawk (who can unfurl his wings), and Miss Tickle is in the background. These had an even higher cute factor, and visitors kept stopping them to pet them.
monster cart


It wasn’t all machines and monsters. The faire had a substantial fabric arts section, too. This was my favorite: Sweaty Taxidermy. She does taxidermy without actually using animal skins. Instead, she uses sweaters. The effect is arresting.

sweaty taxidermyThere were more traditional things, too, like clothes and jewelry, a lot of it with a steampunk motif.


There were all kinds of robots. This one was humanoid, and looked like we imagine robots to be. It looked more decorative than functional, though.

humanoid robotThese two were a bit different. They had to be contained behind a chain-link fence; this tall one raced around swinging a ball of fire.

fire robotIts companion was a demolition robot on caterpillar treads, crashing into metal objects provided for it to destroy.

demolition robotAnd then there was this Dalek (a Dr. Who villain). It said “Exterminate” a number of times, but it didn’t follow through. Fortunately.

recycled materials dalek

 [Note: I updated this post with more pictures from my iPhone – if I find more I like, I’ll add them in too.]

Posted in General, Intriguing Products | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Pinnacle Conference 2014 – IIM Alumni

Every year, IIM Americas, the alumni organization for the 13 Indian Institutes of Management, holds an annual conference.  My husband Ambi and I generally try to go. (We were classmates; he’s an alum too.)

Ashima Jain at Pinnacle 2014The organization’s come a long way since its founding less than ten years ago, as President Ashima Jain pointed out in her address, “Exciting Times.”  The name has been changed from IIM USA to IIM Americas to recognize our Toronto chapter. We’ve 13 chapters in America, and ties to overseas alumni organizations – including one in Singapore that I remember fondly. Ashima deserves a lot of the credit – despite working full time for Price Waterhouse Coopers, her energy and vision have made this organization flourish.

Exciting times for IIM AmericasUnlike the institutes themselves, whose value comes in part from their exclusiveness, IIM Americas tries to be inclusive. India now has 13 IIMs – up from three when I graduated! Most IIM alumni organizations tend to be institute-specific, and remain small.  Even IIM Kolkata, the oldest of these institutes, has a small graduating class; and the newest ones have very few alumni, because they’re new. Having a pan-IIM alumni association made all the difference – it now has 7,500 alumni as members, from all of the IIMs, old and new.

At Pinnacle, we missed the breakfast meeting on mergers and acquisitions – too early and too far for me, particularly since my interest in the topic is largely academic. The conference was at the Googleplex in Mountain View, a good hour’s drive from home.


Ro Khanna, who’s running for Congress in California’s 17th Congressional District, spoke about the need for an honest and nuanced conversation about jobs and the global economy. People don’t want jobs going overseas, but also want the lower prices from “Made in China.” A US-made smart phone, for instance, would cost around $2300. Also, technological change is a much larger reason for job loss on globalization, displacing low- and middle-skilled workers.

Attending a last-minute meeting in New York, Radha Ramaswami Basu, CEO of iMerit Technologies, gave her talk by video-conference. She was in India with Hewlett Packard years ago, and we were interested to know what she’s working on now. After her 20-year career at Hewlett Packard, she and her husband started a social enterprise called Anudip Foundation to train impoverished young men and women in Kolkata, India, in information technology and micro-entrepreneurship. Then she started iMerit to sell remote IT service to US companies, thus providing jobs to Anudip graduates.


Two interesting panel discussions focused on data privacy and on entrepreneurship.

Who has our data, and does it matter? Panelists Ankit Jain, (formerly of Google and founder of Quettra Inc),  Rachna Choudhry, (founder of, a start-up that helps individuals locate and understand bills before Congress), Lil Mohan, (entrepreneur and technologist); and Ro Khanna all agreed that large web companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo collected huge amounts of information on everyone who used the internet. After the Snowden revelations, we all know the US government also does. But: so what?

There were two interesting and opposed viewpoints. It’s companies gathering data that’s the real problem; they don’t use it for the common good but for marketing, while the government would generally use it to make us safer Vs:  It’s legitimate for companies to gather data about their clients as they’ve always done; but the size and power of the government that makes possible misuse of data both tempting and downright dangerous.

“People are willing to sacrifice data privacy for security,” commented the person sitting beside me.

But my experience is that it doesn’t even take that. People are willing to sacrifice data privacy for convenience. Everyone on the panel favored more transparency about what data was being collected, by whom, and how it was being used. But even if all that information were available, I suspect most people won’t bother checking.

What makes an entrepreneur succeed? Dr Ram Nidumolu (entrepreneur, author and academic), Mehul Nariyawala, (“Serial entrepreneur” and now at Google after his company got acquired), and Doc Vaidyanathan, (VP at CA Technologies) talked about what qualities an entrepreneur needs. A willingness to take risk is the most important, and one suggestion was to start something early before you’re embedded in a cushy job, with a family and a mortgage. Flexibility was essential, because no plan survived contact with reality. Determination, because ventures can and do fail; the key is to see it as a learning experience. (“Ventures fail, entrepreneurs do not.”) And luck, of course.

One of the pleasures of these gatherings is meeting old friends. I ran into S. Vittal, my IIM/A classmate who I hadn’t seen since we left the institute. Vittal, Ambi and I were among the most senior alums present — though there was one alumnus who had us beat by nearly a decade!

Outdoor lunch area at Googleplex




Posted in General | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Product “Improvement”

This is not a grumble about the ever-growing complications of home electronics devices, where the key to success appears to be in ignoring 90% of the buttons. Nor is it about the annoyances of continual software upgrades that leave a trail of incompatibilities in their wake. Or about high-tech running shoes that have replaced the then-ubiquitous simple plimsolls that were part of our school uniform.

old sauce panThis is about a saucepan.

This saucepan, in particular, a simple 11″ T-fal  with a glass lid. It seemed to fit right in with our cooking styles, and in the 2 or 3 years we’d owned it, we had used it again and again and again.  You can’t see it in this photograph, but the Teflon coating had started to wear out and look gray and patchy.

new saucepanIt was time for a new saucepan. We went back to the same store, and were delighted to find the same T-fal saucepan in the same size at more or less the same price, too. So we brought it, broke it out of the packing, tempered it and started cooking.

Something was wrong. While the old saucepan had sat stolidly on the stove while I stirred its contents, this one moved on the stove like skates on ice. I had to hold the handle when I wanted to stir it.

I couldn’t figure out what it was. The new pan was identical to the old one. I’m not much of a cook, and I figured maybe there was something I was doing wrong.  But the next day, my husband used it and found the same thing.

It wasn’t me, he pointed out. He waved the pan at me, upside down. This is what the bottom of the New Pan looked like.

bottom of new saucepanRather elegant and dramatic in its design, I thought. It wouldn’t look like that after a month or two, but right now it was a handsome thing.

Nope, he said. Those black rings aren’t paint or enamel. They’re Teflon. [Edited to add: Maybe they actually are enamel, but very slick enamel.]

Oh. But the previous pan was identical, right?

bottom of old saucepanNot quite It had the concentric rings, but no Teflon on the outer ones. The Teflon on the inner circles didn’t matter. The way our stove was designed, it was the outer part of the pan that rested on the burner.

So that explained it. What we couldn’t understand was, Why? His theory is that someone dropped one operation in its manufacture – scraping off the Teflon from the outer rings. Mine is that someone looked at the new design, as I did, and said That looks so good! And didn’t test it, because after all it’s a minor difference.

So now for a decision: Return the pan?  Or scrape off the Teflon, either deliberately or as time wears on and we keep cooking.

I think I’ll keep the pan, hold the handle when I stir, and be pleased that at least it’s not a computer upgraded to futility!

Posted in Intriguing Products | Tagged | 4 Comments

No More Polio in India

Possibly the most hopeful piece of news I’ve seen out of India today is that poliomyelitis may be a thing of the past there. They’ve had no cases for three years.

polio vaccine babyThis is excellent. When I was a child, the polio vaccine was given as an injection. I remember being taken for these shots, and didn’t quite get why my otherwise indulgent Mum and Dad were so adamant about immunizations.

Years later, I fully understand. My parents knew what these diseases did, they’d seen the effects. They’d lost relatives to typhoid and cholera. They’d seen kids die. They were grateful that the vaccines had become available.

Years before I was born, one of my my older cousins got polio. She survived, but her mother believed it spoiled her life. It left her then with a bad limp; and now, in her old age, with very limited mobility.

A friend of ours seemed to have overcome the effects of childhood polio. Her barely noticeable limp didn’t stand in the way of an exciting career and a lovely family. But then post-polio syndrome came roaring in, and again, it limits her mobility.

Polio was so widespread that it wasn’t unusual to see children in calipers to help them walk. It was a sight as familiar as crutches in my (US) college cafeteria, where skiing or football accidents usually hit some percentage of the healthy young population at any time. (This is one reason why I’m skeptical when parents decide not to immunize their kids. They haven’t seen the non -vaccinated world.)

And yet, by the time I was in school, no one I knew actually got polio. They’d been vaccinated.

It’s wonderful that this is now true in a population that’s three times the size it was then – and in villages as well as in cities.

Posted in General | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Corruption Perceptions

Transparency International‘s (TI) anually updated Corruption Perceptions Index covers 180 countries, give or take a few. In 2012, it ranked 176 countries. In the last few years, I’ve been following its scoring for India, and more particularly, whether perceived corruption has been increasing or decreasing. (Those posts are HERE and HERE.)

corruption perceptions map 2012

scale for corruption perceptions mapTI doesn’t measure corruption directly; instead, it uses surveys of various groups to get their perception of corruption in that country. From this, it derives a score (earlier, on a 0-10 scale, but from 2012 that’s been converted to a 0-100 scale, and higher is better). The score is then used to determine the country’s rank.

The map above, taken from TI’s website, shows the score by country on a color scale with yellow as the least and dark red as the most corrupt countries. (On their website, it’s interactive, and you can get each country’s score and rank. Click on the map above to go to TI’s interactive one.)

The scores actually tend to be quite stable over time. TI has results going back many years; I pulled scores for four countries back to the year 2000, compiled them, and graphed them. (I only found Myanmar from 2003 onward.)

Corruption perceptions comparisonBesides India, I looked at China because it’s the country most often used in such comparisons. It’s consistently scored higher than India – but not by much. On the map, both countries show as the same shade of medium red.  Myanmar – which is the country of my current project – is near the bottom of the range. Corruption perceptions there are dire. And the US – though not the top of the range by any means (that honor goes to Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, which each scored 90 points) – is a standard by virtue of its dominance in the world economy.

In general, the rankings are not as consistent as the scores.  Since the number of countries covered changed from year to year, I’ve normalized them on a scale of 0-100. (The actual rankings, which run from 1 to 174 in 2012, are available on TI’s website.) So here’s the graph of the normalized ranks. I inverted the axis this time to show the rankings visually. Again, I haven’t graphed the real winners: Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, which tied for first place, or Sweden and Singapore, which followed.

corruption perception scores comparison INDIA had been on a declining trend since 2008, with both scores and rank falling. It managed to reverse that in 2012. Its score ticked upward from 31 in 2011 to 36 in 2012, but it didn’t improve its rank; other countries, on the average, improved their scores more than India did. So India’s rank fell to 53, slightly below average.

India corruption perceptions time seriesCHINA, on the other hand, has been consistently above average in its ranking since 2004, as corruption perceptions have gradually improved since a low of 32 in 2005.

china corruption perceptions time seriesMYANMAR has a long way to go. Perceptions of corruption there are very bad indeed; its score of 15 gives it a rank of 98. It’s lumped with countries like Sudan and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Only North Korea, Afghanistan, and Somalia are worse (they have scores of 8, which would have given them a normalized rank of 99).

Myanmar corruption perceptions time seriesHow about the USA? It’s been pretty stable from 2004, not quite in the top 10% of the countries in terms of normalized rankings,  but close. Perhaps it could emulate its neighbor Canada, which had a score of 84 – and a normalized ranking in the top 5% of countries.

USA corruption perceptions time series

Posted in General | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment