(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Japan

“Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice?”*…

A mysterious illness killed princesses and sailors alike. Wellcome Collection/CC BY 4.0

In the late 19th century, a mysterious illness plagued the upper reaches of Japanese society…

In 1877, Japan’s Meiji Emperor watched his aunt, the princess Kazu, die of a common malady: kakke. If her condition was typical, her legs would have swollen, and her speech slowed. Numbness and paralysis might have come next, along with twitching and vomiting. Death often resulted from heart failure.

The emperor had suffered from this same ailment, on-and-off, his whole life. In response, he poured money into research on the illness. It was a matter of survival: for the emperor, his family, and Japan’s ruling class. While most diseases ravage the poor and vulnerable, kakke afflicted the wealthy and powerful, especially city dwellers. This curious fact gave kakke its other name: Edo wazurai, the affliction of Edo (Edo being the old name for Tokyo). But for centuries, the culprit of kakke went unnoticed: fine, polished, white rice…

The fascinating tale of kakke, and of the determined doctor who found a cure: “How Killer Rice Crippled Tokyo and the Japanese Navy,” in @atlasobscura.

* N.K. Jemisin


As we opt for brown rice, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Marcel Boulestin became the first “television chef” when he hosted the first episode of the first TV cooking show, the BBC’s Cook’s Night Out. A successful chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author, Boulestin helped popularize French cuisine in the English-speaking world (and was an important influence on Elizabeth David, and in turn, on Julia Child).


“Americans consider the United States an exceptional nation; so do the Chinese people think of their Middle Kingdom”*…

Each of the last five years, Dan Wang, a Canadian-raised, U.S.- (college) educated technology analyst living in Shanghai, has written a year-end letter. This year’s missive recounts a long bicycle trip through China, explains why Cosi Fan Tutte is (he argues) Mozart’s best opera, and shares the best books he read in 2021 (including one of your correspondent’s all-time faves, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep). But mostly, he ruminates on China and on its relationship with the U.S…

Internet platforms aren’t the only industries under suspicion. Beijing is also falling out of love with finance. It looks unwilling to let the vagaries of the financial markets dictate the pace of technological investment, which in the US has favored the internet over chips. Beijing has regularly denounced the “disorderly expansion of capital,” and sometimes its “barbaric growth.” The attitude of business-school types is to arbitrage everything that can be arbitraged no matter whether it serves social goals. That was directly Chen Yun’s fear that opportunists care only about money. High profits therefore are not the right metric to assess online education, because the industry is preying on anxious parents while immiserating their children.

Beijing’s attitude marks a difference with capitalism as it’s practiced in the US. Over the last two decades, the major American growth stories have been Silicon Valley (consumer internet and software) on one coast and Wall Street (financialization) on the other. For good measure, I’ll throw in a rejection of capitalism as it is practiced in the UK as well. My line last year triggered so many Brits that I’ll use it again: “With its emphasis on manufacturing, (China) cannot be like the UK, which is so successful in the sounding-clever industries—television, journalism, finance, and universities—while seeing a falling share of R&D intensity and a global loss of standing among its largest firms.”

The Chinese leadership looks more longingly at Germany, with its high level of manufacturing backed by industry-leading Mittelstand firms. Thus Beijing prefers that the best talent in the country work in manufacturing sectors rather than consumer internet and finance. Personally, I think it has been a tragedy for the US that so many physics PhDs have gone to work in hedge funds and Silicon Valley. The problem is not that these opportunities pay so well, rather it is because manufacturing has offered dismal career prospects. I see the Chinese leadership as being relatively unconcerned with talent flow into consumer internet and finance; instead it is trying to fashion an economy in which the physics PhD can do physics, the marine biology student can do marine biology, and so on.

An important factor in China’s reform program includes not only a willingness to reshape the strategic landscape—like promoting manufacturing over the internet—but also a discernment of which foreign trends to resist. These include excessive globalization and financialization. Beijing diagnosed the problems with financialization earlier than the US, where the problem is now endemic. The leadership is targeting a high level of manufacturing output, rejecting the notion of comparative advantage. That static model constructed by economists with the aim of seducing undergrads has leaked out of the lecture hall and morphed into a political justification for only watching as American communities of engineering practice dissolved. And Beijing today looks prescient for having kept out the US social media companies that continuously infuriate their home government.

A willingness to assess foreign imports as well as a commitment to the physical world combine to make me suspect that Beijing will not be friendly towards the Metaverse. Already state media has expressed suspicion of the concept. If the Metaverse will exist in China, I expect it will be an extremely lame creation heavily policed by the Propaganda Department. Xi’s speech on common prosperity in October noted that: “The rich and the poor in certain countries have become polarized with the collapse of the middle class. That has led to social disintegration, political polarization, and rampant populism.” The Metaverse, which represents yet another escape of American elites from the physical world, can only exacerbate social differences. It is too much of a fun game—like cryptocurrencies—played by a small segment of the population, while the middle class dwells on more material concerns like paying for energy bills. It might make sense for San Franciscans to retreat even further into a digital phantasm, given how grim it is to go outside there. But Xi will want Chinese to live in the physical world to make babies, make steel, and make semiconductors.

The Chinese state has long placed greater value on resilience over efficiency, which has dragged down its performance on metrics that economists care about, like return on equity. In my view, that is as often an indictment of the economic profession. The US focus on efficiency has revealed the brittleness of its economy, which has neither the manufacturing capability to scale up domestic production of goods nor the logistics capacity to handle greater imports. Decades of American deindustrialization as well as an aversion against idle capacity has eroded domestic manufacturing….

Since the US government is incapable of structural reform, companies now employ algorithm geniuses to help people navigate the healthcare system. This sort of seventh-best solution is typical of a vetocracy. I don’t see that the US government is trying hard to reform institutions; its response is usually to make things more complex (like its healthcare legislation) or throw money at the problem. The proposed bill to increase domestic competitiveness against China, for example, doesn’t substantially fix the science funding agencies that are more concerned with style guides than science; and the infrastructure bill doesn’t seem to address root causes that make American infrastructure the most costly in the world. Congress is sending more money through bad channels. That’s better than nothing, but the government should attempt to make some bureaucratic tune-ups.

The US is ahead of China on the sort of mathematical economics that win Nobel Prizes. But China is ahead of the US on the actual practice of political economy. One study I enjoyed this year noted that the Chinese government sends more jobs through state-owned enterprises to counties with greater labor unrest. I wonder how different the US would look today if the government did more to help workers. The US critique that “China stole the jobs” looks instead like a critique of its own economic system. China’s main activity was to invest in domestic competitiveness, thus becoming attractive to American firms, which relocated operations there. Meanwhile, the federal government did little to help disaffected workers at home. If there was a problem with this arrangement, fault should be on the US government for failing to restrain its firms or retrain its workers…

There’s so much more– including an acute look at (at least some of) the risks that China faces and the weaknesses (many self-inflicted) with which they have to cope: “2021 Letter,” from @danwwang. Eminently worth reading in full.

Patrick Mendis


As we take stock, we might recall that it was on this date in 1941, in the midst of the China resistance to the Japanese invasion during World War II, that Chiang Kai-shek ordered Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Party New Fourth Army disbanded on January 17, and sent it’s commander Ye Ting to a military tribunal. It was the end of any real cooperation between the Nationalists and Communists.

Mao quickly reorganized the force under a new commander and continued to fight the Japanese– though as guerillas, independent of Chiang Kai-shek’s command. When Japanese surrendered and withdrew, the Nationalists and Communists turned on each other.

A Communist soldier waving the Nationalists’ flag of the Republic of China after a victorious battle against the Japanese, just before the the 1941 break


“Gentlemen, you need to add armor-plate where the holes aren’t, because that’s where the holes were on the airplanes that didn’t return”*…

Diagram of bullet-holes in WWII bombers that returned

Allied bombers were key to Britain’s air offensive against Germany during the second world war. As such, the RAF wanted to armour their bombers to prevent them from being shot down. But armour is heavy – you cannot reinforce an entire bomber and still have it fly. So statistician Abraham Wald was asked to advise on where armour should be placed on a bomber.

After each wave of bombing, every returning aircraft was meticulously examined and a note was made of where each aircraft had sustained damage by the Germans. The image [above] conceptualises what Wald’s data might have looked like visually.

So what was Wald’s advice? Where should armour be added?

He essentially advised the RAF to add armour to places where you do not find bullet holes. Wait… what?!

Wald wisely understood that the data was based only on planes that survived. The planes that did not survive were likely to have sustained damage on the areas where we do not observe bullet holes – such as around the engine or cockpit…

Making better decisions: one of the most prevalent– and insidious– forms of selection bias, survivorship bias, illustrated: “How to armour a WWII bomber.”

See also: “How to avoid being duped by survivorship bias.”


As we think clearly, we might send productive birthday greetings to W. Edwards Deming; he was born on this date in 1900. An engineer, statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and management consultant, he helped develop the sampling techniques still used by the U.S. Department of the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But he is better remembered as the champion of statistically-based production management techniques that first gained traction in post-WWII Japan, where many credit Deming as a key ingredient in what has become known as the Japanese post-war economic miracle of 1950 to 1960, when Japan rose from the ashes of war onto the its path to becoming the second-largest economy in the world– through processes shaped by the ideas Deming taught. In 1951, the Japanese government established the Deming Prize in his honor.

While his impact in Japan (finally) brought him to the attention of business leaders in the U.S., he was only just beginning to win widespread recognition in the U.S. at the time of his death in 1993.


“Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something”*…


rice cooker


Rice is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the world’s population, especially in Asia and Africa.  It is the third most widely-cultivated staple crop worldwide, after maize/corn and wheat… and it is notoriously difficult to prepare correctly on a stove…

Cooking rice on a stovetop can be fraught. Add too much water and you end up with porridge. Without a keen sense of timing, you end up with undercooked [pellet-like] grains…

The automatic rice cooker is a mid-century Japanese invention that made a Sisyphean culinary labor as easy as measuring out grain and water and pressing a button. These devices can seem all-knowing. So long as you add water and rice in the right proportions, it’s nearly impossible to mess up, as the machines stop cooking at exactly the right point for toothsome rice. But creating an automatic rice cooker was not so easy. In fact, it took decades of inventive leaps, undertaken by some of the biggest names in Japanese technology…

How the biggest names in Japanese technology fought to make rice easy: “The Battle to Invent the Automatic Rice Cooker.”

* Mitch Hedberg


As we ponder the pursuit of perfection, we might recall that today is National Potato Day– a celebration of the fourth most-widely cultivated staple crop.

220px-Patates source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 19, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness”*…




Around this time of year, a coveted prize is awarded within a niche industry in Japan: the Laundromat-of-the-Year-Award (pdf). It’s presented at an industry fair in Tokyo known as the International Coin-Operated Laundry EXPO where excellence in laundromats are recognized within 3 main categories. There’s a top prize, a prize for best design and a prize for best user experience…

Meet the honorees: “Winners of Japan’s 2019 Laundromat of the Year Award.”

* John Wesley


As we pre-soak, we might recall that it was on this date in 1934 that the Maytag company produced the first “Maytag Toy Racer,” a one-passenger automobile sold mainly to Maytag dealers, who raced them to promote the brand.  498 Maytag Toy Racers were built before production ended on December 1, 1941, and approximately 25 survivors have been located to date.

400px-Maytag_toy_racer source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

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