My Kiva.org Update 2015

kiva

I’ve covered Kiva a few times over the years I’ve been ‘lending’ through it, so I thought I’d put up a post about where I am as we copme to the end of 2015.

At the end of 2014, I’d lent 125USD total in 3 years, and lamented I was far behind the average 330USD lend rate, and having just 50USD to rotate through loans.

Now I’ve got 105USD on deposit with Kiva, and have made 300USD in loans. I’ve also donated some money to Kiva itself. I think that counts as a good year for my Kiva involvement, and I hope in 2016 I can put a little more in there. I also collected all 7 of the ‘Social Performance’ badges, which is one of the ways Kiva tries to gamify the experience a little.

One thing I will say though is that I see quite a lot of small US businesses on there now, which you wouldn’t see before, such as a Manhattan fresh food start up. It’s certainly no bad thing, just something I hadn’t noted before. For my part, I think I’ll keep my small loan rotation focused on other parts of the world.

Kiva on, people.

 

 

 

Modern Hoaxes & Frauds from Japan

One thing that seems to happen all over the world, are hoaxes and frauds, like Piltdown Man, crop circles and Justin Bieber being a lizard, to name but three. Some have been subtle,  and yet others were put on display almost as challenge hoaxes, such as those by entrepreneur P.T. Barnum.  Many fall somewhere in the middle.

Is there a difference between a hoax and a fraud? I’m going to say a fraud is pretty much a hoax in these situations, but where someone has intentionally benefited either financially or through reputation. Let’s say that shall we? Here then, are four hoaxes/frauds from Japan over the last couple of decades.

When is a stem cell not a stem cell?

Early 2014 was an interesting time in Japan with the rollercoaster scientific ride which was RIKEN and Obokata-san’s announcement they could re-program adult cells to become stem cells in a process called STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency). This was an exciting announcement, given with great fanfare in January 2014, making Obokata a celebrity in Japan, right down the apron she claimed to get from her grandmother which she wore during the experiments (and later proved to be largely untrue).

This news of a simple way to create stem cells was published in Nature magazine in fact – not a lightweight outfit in itself. The Japanese media lapped it up.

Quickly though, many peers became unimpressed, initially citing doctored images, and by April 2014, these doubts had made Obokata quite irritated, and so the press rallied to support her, given the pressure being put on their allegedly photogenic star scientist.

However, it was all for naught. In July, Nature retracted the paper as Obokata could not recreate the results she claimed to have been able to do 200 times, neither could any other lab;  her mentor – Yoshiki Sasai  – tragically committed suicide just a few months later,  in August. It all came to a close in December when Obokata resigned, after six months working with an independent team and still not managing to recreate her results.

Like most hoaxes/frauds, this one took a lot of time in the checking and unraveling which could have been better spent researching in what is a very worthy field, so I label this one a fraud, and given allegations Obokata hadn’t been entirely honest on her doctorate submission, we await if she can make a comeback in the field.

 

Not The New Beethoven-san

It seemed that for years a man called Mamoru Samuragochi had been earning a fairly tidy living being known as a deaf composer, indeed a modern day Beethoven – except that he wasn’t actually writing the music. Also, he might not even be deaf.

The music was actually being written by another composer, a music teacher named Takashi Niigaki, who effectively was ghostwriting for the rather more flamboyant and charismatic Samuragochi.

This all came out in February 2014 (a good time for these things in Japan it seems), when the composition “Hiroshima Symphony #1” was about to be used by one of Japan’s Olympic skaters at the Sochi Olympics. In fact the truth was outed by none other than Niigaki himself. I expect since this was on an international stage, Niigaki decided it was time to get some personal credit for his work.

Incidentally, the New York Times called Samuragochi ‘beloved’, and referred to the incident as a hoax, but I’m going to have to call fraud on this one. The two were in cahoots for 18 years, and whilst I don’t doubt either of them had talent, they needed each other – would Niigaki’s work have received the same attention it had done if it was he doing the PR for it, or does it get more attention to have a hippy looking, deaf  ‘composer’ fronting the works?

Sadly I can’t find any details of how it works under copyright, but Niigaki claims he’s received 70,000USD for his work with Samuragochi, and with his tune soon to be getting massive exposure in Japan with the popular skater Daisuke Takahashi, I have to assume the timing was related financially.

That Samuragochi may not be totally deaf is just another twist on this, as claimed by Niigaki and others, and even the man himself admitted, “The truth is that recently I have begun to hear a little again.”

The proof in this one is the calibre of future works by either of them.

 

I’m Your Biggest Fan!

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that may not be the case when the other person doesn’t know you’re doing it, you’re claiming it as your own, and accepting awards and money for it.

In 2006, Yoshihiko Wada received a fairly prestigious award in Japan – the “Education, Science and Technology Minister’s Art Encouragement Prize”, except that, following an anonymous tip, it was alleged that Wada had in fact copied some of ‘his’ works from an Italian artist, Alberto Sughi.

If you look at two of the items side by side, they do look a little more than similar more than similar – that’s assuming you can find images as they seem a little scarce nowadays.

Sughi vs. Wada
Sughi vs. Wada (from kispad.hu)

It’s not as if Wada had just randomly found the images either – he’d met Sughi whilst in Italy, studying, and claims to have worked with him, which might be stretching it a little, since that’s not how Sughi remembers it – he thought Wada was a fan and remembers he took a lot of photos of his work.

“I never knew he was producing works like this. They’re stolen” – Sughi

This then, has the added wrinkle of plagiarism to it, making this the only one here most definitely not a hoax. Wada also lost the award – and the tidy sum of money associated with it, and given his defence argument, it’s not difficult to see how:

“I borrow others’ compositions and add my own ideas,” he insisted. “Only artists who’ve studied abroad can understand the subtle differences in nuance.” – Wada via BBC

I’m not sure where he’s going with that, and neither it seemed, did his peers. It seems like he thinks it’s OK because it was outside Japan, so no one inside Japan would notice? Perhaps he underestimated the global nature of modern art.

The sad thing here, like most artistic frauds,  is that Wada seems to be a fair painter in his own right, a body of work which is now likely to be discredited or even ignored after this.

Making up History

I’ve saved one of the older hoaxes till last, because for some reason, I find this one the most annoying.

Shunichi Fujimura was an amateur archaeologist who participated in over 180 digs around Japan, and was responsible for making incredible finds which raised huge questions about when humans had first arrived in the archipelago, and thus how and from where they had come. At each dig it seemed he’d find stone objects in ground strata which suggested they were much older than expected.

In late 2000, he and a team had been working at a site near Tsukidate in Miyagi Prefecture, and after a few decent finds, Fujimura announced they’d found proof of human dwellings almost 600,000 years old. That’s a significant difference to what was then believed – most estimates put it at around 40,000 years ago that people had arrived in modern day Japan, via land bridges from mainland Asia.

It seemed almost unbelievable – and indeed, it was. The man had his doubters, and it seems they were correct when Mainichi Shimbun released photos of him actually burying the finds before they were excavated. They then did an interview with him, and he tearfully confessed that pretty much all of his most impressive finds were fraudulent, some going back to the 1970s.

That someone would do this to aggrandize their standing in a community may be understandable, for it did gain Fujimura a great deal of respect and drew admiration from peers, with the Japan Archaeological Association [JAA] and even local and national governments, some of which themed tourism campaigns around the finds.

It’s not clear though as an ‘amateur’ archaeologist, how much this financially benefited Fujimura, or whether it was just the adulation he craved. The man himself, by way of explanation said something along the lines of ‘being tempted by the devil’. This perhaps parallels that he was sometimes referred to as having ‘divine hands’ when it came to finding exciting artifacts.

Eventually, when he was outed by the Mainichi, he seemed to come clean as to the scale and duration of the lies, meaning much of his work could be quickly debunked, and updates were made in many textbooks to reflect that various sections they contained were now known to simply not be true.

So why does this one annoy me? Mainly because some scholars based years – decades – of research on his findings, trying to figure out and piece together the history Fujimura’s finds suggested, and the generation of archaeologists who would have to unlearn his findings from their textbooks. That’s a lot of other people’s time wasted for an ego boost. Some suggested he did it for vague nationalistic reasons, but I think was just an average man who got  swept up by fame and forced himself to make the next ‘find’ even more incredible than the last, perhaps not appreciating the knock-on effects these finds had internationally. A review by peers found that the JAA was also somewhat at fault, in not checking for tell-tale staining and other environmental effects on the finds, which should’ve raised questions earlier.

 

So there are four hoaxes from the Japanese archipelago over the last few years, which join the thousands of others from around the world. Some hoaxes are sometimes started as a bit of fun, such as the crop circles, but as with many things, many seem to have more serious intent, either for fame or simply money. Having looked at these four, I came away at least thinking they should have taken a leaf out of P.T. Barnum‘s book and managed to put on a bit of a show with some of these!

 

The Fee Jee Mermaid

 

 

 

Volunteering in Ofunato

It’s been 15 months since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and almost exactly a year since I was last in Iwate prefecture, where we were helping clean up tsunami debris with Tonomagokoro.net, which I wrote up in a post here. I was keen to sign up again, and managed once more to join a trip arranged through the company I work for, this time with another group – Habitat for Humanity – to go back to Iwate Prefecture, and help out and also see how things had moved on in the year.

Unlike last year, this trip seemed much simpler – we’d be building outdoor storage units for people living in temporary accommodation in Ofunato, Iwate, meaning less emphasis on breathing masks and working where and when we could due to safety issues, but instead just needing some decent gloves, and some boots – and rain gear.  Habitat themselves, I should say, are a much bigger, international concern, and had arranged insurance and quite a few other things we as volunteers had addressed last year.

Temp. Housing

From Tokyo to Iwate prefecture by road takes a long time – it’s an overnight bus essentially, with a few stops. We left Tokyo at 10.30pm, and rattled on, arriving at around 6.30am to our destination – a collection of metal temporary housing where people have been living for almost a year. The place as you can see from the photos doesn’t look too bad physically – they’re prefab units divided up into rooms depending on family size. We were told there were currently 160 people living in this collection of units. The idea was that since these were very small for each family (I would guesstimate about 35m^2 across a few rooms for a family) the outside storage units would give them somewhere to store kerosene and other things, and free up a little space inside.

As some background, and from what we saw last year, Iwate took a massive blow from the earthquake and tsunami – though it has no record of any elevated radiation readings and is almost 200Km from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactors. I mention this as some people in Tokyo still seem to react to news of volunteering with “Aren’t you worried about radiation in Iwate?”. No, not at all.

Ofunato

The first day it rained, but Ofunato is one of those places – fjord like inlets and bays, mountains with dense forest and low cloud – which just look beautiful, no matter what the weather. However, screwing bits of wood together, in the rain, requires a bit of focus. Fortunately, the Habitat people had some camping tarps which we put up, meaning we could be mostly dry whilst trying to get the tricky part of corrugated steel roofing and side walling cut correctly and nailed to the frame. We weren’t the only people working there – Habitat had a couple of experts on hand to give us tips, and they were all locals, and good fun to talk to on tea breaks. There were other volunteers too, including a German chap whose storage units looked so much better than ours if only because he happened to be a master furniture maker.

The truth is, if you look at the cost of transporting us (though not paid for by the NGO), it’s likely comparable to buying these kinds of things from Inaba or some other manufacturer and perhaps even having them fitted. That however is only a part of why the volunteering programme is there, just like last year.  The storage units are worthwhile, and needed. It’s also important to the local people that volunteers come up, not just to remind them the outside world hasn’t forgotten them, but also so that people will come, see and return back and tell people of how it is and remind people that the tsunami aftermath is still lurching into recovery at best.

Storage

After our first day of screwing wood and tacking steel together and completing one unit, we went off site to an onsen a few kilometers away as a local guide talked us through some of the scenes along the way. Pretty much everything near the ocean looks empty, but for the most part cleaned up, somewhat eerily so in place, just expanses of regularly shaped plots just empty, punctuated by the occasional orderly pile of wreckage and the odd wrecked building, but too orderly, even more so than the in-progress sight we saw last year. Driving through it at night was especially odd, just darkness punctuated by the odd set of traffic lights.

The onsen we went to was perched on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean, and it’s story goes that during the quake and tsunami, it survived by being on top of that outcrop and in the days and weeks which followed it opened itself up for free to locals and for a while to volunteers until other facilities were online, providing some respite from what was surely a terrible looking situation all around.

After the onsen we stopped off for a bit of food at some local izakayas, except these were all in some equivalent of temporary housing huts, meaning they felt new and ‘fake’ as if they were theme places, despite efforts of the people running them to capture the small, cozy feeling most of these places naturally have. That said, cold beer is cold beer, sake is sake, and the yakisoba and yakitori tasted great. All of the places were busy, and it did feel that despite the new surrounds, the definition of temporary might be a lot longer than some thing, but people are getting on with it, even on these basic business levels.

Izakaya

The second day was warmer for the most part, and we were able to finish our second storage unit, seemingly impressing the Habitat people, and ourselves, employing a few things we learned on our first about fittings, especially getting the doors straight!

I should say that the people who live in these accommodations, seemed to be older people (many we were told, over 80!) and young families, and they were all incredibly friendly, often distracting us with ball games and general chatter.

At the end of what felt like an oddly short two days, it was good to be leaving some things which would be of some small use on a day to day basis, and somewhat reassured that people were being helped, but as we drove back through the still shattered coastline, it’s so apparent that the right kind of help is going to take so long, and just like in neighbouring areas battling radiation level questions.

Trees

It seems, from listening to the people we met from Ofunato, that what Iwate needs from the outside is for people to remember, and for people to go up there, but not as disaster tourists, but to enjoy the place, the people and the food, spend some money and make them feel like part of the whole again. The pain left in their lives, so apparent from a very moving story told by one of the local Habitat people, is being dealt with, whatever else happens, so the act of just being up there may well be help in itself.

The return journey was just as long obviously, but we stopped off for another onsen at a different place, further inland, and it marked that odd line the tsunami left physically and mentally, in that everything here felt so ‘normal’.

In closing this then, it reminded me I could have volunteered more over the last year, and that though it may well be in a new phase, there’s so much further to go, and the press obsession with Fukushima – a vital story, if one desperate for informed opinion and long term structure and resolution – has left the tsunami hit areas seeming a distant second issue, and yet this is where the death toll was, and this shoulders it’s fair share of pain, though perhaps with it’s tragedy behind it, as other areas wonder what the future will bring them.

There are upsides though – many events are moving to, or even better, moving back to the area, and it looks as if some normal tourists are going back, and according to some stats, some children of Tohoku are leaving lives in the big cities and returning to family roots again, and this may well be for the best and the area can truly recover in years to come.

The Words of Noda

I don’t usually stray into the world of politics on this blog, it’s [hopefully] meant to be informative and constructive, rather than a critique of the national political psyche. Japan’s political system is as odd as most other countries, still being based on political families and dynasties and a reliance more on yelling people’s names during campaign times than actually discussing issues.

The current Prime Minister is called Yoshihiko Noda, who replaced Naoto Kan, the man who saw Japan through last year’s quake and the immediate response to it, and was thus summarily fired, likely due to saying and supporting some fairly straight things about TEPCO and their supporters, which didn’t go down well with the Old Men, meaning Japan was back to lacklustre suits, spouting the same old stuff and not trying to fix 20 years of stagnation, and the world’s largest public debt.

Yes, I know Greece is exciting and all that, but for sheer number of zeroes, Japan has long been up there (228% of GDP, at $10.5tn.).

Anyway, getting to the point, over the last month, I couldn’t help notice Noda has come out with a couple of interesting soundbites which in a short space of time which seem to completely contradict each other within the same story – here’s a quick one about Japan’s recent execution of 3 prisoners:

“I have no plans to do away with the death penalty,” Mr Noda said, according to the Kyodo news agency.

“Taking into consideration a situation where the number of heinous crimes has not decreased, I find it difficult to abolish the death penalty immediately,” Mr Noda said.

So, you’re keeping it even though it has been proven in your country (as most others) to have no effect whatsoever on the number of murders etc.? Does that make sense?  Many foreigners (and some Japanese) are surprised at the fact Japan has the death penalty, and how it is used (Amnesty International have major issues not just with the killing, but with how it is conducted – even more so than in other nations).

Another one I saw from him was discussing tax increases to deal with the aforementioned epic national debt – on January 24th 2012:

“The current system, if unchanged, will put an unbearable burden on future generations. We don’t have time left to postpone reforms,” Mr Noda told parliament.

Wow. Then three weeks later:

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in an online message after the cabinet’s vote, said Japan had “no time to spare” in reducing its debts.

He added: “Some of you may think you are an unlucky generation which needs to support many elderly people – but those who built the current affluent society are the senior generation – your parents’ generation.”

I’m not understanding this statement. The country is massively in debt, has had 20 years of stagnation, and the youth are told to just deal with it (like they have a choice) and be appreciative of the affluent society their seniors built? How can you claim to be affluent and massively in debt? Their parents built the bubble, not affluence – perhaps the generation before that had built affluence?

Anyway, these stories aren’t at all surprising – the level of denial in Japan is what sustains its institutions it seems, but it was fun to see simple, basic contradictions so close together.

That said, Noda seems to just be confused when he speaks, whereas if you want to see the Shogun of great political quotes, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has him beaten.

Recommended Documentaries – February 2012

I like watching documentaries, often of topics I have only a basic knowledge of, and whilst some are great, many are often flawed or too skewed. I thought that since it’d been a year since I last listed some, I’d drum up a new list

Inside Job – This was recommended by Gen Kanai after my brief listing last year of documentaries, and is a very well produced account of the 2008 financial meltdown, and how it happened. Like the Enron documentary (‘The Smartest Guys in the Room’), it looks past all the complicated financial tools, and presents the peoples and the motivations behind it, because like Enron, it’s always about people at the end of the day.

After watching it, you’re really left to wonder whether governments (especially in the US) were incompetent or somehow complicit with the bankers, and just how hand-in-glove the financial and governmental people are anyway. This would make you believe it’s a bit of all of the above. There’s a lot of intriguing interviews, some abandoned part way through, and of course, those who refused to be interviewed, and the question of what the goal really was all along, though the end result for the most part was that it was the poor who suffered. Matt Damon does a decent job on narration. [Sony Link]

The Cove –  Although it’s perhaps more well known for the furor it caused over the vicious slaughter of dolphins in ‘the cove’ in Taiji, Japan – leading to those cinemas who chose to show it in Japan being abused by right wing groups – it’s actually a much broader documentary, investigating the motivations and history of aquatic mammal culls in Japan, the joke which the International Whaling Commission appears to be, the economics and the health situation surrounding it.

lt essentially follows former Flipper trainer Ric O’Barry who turned environmentalist, as he tries to find out what is going on in the cove, and puts together an intelligent and motivated team to find out, which they of course do. Like all good documentaries, it’s about people – the people of Taiji and elsewhere in Japan who either don’t know the cove exists or are unsure themselves of why they support it, with several essentially citing the old Japanese establishment mantra of not letting foreigners dictate their actions, and yet most Japanese interviewed were shocked to see some of the footage. It also goes into the sale of dolphin meat, often as whale meat, and the dangerously high levels of mercury it contains, and the battle of local councillors trying to stop it being fed to local school children because of these health hazards. Some people have seen it as an attack on Japan, but I actually saw it highlighting how difficult it is for small Japanese groups to stand up against this kind of thing and effect positive change – these people are truly the Japanese heroes. [Website]

Man On Wire – I’ve been trying to hunt this DVD down for a while, and had trouble getting hold of a copy, but finally Amazon.co.jp got me one! It’s the rather odd story of  Philippe Petit, who in 1974 put together a rag tag team of people to run a wire between the then newly built twin towers of the World Trade Centres in New York, and not only walked between them, but spent over 40mins performing a high wire routine before being arrested, and becoming something of a celebrity. The documentary tells the story of his life, and the very loose team he put together, several not knowing each other before the attempt, some of whom didn’t even share a language, and others who had known him for years; it also highlights his obsessive qualities, but also the exclusion within his private life that this kind of obsession or addiction brings. The actual act of walking a highwire so high up, and the detail of planning required just for the sake of doing it, is impressive, and you’re left respecting the man, admiring the sheer detail required, but also, that the price of such dedication is an amount of disconnection. [Wikipedia page]

The last two here were actually introduced to me by a friend when I was visiting the UK last year, and have more of a UK bent to them –

Starsuckers –  This assesses how the media works, and how peoples obsession with fame may have been an innate part of our evolution, and how it is exploited upon by the media to continue interest and growth, from childhood onwards. It’s really quite interesting, especially through some of the staged events they do and the set-up interviews. They also look into how news nowadays really isn’t news as we may think it is, but how it’s gossip, press releases and in some cases just completely fake – they call in to newspapers with completely false gossip tips, which are then repeated by several papers, each of which adds their own embellishments. They also follow one family who are trying to get their son into some kind of ‘fame’ career, it seems relatively harmless, though it feels odd that the goal is not to be an actor, or singer, it’s just to be famous, to be a celebrity. It’s an interesting look at modern celebrity culture from a different angle, and definitely worth a watch. [Official Website]

Taking Liberties – Taking Liberties assesses the effect of 10 years of Tony Blair’s policies on UK civil right laws, and what it shows as the erosion or outright elimination of them; in one example it cites Blair’s claims in the mid nineties to abhor national ID cards, but then just a few years later advocating them in the case of fighting terrorism. It takes the structure of assessing how Blair undermined the basic human rights identified after World War 2, which were largely shaped by Winston Churchill, and how in some people’s views, Blair’s Britain is more authoritarian and intolerant of demonstration than many former Soviet nations. Obviously a lot is tied back to the War on Terror, and the deals Blair did with George W. Bush, including allowing extradition of UK citizens with no hearing or cases to answer in the UK, to the US. Interestingly, when Dubya is discussing Blair’s morality as British nationals were being tortured in Afghanistan, I’m sure the backing music is a orchestral version of the BlackAdder theme. The film finishes with a quote from another statesman, Thomas Jefferson, “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.” [Official Website]

The Baker and the Bromate

Chances are if you go to buy bread in Japan, the vast majority of it in most supermarkets comes from the Yamazaki Baking Co. and in general, it tastes pretty good. (TSE Ticker code: 2212 Equity GP)

I was surprised then, to read in a few news articles about their usage of a fairly suspect ingredient:

From Wikipedia:
“They are the only Japanese baked goods company who use potassium bromate in their bread; all Japanese baking industry companies voluntarily ceased using it in 1980 due to suspicions of carcinogenicity, but Yamazaki resumed in 2005.”

I have to say that just reading that, and confirming it across several relatively respectable news stories and agencies, we effectively stopped buying Yamazaki bread and most of their other products – not actually through any fear of getting cancer from the bread, but just because it seemed irrational to continue using a suspect ingredient, when other ‘safe’ flour / dough enhancers were available.

Generally, we now buy Pasco when we do buy bread, but I did wonder whether or not this practice had crept in in other parts of the Japanese market – from Pasco’s website though, apparently not – it’s interesting they have that page devoted to it (and nicely, it’s in a URL link called ‘feeling’).

“Pasco eliminated the use of potassium bromate in 1980, and we continue to strongly stand against the use of it. We have no plans to start using it in the future. Pasco continues to observe the self-imposed control measures established by the Japan Baking Industry Association Corp. in 1992.Pasco uses vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) as a safe alternative to potassium bromate. “

Potassium Bromate is indeed a fairly controversial chemical – broadly used historically to improve various attributes of bread dough as a flour enhancer, though through the 1970’s a body of evidence grew that it may be carcinogenic, or at least made the mutation of cells more likely.

In the European Union, it goes by the descriptive alternate name of E924. Those of us from Europe will be fairly familiar with the ‘E’ number system, which symbolically held the meaning that a food was more made of chemicals, than real ingredients, if you know what I mean. Nowadays I wonder if the E number system was to distract us from what these things actually were.

Interestingly, in the UK’s Food Standards Authority database, E924 is only listed under revocations – [link] , so apparently, it’s not allowed in the UK either – specifically having been revoked in 1990 – bakers can’t use it – the same goes for Canada (1994) and China (2005). In the US many companies were still using it in the 1990s, and it’s still legal and apparently well used today.

So why would Yamazaki Baking – and seemingly only Yamazaki Baking in Japan – start re-using this chemical since it, and many other companies stopped in 1980? Yes, they did actually stop, and only restarted in 2005.

Well, it seems there may be two reasons.

Firstly, they believe they’ve found a method of getting the chemical’s benefits, yet only using a minute amount, which wont cause health concerns as it shouldn’t end up in the final product on the shelf, as it is only used in the production process.

Secondly, but slightly more troubling, a blog article, from a fairly well regarded blog, suggested it was more interested in sticking to it’s founding family’s traditional recipe- [link].

However, to take the first concept – a quick Google through Yamazaki’s website threw up two real hits on potassium bromate – one a gnarly white paper from 2004 entitled “The study of bromate residues in bread Part1 – Effect of Reducing Agents and Baking Procedure on the Residual Bromate in Bread“,  and the second in their investor guide.

From the whitepaper, the English summary states:

“Potassium bromate, which contributes to the formation of disulfide bonds in wheat protein in dough and increased gas-retaining capacity, has been used as a bread improver since the 1910s.  However, it has been reported that potassium bromate has a mutagenicity based on experiments with rats. Thereby, the regulations in Japan stated that in the case of bread, residual bromate must be reduced or removed from the final products.”

So that essentially lays out the ground rules as Yamazaki saw them, in their own words – the key point seems to be final products. The summary goes on:

“Residual contents of potassium bromate in bread extracts prepared by the improved method were measured by high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) with post-column reaction for the coloring of bromate. No residual bromate was detected in Pullman-type breads with +- or +/mg potassium bromate added per kg of flour.”

As a note of explanation, a Pullman loaf is one baked in a long narrow tin, with a lid – that is, pretty much all of the square sliced bread in Japan. The summary goes on to note that:

“On the other hand, the residual bromate determined in open-top type bread with 9-30 mg potassium bromate added per kg of flour, was found localized on the top of crust put out of the baking pan.    Reducing agents such as L- ascorbic acid (AsA), cysteine and glutathione and ferrous sulfate were added to the open-top type bread to reduce the residual bromate. Adding both AsA and ferrous sulfate accelerated the decrease in the residual bromate in the open top-type bread.”

I’m not a scientist but, what they’re saying is, they have to do this to say there shouldn’t be any Potassium Bromate in the bread after they’ve added even more chemicals. In 2005, the FDA in America noted as a post (co-authored by Yamazaki) detection techniques for Potassium Bromate which is an important requirement if something is only legal up to minute quantities in a baked product.

This seems to be a lot of trouble to go to to keep using a chemical largely frowned upon internationally, and which according to their competitors, there are acceptable alternatives available to, which suggests that the second point – because it’s a tradition – starts to seem all the more plausible?

Well, for another angle, let’s look at that second hit, the 2008 investor guide, from the section “Fiscal 2008 in Review” which generally paints a dismal economic picture :

“To maintain top levels of product safety and quality, despite the soaring cost of ingredients, particularly flour, we had to execute another round of price increases. Even though we had only just increased prices on some of our breads and Japanese- and Western-style confectionery in December 2007, we had to push through more increases in May 2008. Hoping to make the new prices more palatable to consumers, we emphasized the quality aspect of our products by applying a new technology to Pullman – type bread using an aqueous solution of potassium bromate as an oxidizing agent, and then, the technology were applied to Open-top bread and sweet buns.”

So there’s an economic justification too? I appreciate investor guides are dry tomes intended to attract funds and other interested parties into buying shares, bonds, whatever, but this is an interesting tack to take on what is I would have thought, a sensitive subject.

For a ‘defence’ of the use of Potassium Bromate, I had to go to The American Institute of Baking (AIB), (which also has a Japanese site amateurishly done in Adobe GoLive 5) and their paperCommercial Baking Industry Guide For The Safe Use Of Potassium Bromate” [2008] but even they don’t seem overly confident. Though this is obviously a bit of a weak stance as an opener in the paper:

“Potassium bromate (KBrO3) has been used in limited ways and amounts by the baking industry for almost a century with no known health concern. It has been used in baking since at least 1914 …”

I’m not sure I put a lot of faith in something being safe since before penicillin, and decent analysis methods. However, they do go on:

“Concern about the potential harmful effects of potassium bromate was raised by Japanese researchers in the mid-1980s. While the research was inconclusive, some countries adopted a precautionary-principle response and removed potassium bromate from the approved list of dough conditioners. More recent research in Japan casts doubt on this level of concern, at least as it refers to the amounts of potassium bromate used in the baking industry, concluding that there is a threshold below which no adverse effects can be detected.”

I’m wondering if the more recent research was by Yamazaki Bakery. The paper does immediately point out though, and with it’s own bold emphasis:

“It is recognized that it is inappropriate to use potassium bromate in any product or production method which cannot be formulated without residues below the level of 20 ppb in the finished product.”

That’s not really a huge endorsement to me. However, the paper does a decent job, in basic terms explaining the reason why Potassium Bromate is used, and for that, the PDF is worth a download, and at 15 pages of text, worth a read.

So what we have is a chemical known to cause renal cancer in rats, at least, and which is controlled by amount in foods, or outright banned in many countries, and yet Yamazaki Bakery here in Japan have gone to a lot of effort to use it in their production system – again, I’m not saying it’s in the bread – it shouldn’t be – but why even use it? Is it really because old man Iijima did? Then the question becomes, if he were alive today, would he still use it?

Kiva.org and Micro Finance

So, after a long time of ‘going to‘, I finally made a loan via micro-finance site, kiva.org.
Kiva.org basically take money invested by normal people on the web as a loan offer, and via local funding groups and charities, pool this money to make larger loans to small businesses and entrepreneurs in developing areas of the world. It seems to be a good thing. In their own words:

“Kiva’s mission is to connect people, through lending, for the sake of alleviating poverty. Kiva empowers individuals to lend to an entrepreneur across the globe. By combining microfinance with the internet, Kiva is creating a global community of people connected through lending.”

I first heard about Kiva in November 2008 in a fairly odd way – I was listening to twit.tv’s open source FLOSS podcast and the Mifos team mentioned that their software was used by several micro-finance organisations including Kiva, and I made a point of following up on it, and then completely failed to actually make a loan despite reading up on several of the hundreds of people looking for investment, and creating a login.

Anyway, a friend on Twitter, @bl0ke, actually had got off the sofa and put some time and money into Kiva, so finally I thought I should too.

Actually, one of the hardest things, I discovered,  is selecting which ‘someone’ to invest in – there’s people and ideas literally from all over the world. How to narrow it down? Well I went on a couple of factors for my first loan – firstly, I thought I would try someone inside Asia since that’s been my second home continent for the last decade or so, and secondly, something in manufacturing. I come from a manufacturing background, did manufacturing at university before somehow ending up in IT, and I still believe that a solid manufacturing base is vital in any community and economy.

Eventually then I ended up browsing some companies in Thanh Hoá, Viet Nam, and one was a metal working company essentially run by three women (as Mật Sơn 1- Đông Vệ Group) , who themselves were part of a larger initiative, so there we are, and within a couple of minutes, I’ve donated 25USD to them to be paid back in just over a year.

Done. Sure, I don’t get any interest on that investment, but as I live in Japan, I’m used to not getting paid interest anyway. There’s also an element of risk (~1% of loans don’t get repaid), but really, for just knowing that you can help someone bootstrap or build something for that amount of money to me is fantastic, and what crowd-sourcing is all about.

There are quite a few organisations like this, going from this grass roots work, to more tech and artist savvy places like Kickstarter, but whatever your interest and view point, I think this is a decent use of a few notes.

Give it a try.

IPRED2 – because we love you

Well, it seems another region is looking at an interesting copyright law.

The EU is about to vote on IPRED 2 [Intellectual Property Enforcement Directive – the Second], which though it may be a good title for a comic, makes lousy law. From the EFF’s CopyCrime page:


If IPRED2 passes in its current form, “aiding, abetting, or inciting” copyright infringement on a “commercial scale” in the EU will become a crime.

Penalties for these brand new copycrimes will include permanent bans on doing business, seizure of assets, criminal records, and fines of up to €100,000.

That seems rather vague to me, and everyone else it seems. The EFF have a lot about it, and though I’m not expert on law, it seems like a pretty random law which plenty of lawyer shops posing as tech companies (hello SCO!) will use to annoy, irritate and generally rip off. Amazingly, even the UK government is against it in its current form!

Have a look anyway. Personally I think it seems like a rather general ruling to target a more specific type of problem.

US$100 laptop is GO! (Sort of…)

It was good to see some good news come from the project to produce a USD100 laptop for poor regions and developing countries. Nicholas Negroponte, MIT MediaLab personage, and co-founder of Wired magazine was at a UN forum, and along with the project’s CTO unveiled a prototype of the laptop which they’re hoping will help the developing world get on the internet ladder and bring awareness and communications to those people who currently just don’t have the means to get it.

Basically, they’ve developed a small laptop running Linux, and using a very clever LCD, a wind-up battery, wireless, speakers, microphone etc. which by late 2006 will weigh in at USD100 (currently it’s 110 apparently), which they’ll sell to governments, charities etc. for exclusive usage in poor areas of the world. Go to the site above, or check this link to the pics – the machine looks very cool, and hopefully they can sell them in wealthy areas at a big profit sometime to fund even more into poor areas.

Overall, I think this kind of project is really useful, and combined with things like Geekcorps might help a lot of people get on the ladder to help their own countries. Of course, this kind of relies on bringing food, shelter and safety to huge numbers of people beforehand!

Ishihara vs. France … then the world!!

It’s been a while since I observed any news from this man, which is more a reflection of me being busy as I’m sure not a day passes that Shintaro Ishihara, liberal governor of Tokyo, doesn’t come out with some stunning quip. Here’s another which has got him slapped with a lawsuit by several French speakers here in Tokyo. Here’s a sample:

Ishihara said [on] Oct 19, “I have to say that it should be no surprise that French is disqualified as an international language because French is a language which cannot count numbers.”

There’s a better article at the BBC here.

In context, Ishihara has had some misfortune of late when his right hand enforcer resigned, and recent local elections in Tokyo have cut into his support. That said, he’s a right winger who tells people the kind of things they want to hear, as the UN pointed out in a recent brief, that Japanese politicians are eager to use nationalism and rhetoric to get the vote, and right now, it seems to be what many Japanese like to hear.

Indeed he said that if PM Koizumi stopped his visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, the country would fall to pieces! Powerful stuff. However, it was his assertion:

“women living after losing their ability to give birth is a waste and a crime.”

here that shows that he knows how to keep the country together.

As a summary to this post, take a look at this article over at issho.org.

Yup, the man is a loon, yet strangely, morbidly entertaining. Also, there’s more where he came from.