Monday, December 29, 2008

A Note on the TATA NEN Hottest Startup Contest

I stumbled upon the TATA NEN Hottest Startup contest yesterday. The site can be accessed at http://hotteststartups.in. The site features a slide show on the 30 finalists, 5 of whom get declared as the hottest startups in India. I spent some time going through the websites of the finalists and I found the array of ideas and business models extremely stimulating.

A word here. It is one thing having an idea, it is another making it work. "Making it work" involves pricing it right, selling it in packages the customer wants, having flexibility to adjust to demand, managing operations, managing short term and long funding etc. Essentially, the same idea can be operationalised in different ways. One way to break down the operational aspects of a company are in terms of the 4Ps. (Product, Price, Promotion, Place) One can take an idea as old as the hills and play around with this mix and come up with an entirely new offering. Therefore, you could have a lorry business, but maybe if you came up with an innovative pricing scheme, and if pricing was very important to clients in this business (which is the case), then just that innovation could make your company different. You can take this one step further and become a company that comes up with pricing solutions for the lorry industry. (Of course, the demand would have to be large enough and all that) This is on the marketing side. On the finance side, for a startup, if your idea does not generate cash quickly, the pressure is that much more. Getting all these elements right ensures success. Frankly, it is not as complex as it sounds. One must always remember this. The MBA program is 100 years old, Corporate Finance in the modern form is 50-60 years old. Business on the other hand is thousands of years old. Hence, all these fancy terms constitute a checklist of stuff that the entrepreneur needs to be wary about. A more organized form of this "checklist" is the business plan.

Enough talk. Let us get into some ideas that I thought were worth sharing. (Please note that the list is very very subjective. These views are shaped purely by the personal experiences of one individual and in no way a reflection on the other startups)

There is a startup called Wyn Brands whose business model is based on managing the supply chain for fresh vegetables for customers like McDonald's, Domino's, Pizza Hut etc. Till now, I assumed that this would be an in-house function. Apparently, these firms outsource vegetable procurement (maybe even cutting of vegetables) to vendors! Who knew! But once you are aware that this opportunity exists, it makes perfect sense. If I ran a big restaurant and my vegetable demands are well understood (which is usually the case), why not leave the headache to someone else and just focus on quality check. I like this because the idea is simple and the value is clear. The problem is that it is easily replicable and risk of margin pressures in the future (due to competition). But that is ok. I am sure something can be figured out in time. What matters is that someone has got this to work. The company started in 2003 has a turnover in the range of 1-5 crores. Again, it would be interesting to see the net profit margin, but I still quite like the idea.

Another interesting startup is FieldTurf Tarkett. This company offers artificial grass for landscaping, indoor sports flooring, synthetic tracks etc. I would have expected that designers/architects would have normally been responsible to find a subcontractor for this kind of thing. In the case of sports flooring, I suspect that one would have had to contact foreign vendors. Currently, there is a lot of interest in non-cricket sports in India and I think these guys have come in at the right time. Of course, there is always the question of pricing and profits. But the reason I am highlighting this idea is that just by looking around us and asking how did this get here, we could get thousands of ideas. All of us walk into beautifully designed offices day in and day out. Some of us admire them, but we just assume that the builder would have taken care of it. But even the builder would have to contact so many vendors to achieve that goal. Just breaking down those elements and researching about them could be a starting point to ideate for the budding entrepreneur. For example, maybe, specialized energy management solutions for buildings are a big business segment. Observe and ask!

One totally whacky idea on first encounter, but kind of obvious on reflection is Sacred Moments. The company offers designer pooja kits! Outwardly, all of us like to pretend we are oh-so-rational, but face it, all human beings need something to hold on to. One would expect that this business is not only recession proof but one that thrives in recessions! I am sure these Bhakti Packs are sold for a few hundred rupees, but I doubt if it would cost much to put one of these things together. The biggest costs should be packaging and transportation costs. I would expect it to be a high margin business. Since I am currently not a pooja doing type, I don't see the value of this product for me. It would be interesting to see how this evolves. But I still like the entrepreneurial thinking! :) This is to highlight that you don't need to have high funda to the max ideas to become a "succesful" entrepreneur. If your objective is to earn a steady and comfortable income by working a few hours, then such "low funda" ideas could give you more bang for the buck.

In the Indian business environment, legal services and logistics are two huge huge gaps. Remember both of these are essential for the smooth functioning of companies in the macro operating environment. In the field of legal services, the startup featured here is TakeOverCode.com. Imagine, there is a fresh faced kid right out of school who wants to start something. The biggest stumbling block or the "fear factor", in my opinion, is the labyrinthine legal system that one may have to confront. I guess most people would go to their family lawyers. What if you never had a family lawyer? Then you would go by referral. Normally, lawyers do not advertise. (Someone told me that they are not allowed to advertise) This kind of a site, while clearly not advertising, serves just as that. By presenting some oft needed resources on the net, the company must be able to strike up quite a few clients.

Coming to logistics, we have Chennai based Ennovasys. Ennovasys' company profile says that "..[It] is a software company providing real-time asset visibility across supply chain." This is a really cool idea. Imagine you were a trucking company owner and could monitor your assets on real time basis. For the right price, I would buy it.

A related idea is Rasilant Technologies which offers tracking services based on RFID. However, their product offering is quite interesting. They offer inventory management systems, smart card solutions for campuses and clubs as well as secure access systems. There is nothing new about the business model but the reason I have featured it is because they have claimed in their profile that "Rasilant tackles Security concerns and improves organization processes through RFID automation and has a turnover of INR 1 Billion in three years." If this number is true, damn, who knew!

This post has gone for too long. The full list of finalists can be found here. In the IT services sector I liked DeskAway. I did not understand the exact value proposition of some of the other ones, but some of them have really high turnovers.

I will conclude shortly. There are two business models that I found to be very innovative but not sure about the take off for these ideas. One is librarywala.com. This startup uses the internet to revive that beautiful tradition of lending libraries. You choose a Price plan and the books get delivered to you! They claim that there are no late charges! Even with all that, I don't see myself signing up for such a service. But again, I would be very interested to observe this startup.

The other one is Mumbai based Ecomove solutions. While the argument that increasing pollution would see people switching to alternative modes like bicycles is well taken, unless the government makes special facilities for cyclists I don't see the idea taking off. Again, I could be wrong. It is not for nothing that these startups made it to the top 30 from over 500 nominess.

There are many more exciting startups here. Happy ideating!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Book Reco

I guess this is not the time when people would be going behind books on Derivatives, but I recently came across a nice book. It is called "Option Volatility and Pricing: Advanced Trading Strategies and Techniques" by Sheldon Natenberg. The Amazon Link can be found here.

The most popular book used on Indian campuses is "Options, Futures and Other Derivatives" by John C Hull. It is cheaper and much easier to obtain. It is my personal opinion, but I found Hull verbose and difficult to read.

The basic difference is, Hull gets into the mathematics, whereas Sheldon Natenberg is more of a "How Things Work" kind of book. Sheldon Natenberg was an Options trader while John Hull comes from an academic background. Both books are excellent in their own ways but the difference lies in the language and the mode of presentation.

Hence, if you are looking for a starter book that is mathematically less intimiditating or if you have read Hull and found it a bit above your head, I would strongly recommend Sheldon Natenberg.

Another book that has been strongly recommended to me (from the point of view of practise) is "Dynamic Hedging: Managing Vanilla and Exotic Options" by Nicholas Nassim Taleb.

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'Tis the time for alternate views

Given the current turmoil, one chances upon more articles questioning the integrity of the markets. In my view, the question is not so much as to whether markets work, but more of whether we must accept the boom and bust behaviour that has been characteristic of markets. While all of us enjoyed the highs of the boom, the current "bust" (which would be an understatement) has left most people questioning whether that was all worth it. (In fact, whether it was all there to begin with in the first place)

One such work which questions market fundamentalism is "The Alchemy of Finance" by George Soros. He delves a bit into philosophy, raising fundamental questions of how the human mind learns and understands. He uses that to build his "Theory of Reflexivity" making some important observations in the process. Frankly, I have found the book very difficult to read. I have been truly laboring through the pages. In fact, if it was not written by Soros, I would have discarded after one sitting. This blog is purely meant to highlight the existence of the theory. I shall not attempt to explain the theory as I am not sure I even understand it.

It may also be noted that the Theory of Reflexivity has not been taken very seriously in Academia. But, there are some intuitively appealing points for the practitioner. Again, if you have never been truly convinced or impressed by the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, this could be an alternative viewpoint to consider.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Musical Treat



A gifted singer. One of the most sensual yet powerful voices that I have ever heard.

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Where is the party?

I was waiting to get on the train to Turku to catch a boat to Stockholm. I had half an hour to kill, so was just wandering about when I came across this.



Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting the Chemical Toilets. The way it works is, when people want to organize an outdoor party to enjoy the sunny day, they setup stalls for food and stuff. They also call in the chemical toilets people who install this so that you can enjoy the outdoor party without doing chee-chee on the environment around you.

Of course, after some time these chemical toilets get kind of unbearable. However, I think there is some potential for this in India. The next generation Sulabh anyone?

Anyway, upon seeing this, I guessed that a fair or party of some sort must be going on nearby. I came across what could have been an impromptu performance by the Finnish Royal Orchestra. It was superlative and it piqued my interest in Western music. Any suggestions on pieces I must listen to? Also, does anyone happen to know anything about this gifted singer?

(Note 1 to self: Too much pondy and toilet talk. Must clean up act henceforth)

(Note 2 to self: Must sing paeans about the Exchange (Erasmus) program at Helsinki School of Economics (HSE). Anyway, if you are looking to go on an exchange program, I strongly recommend the Helsinki School of Economics as a place where there is a good balance of fun and academics. More later!)




Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Romances of the Past

It was half past three in the afternoon. Rita stood at the small balcony in her friend's house overlooking the Juares metro station. She savoured the warm Parisian day. The sound of happy chatter from the cafe below made her feel elated to be back in Paris. She had just returned from a trip that she would rather not think about and on returning to Paris, she headed straight to Crazy Betty's apartment. Betty had promised her that some boys would be visiting in the afternoon and they could start off the party in the evening itself.

Rita heard the bell ring. She opened it to find four boys, all full of excitement due to their first visit to Paris, happily chatting away, living in the moment. Betty, Rita and the four boys sat down to tea in the cramped apartment. Soon, the apartment was filled with the sound of happy chatter.

Rita noticed that one of them did not speak nor did he even appear to be interested. He was mostly peering out through the window, and sometimes took out a black comb to style his hair.

"Vain sonofabitch", she thought to herself.

After half an hour, the chatter died to a comfortable silence. Betty started speaking about the plans for the day.

"Can I smoke in the apartment?", the guy who had not spoken so far interrupted.

"No honey, please step on to the balcony", Betty replied.

"When did you become such a prick?", he said, with a shy smile.

"Oh no... I don't have a problem. As you can see this is a small place and my landlady - that self righteous boring nosy teetotalling old fart - is visiting tomorrow", Betty sighed.

"You do love her don't you. Well, if she is visiting tomorrow, we cannot have the party here tonight, can we?"

"That is what I have been saying Dan. Don't you ever listen?"

He was already on the balcony before she could finish.

After some more talking, everyone got up to leave. This was going to be a legendary night, they exclaimed.

"Come on Dan, Rita", Betty shouted from the door.

Just as Rita stepped towards the door, Dan grabbed her by the hand, pointed to her watch and showed five on his hand.

"Hey Betty, I have something to catch up with. Will be with you in some time, you guys carry on", Rita shouted.

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Dan stood up from the bed. Rita looked at the clock which showed half past five.

"You leaving already", she asked

"Maybe"

"Well... Betty is not going to be back any time soon, if that..."

"Are you begging me to stay"

"Not begging you mister", Rita said making a face. She reached out for a cigarette and lit it.

"You know, I have wondered if there is a Freudian interpretation to women smoking"

"Well if you are suggesting anything, it is not happening", she giggled

Dan smiled and took out a writing pad and pencil. He positioned himself on the opposite side of the bed from where he could get a view of Rita lying on the bed.

"Have you forgotten about Betty's landlady?", he asked

"Who cares. What are you doing?"

"Nothing. Just stay still"

Rita shifted her weight on to her side and placed her hand in a position to obscure her bosom.

"You got to tell me if you wanted to sketch me in the nude, you know. I have to be mentally prepared. I wish for my derriere to be given prominence"

"You shall henceforth be my muse", Dan said with finality.

Rita blew a cloud of smoke. She expected him to continue. After another puff, she said, "Oooh... am I supposed to be honoured? Where will this go?"

"Nowhere"

"So, these are the trophies for your conquests. Your trunk of love?" (wink)

"It is interesting", he interrupted as if he did not notice. "Have you noticed that the nude is actually less erotic than concealement. I have a clothing theory to evolution. The Modern Man has to go to great lengths to get women out of their clothes. He can succeed only if he has money, valour, power, personality or any combination of the above. This forced modern man to invent machines, organize labour, get into politics. On the other hand, cave man could see all the breasts he wanted. Bereft of mystery and the lack of a chase in life, the cave man just met his basic needs.

If you see the pace of progress, it took the cave man thousands of years to move from the stone age to the iron age to the bronze age. Whereas look at the rate of progress achieved by modern man. All because the latter was forbidden to see the woman in nude without any effort"

"Horse crap. Geez, I thought you were one of those strong silent types. After some time in the bed you turn into a drivel machine", she laughed

"I knew an Algerian girl who used to pose the very same way", Dan continued.

"It was my first trip to Paris. I had come here with my friend Jack... to paint. We took boarding in a tiny hostel. The bar in that hostel was run by this girl. I fell in love with the city. Jack fell in love with her. She was going to be Jack's Raging Passion."

"Ah...", she muttered softly and leaned forward.

"Stay in one fucking position", Dan commanded

"Well, if we were fucking, I would be in one position", Rita retorted.

Dan paused for her to pose.

"My first painting of a nude was an amazing experience. Somehow, tracing those sensual lines of the female form on paper, was an aesthetic experience in itself. So it was for my friend as he hurtled to Jack's Heavenly Torment"

"Tut tut... poor sick bastard"

"The girl had skin the colour of olive oil and hair as black as jet. She wore a floral patterned gown and a black blouse atop. She was the picture of calm and had an almost holy air of innocence. Jack tried his best to win her favour, but she remained faithful to her lover who had gone to Algeria for a while.

This enraged Jack. He could not fathom how that uncouth beast of a man could win the devotion of an angel. Soon Jack was going crazy. Then he remembered the experience at art school. He convinced her to pose naked for him. She charged a hefty sitting fee. He made one sketch, then a second, promised he would stop with a third and after many a sketch, was soon penniless. She refused to let him inside the bar. At the end of his wit, he took to selling the nude portraits on the streets of Pigalles. He would go back to that bar every time he made money. One day the lover returned. He discovered these paintings and thrashed Jack. He was about to knife him when the police intervened."

Dan paused. A cloud of smoke hung in suspended animation, as if waiting for Dan to end his pause.

"Jack begged for some days on the streets of Pigalles for money to buy some paper and pencils. He needed to make money. The only thing he could think of was to get to Sacre Cour where tourists paid for caricatures. After a year of that he went back to art school. He was famous there. Even now tourists come in search of the artist with the scar under his left eye."

Rita gasped. She went and embraced Dan and tenderly caressed the two inch scar under his left eye.

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(I had challenged myself to write a "clean" dirty story once. I think this fits the bill quite well . Was inspired by couple of pages in "On The Road" by Jack Kerouac)

(I also thought it would be cool if Edward Norton played the role of Dan and Salma Hayek played the role of Rita) :)



Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Porn Industry in Crisis?

(Point 1: This is a NSFW blog. (Not Suitable for Work) Of course, I know that warning just made you read further just like the "Video is Flagged" tag actually increases the tendency to watch a video on Youtube. One of these days I am going to put a NSFW tag and make people read a boring post on Indian economy or something)

(Point 2: What with this being a momentous days for our polity, the topic below is... somewhat... unsuitable. I figured the net must be full of analysis anyway, so I might as well do my thing)

I have been extremely disturbed by the emergence of Youporn and Redtube. As I shall demonstrate below, the problems in the internet porn industry are a reflection of the troubled times we live in.

First of all, look at the names Youporn and Redtube. Both are plays on the same word Youtube which is anyway a boring word to begin with. Booble is not innovative but does merit a giggle, but on the other hand how unspiring are Youporn and Redtube! Can't they atleast play on some other thing. How is "Porn R Us" for example? Funny in a twisted and audacious way methinks. :P If anything, there are red light districts but blue films, so not to be anal or anything, but shouldn't it be Bluetube?

Gone are the times when sites had names like Milfhunter. Now that was a name that launched a new word in the vocabulary, a signal of who was in and who was not. ("In" as in... oh forget it)

That invention alone places the founder of the site in the ranks of other word inventors like Shakespeare and the black rapper dude who says shizzle, dizzle and all that.

Exhibit B. Look at the name of the actresses. It is always a Nicky, Vicky, Heather, Sandra or Nicole. As a result of this, every "dancer" from Wan Chai to Shinjuku gives these as their fake names. Another example of American standardization killing Asian creativity.

Exhibit C. The wonderment of porn is lost with these free sites. There was once a time when teenagers found a lost credit card, exclaimed hallelujah and tried it for porn. Imagine, the modern day youngsters growing up on this... this free stuff. Galling!

Exhibit D. I am getting bored of augmented assets. As they say, if they do go either way, they are usually fake. How about going natural this season? Go girl power!

Last but not the least, the days of wonder are dead. Gone are the days when one saw certain videos and thought to oneself, "Damn, they can do that!". Now it is all the same stuff. A typical outcome of our times where self aggrandisement leads to boredom. Where is the shock and awe I ask, where is the shock and ugh?

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Dying Lion at Lucerne

A Hero's death

One of the memorials that impacted me deeply was the monument of the Dying Lion at Lucerne, Switzerland. The sculpture of a wounded lion is carved onto a granite cliff.




The expression of the lion is a work of genius! Who can believe that such emotion can be crafted onto emotionless stone. Somehow the sculptor has managed to capture the last few moments before the lion's death in one motionless piece.

The wounded lion lies vanquished in its last few moments of existence, yet one gets the feeling that it was a brave death. Even in this position, the lion's mane gives it an authority and there is a nobility in the face. Is this the elusive hero's death that the epics talk about?

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Epilogue

I spent a few quite moments there, bought a souvenir of this monument and continued my journey. I just knew this to be a monument for Swiss soldiers who died in some battle. I did not bother to find out about the battle.

Today, I stumbled across this link which tells the story of the monument. Apparently, this was a monument built in honour of Swiss Mercenaries who died while defending the French Royalty in the French Revolution!

I was a bit surprised. The monument which affected me so powerfully was intended to honour people who were protecting the "bad guys" of the French Revolution. However, this still does not diminish the artistic brilliance of the monument. I will ignore the meaning and just take the beauty out of this. More importantly, whatever may have been the intention, it is still a fitting tribute to bravery, valour and nobility.

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The Swiss Mercenary Tradition

I was intrigued by the phrase "mercenary tradition". Here is an interesting article on the same.

"For more than 500 years, young Swiss men went out into the world in a controlled military environment at an age when they are quite naturally a little wild," said Anselm Zurfluh, director of Geneva's Museum of Swiss in the World.

"They usually returned calmed down and wanting to work, settle down and have families. I firmly believe this is one reason Switzerland is so peaceful."


:)

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Lucerne






Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Analysis Of The Disparities Between Nations - Part I

Well, the video did set me thinking on one angle. Scandinavia (Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark) pays a lot of attention to inequality. Throughout Europe there is a strong thread of socialism in society. This can be witnessed in the high tax rates and excellent social security systems.

For example, primary and secondary education is free in Finland and in some cases even undergraduate education can be free. Tuition fees at undergraduate levels are quite nominal throughout Europe in government funded schools. And if you can prove your financial difficulties, then state aid is assured. Compared to our own socialist experiment, we would expect that government funded schooling = poor quality education. However, the bulk of the population in Finland goes to the government funded schools. If the quality of education were poor, then a market for private schools would have emerged. But from what I know, it is not the case.

However, this does not mean everything is hunky dory. There is one section of people that really finds it hard to make ends meet. My observation is that this section is dismissed as "bums" or "drug addicts". The argument is that, if they are in their plight inspite of all that the government does for them, well, it cannot be helped. In that sense it can be pretty tough for a few. It is not a perfect world but broadly, the western European nations appear to have done a good job.

But how do we test this or quantify this? The most commonly used metric for inequality is the Gini index. The Gini index is based on the Gini Coefficient which is calculated as follows. Let us play around with some statistics.

The data was taken from Human Development Reports. I had to make one assumption to smooth over data issues. The Population and GDP Per Capita figures in the excel sheets are for 2005. When I try to access the Gini Index data for 2005 it links to the 2007-08 data. I have assumed that the situation has not changed too much in the past 3 years in terms of inequalities.

Here is a list of top 15 nations in the Gini Index. I have also included the US and the BRIC countries. The analysis is based on a sample of 126 countries.

The Scandinavian countries are all in the top 10. But other than Japan, the rest of the company is not exactly enviable. Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina(!), Hungary, Ukraine... Purely from casual reading we know these nations are not exactly the kind of nations that the world wants to emulate. Therefore, it appears that most of the equitable nations in the world are equitable because they appear to make everyone poor! The Hindu rate of growth!

Let us look at the BRIC countries. Amongst the BRIC countries we seem to be doing the best. We are at 54 while China is at 93 (yay!?) and Brazil at a really low 116. However, doing good on the Gini scale may not be such a great thing as the previous table suggested. That great model for the world (not anymore?) US is at 71. So only do nations that have low prosperity end up with a high Gini score? How do we measure prosperity?

One measure applied for prosperity is GDP per capita. GDP per capita has some flaws since it is an aggregate measure. But since we are taking that and Gini index into account, it should be an interesting exercise.

This makes more sense doesn't it? The ones whom we thought as not worthy of emulation have low GDP per capitas. Bosnia and Herzegovina has $2500, Slovakia at $8616, Ukraine at $1761. The Scandinavian countries stand out here too. Sweden has $39,637, Denmark at $47,769, Finland at $36,820 and Norway at a whopping $63,918.

Looking at the BRIC countries, there does seem to be an inverse relationship between Gini Coefficients and GDP Per Capita. Can we not grow without increasing inequality? (Afterthought, the same analysis will be better done with PPP adjusted GDP Per Capitas)

Let us do one thing. Let us take the nations with the highest GDP Per Capitas and check out their Gini Indices. Remeber when it comes to Gini Index, lower is better.



Interestingly, among the top 25 GDP per capitas we have countries like Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain. These countries are there on the strength of their natural resources and comparing them is really not going to help us. Let us drop them and build a new table. And the BRIC countries were left out in this one.

(I could have skipped it, but really just wanted to illustrate a point. I also wanted to show how thinking processes really are iterative. When we read from textbooks, we read the end result of a thought process. Unfortunately, the thinker rarely gets to that stage without many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip.)

Okay, last one, I promise. This one shows the GDP Per Capita rank and Gini Index rank for nations.



A cursory glance seems to satisfy the hypothesis that the most prosperous are quite unequal. Let us look at those that have done really well. I define "successful" nations as those whose difference between Gini ranks and GDP Per Capita ranks is not greater than 10. (It is an arbitrary cutoff)

Those are: (Drumrolls please)

Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Netherland, Austria, Finland, France, Canada and Germany.

And what do you know. Barring Canada, the rest are in Europe. I know that they have a strong socialist philosophy. But how come socialism works for these people while it does not work for Czech Republic, Bulgaria, India, China?

Or wait, are these metrics developed in Europe? (!) Is it the result of a built-in bias in the metrics?

For a moment let us discard the "skewed metrics" theory. The question that remains is:

What went wrong with the socialism of India, China, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Russia yet works for these countries?

PS: I had a fun 2 hours playing around with data. Another delectable tool for data handling is GapMinder. Check it out! Playing around with data could lead to interesting observations and voila you have a theory of your own!

PPS: What was the purpose of all this? In addition to raising some questions, I also wanted to demonstrate how to go about thinking about national development. I also observed that in the western world, there is a lot of obsession with development and growth. Maybe we could take a lesson or two from that.

A Matter of Perspective



I came across the following video from a friend's GTalk status message. You would have most probably watched this video, either on someone's status message or in a forward. It would have definitely provoked some emotion simply because every viewer identifies himself or herself with one of the respondents on the video. In that way, it is a pretty nice video. 

But it was interesting to see the comments. Some people got moved and agreed wholeheartedly. Whereas some others took the "heretical" stand and said, "Spend. That is the way to boost the economy". However, I was interested in some other things about the video.

a) Let us take the methodology. It is a survey and the question is fairly straight forward. "What would you do if you got Rs. 500?" Usually respondents are anonymous in a survey. It makes sense because that way people are likely to be more forthright with their opinions. On the other hand, this "survey" seems to reinforce the stereotypes. All the young people seem to have "frivolous" wants i.e piercings, booze (oh no!) and smokes (oh no no!), eating joints etc. And clearly, the sponsors of the video had a motive, there was a message they wanted to convey. So you can expect the responses to have been chosen with a bias. 

The reason this point occurred to me was I would have never said some of these things if I knew I was being filmed. My actual response would have been (if the survey were anonymous) "500... I will spend it on food." What would have happened is that it would have got spent on food, alcohol or a bus trip to Chennai. If I knew it were on TV, I would have said,"Buy a ticket to go home by Volvo bus" (Awww... :P) I think there is a term in Kotler for this, but I will call it "Posing effects". How you pose the question i.e wording as well as environment affects response in a very strong manner. (Is it called Framing Effects?)

Therefore, I am pleasantly surprised that some people were frank enough to admit what they really wanted. In Indian society, I believe there is a lot of false humility and false virtuousity that goes around (yours truly included) and if people are coming on TV and saying what they would really think, 3 cheers for that. 

Another feature of presenting such a survey is that the viewer cannot help forming a moral judgement on the respondent, because the viewer now has well... additional data - body language, face, clothes etc. Imagine an older person seeing the guy who said he would get a piercing or the girl who said she would get a haircut, the temptation to form a judgement is inevitable. Again, the question is just "What would you do if got Rs. 500?" The respondents may not have known the context their responses were going to be presented in. It may appear that some people are staggeringly selfish. But how do you know the respondent does not do some sort of charity already. If I gave Rs. 1000 from my income as a habit to charity and spent this Rs. 500 on alcohol would that make me good or bad? Also I don't mean to trivialize but if you asked a kid how he/she would spend money, the response can never be booze or smoke or even piercings.

Again I think I am overthinking this. The video is pretty nice at the end of the day and very very thought provoking. I only wished they had shown the responses and left the ending as a question and let the viewer take away his/her own message. This led me to a different string of thought that I have published here.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Snowy Afternoon

I woke up today at 2 in the afternoon and it already felt as if the sun had set. I got up and groggily opened the blinds to my window to be greeted by the following view.


A better view from the window in the common area:

(The blurred image is not due to any of my mistake, the visibility was quite poor. Of course, this is just the beginning and it only gets heavier.)

It was snowing heavily! I usually do not get excited by this, but somehow the presence of snow and the layer of white on everything adds a very different kind of beauty to the whole environment. The whiteness everywhere sets a background against which anything coloirful stands out by contrast. It is as if the whiteness accentuates the little colour that is there. I am looking forward to the view in the night. The light reflecting off the snow seems to make the night brighter!The snow seems to have a "calming effect" on nature and everything grinds to a halt. It is the time of the year when the trees are dead, bereft of leaves.

The leaf-less trees reminded me of a story by O.Henry called the Last Leaf. (Actually Maro reminded me of the story in Amsterdam) I think this story was there in the CBSE English textbook. (It can be read here) The story is about two people, a sick girl and an old painter. The sick girl believes she is about to die and her time would come when the last leaf falls off a tree. The old painter, tired of his mediocre commercial efforts, is still in search of his magnum opus. Obviously, the two characters are connected by the leaf and read the story to find out how. It has a really nice twist.

Anyway, the best thing to do in this weather is to curl up in bed, drink something hot and just watch a lot of movies. This is God telling us humans to pack up and hibernate. Amen to that!

Current Track: The Nowhere Man by The Beatles



Saturday, November 22, 2008

Carnatic Music Primer

Last term I had taken a course called Tracking Creative Boundaries. During the course, the professor mailed us an excellent primer to understand the technical aspects of carnatic music. Like always, I did not read it during the course. (sigh... a bit of discipline is all I ask for :P)

This is a classic guide for dummies. The biggest stumbling block for many a beginner interested in classical music is the forbidding jargon employed by aficionados. As a general rule in life, I am suspicious of people who use too much jargon and I have always harboured a suspicion that most people who "ooh aah" about carnatic music may not really be that good as a beginner may think. (A bit more discipline and a little less cynicism... the list grows!)

Anyway, the treatment (if one can use that word) in these 4 parts is accessible, yet sufficiently technical. Most importantly, the language is easy to understand. I have read the first part so far and I have found the analogies very useful to get a basic picture. Enough talk! The links can be accessed here.

I really liked this, so at the risk of repeating myself, if you have always wanted to know something about carnatic music (or even just about music) but was scared to look like a dumbass, you just have to read these pages.

P.S: These are pretty long HTML pages. One easy way would be to ctrl-A, ctrl-C, ctrl-V on to a word file. It is unlikely you would read it in one sitting. I found it easier to keep track of where I was.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Resource for learning HTML

I am embarrassed to admit this, but I really did not know HTML coding until yesterday! It is so cold to step outside, I get out only when I have to. Gone are the days of walking by Helsinki's port, or the walks to Hietsu beach.

As a result of being confined inside and the absence of a TV and the presence of an awesome wifi connection, I spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet. I came across this site by Dave Raggett. You can find info about the author here.

The following pages give you a quick guide to coding up a half decent website. He has divided it into Basics, Advanced and Adding a Touch of Style. It took me around 3.5-4 hrs to do the whole thing. But that it is because I took lots of breaks in between which in turn is because I hate reading off the laptop screen. If you have always wanted to do HTML, but haven't, this is really a quick get to work kind of a guide.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Rich Merchant

A rich man once gave his son 500 gold coins* for a trip the latter was going on. Once the son returned he inquired about his journey. After dispensing with the pleasantries, he came to the question he had been itching to ask.

"So son... was the money enough? How much did you spend?", he enquired

"500 gold coins", the son said.

"Haha... that was the amount I gave you. How much is left?"

"Nothing is left. First day we went on this boat trip, then had this delicious dinner..."

"What?! You mean to say you have no money left after the trip?", the father asked in an alarmed tone

"Was I supposed to?", the son said, bewildered.

The father snapped.

"You wastrel, you idiot, you pampered brat! This irresponsibility is your mother's fault! There was a time in my life I could not afford three square meals a day. At your age if my father had given me 50 gold coins, I would have spent 10, told him that I spent 25, put the 15 coins in the bank and returned the rest. I was expecting this kind of sharpness from you. Instead, you come and stand before me having spent everything. At this rate, you will just eat away all the wealth that I have amassed with so much care. What do you have to say for your irresponsibility?"

The son regarded the tirade coolly. He was used to it.

"Your father was poor, so you had to scrounge. My father is rich, so I don't have to!"

*******************************************************************************

While this may seem frivolous, the fact is the retort is absolutely spot on. It is amazing how many authorities do not grasp the significance of this simple moral. Contexts change, moral views change, outlooks change. The best strategy to preempt rebellion is to take the European way and create a space for new outlooks within the existing framework.



Thursday, November 13, 2008

Corporate Finance Link

Stumbled on to Prof. Aswath Damodaran's page from a friend's status message.

If you have taken Corporate Finance before or even if you did and think that your teacher was the studdest prof. to take the subject, I would recommend the webcasts on Corporate Finance.

The website can be accessed here. To access the webcasts, click on Classes&Support -> Corporate Finance (Full Semester MBA Class) -> Webcasts.

Wish more people really tore apart the subject as Prof. Damodaran does!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Despatches from Europe*

A Grand Bollywood Museum?

Salzburg is beautiful. That statement needs qualification. Much of Europe is beautiful in its way. However, Salzburg's beauty is different from Paris. Paris is a big city which throbs with life. There is a hustle and bustle and the cafes which act as islands of calm from which you can admire Paris. Salzburg's beauty is one that calms the mind, soothes the soul, helps the mind pause before letting it soar again. If you had a nervous breakdown or wanted to write a treatise, there are few places to beat Salzburg. Talking of beauty in Europe, the cities are so well maintained and so beautiful that after a point it begins to fade and when that happens, the headiness induced by beauty is replaced by a void... a void filled by boredom. The flip side to perfection?

At the risk of betraying my philistine tendencies, I was not going to visit Salzburg! I thought of heading straight to Vienna, but there is a God and the proof of His/Her love was that I was not sleeping as the train pulled into Salzburg.


(Houses nestled in the hills. There was a fog when the train pulled in, which gave it an almost dream-like quality)

One of the must-see sights in Salzburg is the Mozart residence. They have an extremely impressive museum in what was formerly the residence of the Mozart family. I was a bit hesitant to enter. The entry fee was 7.5 euros and I really do not know too much about western classical music. But enter I did and glad I was.

When you buy the ticket, you get an audio guide along with it. This is a really simple and handy device. The museum itself is very small, just one floor. As you enter a room, there are numbers attached to the exhibit. You key in that number and a narrator talks about the exhibit, with classical music playing in the background and also mentions a line or two about the musical piece. This is a beautiful but simple innovation.

I think we should have a huge museum dedicated to Indian music with such an audio guide. I use the term Indian very specifically. In my view, Indian music should consist of Hindustani, Carnatic and Film music. This would throw the purists into fits of horror and if I had the money I would do that just to get sadistic pleasure out of it!

On a related note, I think we need to build a huge Bollywood museum in Mumbai or even better Goa. It would make oodles of money. I cannot count the number of people who have said, "You are from India? I really like Bollywood movies!" It is kind of important. The reason is... for much of the west, India is about living with poverty, snake charmers, the Apu trilogy, the caste system and now cheap outsourced labour. Even though I am not the greatest lover of Bollywood movies, they change that perception of India.
*************************************************************************

The Art of Correspondence and Ambitious Fathers

The Mozart museum houses a significant body of letters that were exchanged between Father and Son. The exchanges reveal a proud but protective father worried about keeping a mischievous son on track to what the former thinks is the latter's potential. Mozart showed signs of genius quite early in life, early as in 3 years of age not 15 years of age! Father writes the following about his son to a friend,"...A God has been born in our own Salzburg" Mozart's father was an accomplished musician himself and comes across as demanding. Therefore, one can imagine the worry he would have had to go through.

The letters reminded one of the lost art of the correspondence. Of course, in today's times, there is no need for long communication. In fact, it would be frowned upon. But as a consequence, the charm of reflective thinking, witty and cutting observations that delight are lost.

A biography of Nehru by M.J.Akbar draws extensively on the correspondence between Jawaharlal Nehru and his father Motilal Nehru during Jawaharlal's days in England and it throws great light on the father's role in the development of his son. If I recall right, (and correct me if you think I am wrong) Motilal sends a picture of English Governor Generals of India (or some such high post) and writes to the effect that he would like Jawaharlal in that position.

Of course, from one perspective such things place undue pressure on the child. But from another perspective, perhaps these parents played the role of protective guides, showing a path and stepping in when the person looked like he was straying too much.

Either way, somehow I left with the feeling that writing letters leads to a kind of fulfilling relationship that modern methods be it emails or chats miss out on. Of course, that does not mean one has to write on paper, but if one writes proper emails, the way your english teacher would have liked it, perhaps it is more fun.


(View of Mozart house)

(Another shot)


(Christian Doppler's house is next to Mozart's :) For a town of its size, Salzburg has produced many achievers. Must be all that beauty! However the Doppler residence seems to have become commercial space. Note the ad!)

(One can imagine Doppler working at one of these windows)


(How to talk Arty!)

* I have always wanted to write "Despatches from " :)


Monday, November 10, 2008

Wintry Nights at Scandinavia


View from my balcony at 5 pm :) Oh Sun Lord, where are thou?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Bern, Baby!

The weary traveler strolled about the streets of Berne in an attempt to kill some time before his next connecting train. The journey so far had been amazing and the cherry on the cake had been the Monument of the Dying Lion at Lucerne. The traveler was heading out to a well deserved break in Amsterdam. As he was walking aimlessly, a pang of guilt seized the traveler. Clearly, Switzerland had been the best experience so far, yet he was seeing so less of it. However, did Switzerland have much to offer a la Prague or Paris? In his perception, Zurich and Berne were staid financial centres and the beauty of Switzerland could be best experienced from the train rather than walking the streets of these cities.

The traveler sighed out of tiredness. A puff of vapour went up the air.


It was very cold. He reached out into his pocket and collected whatever remained of his Swiss Francs. They were all in coins and amounted to not more than three and seventy.

He looked about for a Kebap shop. The only kind of shop that would even deal with this amount of money could be a kebap shop. And even there, this money may be good for one coffee. But yes, a coffee would be good.

The traveler’s reveries were interrupted by the haunting sound of a bagpipe. Whoever would play bagpipes in Switzerland? The traveler headed in the direction of the sound. There, by the side of a road, stood a person playing his bagpipes. He was stomping his feet in the direction and the sound of trinkets (salangai) acted as an accompaniment to the music.

video

The effect of the music was mesmerizing. It would be futile to attempt to capture the beauty of the music in words and the author shall not attempt it. Slowly, a crowd grew around this musician, swaying to the tunes of the bagpipe. If we were the townspeople, he was the Piper. The traveler recollected the story of the piper. Finally, after many years of having heard the story, it suddenly became richer in meaning. The power of the instrument was remarkable indeed and the story was no exaggeration.

The piper played on. The cold did not seem to matter now. The traveler emptied his pockets in genuflection. The destination did not seem to matter now. The first connection to his destination was missed. However, only the moment mattered. It is well said that the best journey has no destination.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Travel Acquaintances

6:45 PM

On the train from Goteborg to Copenhagen


On the ship to Stockholm I met a Finn who works as a bouncer and a Russian electrical engineer who had been on a long trip to India. I forgot both their names, so let us call them Jari, the Finn and Dmitry, the Russian.


I was initially taken aback to see Jari in the room. I said a silent prayer. You see, just outside I had seen 4 “Yo Dude”s and was hoping that no one like that would be sharing my cabin. I had a long bout of travelling to do and getting a sound night’s sleep was a priority. Most travelers on the Turku-Stockholm ferry came for the cruise rather than for Stockholm. The ship is a gigantic amusement park actually. There are decks of amusement, from casinos to discos to saunas and it is more of a let-it-all-out trip. And I did not want anyone in my room to let it all out that night.


I entered my room to see a swarthy guy with tattoos all over his body. However, as these things turn out, he was quite soft-spoken and was keener than me for a good night’s sleep. I must confess to find his behavior a tad disconcerting. He kept looking out of the door, and saying, “Wonder if we are alone”! I was reminded of the tunnel scene from the movie Eurotrip and that did not help! However, in the course of the conversation, I learnt that he was going to Stockholm for a Jujitsu competition and hence did not want any party dudes. I was however eager to learn more about the bouncing profession. But before I could quiz him on how one became a bouncer, the interview process, tips and all that, a most curious person entered.


In entered a short and stout man who started moving about the small space looking to place his bag. Usually, the formality in such occasions (though it is not written in stone, one might add) is to exchange pleasantries with the others sharing the cabin. On the contrary, the new visitor seemed keener to learn the topology of the room. After having placed his bags and coat, he greeted us. I tried not to laugh.


The inventor of the phrase pot belly must have seen Dmitry when he coined the phrase. The man had a properly pot-like belly. He was balding, but he compensated for the lack of hair on his pate with a well groomed beard. His English was not that great. He spoke in broken sentences. But when he realized that I was from India, he immediately took out his passport and showed it to me. He had visited India in 1976. He had visited India as part of a government delegation and had gone to Mathura, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Nepal. He spoke in short sentences about those places and to confess I found his manner of speaking more interesting that his experiences. Clearly, he had been on a “Karma Cola” trip, seeing India in clich├ęd terms. But still, it provided a common conversation point.


I learned that he too had a similar journey schedule like mine, except that he was doing Europe on a bus. Then he started on his dinner and I took out a book. It is really very comfortable traveling on the ship. After some time, I really could not help noticing the concentration with which Dmitry ate his food. He had bought a lot of pre-cooked stuff and seeing him go about using each one was interesting in itself.

After that novelty wore out in five minutes, I drifted off to a dreamless sleep! One does meet all types in the ship!