Friday, June 27, 2008

As the thoughts flow...

Oops... again missed on following up a story. Mea Culpa! My hard disk crashed last week and the half written file bit the dust, much like the other files I had. I long for my old hard disk. But as the service center guy asked me if I wanted any data recovered, I realized that I really did not need any! I have always had bad luck with computers... okay okay, I just don't know why my computers get screwed so easily. The obvious answer would be that I mistreat my gadgets, but I really don't!

Maybe I got to do better research when I buy them, but that still does not explain the extent of the cups my gadgets fall into. sigh...

Anyway, as a result of years of bad luck with computers, I just backup my stuff on mail as an instinct. So I had the really really important stuff on gmail and did not need to spend money on recovering data. But even without that, got taken to the cleaners money wise. sigh again...

It is curious really... when I was interning I missed campus life with its supposed abandon and now that I am back at campus, I am actually missing work life. As the Tamil saying goes, Desire comes in waves and at a fundamental level I am just feeling so restless and have no idea as to why that is.

I really want to get obsessed with something to the exclusion of everything else. I am kind of bored of doing this middle class act where you are supposed to balance everything - do your duty to everybody - keep your mind under control and all that.

Someone once mentioned this tidbit which has always fascinated me. I don't even know how true it is or even if I remember it the right way, but this is what I carried out. I was told that the temple architects were required to undergo a fast certain number of days before they started working on their projects. This was so that they could condition their minds. The main sculptors who sculpted the magnificent garbagrihas were specially required to undergo rigorous fasts and during the period of the sculpting they were isolated from family to concentrate on their work.
And this discipline produced the great sculptures that have stood the test of time.

I really want to bury myself in an obsession like that, becoming oblivious to everything else. Of course, there is no point in waiting for things to happen and it is better to seize the day and all that I suppose.

But there are times when I do get doubts. All this obsession after money or achievement or fame is fine, but I have always believed complete obsession in an enchanting woman is the best form of obsession. Of course, it is certain to lead to ruin, but isn't such ruin worth attaining?

Actually, hitting the bottom may not be such a bad thing after all. I have always believed in the phrase Aham Brahmasmi and this life force resides in all of us. I interpret this statement to mean that there is a certain life force that keeps this cosmos running. Also, to experience this inner divinity, one must reach utter ruin. Why? Only when do you reach pit bottom, does your ego get completely shattered. When this ego is shattered there are two ways to respond to it. One way is to commit suicide and the other way is to search for the force which keeps us... human, the life force. This is a curious thing actually. All those people who go from temple to temple do it because their ego makes them feel superior, but this strengthening of ego actually pushes them away from experience the divinity in themselves.

Therefore, if you see there is no such thing as a bad thing in life!

Peace.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Hotel At TinStop Hill

(Warning: Looong story. But I am sure it kind of "flows" once you start reading :))

Jim Hardy wearily trudged his way along the stone path coiling up TinStop hill. The silver tipped walking stick made a rhythmic sound that Jim found helpful in concentrating on the problem that was bothering him. It was a dark cloudy day and that mirrored the state of his mind, clich├ęd as it may seem.

The Hotel on TinStop Hill had been opened with much fanfare. TinStop Hill took its name from the famed TinStop Bungalows located at the top of the hill. The TinStop Bungalows were the homes to some of the richest and most powerful men in the world. More noteworthy was the fact that most of the families here had achieved and held this power and money for more than a hundred years. The TinStop bungalows were spoken of as the most exclusive residential address in the world.

Jim Hardy remembered the day he got the call from the mysterious Mr. Travistock. Until then Jim had been the manager of the reputed Grand Orient at Winston’s Hillock. The Grand Orient had been built by a billionaire and boasted of one of the most impressive art collections for a hotel. Jim had joined there as a waiter at one the restaurants and over a period of two decades had become the manager of the hotel. His able management of the hotel coupled with the special care he lavished on the art collection had attracted the mysterious Mr. Travistock’s attention.

The interview process had been... mysterious to say the least. He had been asked to enter the basement of a decrepit garage, where he was received by a solitary Butler. He was then blindfolded and ushered into Mr. Travistock’s presence. Once the interview started, Jim could sense that the chamber he was in was one of immense luxury. The blindfolded interview had been quite thorough and professional. The mysterious Mr. Travistock was clearly an expert in the luxury industry. Jim also felt that he was a gentleman of fine breeding and his taste was exquisite. Clearly, the mysterious Mr. Travistock was not one of those rich men with common taste, masquerading as though they were of finer pedigree. Jim always lifted his right eyebrow involuntarily when he approved of a customer and felt that the latter was indeed a gentleman and lifted his left eyebrow when the customer was not. After many years in the industry, he had developed an instinct as to whether a customer had money and class. Money could buy many things, but it could never buy class, he was fond of saying. Everyone from the footman to the deputy manager caught on to this and there was active speculation on which side a customer has been “eyebrow”ed. The mysterious Mr. Travistock had been "eyebrow"ed right.

The interview was exacting and the mysterious Mr. Travistock was a perfectionist. After the interview, Jim was offered a meal, which he had to eat blindfolded. However, the waiters at the table were excellent and he had had a satisfying meal. As he was escorted out, Jim was informed that he should make no effort to contact them or even make inquiries of the mysterious Mr. Travistock and that they would get back to him. As Jim navigated a curve on his way to the Hotel at TinStop Hill, he reflected that the behaviour that day was quite an accurate reflection of the nature of his professional engagement with Mr. Travistock’s establishment. He had powers only on very basic operational issues. When he dealt with anything bigger, he felt as if he were working blindfolded. Maybe Mr. Travistock should have been "eyebrow"ed left. But he was a gentleman!

A week after that surreal interview, Jim received a big package. The interview seemed like a dream to Jim when recollected it. He opened the package to find an exquisitely made crystal vase which appeared to have a shiny gold box in the shape of a treasure chest. He extracted the curious treasure chest, to see a small scroll that announced his selection to the post of the manager of the Hotel at TinStop Hill. Jim smiled, glad that he had impressed a man of such fine taste, but shrugged and put the gold box in his drawer. He was satisfied at The Grand Orient and saw no need to make a change in his life. He liked stability.

As Jim entered the dining room of the Elgin Club later that evening, he noticed a sudden change in the way he was received. The Elgin club was a meeting place for those involved with the hospitality industry in the area and evidently word had got around of Jim’s appointment.

Anthony, the Manager of The Ancient Oak, was the first to congratulate Jim.

“Heard about your appointment. Mighty impressive, getting the nod of approval from the mysterious Mr. Travistock!”, he said

“How did you know about it?”, Jim asked in surprise

“Everyone is talking about it. Don’t think you were the only one called. All the managers in this club were called and by getting this appointment, you have proven yourself to be the best in your job!”, Tony said with a wistful smile

“Is it so? I really did not know the importance of the...”

“Are you kidding? The mysterious Mr. Travistock has decided that this is going to be the magnum opus of his life. His ambition is to open the ultimate venue in world power broking and deal broking...”, Anthony said but was interrupted by a waiter calling him away for a phone call.

The waiter smiled and added, “And may I offer my congratulations, Sir”

Jim was puzzled.

How did the mysterious Mr. Travistock get access to an address on TinStop Hill? As far as he knew, no one by the name of Travistock held residence on the TinStop bungalows. Maybe that explained why he had been blindfolded. Could Mr. Travistock be of an honourable family that fell into bad times and was trying to make up for that? Even if it were true, the families in the TinStop bungalows were of the highest reputation and if indeed this was an honourable venture why would they hide their name?

Edward Elgin, the owner of the Elgin Club came up to Jim.

“May I offer the future manager of the Hotel on TinStop Hill a glass of our finest whiskey?”, he asked with a congratulatory smile

Edward Elgin was an old friend of Jim’s and was a great admirer of the way Jim ran the Grand Orient. He often benchmarked his own comparatively modest club to that of the Grand Orient.

“Look, how did you know the name of my appointment? Or for that matter even the name of the Hotel?”, Jim demanded

“Why wouldn't I be? Just as you were sent a crystal vase with the gold box, all those called for an audience with the mysterious Mr. Travistock got a bronze vase with a silver chest informing of their failure and your success. There was a similar arrangement for the chef, right down to even the footmen! Getting into the Hotel on TinStop Hill at any level is like winning the Oscars for that category or that is how the mysterious Mr. Travistock has made it to be!”, Edward replied

“But who is this mysterious Mr. Travistock? Is he one of the TinStop families?”, Jim asked

“Ah...”, Edward paused and looked around. Then with a jovial smile led Jim to his room and closed the door.

“I am not sure if I am supposed to be saying this, but I have a cousin who works for the mysterious Mr. Travistock at a very close level. Apparently, Mr. T is an art dealer of some sort who grew close to the TinStop families.”, Edward whispered

“But how did he get property on TinStop Hill for a hotel, however grandiose its intentions may be? Isn’t that supposed to be exclusive?”, Jim asked

“Yes! People are talking of the very same thing. There is one rumour that perhaps Mr. Travistock is blackmailing one of the TinStop families. I find that ludicrous for they could simply crush such a guy without lifting a finger. My cousin believes that the most plausible explanation could be that one of the TinStop families did not have an heir and he got it as a trustee or something”, Edward speculated.

“But I like the Grand Orient. I see absolutely no reason to change”, Jim said

“Ah, but you are being paid so much... aren’t you?”, Edward asked surprised

“What! Even I have not heard of my prospective pay and the street knows about it?”, Jim asked incredulously

Edward said smilingly, “Ah... I have heard but rumours. If indeed they turn out to be true, you are going to find it pretttty hard to resist the lure.”

“No. I don’t think so. I have all the money I need. It is just that... this whole air of mystery does not augur well in my opinion. I run The Grand Orient in an open manner. Any of my subordinates can come and talk to me. I would never treat them like this...” Jim continued

Jim sighed as he started the ascent of the Grand Steps To Serendip. The Grand Steps to Serendip was a kilometer’s climb which led to the hotel entrance. There was an escalator nearby as well as a shuttle service Jim could have called. He just wanted to postpone entering his office.

As he climbed the stairs, he winced. The marble statues that adorned the entrance were missing. There was no point in calling the police. A month ago, one such piece of art was missing from the foyer. When he reported it to the police, he got a message from the mysterious Mr. Travistock forbidding him from going to the police without consulting the latter first. The reason given was that the fair name of the Hotel at TinStop Hill should not be dragged into the press. A week ago Jim read in the papers that an objet d'art had been auctioned for a record amount. On closer inspection of the picture, it seemed to Jim that it resembled the missing piece. Jim was long suspecting the Hotel at TinStop Hill was in grave financial situations, but he himself had no idea of the exact state. Astonishingly, for a manager of the Hotel, he had no idea who or how the clients paid the Hotel or for that matter how much the fares were. He received no replies for such questions and had come to accept the silence.

Despite his objections, when the call did come, Jim found out that the pay had been indeed... obscene. He could retire in a few years but more than that, as Edward told him, he looked upon the compensation as some sort of recognition for his ability, a neutral metric for his talent.

The Hotel at TinStop Hill began with a bang alright. Some of the most important meetings in the world began to be scheduled there. Jim was stressed, dazzled and intimated by the events of significance that he would have to handle without any mistake whatsoever. However, he went about it with a new energy. Being close to some of the most important actors in world politics gave him the feeling that he played a small but crucial role in the play.* In the beginning, the job was indeed intoxicating.

All the people in the Hotel at TinStop Hill were the best at what they did. There was little need for instruction and people picked up on problems well. After two years of operation, Jim felt that he was indeed on top of his profession. There were lots of perks too. He was made a member of many a club. He even gave a speech to the local school on Hotel Management as a career choice rivaling that of any of the other conventional professions.

However, just as suddenly as the Hotel at TinStop Hill had started its rise, the Hotel started on its slide. Meetings and conferences started getting canceled at the last moment. More embarrassingly for Jim, some of the cancellations were done by the mysterious Mr. Travistock. Once a meeting had been canceled by Mr. Travistock after some delegates had arrived. Jim bore the brunt of the guests’ ire. What frustrated Jim was the fact that the action was patently unfair! All these conferences were of great import and the guests were eminent men in their own right. Treating them in that manner was just not civil!

The morale took a dive. All the people in the Hotel at TinStop Hill were good at what they did and they blamed themselves initially. They just worked harder and better. But customers grew more irate. After some more months, the Assistant Chef was fired for no ostensible reason.

And then Jim saw it happening in front of his eyes. The whole Hotel started coming apart. People started suspecting each other. Jim was the object of a vicious rumour campaign. But he tried harder. These were people of great professional bearing. They had been selected very carefully. Jim reasoned that there must be a way to work things out. Like the rest of them he blamed himself for not being innovative in solving the problem. He read books on better management, attended seminars on reviving organizations, turned to the ancient tomes for wisdom. He initiated a weekly group meeting so that everyone could air their concerns. Slowly, these meetings were hijacked by a few self righteous and over eager speakers and the rest became indifferent to it. They even went on a camp outing together. The camp outing was illuminating in a way. They discussed their problems and after a point got into circles. Then everyone lost interest and people split into their various groups and went their own way.

Jim crossed the beautiful garden between the Grand Steps of Serendip and his office. There was a pebble stone path that Jim liked to walk upon. He liked the sound his footsteps made on the pebble stone. The action that he was about to take was well reasoned.

He had many pleas to the mysterious Mr. Travistock for more participation. What brought the normally docile Jim to the point of blind fury was the fact that he could not even reach the mysterious Mr. Travistock. He usually posted his communication to the “gentleman”! Jim had had enough it all. There was a frustration and pent up anger in the very air of the Hotel. Or maybe that was Jim’s feeling.

Jim sat at his desk and took out his letter head to write his resignation letter. Despite all the anger, Jim was deferential in his letter. He knew no other way to write. As he was halfway through his resignation letter, he saw a rectangular marble box, around half a foot long. Intrigued, he opened it to find a note that read:

Mr. Jim Hardy,

I regret to inform you that due to circumstances beyond my control I would have to let go off you. You are a great professional and I trust other establishments would be more than happy to have your services. Please make no attempt to seek any explanation for this letter.

Later, when Jim recollected this incident he was struck by the fact that the first feeling he experienced was one of relief. Then he felt furious for being treated this way. He wanted to leave without a word to anyone. He stormed out of the office, but after he walked halfway through the pebble stone path, his usual dedication prevented him from walking further. He walked back, pinned the note on the Announcement Board for Employees and walked away. He knew all hell would break loose. He could not care less.

Releasing Next Monday: The Mysterious Mr. Travistock Muses

(*After reading the story I realized that I have been greatly influenced by "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro. It is a great book and a strongly recommended read)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Rough Guide to VB Coding in Excel for Beginners

One of the things which strikes many an intern when he steps into investment banking is the extent to which the industry relies on the tool called Excel. As a co-intern pointed out, many investment banking internships are indeed “Excel”lent experiences.

I have had my time with VB coding and personally find it quite an enjoyable thing to do. Also, the ability to code up excel macros is a very useful skill to have in the real world .

So I thought I would put a rough and dirty guide to Excel coding. The aim is really to get the beginner started and running. For many of the advanced applications, there are quite a few resources on the Web.

Before that, dumb as the following may sound, let me clarify a definition first. The term ‘Workbook’ (which we will never almost use) refers to the .xls file. The term ‘Worksheet’ (which we will use a lot) refers to the individual sheets in the workbook. This is very basic and if there is a confusion here, there could be problems later on, so I have just added a picture. Excel Demo.xls is the workbook and ‘Industry’, ‘DataDumpA’ and ‘DataDumpB’ are the Worksheets.


Let us take a simple problem. Say you have got data from data sources on two companies A and B which you have either copied on to the sheets or queried from some data source. Say you have copied quarterly sales data of company A and B into sheets ‘DataDumpA’ and ‘DataDumpB’.

For arguments’ sake, say A and B are the only players in the industry and you want to find the total sales of the industry. The easiest way is of course to use the formula in cell B4 as:

DataDumpA!B4+DataDumpB!B4

Sheetname! is the way to refer to worksheets in an excel sheet. You could use this when you have to manually input sheetnames at some places.

Let us do this in VB coding just to get an idea of how things work. The best way for a total novice to learn VB coding is by using the ‘Record Macro’ button. By recording the concerned macro and then seeing the code, the user gets an excellent idea of how vb coding works. I have Office 2007 and the screenshots are from that. I will also give the relevant instructions for Office 2003.

Getting Started:

Irrespective of the version, Alt+F8 should throw up a box like this.


Input a name for the macro and press the “Create” Tab.



This should get you to the Coding interface. (Phew... all these pictures just to get to the most basic step! The basics always take time I suppose...)


The “Sub” indicates that this is a macro. The way to access the macro is to either put in a command button that calls (The syntax is: Call MacroName) this macro or we can call it as part of another macro. We will revisit this.

The only other thing I have used is a Function. The code for that would start with:

Public Function FunctionName(inputs)

Okay, now that we have got the coding window, let’s type in the code.

(Disclaimer: I am no expert in coding practices. Some of the things I do may not be recommended coding practices. Again, this is only a rough guide to get you started on the job.)


Sub Add()

'Macro to obtain aggregate industry numbers

'Created on 14th June 2008

colcount = 3

For i = 1 To 4

Worksheets("Industry").Cells(colcount + i, 1).Value = Worksheets("DataDumpA").Cells(colcount + i, 1).Value

Worksheets("Industry").Cells(colcount + i, 2).Value = Worksheets("DataDumpA").Cells(colcount + i, 2).Value + Worksheets("DataDumpB").Cells(colcount + i, 2).Value

Next i

End Sub


Let us go through the code line by line

For i = 1 To 4

Next i

In VB Excel coding, the syntax for For is as above.

Worksheets(“Industry”).Cells(colcount+i,1).Value

This syntax is perhaps the most important syntax as it shows how to refer to cells in the Excel sheet through the VB code.

Worksheets(“SheetName”) refers to the specific sheet that has the data you are looking at.

Cells(row, column) is explanatory

.Value takes whatever is there in the cell as per the format in the cell. So if there is a date in the cell, it will take the date as it is in the cell format.

Say that the source data gives the data in MM/DD/YY format, but you want it as DD/MM/YY format, what you need to do is to change the format of the cell. So, right-click on the cell -> Format Cells... -> set the required format in that. Then VB would transfer the value as it is.

Some practical tips:

Most beginners would get the following error message:

Subscript out of range

This usually indicates that the Worksheet name has been input wrongly. So for example, instead of “DataDumpA”, if I had put “DataDump1” then this error would arise. This message would also come if an array assignment exceeds the declared boundaries of the array.

Say, an array of dimension 10 had been declared but if the ArrayName(12) is used, then the same error would arise.

As mentioned earlier, hardcoding the colcount is not a good thing. Perhaps we could have a flag. The string “Date” would be the flag and we should iterate until we find it.

The code for that would look as follows:

colcount=1

While Worksheets("Industry").Cells(colcount, 1).Value <> "Date"

colcount = colcount + 1

Wend


While

Wend

Is the syntax for the While loop


If Loop

There is the If loop and the If-Elseif loop.

Say in our sheet, we had to compare dates and if the quarterly dates did not match, then an error message box had to be thrown up.

The code would look as follows:

If Worksheets(“DataDumpA”).Cells(colcount,1).Value = Worksheets(“DataDumpB”).Cells(colcount,2).Value Then

Worksheets(“Industry”).Cells(colcount,1).Value = Worksheets(“DataDumpA”).Cells(colcount,1).Value

Elseif Worksheets(“DataDumpA”).Cells(colcount,1).Value <> Worksheets(“DataDumpB”).Cells(colcount,2).Value Then

MsgBox “Dates for the two companies do not match”

End If

Things neither here nor there

One of the biggest “stumbling blocks” in VB coding for excel is the “Not Equal to” Operator.

<> is used to indicate inequality

Declarations

The command Dim is used to declare data type.

If you notice we never used Dim in our code. That is because the operations are very simple. However if you had strings or arrays you would need to declare them. The syntax is as follows:

‘Declare a String

Dim Name as String

‘Declare an array of integers

Dim ArrayName(ArraySize)

‘Declare an array of strings

Dim ArrayName(ArraySize) As String

‘Declaring dynamic arrays

Say we need to have an array of a certain size x. However, x is the product of certain operations. Then we need to initially declare the array and then re-dimension it to the appropriate size x.

The syntax would be as:

Dim ArrayName()

ReDim ArrayName(x)

Wrap Up:

I think you are pretty much rough and ready to go. Hope this was useful. Again I stress that this is for those who need to get a quick move on things. There are always smarter ways to do stuff once you get the basics figured out.

Do tell me if this was helpful. I can put up more stuff on:

· Using the debugger

· Handling Strings

· Adding a command button

· Using Names in Excel for dynamic data management


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

My Two Pennies

It is the admission season now and a time when only mad dogs and admission-seeking parents step into the merciless May heat of Chennai. I understand these must be stressful times for a lot of people. However, one recurring theme leads me to write this blog.

In casual conversations, I see many parents gushing over how hard their kids worked. Statements like, “He/She has sacrificed soooo much for these many years, I don’t care where he/she gets admission as long as they are happy.” Other common refrains are “This is all madness. Is any of it worth it?”, “Everyone gets an IT job, so how does it matter what we do” and so on.

These statements irritate me a lot simply because they are defeatist and escapist. True, the college admission process is a major step in anyone’s life. Given the intensity of the competition, disappointment is inevitable. Just admit things did not work out and move on! However, I find that most people try to justify their disappointment by resorting to specious claims and making arbitrary theories.

To give an example, one hears this comment quite frequently. “He tried so hard and gave his best, if after that he did not get it, then such a thing is not needed”. This is NOT how to react to your first disappointment. Remember, it is not as if that one kid alone gave his best while others were counting hair. Everyone is trying hard and sometimes, shit happens. By justifying failure, parents are setting up their kids to fail. Another such situation may come up where a project may have to be executed at considerable energy and the outcome may not be certain. According to this value system, if after all that hard work, you don’t complete the project, then it is not worth it. Then why do it in the first place? Let us just sit and work on solved problems.

The other more irritating thing is when parents wallow in pity for their kids. “How much he studied? He used to attend 6 hrs of coaching daily and sleep only for 4 hrs a day. After that he has not got what he wanted. We are soooooo sad for him.” Often the kids only know how well “all those hours of coaching” were utilized. I have always held that there is a critical amount of time one must spend taxing the mind. It is important to relax the mind. If you believe this and in the process lost a few marks, don’t bother justifying it to others. You can always fashion a suitable way for yourself or take the exam again. Just, never ever, wallow in self pity.

So if you have overly fussy parents, most probably they will not tell you some things which are necessary for every young man stepping into the real world. Let me dispense my two penny’orth of advice.

Between the ages of 18/20 to 36, life is a jungle. Make no mistake about it. There are lots of young men jostling for the little space at the top, so that may shine from the peak. To beat this, heck, even survive this rat race, is no mean task. Don’t dismiss it as a rat race that is beneath you. That is also escapist in my opinion. The rat race is a natural consequence and everyone has been through it. Expect no sympathies.

Political instincts that human beings possess, is but a natural outcome of this jostling for visibility. One of my favourite axioms regarding human behaviour is that, most human beings crave for power within limitations imposed upon them by society. Why the qualification? It is as if human beings take the limitations imposed on them by society as given, but work within that to establish their power. Curiously, few people go one step further and question the limitations thrust upon them. If they are indeed power hungry as my axiom claims then should they not be continuously subverting society? Perhaps, religion and moralistic codes are the drugs that smother the animal instincts. I mean, think about it, what prevents all of us from lusting after absolute power? To most readers, just the term “absolute power” may be distasteful intellectually. But don’t we all wish we had that?

Therefore, when young men rise up the rungs, older men are bound to feel threatened that their power will be snatched away. Some of them may be powerful. They will use it against the younger men. Don’t hate or cry about these people because chances are, in that position, you too would do the same. The way out for a young man is to play the game the way it ought to be played. Just as there will be some who will try to repress you, there will be others who may like you. Invest in those relationships. I find that the value system taught in most well educated middle class families is naive, idealistic, inconsistent and foolish.

There is another reason for politics to exist. When there are too many bright people in an environment and some sort of selection has to be made, then subjective parameters will play a greater role. Given two equally good people and for some reason the boss “feels” more confident about one, the decision has to be ascribed to politics. Is it unfair? Yes, very. Is it unavoidable? Yes, very

So is life unfair. Yes. But no one can complain about it. For we only count the times when life is unfair against us and never the times when life is unfair in our favour. Therefore, over a period of time, life is kind of fair.

Which brings me to my primary gripe. While creating pity for their children, parents set them up to fail.

Then what is the right solution? Simply, to tell the truth that “Kid, life will kick you on your balls at times. Face it!”

Peace Out.