Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The OM Mala - Meanings Of The Mystic Sound, by Nityanand Misra - Review

The OM Mala - Meanings Of The Mystic Sound, by Nityanand Misra

The meaning of the word Om is not something most of us ponder over. Om is a sacred incantation, a symbol, a mantra, and more to countless believers. But the word is a lot more. Its meaning and significance is beyond the mere word or the sound or the symbol. Nityananda Misra's book, "The Om Mala: Meanings of the Mystic Sound", brings to the lay reader, perhaps for the first time, all the myriad meanings of this wondrous word. In the author's words, "This book presents eighty-four names of OM and their meanings in accordance with multiple Sanskrit texts including not only Hindu scriptures but also secular texts like dictionaries, poems, plays, and treatises on music, grammar, and Ayurveda." These eighty-four names are explained in 109 beads - 108 chanting beads and one sumeru bead, each bead taking up approximately two pages each.
Perhaps the most common meaning of OM results from the rules of grammar itself, where the word OM is the result of three sounds coming together under the rules of sandhi - to mean Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. OM is "also known as tri-daivata and tri-daivatya." In this context, the root div "means 'to shine'. Therefore, the names tri-daivata and tri-daivatya mean 'having three shining gods (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva)." This is followed by quotes where OM is used in the specific context. For example, the Markandeya Purana says - "OM is Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva", or that "OM is known as tri-daivata. OM is also called tri-daivatya; as it is Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva" - from the Yogi Yajnavalkya Smriti. Then there is an "etymology" and a "tradition" section that tells the reader more about the context in which OM has been used.

Did you know that the Chandogya Upanishad calls OM udgitha? Udgitha (उद्गीथ) means "vital force (prana), speech, and food."?

 Or that the Devi Bhagvatam and Bhagavata Purana refer to OM as the "seed (source) of the Vedas" - brahmabeeja (ब्रह्मबीज), vedabeeja (वेदबीज)?

Or my favourite, found on page 84 - OM means "1 indestructible 2 imperishable, undying 3 liberation 4 syllable 5 letter 6 atman 7 Shiva 8 Vishnu 9 Brahman." The Gita says, "Of all speech, I am OM - the chief akshara."

You can turn to any page and find yourself enlightened and informed by an aspect of OM that you may have not known, or may have suspected but not verified. At two pages for each meaning, this book is perhaps an ideal bedside companion, to be perused for a few minutes each night, before going to sleep, so that one's dreams may reflect on the holy, the noble.

Amazon IN, Amazon US
Publisher: story mirror (2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9386305798
ISBN-13: 978-9386305794

Note: this review is based on a review copy graciously provided by the Indic Book Club.

© 2018, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu - Review

The Attention Merchants - The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu

he business of selling requires that the target consumer pay - attention at the very least, for without attention, there is no interest, no sale, and no market. Even, and especially so, with services that are sold and advertised as free, there is still a valuable personal resource that is sold in exchange - your time.

Tim Wu's book is an engrossing, well-researched, and fascinating look into the evolution of the advertising business - the attention merchants, as he calls them. It helps put into perspective many of the advertising practices we see today.

Each one of Brahma's days may well be more than four billion years long, but for humans the time available to each one of us is far limited in comparison. What we do with the time available to us is decided by what we choose to pay attention to. The job of those looking to sell us their wares is to take a bite out of that span of attention and to broker it to the other party in the transaction.

The idea that a service could be provided for free in exchange for the consumer's attention is not a new one. It owes its birth to the ingenuity of a twenty-three old Benjamin Day, who, in 1833, came across the of selling his publication, the New York Sun, for the royal sum of one cent a copy. It competed against New York City's leading newspaper at the time, "The Morning Courier and New York Enquirer, a four-page daily with circulation of just 2,600 in a city of almost 300,000.1 At 6 cents, it was something of a luxury item." At the loss-making price of one cent, every copy sold for a loss, but it came filled with often unsolicited advertisements. "A little after three months, the balance turned, and the New York Sun became profitable." Thus was born the concept that attention could be brokered into money.

Almost two hundred years ago therefore, began a race to the bottom that continues to this day. Parallels from the nineteenth century can be found all over the world today. Whether it is atrocity journalism practiced by some venerable media houses in the United States, or disaster journalism in India and elsewhere, one of the intentions remains the same - capture attention. Observers of Indian tabloid journalism and mainstream media would not be surprised at the case of Gordon Bennett, a competitor to Benjamin Day, who was "a shameless braggart who promoted himself as a paragon of gentility while also feeding the public’s appetite for the lurid and debauched. ... Bennett would pioneer on-the-scene crime reporting, beginning with his sensational account of the murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute killed with a hatchet and left on a burning bed. Bennett was let in to see the naked corpse:
It was the most remarkable sight I ever beheld….“My God” I exclaimed, “how like a statue!” The body looked as white, as full, as polished as the purest marble. The perfect figure, the exquisite limbs, fine face, the full arms, the beautiful bust, all surpassed, in every respect, the Venus de Medici….For a few moments I was lost in admiration of the extraordinary sight….I was recalled to her horrid destiny by seeing the dreadful bloody gashes on the right temple."

That Bennett the media-man was also the media's first troll should not also come as a surprise. "Bennett loved to gain attention for his paper by hurling insults and starting fights. Once he managed in a single issue to insult seven rival papers and their editors."

More than commerce, more than modern management fads and theories, if one has to understand the modern advertising machine, one has to look at organized religion, and the Church. Modern-day advertising owes much to the practices of organized religion.
"organized religion had long taken human attention as its essential substrate. This is especially true of monotheisms, whose demands for a strict adherence to the one true God naturally promote an ideal of undivided attention.
At the dawn of the attention industries, then, religion was still, in a very real sense, the incumbent operation, the only large-scale human endeavor designed to capture attention and use it."
The term snake-oil salesman is used to refer to an unethical salesman who knowingly sells fake goods. The phrase has very literal roots and traces its origins to Clark Stanley, one of the "most successful advertisers in America" who plied his trade in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
"While spectators watched, Clark would reach into a sack, pluck out a fresh snake, asphyxiate it with ether, and plunge it into a pot of boiling water. As he did so, fatty remnants of the snake rose to the top, which Clark skimmed and, on the spot, mixed into an elixir. The resulting potion he called “Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment” and sold to onlookers. The Snake Oil, Clark boasted, had the power to cure many ailments: it was “good for man and beast.”"
Such snake oil was advertised as a sure shot remedy for all kinds of ailments, like "rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lame back, lumbago, contracted muscles, toothache, sprains, swellings, etc". In short, such snake oil was guaranteed to "cure any and every disease that is known to the human body."

Leaving snake oil salesmen aside, the birth of modern advertising - advertising as we understand it today - owes itself to innovations of the the 1920s. In its basic form, advertising has not changed much in a century, and the principles devised then are in vogue even today - "demand engineering", "branding", and "targeted" advertisements. Such inventiveness led to the re-branding of a a floor cleaner as a cure-all for bad breath - halitosis. Listerine had been a floor cleaner, and a disinfectant used in the battlefield. In a seven-year period, Listerine company's annual earnings grew almost seventy-fold. Similarly, a floor cleaner became a "Champion of Women's Rights", Shredded Wheat cereal became a "Declaration of Independence", bad breath could leave a girl unmarried, and so on. There was no shame in shaming women into buying. Buying goods was good. Buying brands goods even better.

More fundamental changes to society, however, were required to break through barriers to reach the hitherto unreached. Till about a hundred years ago, the custom in the western world was that women did not smoke. That meant that the total addressable market for tobacco products could be doubled overnight if only cigarette smoking could be made acceptable to women. Enter Edward Bernays, master-manipulator, journalist turned press agent, and nephew of Sigmund Freud. He "hired a group of attractive women to march in the 1929 New York City Easter Day Parade, brandishing their Lucky Strikes, or “torches of freedom.” He had paid Ruth Hale, a prominent feminist, to sign the letter inviting the women to the march. “Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!”" While historians are divided over the precise magnitude of the impact this march had, what is not in dispute is the tripling in the rate of smoking among women from the 1920s to the mid-1930s. Cigarettes were even advertised as a way for women to keep slim - “To keep a slender figure, no one can deny…Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” went the slogan. Naked greed and astute manipulation of public opinion combined to gift to women the gift of cancer, packaged as emancipation, and endorsed by faux feminists. One wonders whether the situation has changed much in the intervening ninety years.

Advertising built and grew in its early period on the back of the distortion of  the "mechanisms of choice". But this could only grow the market so much. Advertising alone was insufficient to protect the market from regulation or oversight. It became important, therefore, to also subvert the legal mechanisms for controlling and curbing false or misleading advertising claims. Manipulation of public opinion was now steered in a new direction - the misshaping of public policy. So when the FDR administration put out the Tugwell-bill (so named after Rexford Tugwell, an economist at the Agriculture Department (the precursor to the FDA)), that was tough on false labeling, false advertising, a canard of innuendo and attacks began on Tugwell. "that he was a communist agent trying to import socialism."
"Sensing their very viability was at stake, the newspapers, food producers, and drug manufacturers formed a tight phalanx with the advertising industry, doing everything they could, even funding front groups, until they were sure the Tugwell Bill would go down in flames."
In 1938, a far weaker law passed.

If this sounds like ancient history, it should not. It. Should. Not. Because history repeats itself. In 2015, when Apple released iOS 9, the latest version of its mobile operating system and which ran such popular devices as the iPhone and iPad, it included support for adblocking extensions in its Safari browser. One analyst called it an "atomic bomb." By the end of 2015, "an estimated 100 to 200 million Americans were now using some kind of adblocker some of the time." What about the advertising industry? Its reactions were along predictable lines [emphasis mine]:
"'Ad blocking is robbery, plain and simple,' opined Ad Age.10 'Ad-blocking threatens democracy,' pronounced the president of the Newspaper Association of America; the industry also released a study estimating that $22 billion of revenue was being destroyed and warned of far worse. 'Every time you block an ad,' wrote another editor, 'what you’re really blocking is food from entering a child’s mouth.'"

That Apple's strategy was also a deft manoeuvre against its competitor, Google and its mobile operating system, Android, was not entirely coincidental. Android was Google's foray into harvesting the attention of smartphone users, to be sold to advertisers.
"In 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin had written that reliance on advertising would inevitably make it difficult to create the best possible product; in the late 2010s, in competition with Apple, they faced their own prophecy."
In reaction to the unbridled nature of invasive and pervasive advertising and digital snooping would be born the model of companies like Netflix. While the company began life by renting out DVDs of movies it sent in mailers to customers, by 2010 it had expanded into streaming movies over the internet for its subscribers. In 2011, Netflix made an enormous and hugely ambitious, boom-or-bust bet by putting down an estimated $100 million for exclusive rights to two, thirteen-episode, seasons of the American remake of the British political drama, House of Cards. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2013, Netflix went one step ahead, and released "all thirteen episodes of House of Cards at once." It discovered that thousands of its subscribers watched all episodes in a single session of viewing - binge watching. With Netflix spending billions of dollars on content - licensed as well as original - it was threatening not only the traditional Hollywood model of business, but also the cable television's model built on advertising. And, not in the very least, it was also plunging a deep dagger into the internet's incumbent model of advertising-laden content. Which way this battle will veer is still years away from a decisive result.

The second generation of advertising, that followed print advertising, was radio advertising. Television, cable, the internet. In the 1920s, while some radio shows were sponsored, the general idea of advertising on radio was unheard of. Future president Herbert Hoover had considered it "inconceivable" that radio be drowned in "advertising chatter." That changed with "Amos 'n' Andy", a fifteen-minute "serial" around two Negro characters, voiced by white actors, that launched on NBC in August 1928. By 1929, it became a superhit, with people moving their schedules around it. NBC paid a million dollars for the serial, and the sponsor was Pepsodent. More serials followed, since "Amos 'n' Andy" "demonstrated that an industry could, in effect, wholly “own” a part of the day." As the evening hours were colonized under the name of "Prime Time", so were the remaining hours of the day.

Radio shows like this opened a much larger market for companies like CBS, who offered independent radio stations "all of its sustaining content for free". The only condition, if it can be called that, was that the radio stations "agree to carry the sponsored content as well." For carrying this sponsored content, the stations would get paid as well! Why? In this way, CBS was buying the attention of millions of people across the country. As far as the radio stations were concerned, all this was for free. Nor did the consumers complain. The only loss was the loss of independence of independent radio stations.

A century of relentless advertising meant that the consumer was ready to pay for content, as long as it meant "peace and quiet", was "hardly good news for the attention merchants or their brokers in the advertising industry." What Tim Wu calls for, and argues for, is a sort of "human reclamation project", where "consciousness and mental space" are sought to be placed beyond the reaches of the attention merchants, even if it is for short periods of time. This is by no means an easy objective to achieve, as all of us who have tried various forms of "digital detox" diets at one point or the other. However, if we as individuals are to survive this century with our identity and sense of self, the attention merchants need to be separated from our attention. If anything, this will prove even more difficult than the author may imagine. A new breed of intrusive, omnipresent, robots have made their emergence in the last couple of years - smart speakers like Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, or Google Home, that sit like furniture in our homes, always listening, always connected to the internet, always sending data back, always refining their understanding of humans-as-consumers. The battle may only be intensifying.

This is one of the most important books to come out in recent times, and certainly one of the most remarkable books I read in 2017.

Amazon India, Amazon US, Kindle India

This review first appeared in OpIndia on Feb 14, 2018.

Kindle Preview:

© 2018, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Sacred Sword, by Hindol Sengupta

The Sacred Sword: The Legend of Guru Gobind Singh, by Hindol Sengupta

he pressing need to bring history alive and make it interesting finds more than adequate fulfillment in Hindol's short but engaging account of the last of the ten gurus of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh.

Guru Gobind Singh's childhood was thrust into suddenn adulthood by the death of his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur. The ninth guru of the Sikhs was beheaded on the orders of the Mughal king, Aurangzeb. Guru Tegh Bahadur had taken up the cause of Kashmiri Pandits, who were being persecuted mercilessly by Aurangzeb's governor, and given two choices - to convert or die. The Guru dared Aurangzeb to convert him instead. If the Guru converted, so would every Kashmiri Pandit. Aurangzeb failed, and Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded, but not before Bhai Mati Das was sawed in half by Aurangzeb's soldiers and Bhai Dayala boiled alive in oil.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Of Rahul Gandhi and Aurangzeb – A striking similarity of Dynasties

Rahul Gandhi, the 47-year old scion of the Nehru dynasty, is all set to ascend the throne of the Congress Party. If things go as planned, he will succeed his mother, Smt Sonia Gandhi, and become the sixth member from the Nehru family to be coronated Congress party president.

The grand old party of Indian politics has seen five presidents since 1978. For all but seven of those thirty-nine years, a member of the Nehru dynasty has been its president. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, daughter of Pandit Nehru and grand-daughter of Motilal Nehru, both past presidents themselves, was party president from 1978 to 1984, till her assassination. She was succeeded by her son, Rajiv Gandhi, who was its president from 1985 to 1991, till his assassination. From 1998 to the present day, the Congress party’s president has been Italian-born Smt Sonia Gandhi, wife of Rajiv Gandhi, and mother of Rahul Gandhi.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The No Asshole Rule, by Robert Sutton

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, by Robert Sutton

n preparation for a review of Robert Sutton's latest book, "The Asshole Survival Guide", I went back to his bestseller, "The No Asshole Rule."

Prof. Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University. In 2007 he wrote "The No Asshole Rule", which turned out to be a blockbuster bestseller, selling close to a million copies. The book itself was the result of an article he wrote in 2004, "More Trouble Than They’re Worth", and which became a Harvard Business Review's "Business Breakthrough Ideas for 2004".

Dealing with, interacting with, being at the receiving end of, and sometimes even acting like one are an inescapable fact of the workplace. What is? Who are? Being what? An "asshole", is what the author writes.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Mahabharata and Wealth

hat does wealth mean to you? Let me start with myself. It has meant different things at different points in time and life. I suppose this is true for many of you as well. As a child, wealth meant being able to buy a new Amar Chitra Katha comic, or a shiny new toy. A little older, after I got a job, it meant audio cassette collections of my favourite artistes, books, then more books. A car, a house, and so on… What wealth is not, is a measure of my, or anyone else’s, worth. Is it?

The pursuit of wealth, often, means having to choose between doing what is right versus doing what is expected. The two are often not the same. While situations are rarely black or white, doing what is right may lead to self-satisfaction, while doing what is expected to wealth. Should I do one and not the other? Would you? Should I try to do both by finding an acceptable via media? Or, do one and defer the other, to a later, unspecified point in time? Do they have to be mutually exclusive? Is it really a zero-sum game? The answer, as in so many things in life, lies in determining what your dharma is. Dharma is, if nothing else, subtle.

With that prelude, let me turn to the Mahabharata to bring out the subtleties when discussing wealth.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

here is a famous story in the Mahabharata concerning Yayati, one of the ancestors of the Pandavas and Kauravas. Because of a curse, he lost his youth, yet yearned for it. He asked his sons to exchange his old age for their youth. All but Puru - the youngest - refused. Yayati and Puru swapped their youths. Yayati had his fill of desires, and at the end of long period of time, realized there was no end to desires. He returned Puru his youth, and renounced the kingdom to spend his last days as an ascetic.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Black Money and Tax Havens Paperback, by R Vaidyanathan - Review

Black Money and Tax Havens Paperback, by R Vaidyanathan

he subject of black money and tax havens that facilitate and act as conduits for such black money has been the subject of intense fascination and speculation by the lay public for decades. It has been the subject of countless novels and movies, and some action by governments the world over. In India, the war against black money is one of the few areas where there seems to unanimous political consensus on the need for inaction. Prof. Vaidyanathan's book is a short and accessible reckoner for people wanting to gain more than just a superficial understanding of this subject.

First, some numbers. Calculating accurately the amount of black money generated in an economy is neither possible, nor estimable with any degree of accuracy. This is well-borne out by the varying estimates that have come over the decades.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Aadhaar, by Shankkar Aiyar - Review

Aadhaar A Biometric History of India's 12-Digit Revolution

by Shankkar Aiyar

his book is perhaps the most detailed and comprehensive biography of Aadhaar and the people who played a role in its birth and evolution. The author, Shankkar Aiyar, is a veteran journalist, and has marshaled his skills and experience in bringing out this short but crisp account of what is the world's largest biometric authentication system. The book is enriched by the access Shankkar had to the people who were central to the schema, at one point or other, including Nandan Nilekani, Rahul Gandhi, Pranab Mukherjee, and even Narendra Modi. The book traces the birth, growing pangs, the creeping at first and then uncontrolled spread of Aadhaar. A long epilogue is dedicated to the issue of privacy, which acquired urgency in the light of a case in the Supreme Court asking the government to clarify whether privacy was a fundamental right. In a most fortuitous turn of events for the book and its author, the Supreme Court, just as the book was released, ruled that privacy was indeed a Fundamental Right, but subject to reasonable restrictions. The book is, on balance, a good place to understand the roots of Aadhaar, the timeline of its evolution, and the contribution of the people involved. It, however, overlooks some of the deficiencies of Aadhaar, but perhaps that is a subject for another book.

The concept of Aadhaar, or a national identity register based on some form of foolproof authentication, is not new. As far back as 2003, a pilot project was launched by the BJP-led NDA government in thirteen states to issue National Identity Cards. In March 2006, the communist-propped Congress-led UPA government "announced a grand plan" to implement a project to provide Unique IDs for BPL (Below Poverty Level) Families within 12 months. Yes, within twelve months. Seventeen months later, "the process committee, which included officials of seven departments, had held seven meetings and put up a proposal for the creation of the UID Authority." Not a single card had been issued, but bureaucrats had kept themselves busy in making themselves look busy.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Text and Interpretation - Types of commentaries

Text and Interpretation - The Indian Tradition, by Kapil Kapoor

his is an excerpt from Prof. Kapil Kapoor's book, "Text and Interpretation - The Indian Tradition".

The author divides the history of linguistic thought in India into four phases. The first phase is seen as from the beginning to Panini, roughly up to seventh century, BC.

"The other major contribution in the first phase is in phonetics and phonology. In fact, speech sounds are studied and analyzed in this phase... which not only fix the sound-patterns of each school of the four Vedas, but also propound finished theories about the articulation and properties of speech sounds in isolation and in the dynamic  context of actual usage. To this perfection of phonetic and phonological studies, we owe the fact of the oral texts having come down intact." [bold-emphasis mind]

Rajasekhara in Kavya-Mimamsa gives a complete list of different kinds of commentaries. He distinguishes eight:

  1. Commentary that explains the ideational content of a sutra is called vrtti.
  2. Analysis of a vrtti is paddhati. (पद्धति )
  3. Bhasya is a detailed analysis that takes into account the possible objections and counter-arguments. (भाष्य)
  4. Samiksa gives an explanation of the intended and deeper meanings and issues implicit in a bhasya-analysis. (समीक्षा)
  5. A mere indication of meaning in the simplest and briefest language is tika. (टीका
  6. Explanation of only the difficult words is panjika.(पंजिका)
  7. A brief statement of the meaning of a sutra is karika.
  8. In the same manner, an analysis of the unexpressed or suggested meanings and implications of a sutra is called varttika

Book info: Amazon IN, Amazon US
Publisher: DK Print World Pvt.Ltd,India
First edition: September 15, 2005
ISBN-10: 8124603375
ISBN-13: 978-8124603376

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford - Review

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, by Martin Ford

"I'm smart; you're dumb. I'm big; you're small. I'm right; you're wrong. And there's nothing you can do about it."

Thus spake Harry Wormwood in the movie "Matilda". This well could be the message that robots will have for us in the not too distant future. The dramatic improvements in the speed, the accuracy, and the areas in which computers have begun to comprehensively outperform humans leads one to believe that while a so-called singularity may well be some ways off, the more immediate effects of this automation are already being felt in permanent job losses. In a country like India, which has used digital technologies quite effectively in the last decade and a half to grow a $150 billion IT-BPM industry, the impact could be devastating - especially where an estimated 10 million people are employed.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Infosys, NRN, Sikka - No one is smelling of roses here

orporate sagas seem to come in twos. The mega-fracas that erupted in 2016 between Cyrus Mistry, then Chairman of Tata Sons, and the iconic Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus at Tata Sons,  was starting to come to a close by the second half of 2017 (though I fear the last words have yet to be written). Ratan Tata had annointed N Chandrasekaran, CEO of TCS, as thew Chairman of Tata Sons, and re-asserted his complete control over the sprawling Tata empire. Now comes the rather unexpected news that Vishal Sikka (@vsikka), CEO and MD of Indian IT behemoth Infosys, had tendered in his resignation, apparently unable to tolerate any longer the constant "drumbeat of distractions" from co-founder Mr. NRN Murthy, and, some speculated, a lack of support from some members of the Infosys Board itself.
In particular, this is what Vishal Sikka wrote in his letter to the Board:
"Over the last many months and quarters, we have all been besieged by false, baseless, malicious and increasingly personal attacks. Allegations that have been repeatedly proven false and baseless by multiple, independent investigations. But despite this, the attacks continue, and worse still, amplified by the very people from whom we all expected the most steadfast support in this great transformation." [link]
In this perhaps altogether avoidable saga, no one has come out smelling of roses - not the Infosys board, not Vishal Sikka, and not Mr Murthy.

A Retrospect for Vishal Sikka

image credit:
Let me start off by revisiting what I had written in 2014 - "A 'Vishal' opportunity awaits Infosys" - at the time of Mr Sikka's appointment as CEO and MD of Infosys.To summarize, I had made the following points:

Was Sikka a "trophy CEO"? I had written, "There will be more than one voice heard whispering that Sikka's appointment is more of a publicity gimmick meant to save face for its iconic co-founder, Narayan Murthy, who has been unable to right the floundering ship of the software services giant." This is still a pertinent question. Once the excitement of the "trophy CEO" wore out, did Mr Murthy's interest in Vishal Sikka also wane? Conversely, once the excitement of the CEO's crown wore off for Mr Sikka, did the thorns of leading and growing a company, with close to two-hundred thousand employees, in a difficult business environment, start to prick?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Between Strategy and Success Lies Execution

Why Do We Undervalue Competent Management?

his one comes from the Sep-Oct, 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Between strategy and success lies the minor matter of execution. Execution in turn is dependent on the managers tasked with implementing the strategy.  After all, if a firm can’t get the operational basics right, it doesn’t matter how brilliant its strategy is. Execution is about figuring out the right way to do things, and then doing those things right, time after time.

Therein lies the rub. "Managerial competence takes effort, though: It requires sizable investments in people and processes throughout good times and bad. These investments, we argue, represent a major barrier to imitation."

Sep-Oct 2017 issue of
Harvard Business Review
The authors of the article use their research of "management practices across more than 12,000 firms and 34 countries." They rated companies' "18 practices in four areas: operations management,
performance monitoring, target setting, and talent management." These four areas, they believe are good-enough "proxies for general operational excellence."

The authors found clear laggards and clear "superstars" in their rankings. Not surprising, given the number of companies and the geographic spread of their survey. The laggards, for example, tended to have "promotions and rewards based on tenure or family connections." This begs the question, do companies where senior management has strong family connections are also more likely to be laggards? In either case, the authors found that family-run businesses had the weakest governance structures and lowest management scores on the survey. Lower scores translated to poorer financial outcomes.

Since this was also a longitudinal study in some ways, lasting several years, it also highlights the fact that changing management practices is not easy. The costs are high, and which may therefore also explain why so many companies pay only lip-service to improving management practices.

This is a useful and informative article. Leaders at companies, small and large, would do well to pay attention to the basics of management. The successful ones will be the ones who get these right. The ones who do not will die.

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Inside Chanakya’s Mind: Aanvikshiki and the Art of Thinking - Review

Inside Chanakya’s Mind: Aanvikshiki and the Art of Thinking, by Radhakrishnan Pillai

he relevance of Chanakya to today's world has only recently received the kind of attention it deserves. The author's 2014 book, "Chanakya's 7 Secrets of Leadership", co-authored with D Sivanandhan, was perhaps the first mainstream bestseller in this genre. The author's latest book in the series, "Inside Chanakya's Mind", provides many more insights into the mind and thinking of the greatest strategist in the last two thousand years and more.

First off, let's get the meaning of this word - Aanvikshiki - out of the way. I say "out of the way" because beyond the word is the book itself. It is therefore important to understand what it means. This will allow the reader to understand the book better.

Aanvikshiki is the combination of two words - "anu" and "ikshiki". "Anu" means atom, while "ikshiki" means "a person who wants to know."

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Jobs Trilogy - 1 - How to Add Skills to your LinkedIn Resume

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
Seeing the gay abandon and effortless ease with which people in today's hyper-connected world seem to acquire skills, I was impressed.
Impressed that skills that should take years to acquire and hone were now within the easy grasp of so many, and apparently with so little effort. Perhaps technology had indeed been the manna that technologists had long claimed and always known to be.

I started thinking just what exactly prompts so many people to add new skills to their resume on LinkedIn. After all, it had to be a process more deliberate than random. What if the ingredients in this heady concoction were exaggeration, hope, aspiration, bravado, and plain envy?

In the end, I decided that these rules-of-thumb, that I list below, were likely the best explanation...

How to add skills on your resume:
  1. Put "Cloud Computing" on your resume if you know how to use Gmail.
  2. Put "SaaS" on your resume if you have heard of "" or "AWS".
  3. Put "Mobile" on your resume if you own a smartphone, any smartphone.
  4. Put "mobile visionary" on your resume if you ever owned a smartphone that ran Android Froyo.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Jobs Trilogy - 2 - Six and One Types of Interviewers

emember Chuck Noland? The character in the movie Castaway, who has to use the blade of an ice-skate to extract his abscessed tooth, without anesthesia? The scene is painful to watch, yet you can't look away.

Interviews have this habit of turning up a Chuck Noland - in the interviewee or the interviewer. You willingly agree to subject yourself to the wanton abuse by random strangers who you may have to end up working for or with. Apart from the talented few whom companies are more eager to hire than they are to get hired, most are in less enviable positions.

What about interviewers? Not all are cut from the same cloth. But there are at least six types that I think we have all met in our lives, and a seventh one.

1. The Interview As an End In Itself - Hyper-excited newbie

You know this guy. You have been this person, most likely. You have a team now. You expect your team to grow. You have to build a team. You believe that you, and you alone, know what it takes to hire the absolutely best person for the opening you have. You sit down and explain to the harried hiring HR person what the role is, what qualifications you are looking for, why the job is special, why just ordinary programming skills in ordinary programming languages will simply not cut it, why you as the hiring manager are special, and how you will, with the new hire, change the product, the company, and eventually the whole wide world. The HR executive therefore needs to spend every waking minute of her time in the pursuance of this nobler than noble objective. You badger your hiring rep incessantly, by phone, by IM, by email, in person, several times a day, asking for better resumes if you are getting many, and more if you aren't getting enough. You read every single resume you get, several times over. You redline the points you don't like. You redline the points you like. You make notes on the resumes. You still talk to every single candidate. You continue interviewing, never selecting, till the economic climate changes and the vacancy is no longer available. Yes, we all know this person.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Management Mantras for Startups - Waste Not, Vacate Not

Image credit:
Waste Not, Vacate Not.

hen Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, started out Amazon, he, along with Shel Kaphan, programmer and a founding employee, used sixty-dollar doors from Home Depot as desks. It was the demand of frugality. More than a decade later, when Amazon was a multi-billion dollar behemoth, conference-room tables were still made of door-desks. It reflected its CEO's adamant belief in "frugality." A leadership principle at Amazon states that "Frugality breeds resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention." In case you have been living in a world without news, you would know that Amazon's market capitalization, as of July 23rd, was a shade under US$500 billion, its trailing twelve-month revenues in excess of US$140 billion, and has been growing at an annual rate of more than 20%.

All this about Amazon's culture of frugality are captured in Brad Stone's brilliant book on the company, "The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon."
"Bezos met me in an eighth-floor conference room and we sat down at a large table made of half a dozen door-desks, the same kind of blond wood that Bezos used twenty years ago when he was building Amazon from scratch in his garage. The door-desks are often held up as a symbol of the company’s enduring frugality."
They set up shop in the converted garage of Bezos’s house, an enclosed space without insulation and with a large, black potbellied stove at its center. Bezos built the first two desks out of sixty-dollar blond-wood doors from Home Depot, an endeavor that later carried almost biblical significance at Amazon, like Noah building the ark.
"Door-Desk award, given to an employee who came up with “a well-built idea that helps us to deliver lower prices to customers”—the prize was a door-desk ornament. Bezos was once again looking for ways to reinforce his values within the company."
"Conference-room tables are a collection of blond-wood door-desks shoved together side by side. The vending machines take credit cards, and food in the company cafeterias is not subsidized. When a new hire joins the company, he gets a backpack with a power adapter, a laptop dock, and some orientation materials. When someone resigns, he is asked to hand in all that equipment—including the backpack." [The Everything Store, by Brad Stone]

So what does this have to do with Flipkart?

Flipkart has been in business for (almost) ten years now (it was founded in October 2007). It has raised more than $4 billion dollars from investors, the most recent round of funding closing in early 2017. The Indian e-commerce pioneer however has yet to make a single new paisa in profit. In its fiscal year ending March 31st, 2016, its losses doubled to ₹2,306 crores (approximately US$350 million). Keep that in mind as you go through this post.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Natural Enmity - Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra

Natural Enmity - Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1], by Ashay Naik

shay Naik's book, "Natural Enmity - Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1]", is a fascinating and scholarly commentary on perhaps the most famous of all animal-tale anthologies.

The Panchatantra, like much of great Indian literature, is multi-layered. It is a fable told through animal stories. It is a brilliant exhibition of the frame-within-a-frame storytelling concept, outdone perhaps only by the Mahabharata. This style went westwards, resulting the Thousand and One Nights and later the Canterbury Tales. The Pancatantra lends itself to a simple reading and interpretation, making it ideal for children to read and enjoy when young. As one grows older, and hopefully, wiser, and if the interest should awaken itself, the same text then reveals its myriad facets to the reader. The Pancatantra is perhaps the greatest exemplar of this aspect of Indian literature.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Flipkart and the Art of Advertising Mishaps - 1

n the age of startups, especially in the e-commerce space, where money is plentiful - or till a a year or so back, used to be - the only metric that seems to matter for the marketing function is "spend". Not ROI, CPA, CLV, etc... Splurging money on advertising became an end in itself. Where the mantra to success is growth, unencumbered by thoughts of the bottom line, any kind of growth will do. Therefore, growth in "eyeballs", "page-views", "app downloads", and other metrics of "engagement" - any and all numbers will do. Into this heady mix of unaccountability, if you then throw in lack of experience, lack of competence, and rank immaturity, you get a series of marketing disasters of the kind that headlined Flipkart's slow descent into what seems like inevitable irrelevance. One still hopes it will recover to give a creditable account of itself in its existential battle against Amazon. Then there is Alibaba and WalMart waiting in the wings. One hopes.

In this series of short posts, I will look at just a few marketing and advertising fiascoes at the company.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Mahabharata, Book Two - Ambition, by Somdip Datta

s there a new way to present the Mahabharata? A story as epic and grand as the Mahabharata has inspired the great and the devoted alike, and sadly the mediocre and agenda-driven also, in finding ever new canvases to paint the story on.

Just as Amruta Patil found a graphic palette on which to paint her interpretation of a part of the Mahabharata, Somdip has adopted the graphic route, but given it a digitl avatar. The result is nothing short of stunning.

Book Two, Ambition, is the second book in a series of five planned books. The first one was Seeds of War, while the remaining titles are Riches and Rags, Hide and Seek, the Civil War, and the Uncivil War.