Friday, April 20, 2018

A Journey Through Oligarch Valley, by Yasha Levine


A Journey Through Oligarch Valley, by Yasha Levine

H
ere is short segue I request you to indulge me in:

In 1998, the Delhi Jal (Water) Board had approached the World Bank for a loan. The World Bank suggested that the DJB hire a consultant to help make recommendations for improvements, and even offered a $2.5 million loan to the DJB to do that same. Over the course of the next seven years, the World Bank agreed to provide a loan to the Delhi Jal Board for $150 million dollars for the privatization of water supply to the capital city. What made the saga intriguing was the insistence of the World Bank and its interference to ensure that Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) got selected as the consultant to the project. Thousands of pages made available as a result of RTI (Right to Information) queries filed by activists, it emerged that despite PwC failing to make the cut in the technical and financial rounds, the World Bank insisted on changes to the evaluation criteria, that the marks given by one particular member of the evaluation committee be excluded from the final evaluation so as to favour PwC, and so on. What most people were unwilling to put on record was that PwC had on its payrolls the son of a powerful person in the government of India and who had long-standing ties to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Thanks to India's legendary bureaucratic inertia and apathy, the privatization of water distribution in the nation's capital never came to fruition. Else the cost of water in the city of Delhi would have increased an estimated five times.

Why is this relevant to the review of Yasha Levine's (@YashaLevinebook, "Oligarch Valley"? Because both are tales of corruption and collusion between big business, politicians, and, in Oligarch Valley's case - the judiciary. In Levine's account lies a cautionary tale for those in India willing to listen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Friendless God, by S Anuradha

The Friendless God, by S. Anuradha

This is the tale of three people, a god, and the relationship the three have with Rama, their god. One seeks to find Rama, the other, having forsaken Rama, fights a losing battle with herself and her son to keep Rama out of their lives, while the third stumbles upon Rama as a way to a better life. Their lives intersect, diverge, and converge over the course of the story.

Vaidehi abandons singing and Rama after criticism of her Tamil-laced rendition of Tyagaraja kritis, and brings up her son Kodandarama, truncating his name to Kodanda, and stripping both his name and life of Rama. Kodanda - truncated from Kondanarama, Vaidehi's son, grows up knowing nothing about Rama or god, but ends up finding for an answer to his question - why does Rama have no friends, despite being sought by millions. Then there Ramana, an orphan with the street-sense that takes him far.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Battle in India for e-commerce market leadership is no longer between just Amazon and Flipkart

Amazon Launches Prime Music in India. What It Means for the Indian e-commerce Market



O
n a day when it was reported that the online streaming music app Gaana was raising $115 million (about ₹750 crores) from Chinese Internet investment company Tencent Holdings Ltd and Times Internet Ltd (Gaana to raise $115 million from Tencent, Times Internet – Livemint), came the news that online retailer Amazon had launched its PrimeMusic streaming music service in India.

According to Amazon, “Prime Music provides unlimited, ad-free access to on-demand streaming of curated playlists and stations, plus millions of songs and albums at no additional cost for eligible Amazon Prime members.”

The Amazon Prime service in India costs ₹999 annually and provides “free One-Day, Two-Day and Standard Delivery on eligible items”, PrimeVideo – Amazon’s video streaming service, and now PrimeMusic. According to Midis Research, Amazon had become the third-largest music subscription service globally, behind Spotify (40%) and Apple Music (19%).

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.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu - Review

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

T
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.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Sacred Sword, by Hindol Sengupta


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

T
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

I
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

W
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

T
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

T
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

T
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


T
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


C
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: pexels.com
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?

T
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

T
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 "Salesforce.com" 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

R
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: pexels.com
Waste Not, Vacate Not.

W
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.