Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Coorg - Irupu Falls

The Irupu Falls (also Iruppu Falls) are located in the Brahmagiri Range in the Kodagu (Coorg) district of Karnataka, bordering the Wayanad district of Kerala. It is a fresh water cascade ... The Falls are also known as the Lakshmana Tirtha Falls, derived from the name of the tributary of Cauvery which starts from these falls, the Lakshmana Tirtha River. Wikipedia entry.
Coorg is an amazingly beautiful district, with coffee plantations, a lone tea estate, waterfalls, wildlife reserves, elephant camps, and even a Tibetan monastery. Lots to see, travel, photograph, and write.
See my earlier post on the Dubare Elephant camp.

The Irupu falls are also known as the Lakshman Tirtha Falls, after the Lakshmana Tirtha river, a tributary of the Cauvery river. Why the name? Because of a very strong connection with Hindu mythology. After Sita was abducted by Ravana, the Lord of Lanka, Rama and Lakshmana set out in her search, all the way from Chitrakoot in what is now Madhya Pradesh, southwards towards the shores of Rameswaran in Tamil Nadu. As they were passing through the Brahmgiri range, Rama felt thirsty and asked his brother to fetch him some water. Lakshmana shot an arrow into the range and the Lakshmana river came into being.

To get to the falls requires you to climb up some 200 steps. Some of them are fairly steep.

This narrow creek is dry in the photograph below, but is full of water during and for several months after the monsoons. During the summer months there is only a trickle of water that flows through the creek.

There are probably two hundred steps that you have to climb, which works out to a good workout, especially since some of the steps are quite steep, and require a good amount of effort to climb them. Taking some water with you is a good thing, since dehydration is not advisable here. There is not a doctor for miles around. There is a refreshment shop at the base of the falls, where you also need to purchase a ticket.

An observation deck allows you to observe the falls from a safe distance. If you want you can trek further up, right to the spot where the falls cascade down. During the summer months the water flow is less intense and several people can be seen taking a bath there.

So yes - you can trek further up, and the photo below has been taken from very near the base of the falls.

The water is only a trickle during the summer months.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bandipur and Mudumalai National Parks

View Larger Map

You can see the national parks and the forests that make up the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in the map above. At the top left is the Nagarhole National Park, now called the Rajiv Gandhi National Park, in Karnataka. Move down and there is the Bandipur National Park (link to park's page on the Project Tiger web site), also in Karnataka. Not marked on the map is the Muthunga Wildlife Reserve, also called the Wayanad Wildlife Santuary. It is the same forest, but in the state of Kerala. Move further down, and the forest is called the Mudumalai Wildlife Santuary and National Park in the state of Tamil Nadu. At the very bottom you have the Silent Valley National Park.

BTW, what's so great about the Nilgiris? Apart from the famous aromatic tea that is grown on the hills of the Nilgiris in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, these are also the ranges in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is an international biosphere reserve in the Western Ghats, occupying an area of more than 6000 square kilometers in the states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. The Mudumalai National Park, Muthanga Wildlife Reserve, Bandipur National Park, Nagarhole National Park, and the Silent Valley National Park are part of the reserve. Which should give you ample hints that this is an area of incredible plant and wildlife diversity.

These photographs below are ones I took while driving through the Bandipur and Mudumalai national parks.

The road through the Bandipur National Park is quite ok. While it is not a good idea to speed through the park, any time, you can drive comfortably at 40-60kph, or even faster, but that would be silly, wouldn't it, to drive through a forest at high speed. Driving during the day is obviously more advisable since at night the animals come out and sometimes onto the road, so if you are driving at night it is likely you may not see them and end up injuring these animals. These wildlife reserves are the last remaining refuge for these wonderful animals, so take care.

Spotted deer, chitals are to be found by the hundreds, thousands in these parks. While that's a good sign, if there are too many herbivores abounding in a jungle, it is usually taken as a sign that there are not enough carnivores present in the jungle. In tiger reserves that is not a good sign, as it suggests that there are not enough tigers left, which is causing the deer population to balloon uncontrollably.

As you come to the end of the Bandipur national park, you are also at the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border.

Enter the state of Tamil Nadu and the forest changes name. It is called the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.

The Moyar river flows through the forest, and during the summer months it is not only a source of water for the animals, but also a good place to come by to spot these animals, since the smaller water holes and ponds have mostly dried up in the sweltering summer heat.

Just outside the Mudumalai reserve, or perhaps inside it, I do not remember, there are huge swaths of giant bamboos. These are immensely long, reaching up to 100 feet or so, and bend under their own weight, forming an amazingly beautiful canopy over the road.

If you care to stop at the Mudumalai sanctuary post office, you can pick up a collection of canceled stamps. Don't know what those stamps are. If I do, I shall write about them.

As you reach the border of the national park, the signs proclaim so.

And the Karnataka border and the Bandipur National Park beckons.

There are both wild and trained elephants in the forest. You are unlikely to come across wild elephants near the highway though.

This photo above is at the other end of the Bandipur national park, just outside the town of Gundalpet.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


This book describes the secrets, so to say, of outliers, i.e. people who are far removed from the average, focusing on those who are far above the average, not those far below. The secrets, as it turns out, are mundane, nor involve disclosure of any top secret rites of passage or initiation into cults, but much that is quotidian. Like hard work. Over several years. Like opportunities. Like being in the right place at the right time, or being born in the right place at the right time. Like having rich parents. And so on.
Much in the book to like. Makes you think about success in a different light. Emphasizes the virtue of hard work, while acknowledging the role that luck and opportunities play. The anecdotes are sometimes fascinating.

However much to argue against also. Some arguments are not carried over to any logical conclusion. Some premises are just not backed by research worth mentioning. Too light on reasoning and too heavy on anecdotes in places. Starts off strong but tapers off midway. The premise and promise of the book is not matched by the content. Like peanut butter spread too thin on a sandwich. Like eating daal (lentils) with too much gravy and too little daal.
People don't rise from nothing. We owe something to parentage and patronage. ... The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievements in ways we cannot begin to imagine. ... It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't. [page 19]
You show promise in math; you get coaching, additional problems to solve, the teacher at class picks you for attention, parents, friends, society reinforces the motivation in the child so he starts spending more time on math. And before you know it, the kid becomes a grade 'A' student in math, all the way to college, and beyond. Sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. ... Success is the result of what sociologists like to call "accumulated advantage". [page 30]
"Accumulated advantage". If you read strategy, a similar phrase you will come across is "path dependence". What you do in the past determines where you go in the future. Also, the choices made in the past will determine what you can and what you cannot do in the future.

There are some differences that can be explained by innate talent. The kid who knows how to play the tabla at age 3 is surely more gifted than the average 3 year old. But if you look at the other 999 out of 1000 people where the relative differences in talent are not that great, it is preparation that makes the difference.
Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent plays and the bigger the role preparation seems to play. [page 38]
In Ericsson's study they found that he and his colleagues couldn't find any 'naturals', musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any "grinds", people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. ... And what's more, the people at the very top don't work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder. [page 39]
What this means, and in a hugely positive manner, is that almost all of us have a realistic chance of becoming good, really good, in almost any activity or game or hobby, provided we take the time and the perseverance to keep at it.

I had blogged about an HBR article earlier in the month, The Making Of An Expert, where it is argued that expertise in a field depends on putting in long hours of work, directed practice, and the guidance of a guru. Gladwell takes that argument further in his book, by asking what it takes to put those ten thousand hours in the first place. Those hours are coming from someplace. They are not available to you if you do not have the time to spare them - if you get the drift. When you are young, the motivation to spend those hours will come from your parents. You are too young to realize or know the value of practice, so your parents have to do that thinking for you. And make some choices on your behalf.
It's all but impossible to reach that number (of ten thousand hours) all by yourself by the time you're a young adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you. You can't be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won't be time left in the day to practice enough. [page 42]
Everyone knows Bill Gates and his amazing story of success with Microsoft. Since he has been written about so much, it is likely that at a sizable number of people will also know many details about his past and how we came to become a whizkid at programming. What Gladwell details is that apart from having rich parents, he was also at the intersection of a number of lucky coincidences that allowed his talent and drive to be fed to the fullest.
By the time Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to try his hand at his own software company, he'd been programming practically nonstop for seven consecutive years. He was way past ten thousand hours. "I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events." [page 54, 55]
Moving to the area of intelligence, while it is undeniable that you have to be blessed with some amount of intelligence to do something with your life, rather than do something to it, people around the world for decades have laboured under the misconception that IQ is the only and very quantifiable metric for measuring intelligence and future potential. That if you have an IQ of 140, you are measurably 'better' and 'smarter' than the other kid who has an IQ of 130. Not true. Yet these misconceptions thrive. Isn't it a great tragedy, when children are tested for IQ, and segregations are made on the basis of these tests, which over time often become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Today, many of Terman's ideas remain central to the way we think about success. Schools have programs for the "gifted". Elite universities often require that students take an intelligence test. [page 75]
But there's a catch. The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn't seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage. [page 79]
If intelligence matters only up to a point, then past that point, other things - things that have nothing to do with intelligence - must start to matter more. [page 86]
What 'other things'? Like family. If you are born to a rich or well-off family, it is likely, not guaranteed by any means, that you will have access to better education, tutors, and facilities. Like personality. You are more likely to succeed if you do not antagonize people.
"To get a job [students] should be long enough on family connections, long enough on ability or long enough on personality, or a combination of these. Something called acceptability is made up of the sum of its parts. If a man has any of these things, he could get a job. If he has two of them, he can have a choice of job; if he has all three, he could go anywhere." (Erwin Smigel in 'The Wall Street Lawyer'). [page 123]
To take an example, as long as the definition of success in the legal profession was defined by the ability to negotiate a dispute outside the courtroom, a certain kind of law firm would succeed. However, when times changed and hostile takeovers and protracted corporate legal battles became more prevalent, the same law firms that had lived on the fringes of respectability and financial success saw their stars shine.
As Paul Cravath, one of the founders of Cravath, Swaine, and Moore, the very whitest of the white-shoe firms, once put it, the lawyer's job was to settle disputes in the conference room, not in the courtroom. [page 124]
As a side-note, in my earlier post where I reviewed the book, Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days (links to blog posts: Founders At Work-2 and Founders At Work-1) I said I don't believe that someone can go on programming for 20 hours a day for days on end, or work for a week without sleep, without severely impairing their abilities. This book states much the same.
That's what happens when you're tired. Your decision-making skills erode. You start missing things - things that you would pick up on, any other day. [page 188]
Ok, so far so good. However, when you come to the chapter titled "Rice Paddies and Math Tests" there is a lot of stereotyping going on. While Gladwell takes pains to point out that these are 'good' stereotypes, and not meant to be taken as pejorations, the fact remains that he is stereotyping, which, while by itself is value neutral, does make you cringe when reading such statements:
The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system...
That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. [page 229]
The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among Western children starts in the third and fourth grades, and Fuson argues that perhaps a part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn't seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated. [page 230]
Firstly, Gladwell stereotypes Asia as China, Korea, Japan. The west was obsessing with Japan in the 1980s, stereotyping all of Asia as an extension of Japanese influences, looking to explain the incredible Japanese success in almost every sphere of industry as a result of the Japanese culture and Japanese culture alone. A plethora of academic research and literature did precisely that. Whether it was Japanese deference to authority, or the 'zen' philosophy, or some other element of Japanese society that and culture that academics latched on to, the West was unable to look at Japanese success without cultural blinkers.

The 1990s and this decade saw the focus shift to China. Asia is now seen through the prism of China, except when the topic of debate is outsourcing, when it is India.

Gladwell himself falls prey to this seductive appeal of simplisticness in thinking that Asian prowess in mathematics is attributable to Asian linguistics.

Second, and continuing the first point, the modern number system as is used the world over, has come from India, and is known as the 'Hindu-Arabic' number system. And has been in use in India for millenia. How you write and think and say out numbers in Hindi, or Sanskrit for example, is no different than English, for the most part. Yet India actually invented the number system as we know it, the concept of zero, and perhaps the most intellectual game of all, chess. Indians have not lacked in mathematical prowess. So here is a big gaping hole in Gladwell's articulation that no amount of verbal sophistry can fill.

Thirdly, the link between agrarian traditions and math skills is tenuous at best, and wholly hallucinatory at worst.
In fact, one of the singular features of rice cultivation is that because of the nutrients carried by the water used in irrigation, the more a plot of land is cultivated, the more fertile it gets.
But in Western agriculture, the opposite is true. ... The hard labor of spring planting and fall harvesting is followed, like clockwork, by the slower pace of summer and winter. This is the logic the reformers applied to the cultivation of young minds. [page 254]
Summer vacation is a topic seldom mentioned in American educational debates. It is considered a permanent and inviolate feature of school life.... [page 255]
But when talking about the length of summer vacations, Gladwell seems to be spot on when he states that summer vacations, while relaxing for kids and parents(?), can actually harm children.
The wealthiest kids come back in September and their reading scores have jumped over 15 points. the poorest kids come back from the holidays and their reading scores have dropped almost 4 points. Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind. [page258]
An enormous amount of time is spent talking about reducing class size, rewriting curricula, buying every student a shiny new laptop, and increasingly school funding - all of which assumes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the job schools are doing. ... Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren't achieving, is that there isn't enough of it. [page259]
Why not five stars to this book? After all, there is a lot that is going for the book. The writing is very engaging, the topic is very important, the anecdotes grab your attention, the style keeps the reader going, and the length is short.

Well - firstly, the book is short. Too short to be really effective. For this topic. It is like a Reader's Digest condensed version, except it does not really feel condensed.

Two, no topic is covered in any sort of depth. Feels shallow. There are so many aspects in every topic covered that are left unsaid, uncovered. Like how the brain develops, how different cognitive abilities are affected by what we do, how we live. What role does family play - in providing psychological support. Or how multi-lingualism affects ability. And so on...

Three, the anecdotes are entertaining and illuminating at first. But towards the middle and thereafter they become too detailed and too numerous, to the point of suffocating the narrative, and drowning the author's message out.

Four, what Gladwell posits when attempting to use cultural dimensions to explain mathematical skills and aptitude is just lame. He quotes Hofstede, whose research since has been criticised as being too simplistic.

This book is good, but could have been a lot better.

Format : Hardback

ISBN: 9781846141218
Size : 153 x 234mm
Pages : 320

Published : 18 Nov 2008
Publisher : Allen Lane

A paperback is available in most book stores in India for Rs 399.

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell - Penguin Books

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Founders At Work-2

Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days
See my first post on the review of this book at Founders At Work-1 (link to blog post).

This is a continuation of the review, in the form of snippets from the book, interspersed with my gyan thrown in. So this is the book review, bhag dwitiya (भाग द्वितीय).

One thread that seems to run through most of the interviews, when it comes to VCs (venture capitalists), is that VC participation more often than not brings in more troubles and problems than benefits. VCs either take undue advantage of the naivete of the founders to take a lion's share of the equity in a company in return for money, or they foist their chosen management on the company, management that turns out to be more often than not spectacularly incompetent.

Sabeer Bhatia, Hotmail
Sabeer Bhatia was the original Indian entrepreneur that most Indians became aware of in the US in the 1990s. There was Vinod Dham, from Intel, who headed the design team for the Pentium chip, but it was Sabeer, who was known as the man who cofounded Hotmail, and then sold it to Bill Gates' Microsoft, another person and company that Indians adulated, for US$400 million.
The whole VC community has so many links with each other—you never know. Netscape was building email servers. What if the VCs were just to say to them, “Hey, why don’t you do web-based email?” And that’s it, that’s the idea, right? There was not that much to protect in terms of IP. Whoever built it first would win the market. So we were afraid and that’s why we kept that as the secret.

Nobody knows this, but the round before the deal with Microsoft, they literally put $5 million in the company just because they knew it was going to get sold and that we needed some bridge money.
Interesting statement that can be debated much by people I suppose:
Also, when you are hardware designers, you have tremendously more discipline in writing and describing software because in hardware you cannot get it wrong. Every turn of every chip costs you millions of dollars, so when hardware designers design any piece of software, they normally get it right. ... Whereas the pure software writers—the way they think and architect software is very creative. They put in lots of bells and whistles, but they think, “No big deal. If there is a bug, we’ll fix it. Put in a patch.” You can’t do that in hardware. There’s no patch. Once you ship a chip, it has to work all the time.
Why do I think this statement is interesting?
Well... for several reasons.
First, there is no research that I am aware of that has been conducted that has looked at this proposition, where the productivity and quality of code hammered out by 'pure software writers' was compared with code written by 'hardware designers'. So what Sabeer says is opinion. Anecdotal opinion, based on a sample size of one or two.

Second, if hardware designers were so often better than software writers, we would have seen a whole lot more hardware designers get into software than has been the case. Which has not been the case. True, many hardware designers love their craft and would not want to move. Job mobility may not be that great. But there should have been a steady trickle of people from hardware to software, and with mostly successful results, had Sabeer's statement been true.

Third, companies that have a fair number of hardware designers, like Intel, IBM, AMD, TI, Qualcomm, Cisco, Juniper, etc... would have entered the pure software market long ago, and been much more successful than software companies like Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Yahoo, Google, and others. Which has not happened. Cisco and Juniper write software for a narrow range of products, for their own line. It stands to reason that companies are always looking to enter markets where they can leverage their existing skills and positions in markets to prise open new markets.

Fourth, Sabeer's statement is a bit like saying that brain surgeons cannot afford to get it wrong, so they are likely to be better software designers that existing software designers. Sure, brain surgeons are smart people, but would their skills transfer as easily, or as successfully into other spheres? They **may** turn out to be very good software designers, and many people would not dispute that statement, but what should also be obvious is that to build skills, to build very good skills, in any discipline takes time and effort.

Hardware engineers are good at what they do, while software engineers are good at what they do. Skills and expertise in one area will not translate into success in the other area so easily.

Google has made quite an impression on Sabeer. He is however ambivalent whether he would have wanted to become another Google-type success. Sort of a moot point really, if you look at it.
If we had gone the licensing route, I think we would have been as big as Google. Because that’s what Google did, right? Initially, they said, “We’ve got search. Why don’t we license search to everyone else?” That was their original business model. They licensed it to Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL and grew big based on their subscribers.
Livingston: Do you wish you had gone the licensing route?
Bhatia: No, it would have been a lot more difficult, because the cost of providing email was much higher than the cost of providing search—even though search is far more profitable than email in terms of the advertising monetizability of search.
One point, among several others actually, that I would debate is this statement:
But having that customer base and being able to tap into that customer base and upsell them on services, or advertise—you can always make money off them.
It is likely that you **may** make money off a large customer base, and certainly you cannot expect to make money without customers, but it is by no means guaranteed that customers equals money. Look at Flickr, YouTube, Twiter, mySpace, Orkut, or Facebook - beyond advertising, there is really no other way that these companies could make money. Maybe a revenue model will evolve that will be an amalgamation of existing models, combined with innovations applied, and some new models that are evolving someplace. Maybe a big telecom company will acquire one of these social networking sites, and drive users towards using their mobile phones as the primary interface of interaction.
Flickr several years after getting acquired by Yahoo, and Facebook despite having 160 million members continue to struggle with making money, multi-million dollar valuations notwithstanding. They may well end up making money, but by no means can one say **always**.

Tim Brady, Yahoo's first non-founding employee
Does an MBA help? Does an MBA hinder? Tim Brady, a Harvard Business School MBA, has this to share:
Livingston: Do you think your mixed background of business and engineering helped you?
Brady: It’s hard to know, since you don’t know the alternative. Probably more than anything, the business education gave me the confidence to know what I knew and what I didn’t know.
Also read the same chapter for Tim Brady's take on Hotmail, how they missed it, could have acquired it, later caught up in that market with the acquistion of Rocketmail, which became Yahoo Mail, and eventually became bigger than Hotmail in nterms of subscribers. Till Gmail came along... And a business model for premium email collapsed overnight, a model that rode on the back of providing 20MB of email quota, and charging $20 a year for that.

Ray Ozzie, Founder Iris Associates, Groove Networks
Most of the world today knows of Ray Ozzie as the Chief Software Architect at Microsoft, a title till recently held by Bill Gates. But Ray was known and respected long before that.
After he led the development of Lotus Symphony, Mitch Kapor and Jonathan Sachs decided to invest in Ozzie’s idea, which would become Lotus Notes. Instead of working as an employee, Ozzie founded Iris Associates in 1984 to develop the product for Lotus. It was an unusual form of startup, but it worked.
His is a viewpoint that is quite grand in vision, to use the phrase. Maybe 'methodical' is the phrase I am looking for. A view that implies ample forethought. He is certainly neither ignorant nor vain in assuming that good, great, successful software takes no time to build. Even Google the search engine is today much different than what it was in 2000, if people can remember a time as long back as the start of the millennium.
At any given time, you’ve got to have a technology roadmap in your mind and a market roadmap as to where things are headed—broadband is getting increasingly pervasive or wireless is getting increasingly pervasive, or something is going on—and trying to project out several years, because it will take you several years to build anything that’s worth building.
Of the many chapters I have read in the book, this is perhaps the only one that actually talks of creating companies or joining startups with forethought rather than taking things as they come, which often happens with startups, more by accident than design, where success and the formation of the company before that is less planned than accidental. And I do not mean accidental in any pejorative sense.
Companies take their shape based on the personality characteristics and human interaction characteristics of the founders. This is true in every company. Learn about the kind of culture that you want to create in your own company based on the positive and negative aspects that you witness in the people that are your leaders.
Learn to respect and appreciate other people’s skill sets, because you are going to need other people if you do start a company and you are a technologist. Understand that it’s a rare, rare case when a tech entrepreneur is the right one to lead a startup for a long period of time.
David Heinemeier Hansson, Partner, 37signals
of Basecamp and more importantly, Ruby on Rails fame.
So now we had this extensive billing system focused on billing once a year and we couldn’t use it. We had to go back and make it monthly instead. But this turned out also to be a blessing. So we pushed back the launch about a month, and now we charged monthly, but we charged twice as much. The plan that was before $99 a year is now $19 a month, $224 a year instead.
In a company where everyone is in the same place, it’s very easy to walk down the hall and interrupt somebody. If you’re part of a distributed team that’s 7 hours off, you’re bound to have a good portion of the day where you just get work done. There are no interruptions.
Another thing is that we communicate mainly through IM, which is a fairly low-bandwidth way of communicating, so you’re not going to disrupt somebody unless you’re going to say something that matters. If you meet in person, it’s very easy to just talk for 30 minutes, and what was the information exchange actually about?

See the first part of the review on my blog at Founders At Work-1

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