Saturday, August 29, 2009

To Pondicherry

To get to Pondicherry, we took NH7 (Wikipedia page on NH7), which is Hosur Road in Bangalore, past Electronic City, towards Hosur, past Shulagiri, and all the way down to Krishnagiri.
Toll plaza on NH7.

From there you need to take a left after the toll plaza, and not go straight up a flyover. The flyover takes you down to Salem. So, you take a left, on to NH46 (Wikipedia page), and after a couple of kilometers you take a right, which puts you on to NH66 (Wikipedia page).
This is where NH46 and NH7 meet. So, coming from Bangalore, you stay in the left lane, and make a left at the intersection, below the flyover.

View Larger Map- this is where NH7 and NH46 intersect.

After that, you go for about a kilometer or two on NH46, and then make a right, which puts you on NH66.

View Larger Map

Somewhere on NH66.
This is the highway that takes you all the way to Pondicherry. This highway is two-laned, undivided all the way to Pondicherry. The first 40-60 kms are not that great, but if you keep your eyes peeled for potholes, you could do 60kmph. Not too good, but not too bad either. And the road is not that bad. It is disappointing after having experienced the Golden Quadrilateral on NH7 and NH46. After that you can do 80kph for most of the remaining stretch. After Tindivanam, there is work going on to upgrade the highway to a four-laned highway, but it looks like the four laning will be completed only in the next three to four years.
Just checked on the net, and per the NHAI site, the NHAI:.Completed Stretches on Golden Quadrilateral page states that the 170km stretch between Krishnagiri and Tindivanam is yet to be awarded. This stretch does not seem to have too much traffic on it, so it is a moot point whether contractors will come forward to upgrade this stretch, especially if the project cost is to be recovered via a tolls.Unless the government steps in and meets the viability gap...

It is likely that NH66 will stay two laned between Krishnagiri and Tindivanam for the next several years. The highway does not see much traffic anyway, so maybe regular maintenance of the road should suffice. What is striking however is that there are absolute no decent restaurants on the entire stretch. The Adiyar Anand Bhavan and a Cafe Coffee Day at Shoolagiri is the last stop where you can fuel up your stomach for the long drive ahead. People traveling between Bangalore and Mysore have been spoiled for choice, with Lokaruchi Kamat, Cafe Coffee Days, Baristas, and even a McDonald's on the 100km SH 17.

Another welcome fact to be noted is that there are almost no speedbreakers on this entire stretch. And speed-breakers are in India by definition unmarked, and with no signs warning the driver to their presence. Drivers then rely on the undulations and the slowing of the speed and the brake lights coming on on the vehicles in front of them to figure out that there is a venerable speed-breaker up ahead. Unless you happen to be the lead car. In which case your vehicle has to provide the undulations and all.
The mileposts all have the distance to Pondicherry mentioned, and below that the distance to the next big town. For most of the way it is Tiruvanamalai.

The town of Thiruvannaamalai is famous for the Arunachala temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is marked by four massive gopurams; and when I say massive, they are huge. More than two hundred feet high.
What is baffling is that the highway, all two lanes of it, runs right by the temple boundary. Yes. See for yourself. This below is NH66.

A closeup of the west-facing gopuram.
The photos of the gopuram are of the one on the left in the map below.

View Larger Map

A short drive after Tindivanam is the Gingee fort. Now, this has to be one of the most deceptive looking forts I have ever seen. From afar it looks like someone piled small and big rocks upon each other to build a hillock. And you cannot make out the contours of a fort from afar. It is when you park outside the entrance and take a closer look that you realize that there are actually steps to take you to the top of the fort, at a height of 800 feet. It looks like a good hour's trek up, and not advised in the scorching Sun. Best attempted early in the morning.

On the way back from Chennai, you travel on NH46, which is by far the best highway I have driven so far in India. The entire stretch has been four-laned, roads where you can do 100kmph comfortably, and if adventurous enough, can also do 120-140kmph. High speeds are however inadvisable.
In some stretches the highway is six lanes wide. As it passes through small towns, there are flyovers built over the city road intersections, so that you do not come across any traffic signal. The highway is not access controlled, but this is a huge step forward nonetheless. There are toll plazas every 40-50 kms or so, and you pay Rs 25, 35, or 45. Well worth it.

The drive is very scenic in places, with the hills rolling by gently, and the highway making its way. The divided highway, and the comfort in the knowledge that there are no speed-breakers or any unexpected potholes lets you take in the scenery.
These two photos below are somewhere 25 kms east of Krishnagiri.

Onto Pondicherry in the next post.

© 2009, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Chunnambar Beach, Paradise Beach

The Chunnambar Beach and Backwater Resort is just off National Highway 45, on the way to Cuddalore (Kadalur). Paradise Beach is some 2kms away, and requires a boat trip. The boat rides start only at 9:30AM or so, which is a bit of shame, since by that time the sun has been beating down for a few hours, and it starts to get quite hot in the sun. If you do not intend getting into the water, then you may not be able to spend more than 10 or 15 minutes in the open. Of course, there are foreigners who seem to believe that this is the ideal amount of sun and heat for sunbathing and tanning. Most however prefer to relax under the thatched huts by the beach. Winters may offer milder weather.

View Larger Map

It seems, judging by this photograph, that there are more luxury resorts being built, which hopefully will attract more tourists to the region, giving the local economy a boost.

The boats that ferry people to and from the beach can be seen here. They seem to operate every half an hour or so.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sunrise in Pondicherry

Pondicherry, or Puducherry as it is now called, is a Union Territory of India (official web site). Formerly a French colony, it has lots of French influences, most prominently in the architecture.
Since Pondicherry is on the eastern coast of India, by the Bay of Bengal, it is possible to see the sunrise over the Bay of Bengal.
On the day I woke up early enough to get to the shore and watch the sunrise, there were clouds on the horizon. So I could not watch the sun rise right over the ocean, but all in all, this was pretty awesome anyway.

View Larger Map

Monday, August 10, 2009

How The Mighty Fall, by Jim Collins

How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, by Jim Collins

Not too bad a read.
But...Yes, lots of buts too.
The book has a hurried feel to it. Like Collins took his last two books, copied the template from those two, and replaced some words and added some new paragraphs. And viola! You have a new book. The style is too reminiscent of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, but without the details of the former. This book needed to have covered new ground, or in a different way, or should have insights that would have been illuminating. It does none.
Some of the material, especially on people and bureaucracies, is indeed timeless, and useful, and I have copied extracts in this review. But he has covered that to some extent in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't. If you have not read that book, then this book is useful enough. When comparing or contrasting two firms that went to a particular stage, and one recovered and the other did not, you don't really get an insightful answer. The example of TI and Motorola is one. Or that of IBM and HP. HP seemed to have gone down the tube under the leadership of Carly Fiorina, but has been on the mend with its new CEO, Mark Hurd. Was the acquisition of Compaq all that big a failure as is made out to be? What was it that HP did to come back from the brink? Sheer persistence seems to be one answer per the author. Per, doggedness down a path of futility can look much the same as one that leads to recovery and salvation. How to tell the apart? That is not clear or even attempted in the book. TI does not seem to be doing too well these days. The leadership is the same. What changed? IBM is very successful, having been rescued from the brink of collapse by Gerstner, but it is now less a software products company than a software services company. Is that a recipe for continued success? You will not get these answers by reading this book.

There is a great opportunity for making this book truly great when Collins quotes Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina.
"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." ... I've concluded that there are more ways to fall than to become great. [page 19]
But that's pretty much the start and end of any attempt to move the book from mediocrity to good, let alone great.

According to Collins, companies that fail, tend to follow five stages of decline. Companies can fall one or more levels and still recover, but many keep sliding from one level to another, their descent punctuated only by frantic efforts at reorganization, rapid-fire change in leadership, random changes in the business model, brutal layoffs, and more.
The five stages are:
Stage 1 - Hubris Born of Success.
Stage 2 - Undisciplined Pursuit of More.
Stage 3 - Denial of Risk and Peril.
Stage 4 - Grasping for Salvation.
Stage 5 - Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death.

Companies can seem to be in rise even as they go through stages 1, 2, and 3. Decline visible to world, seems to occur only at stage 4, at which point most companies will inevitably slide down further and further. The book's first half is all about these five stages.That is all of 124 pages or so. Yes. 124 pages of large type on paper size that is smaller than most paperbacks. The next 90 pages are notes and appendices for each section. 29 pages of notes, the rest are appendices. So, if you skip the references and notes and all, as most people do, you could be done reading the book before you are halfway on a flight from Seattle to San Jose.

Collins is aware of the criticisms leveled against his previous book, and does sort of acknowledge that there is no magic mirror or crystal ball or even a formula that will yield answers with mathematical preciseness.
If we could conduct double-blind, prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled trials, we would be able to create a predictive model of corporate performance. But such experiments simply do not exist in the real world of management, and therefore it's impossible to claim cause and effect with 100-percent certainty. [page 17]

In some ways, the bar was set very, very high with Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't. One measure of the book's popularity can be gauged from the fact that after almost eight years since its publication, it is still available only a a hardcover edition. The paperback has not come out. And it has attracted a lot of attention from other management gurus and academics. It is not really scientific. The selection of companies is too narrow. At least two of the companies in the list - Circuit City and Fannie Mae - have gone into bankruptcy. And so on. Valid perhaps. My take is that you have to leave out the companies mentioned in the book, and instead focus on the learnings and the findings that Collins has to offer. A lot of it is, in my opinion, valuable, and common-sensical. Whether it would hold up to an empirical validation is moot. There is perhaps no management book that can claim that distinction, and "Good To Great" is not an exception. Management is not mathematics. It is not physics. And even physics has 'uncertainty' in it.

Packard's Law states that no company can consistently grow revenues faster than its ability to get enough of the right people to implement that growth and still become a great company. ... (We named this law after David Packard, cofounder of HP, inspired by his insight that a great company is more likely to die of indigestion from too much opportunity than stavation from too little.) [page 55]

You break Packard's Law and begin to fill key seats with the wrong people; to compensate for the wrong people's inadequacies, you institute bureaucratic procedures; this, in turn, drives away the right people (because they chafe under the bureaucracy or cannot tolerate working with less competent people or both); this then invites more bureaucracy to compensate for having more of the wrong people, which then drives away more of the right people; and a culture of bureaucratic mediocrity gradually replaces a culture of disciplined excellence. When bureaucratic rules erode an ethic of freedom and responsibility within a framework of core values and demanding standards, you've become infected with the disease of mediocrity. [page 56]

Perhaps the answer to the question as to why this book has such a hurried feel, and why it feels so 'lightweight', even for a pulp-management title, lies on page 118, where Collins writes:
While working on How the Might Fall, my colleague Morten Hansen and I have been simultaneously working on a six-yearl research project to study companies that grew from vulnerability to greatness... [page 118]
In my opinion, therein lies the answer. This book is likely going to be succeeded by a more substantial tome in 2010, one which will ignite sales of this book - How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, and that this book is really a filler, meant to keep the buzz of Collins alive even as people wait for his next work. For movie buffs, this reminds one of the re-release of the original Star Wars Trilogy, that allowed Lucas to get the money he needed to finance his Star Wars 'prequel' trilogy. Except that it is not, if you know what I mean.
This book is just so disappointing that even the one-star reviews would not be unjustified. How can Collins be the same person who wrote Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't and Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies and then came up with this clunker?

Amazon IN, Kindle IN, Amazon US, Kindle US

© 2009, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Stumbling On Happiness

Five Stars

Stumbling on Happiness

Immensely relevant and revelatory findings, extensive notes and references, rapid-fire style of writing, and replete with anecdotes, references to medical research, topped off with gobs of humour.
We are not happy because we are not rich, or not handsome or beautiful enough, or because we do not live in a mansion, or because we do not have that dream job, or because we could not marry that drop-dead gorgeous girl in school, or any other reason. We are unhappy because what we think about and how we imagine ourselves reacting to good and bad events is inaccurate. Wrong. Unpredictable.
We think about our future, and are unique among animals in this respect. This is a cause of much happiness as well as misery. It is caused by our failure to accurately estimate the impact that future events can have on our happiness - perceived as well as actual. Our imagination, that we use so often and rely on so often to help us make decisions that we have imperfect knowledge of, can fail us in ways we probably are not even aware of. Memory is even more imperfect. Our brains lend a hugely helping hand in feeding our own preconceptions and misconceptions.

Knowing about these shortcomings, and how our memory and brain work in this regard, can help us make better decisions and estimates about decisions in the present that will impact our future happiness. Choice is good, so we think, yet experiment after experiment has proven otherwise. Choice leads to the possibility of regret. The impermanence of decisions can be a big cause of misery.

The book has thirty pages of end-notes, and almost as long an index. This means that firstly the book is backed up strongly by lots of research, and secondly, this provides ample material for those wanting to delve deeper. The author has a rapid-fire style of oratory and presentation, and that style carries over to his writing as well. That will appeal to many people, not to some. To see him in action, you can see two of his talks at the site; I have provided links below, at the end of the post.

If you have read Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (my review on this blog, and on, some of the material on how we make judgments, which in turn is based on Tversky and Kahneman's work,Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, is probably better covered in Nudge. What is different in "Stumbling..." from "Nudge..." is the number of experiments that the author lists to highlight how decisions and regrets, or decisions and expectations work. For information on how we are influenced and persuaded into making decisions, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion remains the best book on the topic. Portions of the second half of the book talk about self-serving biases that cloud and influence our decisions. This topic has been covered exceedingly well in Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). What 'Stumbling...' does do very well is gather these and many other areas of research and findings into a single, very readable place. In the author's words,
"The hard part was developing a way to organize hundreds of ideas and findings from various fields and weave them together into a coherent narrative that could get from the first page to the last page under its own steam. I didn't want to write a series of essays. I wanted to tell a single story..." [from the P.S. section of the book in this edition]

The edition I have is a Harper Perennial  print, and has an extra section at the end, called 'P.S'. This contains an interview with the author, a page on the author's likes and dislikes, and a list of related books that the reader may want to read.

That wealth may not make us happier is also well known. Wealth beyond a point does not contribute to increased happiness. As much was noted two centuries ago, by none other than the father of modern economics, Adam Smith:
"... (Adam) Smith believed that people want just one thing - happiness; hence economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy." [page 219]

We know of visual blind spots - the spot in your eyeball where an image cannot be registered. There is an image that is used to illustrate, with (in my case) stunning clarity, if I may use a word like 'clarity' to talk about blind spots, the proof that there is indeed a blind spot. But what is notable is that such blind spots exist in auditory experiences as well as memory too.
"This general finding - that information acquired after an event alters memory of the event - has been replicated so many times in so many different laboratory and field settings that it has left most scientists convinced of two things. First, the act of remembering involves `filling in' details that were not actually stored; and second, we generally cannot tell when we are doings this because filling in happens quickly and unconsciously." [page 79, 80]

"Memory uses the filling-in trick, but imagination **is** the filling-in trick. ... More simply said, most of us have a difficult time imaging a future that is terribly different from today..." [page 114]

"Imagination's second shortcoming is its tendency to project the present onto the future ... filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from the present." [page 226]

"Seeing in time is like seeing in space. ... But when we remember of imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seem to overlook the fact that details vanish with temporal distance, and they conclude that the distant events actually are as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them." [page 105]
"The fact that we imagine the near and far futures with such different textures causes us to value them differently as well." [page 107]

We are conditioned to believe that variety is the spice of life. True as that may be, it can be overrated, and secondly, we make mistakes when trying to evaluate the benefits variety can provide. This leads to the likelihood of disappointment.
"Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. ... Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility ... One way to beat habituation is to increase the variety of one's experiences. ... Another way to beat habituation is to increase the amount of time that separates repetitions of the experience." [page 130]

Similarly, when you hear the phrase that "time heals all wounds", it is because:
"The fact is that negative events do affect us, but they generally don't affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to." [page 153]

Note also that we see what we want to see. Self-serving biases, blind spots, or plain pigheadedness (added star mine, the original text has these words italicized).
"... when your brain is at liberty to interpret a stimulus in more than one way, it tends to interpret it the way it **wants** to, which is to say that your preferences influence your interpretations of stimuli... " [page 158]
"... studies reveal that people have a penchant for asking questions that are subtly engineered to manipulate the answer they receive." [page 166]
"When facts challenge our favoured conclusions, we scrutinize them more carefully and subject them to more rigorous analysis." [page 169]
Read this book for excellent coverage on the topic of self-serving biases: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)
"Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did..." [page 179]

Why???, you may ask.
"One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions." [page 179]

"Imagination's third shortcoming is its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen - in particular, that bad things will look a whole lot better ... " [page 227]

Other Books:

Other Links:

© 2009, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.