Friday, July 31, 2009

Library and Kindle

Having joined a library (yes, I know, cant stop talking and thinking about it), a few thoughts.

Are libraries friends of authors or not? A part of me says yes, because finally authors need to be read to be read. And it is the reading that attracts people to particular styles of writing, which makes you a fan and then you buy "everything that the author writes". So libraries clearly increase sampling - which should be good for authors. It could also work in a different way - enrolling in a library significantly reduces the chance that you will buy pirated books (usually people buy pirated books assuming that the outlay is low and it is worth a risk even if the book is not good). Also for foreign authors and published books, it is far cheaper to read through a library. And then again for people like me, I buy books even after I have read them, especially if I like the book so much. So, libraries are good for authors.

Bad because, some books are unlikely to be bought, especially the very costly ones. But I guess the former will overrule the latter.

Second thought. Can something like Kindle ever have a 'lending' function - that gives books on e-rent? Say, a scheme where you can have a book for a couple of weeks and then it vanishes from your system. Actually it can - just that digital ownership presently assumes that you buy and keep, especially with unlimited storage. And then again, the Kindle significantly reduces the fun you have in swapping books. More reason to stay on with books? I don't know. Havent experienced the kindle just as yet :)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Carpets and work

A nice piece in Forbes India on the model followed by Jaipur Rugs.

When you read through it, you can see that it is an entire ecosystem of work without having to bring workers to a factory. They have quality supervisors, inspectors etc. If you replace loom with computers, it is like working from home. If it can be done for carpets, it can be done for most other types of desk jobs? And if it is not being done yet, why not? I think, that a model like this the future of work.

More thoughts on this...

Indian board games

As an afficionado of board games I was pleasantly surprised when I spotted IIT designed, India inspired board games recently at a mall. India has a rich games tradition which has been overshadowed by the "imports". Pictionary, Taboo and whole hose of them - no complaints - these games are good. But there are very few Indian games - like the ancient Pallankuzhi, Dayakattam (Ludos precursor) with its rectangular dice that are popular.


It was therefore heartening to see India inspired games like Chakra view, Triplets and Gotcha. Havent purchased them yet, but I guess as a board games afficionado, I will, soon...

It is a constant lament that we in India being in India have done precious little to showcase our heritage beyond elephants and Taj Mahal. Our airports copy international airports (the Cochin one being a lone exception by a small margin), our railway stations (well, let me not even talk about it) and our malls are copycat malls by and large.

Fortunately, there are a few who are trying to tread off the beaten track like Titans heritage series, Tantra t-shirts and now Funskool...
Meanwhile, in the outside world, here is some news about board games.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Learning without books

Many years ago, I was enrolled in a Veda class. We were lucky to have a couple of people knowledgeable enough to teach (knowing and teaching are two entirely different things as in most things) us in a city like Bombay (Actually many suburbs had one or two reknowned gurus like this - and not all of them were priests). The method of teaching was "primitive". It followed the ancient Indian oral system. The guru repeats once, you repeat twice. And so on, until the entire shloka is covered over one hour classes each weekday. Simple. And we had no books - I guess that was how it was meant to be. But not everybody was convinced - I mean, in this day and age (in that day and age - 80s), how could we not have had books. Nobody questioned the guruji though.


But one day, somebody got a book - actually couple of students began to get books - and soon everybody got books. But as you might imagine, our learning was not accelerated; it began to get disrupted. The books, like Sanskrit shloka books, had indications for intonations and subtle variations depending on who the publisher was. And as the students began to second guess the teacher - we would look into the books, try to read and not succeed (we were learning devanagri in school - and not proficient in it), got distracted by the books and eventually, the guruji banned the books. He said, "You read the books once you are done with learning it all". Which is what we did.


Note that the way Vedas are taught is different. A sentence is broken up into parts before being recited as a long sentence. I cant think of an analogy here. But suffice it to say that the complete texts were an impediment to the teaching process. (I have heard similar stories even from some people who have learnt music, but since I havent, I will not comment)


As we try to absorb learnings in a web oriented world, a thought on how learning used to happen even prior to books...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Shared items

Google reader just reintroduced itself into a more "social" avatar. As I follow a few people, I realize that like Twitter or Facebook, reader is another of the ways you can literally "stand on the shoulders of giants" in your own small way. Crowdsourcing, if you will, but I would rather call it smartsourcing.

Since there are people who follow specialised topics on the internet closely, mark items as favourites etc. etc., you get to read the best stuff hot off the shelves (if there be such an analogy). Also, since you cannot obviously read everything, it is smart to depend on others who you follow to track down the latest and greatest.

Many other places can do with a bit of "social"ity.

Restaurants - getting ratings from the last few visitors? Posting stats on most frequently ordered dishes? Libraries on most issued books?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rules for rule sake

As I logged into my banks online account, a large banner screamed at me, "Go paperless. Opt for e-statements" or some equivalent. Happy to reduce the spam snail mail, I clicked on it.

Two days later, I get a call for verification. They want among things, my date of birth, my doctors date of birth and my debit card pin (I kid you not on the pin). They also expect me to remember my last few transactions to the last two digits, some other aosduriewr id.

And I asked them, I logged into my id using a secure password and you are calling me on the cellphone provided on the id (not changed for the past many years). Now that you have got confirmation on this, just start sending the statements by mail. In any case, I told them, the statement that you send today by snail mail is hardly secure, anybody can open them, if they want to right?

The response was, "I am sorry sir, but they are our rules."

Absurd, dont you think? Whoever framed these rules is really stupid.

Plastic bags

Near our kitchen we have a plastic bag which is the mother of all plastic bags to holds all plastic bags that we collect as part of our shopping.

It has always been an easy job to get bags that we later reuse for trash. Suddenly, last week, I saw that we had nearly no bags. Why? Because our mall has started charging a rupee per bag - so we decided to reuse the bags instead of "buying" bags.

And over the last few weeks, we have almost no bags. Now the question is how do we dispose off our waste - surely not by buying trash bags - so that's a problem we need to solve...hopefully without buying trash bags...

A small step taken by a mall in getting rid of plastic bags...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Of a drop in posts and all that

Sorry for the drop in posts. Yes, there are tons of things I need to write about - but there is one major reason why the number of posts have gone down. Make that two. The first is that I joined a library which has a superb plan - a library that goes by the name of Just Books. At 150 bucks a month, you get to take about 2 books at a time for unlimited duration. For a bookworm like me, that's amazing. The cost of buying books is quite high - a book costs anywhere between 150 to 400 rupees. Indeed the last 5 books I purchased average some 300 per book. So, cost wise the library is a smart thing. So, I have been reading.


I managed to only half read The Stuff of Thought - I found this book to be a grammar book in disguise - and sort of gave up. Then I finished A Mighty Heart - the true story of Daniel Pearl, who for those with short memories was beheaded by our friendly neighbourhood terrorists. I also caught up on Stardust - a Neil Gaiman classic . Presently, am reading Down Under by Bill Bryson. So, as I maximise my library time, my time to write posts dip. And I have a long long reading list to catch up on. I need to figure out a way to manage my life, perhaps :)

Did I say two reasons? The second is that I am writing for Advancedge (of IMS) who pays me for what I write (don't think crores) and I had some urgent work to complete for them. There are also a few other reasons 3, 4 and a few more, but they are just excuses....and this is but the calm before the storm...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Careers, Long work hours and family life

Can one have a high flying successful career alongwith a great family and personal life?

Before you jump at me, heres my definition - Join as management trainee, CEO by 38-40 (give or take a few years) types and upward thereafter. The jury is open to "Is this the only definition of a great career", and I would be one of the first to disagree, but assuming that this is the definition of a great career, what happens?

Can you have a career like that without spending long time in work or related to work (networking, golfing, travelling)? And if you did all of that, surely, you would spend lesser time at home? With the partner and kids? Even if you have an excellent support system with armies of servants and inlaws and outlaws - your personal time that you spend with each other and kids would be less?

Therefore, you can be either a good parent or a "great" career oriented person?

Thoughts that came up after an email discussion on Jack Welchs remarks on Career women. If you dissect his remarks, you will see that it is not so much about women, it is more generic and it is really about the choices we make...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Mangoes

Our summers were incomplete without mangoes. Goes without saying. Each vacation we spent in Kerala, it was a vacation soaked in Cashew, Cashew-nuts, Jackfruit, Pineapple and Mangoes. Out of all the mangoes, one of them was our favourite.

Before you think Hapus, Banganapalli, Neelam or any of the other exotic varieties, let me introduce you to perhaps the lowliest of all mangoes. It does not find mention in this piece either, afaik.

Now, this mango is of smallish size, very sweet, but to top it - unlike other mangoes has a sourish almost orangy tang to it. The pulp is not completely smooth. It has a stringy feel to it when you bite (which makes it not a good thing for pickles or connoisseurs). The strings, like the fibre of a mosambi, can get get stuck in the gaps between your teeth and as you bite it, it feels like you are biting a closely woven mango nest. That's the best I can describe it. But, worthless as these mangoes were, they were all over our yards. Nobody plucked them - since they were never a choice for pickle. The birds had their fill and left many for us. The adults never bothered, so we found many mangoes and ate our fill.These mangoes are often green when ripe. But its peels are soft and quite edible (works very well for lazy chaps like kids) and if you want to peel it, a little tug with your front teeth makes the peel come off gloriously easily. And, if you do that, it is one gloriously drippy pulpy fruit you have in your hands. I doubt if anybody bothered to give them a name - other than the typical nadan (local) - if you happen to know, please let me know.

The bonus of it is that you can make a mean sambar (yes) and morukootan (yes) with them and that is the second absolutely most delightful thing that can be made IMO to be had with rice. (The first goes to shallot sambar, but that's for another day)

But like many childhood memories are never found in supermarkets, I forgot about these mangoes for a long time. Our ancestral property was sold off and off they went into the recycle bin of memory, until I discovered them again, quite by supreme chance.

We were driving by a farm and found a bunch of mangoes totally unripe. We asked someone and they said, "Oh, that one, that's a local one. It is stringy". We were disappointed hearing that since the only tree we came across with mangoes was this one. But, by then, we had plucked a few, so we decided to take it home anyway. At home, it ripened over time and I happened to taste one.

And that's when all the memories came back...

Monday, July 13, 2009

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Careers

Heads, there is a recession. Tails, there is no recession. It is a toss up really. If you believe the stock markets they are swinging like a pendulum. According to them, theres is a recession one day and good news the other. What to do? Who to believe? And in the middle of it all, what should I do? Is this the right time to stay put in my job or try my luck at getting into b-school? On the one hand, enrolments in colleges increase each time there is a recession (in the US) and on the other hand, companies layoff some and many others continue with their jobs.

What if I come out of college and the economy has not recovered yet? Or, worse, what if, the recovery happens now (as per current trends in the stock markets of some countries) and the market stagnates by the time I come out? What if my college does not get all its students placed? Will there be competition from students returning with foreign degrees?

Like a lot of other questions, these are all extraneous factors that, should, of course, be a factor in your decision to pursue your MBA, but you should not drive yourself crazy thinking about these factors. If you are, then, clearly your entire decision process for an MBA needs a re-think.

There are good reasons to do an MBA and there are equally good reasons to not do an MBA. There are good careers that can be had with an MBA and there are some amazing careers that can be had without an MBA. Look around you. For every MBA, you will find a non MBA who is doing well. So, clearly, as a human being, you cannot climb into all the buses. Decide (and I cannot exactly tell you which crystal ball to look into) and then be at peace. All I can say is that for many of us a single bus will not take us to our destination (this coming from personal experience). Just as there is no silver bullet in life. And in any case the MBA (or this piece) is no silver bullet.

Look at your strengths. Look at what you are good at. Ultimately, it is far better to focus on what you are good at and become the best than pick up something you are doing because everybody else is and try to make a living out of it. So, if you are good at technology, try to excel in it. There is a great demand for Technical positions and will continue to be. There are certifications and exams you can take for your entire career. And once you have picked up one platform, really, there is nobody but you who prevents you from learning a second one. If you are very good at communication, look for a specialized job opportunity that makes use of it. There are opportunities of that nature in media, corporate training, journalism - or even online.

But that does not mean you cannot use these inherent strengths to complement your MBA, but neither does it mean that you lose out if you don't do an MBA now. There are many who do an MBA and use it sharpen their skills in these areas like technology or communications. There are others who do an MBA with more than a few years of industry experience under their belt. There is no "single" way to run a career and you will see it all around you, in every career.

There is no easy way to figure out what your strengths are either, but looking at your own life and what you have done well in (honestly, without believing in conspiracy theories) is a good indicator. Write a honest note to yourself in terms of what you want to do and love doing (regardless of what the world is doing) in its most basic terms often gives you the answer. Or, write a note to yourself on what you definitely do not want to do. That may have the answer too...

Many look at the MBA as an option to change their careers. But is the MBA the only way to change careers? Nowadays, companies are open to let their employees try their hand at various types of jobs at a junior level. At a senior level, by and large, job rotations are quite common. And when you use that option once, can you use it again? So, use the MBA-to-change-career option wisely.

Are you trying to get out of a temporary trough at work? And think that the MBA will help? It will, for sure, but it will not insure you from any future troughs. And if that happens how do you plan to get out of that?

The MBA is not an escape route. It is an entry. The degree does not guarantee anything. On the contrary, it increases responsibility. It assumes that the person with the degree has certain positive attributes. (And unfortunately, your predecessors have also given the degree a certain degree of blemish which will be passed onto you and which you will have to do your bit to redeem.)

So, why would you do an MBA? Do an MBA if you are interested in the running of businesses. Do it if you like working on strategy. Do it if you want to start your own business and hence know the nuances of writing a business plan and successfully translating it into a profitable business. Do it to explore the various facets of business. Do it to increase your worldview. Do it, if you see the MBA as a year or two of hard work that will pay you dividends in future.

If you are seeing the MBA as a break from work, well, surely you will have friends in college, but, believe me, breaks are better spent in Goa or other areas for a lot lesser in monetary terms, than in college.

Finally, an MBA is not the only key to riches and El Dorado. That key, ultimately, is with you and will remain with you, regardless of the qualification you pursue.

So if you have decided to pursue the MBA, do it with all your heart...

(An edited version of this piece was published in Advancedge, July 09)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Federrer - greatest ever?

So, Roger Federrer won the Wimbledon. For the 6th time. And in the process won his 15th Grand Slam. For a lot of people, to read this is somewhat of an epiphany. Is he the greatest ever? Pause before you answer...

We mourned the passing of an era when Bjorn Borg retired. We wept when Jimmy Connors soldiered on. Ivan Lendl retired without winning Wimbledon. The old brigade was unable to withstand the onslaught of the new. And then of course we mourned the passing of an era once again when John McEnroe retired. We clapped for Boris Becker (the NKOTB during our days) and Stefan Edberg and then when they too passed, we said the era of power tennis is in with Andre Agassi. They too retired to greener pastures. In came Pete Sampras and when he retired (OMG, we ARE getting older), we said again that Tennis would never be the same again.

And whose record did Federrer Express break? The venerable Pete Sampras. He of the big serve.

Point being, shows always go on. There is always something or somebody somewhere who is redefining the future. Tommorrow, Federrer too will retire and then it will be someone else!

In another discussion, we spoke about how Google is the epitome of cool companies as is Apple. But we all know GM was once in that coveted position, then IBM and then Microsoft and Toyota in cars. And tomorrow it will be someone else. Its nice that the future cannot be predicted, haan?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Amar Chitra Katha

Yes, I am a great fan of Amar Chitra Katha (pretty good site, btw) comics. We practically grew up on them and learnt stories of history, mythology and adventure through these comics. If it were not for ACK, I am sure we would have never read our history. History books in school were drab and dreary with lines upon lines of text. These comics were a wonderful break - they brought history to life. Tatya Tope (and Yashwanti) was among my favourite history lessons when I was a kid and how these comics brought him and the story to life! I am sure Kathy Sierra would be proud to see how history/mythology seeps in through these comic books without the brain realizing that its "dull history" that we are reading.

When dad came from office (his newspaper vendor got him the latest copies) with an ACK or a Tinkle, he would quietly take it out of the bag and put it on the table. And then we would fight - the two of us. Finally, both of us got to read (though I suspected for a long time that my brother only saw the pictures). Post that it went into a plastic bag and then into a trunk (yes, the old metal one). The first day of vacation, actually the last day of exams, the trunk would be brought down with much fanfare. In it were our comics, games and what not. Each time we took the trunk down, we pretended to have forgotten what was inside. We even knew every single panel from every single comic - that was the number of times we had read it. But, no, we would read it over and over again. And then some exchanges of books with neighbours and friends meant that pretty much we had read through every single issue ever. As we grew older, we bound many issues into a big book so that managing them was easier. And as we went to graduate studies, we gave them away to libraries, cousins and pretty much anybody who asked. Big mistake. They were heirlooms! And out went ACK of our lives.

Only to return. When junior was ready for books, we invested a fair amount into books of various types. But something was missing. And then we "discovered" ACK once again. And since then, we have building our collection slowly but surely. Of all the books we have seen on Indian mythology, history, kings, saints we have ACK to be the best as far as ease of reading, authentic storylines and value for money. One thing, it is far easier to get back issues today from their online site or from various bookstores. And it was heartening to read this...

Free, paid, pirated

A day in the life of the internet.

Chris Anderson launched a book 'Free' recently - which has to be bought, of course.


(all of them worth a read)

As I read through these, a question came to my mind on a conversation I recently had with a Mac user in India. If it were not for piracy (well, almost free) would (see comment here) Microsoft still dominate the market as it does today? Assembled computers, pirated software have all played an (unacknowledged?) part in Indias (half) tech revolution. And many of those early pirate users have invested in the original. And India remains a largely untapped market for Mac.

Question: If it were not for rampant piracy of Microsoft in the 90s, would Microsoft still rule India? The difference in architecture is significant, but would India have been Linux country if there were "no" piracy? (Questions about Google cloud notwithstanding. Yes, Linux exists, but it is still far from significant.)