Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What you build is where you go...

While we build IITs and IIMs and IIITs and ISBs (no, the last two letters do not denote Suicide Bombing - totally inspired by Prem Panickers blog post title ), our friendly neighbours are also building institutions for their future. Makes you want to think of the direction each of these countries are taking no? (my old post here)


After all, what you build is where you go (or want to go)...

There are now 62 odd "institutions" offering courses (pardon the satire) and these turn out to the the bigger ones - exactly like our colleges. There are tons of other smaller, unrecognized, unrewarded doing this totally great job. And they will come out with degrees labelled B Bom, M Bom and they are out to make an impact with (literally) their lives. And sooner or later, expect the alumnus of some of these colleges to make an impact in our life, bullet proof dustbins and buses notwithstanding...

And yes, people who talk (or want to talk) to the powers that be often go there with high security, unlike you and me...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Adding value

Just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, a must read book for any foodie.

The book goes through how agriculture has evolved (in the US) from the humble farmer variety to the industrial agriculture - which when you read the book looks so removed from the farming that we read and romanticize about.

The dominance of corn and processing corn to create almost all the elements in any typical fast food meal in the US food scene is a fascinating read. Cows are being fed corn and the herbivores are nearly turned carnivorous (or cannibals) by feeding them cattle bones too.

Its not all gloom and doom though, but read the book for that.

In the wake of reading the book, I found this product there. Mashed potatoes. Potatoes sold between 10 and 20 rupees a kilo at retail rates is now worth 90 rupees a kilo. How? Processing it to add value - Mash potatoes, add a few chemicals, preservatives, package it and sell it...And therein lies a long story.

Follow Pollans advice though when it comes to choosing a meal.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Electric cars, how soon?

I had a discussion with the other blogger here (largely dormant) on whether Electric cars will rule the roost very soon? And how soon can we expect it to happen. It was not intended to come up as a post at all, but coincidentally I saw a few articles about it. This, this and this...Now, bear in mind that none of us are really automobile experts as much as we are market watchers. Here is how we read the tea leaves...


If you have observed, over the past few months, recession or no recession, quite a few new models have found their way into India and this is across car companies. The wait between international launches and Indian launches, if any, is reducing. And clearly, companies want consumers to buy. And I guess the market has been quite obliging so far - helpfully the recession seems to have ended too (thats another story for another day).

But here is our premise, the next few years, will be the oil engines last stand - surely for smaller vehicles. For the bigger vehicles, oil might continue to be dominant for some time longer. Most people we speak to do not share this premise thinking that electric cars are some way off and the oil industry will last for atleast a generation. I hope that it is false, but beyond hope, I see definite signs that the epitaph of the oil driven automobile industry will be written within this generation (20 years for being wiped out and hopefully within the next 5 odd years a decent electric car market will be created.)

(While hybrid as a technology is an accepted and proven technology, it may not be enough. Indeed it will lengthen the demise of oil engines for a little longer than it should. So, while hybrid is a good idea, as oil prices rise, it may or may not make a significant difference down the line. I dont know so much about compressed air or hydrogen and I am a little iffy about the prospects of ethanol. CNG, well, finally is still close to petrol, but for India this might be a solution for the heavy vehicle industry.)

Electric vehicles are making significant strides in technology - US high profile launches of GM Volt and the Nissan Leaf are not too far. The Aptera, Fisker Karma and a few other small manufacturers have already put up their vehicles for sale. It is not "mass production" in terms of huge volumes, but it is pretty close to it. "Better place" - an initiative to create the ecosystem around electric vehicles (charging points, battery replacement stations) is gaining ground too. And similar green highway initiatives are gaining ground in other parts of the world too.

And often, with these sort of initiatives, a tipping point may not be too far away. And when change happens, it will happen swiftly, resistance not withstanding...And thats why we feel that the current launches are an attempt to get people to buy newer vehicles and lock themselves in for 5 years atleast. I hope that my next car is an electric...

Closer home, Reva has been moderately successful in breaking the mindset (and this is a very tough job). And it seems to be the beleaguered GM that is trying to break into the electric market here in India (see linked article). Tata and the Nano, I am sure will follow suit. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Here and there...


"Hammer for breaking the window glass during emergency"

Either someone stole it during an "emergency" or the hammer was too precious to be left in the train or ...

Found another gem "Suggestion book available in guard compartment"

Now, I am sure many people would be enthusiastic to walk from one end of the train to another, locate the guard, write in the complaint book. And another set of people would peruse through the same and implement it....

Krishnarajapuram

Notwithstanding the grand name with the confluence of god and king - it is probably the most powerful city. It probably was. Now it is a railway station that sits at the outskirts of Bangalore - been so for a while.

Many many years ago, it used to be a station as nondescript as perhaps, Malgudi. A sleepy railway station punctuated by, perhaps the arrival of a few trains. And I recall having arrived at this station en route to Kerala one of those summers and been pleasantly surprised by the superb weather at this place. "This is a suburb of Bangalore" said my dad then. Suitably impressed that our summer trip went "almost" near Bangalore, it got added to the bragging rights that summer. The station was quite a nondescript one...

Today, as it sits in one corner of Bangalore and city having extended itsself around the station, it is one station that if developed well can serve as alternative to the usual Majestic and other crowded termini. The amazing thing is the low amount of development the station has seen since those days. Coach positions are hard to get, until recently it did not have a decent parking lot (now there is one), a loo is difficult to get and overall access levels are quite bad (dont even think of handicapped access). Only recently a ticket counter was added on one side of the station. But there are more trains today, many more pick ups and drops and quite a well used station this part of the city. It really deserves to be developed in a good manner.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Simple pleasure of life

One of the simple pleasures of urban life in India is to have an efficient and hassle free and professional rickshaw or taxi service. In cities where this does not exist, you can expect high cases of BP and other stress related diseases. Mumbai (and a pox on most other cities) is perhaps the onlyh city in India that satisfies this criteria. You can get out of your house, get into a rick and hop off certain that the route, fare, destination and safety are guaranteed.

This picture is in front of a mall in Navi Mumbai - where rickshaws come in a neat line (and atleast I did not see too many passengers being declines - neither was I) pick up their passengers and go along.

If your fare is, say, 17 or 27, the driver by and large is ready with the 3 rupees before you are ready with 20 or 30. In most other cities, this is not the case. In some cities, you can say goodbye to the change. In some others, for 30 rupees the rickshaw will take for exactly one revolution of the wheel. In some cities you have to be ready for a war with the rickshaw at the end of your journey. In some cities depending on the cloud cover and lighting condidions (cricket umpires would be proud), the fare will be "oneandhaf" or "doublemeter".

After living in other cities, I often feel like tipping the Mumbai rickshaw drivers just for their professionalism. Hats off...

Half bread

In the "golden" 80s of socialism and no refrigerators, one would not need to buy a whole loaf of bread. So, the friendly neighbourhood store owner would helpfully break a bread into "half", wrap it with a newspaper, tie it with a string and charge you exactly half for the bread.

The companies did not want to market a smaller loaf, but there was demand for a small loaf.

Now, it looks like the companies have stepped into the market themselves...

Anyother city where you can buy half bread?

More casual photos

In a different day and age, we all dressed up well and posed for photographs. Someone would announce "I am going to take a picture" and soon the entire house would stir into a frenzy of activity. Colourful dresses, accessories, facewashes, furniture rearrangement, new curtains and what not. And would settle down into an anxious photo shoot session...

With the spread of digital cameras, and the abundance of photographs, the whole dressing up routine for pictures has died down. Now, you want to take a picture, just go ahead and forget the dressing and preparations.

Thats good news - casual pictures makes for better photography than posed ones...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Digital versus local

At a railway station (more about this particular station soon), we were trying to locate the position of our coach. And we spotted a neat digital gizmo right there which gave you all the details of the train you were supposed to travel in. At the time that I tried the machine, it was able to tell me the location of my train, whether it was running on time or otherwise and it had a neat coach position chart too. That was simple I thought, ignoring the *ed "Actual coach position may change" as if it were some musical chair event...

And then we walked onto the platform where there was an old painted board with the coach position of the particular train. When we checked, the digital gizmo and the board were giving coach positions at the opposite ends of the train. Considering a very short halt and luggage and all that, a run was not going to look all that good.

So, we asked at the only place where it seemed to be possible to ask - the canteen and he helpfully told us that the board was right. And since he was so confident we took our position and he was perfectly accurate.

If it possible to locate the trains position so accurately, there is no reason why the coach positions could not be accurate too...But thats the thing with gizmos - GIGO. And thats why local knowledge will triumph gizmos unless we get the whole thing right.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Kale akshar...

Did I hear you say bhains barabar? A superb literacy campaign poster (via FB)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Learning from Sehwag

If we worked on our life the way Sehwag played cricket, it would be interesting would it not?

When he first burst on the scene, he was given the nickname clone - as a clone to Sachin Tendulkar. Now that nickname is rarely used and he has burst out from the shadow of Tendulkar (no mean achievement that).

But the amazing thing about him is his confidence in his strength and he does not let an "accepted way of doing things" come in the way of his using it. Also, he continuously works on his strengths and not once in the interview will you find him talking about his weakness. Though he talks of a mindset, his mindset is actually a mindset that just keeps things simple - hit the ball regardless of the situation - very difficult to get there...

And the nightwatchman story is amazing...

There is this story about you declining a nightwatchman, where you said you were not an able batsman if you couldn't last 25 balls at the end of the day. Is that true?
It is true. What is the difference between batting at the end of the day or at the start? If you make a mistake you'll get out. So I don't think a batsman really needs a nightwatchman, but it is totally an individual decision. Whenever a captain or coach asked me for a nightwatchman I would say, "No, why? If I can't survive 10 or 20 balls now, then I don't think I'll survive tomorrow morning." I believe that's the best time when you have the opportunity to score runs, when everybody on the field is tired and you can score 20 runs off those 20 balls. [Cricinfo Interview] [via Smoke Signals]

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Light combat dossier

The year 2015. The world is reeling from terrorist attacks. And the eyes of the world are on India. India has been the epicenter of the world as far as terrorist attacks are concerned ever since the US withdrew from Afghanistan. India attracts jobless jihadis from all the world. But India has nothing to worry.

After 7 odd years of submitting dossiers, India is the leading provider of dossier technology to the world. The entire world has outsourced all the dossier work to India and India is making a pretty packet out of it, while losing a few hundreds to terror attacks...

The technology is advanced. Dossiers are readied even as a terror attack is reported. Armies of typists sit in front of television sets, trawl the internet, scan Facebook walls, track twitter hashtags and prepare the dossier within 8 hours of the reported attack. And it is said to be even faster though the accepted delivery time is 8 hours. Dossier writers need not leave their desks - any attack anywhere and a dossier is ready - often the first few dossiers are free. Dossiers come in many flavours, Light Combat Dossier, Masala Dossier, Sada Dossier, Advanced Dossier and in DIY varieties too. The technology is evolving so fast that there is an exclusive dossier transmission network being built - with all the bells and whistles of social networking sites...

There are plans to start an courier service exclusively for dossiers since the recipient country is not advanced enough to have email. The dossiers often make their way using much more advanced and green technology such as the back of animals and animal drawn carts...

Nano apps?

Customizing is in these days....Customize your phone with apps, computer with widgets and even your google account. One of the comments in this post (got here after writng the nano post) here mentions exactly that.

After spending a lakh plus some change on the car, it would be a smart idea to customize it, would it not? Remember how the early Maruti 800s were customized in the 80s? Perhaps a cottage industry of sorts to customize the Nano will develop once the Nano becomes ubiquitous...

Nano feedback

See this piece on customer feedback on the Nano from across the country. And the overall positive reviews mean that customers and competitors have to eat their words and plan for a car that matches the Nano. Hopefully by then, Tata would have changed the game with the electric and hybrid or air car or some such version.

Couple of things stand out:

The Nano is not just being bought by the "middle class". Many upwardly mobile families will buy this as their 'second' car - to be used for running errands etc. Nothing wrong or right about it, it is just the car finding its level in the market.

If a power steering is added, this option will have even more takers. Ditto for an electric option - perhaps a 2 seater to begin with? Making it more women friendly? Or something on the lines of zipcar? All these dont exactly mean great news for the rickshaws...

Most of the negative feedback are quibbles - and comparisons to a different class of vehicles altogether. But overall, the feedback is good and the owners are basking in the attention and there is scope for some game changing ideas...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wristwatches...

The watch industry should have been dead long ago, don't you think? Especially Indian watches? Once upon a time, we had HMT, who made watches like they made tractors and machine tools or was it the other way round? Then cheap imports and battery power made chimti watches a thing of the past. And then, watches (and cameras) became return gifts or freebies. Since mobile phones displayed time, who needed watches? So, while there are a thousand reasons for people to stop buying and wearing watches - watches still sell well. And this is the background to the context of my visit to a Titan store. (The Titan story, here )

I am fan of Titans designs, see here and here...

Spotted a design that really stood out. The Raga chocolat (why does it have to show up only with a particular Rao on search results?) Brown as chocolate on steel or vice versa, the watch looked really cool. So, if you are a woman looking for a watch that stands out, check out the Raga Chocolat...

Duronto...

Writers block, it was not actually. It was more a question of writing when the mind is settled and calm. There are topics that float in and out of the mind, but to get a time slot in one or a few sittings where it can be typed and polished (to a somewhat acceptable degree) was difficult. So, yes, finally found some free time to jot down those fragmented thoughts...

Here is the new train service, Duronto (rhymes with Toronto?), that is being introduced. Faster than Rajdhani or Shatabdi, these are non stop inter city trains. It is high time that these were introduced or else Indian railways will lose (even more) share to the Volvo buses. Curiously, in this list, there is no Bangalore-Mumbai train :)

My older posts on making train travel faster, here...

And again, whenever, I talk Indian railways - can we stop using the tracks as the worlds largest network of lavatories? Please? And yes, train hostesses is a bad bad idea.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

We are like this only...



And yes, I am trying to post videos and get over the posting speedbreaker I seem to have encountered!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

TED: A kinder gentler philosophy of success

Superb, superb talk by Alain de Botton. (via)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Nano of phone calls

1 rupee per call - local that is. Talk as much as you like. Forget the pulse running in the background, in your head. Is this a game changer and revolutionary?

Tough to say, but it is a brave move and will certainly make the other service providers think - 1 rupee per local call and 3 for a long distance call. Most calls don't last that long (unless of course, you are talking to your girlfriend/boyfriend or family gossip or some such). While doing this, Tata should be simultaneously be able to rope in a ton of subscribers either new or transfers- how they will translate into ARPU is a different story altogether. That's the story in the CDMA world

Concidentally the Tata DoCoMo GSM service has offered a per second billing as opposed to a per minute billing. And I for one, am seriously considering the change - not because of the per second billing per se, but because I believe that this new service will try harder to beat the established folks. And hopefully that will translate into better service. Really, all I need is the much delayed number portability thing happening...

Is your bus bulletproof?

Coming up in the lane next to you, are, Bulletproof buses.

First it was dustbins, then it is buses. Can I have my own bulletproof shirt too? And pant? And shoe? And specs?

But while we discover the latest and greatest way to remove the cancer that is threatening to spread, can we find some way to stop, for instance, the funding of terror and their modules? Identify and take out all those brainwashing detergents and equivalent? Seek and destroy those modules themselves? Bulletproof buses will help the buses and perhaps me, as long as I stay inside one.

Meanwhile, can I get a lifetime acco in one, please?

Nano lessons

Much has been written about the Tata Nano in the past few months. But while, it is very easy today to see where the Nano is, basking in its success, it is an interesting rewind to a few years back when the project was launched. And therein, lies an interesting lesson.

The Tata Nano was announced, in 2003 and almost instantly, the naysayers started off. Many said it could not be done - and they were being very charitable if they said only that. There were jokes that circulated on email citing possible contraptions - all deriding the idea itself. And then there was speculation - that it could be a quadricycle; it could be an autorickshaw with doors or that it would have curtains for doors. And these were the more gentler ones. There were many vicious stories too.

Here is a Ratan Tata quote from an early article that I found on the web, "They are still saying it can't be done," (Ratan Tata) he says, insisting that it can and will. "Everybody is talking of small cars as $5,000 or $7,000. After we get done with it, there will hopefully be a new definition of 'low-cost.'"

Needless to say, it did sound like an impossible target. The cheapest car that was available then, in India, was the Maruti 800 for a little over 2 lakh rupees and then again, it had long since fallen out of favour of urban audiences. And as for the world, there was no comparison. A car at USD 2500 - they sneered?

And then the car was launched in 2008 defying all conventional notions. The car was a regular looking car alright, but it had some "pathbreaking" ideas. Like the size of the engine - which was a tiny 623 cc. The positioning of the engine - rear engine - not tried for a long time in cars. The tyres were different sized - when was the last time you heard that in a mass market car? And its maximum speed was low - when was the last time you touched over 100 km/h in the city anyway? And quite a few others, not really pertinent to the point of this article.

And the test rides when they happened were encouraging too. The car was a performer, it was not an also ran. It could take in 4 adults and the car still vroomed along happily.

And then the opposition started at a different level. Cheap cars will pollute - they said - ignoring the fact that it is the most fuel efficient vehicle in the market. It is not safe they said and the car cleared the Indian crash test specifications. And then rival manufacturers kept up the tempo saying that it cannot be done. Another manufacturer unveiled their own plans for 5 years later. And a few did congratulate TATA for their effort.

And now, suddenly consultancies and journals alike are heralding the fact that there is, infact, space for a car like that all over the world. Guess where this fact was hiding so far. No prizes for guessing how many me-too brands will come about. And of course, India is now known as, apart from the land of snake charmers and elephants and laptop warriors, India is the land of the Nano.

Now of course, the latest tune is that a car like this sold under USD 2500 can never be sold in the US. Well, we will see...

The point being, that a car like this would have never seen the light of the day if the TATA team had listened to these naysayers. Indeed, if Ratan Tata had not stood by his team with his steadfast commitment and his team backed it with excellent delivery. Both very important components - one cannot exist without the other.

The Nano is one example, but you will find examples of this all around you. The Indian IT industry for example, was a non existent industry nearly 15 years ago. As was technology offshoring. The oft quoted iPod and iPhone example falls in the same category, but almost every remarkable business has come about because of a remarkable idea. Think online booking of train tickets or selling air tickets in petrol bunks. Or Netbooks or the Google cloud. Or the Golden Quadrilateral highways project in India. What is common to all of them? Breakthrough thinking.

As you go through your work life, if you have the chance to work on a Nano grab it with both hands, but believe me, it will not be apparent that you are working on a project like that since there will be so much opposition, so much resistance, that you would want to give up, run away, hide or even quit. There will be suppliers who will tell you it cannot be done, there will be employees who will revolt, there will be departments who will alert you on the risks and costs involved. And each time you fall or come close to failure, there will be many by the wayside telling you, "I told you so." But the lessons that you learn by working on a project like this, cannot be taught in any b-school anywhere, much less in an article like this. At other times, you might find yourself on a committee that is called to "evaluate" a radical idea. Think about whose side you will take - Ratan Tatas or the politician who ensured that his plant was shut.

And here is where the leaders vision sees you through. Regardless of whether you an MBA or not, as you go through your career, regardless of whether you are a leader or a contributor in a project, there will be situations where you cannot see a way out or where fresh thinking is required to get people out of the rut. And everybody will tell you it cannot be done. That's where you step in. You add value as a leader or you see your leader add value.

It is important not to let go of that vision. And who says it will be easy.

There is space for unconventional thinking at every place. Perhaps it is a function of time. Indeed, the world was once deemed to be flat and it was unconventional to think that the world was round, but today we know. It takes unconventional thinking to make something unconventional, conventional. (See the reports that say that there is space for a small car all over the world.)

The Nano and its story is a typical example of a "project" that breaks conventional norms or threatens to change the status quo. The opposition, the naysayers, the devils advocates and the "play safe" experts. And you will see it again and again. I only hope you are among the 'doers' and not on the other side. And of course, a Nano can never happen by "committee", it has to come out of one persons vision...

(An edited version of this piece was published in Advancedge - September 09)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Disappearing concepts, India edition

Inspired by Scott Adams, Disappearing concepts, India edition.

Of course these are concepts which are best "disappeared".

  • Pass book - that infernal book that had to be updated after every deposit or withdrawal from the bank.
  • Radio and TV Licence - yes, we did have something on those lines.
  • TV antenna - which you had to go the terrace and adjust each time a crow sat on it or a kite entangled on it or in case there was anything stronger than a mild breeze.
  • Demand draft - this infernal thing still remains in existence, but it has been ages since I made one, so I am not sure if the procedure to get one remains as customer unfriendly as ever. Hopefully electronic transfer will replace it soon...
  • Bill payment - as Scott Adams mentions - thankfully most of it is online. I hated the time I had to stand in the queue to pay the electricity bill in some designated time and place (the ones nowadays pretty much are 24 hour ones).
  • Railway ticket booking - my dad used to sleep over in a railway station so that we could travel during our summer vacations. Thankfully - considering the speed at which the railways run their trains has not changed for 50 years the technology to book was changed by some farsighted individual and I am sure he will get brownie points of many of us - their online option works very well. And almost all other travel operators are available online too. No queues, no influence. Now can we stop using the tracks as the worlds largest network of lavatories?
  • Waiting, waiting, waiting - 5 years for a telephone line, 1 year for a gas connection.

What more concepts do you think have disappeared? Also, I will compile a list of concepts that exist and need to disappear.

Tej, slowly

Smart thinking by Nokia here.

As anybody who is following the Indian market would be aware, smartphones are still some distance away from reaching 'mainstream'. We are still miles away from 3G, spotless coverage and of course, products and services. And Nokia has a large percentage of the Indian market with it. And the way to go is to tap the market that needs to use the cellphone to the best of its abilities despite spotty networks, despite call drops. Tej is an order management software - but its application will spawn almost anything that requires distribution reach.

I think that the learnings from Tej will go into the other more advanced markets - this is a learning that Apple cannot have (well, it may or may not care) - resulting in some good stuff...

The second (both from the same source) was about how mobile phones are helping farmers. The app is a smart app and not a true app in the sense we are used to thinking about it - these are built in into phones (more about this some other time). Now, remember that there are many initiatives helping farmers - ITC e-choupal is one - Mahindra has a similar project if I am not mistaken. I just wish that the government too thinks along these lines of freeing up information and making information democratic in the hands of farmers and others in the rural areas instead of doles and subsidies.

Aside, I think one of the new election promises we are going to see soon is a free mobile phone for every BPL family or some such...(and Niti thinks that rural India is the next telco battleground - yes, perhaps this is a first weapon).