Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

A Summer of Travel

Abhishek’s vacation ends soon, and we are now on to our last travel, after Surat, China (HK, Shenzhen, Shanghai) and Chennai. This time, it is a 3-day visit once again to the Jain temples in Palitana. We will be going by train, like we did last year. It is a 13-hour train journey, and one I am looking forward to once again.

Train journeys have a charm of their own and with Abhishek also starting to like them, we have been making some plans of our own. One of the ideas I have given him is to go by Rajdhani to Delhi in either December or during his mid-term break next March.And then when he is older, to do the coast-to-coast train ride in the US.

Given that Abhishe’s school follows the IGCSE system, the vacations are in June and July. Having been used to vacations from mid-April to early-June while I was growing up, it will take some time getting used to this new vacation schedule!

A Nation Adrift

I cannot but help think that we in India don’t have a clue how to solve the big challenges that we face. Whether it is getting 500 million out of extreme poverty or dealing with Naxalism or handling our neighbours (Pakistan and China) or even something seemingly simple as dealing with errant Ministers at the Centre, the belief seems to be that problems will solve themselves if we left them alone.

At a time when India needs leadership of the highest order, we are getting silence and seeing weakness. At a time when India needs big vision and rapid execution, we are getting inaction and petty thinking.

It is because We, the People of Middle India, have seceded and created our own mini-worlds that we inhabit, unconcerned about what is happening around. Some day soon, we will realise that this is the biggest mistake made by one of the largest collectives in the world.

Three Thrillers

In the past few weeks, I have read three thrillers on my Kindle that I have liked:

  • Foreign Influence, by Brad Thor
  • Rules of Betrayal, by Christopher  Reich
  • The Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva

I have read previous books by all the three authors, so was looking forward to their new ones. And I was not disappointed by any of the three. I read one of them through a lazy, rainy Sunday sitting at home — something that I hadn’t done for a long time.

A Refreshing Change at Mumbai Airport

In the end, it was a simple rule that has transformed departures at Mumbai airport. Airlines have been asked to shutdown check-in counters 40 minutes before the scheduled departure time, and have the engines ready 15 minutes prior. If they miss their departure slot, they are sent to the end of the queue. Within a few days, most departures are now taking place on time. I myself experienced this on Saturday morning.

Compare this to earlier when aircraft would queue up and take 30+ minutes to take-off.  Someone thought about the problem and solved it. We need more such people in India.

Now, if we could only fix some other issues with the airport. First, we need to reclaim the land that bas been lost to squatters so one more runway can be built. The two X-shaped runways limit the handling capacity. Second, landing still means 30+ minutes of hovering time – how can this change? Finally, Mumbai needs a new airport and for this a decision needs to be made now. It has been stuck for many long years.

Madras Cafe

One of the best places for South Indian food that I have come across in Mumbai is Madras Cafe at King’s Circle in Matunga.  It is a little far for us to go, but we go there once in a while with friends. There is invariably a queue so expect some waiting time at peak hours.

The taste is amazing, and the lightness of South Indian food can ensure that one could eat and eat and eat! Don’t get dissuaded by the simple setting – that’s part of the charm.

Blog Past: Writing

In early August, it will be two years since I re-started the blog after a short gap. Since then, I have made it a habit to post something new daily. Here is what I wrote a couple years ago on “Writing”:

One thing I do like is writing. The writing habit started when I was in college, from what I can remember. I started keeping a daily diary. It continued through IIT and then for much of my time in the US – though by then, I had stopped writing daily and made it occasional. I wrote for myself. I rarely read what I wrote after writing it. Writing gave me a way to think clearly and even arrive at decisions, when I needed to.

Over the past 15 or so years, I have a habit of keeping a book wherein I make notes. I also write a Diary page every so often – a more personal note, emptying what the mind is thinking. For some of the past few years, the blog helped refine my thinking on technology and entrepreneurship, opening up new worlds of ideas. And then, inexplicably, I stopped. And almost as inexplicably, I have restarted again!

The best blogs are the voices of single individuals – right from the head and heart. In my case, it is the same raw emotion that I want to keep sharing. And as I write on my blog, I have realised how much I love writing. I hope this time around it continues – daily, and forever.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The Top Idea in Your Mind: by Paul Graham. “It’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.”
  • Estimating Lifetime Value: by Jeremy Liew. “You actually see a full customer lifetime, which can help in accelerating decisions about marketing and customer acquisition.”
  • How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen. “On the last day of class, I ask my students to turn those theoretical lenses on themselves, to find cogent answers to three questions: First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?”
  • New Cities for Old: by R Jagannathan in DNA. “Creating new cities is easier than renewing existing ones for commonsense reasons. One, its costlier to construct infrastructure in overpopulated areas. Two, it will also take longer.”
  • India’s Gandhi God-Kings: by Sadanand Dhume in The Wall Street Journal. “Opaque family rule is no way to run a political party, let alone a major economy and aspiring great power.”

Shadow Cabinet

I have been thinking about this idea for some time. The most recent trigger came in an Economic Times op-ed I read a few days ago arguing for an Indian shadow cabinet – like they have in the UK. I think it is a great idea, but I don’t think the Opposition in India will do it.

Given that the Opposition in India (the BJP and the Left) have basically become the Parties of No, there is a need for constructive Opposition where proper alternatives are placed, with the No. That will only happen if there are people who effectively ‘shadow’ the various government portfolios.

India needs an alternative set of policy ideas from the many that are being pursued by the Congress-led UPA government. Can we come up with “India’s Best Opposition” and use the Net to start a discussion on these ideas?

Antiquated Duty-Free Baggage Allowance Limits

When we landed back in Mumbai, one of our checked-in bags was missing. (It arrived the next day – had gotten missed out in the transfer at Hong Kong airport from Shanghai.) As we went through the process of filling out the forms for its customs clearance, I became aware of the fact that as Indians arriving from China, our duty-free allowance was – hold your breath – Rs 6,000 ($130) per person.

In today’s day and age, why have such ridiculous limits? Why force people to lie their way through? Why make me give answers like “Oh, I think we only spent Rs 10,000 on the stuff we got in these bags, and the bag that’s coming tomorrow has about Rs 1,000 worth of stuff.”

The only objective of such limits seems to be to assist people at Customs supplement their incomes. How does one get these limits increased to sensible levels – or even removed?

How China’s Leaders Think

That is the title of a book by Robert Kuhn I saw and bought at Hong Kong Airport. It is a book that should be read by us in India, and especially those in power in India. Here is an brief about the book:

China impacts everyone—an economic superpower competing in every arena of human endeavor. Here are those who run China, its current and future leaders. Here’s how China’s leaders think about China’s growing global strength—in trade, business and finance; in diplomacy, defense and security; in science, technology and innovation; in culture, media and sports—and what this all means for the future of the world. Here also are China’s leaders in economics, private business, state-owned enterprises, banking, foreign affairs, military, healthcare, religion, film, television, press, Internet, literature, ideology, and more.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with over 100 Chinese leaders and has inner access to Communist Party officials and material. He focuses on President Hu Jintao’s philosophies and policies, and looks to the next generation of China’s leaders. Who are China’s future leaders? What are they doing today? What’s their way of thinking about China’s place in the world? What about prospects for democracy and political reform? Is there a road map for political reform?

Political leadership and policies make the difference in outcomes on how countries develop. In the late 1970s, both India and China were in similar economic brackets. Today, one country has leapt forward – and is on a trajectory to continue growing faster. Reading the book can perhaps help us understand what we in India lack and need to do. Just because we have a growth rate of 8.5-9% again doesn’t mean that we can afford to sit around complacent. There’s more to be done at every level- and quickly.

Better City, Better Life

That is the slogan one can see all across Shanghai. Efforts are on to make cities greener and much better in every aspect. China has been building new cities at a frenetic pace over the past 10-20 years. India has done little on that front.India needs to start looking at life in its cities. Delhi has gotten a lot of money thanks to the Commonwealth Games. But most other cities languish. Urbanisation is inevitable – and it is something which has to be encouraged.

In the next 10-odd years, the number of people living in urban areas in India is likely to double. What is the quality of life we are going to have if we are not going to start thinking of upgrading our infrastructure and creating dozens of new cities from scratch across the country?

China Impressions

Seeing Shenzhen and Shanghai, all I can say is that anyone who thinks that Mumbai can become a Shanghai or India can do a China has not visited China. Sitting here in Mumbai, we can imagine and dream. But going to the places, one is struck by the scale of what has been created in so short a time.

Two developments said it all in India while I was away. A Bandh was organised across India bringing the nation to a halt. The additional sea links that should have been built a generation ago in Mumbai were further delayed.

A friend I was talking to put it so well: “We build for yesterday, China builds for tomorrow.” In India, there is little semblance of any planning; we are always playing catch up. Three decades ago, India and China were equally behind in the development race. Today, one country has gone so far ahead, and the other still trundles along – a little faster than before, but not in the race.

Tomorrow: Better City, Better Life

Blog Past: An Open VAS Platform

A post from a year ago:

In India, the only workable way to do the “subscriber pays” model is to work with the mobile operators. Revenue shares of what the user pays are heavily loaded in favour of the operator, who tend to keep more than 70% of what the user pays. Also, the lack of an “open platform” (where any content or service provider can offer a service to an operator’s subscriber base) has limited the aggregate number of services and left users  largely with a range of operator-defined SMS subscription services, voice portals at Rs 6 a minute for access, CRBT (caller ring-back tones), and other downloads (ringtones, wallpapers, games).

Imagine now if a mobile operator can change the game by offerings its microbilling platform to anyone who wants to launch a service and offering a 60% or more revenue share of what the end user pays. The operator can also use its own portal to help in discovery of the off-deck services. Such an initiative will get the entire software and content community excited and spur a lot of services – similar to what happened in Japan when NTT Docomo launched i-mode in 1999.

These innovative services are what will attract users to the mobile operator, in turn bringing more service providers. This is what has happened with the iPhone Appstore. And it is an initiative that existing mobile operators will not match for a long time since they will seek to protect their existing VAS revenue streams.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • What it takes to be a top 100 website: from Royal Pingdom. “…at least 22 million visitors per month.”
  • On Google and Valuation Multiples: by Bill Gurley. “…if its not growth, competitive position, or execution, what is the shortcoming that hurts Google’s valuation?”
  • The Velluvial Matrix: by Atul Gawande from The New Yorker. “You never stop wondering if there is a velluvial matrix you should know about.”
  • The Medium is the Message: by David Brooks from The New York Times. “The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students”
  • Comparing Urbanization in India and China: from McKinsey Quarterly. “China and India are both urbanizing rapidly, but China has embraced and shaped the process, while India is still waking up to its urban realities and opportunities.”

Time with Abhishek

For me, one of the best things about the vacation was the time I got to spend with Abhishek. At 5 years and 3 months, he is now at an age where one can have interesting conversations. He is much more mature and independent than a year ago during the London vacation. He has a nice sense of humour – especially when he and Bhavana are ganging up against me!

He is full of questions. I patiently answer everything he asks. That’s how it has always been. And through the answers and his own thinking, he learns. At times, the questions do get repetitive, but I still answer each one of them. There is rarely a dull moment with him.

Besides the outdoors, there were two indoor activities that Abhishek did during the vacation. The first was playing Uno. I had just packed a set of cards before we left, and that turned out to be a smart decision. We had a lot of fun playing the game – with him threatening to show his ‘kamaal’ in every game! The second was playing with his trans, buses and taxis. He had taken a bag full of his vehicles – to which he added a few more during the trip. The hotel room became the roads and tracks as he created his own imaginary worlds.

A vacation like this creates memories that one can treasure for a long time.

Monday: China Impressions

Shanghai

In Shanghai, we stayed in Pudong. I had walked through Pudong during my visit about ten years ago, and there were parts of it still under construction. Since then, Pudong has been built up with plenty of skyscrapers and large roads. Again, a new city created in just about a decade.

We visited World Expo. That was perhaps the only disappointment of the trip. The queues to see the country pavilions were incredibly long – Bhavana waited over two hours to see the Korea one. And there wasn’t much to see either. We walked around and saw stuff from the outside.

The next day, saw us in Puxi, the older part of Shanghai across the river. We walked on Fuzhou and Nanjing Streets for much of the day. The eastern part Nanjing Street is pedestrians-only, and full of life with all sorts of activity on the street.

The Hunagpu river adds a wonderful dimension to the city. We took a nice long walk in the evening on the promenade on the Pudong side.

Tomorrow: Time with Abhishek

Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a short hop away from Hong Kong. I had been there four-and-a-half years ago, for a business meeting. I didn’t see much of the place then. This time around, we actually went around the city. To think that this whole place has been created in the past couple decades is quite astonishing.

We went to “Window of the World.” The famed Chinese expertise of replication has been applied amazingly well here with about a hundred-odd famous sites re-created in a somewhat miniature format (though the Eiffel Tower replica seemed to be at scale). India’s Taj Mahal is also there.

We also take a high-speed train ride from Shenzhen to Guangzhao, and back. I was keen to experience the CHR. It covered the 147 kms in 66 minutes, with a top speed of 200 kms/hour and 3 2-minute stops en route. There is a display in the compartment which shows the speed. It was fast and smooth.

Tomorrow: Shanghai

Hong Kong

The first day in Hong Kong was laced with heavy rains. So, we ended up staying mostly indoors in the hotel in Kowloon. We were also tired after the overnight journey. The one place we visited was the Toys r Us in Harbour City Mall, much to the delight of Abhishek.

Day 2 was Disneyland, and Day 3 was Ocean Park. The heat ensured that we spent just under four hours at both of the places. Disneyland was for me the more enjoyable one. I have visited the ones in the US. This one is much smaller, though there is construction happening to expand it.

My favourite ride is the “It’s a Small Small World” – there is something wonderful about the song and the boat making its way through the regions of the world. I took Abhishek on the “Space Mountain” and that did shake both of us up!

Ocean Park was somewhat disappointing, though Abhishek liked it for some of the games and the extraordinarily long cable car ride.

Tomorrow: Shenzhen

China Vacation

This year’s vacation was in China – Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Shanghai. Our vacations are quite active ones – walking, seeing places, a bit of shopping, and meeting friends. Vacations tend to be short (10 days or less), since we get homesick!

We picked China’s three destinations because they were closer to home than say Europe or America. It had been many years since I visited Shanghai, so I was keen to see it again. There was a mix of the known (Hong Kong) and the unknown (Shenzhen and Shanghai). Singapore was out because we had been there two years ago.

For me, the vacation was also about spending time with Abhishek. I don’t get much time on weekdays, and a nice extended period of time with just us was what I was looking forward to. As it turned out, that for me was the best part of the vacation.

Tomorrow: Hong Kong