Blog Past: China Impressions

From a post a year ago (after a trip to China):

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.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Evolution of MVAS in India: A presentation by Analysis Mason.
  • Africa’s mobile economic revolution: from The Guardian. “The power of telephony is forging a new enterprise culture, from banking to agriculture to healthcare.”
  • India’s half-finished revolution: from The Economist. “India’s liberalisation began with a bang in 1991, but two decades on the unreformed parts of the economy are becoming a drag on growth. Time for another bang.”
  • India learns to innovate: by Rajeev Mantri. “India has always failed to achieve its potential when it comes to commercializing technology, but with the return of talent from abroad and the emergence of a large domestic market, it now has momentum.”
  • News Redux: by Andy Rutledge. “Almost all news organizations have abandoned reporting in favor of editorial; have cultivated reader opinion in place of responsibility; and have traded ethical standards for misdirection and whatever consensus defines as forgivable.”

Good Books: The Information by James Gleick

I still remember reading James Gleick’s Chaos a long, long time ago. It was beautifully written and simplified a complex subject. Now, Gleick takes what is a seemingly simple topic – information – and weaves a wide array of stories around it. We are all flooded with information, and have a hard time keeping up and sometimes, making sense of it all. The book is about the people from the past who made our information world the way it is.

From Publisher’s Weekly: “In 1948, Bell Laboratories announced the invention of the electronic semiconductor and its revolutionary ability to do anything a vacuum tube could do but more efficiently. While the revolution in communications was taking these steps, Bell Labs scientist Claude Shannon helped to write a monograph for them, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, in which he coined the word bit to name a fundamental unit of computer information. As bestselling author Gleick (Chaos) astutely argues, Shannon’s neologism profoundly changed our view of the world; his brilliant work introduced us to the notion that a tiny piece of hardware could transmit messages that contained meaning and that a physical unit, a bit, could measure a quality as elusive as information. Shannon’s story is only one of many in this sprawling history of information. With his brilliant ability to synthesize mounds of details and to tell rich stories, Gleick leads us on a journey from one form of communicating information to another, beginning with African tribes’ use of drums and including along the way scientists like Samuel B. Morse, who invented the telegraph; Norbert Wiener, who developed cybernetics; and Ada Byron, the great Romantic poet’s daughter, who collaborated with Charles Babbage in developing the first mechanical computer. Gleick’s exceptional history of culture concludes that information is indeed the blood, the fuel, and the vital principle on which our world runs.”

Good Books: The Numerati by Stephen Baker

I was drawn to this book by a chapter entitled “The Voter.” I had heard and read bits about how the US political parties would do microtargeting. The science of analysing and targeting voters came alive in this 30-page chapter, and that then encouraged me to sample other chapters in the book. As we are awash in data, analytics is going to play a key role in many industries. This book is a good starting point for starting to think about how to manage and make sense of data.

From Booklist: “Every click we make, every cell phone call, every credit-card purchase enlarges our “digital dossiers,” business journalist Baker explains in this bracing behind-the-screen investigation into the booming world of data mining and analysis. Our digital echoes collect in a vast ocean of data that marketers and government agencies alike are eager to trawl, if only it were charted. Enter the top-notch mathematicians Baker dubs the Numerati. Baker gamely visits eerily high-tech companies and speaks with algorithm wizards intent on quantifying everything we do in all arenas of life in order to mathematically model humanity and manipulate our behavior. Baker’s report on microtargeted marketing, the use of workplace data to “optimize” employees, the scrutiny of online social networks, and the robotic reading of millions of blogs supports his warning that we’re “in danger of becoming data serfs—slaves to the information we produce.” This is a fascinating outing of the hidden yet exploding world of digital surveillance and stealthy intrusions into our decision-making processes as we buy food, make a date, or vote for president.”

Good Books: Two More on India’s Electoral Politics

Two books that I have found particularly useful are:

  • Rethinking State Politics in India by Ashutosh Kumar. This looks at India as a collection of regions. From the book: “This volume adopts a sub-national comparative method for carrying out an in-depth analysis of the politics of identity as well as development in the large, multi-level polity of India by focusing on micro narratives that may otherwise be passed over while viewing the larger picture. The articles focus on regions within states and not the state per se, as the unit of analysis. Interestingly, they employ both intra-state and inter-state regional perspectives in a comparative mode to highlight the nuanced nature of the movements for autonomy.”
  • Electoral Politics in Indian States by Shastri, Suri and Yadav. This fills in the gap between the elections and provides richer data.  From the book: “Using detailed electoral data from the 2004 elections from across the country, the volume covers various states, including Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala from the south; Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, and Rajasthan from the west; Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh in the north; and Jharkhand, West Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Manipur in the east. It examines the phenomenon of the ‘third electoral front’, which came into being with the 1989 elections and continues till date. From its origins in a time of political and economic instability and social upheaval, the front has, by this time, given way to a more stable order, even though the era of single party ruled governments has given way to coalition politics. The book highlights the role of state and regional politics at the center, and how the clout of regional parties has increased over the last ten years.

Admittedly, these are heavy reading. But for those like me who came in late to understanding India’s politics, they are a good start and reference.

Good Books: India’s Elections Series by Sage Publications

I have been going through some books on India’s political landscape, and especially some of the recent elections.

Sage has books on some of the recent elections edited by Paul Wallace and Ramashray Roy.  Since these books are published a year or two after the elections, there is time for some in-depth research and analysis. The 2009 elections book has come out recently. While one may not necessary agree with everything that is said, there are enough good insights to make this a useful addition for those seeking an understanding of India’s electoral politics.

From the book introduction: “According to the contributors, the public outcome of the 2009 elections indicated a demand for integrity, continuity, and competence — values that were considered almost obsolete in today’s political scenario. At the same time, the contributors admit to problems in structure, providing for minority cultures, stability, and contentious public policy issues.”

Good Books: Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

Cities are amazing places to live. I for one have lived almost all my life in two of the biggest of them all – Mumbai and New York. Glaeser’s book celebrates cities and discusses what makes cities different and successful. Given that one of India’s biggest challenges is going to be to create new cities to house people moving away from agriculture to manufacturing in the coming books, this book can offer a lot of good inputs.

A brief from Booklist:  “One thing constantly attracts people to one city rather than another — how much housing construction is permitted. Restrictive places, such as New York City, coastal California, and Paris, have a tight housing supply with prices only the wealthy can afford. Hence, middle-class people move to the suburbs or cities like Houston. Other features of metropolises — their incidences of poverty and crime, traffic congestion, quality of schools, and cultural amenities — also figure in Glaeser’s analysis. Whatever the city under discussion, Mumbai or Woodlands, Texas, Glaeser is discerning and independent; for example, he believes that historic preservation isn’t an unalloyed good and that bigger, denser cities militate against global warming. Thought-provoking material for urban-affairs students.”

Blog Past: Shadow Cabinet

From a blog post a year ago:

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?

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The Post-PC era will be a multi platform era: by Horace Dediu. “The very reasons which are driving developers to spread their bets across all and any new platforms should indicate the potential for new platforms and the sustainability of small platforms. The thesis that one dominant platform wins the mobile “war” is naive.”
  • Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic: by Clay Shirky: “It isn’t newspapers we should be worrying about, but news, and there are many more ways of getting and reporting the news that we haven’t tried than that we have.”
  • Too much information: from The Economist. “Derek Dean and Caroline Webb of McKinsey urge businesses to embrace three principles to deal with data overload: find time to focus, filter out noise and forget about work when you can.”
  • You are the Ad: from Technology Review. “Facebook has emerged from a privacy scandal to become online advertising’s next great hope. Its goal: turning us all into marketers.”
  • India’s society, China’s state: by Ashok Malik. “India and China can learn from each other’s models. China needs to consider political liberalisation. India needs to reflect on its governance.”

Good Books: Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

This new book was recommended to me by a friend at our Book Club meeting recently. It doesn’t necessarily have answers on how to eliminate poverty, but provides a framework on how to go about finding solutions. The authors give results of many experiments and field trials done globally to see how the poor make decisions, which can work as inputs for anti-poverty programmes.

From the description: “Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo have pioneered the use of randomized control trials in development economics. Work based on these principles, supervised by the Poverty Action Lab, is being carried out in dozens of countries. Drawing on this and their 15 years of research from Chile to India, Kenya to Indonesia, they have identified wholly new aspects of the behavior of poor people, their needs, and the way that aid or financial investment can affect their lives. Their work defies certain presumptions: that microfinance is a cure-all, that schooling equals learning, that poverty at the level of 99 cents a day is just a more extreme version of the experience any of us have when our income falls uncomfortably low.This important book illuminates how the poor live, and offers all of us an opportunity to think of a world beyond poverty.”

Also see the website –

Good Books: India: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagariya

One of the best books on India from the economics and development point of view is Arvind Panagariya’s book, published in 2008. It gives a very good account of why India didn’t develop fast enough after Independence, and then the changes through the 1980s and 1990s that accelerated growth. He also gives an excellent account of the reforms carried out by Vajpayee’s NDA government from 1998-2004.

From the book jacket: “Why did the early promise of the Indian economy not materialize and what led to its eventual turnaround? What policy initiatives have been undertaken in the last twenty years and how do they relate to the upward shift in the growth rate? What must be done to push the growth rate to double-digit levels? To answer these crucial questions, Arvind Panagariya offers a brilliant analysis of India’s economy over the last fifty years–from the promising start in the 1950s, to the near debacle of the 1970s (when India came to be regarded as a “basket case”), to the phenomenal about face of the last two decades. The author illuminates the ways that government policies have promoted economic growth (or, in the case of Indira Gandhi’s policies, economic stagnation), and offers insightful discussions of such key topics as poverty and inequality, tax reform, telecommunications (perhaps the single most important success story), agriculture and transportation, and the government’s role in health, education, and sanitation.”

Good Books: How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov

This book by the former world chess champion is a revelation. The writing, the thinking and the stories that pepper the book — they are outstanding. Atanu recommended the book to me. I had never heard of the book until he told me. I don’t know how I missed the book when it was published in 2007.

The book is about strategy and execution, and not much about chess.  You don’t need to know chess to understand and benefit from the book.

For me, there was an added dimension in reading the book. Kasparov moved to a second career in politics to build a better nation. Something for me to also think about!

Good Books: Everything is Obvious by Duncan Watts

This new book by Duncan Watts makes for interesting reading by challenging many of our conventional ideas about common sense. Watt’s previous book, “Six Degrees”, was one I had liked immensely. This book is much more textual and thoughtful, forcing us to think about what we know.

From the book description: “Drawing on the latest scientific research, along with a wealth of historical and contemporary examples, Watts shows how common sense reasoning and history conspire to mislead us into believing that we understand more about the world of human behavior than we do; and in turn, why attempts to predict, manage, or manipulate social and economic systems so often go awry…Only by understanding how and when common sense fails, Watts argues, can we improve how we plan for the future, as well as understand the present—an argument that has important implications in politics, business, and marketing, as well as in science and everyday life.”

Good Books: Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone

This book by William Poundstone came recommended by a friend. I had the author’s earlier book, “Fortune’s Formula,” and had loved it. This book is as good. It discusses various voting systems, and their pros and cons. The book was published in 2008 just around the time of the previous US presidential elections.

Given India’s first-past-the-post system, there are some interesting alternatives that are worth considering — not that they will ever happen!

From a review in the Publisher’s Weekly: “Behind the standard one man-one vote formula lies a labyrinth of bizarre dysfunction, according to this engaging study of the science of voting. America’s system is the least sensible way to vote, argues Poundstone, prone to vote-splitting fiascoes like the 2000 election. Unfortunately, according to the author, a famous impossibility theorem states that no voting procedure can accurately gauge the will of the people without failures and paradoxes. (More optimistically, Poundstone contends that important problems are solved by range voting, in which voters score each candidate independently on a 1–10 scale.)”

Blog Past: A Brainstorming Format

From a post a year ago:

 Brainstorming is very useful to get a set of opinions on different issues from a diverse group. I have tried out this format for getting ideas to bubble up from individuals and groups:

  • Identity 4-5 key questions that needs to be discussed
  • Create a questionnaire which is then given to each individual to answer in about 10 minutes
  • Split people up into groups of 6-7 people at a roundtable. Depending on the number of people, work out the number of groups that will be there (call it N). Go around the room asking each person to sequentially say 1,2,3…N. Group all the people with the same number together. This is important to mix people up.
  • Ask the group to discuss each of the questions based on the individual responses and come up with a common (consensus) answer to each of the questions. This helps draw out the “wisdom of crowds.”
  • One person from each group presents to the wider audience.
  • Collect both the individual answers and the group answers.
  • After this, there can be an open-house (time permitting).

This process helps distill out both individual thinking and the collective view for each of the issues. It also ensures that each person gets an opportunity to talk (at the group-level). A structured discussion is necessary because a free-for-all format can degenerate into chaos very quickly.


Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Kevin Ryan Interview: from WSJ. Kevin runs Gilt Groupe. “Currently valued at $1 billion, the four-year-old business is by some estimates the most valuable U.S. e-commerce company other than Amazon.” See the discussion on the tech bubble in the article.
  • The Google Plus 50: by Chris Brogan. “It sparks my attention from several angles: marketing, technology, community, media, mobile, advertising, and more. To that end, I wrote down 50 things to think about with regards to Google+.”
  • Gujarat: India’s Guangdong: from The Economist. “Gujarat could be a vision of India’s future, in which manufacturing flourishes, soaking up rural labour.”
  • The Weight of Love: from the Indian Express. “Arun Shourie writes about bringing up his son Aditya, afflicted with cerebral palsy for many years now, in his new book, Does He know a mother’s heart? (HarperCollins). Adit’s pain and that of the author’s wife Anita, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, leads him to ask: how can there be extreme suffering if God exists?”
  • Org Charts of Major Tech Companies: Quite hilarious!

Business Standard on Novatium

Business Standard’s “The Strategist” had a story on Novatium a few days ago, entitled “Computing power to every home.” Here is how it begins:

A serial entrepreneur’s vision to drive PC adoption in India promises to bring computing power to every household through the innovative use of cloud computing. Novatium, a computing services company founded by Rajesh Jain in 2004, offers a thin client-based computing solution, which is delivered as a utility service to households and requires very low energy to function. The company has filed 10 patents in the areas of utility-based computing services. Read how the company is making computing affordable for everyone in the concluding part of India Brand Equity Foundation’s series Innovations from India: Harbingers of Change.

Mumbai Again

The shocking thing about the Mumbai blasts last evening is the regularity with which terrorists are able to strike at the heart of life in the city. Innocent bystanders going about their daily life are killed or injured, and will soon become a statistic linked to a date. And we will all wait for the next date with more attacks.

At this moment, we must come together and pray for those who have lost their lives to yet another senseless act. Many families across the city will need help picking up their lives after what happened last night. We must not forget their sacrifice, and ensure it is not in vain. The scourge of terrorism needs to be firmly dealt with and every citizen must feel safe. This is the most basic guarantee that a government needs to be able to provide.

What we unfortunately have is a government that cannot connect the dots in the intelligence, a government that cannot punish the guilty, a government that cannot protect its citizens. A government like this has no business being in power.  This cycle has to be broken. For long, India has been seen as a soft state. Hopefully, some sense will finally dawn in those in power.

A New Mobile Phone: Samsung Galaxy II S

After a couple years of the Nokia E71, I got myself a new mobile – Samsung’s Android phone which sold 3 million worldwide in its first 55 days. It cost Rs 30,500 ($680).

It is a beautiful phone. Quite light, big sharp screen, and quite an intuitive interface. Of course, the Apps are now being downloaded and tried out. I still think the iPhone feels much better from the experience perspective, but Android is now very good. It is a good fight between the two, so the innovations should keep coming.

I intend to keep this as a second phone for some time. With a battery replacement, the Nokia E71 is still quite a reliable talk-and-sms warhorse, and I like its qwerty keypad.

Movie: Delhi Belly

I saw “Delhi Belly” a few days ago. It is a movie which will bring out extreme reactions in people! If one can look past the coarse language (which is quite central to the movie, though somewhat overdone), there are many good things in the movie.

It is in English. It is fast-paced. There is no interval, and the movie is just about 1 hour 40 minutes long. No unnecessary stretching to fill time. The acting is excellent. There are quite a few neat shots of Delhi.

It is good to see such variety coming out of Bollywood, where we are doing something different and not ripping off a Hollywood movie.