Sunday, August 29, 2010

Zen Buddhism and the art of patience

You may have heard of the 100 km traffic jam in Beijing where traffic moved at 1 km a day - that's right a day; not an hour. This post is a learned treatise on handling exactly such a situation.

There's no point cursing or wailing. It won't get you any further than 1 km a day. No point abandoning your automobile to come and get it another time - whenever you get it you still can only do 1km a day. You have to turn to India for advice; for Indians love to spend half their waking lives absolutely stationary on the road.

The first thing you need to do is to climb your car over the divider (yes, that's possible) and drive at 100 kmph on the opposite side of the road. Since you can absolutely rely on 5000 other people doing the same, you will progress 1 km and then come to a screeching halt. You can also  confidently rely on the fact that people stuck in the opposite direction would have also done the same and therefore the street now has the proper order of two armies facing each other on both sides of the road. The natural order of things has been restored.

Having done this, you can now start a musical extravaganza by honking to your heart's content. Since everybody has fitted his vehicle with musical horns, the resultant cacophony has some solid claim to be labeled a philharmonic orchestra. The logic of such a comparison is that there is no discernible difference in terms of output, but we shall let that pass.

Having satisfied your musical sensibilities, you can now amuse yourself by trying to outdo the laws of physics. Some long forgotten physicist defined mass and such other concepts long ago. It is said that  only one object can occupy a given unit of space at one point in time. That physical law, that is valid throughout the entire universe, has been unable to exercise its influence on India. On the road; more than one vehicle can occupy a given spot at the same time. Indians have achieved this feat in their unyielding quest to perfect the tightest traffic jam in the world.

After satisfying your aural sensibilities and having altered the laws of physics, you can now turn to matters gastronomical. It is widely known that Indians in general, and the feminine species of that nation in particular, are , to put it kindly, dimensioned rather generously. This has been achieved by rigorous adherence to the philosophy that not even a nanometer of space should be left empty, either on the road or in the gastro-intestinal system. In order to ensure this, there is a veritable treasure trove of edible material in every vehicle that does little to nutrition but everything to the generous dimensions alluded to earlier.  They say love thy neighbour : so the same neighbouring car , whose occupants' maternal antecedents were commented upon adversely, just a while ago, are invited to partake in this national contribution to appropriate girth.  Such  activity can positively occupy the sensibilities for a fair length of time.

Having exhausted aural, neural and oral capabilities, we can turn to giving some rest to all the faculties. This is easier to achieve as the ample posterior that goes with generous dimensions has a pillowing effect that induces somnolence. Accompanying snores that rend the air has a rather calming effect. General peace prevails.

Having adequately recharged one's capabilities, we can now turn to , ahem, certain biological functions. It has  been adequately proved that the presence of fresh air and an automobile tyre,  in close proximity, rather enhances the experience. This matter, having satisfactorily attended to, we can now turn to the task of navigating the 1km ration in the day. Having achieved that miracle, we can start all over again. 

Blessed are the Indian roads and their illustrious occupants. Amen.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Two gems from the archives of Indian television

Once upon a time, long long ago, before gils was born, there was a time when there was only a single TV channel in India. Of course , it was government controlled - Doordarshan was the only channel and those who want to experience that torture can tune in to CCTV today. The powers that be in Doordarshan decreed that prime time viewing must be Krishidarshan (a program on agriculture, for those unfamiliar with the concept). But even in that era there were some gems which evoke nostalgic memories. This post is about one of them.

Apologies to the non Indian readers of this blog - second successive weekend post on a very Indian matter. But then when you search for something for long  and finally find it, you can't help but go a little over the top. I've been looking for this TV clip on the internet for a few years with no success. Finally found it. Yesterday  So the post naturally follows. Promise to desist from purely Indian matters for a while after this.

There was an organisation, now defunct, called the Lok Sanchar Seva Parishad. God knows what it did. But it did produce two masterpieces which were aired regularly on TV in the mid eighties and which people of that vintage will immediately recall. They were supposed to promote national integration, but instead of a boring , yawn inducing homily, they came up with two masterpieces.

The first was called Spread the Light of Freedom. This is what I had been searching long for. Indian sporting legends carrying a torch to lilting music composed by Louis Banks (ignore with a smile the passing resemblance to Vangelis in Chariots of Fire). It was a massive hit and every TV viewer could recite the names of all the sports heroes who featured in that film. Some familiar and some not so. Try and guess who they are - I'll post their names in the comments section after a couple of days.

The second was Mile Sur Mera Tumhara. Same theme of national integration, but a different style. This too was a big hit and you could hear people humming the tune under their breath.

After these two productions, Lok Sanchar Seva Parishad sank without a trace. But they achieved the unique distinction of a government department having made a few hearts beat a little faster. Happy viewing.

Bankrupt Newspapers Leave Employee Unions and Government Corporation Holding the Pension Bills

It has not been a good month for newspaper unions at bankrupt newspaper companies or the government corporation that insures pension funds. As part of their reorganizations, a number of bankrupt newspaper firms are not paying money owed union pensions or are quietly letting the guaranty pick up the tab for retiree costs.

  • Unions of Philadelphia Newspapers LLC (The Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News) were forced to accept 12 cents on the dollar for the $12 million the bankrupt company owned to employee pension plans as part the reorganization plan.
  • The Chicago Sun-Times off-loaded $49.1 million of its underfunded pension obligations for 2300 retirees and employees to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. The paper and it suburban subsidiaries were purchased out of bankruptcy without the new owners assuming the pension obligations.
  • The Dayton News Journal dumped $15.4 million in underfunded pensions payments on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. , which will ensure 1,100 current and former employees receive benefits owed to them. The newspaper and its assets were purchased out of bankruptcy by Halifax Media, but it did not take on the pension liability.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. is a federal corporation designed to protect pensions when company-run pension funds collapse or cannot pay agree benefits.

These types of problems occur when money due for benefits is not paid into pension funds or money is removed from company-run funds by the company. When this occurs companies use the money for other purposes: increasing liquidity, paying bills, giving executive bonuses, etc. However, this creates problems if the company ceases operating or if liabilities of underfunded pension obligations weigh too heavily on the balance sheet.

Existing laws allows employers to take money from company-run funds if they are overfunded, but do not require them to immediately fully fund them when they are underfunded. Overfunding and underfunding, however, are normal conditions caused by fluctuations in stock and bond markets in which pension funds are invested. Because overfunding and underfunding tend to even out over time, companies using the funds like a bank can create problems. Even when pension funds are not run by companies, delays in paying obligations create problems if the company closes or goes into receivership.

Newspapers across the U.S. have carried large stories about pension payment problems at other bankrupt companies, but coverage of the problems at their newspaper colleagues have drawn scant attention.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A touch of madness in California

Californians are the best example of the concept that it is a thin line separating genius from madness.  The genius of Californians is well known. If there is one single place that is deemed to be the most creative in the world, it has to be somewhere in California. Many of the world's greatest inventions originate from there. Maybe its in the water; maybe its in the air, but something makes creativity flourish in California.

It is then a mystery as to why such creative people are adept at scoring own goals. California adopts a particularly virulent form of voter activism. All sorts of ideas are presented to voters in referendums and if passed, have to be observed. A series of such voter passed Propositions have made California virtually ungovernable, at least financially. Witness the annul ritual of theatre in passing of their budget.

In keeping with that tradition, California voters  passed two years ago Proposition 2, designed to create humane standards for farm animals. Laudable objective. Considering that California is well known for tree huggers, this is entirely understandable. We shall pass lightly over the fact that such a law would make Texans double over helplessly in laughter. In keeping with lawmakers' known enthusiasm for pedantry, they have passed laws to state that  egg-laying hens must be able to fully extend their limbs, lie down and turn in a circle within their enclosures.

California's egg producers are scratching their heads in dismay. In keeping with industry's long standing tradition of screaming foul (pun fully intended), they yelled that this was discriminatory and that egg producers from other US states would ruin them. The Governor dutifully signed a law stating that all eggs sold in California, wherever the hens might have laid them,  must be subject to the same rules - hens should be able to flap their wings, etc etc without touching other hens. I know Arnold Schwarznegger is more renowned for his brawn than his brain, but surely did it escape him as to how on earth could he implement this ?

Meanwhile the argument is descending into outright farce. Apparently if you build too big a cage, the hens get frightened and start to huddle together. Then of course they cannot flap their wings without touching each other. So what is an ideal cage. Fertile ground for research and a Phd thesis. More rule making and more law suits. To avoid this, some egg farms thought of making the birds roam free,  with no cages at all . But this causes even more problems. Dominant hens apparently kill weaker hens. And because they are running around in their own $@*&, they catch infection - so antibiotics are needed. That risks violating some other law.

The bird industry is no doubt lobbying furiously, with lobbyists doing good business. Equally so the pressure groups that want humane treatment of animals. They probably employ counter lobbyists. Nice good economic activity all around.

There will be less fun in the world without California. They create iPhones. They also research on hens flapping their wings, turning a full circle and lying down without touching other hens.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Excuse me, Are you Indian ?

India is 63 years old today. Well, India is several millennia old, but also only 63 years young. It is Independence Day for India the country, as it exists today. Bits and pieces have gone away – Pakistan, Bangladesh and so on. But a large part came together, as it never had had all through its history. People with different cultures, different languages, different religions, and even with wildly different looks, came together as one nation this day 63 years ago. At midnight on that momentous day, as the Union Flag came down and the Indian tricolor came up, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister made the famous Tryst with Destiny speech. You can even view a small portion of the speech here.
India’s independence heroes came from all parts of the country – as diverse as the land itself. There wasn’t even a common language they could speak in. And yet, they came as Indians, first and foremost. Not as Punjabis or Bengalis or Maharashtrians or Tamilians. But as Indians.
To my mind, that spirit of Indianness is going away. We are reverting back to first being a Punjabi or Bengali or Maharashtrian or Tamilian, before we are Indian. States fight with states on boundary disputes or sharing of river waters. Misguided regional parties taunt “outsiders”. In Kashmir and in the North Eastern States, separatists want to secede altogether. People die demanding creation of a separate sub state. A Central Minister hobnobs with terrorists because that might fetch her the Chief Ministership of a state – to hell with the country as a whole. 
You only have to look at the erstwhile Yugoslavia to see where this madness can lead to.

With some sadness, I searched for people who were Indian, who were seen by the countrymen as Indian and who would be respected across the country as Indian – not narrowly only in their community or state. Here’s my list of seven living Indians who truly unite us as Indians, one symbolically for each decade of independence.Counting down from 7 to 1

7. APJ Abdul Kalam - Former President of India and a brilliant scientist. He stands for the scientific community of whom India has produced many illustrious sons. They are Indian - Abdul Kalam was not a Tamilian scientist.
6. Captain Bana Singh PVC - One of the only 21 Indians to receive the Param Vir Chakra, the highest military decoration, equivalent to the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honour. Bana Singh, the hero of Siachen, so much so that the peak he captured is named after him - Bana Top. He symbolises the Armed Forces a truly Indian institution. Despite the regiments in the Army being local (Sikh Regiment, Gorkha Regiment, etc), they are a national force, perhaps an example for us civilians to follow.

5. Ratan Tata - From the illustrious house of Tatas, standing for the business houses, a truly great Indian. Businesses run pan India and employ Indians. Do we call Ratan Tata a Maharashtrian ??

4. Atal Bihari Vajpayee - The only truly national leader living today. Respected even by his opponents. Power and responsibility came to him late in life - who knows what might have happened if it had come to him when he was at his prime. Indira Gandhi and he were the only ones who could have sold a Kashmir solution to the people of India.

3. Lata Mangeshkar - When she sang, every Indian's heart beat faster. Actually every heart who appreciates Hindi music, Indian or otherwise. Even the terrorists will bow to Lata.

2. Amitabh Bachchan - There can only be one Amitabh. If you walk even today in Egypt and look Indian , shopkeepers will call out to you "Amitabh Bachchan". Such is the appeal of this man. Hindi films has done more to unite India and make non Hindi speaking people take to Hindi than any other aspect of life. And nobody has as universal an appeal everywhere than Amitabh. When Kaun Banega Crorepati  (a wildly popular Indian TV program) ruled the waves, India came to a halt , even in households that spoke not a word of Hindi. Such is the magnetism, and Indianness, of this man.

1. Sachin Tendulkar - He has to be numero uno. Every Indian identifies with him. Its easy for sport to unite a country, but cricket does this to India in a very special way. Everybody rejoices when Tendulkar shines, everybody groans when he gets out. The nation holds its breath when he bats. Everybody rises as one  to applaud when he scores a century. To everybody in the land, he is the quintessential hero. He is truly Indian.

We, the post independence generation, must recapture the spirit in which freedom was won.  As Indians and for India. Indians first and everything else next.

Yes, I know, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson famously said. But I prefer patriotism any day to parochialism.

Friday, August 13, 2010

To err is human; forgiveness is not an option

You may have followed the drama of Mark Hurd's exit as the CEO of HP; if you haven't, here's a good summary of what happened.

Hurd was very successful  at least in Wall Street's eyes, as HP's boss. All numbers, by which Wall Street judges companies were up and markets loved Hurd after the seemingly chaotic Carly Fiorina. But its rumoured that Hurd was despised by many of HP's employees, not least because while he was cutting costs brutally, he was awarded an annual compensation in the range of $50m. HP seems to be lurching from one disaster to another. After all the drama of the Compaq acquisition and the public ouster of Fiorina, sometime ago a scandal broke out over the investigation of press leaks from insiders that  led to the ouster of the then Chairman Patricia Dunn. Now Hurd is gone in another messy saga.

But this post is not about HP. Its about how even very smart people do very silly mistakes.Harvard Business Publishing carried this very good article of what makes people do such things. The amounts involved in Hurd's expenses fudging are sums like $ 20,000. He earned more than $ 50m. Why did he have to claim such petty amounts ?

We all make mistakes. We are, after all, human. Its so so hard to keep up to high standards of integrity. If you caught every person whose expense statements fell short of the highest standards of integrity, you probably won't have a single employee standing. But its incumbent on us, as professionals, to strain every sinew, to try the utmost. The biggest danger often comes if the amount is small. Its tempting to think that its only a small amount, so it must be OK. Think of the personal call made from the company's telephone. Think of the use of the company car to drop in to see a friend. Think of the lunches or dinners which are expensed, but in which no business is done. Think of the times a secretary is asked to do something personal. I could go on and on.

I've often felt that its the small things that matter. Most of us would not commit a big sin. Either we are scared, or our sense of right and wrong preclude us from doing so. But we let our guard down when it comes to small things. I submit that the guard should be much stronger precisely for small things. Its those that show the flaws in character and integrity.

In the business world, to err is human. To understand may be possible. Forgiveness is not an option.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Get well soon Brenda Barnes

The news came out yesterday that Brenda Barnes was stepping down as Chairman and CEO of Sara Lee. She's stepping down on medical grounds; she had suffered a stroke in May. May we wish her a speedy recovery.

I had posted sometime ago on The "Different" Brenda Barnes. She's a great role model for women who take a career break to raise children and come back successfully to top management. She's one of the best examples of women juggling career and home in a balanced way. Many successful career women choose to focus almost exclusively on their career. Brenda Barnes is different. She stepped off and stepped back again. Successfully.

Her stint at Sara Lee was a mixed bag. She restructured the company and focused it as a foods company, selling of bits and pieces. She certainly  developed a strong management team - the interim CEO is a person some readers of this blog will recognise from past association. But shareholders did not see success in the share price. Nevertheless her tenure was a successful one.

We don't know the details of her medical condition and we should, of course, respect her privacy. I just hope this was not caused by the difficult demands of juggling work and home. She may herself not want to be described as a role model for women, but at least in my mind, she is. From what little I know, I have admired her ability to be so successful after taking a career break to raise her family. But were the demands too much on her ??

Click here to read her letter to Sara Lee employees.

Whatever be the circumstances, we can only wish her well and a very speedy recovery. May she quickly bounce back to the Brenda Barnes of  old.

Meanwhile, to all ye women, who are doing the incredibly difficult juggling act. A salute, but just take care yourself . OK ?  Not meaning to scare anybody, but please take care.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Entrepreneurship Traits

Comparisons between China and India are sure to provoke a yawn . Its an overwritten about topic . However, when I saw a report in the Wall Street Journal comparing the Indian and Chinese entrepreneur, I could not, but help, write a post. The report says both sets of entrepreneurs are extremely bullish about the future. Both don't think the recession has not really affected their future prospects. Both believe their lives will be dramatically improved in the years to come. All very good. Everybody knows that optimism is in short supply in the West and in excess in the East.

The differences are also predictable. Indian entrepreneurs start out to "be their own boss". Chinese entrepreneurs start out to make money. Indians seem to be motivated to go down this route by the family and by role models. Chinese seem to be motivated by the government. Indians rely more on family financing or known investors. Chinese rely more on banks. Indians seem to rely on creativity to launch a business idea. Chinese seem to rely more on a market opportunity. A key word for success for Indians is "jugaad" - finding a way through the maze of restrictions and controls. The key word for Chinese is "guanxi" - connections with the powerful, mainly in the government.

That's what the study says. Let me add a little more, entirely unscientific and based only on personal observations. 

Some commonalities. Both will work extremely hard. Incredibly hard, beyond your imagination. Both will cut corners to succeed. Both will "exploit" labour, if they can. Both will take higher risks  than others would. Both believe in themselves; there's no such thing as "can't do". Both of them have an innate sense of superiority over all others, although they may not express it openly (the gora and the laowai are both meant to be taken for a ride, if possible).

And some differences. Indians have a bias towards trading and services. Chinese have a bias towards manufacturing. Indians are more likely to try something overseas; Chinese are more likely to try domestic. Except at the top end, Indians are wary of scale. Chinese are more likely to think bigger.  Indians tend to stick on and persevere even when faced with a dud. The Chinese is more likely to drop something that doesn't work and try something else. Indians are more likely than the Chinese to go to the capital market for listing. 

Both are fascinating people. May their tribes increase and may they wildly succeed. For both are responsible, more than they are given credit for, for the advancement their nations have made. For improving the standard of living of so many people. They deserve a wild round of applause.

PS : In this post I had unwittingly plagiarised somebody else's work. I have taken down those references and I deeply apologise.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Boy that timeberwolf was one ectoplasm deal

Political correctness has seeped into every facet of life. Witness Goldman Sachs's recent policy banning profanity from emails. Fair enough - it seems reasonable that employees should not using four letter expletives in formal communication. But then where does normal venting of spleen end and profanity start ? Apparently asterisks aren't allowed too. You can't say s@#*. You can't use popular abbreviations such as WTF. Where will this end ? I know where it will end. There will be a Chief Language Officer appointed !

Goldman's reaction is perfectly understandable. In Senate hearings (now commonplace risks for any company), the famous email from Thomas Muntag has been oft quoted  "Boy, that timberwolf was one s___ deal" - now you can understand the title of this post, can't you. This innocuous email has come to haunt the company as pompous and self righteous senators (whose vocabulary of four letter words is no less fearsome) have used it to portray the company as a big bad wolf.

Sure, anybody must be careful if what he puts on an email. Surprisingly, we often write something in an email that we would never dare to say in someone's face. Email provides a false sense of anonymity that leads people to drop their normal caution. Hence the golden rules - never send an email in anger. If you are provoked to send a stinging response, save it in drafts and think about sending it tomorrow. Remember that every email is stored on the company's servers even if you have deleted it from your mailbox. Consider what would happen if your email were published in the front page of the newspaper - would you be mortified at your language or not ?

But policing language seems a bad idea. Social relationships ensure that people would find their own acceptable language. What is profanity in one culture is perfectly acceptable in another. People who use offensive or vulgar language will be  automatically restrained or shunned by their colleagues. It would be better to leave the policy as bad language would be unacceptable and leave the group to determine what is good and bad.

Our respected brethren at Goldman Sachs may be interested to know that their dilemma is not new. It came to one Georges Remi, a Belgian. He was wanting to create a series for children in which one character was a colourful sea captain who was prone to swearing at the drop of a hat. But then, how could you get swearing into a children's series. Remi solved it in a very original way. Thus came the series of mighty oaths that have entertained  millions of us. Billions of blue blistering barnacles, ten thousand thundering typhoons, troglodyte, sea gherkin, blundering bazookas and the like.

Goldman Sachs employees can now send the email - Boy, that timberwolf was one ectoplasm deal. Its officially allowed.