Saturday, April 30, 2011

Watch out; Big Brother is watching

Readers of the blog are perhaps too young to have read George Orwell's 1984. Its a fictional novel about a totalitarian future state where every individual is completely monitored and controlled. In fact the term Big Brother, originated in this novel. Well, here's news for you. Big Brother has indeed arrived - just 27 years late.

If you hadn't heard, both Apple and Google are accused of recording and monitoring cellphone locations. Since none of us would move 4 inches from our cellphone henceforth in our lives, surely BB knows where we are and what we are doing. Privacy advocates are up in arms.

I come from a different point of view. Is Google and Apple mad enough to want to be tracking my colourful life. That I leave for office exactly at 8.04 in the morning. That I spend the whole day like an idiot in the office. And that I come straight back home. And then go nowhere else. Leading a totally colourless life.  Earth shattering information.

Take Gils for instance. We don't need Big Brother to tell us that he spends 2 hours one way commuting to his office and that on weekends he is seen at Devikala watching the latest Tamil flick. In between, he is never more than 2 metres from his mother - constantly nagging her for treats from the kitchen. Or take Hopfrog. That he is cooling his heels at home waiting for the snows to melt after which he can be seen somewhere on the PCT - he has very helpfully posted a map of his thru hike route. 

No, I cannot allow  the geeks at Apple and Google discover my highly exciting life. I am therefore going on a drive in a  random direction for an hour - I can imagine BB, puzzling as to what I am upto now. I shall also switch off the mobile now and then to fool them into believing that I am catching flights regularly. I shall download some app or the other than will confuse BB into believing that I am actually located in Ougadougou - if you are wondering where that is, its in Burkina Faso. I shall also pass by some many starred hotels and stand outside the gate, so that BB believes I am fine dining with a gorgeous member of the female species. When Akon lands in town, as he did a week or so ago, I shall lend my phone to a much tattooed, ear pierced, red streaky haired individual of indeterminate sex so that BB thinks I am cool going to such events.

Cut to Steve Jobs and Larry Page, They are presiding over an emergency Board Meeting, convened to debate on what I am upto. Why am I leading such a breathtaking life, when they themselves are not. Their own cell phone tracking is showing that they spend 14 hours at the office and 10 hours at home. How can I be having such fun.  How do I manage to be in Ougadougou and in Marathahalli on the same day. The mystery has to be solved.

Expecting to met an emissary of BB quite soon. Meanwhile I'm off to Toscano,  to lunch with a Prince - I can imagine BB scratching its head wondering what a teetotaler is doing in a wine bar ?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Vanity thy name is Chinese internet company

Why does a Chinese internet company wish to get listed in the US ? I can't fathom the logic. Hence this post.
The Chinese internet landscape is a strange one. Almost every one of the global majors is blocked. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Blogger, you name it and it is blocked. Instead there is a carbon copy of each one of them locally in Chinese. For Google, read Baidu. For Facebook, read Renren, for YouTube read Youku or Tudou, for Twitter read Sina Weibo or the dozens of similar clones. These are the ones that are wildly popular, having millions of users, only in Chinese and therefore almost exclusively used by Chinese. Never mind that these  are all censored , watched, bullied, etc etc by the jīndùn gōngchéng (The Great Firewall). This post is not about that cursed censorship.

These sites are all by entrepreneur led start up companies , similar to the American originals.  And they all want to list and make huge money. Fair enough. But they seem to want to list in the US. Qihoo 360 (an antivirus company) and 21 Vianet (a hosting service provider), recently listed. Renren is next on line. As is Tudou. Why O Why ?

Its fair that you want to list in the market which can give you the highest IPO price. These days valuation of a company rarely depends on where it is listed. You want to list in the market that is most liquid. The Nasdaq is the most liquid market for such companies in the world. But for the size of these companies, there is enough liquidity in virtually any major market. You would list in a place where your major customers are (the reason why Indian software companies are all listed in the US), as this is a significant weapon in a sales pitch. But none of these Chinese companies are targeting the US - Americans are not going to learn Chinese in a hurry.

Consider the downsides. You fall into the dreaded ambit of the Sarbanes Oxley Act, although that tiger is looking rather old and the canine is decaying. You need corporate governance standards that are going to be a real challenge to meet for Chinese companies. You open yourself to requirements of transparency that sit uncomfortably in China. The possibility of getting sued always exists - Renren hasn't even listed and already noise is being created that the prospectus is misleading.

There is the obvious alternative for these companies - Hong Kong. Highly liquid market, excellent valuations to be got, internationally respected, but without the major downsides such as the Sarbanes Oxley Act. And they can speak Chinese in Hong Kong, although the mainlanders scorn at the Hong Kongese attempts at Mandarin.

All this is of course well known to the entrepreneurs - they are brilliant businessmen after all. So why do they then plunge into the US market. I think the answer is Vanity. Perhaps their own as well as the vanity of the Chinese government which would like to quote large numbers of Chinese companies being listed in the US. Vanity stroked by greedy investment bankers, is probably the cause of this bull rush. Its a dangerous substance to introduce into the jungle of business. But then, its always been there and perhaps always will be. After all, businessmen are human beings first.

With due apologies to Shakespeare for plagiarising the title of this post. Although he wrote in Hamlet , Frailty, thy name is woman, in popular usage Vanity is often the attributed womanly quality in the quote. As a parting jab at the multitude (?) of incredibly beautiful women who throng this  space :) perhaps that juxtaposition is not entirely misplaced ! I am taking cover !!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Taxing Times

The season for tax returns is just over in the US. Its just beginning in India. Appropriate time to rave and rant on the nonsensically complex process of making out a tax return. No, I am not a tea party activist (I drink coffee and in any case, I wouldn't be seen dead with that rabble). I am just venting steam ahead of having to sit down and do the damned thing. Thankfully I only have to do an Indian tax return, but that is torture enough.

Everybody knows that the famed Ramamritham absolutely loves Income Tax. Great opportunity for framing fiendish rules and impossibly complicated forms to fill. Just consider the following evidence.

The first problem is to decide what form to fill. There are no less than 8 different forms you can fill. It all depends on whether you are a HUF or a BOI or a AOP. What if you can't figure out what those are and if you figure you are just a human being ??? Not sure - In Ramamritham's lexicon, normal human beings don't exist. 

With delicious irony, he has designed a from called Saral for dullheads like you and me (OK OK, just me). Saral in Hindi means easy.  Never mind that the form appears to be intelligible only to a rocket scientist. When somebody pointed out this irony to him, he promptly renamed it Sahaj, which is just a complicated form of the same thing - simple !!

Of course the normal calendar  is just too "saral". So came the innovation of April to March. For that we have to thank Sir Humphrey Appleby, forerunner and idol to Ramamritham. Something as simple as a calendar year is of course anathema to these venerable gentlemen.

He expects you to fill the return for something called "the previous year to the assessment year". So the assessment year is supposed to be the next year into the future so that you can file the return for the previous year !! I am now supposed to file the return for assessment year 2011-12, declaring income for the previous year 2010-11, corresponding to my financial year which is also 2010-11. Whoever dreamed of this concept deserves the highest accolade of Ramamrithamology.

As for the Form itself, I defy any sane human being (Chartered Accountants are not classified as sane! ) to be able to fill even one item. Other than the question, are you male or female, that is. Take this one for example.

"Long- term capital gain where proviso under section 112(1) is applicable (Without Indexation)-Code in SI Schedule is 22, Tax Rate is 10% ;Enter only positive value from Item B4c of Schedule CG AFTER loss adjustment under this category in Schedule CYLA and BFLA, if any. "

One of the fundamental principles of any legal system anywhere in the world is Ignorantia juris non excusat (Ignorance of law is no excuse). Somebody should file a case saying this principle has been breached by the Indian tax law - surely human brains haven't evolved to the point where they can begin to understand the Income Tax Form.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Criminals are ugly – yes, really

Has it ever struck you that in movies the villain is pretty much always ugly? Whether you take a James Bond film, a horror movie, or a Disney character, the bad guy is usually rather ‘esthetically challenged’, dotted with rather unsightly, coarse features.

Well, it now appears that these film makers are rather more realistic in their portrayal of the bad guys than you might have guessed. Criminals – as research by professors Naci Mocan from Louisiana State and Erdal Tekin from Georgia State University showed – are often indeed pretty ugly.

Naci and Erdal obtained data on 20,745 people, who were interviewed and rated at various points during their lives (in the period 1994 – 2002). A small army of independent interviewers rated the person’s level of attractiveness (ranging from very unattractive to very attractive). Subsequently, Naci and Erdal statistically compared this indicator of physical attractiveness with the incidence of the respondent having been involved in a crime, such as property damage, burglary, robbery, theft, assault, or drug-related crimes. And even when they corrected these models for all sorts of background characteristics, such as ethnic background, religion, family situation, income, and so on, the answer was pretty clear: criminals are ugly.

The intriguing question is, of course, how come? Although this involves a healthy dose of speculation, we do know quite a lot from prior research about the influence of physical attractiveness on such things as income and schooling, which might shed some light on the issue. For example, we know from prior studies that good-looking children receive more attention at school, are considered more trustworthy, and are judged to have higher academic potential.*

The problem is that many of these prejudices start to act as self-fulfilling prophecies. Ugly children start to do less well at school because of the low expectations placed on them: they have less belief in themselves, less confidence, they receive less personal attention from their tutors, and so on. And, as a consequence, the prophecy comes true; they do achieve less.

Once on the job market, they are then once again confronted with the same prejudice, making things even more challenging. For example, research has shown that, given the same qualifications, physically attractive applicants are considered more suitable for a particular job. They are also recommended to receive higher starting salaries.* Indeed, the handsome subjects in Naci and Erdal’s study also made substantially more money than their esthetically more challenged counterparts. To conclude, handsome children are helped to achieve more, once they reach adulthood they are more likely to be successful in a job interview, and once they are in the job they get paid more.

As a consequence of these effects, on the margin, ugly people are more often tempted – or perhaps pushed – into a life of crime than people who are physically attractive. The ugly ducklings amongst us are often devout of the opportunities that befall the beautiful and, therefore, comparatively are more prone to end up in crime. So next time Donald Duck traps the thugs, or 007 eliminates the villain, we should also allow ourselves to feel a slight sense of grief and sympathy for the ugly crooks, who might have achieved so much more in life had mother nature made them just that little bit more pleasing to our eye.

* How fundamental our human inclination is to look upon handsome people more favorably than on uglier ones is evidenced by research that shows that, interestingly, even babies pay more attention to the good-looking people peering into their pram than to their equally enthusiastic but less handsome aunts and uncles (Samuels & Elwy, 1985).

** One exception to this rule is that physically less attractive women are generally deemed more qualified than their attractive counterparts when the job they are being considered for is a stereotypical masculine job (Heilman & Saruwatari, 1979).

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Business April 20th 2011, "Two Year Anniversary" Edition

Ignore that other, number-based occasion going on this Wednesday and roll to The Dark Room to help us celebrate our huge deuce! The Business turns two this week and we couldn't be prouder of our little trainwreck. In honor of this new leaf, we've got a roster that’s packed hella fat. We’ve imported three strains of kind buds from LA to perform for you, as well as the dank home-grown shit you know and love.

From the finest clubs Los Angeles:

Jake Weisman is a comedian and storyteller. He loves cats and podcasts, and he has two of each. One of his podcasts, The Morning After…Podcast, is about pornography, and it recently won Punchline Magazine’s 2010 Best New Comedy Podcast of the Year award. Just to remind you, he loves cats.

Dave Ross is a stand-up comedian and the creator of the wildly successful Holy F*ck comedy show. He performs regularly at renowned shows and clubs across California, including What's Up Tiger Lily? and the Hollywood Improv. His comedy career began as a radio DJ at KRZR in Fresno, but he quickly decided to leave and make less money standing on stages. He's smiley as hell and probably likes you.

Shawn Pearlman is from Los Angeles, CA (where nobody is from). In his hometown, he has performed at Comedy Death Ray at UCB, Largo at the Coronet, the Hollywood Improv, and that’s all. Just kidding, other places too! He is never homesick.

And keeping it local we have the Businessmen selection: Alex, Sean, Chris and Bucky. Plus a special video premiere from Chris!

While other shows going on this Wednesday may offer you a free "medical" gift, we still believe laughter is the best medicine you can get without having to pay a fake doctor to give you a state-recognized identification card. All you need to get our goods is five on it. And if you get the munchies, we are surrounded by burritos.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lights, Camera, Action

This post is about a movie !  It takes some gall for a blogger who knows zilch about movies and doesn't see them, to do a post on something his readers are masters of. But that's the beauty of this medium - you can fearlessly propound  on things you don't have a clue about.

I am told actors are key to movies ! This one stars a legend as a hero. Across continents, this man is reputed to be with the midas touch - anything he touches turns into gold. There are assorted villains, but the beauty of the movie is that you often don't know who the real villain is. There is a faceless foreign government, who everybody loves to bash these days (not America - in movies, America is all mom and apple pie). The only slight trouble is that there isn't a very pretty heroine. There is a lady actress who comes roaring to defend the hero , but alas, she will not set Zeno's heart go flutter flutter and her role casts her as a Minister. She does manage to be exotic though, speaking in French.

The song and dance sequences are a bit metaphorical. There is a lot of song and dance made, but there isn't actual singing and dancing - if you know what I mean. I am told that song and dance sequences are strictly the preserve of Indian movies and this being a foreign movie, its absence is apparently pardonable.

Being a foreign movie, it has to have a story , I believe. I am reliably informed that such a condition is not an absolute necessity for an Indian movie. Anyway this one has a great story full of twists and turns. Enter the successful hero, who is already a legend. He has vanquished villains as far away as Japan, until even the Japanese have embraced him as one of their own. He now makes a bold plan to revolutionalise the world with a great invention.

Now come the villains. A foreign government, known to copy everything, is trying to steal his invention. Three of his associates are apparently tempted by spies from this government to sell their secret. They are caught, and executed melodramatically, even though they loudly protest their innocence. Cut to the heroine. She comes riding on her white steed, sabre rattling to this foreign government. She wishes to slay the dragon to save her hero. The foreign government scares her off threatening dire consequences if she rode any further. She retreats after a memorable dialogue sequence about economic warfare.

The hero now has some doubts if he has acted heroically. After all the three were honourable men. Could they have let him down like that ?? He starts to have self doubts. He retreats back with that constipated look on his face (a look made popular by those who act in Indian TV soaps). Then it is established that the three might not have been guilty after all. It looks like it might be curtains up for the hero. But then his two trusted aides fall on their sword and sacrifice themselves for the hero. The hero is saved after all. The movie ends rather abruptly - surely the producer has left enough hints that there is to be a sequel.

I felt the movie direction left a little to be desired. An expert such as Gils would have done a better job of it. Cinematography could also have been improved if they had hired RamMmm.  Still it's a good movie to watch on a lazy Sunday.

The movie is called Renault. You can read a better version of the movie plot here.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The morality of pay

The Church of England has taken a line on executive pay. You may ask what has that body got to do with the world of business. Well , there is the small matter that the Church manages a £ 5.3 bn portfolio and is a shareholder in many companies. And, of course, it is a voice of morality, however much you may agree or disagree with it.

The Church of England has said that it will not vote in favour of executive pay proposals that have bonuses more than 4 times the salary. While its influence as a shareholder might be somewhat limited, its voice has the benefit of a moral argument. Just a little while ago shareholders in HSBC voted to limit bonuses to a maximum of 10 times annual pay.
Readers may pause here to consider the obvious question. Who on earth earns bonuses many times his salary ? This blogger has seen a lot in business. Outside of the financial services industry,  there is virtually no place where an employee can earn 10 times his salary as a bonus. So what's so special about the financial services industry ??

What is special, is that the pay structure for bankers has remained rooted in the past. Years ago, most banking businesses, especially investment banks , were partnerships. Salary at the top tended to be very low, and bonuses were really a form of profit sharing amongst the partners, who were the owners. That's why, until not so long ago, being made a partner in Goldman Sachs was such a big thing. Now, most of these entities are corporates. Senior managers are employees, not owners and therefore have no right to profit sharing. But the old pay structure remained and its entirely the fault of the shareholders that they let it continue.

Its a completely specious argument that such stratospheric pay is a reward for talent and performance and if they don't pay such amounts, talent will go elsewhere. The market for top talent is highly imperfect and is not ruled by price alone. And beyond a certain point Maslow's theory kicks in - there isn't that much of a difference between $25m and $ 30m, although mathematically one is 20% higher than the other. And come to think of it, a little less talent going to finance would be a good thing - some plodders would bring sanity into that insane world of risk taking.

This blogger is of the view that the Church of England is absolutely right in taking the stance it has done. And other shareholders would be wise to follow suit.

International Protection for Broadcasts Gaining New Momentum

The proposed international treaty on the protection of broadcasters is inching forward after nearly 10 years of consideration and member states of the World Intellectual Property Organization and other stakeholders are moving toward consensus on the central elements of what it is to do and what is the object of the protection.

Much of the rhetoric of stakeholders—particularly pay TV channels and sports rights organisations—has led many to believe it is about protecting their business models and revenue. They have done the proposed treaty a disservice.

It is about protecting the value creating activities of broadcasters in content selection, packaging and distribution—something that is not protected by copyrights, but can be protected with a neighboring right. What the treaty is intent on doing is protecting the broadcast—in a signal and derivative of the signal—which embodies the broadcasters value creation activities and is the object of the proposed protection.

The result may assist revenue generation and strengthen the business model of rights holders, licensers, and broadcasters, but it does not directly protect those.

What it will do is provide a streamlined mechanism for broadcasters to enforce their rights internationally when unauthorised reception, decryption, and retransmission and rebroadcast of their signals are done by other broadcasters and cablecasters. Such practices regularly occur in some countries and sometimes involve the second broadcaster substituting their own advertising and charging fees to obtain the broadcast.

The treaty essentially gives broadcasters the right to license other uses of their broadcasts and halt uses they have not licensed, but does not give them rights to the content in the broadcasts that they do not own.

The proposed treaty includes some protection of public interests, by permitting national limitations and exceptions for clearly public purposes such as education, service to visually or hearing impaired persons, etc.

Some scepticism about the proposals exists in developing nations, because most of the benefits will occur to broadcasters in high income and upper middle income nations and only limited benefits will occur in other states.

The thorns on the rose bush, however, involve the fact that many of the nations where egregious reuses of broadcasts have occurred have never well enforced copyright, so one must be highly optimistic to believe that passage of the treaty will solve the problem.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Are family-friendly workplace practices worth their money? New evidence

Do family-friendly work practices – offering flexibility in case of unexpected childcare emergencies, job sharing schemes, subsidy for childcare, entitlement to work from home, switch to part-time work, etc. – enhance the performance of the firm that adopts them?

Quite a bit of research suggests they do: Several studies have provided evidence that firms offering such practices have higher levels of employee retention, organizational citizenship behavior, and work attitudes. However, I also have to admit that I am a bit skeptical of such “evidence from research”… for several reasons:

First, it is often clear that the researchers conducting these studies wanted to find such a positive relationship, and I cannot suppress a suspicion that there might be just as many studies conducted that fail to turn up the same heart-warming evidence but, as a result of this failure, therefore are not published, and hence we never hear about them.

Second – and at least as important – even if we’d accept this evidence as a given, it does not take into account the financial costs of implementing the family-friendly humbug. Sure, higher levels of employee retention, citizenship behavior and so on, are nice things to have, and I am sure they help an organization become better, but they don’t come for free; family-friendly workplace practices are sometimes plain expensive, and it is not clear from the studies conducted whether the (alleged) benefits outweigh these often substantial financial costs. Past research measured the benefits, but did not take into account the costs involved.

New evidence

Fortunately, recently, professors Nick Bloom, Toby Kretschmer, and John van Reenen (from Stanford, the University of Munich, and the London School of Economics) conducted an extensive study examining the effect of family-friendly practices on hard variables such as firm sales per employee and return on capital employed, using a large database of firms from the US, the UK, Germany, and France. What they found was intriguing and surprising, slightly disappointing, but also reassuring – and, yes, all at the same time.

In their initial, relatively simple statistical analysis, they too found a positive relation between how many family-friendly practices a firm employed and its financial performance – that is, companies with a lot of family-friendly practices generally were more profitable than those without them. But then Nick, Toby, and John decided to correct these statistical models for the quality of the firm’s management. They used an extensive survey and interview procedure (using and elaborate so-called double-blind procedure) to determine the quality of each firm’s management. And then they found that those firms that implemented family-friendly practices were already good to start with. It is not that the practices made them any better; well-managed firms adopted them more often than their more poorly managed counterparts.

Happiness for free

Hence, Nick, Toby, and John’s models showed that well-performing firms implemented family-friendly practices, but subsequently those family-friendly practices did not increase their financial performance even further. Don’t be mistaken; this does not mean that the family-friendly practices did not improve these organizations beyond their original starting point; they probably did. It is just that these benefits did not outweigh the costs incurred; at the end of the day, financially it didn’t make any difference whatsoever whether you adopted them or not. To conclude, firms that had implemented a bunch of family-friendly practices fared well as a result of the increased employee retention, citizenship behavior, and improved work attitudes, but the amount of money they had to spent on the practices exactly equaled the financial benefits that resulted from them.

And I would say that that is not so bad. Basically, family-friendly practices come “for free”; sure, they are expensive, but the benefits you experience from them exactly cover those (substantial) costs. Or, as Nick and his colleagues put it: “this rebuts the claim that providing family-friendly workplace practices detracts from profits. Our results show that although providing family friendly workplace practices may not increase profits, they at least pay for themselves”.

And in a way I like that even better than when firms had been implementing them just because they increased financial performance. Now, it shows that firms do not adopt them out of selfish reasons, but because good managers understand that it does not cost them any money (although it doesn’t make them any either). Because when you can basically increase the happiness of your employees without it costing you a single dime, why not do it? Good managers let the world be a nicer place, not because they benefit from it themselves, but just because they can.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Business April 13th 2011, "Beard or Glasses or Both" Edition

This week the Business welcomes SF's own Kevin O'Shea, LA's own Stefan Stignei and welcomes back founding Businessman Alex Koll!

Alex has been touring this great country of ours, performing his magical stand-up and exploring every diner, drive-in, and Zagat-rated rest stop along the way. He's back this Wednesday, with laser-like focus, a chip on his shoulder, and a dynamite recipe for chili con carne that will knock your socks off.

Kevin O'Shea is a friend to the Business and a force in the San Francisco comedy scene. He's performed at Sketchfest and produced such shows as Funny Jerks, Blah! Blah! Blah!, and the short-lived cult sketch favorite, Frown Land. Please enjoy his dark, rough-and-tumble, absurdist comedy - but keep your hands where Kevin can see them, pilgrim.

Stefan Stignei is a comedian from Los Angeles who performs at the Comedy Store, the Hollywood Improv, and many other spots. He's an expert on video games and a savant at one-liners. And if you have anything disparaging to say about Oregon State University, he will leg wrestle you on the spot.

We've also got Bucky, Chris, and Sean on hand to help out. As always, the Dark Room is BYO-Burrito, and Cancun Taqueria remains across the street. Five bucks, 8 PM.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Driving in the fast lane

Do you drive on the left of the road or the right of the road in India ?? Its not as stupid a question as it seems. Most of the British Commonwealth drives on the left of the road. India, being an honourable member of the Commonwealth, ostensibly follows the British tradition and drives on the left. But as with many things about India, its not all that simple.

One of the axioms of Indian roads is that however wide they may be and however many lanes may be designed, traffic flows only in one lane on either side. This is the right hand most lane. The other lanes to the left, if they exist, are used in a multitude of creative ways. So you basically drive on the right and try and find an opening on the left to overtake. That makes you a right hand drive country, right ? Confusing ??

You see, the problem is that only the righthand most lane is open for driving continuously. That is where the truck laden with 24 tons of precariously balanced stuff, the autorickshaw (tuk tuk to some) and the bullock cart , all ambling at a stately 20 kmph admiring the scenery, monopolise. So if you want to drive in the fast lane, you keep darting to the left.

The left has its own story to tell. Firstly, about 30% of the space is encroached by street vendors, who are hawking every imaginable type of stuff. A further 20% is encroached by the Rajalakshmi who is buying the stuff (if she waves her arms as she is wont to do, then an additional 10% goes). Then there is the Ramamritham, who has brought the aforesaid female in his car and who has parked it right in front of the street vendor (Parking is my birthright and I shall have it - with due apologies to Tilak). In any case parking even 50 mtrs further on and walking is anathema to Rajalakshmi - regular readers of this blog are familiar with her dimensions which make this act a physical impossibility)

Further on, occupying  the next 30% of the road are the7000 people waiting to catch a bus. Now anybody who has ever caught a bus knows that you better your chances by standing right in front of competition (queuing is a peculiarly British trait that was not bequeathed to the colonies). Therefore you get the picture of 7000 people each trying to be in front of the other. Ahead of them is the bus itself parked at an angle of 90 degrees to the road, so that he can make a quick getaway and overtake his buddy in front,

The next 30 % of the fast lane is blocked by a big SUV coming on the wrong side of the road with his headlights full beam on. It is accepted wisdom that if you drive on the wrong side of the road with your headlights on, you are OK , whereas if your lights are off, you are committing a cardinal sin. What he is trying to do is save an additional 2 yards to the next U turn - our SUV drivers are very conscious about petrol conservation.

A further 25% is commando territory. That is the domain of the 2 wheelers, who insist that driving in a straight line is an insult to their manhood (or increasingly to their womanhood). This is the fat mama, with even fatter mami behind, a kid in front, a kid wedged between the two, helmet hooked in his hand (he wouldn't wear it in case it messed up his hairdo),  and doing spurts and bends which would make Valentino Rossi proud. No sane driver with aspirations to the fast lane would mess with this crowd.

A futher 15% is at the mercy of the big car who wants to turn right, but can't be bothered to wait in the right lane. So he waltzes up the left in order to pass the idiots who are waiting on the right. Of course he is not the only one with the idea, so the next guy passes even more to the left. And so on and so on.

Discerning readers would have noticed by now that it all adds up to more than 100%. That's because, both space and time, are rather flexible in India.

It is also important to remove misconceptions about Indian roads that exist in foreign lands. No, elephants do not roam the streets ( as long as you are not uncharitable to Rajalakshmi). There are no monkeys either (be kind to the two wheeler hero). Neither are there buffaloes (the lumbering truck is not a buffalo).  Its all a question of right or left. 

Now tell me, do Indians drive on the left of the road ? Or the right ?

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Business takes LA on April 29th, 2011!

In conjunction with our upcoming two year anniversary, the Business is proud to announce we are invading our neighbor to the south: Los Angeles. That's right, we've taken it upon ourselves to initiate the bloody civil war we all want between the North and the South of California.

The Business, San Francisco’s long running weekly alt-comedy showcase, heads south to Hollywood for a night. Four comedians (Sean Keane, Chris Garcia, Bucky Sinister, Alex Koll) each curate a portion of your evening, bringing you a variety of comedy for only five bucks. That mixture regularly includes special guests ranging from standup comics to authors to sketch performers to musicians and dancers. All forms and styles are exploited. It is the comedy equivalent to an "everything bagel." An exploited "everything bagel"...that explodes.

Special guests and surprises to be announced as the date gets closer, so keep an ear on the internet tracks.

The Business
Friday, April 29th 2011
The Improv Lab
8162 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046

SPACE IS LIMITED, so get your tickets ahead of time here:

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Indian Standard Time

No society understands the theory of relativity better than India - At least those elements of the theory of time. That time is not absolute , but is indeed relative. That's why the concept of Indian Standard Time is commonly used to explain the Indian's mastery of this subject.

That strange introduction is meant to draw attention to the Cairn Vedanta deal, which is again held up by government indecisiveness. Cairn Energy, a UK listed company wants to sell its 62% stake in Cairn India to Vedanta. The balance shares are held by the state owned ONGC. Some time ago Cairn had signed an agreement whereby it need not pay any royalties out of the oil drilled - instead ONGC would pay the royalties. Now ONGC wants to renegotiate this contract as a precondition to a government approval of the sale of Cairn's stake to Vedanta.

This post is not to discuss the merits of ONGC's stand. But one of the unintended consequences of the 2G scam is that nobody in the government is now brave enough to take any decision, lest he be accused of corruption. The easiest way now is to get as many expert opinions, have joint committees, etc etc and simply not take any decision .

The Cairn Vedanta deal has been going for some 8 months now.The shareholders approval for the deal had a deadline of April 15 for completion. Two days ago the government has deferred the decision on approval to a "ministerial panel", which is yet to be formed. The saga goes on.

Time is a precious commodity in business. The government is well within its right to reject the deal. Or approve it. But decide, it must, one way or the other. The fear of scandal cannot paralyse it into inaction. Speed of decision making is not mutually exclusive with good governance. There is an example inside India itself to follow. Gujarat offers the role model.  The state decides, and decides fast. There is no dithering. The results of its action is there for all to see. There isn't much whiff of scandal and the extent of progress is Chinaesque.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Business April 6th 2011, "Haynes Now, You're an All-Star!" Edition

Andy Haynes returns to The Business once again to get his game on and go play. We love us some Haynes here at The Biz. In fact at this rate of return, Andy may knock Hari Kondabolu out of his long held title as "Fifth Businessman" if he keeps it up. (Don't get upset Thayer, technically you are the Fourth Businessman right now. We'll re-do all the calculations when Alex gets back). But this is definitely not a bad thing; it just highlights the fact that we love his style and jokes so much, we gotta keep him coming back. All that glitters is goooooold!

And as is true every week, we have the regular Business men: Bucky, Sean and continuing to fill in for Alex, irregular Businessman Chris Thayer. It is also still true the show is only five dollars, starts at 8pm, and is burrito friendly.

The Apple of my eye

Today's post is a guest post I made in Preeti's blog. Preeti is a famous blogger, writer of two books, artist and a very nice and warm person. She was very kind to invite me to write a piece in her blog and who can resist the ask of a pretty and intelligent lady !

The post is here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Editing, the Richness of Content, and the Current Limits of Web and Social Media

Editors matter.

The March 28-April 4, 2011, edition of the struggling news magazine Newsweek—which I admittedly have not read in years— provides some of the finest articles I have read in many months, illustrates the limits of online and social media, and shows why editors matter.

There is great benefit from both edited and unedited media and I don’t believe they have to be seen in dichotomous choices for the future of media. But I believe those who argue they don’t need to edited media doom themselves to narrowness and ignorance.

If I relied only on the links I receive daily from colleagues on Facebook, my news alerts for topics of interest, or digital listings of stories, I would miss the most important contribution of edited media—the service editors provide by reviewing and thinking about the world and putting journalists to work to provide a coordinated understanding of the available information. This week’s Newsweek epitomises that reality.

Although I often have my attention drawn to information and stories of interest from my social media, the pattern of stories and information sent to me would not have led me to Bill Emmott’s Newsweek story on the impact of disasters on politics, economics, and national psychology or Paul Theroux’s explanation of how Japan’s history has shaped its culture and how the generous global response to the earthquake and tsunami is forcing it to confront the fact that it is not alone and isolated in the face of geographical and physical constraints.

Had I relied on to the multiple news websites I peruse weekly, the ways they are presented and the ways that I search for news on them would not have led me to Newsweek’s fascinating story of the nuclear disaster at an Idaho test station in 1961 that may have been the result of a murder-suicide, its account of why a London murder has led to a boycott of Coca-Cola, or its account of why political ignorance in America is higher than that in European countries.

My point here is not that we should all be rushing out to subscribe to Newsweek (My apologies to Sydney Harmon, Barry Diller and Tina Brown), but that the functions of editors matter. Having someone look at the world and see ways that it fits together, have editors coordinate and incentive talented writers, and having editors create a collection of stories and information continues to produce value.

Those who believe that news, information, and understanding of the world can come through a disaggregated and uncoordinated flow of information and stories, much of which is not prepared by professional writers on a regular basis, miss the entire reason for the success of edited media over the past 300 years.

I do not wish to be construed as saying that online and social media do not make enormous contributions to our communications ability, but until they mature to the point they can support regular oversight and thought about the world and compensate professionals for whom investigating and reporting developments is their primary employment, digital media will not be able to replace the contributions of well edited print media.

After a decade and a half of digital media it is clear that we are able to move news and information to those platforms, but we are nowhere near the point we can shut off the presses without a great deal of loss of oversight and understanding about the world around our lives.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hail the leader

If you wanted to understand leadership, you couldn't have done better than to be glued to the TV screens in India yesterday. It was the final of the Cricket World Cup, it was played in Mumbai and India won, setting off a celebration, the likes of which is  unlikely to be seen anywhere in the world - not even if and when Brazil wins the football World Cup in Rio.

This post is not about the victory , but about the leadership of the captain MS Dhoni. They say leaders are born and not made and he seems to be a perfect example of that cliche. Early on in his career, some brilliant selector spotted his leadership skills and elevated him as the captain of the country. And today he has pulled perennially underachieving India to the top of the world cricket. Indian teams have been as talented before, but the deadly element in the mix now is a leader.

Just look at the calmness on the field even when things are going disastrously wrong. With that steely calmness, he gets everybody to claw their way out of the hole. There is never a display of anger, never a dressing down of somebody who isn't performing, rarely the drooping of the shoulder when defeat seems to be looming large.

Leaders have to be incredibly bold. The team selection he did yesterday was bold, even with the benefit of hindsight that his pick was wrong. But he'll probably never make a bolder decision than when India was tottering at 114 for 3 chasing 275 and he promotes himself and walks in to a pressure cooker situation. His form with the bat hadn't been good lately and the conventional thing to do would have been to drop himself down the order and play safe. But in he walks, takes the pressure on his shoulders as a leader should and  the rest is history. Even if he had failed, it would have been unparalleled as an act of incredible boldness as a leader.

But to me, the final proof of greatness as a leader was after the game. Did you notice that as every player was celebrating wildly , doing victory lap after victory lap, Dhoni wasn't to be seen much. He received the cup, gave it to his teammates to parade it around and simply disappeared. Now that is a truly great leader. Let the team rightfully receive and soak in the adulation. His own joy was simply knowing that it was his leadership that made the difference.

A truly class act.