Saturday, December 24, 2011

Antha naal gnabakam ....

Memories of those days, goes the title of this post in Tamil. Alumni reunions are an American tradition. It was not very common in India, until recent years. You passed out of school and college - and that was that. You went your own way , kept in touch with a  few, lost touch with most and lived your own life.  Rarely did you return. But that trend is changing.

A week ago, the 1961 batch from Madras Medical College held their 50th year reunion. Everybody was 70 plus in age, obviously. Some 60 odd batchmates attended, it is reported. They came from far and wide. They went back to their old classrooms . They went back to their labs. They sang the songs of their days. Including this one (sorry its in Tamil) which was actually released in their year in college.  They ribbed their mates as they used to do so long ago. In short, they had a whale of a time.

What is it that attracts people to reunions. After all they have gone so far a distance that they may not even be able to relate to their school or college anymore. Even the closest buddy, who was a life mate in those days has changed so much that you can barely recognise him. So why the pull ??

The pull is because as you grow older, nostalgia becomes a more and more powerful emotion. Sure everything has changed beyond recognition, including you. But so what ? There is the magical pull of past memories that whitewashes the dirty and puts a golden hue on the ordinary. Yes, the school looks a bit shabby now. Yes the town looks a bit lost in the ages. But there is a special joy in revelling in the past. Talk about the carefree days of school (never mind that they hardly seemed carefree then). Talk longingly of the teachers (even though they caned you to fury). Talk to the girls, now women (you wouldn't be caught dead talking to a girl then). Wander about in your memories. Grasp a fleeting remembrance that was buried deep in the mind. Smile at the playground where you whiled away the years. Walk around with a silly smile on your face. And heave a deep sigh before returning back to the real world.

That's what awaits me for the next 2 days. I go to the 35th year reunion of my school batch. OMG ; how did the years fly by ?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The beginning of the end ?

It was a long time coming. In retrospect its actually surprising that the backlash is starting only now. The backlash against email, I mean. A few days ago Atos Origin, a French IT company, started the ball rolling by announcing that it would ban email in the company by 2014. Now Volkswagen unions have struck a deal with the company that emails to their unionised employees would be switched off after office hours.

This had to happen. E Mail addiction is an extremely serious epidemic as this blogger observed here. It is a global pandemic of epic proportions. Walk into any office or meeting - you would see rows and rows of people peering into their screens or thumbing away at their Blackberries. Eerie scenes more suited for George Orwell's 1984.

Its well known that more than half the emails you get are completely useless. And you get a LOT of emails. For some reason your genes are so programmed that you have to see each and every one of them 15 nanoseconds after they arrive. The greatest attraction to mankind, even more than a gorgeous topless woman, is a blinking light on the Blackberry. Social norms still hold you back from pawing at the aforesaid lady. Nothing in the world - not even an earthquake - can keep you from grabbing the Blackberry.

This is what most of us do in offices. Either tap out or read useless stuff 50% of the time. And for years now, it has extended out of the office into our homes. We do the same inane stuff in bed, in the car, even in the loo. Absolutely waste of our lives.

Email, when it arrived, dramatically increased office productivity. Now I am willing to bet (and some distinguished academic has no doubt done research on this) that it has actually lowered productivity back to pre email days.

Consider this. Would you think it appropriate to talk all the time in the office and at home ? Why then is it OK to be emailing all the time ?? Shut the $%#@ thing off and do some real work.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A classy speech

Rahul Dravid, India's elder statesman of cricket, delivered the Bradman Oration at Canberra last week. If you want to hear a classy, graceful, charming, stylish speech, look no further. Class, grace, charm and style define the man and perhaps it is but natural, that his speech was all of that.  It is about cricket, of course, but even if you are not a cricket fan, listen to it if you have the time - this is how a speech should be made. Its 40 mts long, but I really wished it wouldn't end.

Rahul's speech follows in the lines of another classic speech - from Kumar Sangakkara of Sri Lanka, when  he delivered the Cowdrey lecture in July. Another gem, you can listen to here .

English oration is alive and well in the colonies, atleast in the sporting world !

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Business December 14th 2011, "Nato Green and Friends" Edition

This Wednesday, we welcome back one of our most beloved and most frequent visitors, Nato Green, along with two brand-new guests! Nato Green is the creator of Iron Comic, the co-founder of Laughter Against the Machine, a prolific HuffPo blogger, and a Jew who cures his own bacon. He's such a regular friend to the show that he's earned the coveted moniker of "The Fifth Businessman," a title previously shared by Stu Sutcliffe and Brian Epstein.

We also welcome Sammy Obeid, a UC Berkeley graduate and nationally-touring comedian who was the first comedian to ever appear on the Food Network telling jokes. He placed third in the SF International Comedy Competition and won Best of the Fest at both the Arab-American Comedy Festival and the Out Of Bounds Festival in Austin. Though Sammy does five sets a night, every night, this is somehow his first visit to The Business. It's long overdue, but we are glad to have him.


Finally, all the way from the City of Angels, we have Josh Androsky. He used to write for awful TV shows, then quit or got fired from enough to start doing standup. He runs the acclaimed monthly show "Hamclown" the last Thursday of every month in Downtown LA, and he has lost four pairs of glasses in three different oceans.

All that, and Alex, Bucky, Chris, and Sean, too! Seven comics! Five bucks! What a country!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Most People Don't Know Their Business (so asking them is useless)

I’ll admit it; I am rapidly becoming a skeptic when it comes to interview-based data. And the reason is that people (interviewees) just don’t know their business – although, of course, they think they do.

For example, in an intriguing research project with my (rather exceptional) PhD student Amandine Ody, we asked lots of people in the Champagne industry whether different Champagne houses paid different prices for a kilogram of their raw material: grapes. The answer was unanimously and unambiguously “no”; everybody pays more or less the same price. But when we looked at the actual data (which are opaque at first sight and pretty hard to get), the price differences appeared huge: some paid 6 euros for a kilogram, others 8, and yet other 10 or even 12. Thinking it might be the (poor) quality of the data, we obtained a large sample of similar data from a different source: supplier contracts. Which showed exactly the same thing. But the people within the business really did not know; they thought everybody was paying about the same price. They were wrong.

Then Amandine asked them which houses supplied Champagne for supermarket brands (a practice many in the industry thoroughly detest, but it is very difficult to observe who is hiding behind those supermarket labels). They mentioned a bunch of houses, both in terms of the type of houses and specific named ones, who they “were sure were behind it”. And they quite invariably were completely wrong. Using a clever but painstaking method, Amandine deduced who was really supplying the Champagne to the supermarkets, and she found out it was not the usual suspects. In fact, the houses that did it were exactly the ones no-one suspected, and the houses everyone thought were doing it were as innocent as a newborn baby. They were – again – dead wrong.

And this is not the only context and project where I have had such experiences, i.e. it is not just a French thing. With a colleague at University College London – Mihaela Stan – we analyzed the British IVF industry. One prominent practice in this industry is the role of a so-called integrator; one medical professional who is always “the face” towards the patient, i.e. a patient is always dealing with one and the same doctor or nurse, and not a different one very time the treatment is in a different stage. All interviewees told us that this really had no substance; it was just a way of comforting the patient. However, when we analyzed the practice’s actual influence – together with my good friend and colleague Phanish Puranam – we quickly discovered that the use of such an integrator had a very real impact on the efficacy of the IVF process; women simply had a substantially higher probability of getting pregnant when such an integrator, who coordinates across the various stages of the IVF cycle, was used. But the interviewees had no clue about the actual effects of the practice.*

My examples are just conjectures, but there is also some serious research on the topic. Olav Sorenson and David Waguespack published a study on film distributors in which they showed that these distributors’ beliefs about what would make a film a success were plain wrong (they just made them come true by assigning them more resources based on this belief). John Mezias and Bill Starbuck published several articles in which they showed how people do not even know basic facts about their own companies, such as the sales of their own business unit, error rates, or quality indicators. People more often than not were several hundreds of percentages of the mark, when asked to report a number.

Of course interviews can sometimes be interesting; you can ask people about their perceptions, why they think they are doing something, and how they think things work. Just don’t make the mistake of believing them.

Much the same is true for the use of questionnaires. They are often used to ask for basic facts and assessments: e.g. “how big is your company”, “how good are you at practice X”, and so on. Sheer nonsense is the most likely result. People do not know their business, both in terms of the simple facts and in terms of the complex processes that lead to success or failure. Therefore, do yourself (and us) a favor: don’t ask; get the facts.

* Although this was not necessarily a “direct effect”; the impact of the practice is more subtle than that.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

One small step for Huawei, one giant leap for China

As is often the case, the seemingly trivial turns out to be a giant event. I suspect this is the case with Huawei's announcement, buried in the back pages of financial newspapers that it would no longer pursue new business in Iran. So what , you might ask.  Read on.

One of the fundamental principles in China is the total separation of politics  & economics. It has one of the freest of capitalist systems (at least for Chinese) and one of the most controlled of political systems. In foreign affairs, China has diligently pursued a policy of complete non interference in political matters. Its policy in Africa is unique in history. It is rapidly colonising economically, but scrupulously keeping away from interference in local politics. It will do business with anybody - God, Archangel Gabriel, Satan, Devil whoever, as long as there is business to be done. Before you denounce it, consider that there is some merit in this approach - the Chinese say political matters are for the citizens of that country to decide and it is not their place to make value judgements on them. In this, they are completely different from the European colonisers of the past.

The first chink I have come across in this policy is this announcement from Huawei. Huawei is a large supplier of telecoms equipment to Iran. These are undoubtedly used for espionage and suppression. Iran is a pariah for many nations - no American company can deal there. There has been constant criticism in the West of Chinese companies who do business there, but that's not unusual  - they are often criticised for doing business with the likes of Mugabe. So why has Huawei taken this clearly political step. Before you think that this is one company deciding and not China - perish the thought. No company in China decides on any sensitive matter without the go ahead from the government. For the first time, atleast as far as I know, China is saying politics might dictate economics in foreign affairs.

Is it finally true that economic clout cannot be divorced completely from politics.  As China's economic power grows bigger and bigger in the countries it is doing business with, it becomes harder and harder to stand aside and say it is not involved with local politics. This is exactly what happened to the East India Company, which started in exactly the same way. Maybe China is reaching the inflexion point. One breach like the Huawei action and the dam has to burst. Can the Chinese now deal with blood diamonds in the Congo, or keep away from selling arms to Mugabe, for very long ? As it gets drawn more and more into global politics, it will have profound implications for the world and China. The world because, it will alter the balance of political power inexorably. And for China because it is not good at doing this - diplomacy is not its strong point and it will have to learn.

That's why I think, its one small step for Huawei ..........

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Lying Dutchman: Fraud in the Ivory Tower

The fraud of Diederik Stapel – professor of social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands – was enormous. His list of publications was truly impressive, both in terms of the content of the articles as well as its sheer number and the prestige of the journals in which it was published: dozens of articles in all the top psychology journals in academia with a number of them in famous general science outlets such as Science. His seemingly careful research was very thorough in terms of its research design, and was thought to reveal many intriguing insights about fundamental human nature. The problem was, he had made it all up…

For years – so we know now – Diederik Stapel made up all his data. He would carefully review the literature, design all the studies (with his various co-authors), set up the experiments, print out all the questionnaires, and then, instead of actually doing the experiments and distributing the questionnaires, made it all up. Just like that.

He finally got caught because, eventually, he did not even bother anymore to really make up newly faked data. He used the same (fake) numbers for different experiments, gave those to his various PhD students to analyze, who then in disbelief slaving away in their adjacent cubicles discovered that their very different experiments led to exactly the same statistical values (a near impossibility). When they compared their databases, there was substantial overlap. There was no denying it any longer; Diederik Stapel, was making it up; he was immediately fired by the university, admitted to his lengthy fraud, and handed back his PhD degree.

In an open letter, sent to Dutch newspapers to try to explain his actions, he cited the huge pressures to come up with interesting findings that he had been under, in the publish or perish culture that exist in the academic world, which he had been unable to resist, and which led him to his extreme actions.

There are various things I find truly remarkable and puzzling about the case of Diederik Stapel.
• The first one is the sheer scale and (eventually) outright clumsiness of his fraud. It also makes me realize that there must be dozens, maybe hundreds of others just like him. They just do it a little bit less, less extreme, and are probably a bit more sophisticated about it, but they’re subject to the exact same pressures and temptations as Diederik Stapel. Surely others give in to them as well. He got caught because he was flying so high, he did it so much, and so clumsily. But I am guessing that for every fraud that gets caught, due to hubris, there are at least ten other ones that don’t.
• The second one is that he did it at all. Of course because it is fraud, unethical, and unacceptable, but also because it sort of seems he did not really need it. You have to realize that “getting the data” is just a very small proportion of all the skills and capabilities one needs to get published. You have to really know and understand the literature; you have to be able to carefully design an experiment, ruling out any potential statistical biases, alternative explanations, and other pitfalls; you have to be able to write it up so that it catches people’s interest and imagination; and you have to be able to see the article through the various reviewers and steps in the publication process that every prestigious academic journal operates. Those are substantial and difficult skills; all of which Diederik Stapel possessed. All he did is make up the data; something which is just a small proportion of the total set of skills required, and something that he could have easily outsourced to one of his many PhD students. Sure, you then would not have had the guarantee that the experiment would come out the way you wanted them, but who knows, they could.
• That’s what I find puzzling as well; that at no point he seems to have become curious whether his experiments might actually work without him making it all up. They were interesting experiments; wouldn’t you at some point be tempted to see whether they might work…?
• Truly amazing I also find the fact that he never stopped. It seems he has much in common with Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi Scheme, or the notorious traders in investments banks such as 827 million Nick Leeson, who brought down Barings Bank with his massive fraudulent trades, Societe Generale’s 4.9 billion Jerome Kerviel, and UBS’s 2.3 billion Kweku Adoboli. The difference: Stapel could have stopped. For people like Madoff or the rogue traders, there was no way back; once they had started the fraud there was no stopping it. But Stapel could have stopped at any point. Surely at some point he must have at least considered this? I guess he was addicted; addicted to the status and aura of continued success.
• Finally, what I find truly amazing is that he was teaching the Ethics course at Tilburg University. You just don’t make that one up; that’s Dutch irony at its best.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Business December 7th 2011, "Miles QUE?!?" Edition

Who's gonna be at the Dark Room Wednesday?
Miles K!
Miles QUE?!?

Who's a witty comic comin' up in the Bay?
Miles K!
Miles QUE?!?

Who's website is
Miles K!
Miles QUE?!?

Miles K. Stenehjem, that's que!

To quote East Bay artist Kaitlin McSweeny:

"Miles K. Stenehjem is an elegant satirist with a wit born of sensitive desperation and fearless experience, in my opinion a sort of Oscar Wilde of this time, if Oscar Wilde could lay down some pretty sweet freestyle rhymes and deliver stand-up performances that make even today's recession-depressed audiences gasp and guffaw."

Miles has also recently opened for Andy Kindler, has a show of his own called "Everything Jamboree" and now joins us on our humble show.

Sean is taking a well deserved victory lap around Los Angeles this week, but Chris, Bucky and the newly returned Alex will be on hand to stoke your hot comedy giggly-fire.

As always we ask but only a simple $5 cover charge, begin but only at a simple 8pm, and offer but only a simple proximity to good food and cheep drinks.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Convoluted Views about Media Ownership Inhibit Effective Policy

I was recently reviewing the effectiveness of media ownership policies and regulations and was struck by the limited success they have achieved during the past 50 years in Western nations.

There seem to be two central problems with ownership regulation efforts: ownership really is not the issue that we are trying to address through policy and we have convoluted views of ownership.
Media ownership is not really what concerns us, but is a proxy of other concerns. What we are really worried about is interference with democratic processes, manipulation of the flow of news and information, powerful interests controlling public conversation, exclusion of voices from public debate, and the use of market power to mistreat consumers. It is thus the behavior of some of those who own media rather than the ownership form or extent of ownership that really concerns us.

This is compounded because media practitioners, scholars, and social critics have highly convoluted views about ownership and most have complaints about all forms of ownership. It is thus nearly impossible to identify a preferential a form or extent of ownership.
We don’t like private ownership of media because proprietors can use them pursue their private interests; we don’t like corporate ownership because companies can put profit goals ahead of social goals; and we don’t like having just public service media because they doesn’t provide enough choice and are often limited in their ability to pursue political agendas--a function important in democracy.

We don’t like big companies because they can be arrogant and unapproachable and because they can control content as well as markets; we don’t like small companies because they can’t provide the range and quality of content we desire and because they sometimes can’t withstand pressures from powerful interests.
We don’t like foreign owners because they don’t share our identity, don’t represent who we are very well, and can bring foreign influences that affect national sovereignty; we don’t like domestic owners because they can be too close to those with domestic social and political power.

The list of ownership we do not like—and the fact that most regulation is promoted because of particular proprietors we disliked—makes it difficult to fashion effective policies. We are stymied because no ownership form itself is good or bad and they all have advantages and disadvantages. And there are examples of good and bad owners under all the forms of ownership.
Using ownership regulation to control the behavior of bad owners can only somewhat limit the scope and scale of their activities, not address their poor behavior. It is like permitting higher levels of crime in one area of town as long as it does expand into other areas.

If we are to effectively address our real concerns, we need to develop better mechanisms for influencing behaviour and we need to stop ineffectively regulating ownership just because it makes us feel like we are doing something.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Of adjectives that don't apply

What's common to beautiful, popular, controversial, helpful, successful, deserving and proud ? Besides being adjectives ? What's common is that they don't apply to this blog. Nothing here is beautiful, popular ......; you get the drift.

When you are tagged to apply those adjectives to your blog, you have to really scratch your head. Tagging used to be a rage three years ago when blogging itself was a rage. Blogging is now in a steep and precipitous decline. The ladies who started deeply intellectual tags that asked "What are you wearing" have all disappeared. Tags have naturally vanished. But Reflections, a star blogger started this tag and Preeti, a master blogger has tagged me with extremely affectionate words that have gone straight into my head. I was also tagged by a blogger I deeply respect and admire, and since she did me the honour of not linking my blog but simply saying incredibly kind words, I am doing so likewise. So I have force fitted the adjectives to my blog and in a fit of vanity, picked up the tag.

This is the tag

1) Blogger is nominated to take part

2) Blogger publishes his/her 7 links on his/her blog – 1 link for each category.
The links are:
- Your most beautiful post
– Your most popular post
– Your most controversial post
– Your most helpful post
– A post whose success surprised you
– A post you feel didn’t get the attention it deserved
– The post that you are most proud of

3) Blogger nominates up to 5 more bloggers to take part.

4) These bloggers publish their 7 links and nominate another 5 more bloggers
5) And so it goes on! 

Unlike Preeti, who has taken posts from this year, I thought I would go back to 3 years ago when I started blogging and choose posts from the early days. From my first two months of blogging.

Beautiful post - A moving video . Not a real post, but simply a link. Nothing in a business blog can remotely be termed beautiful.
Popular Post - E Mail addiction. It got THIRTEEN comments (ha ha). Never mind that half of those were my own replies. But in the good old days when even one comment was a joy to behold, that seemed like out of the world.
Controversial Post - Leave the wives at home . You are forbidden from asking if I know the meaning of the word controversial.
Helpful - A (Power) Pointless world . If only many will "take my help".
Success surprised you - Subprime crisis in plain English - My first double digit comment post. You are again forbidden from asking if I know the meaning of the word "success"
Didn't get the attention it deserved - Its just not cricket . Got zero comments. Boo Hoo !
Post most proud of - Women in Indian business .  I truly believe this.

For once I will break my habit of not tagging others and actually tag 5 bloggers who have stopped blogging. They are lovely bloggers and we must respect their decision not to continue, but I can't resist harassing them - so to you The Thoughtful Train, Le Embrouille Blogeuer, Half Indian, Sri and the non sarkari Sardar - (he's even deleted his blog) - come back you lot. We really miss you.
By the way, in case you are wondering why all my linked posts have a rude exclamation mark instead of a photo, its probably Blogger telling me what it thought of them !!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Toothbrushes and mobile phones

There are more people in the world today who own a mobile phone than a toothbrush. This may startle you, but its true, at least according to There are 4 bn mobile phone users in the world. The annual sales of toothbrushes is 3.5 bn.

This won't surprise you if you read the excellent book, Poor Economics, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. My good friend Ravi, who often comments on this blog, very kindly gifted it to me and it makes fascinating reading.  It was named as the Financial Times Business book of the year. As the byline says, its a book about rethinking poverty and the ways to end it. The book destroys many myths about poverty and provides fascinating insights into the behaviour of the poor. Its no surprise then that they would rather own a mobile phone than a toothbrush.

One of the big insights is that things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor. The  quote from Oucha Mbarbk, a poor Moroccan villager sums it all up "Oh, but television is more important than food !" In country after country, the researchers have tried to analyse why the poor eat so little, and sometimes bad food, even when they have the money. Food spending is actually declining in a poor country like India. Its because food is not a priority !

Another fascinating area of research is health. The largest killer of children in world is actually diarrhea. Two cheap and easily available miracle drugs can save the 2 million children who die of diarrhea before their 5th birthday - chlorine bleach and a rehydration solution of salt and sugar. And yet many do not use it even when given free. They want an antibiotic or an intravenous drip. Prevention is frowned upon. An expensive cure, often in the hands of a quack is preferred. 

Another deep insight - poor are like hedge fund managers; they live with huge amounts of risk. They manage this by a typical hedging strategy - diversifying activities. A striking fact quoted from one survey - the median family had three working members and seven different occupations. And you would expect that in a high risk enviroment, insurance in some form or the other would be popular. Wrong. Nobody seems to want insurance.

The book is full of amazing tidbits of research. For example , in Kenya, one of the largest levers for ensuring prosperity for your child was actually giving her deworming tablets. Children who were given deworming tablets for 2 years instead of only 1 year earned 20% more every year for their entire lifetime !!

There is , of course, no silver bullet for eradicating poverty. You mustn't expect one from this book. But it offers many fascinating insights that would make anybody think again about poverty. I heartily recommend anybody with an interest in this subject to read this book.