Thursday, February 24, 2011

A perfect storm

The Jasmine revolution(s) underway in Egypt, Libya and other parts of the Arab world have affected crude oil prices tremendously. Brent crude is now within striking distance of its all-time high of $147 / barrel. India, which imports more than 70% of its crude oil requirements, is going to be a big victim of this spike.

The Indian nation finds itself in a familiar position - caught in a cleft stick with no hope of redemption. Oil prices cannot be raised under the current APM dispensation since inflation is currently very high (more on this later). However, burgeoning oil prices would mean higher subsidies and consequently higher fiscal deficit. This is bad for the entire country since a) government borrowings would crowd out private investment which we sorely need b) it would increase cost of debt as the country's ratings would suffer and c) it would place downward pressure on the currency, thus making oil imports even more expensive.

The reasons why we find ourselves in this hopeless situation are also familiar. When times were good, our government paid no heed to fiscal consolidation and kept the money spigots open. This money lined the pockets of esteemed gentlemen like Suresh Kalmadi / A Raja and got stashed in Swiss bank accounts. So now when times are bad, we find ourselves in the situation of the grasshopper who did not save anything for the winter.

The key question now is - what can be done. I have a somewhat radical and easy solution - reduce taxes (Excise / customs / sales) on petrol products to very minimal. Currently, 40% of end prices are made up of these taxes. Simultaneously, free ALL crude products to market prices. This will a) prevent many more deaths of conscientious officers trying to prevent petrol adulteration with kerosene b) improve the environment c) create a demand curve where high prices will translate to lower usage and vice versa. There will be no upward pressure on inflation since the money supply in the system will remain constant (inflation is and always is a monetary phenomenon). This has been categorically stated by many more learned gentlemen than me in the government's own committees. To help the really needy, provide coupons to them which they can redeem to buy LPG / kerosene at market prices.

However, I do not this this solution will be adopted. This is because a) we have a venal and inane opposition who only like to play one-upmanship, the country be damned and b) we have an equally venal and inane government which does not believe in decisiveness, the country be damned.

So, by popular vote, the country IS indeed going to be damned!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mice in Men and Catcher in the Rye

Mice in Men:
I picked up this book of short stories, written by a doctor called Anirban Bose at the airport, hoping to fill up the 2 hours of my cramped flying time. Surprisingly, I found some of the stories quite good! Perhaps because I did not have too many expectations to begin with, but most of the stories held my interest, and most importantly, gave me a different perspective on things.

The fictional stories all have a doctor as the protagonist, and are slice-of-life / twist in the end type of stories. Good for a couple of hours of reading. Especially good are 3 stories - Stockholm Syndrome (written like a suspense thriller), The Best Way to Eat Mangoes (fantastic story, totally identifiable) and The Best Oishi (hauntingly true - brings a lump in the throat).

Catcher in the Rye:
What can I say about this evergreen classic that has not been said before? I read it for the third time recently, and loved it even more than before. Holden Caulfield, madman, genius, supreme humanist - the guy has characteristics that would make each reader identify with him. A loser in the conventional sense, the guy is one of the most memorable protagonists in popular literature.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


One big reason I'm not the least bit interested in the cricket World Cup currently underway is because I think the format is totally flawed. There are 14 teams playing, including such worthies as Canada, Ireland and the Netherlands. As a consequence, the 1st round matches are so one sided and boring that there really is no point watching them, or even following them in popular media.

I think ideally there should have been just 8 teams, divided into 2 groups. A total of 12 matches played before the top 2 from each group played the semi-finals and then the finals. A grand total of 15 matches for the entire shebang. Much more efficient than the current total of something like four times that number of matches and an equal number of days.

Would be interesting to see if any of the matches get any half-decent TV ratings. I would bet on very low ratings and advertisers losing their shirts!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

When will Microsoft ever get its act together?

In IIT, where I first came across computers and the Internet, I used mostly Linux and other Unix based operating systems. They were difficult to grasp the first time around, but once you got the basics figured out, they were quite easy to configure, customize and use. They were very very robust. At that time, I did not understand why most people were so anti Windows and MS Office. I used MS based systems mostly to watch movies since for some reason Linux did not have a good viewer (at least in the late 90s).

Today, after having used Microsoft based computers for no less than 9 years, I understand what I could not a decade ago. My computer is a state-of-the-art HP EliteBook. I have the most expensive hardware on this system. My operating system is the top-of-the-line Windows XP Professional. I don't understand why my computer operating system still keeps hanging ever so often. Every time this happens, the only thing I can do is to reboot. Each reboot takes around 10 - 15 minutes of my time. At 1am, when one is fighting a deadline, these 15 minutes are worth their weight in gold.

Another example - I used Lotus Notes for email during my time at McKinsey. Now, having used MS Outlook for the last 3.5 years, I must confess that it is the most heavy, most cumbersome and most buggy piece of software that I have encountered. It causes my computer to underperform so significantly, that I often shut it down when I'm working on critical stuff.

I have stopped using Internet Explorer altogether - Google Chrome is so much lighter, responsive and intuitive - it has become my default browser.

Microsoft has a monopoly position in these products - the least they can do is to make them REALLY REALLY good. However, they cannot seem to get it. They have had similar experiences with web-based email (Hotmail, which is so much inferior to GMail), smartphones (their OS is nowhere even close to Google's android or Apple's iOS) or even search (Bing could not dent Google's market share). These guys are in the best place to invest vast resources and cream the competition. But they don't seem to get it!

What is up with Microsoft???

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Facebook...

While googling for some Social Network dialogues, I came across this website. Funny!

The Social Network

I'd been trying to see the movie when it was playing at theaters in India, but could not see it because the wife and I could not take our little quiet-loving daughter to a movie hall. I thought I had missed the bus on this movie despite all the rave reviews etc. And then, I finally got to watch it in the strangest and most unexpected of places - on a domestic Jet Airways flight! (Interesting aside: I could watch the movie only because I was seated in the economy section. Apparently, the business section had some issue whereby the in-flight entertainment section starts late and ends early - I would not have been able to watch the entire film at one go)

I thought the film was absolutely fantastic - the sparkling dialogue, the brilliance of the lead actor and the chutzpah of the film make it a must watch. What I liked very much was the idea of Mark Zuckerberg (and I'm sure it is nowhere like this in real life) - a guy who is in-your-face, unapologetic about being smarter than you, and says it like it is. A guy who is excellent at what he does, has searing ambitions and the wherewithal to make things work! The best part about the movie was that it filled me with an infectious optimism and a sense of how small beginnings can lead to great things!

I don't understand what all the pre-release controversy was about, though. At no point did I feel that the movie set out to make a villain out of the guy - I thought he was fair and center the hero of the movie. He gets a very sympathetic treatment from the script and from the viewer too.

The best line in the movie: "It's as simple as this: if you had invented Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook"

Ambush by the big boy

For long, English business news in India was dominated by CNBC-TV18. NDTV Profit and Bloomberg TV were not even significant challengers. The Hindi segment was dominated by Zee Business. Into this cozy world, the Economic Times launched a new business channel called ET Now.

From all accounts, ET Now had a lot of teething troubles. This, despite luring away a significant chunk of CNBC's anchors and other employees at very lucrative rates. However, ET Now has now flexed its muscles even more by exclusively tying up market 'analysts' and 'experts' such as Ashwini Gujral and Sudarshan Sukhani. These dudes (bless their general ineptitude and lack of any accurate predictions about market moves) have not been appearing on CNBC's website ( for a couple of months now. I must confess that reading their views (if only to disparage them!) was the only reason I ever visited the website in any case. Lately, I find myself visiting the Economic Times' website much more than moneycontrol.

CNBC's cupboard looks a bit bare currently - they are now trying to cultivate a new crop of 'experts' but it looks like a very long shot to me. However, I think moneycontrol still has a much better product when it comes to reporting earnings (estimates as well as analyses). ET scores poorly on that front.

Additionally, to make a significant dent, I think ET Now needs to re-think its distribution strategy. For example, I don't think I can watch ET Now on Tata Sky (not on the basic 250 channel pack anyway). So a natural consumer of the channel's content is unable to watch it, which certainly does not augur well for subscription or advertising revenues.

Would be interesting to see if BCCL can replicate its dominance in print to TV. (Aside: I really don't understand why they are dominant in print - the ToI is just a gossip rag, with the HT a much much better product. As for ET, the less said the better. Business Standard is vastly superior and Mint is so far ahead of both that its not even worth mentioning in the same breath)

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Peepli Live

I saw this movie today, a long time after having bought the DVD. At the end of the movie, I feel quite depressed - the story's treatment in the movie is quite light and deft, but the content itself is so cynical and bereft of any hope that it is difficult to not feel uncomfortable. The worst part about the whole shebang is that it rings so true!

There are many things wrong with our country. The debilitating poverty, the sensationalist media, the venal politicians, the useless bureaucrats - all these come alive in the story of Peepli Live. The only bright hope - a young journalist with his heart in the right place - succumbs in the end to no avail. The world goes on, and many Hori Mahatos continue to die.

I think the reason why the world that this movie portrays exists is because the victims let it exist. Perhaps due to the caste system ingrained in our genes, we as a nation are so used to accepting someone else's superiority that we bend over backwards and take it. We like not only turning over the other cheek, but we offer to self flagellate for good measure. We continue to be chained by the accidents of our birth - if one is lucky enough to be born in the right family, one gets the most exciting opportunities. But one born to - for example, my maid - stands no chance to change the trajectory of his life. And this is the worst tragedy of our times.