Thursday, December 27, 2007

Piracy is not fair, Neither is Monopoly

Microsoft recently went on an Anti-Piracy drive in Kerala. They have been following a multifaceted policy of learned ignorance, passive warnings and timed & throttled acts of aggression to tackle piracy and to push sales of licenses. I don't condone piracy, neither do I approve monopoly. I would like to explore more on the legality/fairness issues of piracy, monopoly and the relevance of FLOSS in this context.

Let me explain the adjectives used above; Learned ignorance - by allowing piracy to grow in the home user segment and thus use it to open and grow new markets; Passive warnings - by showing funny messages during upgradation or service pack installation; Timed - at reasonably predictable intervals; Throttled - they don't catch everybody.

Developing software is a business. The people employed in the business will have to be paid their due rewards. So software has to be sold and revenues generated from the sales. From this revenue, a share has to be used to pay the salaries, and the rest is rightfully for the owners take. Anybody using a software and not paying for it is effectively denying the right of the producer (the company and its employees) to get a return on their investment(of money and labor). So piracy is not fair. As simple as that.

Piracy is illegal by law in almost all countries. Piracy is equivalent to stealing software and is no different from stealing a bread from a store. Neither can be justified on the basis of the need of the situation. Not only is piracy unfair as discussed above, it is illegal and is not justifiable.

Although I agree theoretically with what is said on simplymalayalees forum, I have reservations about the way the argument is put forward. I run a software company and I agree that people will have to pay for the work done in creating the software. In a normal market when the traded volume of a given product goes up the cost of the product has to come down. It has not happened with Microsoft Windows. The cost has been recovered several times over. What we see here is the effects of the Monopoly Microsoft is enjoying in the market.

Again my opinion is not to legally fight the monopoly or to deny Microsoft the opportunity to make the profit but rather, concerned people should take necessary steps to invigorate the market by introducing alternative options. This is where alternative operating systems like GNU Linux and FreeBSD comes into the picture, and this is precisely what the Linux community is doing.

Microsoft has every right to make a business decision to not reduce the cost of their operating systems below what they are going for currently. If they had perfect competition (in fact any serious competition at all) there wouldn't have been a scenario where they wouldn't have to lower their prices at all. Prices would have been regulated on their own by the free market.

So that must mean that they enjoy some level of monopoly in the market. Microsoft has successfully managed to build their business. They built it so fast and so big that they effectively swamped out all, if any real competition existed, of their competition. Shouldn't they be allowed to reap the rewards of their efforts? Yes. But they should be punished if they had broken any laws of the land along the way.

But monopoly is never good for the market even though it might be very good for the monopolistic company. Monopoly gives the company total control over the prices without any bargaining power for the market. So what should the market do? Demand the monopolistic company to yield to their demands? The market has a much stronger weapon but it has not realized that till now. It is the power of demand. The market has been meekly yielding to the monopoly through cowardly acts of piracy where they promote the monopoly and effectively preventing any kind of competition building up in the market.

So if you feel that Microsoft is manipulating the market and exploiting it using monopoly then rather than complaining, and pirating, you should start using alternative options. As demand builds up for alternatives, companies will spring up to meet this demand and a more vibrant market scenario will appear. Already Linux companies are geared up to take up this challenge, but is the market willing to take the leap?

Gandhiji fought the British East India Company not by raiding their factories or stealing their coffers but by boycotting their products. This is the same strategy that people have to use to revitalize the Operating System market. As a concluding note, if you have the money and you would rather not bear the cost of uncertainty (in the time you have to wait until competition builds up) then you are totally free to go buy your Windows Operating System. Such an act would not be considered an act of cowardice or unfairness

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Monday, December 24, 2007

What is the purpose of your life?

Through the ages man has changed from a hunter-gatherer to the modern day specialized employee. In this process he has upgraded his needs and desires from the bare minimum necessities of prehistoric times to the ultramodern luxuries and fancies of the 21st century. You and me being part of this mad race have been doing this same thing and are destined to do this unless we stop and think. What am I really after? What is the purpose of my life?

A typical human life goes as follows - birth, childhood, schooling, college education, job, marriage, kids', rearing children, children's education, retirement, children's marriages, their kids, rearing grandchildren, death. This is a cycle that has been going on since the birth of mankind. But am I bound to do these things? What is it that I am after? Why should I follow this routine? What is the ultimate purpose of life around which these activities are intertwined?

Most people do not get time to think about these questions, being busy as they are in the various activities mentioned above or planning the various events mentioned above. Generally these activities and events themselves becomes the main objectives of their lives. Once that happens the relevance of the above questions vanishes for such a person.

So the process can be rewritten as follows. Going through childhood is not optional and I have to go through it. I have to have a good education because I have to have a good job. I have to have a good job to be able to support a family. I have to marry because I have to have a family. I have to have kids as that is what is expected when having a family. Then I have to prepare my kids to follow the same cycle I went through. In the meanwhile I have to progress in my career parallelly to take care of growing needs. Finally I retire from my job. Along the way my kids will have married and would have had kids of their own. I play my role in bringing them up. In the end I die.

Did I miss anything here? I am sorry, but I heard that man is different from animals. I don't really see how different we are from animals who follow almost the same general routine as above in their own ways. So what is the point? Isn't everything fine the way it is, as it is now? Why do you really want to have any other purpose other than the process discussed above?

Yes you are right you really don't need to have any other purpose but you should decide on your own that the above process is your purpose. People follow the above process not because they have embraced it as their ultimate purpose but because they have been taught to do so by generations of practice and has been embedded into the society as the default expected behavior.

People should at least think about what they want to do with their lives. Not everybody has to go outside the set boundaries, but those who think they can, and those who think they should, should. People bold enough to tread uncharted territories should. It is the efforts of such adventurers that have taken the world to what it is now. If people had just followed routines I would not be sitting here typing on my laptop but instead would have been hunting for my grubs in the wild.

Going outside the orthodox routines does not just mean breaking the conventional routines. It is about thinking and deciding about your course of action on your own rather than following a set pattern of actions. It would mean identifying and following your passion. It would mean setting and embracing your ideals. It would mean taking control over your life. It would mean defining your future.

So if you are still living a life defined and dictated by others, stop, think, decide, take control and march ahead. Your life would be happier, more meaningful and ultimately purposeful.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

An year since I turned vegetarian

It was exactly an year before today that I switched to vegetarianism. People who knew me were not entirely surprised given my liking for Gandhian principles but they kept on asking me as to why I did that. They put forth several possible reasons why I took that decision. I didn't say yes, neither did I say no. So why did I take that decision?

There are several reasons one can come out with for supporting vegetarianism. I can cite a few here. One plain and proven fact is that vegetarian foods are healthier than non-vegetarian foods. Vegetarian food is also much lighter on the digestive system and leads to much smoother digestive processes. It has been said that humans are more adapted to eat vegetarian food than non-vegetarian food. Interestingly vegetarian food is also much cheaper than non-vegetarian food.

There is also one not-so-obvious benefit to vegetarianism. Vegetarian foods exert much lesser pressure on the environment than non-vegetarian food. Pound for pound, calorie for calorie, vegetarian foods require much lesser area of cultivation, much lesser environmental resources than non-vegetarian food. The per acre output of vegetarian foods are much higher than that for non-vegetarian foods.

The pressure exerted by non-vegetarianism is not limited to land but also to aquatic ecosystems too. A news report that came out recently in the news papers indicated that human pressure on the biodiversity in the oceans through excessive fishing has brought several species of fish to irrecoverable levels.

Given a choice I would stick to this environmental pressure advantage of vegetarian foods as my favorite. But none of these were the real reason why I shifted to vegetarianism. Not that these did not affect my decision making. They did, but the one main reason was my abhorrence to smoking and drinking (alcohol).

Some of my friends have had taken to the habit of consuming alcohol, and some others smoking, some to pan, and some to combinations of these. I have always been a big opponent of both these habits. I have always fought against these habits because of the obvious reason of them being unhealthy and the not so obvious reason for my loathe to these because of the way these substances affect human psyche.

Alcohol consumption results in a decrease in a persons control over his rational self. Smoking results in a uncontrollable dependence on tobacco to maintain normal life and additionally to control the persons psychological sensations of sadness, happiness, fear etc. I feel that both these are acts of surrender of ones rational self. This is the aspect that I totally dislike about these habits.

Of course these habits also increases the probability of an earlier death to a person addicted or used to these habits. Earlier than it otherwise would have been if they had not been used to these habits. I have seen highly educated people take to these habits in spite of knowing this danger. I guess it is like mountaineering for these people. Mountaineering, like smoking and drinking, increases the probability of an earlier death, for the people engaged in that. Only difference would be that the moment you stop the hobby the probability vanishes while it doesn't for these habits.

It was during last December that I had another set of heated discussions with a few of my friends to persuade them to stop these habits. As usual I couldn't make them change their decisions. I realized then that, I probably did not really feel how these guys felt, having to stop something that they like, and, having no real reason to stop, other than the risk factor I mentioned before, which they had probably decided to accept.

This is where Gandhiji's principle of Satyagraha influenced my decision making. Gandhiji always took to renouncing things that he liked as a way of coercing his opponents into agreeing to his terms or as a way of teaching people around him the values and principles like his fast at the Tolstoy farm as a penance for the children's mistake. There is another of Gandhiji's findings that I would like to cite as an influencing factor for my decision. It is his conclusion that control over food is the first step to control over will.

So I had to give up something that I liked and something that I would have to struggle to give up. That is where I came up with this idea about giving up non-vegetarianism. So en-route to a hotel to have a massive non-vegetarian dinner I announced my decision to my friends without citing the reason. I had to eat non-vegetarian food that night as my cousin with whom I was staying was caught unawares but since then I have stayed clean.

I did not announce the reason why I took the decision because I did not know how long I would be able to stick to the decision. Like my other experiments with my life this is a work in progress as I am never sure when I will fail in this pursuit or when I will change my decision. For an year I have held on to this decision. I had a tough time initially resisting the temptation but now I think I have got used to it. The smell of fish is probably the only thing that still tempts me.

Interestingly two other people in my family have taken to vegetarianism recently for their own reasons. One is my sister who took to it around 3 years back and another is my cousin Thomas(Appu) who took to it a few days before I did.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Life without throw-away plastic bags

Government of Kerala has banned the use of plastic bags thinner than 30 microns in the state. From what I see around me the ban is still a 'work in progress'. The simple reason why retail stores do not want to move on to thicker plastic bags is that they do not want to spend more money on the plastic bags.

The incremental increase in cost per bag might be low but the total incremental expense incurred in going for the thicker bags is not. Additionally since shop keepers normally buy their plastic bags in bulk they will have to bear total incremental cost upfront and this makes them reluctant to make the shift. Moreover this additional cost has to come out of the retailer's profit as they will not be able to transfer this to the cost of the products they sell as the per bag cost increment is low and any price rise will not be justifiable.

Alternative options like paper bags, jute bags are expensive and would not be viable for any products that do not sell at high margins. They might work out fine in textile showrooms, luxury products stores, gift showrooms etc but not in a grocery store or a vegetable stall or a milk stall. So how do you make the shift? Implementing the govt rule might be very expensive in the short run. Is just a shift to thicker bags enough?

The idea behind moving to thicker plastic bags is that the thicker bags can be recycled as opposed to the thinner ones. But they have to be recycled for the ban to make any sense. Throwing the bag along with the household garbage does in fact cause more problems than throwing away the older thinner bags.Plastic is non bio-degradable and remains in the environment and cause different kinds of problems ranging from clogged drainages to creation of potent carcinogens when burnt.

Unless people seriously understand the reason why the thinner bags were banned and realize the importance of reusing or recycling plastic bags the ban would just be a waste of public money by enforcements and private money by loss of profit. In addition to enforcing the ban government should also focus on conveying to the general public the reasons behind the ban and importance of recycling and other good environmental practices.

Once consumers decide to cut down on their use of plastic bags the demand curve will fall drastically and this can lead to the desired effects of the ban. Ever since I started living on my own, i.e. since April 2006, I have been successfully following a no-plastic-bag policy in my house. I simply stopped getting plastic bags when I buy anything. Instead I carry durable, reusable, heavy duty bags when I go shopping. The bags I have are made of plastic and have lasted for the last 1 1/2 years. If I forget to take the bag I carry the goods back to the car or back home (if from a nearby store) in my arms as a punishment for forgetting the bags :).

Remember - plastic is bad for several reasons - environmental problems, health problems, civic problems. So avoid plastic as much as possible, reuse if unavoidable and recycle if not reusable. And yes - it is possible to avoid it almost completely as I have successfully demonstrated with the small experiment with my life since April 2006.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Life without throw-away plastic bags"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Global warming - A reality

Al Gore and Rajendra Pachauri were awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace prize for their efforts in fighting global warming. This was a bold move by the Nobel committee and has highlighted with enough significance the importance of tackling this anthropogenic problem. Up till now this issue was floating around in different round table meets, different international conventions. Nothing major has happened with US and China - the two biggest contributors to global warming - not taking any serious decisions or efforts to reduce their emissions.

But is this an issue where decisions/actions have to be taken only by the heads of countries or international organizations. No it is not. On the contrary, this issue calls for the concerted efforts of all the citizens of planet earth. One might ask how he/she can make the Chinese Premier take a positive stand regarding this. No you might not and you need not. All you have to do is play your part in fighting this problem.

Now what are the ways in which you could be contributing to CO2 emissions?. Simply put, every action you perform and every resource you consume costs the environment in terms of the amount of CO2 emitted due to your action or emitted during the production of that resource. There are two ways in which people contribute to CO2 emissions. By increasing the amount of CO2 emitted(positive CO2 emissions) - say for example by burning fossil fuels. The second way is by reducing CO2 absorptions - for example when you cut down a tree you reduce the total CO2 absorption capacity by as much as what a tree can absorb.

Consider for example you taking the elevator. Elevator consumes energy and producing that energy would have resulted in some CO2 emissions. You might argue that the electricity came from hydro-electric power. But every unit of hydro electric power you consume takes out as many units of clean energy available for use by everybody and puts a demand of as many units of non-clean energy that resulted in CO2 emissions while being produced.

Take another example - automobiles. In this case the translation to CO2 cost is more direct as you emit CO2 directly when you drive your automobiles. As with the elevator, wherever you consume energy there is a CO2 emission associated with that. Now coming to tangible items - when you use a sheet of paper you are contributing to global warming by having created that demand for that extra sheet of paper that created the requirement to cut down a tree somewhere on earth and contributing to negative CO2 absorptions. If you argue that the paper was recycled the counter argument would be that recycling takes up energy that in turn has a CO2 emissions cost.

Like paper, any other resource you consume/use/dispose (eg: food, clothes, plastic) has a CO2 emission cost. Even if you recycle resources there is still a CO2 emission cost, although it would be much lower than the cost of creating the resource in the first place. So what is the solution? What are the ways in which a common man can play a role in fighting global warming?

Effectively every human action contributes in one way or another towards global warming. This is the problem and the solution is also in this statement. Moderation is the simple way in which anybody can fight global warming. Moderation in terms of consumption of energy and resources. Increasing efficiency of processes, reusing & recycling resources are auxiliary steps that can help in this fight. We cannot altogether stop consuming energy and resources. But we should try to limit our consumption as much as possible.

Contrary to the theory of consumerism, an application of moderation would be the most beneficial aspect to global economy as a whole. The cost of global warming will become too high to be negated by any levels of economic growth resulting from crass consumerism.

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Will I buy from reliance if they are as guilty as accused

Reliance Group of companies - combined set of companies owned by both Anil Ambani and Mukesh Ambani - is the largest corporate conglomerate in India. Even though the group has been split into two between the brothers, for coherence sake I will be referring to the combined group as Reliance in the discussion below. From a humble beginning in the late 60s it has grown into the behemoth it is currently. It is one of the few corporate success stories that have caught the attention of International Business World.

As with any big company Reliance (the group of companies) also had to face several allegations during its growth. Normally, in the case of any company, a good percentage of these accusations would be results of corporate rivalry or mere jealousy. But there has been quite too many accusations to be merely ignored as jealousy induced ones. I for one person do not know the reality behind these accusations. But I have to consider the volume and seriousness of some of these accusations before I make any kind of judgment regarding them.

My issue here is not whether Reliance is guilty or not, rather another independent problem. Suppose I come to the conclusion that Reliance is guilty based on whatever evidence I get. Now I have to answer another question. Should I avail of Reliance services or not? Simple isn't it. Not quite. If the answer is in the affirmative then I would indeed be indirectly promoting Reliance and would be promoting whatever they are doing and whatever I had judged to be as wrong.

Now why can't I just decide to not avail of Reliance services if I am convinced that Reliance is guilty of whatever they have been accused with? Here comes the ubiquitous issue of money. Reliance Services are among the lowest priced services that are available in the market. My company - zyxware is not yet a customer for reliance. Recently I have been shopping for health insurance for my employees. I have been reviewing the offerings from the different health insurance providers in India. Guess who is the cheapest - Reliance General.

If I go for any other company other than Reliance, I will inevitably end up paying at least 10,000 Rupees more than what I have to otherwise. My business self asks me to go for Reliance to get the cheaper rates. My ethical self argues that I would be promoting Reliance if I do so. My logical self has an interesting argument - if I ruin all my money on trying to defend my ethical self, I would end up having no business self to support my ethical self.

So the question under discussion is not whether Reliance is guilty or not but instead whether people can/will make financial sacrifices, or for that matter any other sacrifice like extra effort, when sticking to ethical policies. The answer cannot be given in black and white. Different people would allow their endurance to crumble at different magnitudes of the sacrifices involved. It however has to be noted that people can change this limit of endurance for the sacrifices by conscious decision making and practice. But before that they have to identify with the need to stand by their ethics and values. For that they have to have a strong value system which can be used to make their decisions. And for that they have to start thinking about such issues.

I have not decided on the Insurance provider yet. I have to talk with a few more people about the pro's and con's of the different providers and their services. I might even end up going for Reliance. But the issue had got me thinking about the philosophical problem involved. If people start applying their ethical and moral values to their everyday decision making, they can slowly start implementing some of the things that they believe is right. By practicing that, ultimately they would/should be able to stand by their values at any cost. I hope I can do that as I slowly evolve my system of values and framework of ethics through the experiments I run with my life.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Will I buy from reliance if they are as guilty as accused"

Monday, December 10, 2007

People really don't remember anything or is it just me

I have this problem (not really sure if it is a problem) of not remembering incidents, places, people, conversations etc. I have been like this since I can remember (which is not that much). I don't have any problem in remembering equations, dates, sentences, stories etc. I don't remember the color of the houses I have lived in but I can draw out the layout of the houses I have lived in. Funny isn't it.

People look at me with sympathy when I say I don't remember a lot from my childhood. It is as if I really did not hav a childhood. Not that I don't remember anything at all. I remember specific incidents that had left a big positive or negative impression on my mind. Then I have faint recollections of some disjoint set of events scattered through out my life.

Since this is something that I have to deal with regularly, I have been thinking a lot about this. When you say you remember a person what do you mean? For me, if I close my eyes and try to bring into my mind the picture of somebody, I can't, I really can't. It would just be blank. Now if I try to recollect something that is more regular in geometry like say a red ball. If I hold the ball in my hand and then close my eyes I won't be able to picture the ball, or even the color red for that matter.

This does not mean that I can't remember anything. Suppose I see a set(a small set) of objects and then you introduce another small set of objects which I had not seen earlier I would very easily find out the objects that I had seen initially. This means that when my mind sees the combined set, it is able to pick the ones that it had recorded initially. I would be able to successfully do this experiment with multiple sets of objects and with variations of color or size or geometry.

I can identify all my personal belongings but I wouldn't be able to bring an image of any of them to my mind at will. I remember all my friends and relatives whom I keep in touch with each other but I can't bring an image of them to my mind if I don't see them or their picture in front of me. It is as if I don't have the APIs for internal display of the stored images in my memory.

Or maybe I got this all wrong. It is not just me but that this applies for all people. When people say they remember stuff they might just be stating the fact that they will be able to identify the person or object when they see the person or object again.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "People really don't remember anything or is it just me"

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Be true to yourselves

Gandhiji's life was a pursuit of truth. He had never claimed to have reached any level of perfection. It was always an ongoing experiment, and thus he named his autobiography "A Story of My Experiments with Truth". For Gandhiji, a primary aspect of truth meant - being true to ones own convictions. This is the aspect I would like to delve on further.

By the above definition, truth doesn't have to be absolute or perfect and it could be something that moves towards perfection with each pursuit. This is interesting because it opens up the possibility of following truth without perfect knowledge. Following absolute truth is difficult as absolute knowledge is impossible. So being true to oneself would allow oneself to follow truth without waiting to acquire perfect knowledge.

The theory sounds very simple but the practical implementation of it is very difficult. Take for example the simple case of not lying. I am not sure if there is anybody who would want other people to lie to them. So people do not want others to lie to them. This would imply that they do not like lying. But when it comes to not telling lies to others, there wouldn't be too many people who would get a clean chit on that count. In fact there wouldn't even be too many people who would try their best to not lie at all. Even when they have in their minds the negative attitude about people lying to them they would still go ahead and tell lies to others. Telling lies is a simple example but, it was selected because it was one specific aspect that Gandhiji tried to maintain a clean record on.

If instead people try to be true to themselves they would not commit most of the mistakes they make in their daily lives. It must be noted that this deduction can be made even after considering the fact that nobody has perfect knowledge. It is a logical extension to the premise that people are convinced about the importance of knowledge (even if it is knowledge according to their own limited definitions). So if somebody is convinced about the requirement of knowledge he/she would try to acquire it and having acquired it, it would help in reexamining their established convictions. If there is any contradiction with their existing convictions they would find it easy to change their conviction to match the new knowledge. This last part again assumes that they will remain true to their conviction about the requirement of knowledge.

Nobody is perfect. Gandhiji was not perfect and he himself has confessed about his imperfections. This was highlighted by his statement about his convictions. He stated that he would always try to be true to his convictions. He did not claim that his convictions were always correct and he said that his statements at some point of time in the future could possibly contradict his statements at some point in his past. But irrespective of that he would be true to his convictions in the future as he was in the past. This is probably one of the best preemptive philosophical bails one can get but yes this statement conforms with his pursuit of truth.

The moral of the story is simple; whatever you do or say - examine it within the light of your established convictions and if you see a contradiction, reexamine both your conviction and your action/statement, decide which is correct based on any new knowledge that you have acquired and then try to correct your conviction or your action/statement so that you would not contradict your convictions in the future. An attempt to adhere to this simple concept could take you a long way in the pursuit of truth.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Be true to yourselves"

Monday, November 26, 2007

Simple things that can make driving much easier on Indian Roads

One of the several things that I liked about US was their road system. US has an excellent road network that interconnects all their cities and towns. Driving in the US is far more easier than driving in India (except for some exceptions - like peak hour New York city traffic) not just for their good roads but also for the fact that most people in the US obeys basic traffic rules.

There are three specific reasons that I think that have contributed to this effect. One is that people are brought up with reasonably good civic sense. Most traffic rules are just implementation of some basic fairness system and anybody with a good civic sense (and a rational mind) should be able to deduce these laws. Another reason is that the rules are executed reasonably impartially and violations are punished with just fines. Additionally the licensing system is very fair and uncorrupted, and provides a system of eliminating people who do not know driving or the traffic rules from getting their licenses.

The first two factors really do not play any significant role in the Indian traffic system. As far as the third factor is concerned, our system is corrupt to the core and anybody who goes via the 'right channels' and 'pays the right fees' can get any license without really having to know traffic rules or even basic driving capabilities. I personally know quite a few people (girls mostly) who do have licenses but do not know driving. There was also this recent bust of corrupt officials in Traffic Department of Kerala by Malayala Manorama by getting them to issue commercial driving licenses without even knowing how to drive a heavy vehicle.

I am highly optimistic about the three problems above. All three can be solved with some dedicated efforts from the citizens. It will probably take a long time. But it is possible. There is however one aspect that can easily be rectified in the short run, i.e. clearing up the ignorance of the common Indian driver. A percentage (not sure of the size of it) of drivers break rules and cause inconveniences to other people because of a simple reason - they do not know the rules. A subset of these people would have broken the rule even if they had known about the rule. We cannot do anything about this set. However the remainder would not have broken the rule if they had known about the rule.

If there is a concerted effort at the school level to put in place a system where students are taught the fundamental principles behind traffic rules, simple ethics to follow while driving, logical rules for deducing some of the traffic rules, some basic road sense then the above issue can be solved to a certain extent. This is one area that is worth pursuing. Maybe some time in the future I would like to try my hand at that. Driving in the Indian roads has been one of the most frustrating things that I face on a daily basis. So I should at least see what I can do about that :).

Here are some of the basic driving principles which when followed would make driving much easier and safer for other people on the road (principles because I am not sure if we have rules that correspond to these).

This is not a comprehensive list but rather an indicative list. 1) Do not park near intersections where you can cause inconvenience for turning vehicles. This alone causes so much of the traffic jams that happen around busy intersections in Trivandrum. Not only would you cause obstruction to turning vehicles but in turn they would cause obstruction to onward and ultimately oncoming traffic and causing traffic jams

2) Do not park on the wrong side of the road - you will cause inconvenience to oncoming traffic when you are parking and also when you are taking the car out from the parking spot.

3) Do not take U turns in busy roads. Turn to a by-lane on the left, take a U turn there (or turn around by reversing into further by-lanes), come back to the main road and then take a right. Otherwise you would cause obstructions to traffic behind you when you start your U turn and cause obstructions to oncoming traffic when you finish the U turn. In the prescribed approach you cause only a minimal obstruction to the traffic behind you and besides you have the option of waiting for an intermission in the traffic before you make the right turn. Also you will be able to reach normal traffic speed while joining the oncoming traffic much faster this way than with the U turn.

4) Do not park at no-parking zones. If you do so you would inevitably be causing inconvenience to other people. The no-parking zone was put there for some purpose in the first place.

5) Do not go slow in fast lanes. You would be causing inconvenience to traffic behind you and would be forcing them to take extra risks in trying to overtake you.

6) If you are going slow, keep to the left of the road. Why should somebody going faster than you wait behind you just because you want to go slow.

7) Always keep left if you have an option to. That way you will ensure that the road utilization is very high and also provide the least inconvenience to onward and oncoming traffic

8) Do not stop at no-stopping zones for the same reasons as for the no-parking zones.

9) When you park, make sure that you are not wasting any parking space, and that you are parked as close to the kerb as possible and that you are not obstructing any other parked vehicle or a driveway or a by-lane.

10) Never overtake along the right side of a vehicle which has put a right indicator. Similarly move to the right of the lane if you are turning right since you should not expect people to overtake you through the right once you put the right signal.

11) Likewise never pass along the left of a vehicle which is turning left. So when you are turning left do not expect a vehicle to go through your left and hence keep to the left side of the road.

12) Give way for faster vehicles. You wouldn't gain anything by not doing so and he would gain something by you doing so.

13) Always stop at stop signs at intersections. Merge into the traffic or cross the traffic only during an intermission in the flow. If you don't you will be causing far more total inconvenience to a large number of people than the slight convenience you gain by not doing so.

14) Give way to oncoming vehicles turning right. This is true especially in narrow roads because if you don't it is highly likely that you are going to cause a traffic block for yourself down the road. Letting the turning vehicles turn will ensure a reasonably smooth flow and prevent deadlocks.

15) Avoid right turns in heavy traffic whenever possible. Alternatively go take the next round or turn left into a by-lane and turn round and wait for a respite in the traffic and then cross the traffic.

16) When you are waiting to cross an intersection make sure that you cross only during a respite in the traffic. Do not inch into the intersection and restrict the traffic. If you inch into the traffic you will be inviting the vehicles to cross you by moving right and thereby create the possibility of a traffic obstruction to traffic in both directions.

17) When you are waiting in a traffic jam, DO NOT try to overtake the vehicle in front of you. Not only that you wouldn't reach anywhere by doing that but also you would be creating a deadlock by blocking the oncoming traffic.

18) This might sound funny - yes you should not violate a one way rule even at night. The thing is oncoming traffic would never expect a vehicle against the one-way direction and could be very dangerous for you and the oncoming driver.

These principles are simple extensions of a few fundamental principles

1) Other drivers on the road have as much right as you do. Corollary - You have as much right for the road as anybody else.
2) Do not cause inconvenience for other people on the road for the sake of your luxury. Corollary - You don't have to suffer inconvenience for the sake of another person's luxury.
3) First come - first serve, so yield for the guy who came first. Corollary - demand if you are the first.
4) Right of way for the one on the right so yield if you are on the left. Corollary - demand if you are on the right.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Simple things that can make driving much easier on Indian Roads"

Friday, November 23, 2007

There is luck, but nobody is lucky

Luck is an unpredictable parameter that can bias results of experiments to produce highly unlikely outcomes. Any circumstance in day-to-day life can be called an experiment with some outcome. When somebody digs a well and lands a pot of gold, people would say it was sheer luck. Luck can go both ways - you could have good luck as above or you could have bad luck - like when getting run over by a car.

So luck could be mathematically defined as an incalculable parameter in an experiment where a highly unlikely outcome occurred. More simplistically it is a phenomenon that causes occurrences of low probability events. Now that we have defined luck we can take a look at another related term - lucky. A person is called lucky if he has luck acting in his favor more often than not and unlucky if otherwise.

Somebody being lucky would then imply that when he/she is the actor in an experiment the outcome would more likely be favorable than not. Consider a simple experiment as tossing a coin. If somebody is inherently lucky he should have a higher than expected percentage of successful outcomes when a coin is tossed n times. Additionally even if the experiment was repeated a similar result should be observed. As a corollary an unlucky person should see a higher than expected percentage of failures.

But the above explanation about "being lucky" does not sound reasonable. If the coin was tossed by a third person, how in the world would the lucky person have possibly affected the outcome of a toss. If this possibility have to be accepted then we will have to accept a metaphysical relationship between the person and the coin. Under a system of rational, physical analysis this does not sound very plausible.

Thus, even though we have defined luck, we have concluded that you can't be lucky nor unlucky. So those of you who have been blaming your luck, do please stop doing that and those of you who have been attributing outcomes to luck also likewise.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "There is luck, but nobody is lucky"

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

There is no point in worrying

One of the worst afflictions of humankind is its proclivity for worrying. The malady affects almost every individual of the human species alike. There are extreme medical treatments for extreme cases of this illness (eg: tranquilizers, depressants). However there is a simple psychological treatment for this disease. The symptoms could range from reduction in efficiency under mild conditions to depression and hallucinations under the extreme conditions.

Psychologically worries are caused by negative thoughts, often repeated thoughts, mostly revolving around helplessness, inevitability, uncertainty, inability of the person under the given set of circumstances. The issue is normally aggravated by a vicious cycle of worry causing repeated reexamination of the issue under an even more negative frame of mind. The obvious results of worries include - loss of peace of mind, fall in concentration, decrease in ability, decrease in confidence, development of a negative frame of mind and ultimately depression. These are in addition to the physiological results that could range from increase of blood pressure to even a cardiac arrest.

A person can worry about anything and everything on this planet. The items and issues that he/she worries about can be broadly classified as items/issues the person has control over and items/issues the person does not have control over. Everybody gets infected by the worry germ once in a while. The rational person should, however, be able to identify and classify the cause of the worry, at the onset of the worry itself. Once the classification is done, it is a matter of simple decision making to set one's mind to not think about the item/issue the person is worrying about, if the item/issue is beyond the persons control. In the second scenario where the item/issue is within the person's control he/she should take necessary actions to bring the item /issue under his/her control and to obviate the cause for the worry itself.

Most people lose the ability to think coherently at the onset of the worry and hence derail at the first step of the solution itself. This is however a matter of practice. Start with small things you worry about and do away with the worries using the above strategy. Slowly tackle bigger worries. Pretty soon you will reach a carefree state of mind where you don't worry about anything at all. It is a very liberating feel once you reach that state. The moment you start your way out of your worries you will feel the sudden change in the quality of your life.

Let me explain with some simple examples. Worrying about not reaching office/school in time when waiting for your bus/riding in your bus - no amount of worrying could bring the bus a second earlier, You could instead try catching an earlier bus the next day. Worrying about rains - take an umbrella. Worrying about exams 1 month before the exams - study well and you wouldn't have to worry at all. Worrying about exams 10 minutes before the exams - worrying will only increase the chances of your making mistakes. Worrying about your performance at your job - Increase your ability/capability and performance will follow.

In simple words - if you can change it, change it, else stop worrying about it.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "There is no point in worrying"

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Can reason exist without faith?

I consider myself a highly rational individual. I like to take my decisions based on reason than on anything else. People normally allow a lot of emotions, sentiments, and habits affect their decisions. It is not that emotions or other factors does not affect my decision making but rather I try to limit the influence of all these factors from my decision making.

This might sound pretty simple and straightforward but on the contrary it is a very tough task. Sometimes, when you have other people involved in the decision making or when other people are affected by the decision made, taking a purely rational decision might even become impossible.

So what is a rational decision? A rational decision is a decision based on reason. And what is reason? Princeton's wordweb defines it as a fact that logically justifies a premise or a conclusion. So a rational decision is based on already proven theories and facts that further validate the theories. So applying a system of pure reason somebody else will be able to validate the decision to be true under the given rationale.

A rational decision is very likely to be the right decision under normal circumstances. Nobody makes decisions with an intention to make it wrong. So those people who take decisions based on other factors other than reason make them under the belief that these decisions are going to be correct. These decisions can therefore be classified as faith based decisions. They will believe that their decisions are going to be correct because the system that validates their decisions while they are being made is a system based not on rationale. Under their faith based system their decisions will be validated to be true. Somebody else subscribing to the same faith based system will be able to validate the decision, but this would be very unlike, if somebody applying a system of pure reason tries to validate it.

From the above reasoning we might be deceived to get to a conclusion that a rational system would be better than any faith based system. However on closer examination we can see a more interesting aspect. Take any rational system, it would have a set of fundamental axioms. These are theories that are considered correct because they have been proved to be correct in all observed cases and they have not been disproved by any cases. Rational systems are built around these fundamental axioms. So if you have to accept the system to be correct then you have to assume that the axiom is correct. So your rational decision ultimately depends on your faith that the axiom is correct.

It could be argued that axioms have not been disproved and that the probability of a rational system going wrong is far, far smaller than that for faith based systems. Yes these arguments hold, but my point is just that even rational systems have to depend on faith. So at some subliminal way you are still depending on faith even when you are supposedly making purely rational decisions. I rest my case.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Can reason exist without faith?"

Monday, October 22, 2007

Let me take A breather

When I started this blog, I decided to blog every day. Very soon I realized that it was not possible and decided to blog every week. I was doing pretty well initially until my business responsibilities caught up with me. I was still trying to post every week but I seldom got any of the articles to completion. Today I have more articles in the draft mode than in the published mode.

I had a pretty hectic 3 months till date. There were two major events during this period. One was the first project by Zyxware Technologies. The second was the marriage of my sister. Both are over and I should theoretically be back on track.

The software developed was a web based application to track diseases like Malaria, Chikungunya, Dengue etc. The application was released under the GNU GPL on Oct 5. The release caught the attention of the media for two aspects - 1) The possibility of open source applications speeding up the automation process in our government establishment, 2) The boldness of the decision to give a software, which could sell for reasonably good amounts of money, for free.

My sister's marriage was on Oct 13th 2007. It had been a long awaited event for some time now. Now that it is over my parents are relieved to have fulfilled one of their big time responsibilities. Conspiracies are underway to tie the knot around my neck too. All the life saving skills I have learned till now should help me evade it for some more time, hopefully.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Let me take A breather"

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why should you fight evil?

Should you even fight? A simple question isn't it. Most people answer in the negative and continue on with their lives leading a very passive existence. It is as if one can lead a life independent of what is going on around him. A little insight into economics will prove otherwise. I could easily give an ethical reason why we should fight evil but a more rational explanation should make more sense to more people.

The point can be illustrated with some real life experience from running the computer sales and services division of zyxware over the last one year. Normally we don't give credit to customers. The selling price of our PCs just about cover our operational cost and a fair margin. So if everything goes well we would have a nominal operational profit that would help in the growth of the company and justify the investment of the capital. Anything below the margins we currently take wouldn't justify our operations and the whole thing would cease to be a profitable venture and should spiral down over a period of time.

However with customers whom we know personally or who were recommended by close friends we used to give credit considering their financial difficulties or giving in to their requests for credit. This is fine with us and we increment the total cost of the PC to cover the additional capital cost. This is required as the capital remains dead until the customer pays us back and we have to have the nominal profit at the end of the year for sustained operations. There are no problems in the process till now. But here we are putting our trust on the customer.

Now suppose there are a few defaulters who does not pay us in time. They would keep the capital dead for more time than was already estimated for during the costing and this additional cost would eat into the total margins for such transactions. Not everybody would default, only a small percentage does. Suppose we give credit to 100 customers every year and 10 of them default leading to a reduction in margins of let us say 'X'.

Like I mentioned before we cannot afford this reduction, so this has to be recovered. If we know beforehand the people who are going to default we could just charge them X/10 more to cover the reduction in margins. But, we don't. So the only practical way would be to charge every body who comes for credit X/100 more to cover this. We don't like doing this and so we have simple stopped (almost completely) giving credit to all our customers. It is too much of a risk for a company like ours whose primary vision is to be a change in the society to try to help a few people and risk ruining the company.

The above is a simple example that shows how the good (the 90 people who does not default) pays for the bad (the 10 who default). This applies to lot of other areas in our daily life, take for example tax rates - tax rates are high so that the total revenue of the state remains sufficient to cover its costs. If people default on taxes then this should be recovered from people who don't. So if all of us pays our taxes then the rates would have been much lower. Another example is cheating in business - when there is cheating there are losses on one side, these losses have to be recovered from the business itself and the only way it is possible is to recover it from people who don't cheat.

Effectively, anywhere there are malpractices or cheating or unfair gains there are costs and these costs will be covered by the people who does not do malpractices or does not cheat or does not take unfair gains. So when good does not fight evil, it is evil who wins always and good who loses always.

The moral of the story is simple - the next time you see evil and does not fight it, remember, you are paying for it. The small corollary is that - you don't have to pay if you join the evil - but don't worry that is what the law of the land is for. At some point the law will catch up, so evil never pays ultimately. Also if you fight the evil, the law will catch up with the evil faster.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Why should you fight evil?"

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Buy a Computer Table and get a Computer Free

This year, Onam, the most important festival in the state of Kerala, was celebrated with the usual pomp and circumstance. As usual most of the retail stores came up with fantastic, super-saver Onam offers. Some of them even bordering the limits of believability. These offers inevitably propels the sales and profits in these stores. A little critical thinking reveals some interesting deductions about these special offers. These are not truly specific to Onam offers and should apply to any other offer as well.

No store would want to sell their products at a loss for a sufficiently long duration of time or large volume of sales. Unless, there was something wrong with the product or the store, that would have resulted in an inability on the retailer's part to sell the product at all, or an inability to sell all of the procured stock. So obviously these guys are selling the products at a profit

If a store is making a decent profit on their sales, in spite of the special offer, then that would mean one of two things - a) They were already making a much higher profit when the offer was not on, or b) They had hiked up the prices to provide enough leeway for unbelievable price slashes.

It is interesting to see that most, if not all, people fall for these gimmicks. It is as if they totally forget basic math when they see these kind of offers. Sometimes some of the offers are so funny that even a primary school student could calculate that these customers are being taken for a ride by these stores.

Since I am into the computer retail business I monitor most of the special offers in the local market. Most stores take around 1.5K to 2K margin on computers. During this Onam season I have seen offers that claimed to give goods worth more than 6K free with purchases of computers. The prices were so much jacked up to include the 6K plus their normal margins.

I don't believe in giving such tall claims. We believe in a shoot straight policy at Zyxware and did not bother giving such offers during the last onam. I had half a mind to give an offer though - buy a computer table (for 20K) and get a computer free :). I am sure I would have had a few enquiries even if I had given that offer.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Buy a Computer Table and get a Computer Free"

Why are queues fair?

If you live in India or if you have been to India you would have seen the ineffectiveness or total lack of queues at places you would expect them. It is not a total lack of queues but rather a glaring absence in places where they would make a lot of difference to the ease of access to the service or location for the people involved.

You see queues in Bus/Railway ticketing counters but not for boarding trains or buses. You see queues at Movie Theaters but not in banks or post offices. The rule of thumb is that you see queues where they are enforced and never when they are not. People do not realize that queues would in fact reduce the average waiting time for people and that it would increase the efficiency of the system and comfort levels for the people and decrease the stress levels of service providers as well as customers.

What is a queue? A queue is a protocol where people are served on a first come, first serve basis. But why is a queue fair? When a service is provided to a set of customer and when all the customers can not be served in one go, a selection has to be made from the set of customers to figure out who gets served first. This selection has to be based on some factor so that the selection concept can be used for different kinds of services. In a simple first in first out queue system the differentiating factor is taken as the time when a person arrives at the location of the service provider.

But why is the time of arrival considered a fair factor. The reason is simple - it is one of the least discriminating factors that can be used. When a queue system is not in place, the stronger and more aggressive people gets served first, and there by the factor used, becomes strength and aggression. Lot of people might not have too much control over their relative strengths - eg women vs men, aged vs young - and are bound to be served much later on an average, at all the places they go to get services, than the stronger and aggressive parties.

Most, if not all, people trying to get a service have equal or almost equal chances in controlling their time of arrival at the location of the service. It is this aspect of queue systems that makes them fair. It should also be noted that queues are not always perfectly fair. Physically challenged people or aged people have slightly lesser control over their times of arrival at the location of service. It is for this reason that some places keep separate queues for such categories of people.

So next time you see a rush near a service location - please think about this - and if you have any sense of fairness stand in a queue or try to form a queue. If three or four people forms a queue near a rush then crowd psychology will kick in and following people will start falling into the queue. So don't wait for somebody else, be a leader and start the queue at places where you don't see one and where you feel you need one.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Why are queues fair?"

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Impact of Advertisements and the Early Player Advantage in Marketing

I had recently come across the 4 P's in marketing, viz. Product, Price, Place, Promotion. Selling the right product at the right price at the right place after the right promotion is called marketing. Normally people (including myself till recently) think of only promotion(advertising and branding) but in reality it involves lot of different steps till the final transaction - ie the sale.

Here I would like to take a look at one of these four P's - Promotion. Ideally promotion is supposed to negate the effects of information asymmetry in the market by letting prospective customers know of the truth(all aspects good and bad) about your product and why it should be preferred over your competitor's product. Promotion should thus tend to lead to Information symmetry. In reality this is far from what is happening in the market. Promotion seldom lets the market know about all aspects about a product and often it dresses falsehood in the garb of truth.

Let us consider two products A and B by two companies X and Y respectively. To illustrate the effects of promotion in the actual sales of the product, revenues of the companies, and even the qualities of the products we will be considering several scenarios for the two products and the two companies.

1) Let A and B be of similar quality and X has more capital than Y. Since X has more capital than Y, X would be able to invest more into marketing and reach more people and hence sell more than Y. Selling more should give X more revenues than Y and the growth rates of X should be more than Y and X leading to even further differences in capital between them.

2) Now consider the same scenario as above but where A is slightly inferior to B. Since X has more capital than Y, X would be able to invest more into marketing and reach more people. If the quality difference is small and the capital difference is high enough to cover the extra marketing costs to cover the reduction in quality, X should be able to sell more A than Y sell B. Since selling more should give X more revenues than Y and the growth rates of X should be more than Y and X leading to even further differences in capital between them.

3) Suppose A is vastly inferior to B and X has vastly more capital than Y. The conclusion of scenario 2 applies here provided the product A meets the basic requirements for such kinds of products. B would still capture the market where Y is playing but the market size will be very small and with the small growth rates would take forever to cover the same market as X.

4) Consider the scenario where A was the only product in the market and X a very large company with sufficiently large capital. If Y now enters the market with product B, which is comparable, lower or better in quality than A, irrespective of the quality Y would have to invest enough into marketing such that the market share growth of B would pay for the costs in marketing while leaving enough for the growth of the company Y.

These are only hypothetical cases and the actual correlation with the increase of revenues and promotional activities would depend a lot on other factors as well. The point I wanted to make was the large effects of promotion on revenue growth. It is not just about the quality of the product that decides how well the product sells in the market (which is a pity). It depends a lot on how successfully companies manipulate the information asymmetry in the market. This I feel is unfair. Additionally the early player advantage is also slightly unfair in cases where the quality of product of newer player is superior to the earlier players.

The reason why the above two factors are considered unfair is that they are not normally effects of the efforts of the person, which should normally translate to the quality of the product. Sometimes they could be, but even in such cases the advantages are unfair when the quality of the losing product is better.

If we had a system where we could put perfect information in the market, it should theoretically take out, to a certain limit, the dependencies on revenues and growth on such unfair factors as above. Even with perfect information people would still like to deceive themselves and make irrational choices. But still we would have a system where revenues and growth would be more correlated to quality than what we have in the current system.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Impact of Advertisements and the Early Player Advantage in Marketing"

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Lists of vehicle registration numbers that have gone through my family's hands

I just had to get this list of numbers off my head. Thought this might be the best place to write it down. These are the vehicle numbers of the vehicles that either myself or my father owned or still owns.

KLD 6436 KL5 1946 KL1Q 5710 KL1U 7095 KL1AB 2508 EMC 3282 FBT 9631 PWS 47P KL1AM 6460

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Lists of vehicle registration numbers that have gone through my family's hands"

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tricks of the Trade - Government Tendering Process

I have always been of the opinion that the tendering process in government sector is highly flawed. There were several reasons that I had attributed for this opinion. One was that the announcement of the tender seldom reached a large number of players in the market. Government tender announcements are made through newspapers and through direct intimation from the Government office. In offices where I had made some kind of sales or services the officers responsible used to send us request for tenders. I know for sure that there have been a lot more request for tenders than that I have noticed in newspapers or received via mail. In some offices request for tenders are just displayed on notice boards in the respective offices.

The request for tenders that come in newspapers are so badly categorized and tagged that you have to virtually read through the complete list to see if there is any that match your specific area of interest. Additionally they don't appear every day. I believe that there must be some regulation regarding the number of times the intimation has to come in newspapers. Even then it is practically very difficult to get information from the newspapers unless of course you already expect to see a request on a particular date. The requests that go via mail from the government offices go only to agencies they know (or in worser situations - to agencies whom the officials wish to let know). Unless the information is passed on to a large number of possible applicant agencies, market forces will not be able to work properly and the process will be biased against the government.

In either case the tendering process will be assumed to be fair if there are more than three, in normal cases, tender submissions for a given request. This is where the system has its second flaw. This flaw is the most glaring when the tender request is posted only at the office notice board. If there is a corrupt officer at the office with a vested interest in getting the deal through to a specific applicant agency, he/she could easily make sure that the specific agency gets to know about the tender while others possible applicants remain unaware. The said agency, if corrupt himself, can easily call up a couple of other similar corrupt agencies and manipulate the submitted tenders so that a person agreed upon by the three gets the tender with enough and more margin to spare. Through this manipulated process, open tendering process, which is expected to assure the best quality at the lowest price, gets completely derailed. The corrupt agencies would take turns in ripping-off the government in plain day light using a system that was designed to prevent exactly the same thing.

A third flaw in the system is the assumption that the government organization calling for the tenders has the necessary technical capability and expertise to analyze their requirements in the first place and to analyze the quality of the delivered items ultimately. This is definitely not the case of IT software and hardware. The government officials I had talked with had literally no clue as to what they wanted and what they already have. They also (at least from my experience) would not be able to judge thoroughly the quality of software and hardware they buy. This puts them in a position where they have to depend on an agency to form the tender document itself. Usually this would result in the tender request created by the agency itself. I have seen totally absurd requests for tenders - most probably suggested by some crooked agency.

From my short experience of an year till now, I can claim with some reasonable level of confidence, the validity of the above arguments. I however was shocked to hear a fourth and even more damaging way of manipulating the tendering process. I was talking with a marketing executing of a leading brand in the market a couple of days back. We were discussing about a request for tender that I had received. He casually told me that it should be easy to get a couple of 'adjustment' tenders from other hardware dealers to close the deal. When I told him that I don't work with other dealers to get 'adjustment' tenders as it was against my business philosophy, he told me that I don't have to. All I had to do was get three sets of letter-heads and office seals made of other companies in the market. I was stunned when I heard that. He then went on to say that almost all other dealers in Trivandrum does this. No wonder I don't get to hear about any government tenders.

My policy regarding government tenders remains the same. I am going to participate in all government tenders that I come to hear about even if I get rejected on experience counts. I could at least let the deciding body get a feel of the true market cost of items they are purchasing. I still have some faith in the goodness in human beings. Somebody in some deciding bodies would see the rate disparity in tenders and enquire about the irregularities. I would be satisfied that I played my small role in cleaning up a small area of the corrupt systems in our society.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Tricks of the Trade - Government Tendering Process"

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Creating a meaningful test that can differentiate between candidates

I was preparing a new set of question papers for the placement tests for Zyxware. This is probably the 4th or 5th time I am doing this. I haven't quite got the hang of the whole process yet. There are several key aspects involved in setting up a question paper for placement tests.

The questions should not be too tough or too easy. They should be a mix of everything from easy to difficult. If the questions are all too easy then the marks of the candidates would be segregated around a high value with little variance. Everybody will be able to answer most of the questions and there would not be too many mistakes and the variations in marks would be minimal. Similarly if the questions are all too tough the marks would be segregated around a low value with little variance again. Only with an optimal distribution of the toughness of questions will you be able to differentiate among the candidates. You wouldn't want too many candidates to clear the cut-off and you wouldn't want too few either.

Another issue to be considered is allocation of marks per question. Ideally each question should be given marks corresponding to the toughness of the question. However it is practically very difficult to do this. An alternative strategy is to divide the question set into sections where questions of similar complexity and type are grouped together. Now if each section is timed, then the time allowed per question can be varied to give tougher questions more time and the easier ones lesser time. This would ensure that even with identical marks you could make toughness/unit time a constant and have a meaningful test. However, if the timing of the section cannot be enforced - like when you have all the answers written on a single sheet - then the allocation of time does not make sense anymore.

Even after all these efforts if the set of candidates who turn up for the test has an expected average score much less than the fixed cut off then all the effort put in would be in vain. In fact one of the tests I had conducted I had to give extra time for the candidates during the interview to try out some of the problems they had skipped during the regular test.

Another issue that has been troubling me was whether I should publish the question sets or not. We follow an open documentation policy at zyxware. However it is tough to open out our question sets. Until we have a strong HR team that can generate new sets of questions it will be a big mis-utilization our resources if we have to keep creating new tests. So for the time being our tests are closed :).

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Creating a meaningful test that can differentiate between candidates"

Thursday, June 14, 2007

It is tough to be fair and square in business

When I quit my job to start a business, people who knew me warned me that I wouldn't be able to do a business as it would be 'impossible to do business honestly'. Additionally I was warned that, even if I stick to my policy of doing honest business legally there would be more than enough people in the government establishment who would ensure that I wouldn't be able to get things done without bribing. Another prevalent conception among the people who advised me was that to do business one will at some point or other have to bend rules, side-step regulations and/or exploit(cheat) customers

However with my utmost faith in our legal system and in democracy I shoo shooed away the soothsayers and set out to start the business. I haven't had to interact with the government authorities except to apply for permissions, register for licenses, submit tax returns and to apply for renewals. Wherever it was possible and wherever there were corrupt officials involved they tried to get me to bribe them. But having not done any thing illegal I stuck adamantly to my stand and the officials involved couldn't get me to budge. The stand has been validated up till now.

People bribe officers when,

  1. They have not done something they should have done
  2. They have done something they should not have done
  3. They wish to do something they should not be doing
  4. They wish to not do something they should be doing
Officers demand bribes when,
  1. The person involved has done or plans to do any of the above
  2. The person involved is not aware of his rights and the officer's responsibilities
  3. The person involved does not know the rules and regulations
From the above conditions we can see that it is pretty straightforward to avoid situations where you have to bribe or where the officer demands bribe. You have to
  1. Be aware of the rules and regulations involved
  2. Be aware of your rights and the officers responsibilities
  3. Do and plan to do only those things that are perfectly legal

I have not found it very difficult to follow the simple guidelines given above and have been successfully following it till now. For example it is very easy to decide to not evade tax - tax is not my money, it is the governments fees for allowing me to run my business. Since it is not my money I don't even have the slightest qualms about giving tax, on the contrary it makes me proud to contribute towards nation building. Businesses normally try to evade tax because that alone could double or triple their normal profits. Since it is illegal I don't even look at it as a possibility.

The distinction between legal and illegal is very clear as we have laws laid out very clearly in all areas of running a business. If you decide to not do anything illegal your options would become very much simplified and it would be a straightforward issue to run your business accordingly. Now there is one aspect of business that my advisors never warned me about - the grey areas between fair and unfair. You wouldn't come across such situations if you are not running a business and this was probably the reason they missed it. I will discuss a few example to illustrate the point.

Consider the scenario where a customer comes to you with false impressions about the price and/or quality of a product. Do you as a businessman tell the customer that the prices are lower than what he thinks or that the quality of the product is lower than what he thinks? If you do that you risk lowering your profits and if you don't you could end up having a happy customer as well as good profits.

You have tied up with a company to arrange loans for the customers and the company advertizes a 0% financing scheme where there is hidden 3.5% flat service charge on the complete loan amount including the initial down-payment. Do you tell the customer that the service charge is just another name for interest and that the actual interest rate would be around 20% or just tell that it is 0% and is very cheap? If you do he might decide against buying it or could walk out and fall prey to another dealing putting the deal across to him with another perspective.

A device that came in for service gets damaged because of some accidental mistake on your part and you have a customer who would believe that the device was faulty when it was brought in. Do you tell the customer that the device got damaged because of your mistake and that you would replace it for free or do you just tell him that he will have to buy a new device? If you do then you would loose the cost of the device plus the service charges but if you don't you would not only get your service charges but also an additional sale.

These are examples of some situations where you have to make a fair decision and there is no assistance from any set of black and white rules to help you make your decision. Additionally nobody is going to point fingers at you if you make an unfair decision. And under such scenarios is the true test of fairness of a businessman. It is very easy to be fair, clean and legal under public scrutiny but would you do the same under such conditions. Almost all such cases where a fair decision is taken involves a seeming financial loss for the businessman. It is possible to take such decisions but it is tough.

I have been trying my best to be fair and square in all my dealings. This is my experiments with my business. I think it is possible to do business fair and square. It is a helluva lot tougher than the shorter and crooked path. You have to forgo financial gains that are taken for granted by other businesses and sometimes you would have to make decisions that might not make business sense at all. But it is possible. I cannot convincingly claim it now, because I haven't been in business long enough to consider it a successful experiment, but, hopefully I should, in due course of time.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Get out of the box

I have been telling a friend of mine to start blogging. He used to write very well in school and then he used to send these mails that were really well written and entertaining to read. He recently got around to starting a blog but has not been regularly updating it. I distinctly remember a few others from my high school who used to write well and none of these people blog.

This is the era of Web 2.0 - of people-generated content. There are loads of people who blog and some of them have even successfully taken blogging up as a viable career option. I feel that whoever believes that he/she is good at writing or could become good at writing should try a hand at writing blogs. Other than writing - another soft skill people could try out is photography. There is not too much of investment to be made and there is not too much of effort involved nor would it require too much of changes to existing schedules.

The point I am making is not about blogging or photography - it is about peoples' innate capabilities and talents. People study very hard (those who do) and once that is done they try hard to get a job. After that it is all about marrying, having kids and then settling down. Life is not just about getting a job, marrying, having kids, falling into a routine and settling down (as in particulate suspensions settling down). It could be a lot more. It could be those fanciful ideas you expressed when your english teacher asked you about your career aspirations when you were in kindergarten. It could be your dreams of doing something which the orthodox systems prevented you from doing - like going on a world tour, volunteering for charity for a couple of years, trying out a wild business idea and what not. It could be about following your passion. Identifying things you would like to do and then doing it.

You could possibly excel and enjoy using any of those skills that you possess and that does not directly play any role in your job. It is probably just a matter of trying out those skills and building them up (and even giving it a try as a true career option if you are confident enough). However our system and our society wants all of you to take safe bets and choose career options that will enable you to have a regular job with regular assured income. I am not saying that people should wildly follow their fancies. They should not douse the flames within them - that is all. Make safe choices, get good jobs - but always keep your options open.

The ultimate challenge is to turn back and walk against the crowd instead of following it. It is a great feeling. Believe me. Those of you who are bold enough should try it out before it is too late in your lives. Even if you don't succeed you would at least be able to say with satisfaction that you tried. Those who succeeded in doing that were the people who took the world to where it is now. If people had just followed routines we would still be digging grubs and roots with our hands. Be forewarned - not everybody is going to succeed - and that could include me too.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Reservation - A helping hand for the under-privileged

Recently I saw a post in a forum, in which I am a member of, questioning the need for reservation policies and even the original need for reservation. I was not very much surprised about the discussion for I too used to think in similar lines when I was much younger.

When I was growing up my family had to go through troubled times when my father's chances of promotions were almost jeopardized because of some reservation policies. He was a rank holder in the PSC list and had every academic right to get to the top of his organization. He did get to the top ultimately though. I grew up among people, some of whom with reservation and some without. Financially there was not too much differences between the reserved and the non-reserved. In Kerala, or atleast in the schools where I studied, there was seemingly no factual evidence for proving the requirement for reservation. So the logical conclusion was that reservation is biased against quality and hence it would reduce the system quality in the long run.

But we cannot just look at the educated, empowered, urban population of India and claim that there is no requirement for reservation. Around 1/3 of the country still earns less than 50 rupees per day on an average. See the World Research Institute survey on people living on $1 a day. The highly educated and empowered section of the population would be less than 10% of the total population.

Until we have equitable distribution of education, health and employment opportunities - reservation IS THE ONLY WAY to have an all-round development of the society. Reservation is not a punishing rod for the privileged but rather it is a helping hand for the under-privileged. The only point that has to be noted is that the current policy of reservation based on caste or tribe is not delivering what the creators of the system intended it to deliver. This system is being promoted by politicians with vested interests for electoral gains. However the honorable supreme court has been trying to point the legislature in the right direction in excluding the creamy layer from the reserved categories.

The set of all people in the set of reserved categories would be a very good approximation for the set of the under-privileged people of India. The educated and empowered comprise only a very small percentage of the Indian population. Of this, the set of people who complain about reservation again comprises a much smaller percentage and their whines are based on their experiences with people of reserved categories who really should not have had any reservation based on economic criteria or possibly because of a lack of necessary skill sets required for their corresponding job positions. But this biased judgment would be based on a highly non-random sample from a very small set of the population.

Yes there is an argument against reservation in that it would reduce the total quality of the system. On an average a random person from the reserved categories should have similar capabilities as an average person from non-reserved categories. That is how statistics work. There is no reason to believe that the distribution of capabilities is not a normal distribution. However because of their different upbringing and educational opportunities they would have differences in the way they express their capabilities.

I am not claiming that reservation does not reduce the total quality of the system. It might, in the short term. This would be a small price we would be paying for the greater good of the people and an overall development of India. Additionally if we move the reservation policy based on an economic criteria we will be able to phase out the complete policy in about 50 years.

So the verdict is - Yes we need reservation, but probably on the basis of financial backgrounds.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

The true cost of things

When you buy a sheet of paper for 25 paise - what does this 25 paise go towards? When you hire a gardener and pay him Rs 100 for a day - what does this 100 Rupees go towards? When you buy electricity at Rs 8 a unit - what does this 8 Rupees go towards? When you buy a pot for Rs 10 - what does the Rs 10 go towards?

Simple questions that we normally don't pay any attention to. Profound when you think about these in detail. Coming back to economics, each of the above examples is a market transaction where a seller sells a product or service to a buyer. The buyer pays a price that will cover the seller's cost plus his profit. The transaction goes through only with the mutual consent of all parties involved. The seller could represent a chain of sellers with intermediate transactions between each of them and all of their costs and profits taken care of.

The seller incurs several types of cost for the product. These could include cost of raw materials, cost of labour involved, transportation cost, marketing cost, inventory cost and capital cost. Each of these costs could further be broken down. For example marketing cost would just be labour, materials,capital and energy involved in marketing, cost of raw materials would be cost of production and procurement of raw materials, cost of energy, cost of capital and the cost of labour involved in doing that. Ultimately all of the costs could just be factored into cost of labour involved in different processes, cost of the raw materials, cost of energy used, cost of capital involved.

Cost of labour and cost of capital are pretty straightforward as only two specific parties are involved in the transaction, set of labourers and set of capitalists. In the case of the cost of raw materials, it is not so. Raw materials are procured from nature and the cost involves only the cost of procuring and processing it. The cost incurred by Nature is discounted in the process. The cost incurred by nature would include the cost in the production of the raw materials and the cost incurred because of the removal of the resource. These costs are not easily calculated as our economists are yet to figure out a way to convert the value of the cost to a gold-equivalent. There is however an even worser aspect. If the raw material is not replaceable then there is a cost of the resulting instability in the system.

A similar explanation can be given for the cost of energy. Cost of fuels (like petrol, diesel, natural gas, coal etc) and the cost of the energy generation mechanisms (like dams, wind mills) only include the cost of creation of the mechanism to get the fuel or tap into the system. The actual cost of production of the fuel by nature, the cost incurred because of the discharge of the byproducts and the cost incurred because of the instability created are completely discounted. Burning of fuels release a lot of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This could result in an increase in the global temperatures and in turn lead to collapse of different types of ecosystems further leading to a decreased capability by the system to absorb the greenhouse gases.

A crucial aspect of drawing resources from the nature is that, some resources, like forests, are renewable while others are not. For those resources that are renewable, there is a maximum limit at which they can be renewed. Any rate of consumption above the maximum limit is going to draw in on the renewal capacity and the resources are going to be depleted exponentially. Once that happens there is a cost of irreversibility incurred by the system.

The above three aspects of the cost of the product can be unified and considered as an environmental cost. A lot of products in the market are as cheap as they are because the environmental cost involved is totally discounted. Now if that too is included in the cost of the product then a market based solution is created that can counter-act against the environmental issues created by over consumption, exploitation of nature etc. As the severity of the environmental issues caused by a product increases the cost of the product should also go up there by limiting the consumption of the product and thus reducing the total impact of the system.

But how do we pay mother nature. Simple... Institute an environmental tax and charge it against different products in the market at different rates. The rates should be proportional to the environmental cost incurred by the system during the production of the product. Use the environmental tax income for reversal and cancellation of the effect of the products on the environment.

The above thesis looks at the problem from a purely economical perspective with out any humane considerations. There will be limitations in the above strategy but at least this would offer a possible solution to the endless environmental problems created by a system that totally ignores the true cost of things. Even if such a system does not come into place rational people should change their patterns of consumption based on the true cost of things. A clay pot at Rs 100 could possibly be truly cheaper than a plastic pot at Rs 10.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The 2% Fixed Overhead

Credit cards have revolutionized the way people shop. The widespread use of credit cards was one of the big differences with life in India that I had noticed when I moved to US for my studies. I had marveled at the ease of use of credit cards and the total replacement of cash that credit cards facilitated. I even used to champion for the credit card movement.

Though I liked the credit system I never, not even once, availed of any extra credit period but for the normal billing cycle of 29 days. I never had to pay anything extra for the credit facility provided by VISA(and/or DISCOVERCARD, and/or MASTERCARD as the case might have been). The cost of using the card and the cost of the credit (average 29/2 = 14.5 days per transaction) was paid as part of the cost of the products I bought. Being in software industry I was well aware of the transaction charges charged by the credit/debit card providers to the sellers of the goods or service.
Every credit card transaction would result in around 2% service charge with some minimum charge for the transaction. Debit card transactions are cheaper as the seller is only charged a per transaction fee(around 25 cents) + network charges. In the case of a credit card transaction the 2% service charge looks very nominal but if you consider that fact that you are given a credit of only 14.5 days you are effectively paying interest at close to 50% per year.

So for a person with enough bank balance it might seem better to use the debit card option as the charges are lower. Now here lies the funniest part. Irrespective of the type of transaction - cash, credit, check - you are billed at the same rate. So if you pay with cash the seller ends up making an extra 2% profit on the transaction. The buyer pays the 2% charge no matter what. The tables are tilted in favour of using the credit card.

What happens as a result is that all the products in the market are going to cost the end user 2% more than what it is supposed to cost. For a developed country like the US this might be fine. Additionally the revenues generated by the 2% overhead remains within the country and helps the overall economy. However for a developing country like India this 2% could be a big hindrance to development. A 2% overhead on all retail transactions would work out to be a huge amount and to add insult to injury, most of the charges get pumped out of the country to the card provider.

Initially establishments in India were charging the credit card service charges to the end user. The current trend is that it is being absorbed into the cost of the product. Could have been interesting if a big banking chain based out of India - like State Bank of India or ICICI comes up with a credit card of their own. I wonder why Reserve Bank of India did not bring forward a suggestion or regulation to make this happen.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

What is the incentive to do good?

Most, if not all, children are taught to do good by their parents and by the society as a whole. It would however be debatable as to how many actually try to do so when grown up. The reasons tendered (for doing good) would range from gratification and peace of mind to heavenly rewards. But what is the real physical, psychological and meta-physical reward for doing good?

The harsh reality is that, on an individual basis there is no real incentive to do good. Doing good normally costs the person doing it. But for maybe a sense of gratification or a peace-of-mind, both of which are trained responses which could have been trained otherwise. On the contrary, not doing good or instead doing bad could result in personal gains. Lot of people have identified this vile truth and try to reap such rewards.

Let us take a look at historical perspective. Man is a social animal. This means he needs the help of other men. Not that he needs help in the absolute sense but he would be able to do a lot better with help than without it. So this resulted in men living together as a society. Now in a society you have interaction between the members. Each of these interactions could be biased towards 'good' or towards 'evil'. In either case, on an average the good someone receives would equal the good he gives or the evil he receives would equal the evil he gives. However the total quality of life in the society as a whole would be much better if the interactions are biased towards 'good'. Thus ethics evolved and society as a whole tried to define good and bad and the kind of acceptable behaviour in the system.

The social fabric is held together by the value system. People who subscribe to the value system do good maintaining the quality of life in the system. However among the majority of do-good-ers a small minority of do-bad-ers can thrive. They will have a higher credit column in the 'good-bad' account book. They draw 'good' from the system and give 'bad' back to the system. The society tries to counter balance this by setting disincentives for doing 'bad'. So those of the do-bad-ers who get caught pays the price for doing 'bad'. However there still would remain a percentage of social parasites who are neither do-bad-ers or do-good-ers. They sap the goodness from society but does not give anything in return.

There is no real way of addressing the do-no-good-and-do-no-bad people in the society. The only possible way to address this in part is through social programming by instilling in people while they are still young a feeling of satisfaction and happiness associated with doing good. So the incentive would be personal and internal. Rational people should be able to identify the historical reason and the motivation for doing good should be the goal of making their lives better by making the total quality of life in the system better.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Is it evil to be rich

During the early stages of Google it was the darling of the IT masses. However as the company grew it slowly started drawing criticism from different circles. Google has remained the same with the same corporate policies and the same objectives, the primary objective being - to make money and more of it - as with any other company. So what shifted the attitude. The perceptible difference is that Google is richer by several orders of magnitude from what it was during its pre-IPO years.

Everything that google does these days is being observed carefully to identify if there is any evil in it. People don't usually understand something very fundamental - companies exist to make money and that is what they are supposed to be good at. Making money is a game where you dont always have a win-win situation. Sometimes you do but mostly not. The winner in all cases should be the company. So when the company takes certain steps to ensure that it wins more games and that it wins handsomely people starts complaining.

As long as a company does not indulge in illegal or unethical business practices there is no reason to complain that the company is not doing anything good for the system or the people. In the first place that is not the company's job. It is the government's job and it is the citizen's job. Moreover when you are talking about a private company you are not talking about a single entity amassing wealth. It is the whole set of shareholders amassing the wealth. Yes the total set of investors of all the companies would comprise a small subset of the total population, but they do a very essential process in the economy - creating wealth.

When google was incurring losses/earning very little income by giving away services for people for free, it was the apple of everybody's eyes. But now that it has grown into an IT behemoth earning in billions, it has slowly started becoming an eye-sore for some. I guess one simple explanation would be - jealousy.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Do we really have the right to use our own resources

"We have no authority to use more than what is required at minimum cost be it energy, materials, or money", Laurie Baker

The renowned architect and humanist Laurie Baker passed away recently. His life story has been covered in most of the news magazines that come out in India. This was one sentence that struck me most. The whole low-cost philosophy of the man can be summarized in the above sentence.

The statement applies not only to architecture and building but to almost all walks of life. These days the term affordability is being redefined every day. With salary levels going higher and higher, more things are becoming affordable for the average educated and decently employed person. The question however is, should somebody go for something just because he/she can afford to? The answer Laurie Baker gives is a definite NO.

The world has only a fixed absolute amount of resources. Be it energy, natural resources, natural products, we have only a finite total amount. Additionally some of the resources that are replenished by nature - example trees - are generated at some finite rate which limits the rate of our usage of such resources. All resources have a cost in procuring and delivering to the end user. However the costs normally does not include the cost incurred by the Natural System in generating the resource. A simple example is paper. The cost given by the end user for the paper reflects only the cost in cutting down the tree, transporting it, creating the paper and transporting it. The cost incurred by nature in growing the tree is discounted. The further cost incurred by nature when the tree is cut down is also discounted.

The world economy is governed by market forces. Unfortunately mother nature has no say in the market economy and her debit columns remain blank. People draw from it but don't pay the cost. It is for this reason that the great man said that people should restrain themselves from over-consumption just because they can afford to do so. It should be remembered that the affordability is most probably a result of the skewed cost structure. So the safest rule of thumb when a decision has to be made regarding a purchase is - can you do without it, if not then what is the minimum quantity that you would want to meet your needs.

This philosophy can be seen in the creations of Laurie Baker and in his simple lifestyle. He was a Gandhian to the core and lived up to his high ideals.

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