Tuesday, November 25, 2008

You are a terrorist if you have a beard

Not exactly but it goes like this - You are a terrorist if you have an unkempt beard and I don't know you. This is not my opinion but that of lot of people whom we met on the roads during the recently concluded Freedom Walk campaign. I will probably have to put more context here. Freedom Walk was a campaign around the Gandhian message - 'be the change you wish to see in the world' - focusing on the social and technical aspects of this change. For this a team of people, including myself, walked from the northern district of Kerala to the southern district of Kerala, passing through all 14 district headquarters in Kerala, and talked at educational institutions, government organizations and NGOs.

The walk took us 44 days to complete and we walked more than 1200 kilometers for this. At the places of stay which were almost all public places, we barely had enough time and convenience to rest and to recuperate from that days walk of around 30 kilometers. We ignored our beards which had started to look scraggly by the second week of our walk.

Around the fourth week of our walk a bunch of SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) extremists were captured from Kerala. Popular media created such a hype around this issue that the CM had to request the media to act more responsibly.

But it looked like the damage was already done. People used to watch us curiously before this hype about terrorism was created. Now where ever we walked we had to bear the taunts of people who did not have the courage to ask us straight about us and our irregular appearances. Statements ranged from - "Looks like terrorists" to "Do you have bombs in those backpacks" were common. It is not that everybody behaved like this.

There were still people who used to stop us and get the complete story behind our walk. In the initial part of our journey these interactions started with the curiosity of the people but in the latter this curiosity was replaced with an aggression coming out of fear. Even when there was aggression, the air would be cleared of it in 5-10 minutes of interaction with us. And interactions usually made the situations bearable for us. There were even extreme cases where the local police was called under suspicion that we were terrorists.

I am not sad about the taunts and the aggressive interactions but rather about the stereotype that has percolated the minds of the population and that too a stereotype based on looks. I think the natural progression of thought must have been like this :- If you have a beard, you are probably a Muslim; if you are young, have a beard, and if the beard looks ragged and nobody around me knows you, you are probably a Muslim extremist or even a terrorist.

There are two problems with this stereotyping. Not just this but any stereotyping based on looks is utter nonsense. Lot of Muslims grow beards but that does not mean that most people who grow beards are Muslims. A lot of extremists have scraggly beards but that does not mean that a lot of people with scraggly beards are extremists. Simple logic isn't it. Funny that lot of people, and even educated ones, fall for this stereotyping.

The second problem is that such stereotyping could easily fuel segregation which could further worsen problems like terrorism that first started this stereotyping and this would strengthen the stereotyping - a classic vicious cycle. Any one with a little common sense should really understand the problems associated with this and try to break the above cycle.

One practical way of fighting the above stereotyping and any other stereotyping based on looks is to embrace the visual aspect that is being stereotyped. For example if it is a stereotype based on beards, let us (those who want to break such stereotyping) all grow beards. If it is a stereotyping based on kaavi (orange color) let us wear kaavi. If it is a stereotyping based on long hair let us grow long hair. Hope you got the point.

In any case I have decided to keep my scraggly beard for some more time, i. e. until most of the people who know me knows about my beard. That is my small contribution towards breaking the specific stereotype mentioned above. I have been told by almost everyone who saw my beard that it does not look good with the heavy uneven growth. Although looks does not really matter, it helps in business where I have to deal with people who does not know that looks does not matter. I will therefore have to conform, but till then I will protest peacefully with my ugly beard.

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Ask and you shall receive

My policy about communication is simple - shoot straight. It does not always work, especially when and where people expect facts wrapped in intonations, hints, gestures etc. I try to follow the same policy in my actions also. If somebody wants me to do something for them, they have to ask me. It might sound very rough and mechanical but believe me, it is very efficient. I seldom deny my friends and relatives any help/assistance that they want me to do for them. I also don't expect anything in return, including the oft said "Thank You". I normally let my close friends and relatives know that I don't like the "Thank You"s that I get back. I help/assist them because I consider it either my responsibility or my duty and I derive pleasure in doing it and that itself is my reward. I also try to say No in situations where I can't practically offer them the help that they require.

During conversations I don't normally iterate through the series of possible assistance options that I can render to the person I am conversing with and hence I expect the other person to ask me for the specific help they want me to do for them. That has to be far more efficient than me trying to guess their needs.

That is with my policy. There is a small problem here, our society does not work this way. People expect each other to enquire about each other and ask for possible things they can help with. This has a definite advantage in that this avoids embarrassing situations where a request is denied. You only latch on to offers you need and ignore other offers. Giving offers is never going to hurt the ego of the person offering the help while asking for help could possibly hurt the ego of the person asking for it and especially when the request is rejected. And here is the rest of it.

So how does it work with my method? Simple, you rate your relationship with me and calculate if I would have asked you for a similar help and if you would have serviced the request. On rethinking it is not quite as simple as that. How would you know if I would have asked for something similar? Tough question. Well the answer is, just try and ask me :-). I don't expect all my friends and relatives to know my policy nor how to tackle the above question. So I normally service all practical requests for help, mostly irrespective of my convenience or inconvenience.

Asking and getting help is a very delicate system in our society. I don't like indirect transactions and was planning to write about this for some time. On thinking about this topic I realized that I seldom ask help from other people and I do so only under dire circumstances. Possibly it is because of my larger than life ego :-) and possibly it is because of my (over)confidence in being able to handle the issue on my own. Ideally I should be able to figure out exactly where I need help and where I can get help easily and where I have to ask for help.

Additionally I needed some help urgently from my friends and relatives to find people (either you yourselves or your friends or relatives) who invest in the Indian Stock Market. You can read more about this here in my post about my need to find people who invest in the stock market. So the timing of this article was perfect. I had to ask for help and I wanted to clarify my policy about asking for help.

Anycase, my policy remains - Ask and you shall (most probably) receive :-)

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Monday, July 7, 2008

Simple solution to global energy crisis

Recently international crude oil prices surged past the 140$ per barrel mark. Although this possibly could have been caused due to artificial shortages due to market manipulation by producer countries, it is a small sample of what is to be expected in the future. To top this, startling evidences for the disastrous effects of global warming are being discovered at disturbing frequencies these days. Energy crisis and Global Warming are two aspects of the same problem and a simple solution to both is moderation. But why is this not happening?

Environmentalists across the world have been trying their best to convince political leaders to take active steps to reduce energy consumption and to reduce emissions. They have at best convinced governments to set emission standards and enforce some kind of regulation in the industry segment. But they have not been able to make any real impact in terms of reducing the energy consumption pattern of the general public. Why is this so?

Industries in the developed world are trying to commission researches that 'prove' that global warming is not a direct consequences of increased emissions. Industries in the developing world are clamoring that their counterparts in the developed countries had their share of polluting the world and they would like to have their fair share too. Why are they both blind to the fact that delicate balance maintained by mother nature is at risk of collapse any minute?

In a country like India where mass transportation depends mostly on Electricity or Diesel, you can easily discourage the consumption of oil and promote mass transport systems by a) Allowing the price of petrol to follow international prices and at the same time subsidize the diesel prices, and by b) Adding a very heavy tax on diesel non-commercial vehicles. Keeping the price of diesel low will ensure that general industry and goods transportation is not affected by the increasing fuel prices.

Again when you look at the impact of a price rise in diesel on the price of commodities and services it might not be that bad. The percentage of the cost of products and services originating from a cost in transportation, of which only one part is fuel costs, might not be that high to really cause a very significant price rise even if the fuel costs double.

When I first went to the US in 2001, I remember that petrol prices were around $1/gallon. Currently it is hovering around $4/gallon mark. In the US the prices of petrol and diesel are controlled by international prices. By allowing these prices to increase with international prices the affordability of alternate energy vehicles have been increasing. Hybrid Vehicles sales in the US have gone up by around 30% when normal car sales went down by 3%. Although hybrids account for only 2% of the number of cars in the US the trend is evident.

So what is the simple solution to the crisis, short term and long term. In the long run the only real solution is to find sustainable alternate energy sources and ways to consume energy from these sustainable energy sources. Say for example nuclear energy. Even if we have nuclear plants that generate all the energy that we need now we still can't use this energy in our transportation sector where the dependence is still primarily oil. So in addition to these alternate energy sources we need to change the ways we consume energy.

What can we as individuals do to move towards achieving this long term goal? We should try to promote and support decision making that will help us move towards this goal. We should try to promote research and industries that are trying to achieve this long term goal. We should reject and fight decision makers and industries that are trying to take us away from this mission.

What is the short term strategy to the energy crisis? Simple, just reduce our energy footprint? How can you do that, save energy, consume less energy, avoid wastage of energy. There is yet another way which people fail to recognize. It is moderation in consumption of everything that we use in our daily life. I had discussed some time back about the composition of cost of things. Energy is a part of the cost of everything that we consume. Everything means everything including the products and services that we consume. As we moderate our use and avoid the wastage of anything and everything we save energy, we reduce our energy footprint.

This is not a trivial solution. If you decide to take public transportation once every week or if you decide to turn on one light less (of an average of 5 lights in your house) your energy consumption in these areas would go down by approx 20%. There are tonnes of other ways you can reduce your footprint. I will have to dedicate another post to write on ways you can do this, but I hope you get the general idea.

As far as indirect reduction of energy consumption, via moderation in consumption of material products is concerned, the key points are Repair, Reuse, Recycle. This could be anything from the humble pen you reuse to the bottle you recycle to the majestic car you repair. The underlying philosophy is to reuse everything until it is broken and if it is broken you repair and then reuse it until it is unrepairable and then you recycle it. Translations in energy savings would depend on the energy component in the product.

A reduction in 20% per capita consumption of energy would directly translate to a comparably large reduction in global demand of energy which would further translate to a lower pressure on the environment and a sustainable future until we hit upon our fully usable, reliable, and sustainable alternate energy sources. Till then let our motto be conservation and moderation in everything we consume including - energy, products or services.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

What is the easiest way to make money?

I have been in business for only 2 years now but I have learned a very important lesson during the course of these two years. As a matter of fact, I have learned quite a few :-), but this is something that I felt was worth sharing. Well, I have learned the easiest way to make money in business. Interested to know that, dont you?

It is not a big secret and probably you know this already. Additionally if you have read a few books in economics you must definitely have come across this before. Well, the easiest way to make money in business is by saving money. A rupee saved is a rupee earned (or in other words - A dollar saved is a dollar earned). Adam Smith was so fond of this principle - parsimony, he called it fondly - that he must have mentioned it where ever he had talked about profits in his book.

An employed person always earns regular fixed income (unless he gets a hike/promotion/bonus/dividend) and he does not have to deal with the concept of profits. He can go ahead and spend whatever he want whenever he want as long as he can survive for a month with the money he gets.

As opposed to the above concept in the case of an employed person, a company earns a variable profit which is equal to the total income for the month minus the total expenses for the month. Unlike in an employees case where the salary is fixed, a company can increase its profits by increasing its income or reducing its expenses. Simple math isn't it.

Now increasing income depends on two factors - company's internal efforts and the result of this effort on external factors like public, media etc. On the other hand, reducing expenses is a totally internal effort. Of all factors related to a company, the company would have more control over something that is totally internal than on something that is partly internal and partly external. So reducing internal expenses has to be more easier than increasing income.

Now reducing expenses is not about reducing operations or scaling down operations. It is all about increasing efficiency and reducing wastage. This could be as simple as reusing and refilling pens or as complicated as optimizing delivery trips or purchase trips. It could be as simple as keeping things ordered in your drawer or as complex as indexing and ordering your registers. It could be as simple as reusing a pin/clip or as complicated as rewinding a burnt fan.

Even though an employed person does not have to worry 'per se' about his profits, he can always cut down on his expenses and increase his efficiency to be able to utilize his saved time and money on other worthwhile activities/products/services.

For a company, in addition to reducing expenses, an overall increase in increase efficiency will also indirectly increase the overall income of the company. So now you know how to make easy money. Go ahead and try it out in your company i.e. if you are lucky (or is it bold) enough to own your company.

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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Why should you control your desires and emotions

When I think about human mind there are two separate sets of aspects that I am interested in. One set concerns thoughts and related process that are within your conscious control and the other is the set of emotions and desires that are not normally within your conscious control. My hypothesis is that a person will be able to lead a happier and more successful life if the conscious/thinking part of his mind is in control over all his thoughts, emotions and desires. Let us see.

There is a small ambiguity here in that I am taking about a "you" and a "your mind" here. The "you" I am going to talk about will represent the part of your mind that is concerned with the first set mentioned above. It might look funny because under this notation "you" is a subset of "your mind". Leaving aside the play of words let us take a look at the issue I would like to discuss.

Any discussion on mind and its processes would inevitably touch a lot of different areas that I am not very clear about and these are discussions primarily to get my ideas clear on the subject. There are several interesting related questions like What is mind? What is matter? How is mind related to brain? What defines "I"? Is "I" different from "my mind"? How do you define consciousness? What is ultimate happiness? What is the objective of life? - that are still not very clear to me. However I think the topic under discussion is more related to practical aspects of getting in control over your emotions and desires than the epistemological aspects of these questions.

Every person has both sets of processes within his mind. Processes that are within his conscious control and processes that are not. Any thought or action resulting from a thought where the thinking part of his mind dictates the thought or action and where the person is fully conscious of the thought or action constitutes the first set of process.

Let us look at a simple example for a process that is within a persons control. Consider myself typing this article. My mind is framing the sentences that I am going to write and then this thought invokes the necessary mechanical processes in my hand to get it into typing. This is a process that is within my control. I have to decide to think about the next sentence and then I have to think about the ways of phrasing the idea into a good sentence. Once the sentence is formed I will to have my fingers type them in. These are processes controlled consciously by the thinking organ that my mind is.

There is now a second set of processes in human mind that are not quite within the conscious control of the thinking organ. Simple examples would be emotions like sadness, anger, happiness. Desires form another class of processes in human mind that act as root causes for further thoughts, emotions and actions. Habits, memories, recollections etc are another classes where the conscious being does not really play a role.

Why did we try to classify these processes as those that are within the control of your conscious being and those that are not? The objective is to find a way for a person to be more in conscious control over his life, his actions, his thoughts, his emotions and his desires. Why does he have to be more in control? Again, to be more in control over one's life will give the person an ability to chart out a fairly predictable life and allows him to increase the probability of him achieving his goals in life.

So the premise on which we are going to build the discussion is that people would be able to increase the probability of achieving their goals in life (and that they would have goals in life) if they are able to control their actions. Yet another assumption is that achieving happiness in life is a common goal for every man and the goals in life mentioned above includes this common goal also.

All of our physical actions are dictated by our mind - either consciously or not consciously. I type - because I want to. I sit late - because I want to. I quit my job - because I wanted to. I sneeze automatically - because of an itch. My eyes well up automatically - when I become sad. I smile automatically - when I become happy. These are small examples of how our consciousness dictates our conscious actions while the rest of the mind outside of our consciousness dictates the remaining actions.

Whenever a person comes upon a situation where he has to take some action there would be two different forces working in his mind. One would be the thinking conscious part of his mind and the other would be the part constituted by his emotions, desires and memories. The stronger of these two parts would take control over the situation and biases the decision making. A person who has more control for his conscious mind would take conscious decisions whereas the opposite kind would take more impulsive/habit oriented decisions.

If our actions are controlled by our consciousness then we can base these actions on a logical framework where we can weigh the causes and effects and decide for or against taking the action. If instead our actions are not controlled by our consciousness then they will not be based on a logical framework, rather they would be based on habits and impulses and their root causes would be emotions, desires and memories and they may or may not align with the rational choice under the given circumstances.

A rational action is the optimal action taken after analyzing the pros and cons of the possible alternatives. If we were to assume a generally applicable rational framework then all rational actions should lead to optimal solutions given the situations, issues and criteria. This would mean that such an action would be superior or at least of equal quality to an action based out on habits or impulses. This should mean that rational actions should be better than the latter set based on emotions, desires and memories.

A person who is more in control over his desires and emotions would be able to rein in these aspects of his mind and allow his reasoning to take charge and make decisions for or against possible actions. This would make sure that the percentage of impulsive actions would be fewer and the person would behave according to the rational framework mentioned above.

I don't think it will be possible for a person to bring the whole domain of his mind into his complete consciousness, but as the percentage of actions under his conscious control increases the person would start to act more rationally than otherwise. If people were to start taking actions rationally as discussed above and if we are to assume a generally applicable rational framework, then, a lot of problems faced by the human race like communal tensions, religious conflicts, international conflicts and most importantly general crime would start to diminish.

When we look at a more personal level, rational actions should allow the person to be more efficient in whatever he is doing. As was mentioned above it would also increase the probability of success in the endeavors since the actions are more tuned towards the outcome than otherwise.

We have looked at a cause perspective to see why controlling desires and emotions are beneficial. It can be shown that this control would be good from a result perspective also.

Irrespective of how much you control your own actions there would still be too many un-controllable external factors that will decide the final outcome of your individual action or the outcome of a circumstance. Now if you do not have control over your emotions then you will end up being depressed when circumstances turn bad or when actions don't lead to successes. There is also a corollary i.e. you will not be ecstatic when circumstances turn good or when actions lead to successes. Now by the elimination of ups and downs you will effectively increase your average productivity by increasing predictability.

I should however warn that a total control over emotions are desires would lead to a mechanistic world. Now emotions and desires are what makes humans humans. Without them we would just be machines. Emotions and desires give the flavor to life that has made the world what it is now. Since a total elimination of desires and emotions is practically outside of the reach of humanity we really don't have to worry about such a scenario

Rather, given the advantage of being able to solve some of the most acrid problems faced by humanity this is something that most people should strive to achieve. Moreover, being in control over your emotions and desires would also mean that you can decide whether to yield to an emotion or desire according to your need. So you could decide to be happy (or for that matter be in any positive emotional state like passion, affection) whenever you want and wherever you want.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How to help your business connections?

One of the most important resources in business is the number of useful or potentially useful contacts that a person has. Business is all about making money and this might sound harsh. There is no point in having a lot of contacts if you have not been able to or will not be able to gain any advantage in your business by having these many contacts. Business is a different game than a regular employed job. Since you would like to make most out of your contacts you should also in turn try to help your business contacts in whatever way you can. This is the only way a good business networking system can be built. A person running a regular job, as part of his employment, probably would not require any kind of help from anybody else, other than those who have already been assigned to help them. And for those who have been assigned to help them it would be their responsibility to help the person whom they have been assigned to help. The person who is being helped can request/order the person who is helping him/her to help him/her. Simple isn't it. Unless the person is extremely selfless or totally foolish he/she would not (and should not) do things that he/she is supposed to do. So everything is supposed to be run like clockwork.

Additionally an employed person does not need any help in his/her work (other than perhaps when looking for new jobs and some marketing help if he/she is into marketing) from his set of friends and relatives. Even if they wanted to they would not be able to help him/her too much since things are mostly defined and predictable(more often than not) in a regular employment.

However in business there is a small difference. A business owner would be dealing with potential customers all across and all throughout his operations. He/She would be competing against a lot of other players in the market and would be able to use any and all help he/she can get from his/her friends and relatives. Unlike in the previous scenario, a person willing to help would probably be able to massively impact the success or failure of the businessperson.

Now here is the slightly tricky issue. Most of the regular employed friends/relatives of a businessperson would not have any clue about how to help a businessperson. They would always have been employed people and would probably have never needed any professional help from any of their non-co-worker friends and their relatives. They will very likely not understand the position the businessperson would be in and in most cases would not lift their little finger to help the businessperson in any way. This would apply even if the friend/relative sincerely wants the businessperson to succeed and thrive.

At the same time a businessperson would understand the position another businessperson would be in and would gladly lend a helping hand under the unwritten condition/assumption that the other businessperson would help him in a similar scenario. By doing this they would not only help their friend but in turn would be helping themselves in the future indirectly through a return favor.

Each of these businesspersons would know that the other would come to some help in the future or that they would prove to be useful to the other in the future and would therefore not hesitate to ask each other for help and would normally get help when asked for. This is the foundational principle behind business networking. You build more business connections so that these connections would prove to be useful at some time in the future. Effectively you invest in building your business network.

I can give a perfect example of how a simple good word about a businessperson could possibly help the businessperson. In the beginning of this financial year I had written a post on Zyxware Website thanking all the service providers of Zyxware who had rendered us valuable service during the last two years. One of the people whom I had thanked was a DTP center near us. A professor in the US who was searching for somebody in Trivandrum to do his DTP works came across our post and this resulted in him giving regular work to the DTP center. In yet another case another person who was looking for places to get visiting cards done came across the post and got in touch with our service provider and gave him his work.

Now let us come back to the friends and relatives of the businessperson. The probability of a businessperson proving to be as useful for his friends and relatives as for other businesspersons is relatively very low. This is because his/her (non-businessperson) friends and relatives would be normal employed people and they would normally not need any help from the businessperson. If the businessperson asks for help he/she would effectively be soliciting a transaction where he/she would most probably remain a debtor to another person. In my opinion no self-respecting businessperson [with a reasonably big ego :)] would want to do this and put himself/herself in such a position.

One of the easiest ways in which people can help businesspersons whom they would like to help is to put in a good word or two to other people they know and to possible customers of the businessperson. This might sound trivial but the impact could be statistically explained as highly significant. It has already been proven and well accepted that word-of-mouth marketing is the best marketing strategy. Now to put some numbers to the claim let us consider the following example :-

Suppose a businessperson has 200 friends and relatives, then of these 50% (by a conservative estimate) would want him/her to succeed in her life. Now if an average person has 100 contacts and if the 100 people who wants his/her businessperson friend to succeed tells half of the people they know about this businessperson friend then this word-of-mouth marketing would easily have reached 5000 people. Yes there would be intersections between the sets of contacts but this example should convey the general idea.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

People without Vision Perish

My idea of a company I would like to work for is what I have been trying to materialize through Zyxware. A company which would give its employees a lot of freedom and flexibility in what they do and when they do; a company where people would have infinite potential for growth; a company where people could have all the opportunities to learn whatever they wanted to learn; a company where people would have the freedom to fit their abilities to the opportunities available; a company where capability would be rewarded more than anything else; a company where friends work together for the heck of it; a company where working is fun; a company where employees share the profits.

Since inception we have hired a total of 15 people at Zyxware. Of these 6 have already left the company. In spite of my best efforts, which have been quite aligned with my vision described above, people have left the company. I am neither angry nor sad nor depressed that these people have left the company. Even though I had mentioned about a 2 year bond at the time of signing up these people I had not actually made them sign an agreement for the bond. The reason was simple. If I cannot hold a person in the company just with the vision, the work ethics, the environment and the actual work involved, then there is no point in holding them back with a bond.

Working for a small company is a risky proposition. The only way the risk can be mitigated is to work for the quick growth of the company. The company has been growing quite steadily in terms of market reach, internal capabilities, internal processes, brand value, brand recognition, generation of opportunities. Working for a small company is like digging an oil well. You have to work really hard with little or no returns on your effort until you strike oil. You wouldn't know when you are going to strike oil and once it does it would take only very little effort to get the oil out. The faster you dig the earlier you strike oil. If you quit before you strike oil, it would be tragic if you were only inches from the oil when you quit.

I am very confident about my vision and the possibilities of Zyxware. I know that it is just going to be a matter of time before we strike oil. It is one thing to dream about something and it is quite something else to make another person dream the same thing. I have been trying very hard to infuse this into the employees of Zyxware. I know that I have succeeded partially with this (only partially, as suggested by the attrition). One particular factor that I have identified as a common reason for employees (in most of the cases) leaving the company was the immense pressure from the families and friends of the people who have quit because they had no clue about the vision behind the company nor the prospects of making money in the Internet domain.

I am very confident about my oratorial abilities and I have seen sparks of excitement whenever I had shared my vision with my team. However from the attrition rate I can see that this vision has not quite managed to percolate in any level to their parents or friends. It is sad that even in circa 2008 people in Kerala make collective decisions about careers even in the case of people as old as 28. Again it should be noted that nobody is truly fully not responsible for their decisions. Friends and family can only influence decision making. Decisions have to be ultimately made by the people themselves. This again points to another peculiarity of Kerala culture. Most people are easily influenced and most people do not have solid convictions or opinions on their own.

There is a verse in The Bible that goes "People without vision perish". This is what I have to say to the youth of today. You have to have a vision and then follow your vision with your passion. You would already have increased your chances of phenomenal success, several fold by this single point of action itself. Life is not just about the mean, it is also about the extremes, because without the extremes the mean would have been something else. It is always better to be a leader than to be a follower. But then you will always need followers for leaders to exist. So we need both leaders and followers. Those of you who think that you should be leaders should try their hand at it and those of you who think that they are not suited to be leaders they should rather not and just be good followers.

I am not at all dejected by the fact that these people have quit the company. I hope that once the company gains a little more brand recognition, the possibility of grand success would reach the family and friends of my employees and in turn bias the decision making in the company's favor rather than against it.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Can we remove evil from the world

I was a volunteer at the First GNU/Linux Install Fest in Kerala (first publicly held). The event was a lot of fun and we had a lot of technical discussions. One of my discussions with a volunteer diverted and ended up on a discussion about evil in the society. I am sharing the relevant parts and some of my related thoughts and questions here. We could not discuss much because of the busy schedule at the meet but it had set off a few trains of thought. This is still an idea in the works and this is probably going to be a lot of questions, if not all, than a lot of answers. Also this is probably going to be highly incoherent as some of the chains of ideas were widely separated.

I started Zyxware with a vision to build a business that itself will be able to drive the change I wished to see in the world and also to get me to a position where I would have the financial and operative base required to set off on my own towards this ideal. I am making a few assumptions as foundations for this vision. One is the existence of 'good' and 'bad' and the possibility of a positive change from good and bad. Two is that I would be able to distinguish between them and do what I think is good.

But is there something called an absolute good or an absolute evil? For example can killing a man be called an absolute evil? What if he himself was on a killing spree using a machine gun in a crowded street? Would it then become an absolute good?

For actions where the consequences are not directly evident, how do you know what is good and what is bad? For example, Is giving money to a poor man good? Wouldn't it have been better to invest the money for his children's education?

When you have alternative choices for an action, can we really classify the actions as good and bad? For example, Is distributing a given amount of money to build houses in a village better or worse than using the same amount of money to build a school in the same village? Is giving money for a charitable cause like an orphanage better or worse than giving money for a rural development program?

Can we really know whether the macro and micro consequence of our actions and decisions to be able to classify them or even attempt to classify them? Example - Have the invention of computers made human life better? Do we even know that our lives have become better? Is living longer better than living a shorter life?

What if something that is good for me is not good for others? Would it be good or bad? Say if we take democracy as a means to solve this problem and define that it would be good if it is good for the most number of people, then would it be good if it was good for me and not good for just one another person? What if it was very good for one person and slightly bad for another person?

Humans are not all rational and hence some of them will always do irrational things. So some of them will do evil things. But is evil always irrational? Can't evil be rational? Can it be? People are not all identical. They will perform different actions under identical situations. So there will be variabilities in life. Some of these variations would be what one could classify as 'not good' as there would be some variations that could be classifed as 'good' which have to be different from the 'not good' in some aspects. So there will always be evil.

Some people derive satisfaction in fighting the so called evil. If mankind comes to a stage where all the currently defined evils have been elimated what will happen to such people? What will these people do? They will probably then define something else as evil and then fight against that.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Can we remove evil from the world"

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bending rules without breaking them

A lot of road widening has been happening in Trivandrum city during the last two years. Shops and commercial establishments that existed close to the original road boundary had to pay with their spaces. Some lost their shops completely while some lost them partially. Corporation of Trivandrum has strict rules when it comes to modifying existing buildings or building new ones. But quite a lot of the shops and establishments wriggled out of these regulations. One of the most frustrating aspect about city roads is the inevitable traffic congestion that you come across frequently. One simple and effective solution is to widen the roads. Building a wide road across a barren land is easy but widening an existing one right through the heart of a city is tough. It is tough because of the building infrastructure present on the edges of the existing roads.

It is not just tough but it is very expensive too. The Government has to pay a compensation for the part/whole of the buildings demolished as part of the road widening. It also has to pay for the land acquired back from the public. To reduce future expenses and to facilitate easier widening of the roads in the future there is a regulation that says that any new construction has to be at least 5 meters from the edge of the new road. This leaves scope for one more widening exercise in the future without any demolishing.

Road widening is highly beneficial for the public since it reduces traffic congestions, increases parking spaces, provide an opportunity to build bigger and better building infrastructure near the roads. It must be mentioned that the rejuvenation of the 'roadscape' is soothing for the eyes too as the facade of most of the buildings along the roads changes because of the demolishing and reconstruction.

As with any positive action there are some negative consequences for this road widening exercise also. Shops and commercial establishments that were close to the old roads were at the receiving ends in this case. Where ever shops lost parts of their old buildings they had to rebuild. Quite a lot of these commercial buildings were pretty old and any kind of restructuring were out of the question. So the only option available to the old shops was to demolish and build ground up.

Where ever the buildings had enough spare land available for them, they demolished the complete old structure and built their new buildings adhering to the 5m clearance rule. In almost all such cases the new buildings were far bigger and far better than the old buildings. Building these new structures provided the owners and opportunity to upgrade their infrastructure and hence open up the possibility of larger revenues.

Things were bleaker for a second category of building owners who did not have any spare land available for building a new building while adhering to the 5m clearance rule. In some cases the 5m clearance would have completely eliminated the possibility of building any viable commercial structure at all. Being highly resourceful and trained in the art of bending rules these people figured out a work around for this problem.

Corporation rules allow for restructuring and modifying an existing building without having to meet the 5m clearance rule. So they could avoid having to fulfill the 5m clearance regulation by demolishing just enough to give to the Government whatever is required for the new road and then walling up the damage and rebuilding the facade. But there arose a new problem here. The old structures did not allow for massive reworking. Additionally if they did just this they would have forgone an opportunity to increase the rentable area by building multiple storeys.

Most of the buildings of the latter category were very old single storied tiled buildings which did not provide the option of adding a storey or two to the building. To overcome this problem without breaking any rules the building owners demolished their old building in parts while rebuilding a completely new structure capable enough to be multiple storeys in height within the old structure itself. At any point of time the work being done would only be a modification work as the building would have both old as well as new sections. Although by the time the complete work is done the structure would not just be completely new but also would be a totally different structure and with a far bigger rentable area.

Strictly speaking there is no violation of any rule in this process. But there is a violation of the sense of the law. By building very close to the new road the building owners hinder future growth, makes future growth more expensive and make it inconvenient for the public by not being able to provide parking areas. There is also an aspect of unfairness in this breach. The situation is unfair to the people who build new buildings by taking unfair advantage in terms of getting more buildable area. It is also unfair to the general public as it increase a cost in the system through a 'violation' of a law.

Some cases where the building owner is the business owner itself or where an adherence to the 5m clearance would have totally eliminated the possibility of any building at all, might fall on the border of fairness and unfairness. What right has the society to deny a man of his current livelihood for the sake of its possible future growth. Usually if such businesses lose their commercial space it might become practically impossible to find a similarly convenient location and re-establish their business at the new location.

It would have been far better if the government had an option open for the building owners to violate the 5m rule at the risk of not getting paid for their buildings when they get demolished for future road widening. It would also have been nice if the government promoted consolidation of infrastructure during road widening exercises to increase the efficiency of the utilization of the land. If the incentive for consolidation is good enough then people could be lead to doing that without violating the law or the sense of the law.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Bending rules without breaking them"

Monday, February 25, 2008

Retailers unite against big retailers

Last week there was a state-wide protest organized by the association of small retailers and traders of Kerala. The protest was against the entrance of big retailers like Reliance and Bharti into Kerala. The irony of the situation is that you have small capitalists joining hands together to fight bigger capitalists in a fight seemingly to protect the consumers. First let me take a look at some of the major issues raised by the protesters. A major concern voiced was that the foray of national and multinational corporates into the retail sector is going to cause loss of income, and loss of jobs of people owning and employed in the small and medium retail industry. Another point was that the big retailers would lead to a collapse of the small and medium retail industry, leading to monopolies and ultimately increased prices of everyday commodities. A third issue predicted was that once monopolies were established the farmers, manufacturers and producers would be at the mercy of the retail giants and hence they would be exploited.

Some of the underlying assumptions are a) Retailers and Traders have a right to be retailers and traders and nobody can deny their rights b) The association of retailers and traders are not just fighting for themselves but also for the vast majority of people ie the consumers, c) The existing system as such is very fair to the producers - farmers and manufacturers - in terms of giving them just shares of the retail prices of the products. d) Big retailers are bad e) Multinationals in retail industry are very very bad, f) The retailers and traders form a significant percentage of the population

Before we dissect these assumptions and claims let us take a look at the economics behind this. In any economy people generate revenue by the transfer of goods and services. Correspondingly you have the retail sector and the services sector. The retail sector includes not just the retail shops that sells us the goods we buy, but also the network of systems that exist to maintain these retail stores. Similarly the services sector has the service delivery framework.

From the point of manufacture, or cultivation as the case may be, of items bound for retail trade, to the point of the retailer selling the product to the consumer, there are usually several intermediate processes and people involved in these processes. Some of these would be wholesale purchasers, regional collection centers, transporters, distributors, sub-distributors. There would also normally be several layers of middlemen between these steps.

As the goods move along these chains of people the cost increases at each level until it finally reaches the customer. By the time the product reaches the customer the cost of the product could even have gone up a few hundred percentage points over the original price at which it was bought from the farmer. There would also be other intangible value additions like advertisements, insurances etc along the way which contributes further to the final selling price of the product.

However the real value of the product for the end consumer would not have changed as much as the increase in the cost of the product. Now we could deduce three different things from this. One is that the intermediary steps from the point of production to the final sale are very inefficient in terms of value addition. The second is that if the efficiency of these processes were higher the cost of the product for the consumer would become cheaper. Finally if some of the intermediary steps were avoided and the final price being kept the same a higher price could be paid to the manufacturer or the farmer.

Retailers exist to trade, and trade they do, and their motive is to make profits. The profits that are expected by the retailers would be in proportion to their investment rather than to their livelihood expenses. This rule would apply for all but the small and samll-medium retailers. The right to earn ones livelihood is a universal right, but the means to do that is not a right. A trader has a right to earn his living through his trade. But, the moment the returns are higher than his cost of livelihood his trade will not be covered under the right.

A retailer or a trader sells at a price which will yield him the profits that he is expecting out of his business. The price would also be regulated by the prices of the product at the other retailers also governed by a similar mechanism. A reasonably big percentage of the final price of the product goes towards the overheads in the retailing process discussed above. A percentage would go to the farmer also. This percentage that goes to the farmer and the small percentage that corresponds to the small value addition to the product are the components of the price that is effectively used to maintain productive labor. The rest is used to maintain unproductive labor working in inefficient processes.

A big retail chain in the market would be operating under a different framework. The entire chain of processes from the point of procurement from the original producer to the point of sale to the end consumer would normally be operated directly or supervised directly by the big retailer. This would introduce a massive efficiency increase in the process. Also the advantage of size gives another efficiency increase in terms of the unavoidable overheads. Consequently the big retailer would be able to make two changes - one is to reduce the final selling price for the consumer and the second is to increase the purchase price from the producer.

By giving better prices to the producers big retailers promote productive utilization of labor and by increased efficiency in the retail process the deviation of capital for unproductive labor is minimized. Additionally by reducing the prices for the end customers they are provided with excess capital than if it had been not so. This excess capital could lead to higher purchasing powers and in turn better average quality of living.

Both of the above changes provide the necessary financial incentive for the producer and the consumers to embrace the big retailers. This could result in a collapse of the existing retail framework. Now this is a potential cause for a problem as it could lead to monopolies at the purchase level and at the sale level. If monopolies are established both the above incentives can be taken out or even reversed by the big retailers. However big retailers can not exist everywhere. They will establish outlets only where it would be viable to set up one in terms of the market reach and the purchasing powers of the locality. So there would be big retailers in areas where the population sizes justify the existence of the retail outlets.

The emergence of monopolies in localities where the big retailers exist is a potential risk. This risk however could easily be mitigated by good ant-monopoly laws and regulations. Additionally the monopolies could only emerge even if it does emerge and in cases where it does, local trade establishments can reemerge to bring down the prices. So even in such cases the prices of the products would be cheaper than from an average retailer and the purchasing price given to a farmer would be higher than from an average retailer. If it had not been so the small and medium retail segments could re-emerge to neutralize the situation. So it would be in the interest of the big retailers to maintain the prices at such quasi-monopolistic levels.

Finally it might be good to take a look at the numbers. In an average society the percentage of retailers and traders would be around 10-15% of the population. Even including all the support framework it cannot be more than 15-20% of the population. In the case of big retailers this number would be reduced but would still have to remain significant. This reduction however will have to result in an increase in unemployment. The excess capital saved in the system by a reduction in the costs of retail products and a higher purchasing power for the producers would result in an availability of capital for non-retail use and that would mean the service industry. So this could result in an increased growth of the service industry where the lost jobs in the retail industry could be absorbed easily.

Having said so I still have reservations about multinationals entering local retail industry as it would result in a biased cash flow mechanism in the system in the short term and the Indian economy may not be mature enough to be able to afford that. Also the emergence of Indian big retailers is going to cause a short term aberration in the equilibrium in the system leading to undesirable results like the job loss mentioned above. However in the long run both national and multinational retailers are going to be helpful for the system. Efficiency increases has to be good in itself.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Everything is relative including the colors we see

We depend a lot on our perceptions, how we see things, how we hear sounds, how we feel things, how we smell things, how we taste things. More often than not people take these senses for granted and never for once think beyond the senses perceived to the act of perceiving. I recently happened to think a lot about one of these perceptions - sight. These were afterthoughts of a discussion with a person I met during a train journey recently.

When we see something we don't normally think beyond the thing that was seen. We don't think about the physical process that happens when we see the object we are looking at. We don't realize that light waves reflected (or originating) from the object travels through the air and passes through our eyes and falls on our retina. The light that falls on the retina triggers signals on the optic nerve which in turn causes the sensation of sight once these signal reach the brain.

Television engineering was one of my favorite subjects during my undergraduate engineering course. It was very interesting because I was always fascinated about how a television works - how the images are translated to pictures in the television camera and how these pictures are transmitted to the television set where these are converted back to images.

Once the course was over the operation of a television looked simple and plain to me. However I still cannot fathom how human eyes work. Simple questions like the number of pixel elements on the retina and the way the signals are transmitted to the brain. Research has been going on to decode the signals that get transmitted through the optic nerve. I am sure that the person who finally decodes the signals correctly is going to get a Nobel price as the discovery is going to eradicate blindness in humans.

Decoding the physical process of the generation and transmission of signals on the optic nerve is probably going to happen soon; but what about the decoding the process in the brain that gives the perception of sight? What is sight? It is so complex that I cannot even begin to imagine a physical explanation for the perception of sight. This is somewhat similar to the discussion I had on the form of human memory. What happens when the electric signals from the optic nerve reaches the brain?

Now let me come to the point I would like to highlight. How do you define a color? For example how do you define Red? How many primary colors are there? What do you mean by a primary color? What is infrared? What is ultraviolet?

Let me try to answer these questions one by one. A color, for example red, is defined as something we see when an electromagnetic wave of a particular range of wavelength(625–750 nm) falls on our retina. There are three primary colors - Red, Green and Blue. All other colors can be generated as a combination of these three different colors in different proportions and different intensities. Infrared is defined as the range above the wavelength of red. Ultraviolet is defined as the electromagnetic spectrum below the wavelength of violet.

These answers look simple and looks almost like taken out of a Physics text book. There is one thing that we are taking for granted here. An electromagnetic wave does not have a property called a color. There is no such thing as color. It is just a perception that we get when electromagnetic radiation of a given wavelength falls on our retina. If by some quirk of nature, my retina response curve gets reversed and starts generating the same signal that your retina generates corresponding to light of 650nm and 380nm respectively, then I would start seeing red when you see violet.

There is a natural explanation for why we see the colors we see for the range of frequencies as defined by the visible spectrum. These are the frequencies of light that get reflected by the elements and compounds and mixtures that we see in nature around us. In other words, the rest of the spectrum (mostly) gets absorbed by these physical objects.

If we were on a planet that had a different set of elements (that would require a different set of sub-atomic particles and different forces acting on these particles than those that we already know) with a different set of absorption spectra then we would probably have seen the same colors(there is no need to think otherwise) but for different frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Colors exist only in our brains. Also for a given wavelength of light the colors that each of us sees are unique to ourselves since the physical response of my retina is for almost for sure different from the response of your retina. You will never see the red color that I see and my red color is always going to be my own personal red color.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Everything is relative including the colors we see"

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Is there an absolute fair price?

I had written once about my thoughts about fair margins while pricing products. I have been trying to get the concept clearer in my head but have not quite been able to do so till now. A few days back I had a rather productive discussion with a couple of my friends regarding the same issue. Productive because it brought a lot more clarity to my thought process regarding this issue.

When you talk about absolute fair price you are making a fundamental assumption that there is a price that can be called an absolute fair price. The definition of such an absolute fair price would be a price that is independent of the actual buyer or seller. Such a price will be the minimum at which the seller should have to sell and the maximum at which the buyer have to buy and would be fair to both the buyer and the seller.

In a perfect market where there is perfect information and market forces are working perfectly, competition and awareness of the customers will ensure that prices will be fair to both the buyer and the seller. Markets are seldom perfect, perfect information is only a myth and hence the above scenario never occurs in real life (at least it wont happen for all the customers at all the places at all times in the given market).

I am more interested in an answer to the question under imperfect market conditions where there is no perfect information and where customers are not fully knowledgeable about the market. The reason why the answer to this question is interesting is that it will give a solid basis of estimation of prices under any market condition and for any customer.

Before I proceed further, I would like to bring to your attention a few extreme scenarios. Consider a situation where a billionaire is convicted by the court and is going to be hanged. His death penalty will be canceled if he can write a letter to the President asking for amnesty. He does not have a pen. He has access only to a single store and the storekeeper, seeing his situation, sells him a 1 dollar pen for 100 Million dollars. The man gladly pays the amount and buys the pen to write his petition. Here there is no competition, the buyer does not have any choices and the seller sells at a price that the buyer can afford to buy.

Now consider another situation where a man walks into a store to buy a pencil. The storekeeper convinces the man to buy a pen, that is available online for 10 Rupees, for 100 Rupees. Here there is competition, the buyer has choices but he is not aware of his choices and is tricked into buying something at a far higher price than if he had been aware of the other cheaper options.

Pricing, as defined as a function of marketing, is an exercise of profit maximization. Prices are fixed between the total costs incurred by the seller and the maximum affordable price for the buyer. The exact value will depend on the market conditions including competition and consumer awareness. This is how it should work under the Capitalistic model of economy.

Earlier I had come to a conclusion that pricing was to be fixed based on the minimum ROI that is still fair to the capitalist and the growth rate expected of the company. The minimum ROI should be the market rate of Interest for the capital as otherwise the capital invested could have been invested in another venture that would have yielded at least the market rates of interest.

Now the expected growth rate is a tricky question. What should be the expected growth rate? Can't the company grow more if the margins are higher? Yes it has to be conceded that high prices might deter growth but still there is that positive slope till the peak. Should the expected growth rate be equal to the growth rate of the country? But then wouldn't a higher growth rate be better for the country?

I could just be a traditional capitalist and play with the prices according to how the rest of the market behaves. For example I could charge a person higher accordingly as he can afford to pay more or accordingly as he is less aware. I could charge as much as my competitors are charging. I could make a killing in areas where there is no competition.

But the socialist in me is pulling me back from doing that. I cannot give two rates to two different people based on their circumstances or their knowledge. I can not bring myself to give two answers to the same question - "What is the price of this product?". When I had stated my intentions of starting a company, people who knew me told I wouldn't survive as a businessman without engaging in malpractices. I said I will. Neither them nor me ever thought of this kind of predicament that I really have to face.

My take on the issue is that, prices should be determined by the costs involved and not the intended profits to be made and that the fair margin should just be a cost. So if we include a fair margin as a cost we have a solution to the problem. Price of the product equals the cost of the product (See also - True Cost of Things) + the Fair margin. Now if we have an equation or a method to find the fair price then we have a fair pricing strategy. But alas!, both the parameters - ie the true cost and the fair margins - are kind of difficult to find, as we have seen, and my pursuit still continues.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wishing your way to success

Yet another season of greetings have passed us by. I have been bombarded with new year wishes by SMS, orkut scraps and email messages. With the availability of simple and fast systems such as these the effort required to send a greeting has been brought down to almost nothing. But have you for a moment stopped and thought about the objective (if any) behind wishing somebody else and actual results (if any) of such wishes?

If wishes were to directly influence the possibility of whatever is being wished for, then the laws of probabilities would have to be redefined to handle these external biases. Events would happen or not happen based on the number of people wishing for that event. So it is quite rational to conclude that wishing does not directly influence the possibility of the outcome wished for. Otherwise I could have just stopped doing any work sit back and just start wishing for things I need or just ask a lot of people to wish me those things that I desire.

If that is not the case then what is the effect of wishing? When somebody wishes another person luck or wishes him good, the recipient gets a positive boost to his state of mind and this should in turn motivate him to work harder to get what was wished for or to stop worrying about not getting what was wished for. These factors should effectively increase the probability of him/her getting what was being wished for.

A corollary would be when the person does not get any good wishes or when he gets cursed upon by others he would loose his morale and thereby decrease his chance of achieving the objective under consideration. A simple example would be where you have a higher probability of making a mistake about which you have been warned, which in turn had your mind thinking about the probability of your failure in the given task.

However there is a small catch here. Suppose the recipient is not really affected psychologically by the wishes then the dependency of the probability of success or failure on the wishes is removed. This might look as a negative impact but in fact this gives the person more control over the probability of success or failure in the task at hand. The moment the person identifies that it does not matter what others say and, that what matters is only how he/she performs, he/she can focus his/her energies and efforts on the task and in turn should be able to have a higher average control over the probabilities than otherwise.

So wishes and curses do matter if you allow them to do so and if otherwise they would not matter. In addition, you should not let them do so, to have a more predictable outcome for your tasks/events in your life or in other words to have a higher control over the probabilities of successes for your tasks.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Wishing your way to success"

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Does it matter how I dress?

I had an interesting debate with a friend of mine recently about why we need to take care in dressing up the way we do and whether it is essential at all to take that much care in our attire. The whole conversation started when I jokingly said that I am going to go the RMS way and grow a mustache and a beard.

In today's society people give a lot of importance to appearances. It is no longer about how neat we dress, but how costly we dress. This depressing tendency has pervaded even developing countries like India. Probably a consequence of the growth of a set of extremely rich trend setters or probably because of the increase in affordability of riches and luxuries.

People not only want to dress rich but also rate others on how they dress. Sometimes this results in funny ironies in the way people dress. In India, known for its high temperatures and humidities, senior IT professionals try to imitate their European and American counterparts and dress in formal suits. They do this because they do not want to be placed on a different tier when they interact with their counterparts previously mentioned. This happens only because there is a prevalent notion, most probably true, that people rate other people based on how they dress.

It is fun to notice how people treat you (on an average) when you walk into an office unshaved and when you walk in clean shaved. When you walk in clean shaved and well dressed people normally will treat you with more respect and more attention than when you walk in dishevelled. Of course this does not apply to cases where the people in the office know you well.

The above deduction will stand true when you meet people randomly in a social gathering or in a professional gathering. So it is as if there is a social mind set prevalent among most people that rate people high or low accordingly as their attire and appearances. There is a rational explanation of this mind set. On an average there is a good probability for a person taking care of his appearances take good care in grooming his capabilities as well.

There is another small theory that has to be considered alongside the above one. A man has only certain amount of time to dedicate for all his different tasks. Most people run at less than 100% efficiencies and they would be able to do justice to all of their tasks. However those who are running at close to their 100% efficiencies will have a problem. Any increase in time allocated for any of their activities will eat into the time available for other activities. Now all of the tasks performed by such people will not be contributing to their efficiencies. So theoretically he can cut down on the time on unproductive tasks to give more time on the productive tasks. This can be explained with a simple example as given below.

Suppose a person has a simple set of 4 tasks - Sleeping - 8 hrs, Dressing Up - 1 hr, Travelling - 2 hrs, Working - 13 hrs. Work is where he actually produces something of value. Now if his work is not affected by the way he dresses (sometimes it does as in the case of a marketing executive) the 1 hr he spends on dressing up is a total waste as far is productivity is concerned. Same is the case with traveling. If however he reduces the time he spends on sleeping and instead use that for working he will slowly start seeing a reduction in the actual productivity because of a lack of rest. Similarly for marketing executives, spending time on dressing might actually increase their productivities.

Again there is another scenario that is worth looking at. Suppose you are an IT professional who has an idea that you would like to present to a group of investors. Even if the only thing that the investors are going to look at is your idea, if you think that there is a slightly better chance of you landing a deal if you go in formal attire, you should.

Psychologists give another reason why one should dress well. This might not apply to those people who don't give a damn to the way they dress and totally unaffected by the way they dress irrespective of the group of people they are in the midst of. Dressing well usually gives a more confident feel to those people who are aware of the notion that other people will look at the way you dress (read it as most people - at least in Kerala). It is interesting in this context to note that the notion is less strong in developed countries like US and UK and more strong in countries like India.

It is basically a decision that you have to make regarding the way you dress. Ultimately what matters is how you feel and not how others feel. If you think you should, you should; if not, you shouldn't.

There are a couple of seemingly contradicting sayings that relate to appearances - "Do not judge a book by its cover" and "First impression is the best impression". The first one is the general rule for all people to follow and the second one is a conclusion given the fact that most people do not follow the first rule.

Click here to read the rest of this article - "Does it matter how I dress?"

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why should you save water?

You must have heard it umpteen times through your newspapers, tv channels, conservationist friends - Save Water. Have you ever thought why you should save water? I used to ask this question myself. If you put some thought into it you will understand the reasons why you should save water and this understanding will make you save water more effectively than the barrage of "Save Water" messages you see.

Water is one of the most abundant natural resources that we have. More than three quarters of the earth's surface is covered with water. Besides you can't just destroy water like that normally. You change it from one form to another and also cycles through different physical processes and biological processes. On an average the total available water content on planet earth remains almost constant.

However most of the water that we have on earth is not directly in potable form. Seawater is not, neither is water locked in marshes, swamps, salty lakes. So that leaves rivers, fresh-water lakes, ponds, wells and ground water table. Now for clarity of reasoning we can divide people into those who depend on public water supply systems (city and town dwellers) and those who depend on natural water sources directly.

Public water supply systems become necessary when people cannot practically get all the water they need on their own from nearby natural water sources. This happens when population densities rises and the local natural water bodies cannot sustain year long the water requirements of the people. So naturally this process happens in towns and cities where water is pumped from faraway and larger natural water bodies. Additionally this centralized distributions also opens the possibility of filtering and purifying the water at source and reduces the possibilities of water borne diseases. So, off late, this facility is being extended to rural areas as well.

Of the natural sources of water mentioned above, public distribution of water has to come from reasonably perennial sources and from where water can be drawn in volumes without causing too much of an imbalance in the ecosystem. So that leaves only large lakes and perennial rivers available as public water supply sources. More often than not these water bodies end up being reasonably far away from the city and it costs energy to pump the water to the city and to bring it to the homes of the inhabitants.

In a rural area where there is no public water supply, people normally depends on wells, ponds and to some extend rivers for their water supply needs. Wherever electricity is available it will be used to power pumps to draw and supply water to the homes. Also, both ponds and wells depend on ground water tables. So using water from these sources puts a pressure on the ground water table.

So we have seen two distinct reasons why we should save water
1) In both cases, where we use water from public water supply systems or directly from natural bodies, saving water will save the energy required to filter, purify and bring the water to the end user.
2) Saving water will reduce the pressure on the natural water bodies and will help in ensuring year round supply of water and also availability of water for agricultural purposes.
3) There is again a third and not so evident reason as to why we should save water. This applies only to towns and cities that depend on public water supply systems. All these systems depend on an underground network of pipes for distributing the water. The pipes only can supply a certain maximum quantity of water. If there are n users in that town/city and this maximum capacity is W liters per year, then a person using more than W/n liters of water per year will reduce the ability of other people in the same town/city to enjoy an equal amount of water as him. So saving water will help in equitable distribution of water in towns and cities. This is especially relevant in places where the topography of the land leads to unequal availability even under sub-maximal usage limits.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Richard Stallman (RMS) talk at UC College Alwaye, Kerala

Richard Mathew Stallman aka RMS gave yet another of his brilliant lectures at UC College, Alwaye, Kerala. I was fortunate enough to be able attend the meeting. The last time he visited Kerala, I missed his talk and I did not want to miss it this time. As is usual with his talks, he talked about what is "Free", why should software be "Free", what is wrong if otherwise, about GNU and Linux and FSF and Linus Torvarlds. I am sure that somebody will post a transcript of the talk and a video of the talk online soon. I would however like to discuss more about my take on some of the points he addressed.

Before I proceed further I must confess that I subscribe fully to the philosophy behind FSF, GNU and GPL(all versions). I must do this first, lest I accidentally irritate and turn away a cursory reader who could also be a FSF fan(atic). I will list some of the points where I have slightly different opinions as compared with RMS and I am sure he would agree to my freedom to voice these opinions.

1. The freedom behind the software is more important than the software itself

Freedom is definitely important; but when it comes to matters of practicality and when there is no other alternative you have to be able to accept non-Free solutions to get your work done. Take, for example, the simple case of CAD software. I have been having this discussion with a few of my engineer friends, to make them to try out Free Software alternatives to the proprietary solutions that they already use. The sad truth of the matter is that, some of them had tried and all of them have failed. The specialized need of some of the tasks that they do, does not really help in the probability of one of the users of the task actually writing a Free Software version of the same software. In such cases, what can one do other than to use the proprietary system, and at the same time contribute efforts in building a Free Software that can do the same set of tasks.

2. Free Software should not include proprietary components at all

The issue raised particularly dealt with proprietary firmware and binary drivers that certain distributions of GNU/Linux use. It is true that all proprietary code and binaries have to be ultimately thrown out but if it comes to be the only way in which you can get a working system you should go ahead and use it, and at the same time push for opening up the proprietary systems, or creating free systems that can replace the proprietary systems. The only thing that a novice home user would have between him and his using GNU/Linux would probably be the non-availability of Open Source drivers for his hardware.

The freedom behind an open source driver would be the last thing he would have on his mind. If using a proprietary driver would help him switch to GNU/Linux why not? We can always make him switch to the Free version the moment it is available. One point that needs to be noted is that, the community should not give up on its efforts to create a Free version of the driver even if the proprietary version is made available for GNU/Linux. So the strategy here is simple - let the GNU/Linux market explode and then leverage on its size to call for opening up of proprietary drivers and for providing of GNU/Linux variants where they did not exist in the first place.

RMS uses an interesting reference to market forces in this scenario. Once people start using proprietary drivers in GNU/Linux systems it is possible that the demand for open drivers would wane and would not be as effective as it otherwise would have been. My counter argument would be that this lowering of demand would be negated by the much higher increase of the GNU/Linux market as a whole and consequently for the higher demand for the open drivers from the larger market.

3. RMS' opinion on non-GPL licenses and the "Open Source" Camp

RMS has been strongly voicing his opinion against non-GPL licenses and the "Open Source" initiative. In his opinion both play against the Freedom that the concept of Free Software highlights either directly or indirectly by helping those who are totally against the concept of Free Software. It is interesting to note here that the actual causal agent behind this is the same market force which he had used in the previous argument. Market forces and the demand for maximizing profit by business owners and share holders results very often in scenarios that do not strictly align with the concept of freedom as outlined at FSF's definition of free software.

More often than not, these forces work against the concept of freedom, and where money speaks market listens. Now that is not a good proposition. You have a philosophy which goes against (or looks to most people as something which goes against) the principles of profit maximization and you have the whole set of owners of capital (with very few exceptions) against such a philosophy. So how do you fight in such a situation. Simple. Use the old concept of divide and rule. When the enemy camp is strong, try to divide the camp and see if you can get some allies. This is exactly what the non-GPL and the Open Source camp is doing.

Bringing in more owners of capital to accept the less tougher option of Open Source first and more tougher of GPL later is much easier than getting them to accept GPL in the first place. So with increased numbers market will see the real value behind Free Software and slowly tilt in favor of Free Software as opposed to proprietary software. However the totally antagonistic approach that RMS is taking is not going to get a lot of supporters from the business owner set. Unless you penetrate that community there is no real hope of making significant impact in the user community.


Having said all this I hope that the highly honorably efforts of RMS and the FSF succeeds to their fullest possible expectations.

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