Archive for January, 2010

Company in Comatose

Friday, January 22nd, 2010 January 22nd, 2010 Praveen Bose

I recall my Hindi teacher late Ms Vijayakumari who used to tell us every now and then after a unit test or our term-end exam: “Nakal karte samay toh apne akal ka istemaal kijiye.” (Roughly translated: Use your brains at least while copying.)

A global IT major sent out a release that spoke of their presence in more than 10 cities across the country. Among the cities it was present in was Comatose.

So, “we are now in Comatose.” Wonder what the customers would think of their products. If the company is in Comatose when will it wake up?

After going through the facts of the geographical spread of the company, you realise it was Coimbatore the company meant to say. But, our dependency on technology is so much, we seem to trust the computer and software more than our brains. The person who did the spell-check was probably ‘comatose’.

Do raise eyebrows over low brow

Thursday, January 21st, 2010 January 21st, 2010 J Jagannath

Clad in a khadi kurti made in one of those sweatshops, with not a single strand of her straightened hair out of place and those chiselled facial features that transcend sexual tendencies; this local train co-passenger resembled a Cajun goddess. What’s more, she was reading a book. Blame the male mindset, if you have to, I even imagined ourselves as literary soulpartners walking into the sunset with our hands held. Anticipating a Netherland or at least a Sue Townsend I peeped into what she was reading and, here lies the dampener, it was (drum roll) Chetan Bhagat’s “Two States”. Whoooosshh! That’s how the crumbling of my imaginary castle sounded.

Why would anyone endure writing that is clunky and is the LOL equivalent of literature? Isn’t Chetan Bhagat essential reading only for those below 12 years? Why does India celebrate writers who can’t string two sentences together? These were the initial questions that popped up in my mind. I tried to find a pattern but all I have been able to glean is that we swear by bestsellers. Look at the books that made waves in the recent past, Da Vinci Code, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and, of course, Chetan Bhagat sack of chicken feed.

Most often you would find these names mentioned in the profiles of social networking sites’ users. I don’t mean that everyone ought to have mandarin tastes and should be reading W G Sebald and Patricia Highsmith. But do give Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy or closer to home, Samit Basu’s GameWorld trilogy a read.

It’s not the economic imbalance that is the difference between the third world countries and developed nations but the fact that printed word is celebrated in the latter and, well, not in the former. A US friend was telling me that everyone in the New York’s locals are to be seen reading books, a rare sight over here. My heart swells with pride at the sight of so many people reading the newspapers cover-to-cover in the Mumbai local trains. I hated Bangalore for not patronising newspapers (I, however, wonder why every newspaper is available in that bottomless pit of techiebabble). But then newspapers do not enrich one’s life the way books do. To think of it, they are not supposed to.

Some might say that the lack of reading culture may be attributed to the rise of Web but that is an argument that doesn’t deserve credence. A Pew Survey says that every American read at least ten books in 2009. This, when an average American spends ten hours on daily basis to swim across the ocean of hypertext links.

The cartoon in Atlantic Monthly captured the bestsellers’ phenomena very well by a bunch of kids holding Harry Potter books berating another child at a distance as ‘problem child’ for reading Charles Dickens. When I made a Mumbai friend privy to my rant, she said that the city is essentially ‘working class’. In that case, won’t Grapes of Wrath have greater resonance in Mumbaikars’ lives than Chetan Bhagat’s love story that is as interesting as watching wet paint getting dry.

I am not listening if you are going to mouth that gigantic cliche to justify proliferation of low brow art: “To each his own”.



Dude, You Missed It

Monday, January 18th, 2010 January 18th, 2010 Praveen Bose

The day of the solar eclipse was a dream I would like to relive many times more, and more frequently. Being able to walk on the road on a weekday in the morning peak hour without much worry about the traffic on the road or the noise from vehicle horns.

I wished such days came much more frequently. It will force all the pseudo-civilised motorists indoors for the pseudo-rationalists to enjoy some of the modern day luxuries, such as driving without having to negotiate noisy traffic. A pseudo-rationalist that I am, I decided to enjoy the less potent sunlight.

The shadows it created were just out of the world. Alas, I could not enjoy ‘my day out’. There were no shops or any eateries open. Everyone seemed to be under the influence of grandmother’s tales. No one wanted to take on grandmothers’ wisdom.

The venerable TV channels that people swear by only helped induce more fear into the hearts and minds of the citizenry with their “balanced” reporting which seemed to tilt the balance in favour of those who swear by grandmothers’ tales.
While some people advised to avoid cooking, eating and drinking during eclipse period. The myth behind this is some bad rays enter earth during eclipse and it could be harmful.

There are strict warnings for pregnant women. They are refrained from any stitch work and other household works. It is believed that it can lead to deformities in the foetus.

The astrologists advised people to chant regional rhymes to reduce its effect. They also advised Ganga Snan (Ganga bath) when eclipse is over (Perhaps, teleportation would have been the only solution).

As the annual solar eclipse falls on the second holy bath of Maha Kumbha Mela, people thronged to Haridwar to take holy dip after the eclipse.

But, the scientists were given some news space by the channels who sear by Gods and Godmen most of the time. But, people always find the words of scientists less credible.

While everyone concentrated on how the sun looked when partly covered by the moon, I wonder how many observed their shadow and how different it looked.

I hope all my science teachers will be proud of me. But, then… a science teacher of mine I met a day later looked out of sorts. She said, “I am yet to recover from my fast during the eclipse”.

The travails of Sharad Pawar

Friday, January 15th, 2010 January 15th, 2010 Aditi PhadnisAditi Phadnis

Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is furious, arguably with just cause. There he was, quietly minding his own business, when whoosh ! Sugar turns Rs 50 a kg, the Uttar Pradesh government starts filing FIRs against sugar mill owners who are also Pawar’s friends and friends in other parties shrug their shoulders and say: ‘Sorry pal, hate to do this, but you should have taken care of things’, following it with the most trenchant attack on an agriculture minister in recent times.

Food inflation is the single most important factor responsible for a rise in inflation. Food prices, especially sugar prices, have gone through the roof. As rise in sugar prices is related to the supply side and production is cyclical, Finance Ministry manadarins say Pawar should have known this and made adequate preparations. Instead, India is going round the world, cap in hand, to buy sugar and is pleading with suppliers not to be unreasonable.
Just as the production of sugar is cyclical, so are Pawar’s political fortunes.

The downfall began somewhere in the beginning of 2005 when Sharad Pawar decided to contest the elections for the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) again. Much of that year was spent first lobbying, then consolidating his position and then trying to free BCCI of the tentacles of Jagmohan Dalmiya, the elements that had caused his defeat earlier. As anyone involved in cricket politics knows, it is hard to reach the pinnacle of the cricket administration empire and harder still to stay there. Understandably it occupied a lot of Pawar’s time and attention. Now, he is president in waiting of the ICC. That too takes time.

Between then and now, it’s been one wild ride, with the general elections and the Maharashtra assembly elections intervening. In December 2009, Sharad Pawar was also elected president of his party for the fourth consecutive term. His party, ever vigilant and sensitive to rising prices, passed this resolution:  “The abnormal rise in prices is causing great difficulty to the common man.  Recent draught situation in certain parts of the country has caused a little spur in the prices of essential articles including vegetables.  But the government is seriously monitoring the situation to make essential commodities available at reasonable prices.  This warrants more intervention by the state government in the market, over and above strengthening of the Public Distribution System which will curtail the rise in prices of essential commodities to some extent.  At the same time the government of India should take effective steps to arrest the tendency of ever
increasing prices of essential commodities.”

Meanwhile, cricket management was also a problem. At the height of the food prices conundrum, the agriculture minister batted at queries by pesky reporters. “I am not an astrologer. I don’t know when sugar prices will come down” he snapped when asked a question. He was a lot more forthcoming about cricket, though. “The ICC will take a decision next week on whether to allow the Feroz Shah Kotla to host World Cup matches in 2011” he said, two days after David Morgan, the ICC president,  had said he was not in favour of a World Cup ban on the venue, which had been classified by the ICC match referee Alan Hurst as “unfit”, the harshest possible assessment after the abandoned fixture between India and Sri Lanka last month.

“I am not going to give any opinion on this issue. The ICC is yet to finally take a decision and the process is on. The BCCI is expecting a response from the ICC probably next month or in two months,” Pawar said after chairing the meeting of the World Cup organising committee in Dhaka earlier in January. “It is the biggest cricketing event in the subcontinent and I am sure the way the preparations have been going on it will be a hugely successful event and security will be no issue. India and Sri Lanka have the prior experience of hosting the World Cup and it will be a great event.”

Really? And sugar prices will come down soon too?

It is useful to remind ourselves what happened with wheat during the last term of the United Progressive Alliance. Then  too, it was Pawar who was agriculture and food minister.
In October-November 2005, it was clear that India was on a brink of a wheat shortage. The Prime Minister began signaling that the Agriculture Ministry should prepare itself for imports. Because procurement by the Food Corporation of India had fallen sharply the previous year and there was a global shortage of wheat, the danger was that wheat supplied to ration shops might fall short.

What did the government do?

The Agriculture Ministry thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it.
The Prime Minister flagged the danger of a wheat shortage in December 2004. Imports began in February 2005. Wheat traders denied strenuously, the charge that in the intervening period they had stashed away the commodity until prices rose. “Where would we store such large quantities” they asked. They also denied charges of round-tripping - wheat procured from India, sent out of India and later resold to the Indian Government after a hefty markup.

Worse followed. There were suggestions from some foreign entities that phytosanitary standards of wheat imported by India had been altered to help other foreign entities. The Ministry realized that the amount of wheat already imported would not be enough so tenders were called for a second tranche. Even before the tenders were opened, in a momentary fit of absentmindedness the Agriculture minister made a policy announcement – that import duty for private sector importers would be slashed from 50 per cent to zero. Sensing a rush of buyers from India, global bidders pushed up prices.

No prizes for guessing what is going to happen with sugar this time.

So tedious. So predictable !

Highway low

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 January 13th, 2010 Rrishi Raote

A week or two ago I had the misfortune to be driving home from deepest Gurgaon to Delhi near midnight, through a thick fog, on the national highway. This national highway, unlike most other NHs in India, is a Herculean carpet of Tarmac and concrete laid across the landscape. Riding it at speed is like surfing the spine of a dinosaur, as one rise and falls on the flyovers and flat stretches.

It’s monstrous in another way, too: its scale appears to addle the minds of drivers, who react to its inhuman size by trying to shrink it. (more…)

2009 – A year of defiance

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 January 12th, 2010 Joydeep Ghosh

Last year, around this time, the mood was sombre. The fear of a complete catastrophe from the financial sector meltdown had chilled the minds of many. But well, with 100 per cent returns from equities, one cannot really complain that 2009 has been a bad year.

The ‘greenshoots’ , as the Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke likes to call them, have been many. Unemployment in the US, though not down, looks less scary. A lot of liquidity is sloshing around the world, helping companies to raise cash through initial public offerings, rights issues, private placements and so on. And all the stories that the world will slip into deeper recession sounds quite far fetched.

But I am not convinced that all is well. While bankers around the world are rejoicing that they have managed to arrest the recession by pumping liquidity and printing notes, there seems to be a hollow sound to it.

There is a lot of talk about how the trickle-down effect of the Wall Street has positively impacted the Main Street. The argument being that giving liquidity to bankrupt banks led to more lending. Saving jobs of overpaid bankers gave them confidence to take risks. And interestingly, most of the banks who took Federal aid have returned the money.

Yes all this is true. But there is a small catch. I don’t think that business confidence is too high. While raising cash might have become easier, I really wonder how much of it has been used to add capacities and generate jobs.

Most employers or corporations would like to sit on this cash till the confidence improves. And in the absence of employment generation, the cash that has been pumped in will have zero or no multiplier effect.

That is the reason, Lord Keynes advocated that in times of uncertainty, the government should generate employment by simply hiring people to dig holes and fill them. However, private corporations will look at parameters like return on capital to boost their balance sheets.

While Bernanke’s model is better than the one employed by the Fed in the 1930s recession (when it tightened the liquidity), I wonder if it is enough. Because unlike China or Japan, most US banks are not government-controlled. As a result, they are more worried about their balance sheets and more importantly, their bonuses.

As many reports have pointed out, bankers – ‘the problem children’ – continued to earn hefty bonuses while lesser people suffered, lost jobs and went bankrupt.

Yes, allowing the banks to fail may not have been the best solution. But there has to be some repentance. Otherwise, we will soon be heading for another bubble and recession.

In my view, at present, we may have deferred the some part of the pain. But pain, there will be, sooner or later. We, as individual stakeholders, should prepare ourselves with sound savings and insurance. And hope, the banks and insurance companies don’t fail us.

Give me a superphone too

Monday, January 11th, 2010 January 11th, 2010 Priyanka JoshiPriyanka Joshi

Why should we be excited for a phone that has no near-term intentions of making a debut in India — a land of 500 million plus mobile phone subscribers of which 20 million or so use a smartphone device? The answer is simple –it heralds Google’s plunge into a segment where it made its presence felt till now only through Android mobile platform. Secondly, although the handset is not the first to use the Google mobile operating system, called Android, it is the first device that the company has designed itself down to the last detail.

But Google, which has a large presence in India didn’t even bother with an India launch plan when it unveiled the phone this week. Okay, so who needs it any way? And Allen Nogee, Principal Analyst,Wireless Technology, In-Stat thinks so too. “To better fit into the market in India, it (Nexus One) needs to support the phone technologies supported in India, or at least a CDMA version.  In addition, an application store just for the India market would be a big benefit, allowing developers in India the chance to design applications just for the India market.” That’s so right, Ms Nogee.

Yet when I see my friends in Singapore and Canada reciting tales of how they booked the superphone via Google’s web portal, some got the unlocked for $530, and others booked the carrier bundled-Nexus One for around $180, it only reminds me of my developing nation status. Sad, but true that Indian markets are never really the top choice for launching a technologically advanced device. Case in point - Apple’s 3GS phone that seems dismissive of hit the Indian fans, Kindle that came to India but at prices that it remains an exclusive device, Sony’s e-reader is not even bothered about Indian consumers and now Nexus One joins the ranks.

I can’t stop myself from lusting after this device ever since I read that Nexus One is powered by the super-fast Qualcomm QSD82350 (Snapdragon) 1GHz processor that leaves iPhone 3GS’s slower 600MHz processor far behind. Unlike iPhone which only has an internal storage, Nexus One has a microSD card slot (expandable up to 32GB and will ship with 4GB card. Another sigh!

While I would like to believe that the phone does hold potential in many international markets (like India) and could even eat into the share of dominant players like Nokia, Samsung and BlackBerry, mainly because smartphone users would love to try Google — a well-trusted name in its choice of hardware. But Google clearly thinks it is better off without a distribution plan for India.
I need to see how long the company like Google can afford to be a snob when it comes to launching new technologies in developing economies like ours.

Counterfeiter, me?

Monday, January 11th, 2010 January 11th, 2010 Praveen Bose

At the single-window operator where I pay the utility bills, I was put through the ultraviolet light scanner (that’s what I felt). At a place where you can’t use cheques to pay your bills, you have no choice but to pay cash.

Beware if you hand out a currency note of a higher denomination, especially Rs 500 or Rs 1,000 notes. Before the notes are scanned, the people at the counter give you a full-body scan, but with their eyes though. I wondered if their eyes had ultra-violet vision like a few of the birds.
I hand over the currency notes and even before the person counted it, she gave a look like I am a possible counterfeiter. Trying to convince them saying I had just withdrawn the cash from an ATM, she said: “All people who hand over fresh notes here say the same thing.”

The UV machine used to detect counterfeit notes failed to find anything amiss. But, the alphabet series to which the notes belonged matched the series of the counterfeit notes that are known to be in circulation. So, no amount of protestations cut ice with the people at the counter.

Then, one of them offered to help me and said: “Let me ask my boss. If he finds nothing amiss, we will accept. Or, you will have to come back again with some other notes.”

Phew! She gave the green signal to accept the notes. She probably decided that I did not have the toughness of a possible a counterfeiter, or that she found my protestations too feeble. All this cost me time though and had to skip a chore.
I promise to pay in Rs 10 notes from the next time I visit the single window operator or perhaps in Rs 5 coins or maybe even Re 1 coins. I would not like my character put through an UV violet scanner. Let them count the notes or coins.

A Nobel Rendezvous

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010 January 6th, 2010 Praveen Bose

Having collected enough details (as I believed) on the Nobel laureate, I was sure I was nearly prepared to listen to and , if lucky, perhaps ask a couple of queries as a journalist of course.
I set out with all the gadgetry that you find journalists nowadays use, to catch every word being spit out by a speaker. Here I was near the venue. Whoa! It seemed like I was outside a stadium in a queue waiting to enter for watching the Rolling Stones. I have had this habit of counting the number of people in front of me while waiting in a queue, which helps me roughly calculate how long it would be before I would be in.
I tried again and again and I seemed to lose track of the number of people in front of me, about half way through. With the security being tight, there were some men in khaki mostly with lathis. We Indians being fatalists, that may be all the security that was required. After I had passed through the metal detector, which I believe worked (many of those I see nowadays at many places are generally switched off, though you may be asked to walk through that), I was in, yes, IN. But, only in the complex which houses the auditorium which was a few metres away. By then the lecture had begun.
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his pioneering work on ribosome, a cellular machine that makes proteins, was speaking and all I could make out was some garbled echo from outside the auditorium. The sound boxes placed at many locations in the auditorium complex were no more than useless. A person, who I believe was a professor, was heard muttering: “Can’t they not at least ensure that he can be heard? Why else should they invite him here?”
Dr Ramakrishnan, the physicist, had won the award “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome”. My endeavour to gain more knowledge on ribosomes from an expert fell through, thanks to the huge crowds that seemed to give a rock star-like reception. I tried to hang on to as many words as possible of Dr Ramakrishnan being spit out by the sound boxes. But, alas I had to give up.

My endeavour to gain some ‘knowledge’ on ribosomes ended there. But, I had to be content with the knowledge that there are enough number of people working on making human lives better with trying to understand functions of human body.
The crowds were almost all made of research scholars and scientists.

I was out just as ignorant of ribosomes as I was when I walked in through the metal detector.

In search of a reliable source again!

Monday, January 4th, 2010 January 4th, 2010 Kalpana PathakKalpana Pathak

My phone rang earlier than usual this morning. It was a source.

“Guess what? I have got admission into IIM Ahmedabad. I am off,” he said.

“Nahiiiiiiiiii…i reacted instantly.”

“Oye…aren’t you happy for me?” he asked, obviously surprised by my reaction.

“Umm…errr…I am,” I said, reluctantly congratulating him.

He sensed my tone and said in jest, “Babe, look at the silver lining. I shall join a better company and be an even better source.”  We both laughed.

We have become good friends over the past three years that I have been reporting on education. And I take as much liberty to call him, as my office does to call me, during any time of the day or night.

So when he gave me this good or bad news over the phone from Hyderabad, I could not help my reaction.

On my way to the office, an over one hour travel, which I generally use to read the papers in detail, I could not help but fret over this temporary loss of a reliable and handy source. I mean c’mon, one-year is a long time man!

Later when I told this to my colleagues, they laughed at the extra importance I am attaching to a source.

But was I? Don’t all of us in journalism swear by our sources? Many of them make our stories into whatever they turn out to be. Though, mostly the confirmations are off the record, the information turns out to be correct.

In fact, I remember when one of my senior colleagues who quit this organization some time ago, said he felt lost when it came to reporting on a certain company as his only source had left for greener pastures.

Warning me against it my super boss said, “That’s the only problem with having single source in any company.” I agreed.

In a similar incident however, another senior colleague takes the cake.

When her very reliable source quit his industry to join another industry (due to the slowdown in the market), our lady lost sleep over it.
She told me that many of her breaking stories came from him and now she does not know what to do.

Believe it or not, she did not file stories for two days because, in her words, she could not ‘cope with this loss’.

Hmmmm…I don’t think am that saddened by this development.

So, till this gentleman polishes his management skills, I guess all I need to do is hunt for another ‘reliable source’ in his company!!