Reading list for the midst of March

March 19th, 2017

As always, I am going to try to foist only three thoughts on you this week.

Horrors of War

The First World War was one which killed enormous amounts of people. The numbers were truly staggering for the time.  There  were 17 million dead and 20 million wounded!!! All for European powers to prove who could rule over more people. It ended the most prosperous era the western world had seen in a long time and also ended the dominance of the British Empire forever.

The monarchies of Europe felt the brunt of the war and were clearly responsible for starting it. The workers International could not prevent it even by appealing to worker solidarity. The armies of Europe were downright eager for it. The following three books talk very eloquently of each and the part they inadvertently played in each other’s roles; both in fomenting and then exacerbating the conflict.

 

The Ambassador car

AmbassadorCan anyone who lived in India through the 1980’s ever forget this classic car? Even now, Kolkata taxis are all Ambassadors. Why, I asked a taxi driver. He responded ” They are the cheapest to maintain and we can manufacture spare parts locally.

This fabulous article by the sagely Mr. Thomas conveys the mystique and the genuine love for this model that we all possess. He is a Master of branding and he should know.

 

Smoothing the path through a customer’s task flow

All product makers struggle with making it easier for customers to use said products. Stumbling onto a product and not realizing what you can do with it, is probably the most probable cause for abandonment. No amount of hard selling or discounts will effectively make the customer loyal to your product. Well, Amazon understands this very well as this article in the First Round shows us.

Do you want me to cover any specific topics or have questions that are creating a slow burn in your brain? Do write to me and I will recommend the palliative, balmy books or studies to deal with them.

Holi Week Reads

March 12th, 2017

Holi

This week is Holi, the festival of colors in India. This festival is mainly celebrated to mark the coming of spring. Lots of folk gather around after the winter harvest and sprinkle colored water, throw gulal(made out of flour and psychedelic colored dyes). Let’s take a look at the three interesting articles/videos that came my way this week.

Cooked by Micheal Pollan.

This is a great show in four parts: Fire,Water,Air and Earth. It is really fascinating for old lovers of Mr. Pollan’s books.

 

The Real American Pie: No, it is not Apple Pie. It is mince pie instead. The author explores ways in which this pie became famous and how it lost it’s mojo over time.

Cover of the December 17 Reader; click image to enlarge
Enough about my fascination with food. Let’s get real and talk of one of the most dangerous lads in history: Genghis Khan. I first read about him in Mr. Weatherford’s seminal work, Genghis Khan and the making of a Modern World.

Over time, several other writers have come forward and tried to complete, compare and contrast the picture of this ruler of the largest empire known to man. In this article, the BBC History magazine explores the various facets of this fascinating ruler.

Until next week then! Have a good week and remember to play some Holi with friends and not get too drunk on Bhang. Yes, it is indisputably legal in India, during Holi, at least.

The Haj Subsidy: Another side to this tale

March 11th, 2017

A history of the subsidy

The Haj subsidy is the amount of money subsidized by the Government of India to every pilgrim for covering the expenses of air travel from the port of embarkation in India to Jeddah or Medina in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrim is supposed to pay for the other costs incurred by the Haj committee which are substantial in themselves. However, this subsidy has become a bone of contention in recent times.

The practice of subsidizing Hajis or any kind of pilgrim is very old in India and every kingdom large or small since antiquity has done it. In modern times, the British Empire, stepping into the shoes of the Moghul Empire found that the state and local worthies were supposed to provide sustenance and transport to Hajis travelling to Mecca. They did this by contracting dhows and ships from local harbors and charging Hajis for tickets. Very soon, they discovered, much to their chagrin, that many Hajis, not having the means to by a two-way ticket, would settle down in the Hejaz (the area where Haj is performed) and become indigents on the local Ottoman officials. This marked a significant loss of prestige with the other imperial powers too so it had to be addressed.

This prompted the charging of two-way tickets right from Bombay or Karachi. However, to the relief of the Muflis (indigent) many Muslim worthies stepped in, and under the aegis of Europeans, provided some relief to the pilgrims, in effect subsidizing the trip. In 1932, under pressure from the nationalist movement, the British created the Port Haj Committees Act, to help pilgrims make the trip to Hejaz. This subsidy was maintained by various Haj committees operating out of Bombay and Calcutta.

Upon the departure of the British and the dismemberment of the country, the Haj committees were left bereft, without funds or organization. Here is where the government of India stepped in and out of the generosity that was quite typical of Jawaharlal and his ilk, it was decided to formally provide a subsidy for Hajis so that they could proceed for pilgrimage with more ease and less strain on their purse.

Thus was born the Haj Committee Act of 1959. The express purpose of which was to help the pilgrims with more logistic and material assistance. I cannot help but be amused by the fact that the act does not provide specifics of any material help. Article 9.1(c) of the act insouciantly states that the committee shall “provide relief to indigent pilgrims”. Article 9.1(h) is even more vague: “the committee shall look after the general welfare of the pilgrims”. How much and who shall provide the monies?

Why the government of India, of course (specifically stated in Article 9.2)! No ambiguities there! No doubt there were much fewer Hajis then and the expense was not considerable but still, the generosity of thought still leaves one feeling warm and gooey inside.

Among many Muslims, it is recognized, with sincere affection for their country, that the Haj is organized very well in comparison to anything else that the “sarkar” does. The astonishing efficiency of documentation; the deeply attentive bespectacled “babus”; the medical care at various places in the Haramain(sanctuaries); even the provision of Aab-e-ZamZam at the 19 ports of disembarkation is amazing to be seen. Go once if you can, and see for yourself the amazing scenes at the “Haj terminals” (Cargo Terminals that are transformed during Haj) when Hajis are going or returning from the pilgrimage. They literally turn into fairgrounds with everyone hugging each other; the air perfumed with the scent of garlands; and whiffs of Biryani and other delicacies thrown in the mix.

 

The cost of it all

The problems started to surface when air travel became the norm and, vague as the terms of subsidy were, they were also covered by the tax payer of India. As an example, the airfare has ballooned in recent years, going from ₹17,000 in 1994 to ₹54,800 in 2011. In that year, every pilgrim was still being charged ₹17,000 for airfare. The total price of Haj that year was ₹1,25,000 per pilgrim. When questioned later, the counsel for the government even expressed embarrassment at asking the Hajis to pony up the extra money, Bless him!

There are other costs that the state incurs during Haj. The Haj Committee oversees preparation of documents and visas for Haj and provides medical and logistics care during the pilgrimage. It is estimated that the government spends ₹73,000 per pilgrim (this includes the previously stated transportation cost)! That is quite significant and shows a concern for Muslims that is very touching and kind.

However, it does present a significant strain on the exchequer. In the year 1994, the number of pilgrims going for Hajj from India was as low as 21,035; in 2011, the number of pilgrims increased to 125,000. As a result, the total Hajj subsidy that was Rs.10.51 crores in the year 1994 swelled up to Rs.685 crores in the year 2011.

The rise of the cynics

It is sad that in this day and age, the multi-religious construct of India is under severe attack from various right-wing elements, both from within Muslims and from among the Saffron brigades.

The former completely rejects the notion that the subsidy is in anyway an act of generosity. They point out that the government is really subsidizing the national carrier (Air India) in the guise of doing Muslims a service. They also contend that they don’t need the subsidy and the private agents will do a cheaper, better job anyway. Besides, the state does provide subsidies for Hindu pilgrims in various areas so the Haj subsidy is being unfairly picked on too.

The latter, no doubt stung by the fact that the government does not spend anywhere near this kind of money for any individual Hindu pilgrimage points to this as Muslim appeasement in a Hindu land. They are correct to point out the costs but suffer from serious inferiority complexes about their own legitimacy in a multi-religious land and cannot abide by anyone getting any perceived preference over our Hindu brethren. They quite forget that empires and kings of all stripes over several millennia have provided for pilgrims (religion no bar) out of their own and public exchequer. It is considered an act of great piety among us, especially Hindus.

So, this vicious fight continues with no mercy or genuine affection shown from any side of the argument. Some contend that as a secular country, India is not supposed to provide any religious subsidy. However, that is not correct. We are not a secular state in the Western sense (opposed to religion or religious expression in the public space) but a multi-religious state. We bow before all deities, and so it is not out of character if the state behaves in the same way.  If anything, subsidies for religious pilgrims and accommodation for them should be increased. It will go some way in promoting religious comity and make us appreciate our millennia old culture even more. But who will listen in this age of cynicism and lack of trust to this line of argument.

Begone thou beggar full of faith!

Even the Supreme Court did not. The Hon. Justices of the court ruled in 2012 that the government shall cease to provide this subsidy within ten years, or by 2022. The court used the Holy Quran in its ruling pointing out that it is the duty of every Muslim to provide for the Haj himself/herself. They cited a commentary of the Surah Al-e-Imraan, verse 97. While the verse is quite open, the commentary that the Hon. Court cites is quite unequivocal. This clearly is at the behest of some Muslims to whom it is anathema to owe their Hindu brethren anything, much less such a central tenet of their faith as the Haj.

Where does this leave the common Indian Muslim, one who makes enough to save for a one-way trip to Haj? What of his longing to visit Madinat-un-Nabi (City of the Prophet), whether it is “farz” (obligatory) or not? You see, any pilgrimage is not only about rituals and the mindless following of them. Anyone who has stood at the plains of Arafat knows that it is not the obligation that makes him full of faith, it is a deep-seated conviction; a perception that the Divine is closer. I guess now, with the pride of Muslims and Hindus assuaged, the Muflis(indigent) Haji is left out and will think….

 

Muhabbat karne waale kam na honge,

Teri mehfil main lekin hum na honge

There will be many lovers at thy door beloved,

Alas! I shall not be of those fortunate ones

 

 

 

The March Madness starts

March 5th, 2017

The first stirrings of spring and rather than bunnies going crazy, this is the good stuff we are looking at this week.

 

An Amazon employee inadvertently took down part of the internet

It transpired that the laddie(has got be a lad, thinking woolly thoughts), working on an issue accidentally switched off more computer servers than intended at 9:37 a.m. Seattle time, resulting in errors that cascaded through the company’s S3 service, Amazon said in a statement Thursday. S3 is used to house data, manage apps and software downloads by nearly 150,000 sites, including ESPN.com and aol.com, according to SimilarTech.com. [More]

For all those of us in need for a little buck me up this week, take a look at these nice TED talks.

7 TED Talks That Will Inspire You to Succeed

Everyone wants to succeed, but not everyone knows how to succeed.

There are many things that will help us go the distance, but few are as empowering and inspiring as a TED Talk.

Listening to a TED Talk is a great way to gain information, discover new sources of innovation, and jump-start your life toward success.

Here are some that are especially powerful with wonderful takeaways. [More]

The MVP is dead. Long live the RAT.

There is a flaw at the heart of the term Minimum Viable Product: it’s not a product. It’s a way of testing whether you’ve found a problem worth solving. A way to reduce risk and quickly test your biggest assumption. Instead of building an MVP identify your Riskiest Assumption and Test it. Replacing your MVP with a RAT will save you a lot of pain.[More]

 

Some nice books for the week:

Given how much the Kohinoor is talked about, it is surprising that it has taken so long for the history of the gem to be written. That, however, may have been for the best, as the delay has led to Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond – a beautifully written, engrossing story about the undesirable fate of conquerors entranced by a small, lustrous ancient stone.

The authors go all the way to Tasmania to experience the thylacine or lack thereof in the beautiful wilds of this island. The challenges to wildlife and the human experience around the very unique creatures, like the Tasmanian Devil is delightfully explained in this book.

 

Well! I bought this one because Steve Bannon was reading it right after the election. Before going off on a rant, please do read it because it is written by a journalist who really deeply cares about the Vietnam War and the danger of an over exuberant and too proactive presidency taking us down the path to ruin. The book is really a list of the character sketches of all the people involved and literally reads like a greek tragedy. It was almost inevitable if you put all these bright people in one heady room.

 

Three Twitter learning points.

February 12th, 2017

Three quick learning points from Twitter over the last month

  • Always follow back people who follow you.
    • if someone follows you, it is only decent to check out their twitter feed and follow them back if your interests match.
    • Re-tweet their pinned tweet or another prominent tweet that you read and liked. Yes, you need to make that effort. It will enrich your feed too.
    • Check out their followers and follow them too. This is not a contest on who has more followers but more an opportunity for you touch base with thought leaders in your domain.
  • Make sure you put an effort towards providing good content to your followers.
    • Everyday, I am devoting time to my mailing lists and emails to make sure that I can recommend some good reads to my followers.
    • Post images and constantly change the content of your pinned tweet. It garners more attention in Twitter world.
    • Without realizing it, you are running a daily newspaper. You don’t need to get frazzled but 4 to 5 good posts a day will keep your followers engaged.
    • This will show in re-tweets and replies and likes. I get on average 1, 1 and 3 respectively.
  • This is a great channel to build relationships.
    • You will be surprised how many people will write you directly and offer to help. Take them up on the offer and offer your own help. Do not talk money. We all know the difference between favors and paid work.
    • When re-tweeting, please try to mention your own take on the thread or link. It will help other in your list make sense of what is being talked about.

I hear a lot of conversation about monetizing social media channels and earning millions of dollars a month. Well, of course no one minds earning that kind of money. However, like everything else, this is an activity that requires a lot of effort. Take an hour or two a day to do this well.

My amazing experience with Twitter traffic started on Jan 20st, 2017 when my following suddenly rose  from 550 to 650 within a day. I was delighted but puzzled. I still am. My handle @ateeqhmad has been around for 7 years with barely anyone listening and then suddenly this jump.

twitter followers

 

 

 

It didn’t stop there either. By Feb 1st, 2017 , my followers were up beyond the 1,000 mark and are still slowly climbing everyday.  I had some great interactions with people; absorbed a lot of good ideas and learnt that this is a wonderful tool to interact with others.

There are several good Social Media tools out there. Use them if you have $20 a month to spare. However, I would advise against too much automation. It takes away from the spontaneity of life.

Most importantly, have fun!

Three fabulous travel writers

July 16th, 2016

Today, I will give you three authors who have written really great books on travel. These authors all have a common approach. They don’t judge;they include lots of anecdotes and personal interactions with locals; they use dollops of humor very judiciously.

Paul Theroux

One of the originals in travel writing. Very few people have invested so much effort in knowing and empathizing with people and places they have visited. Two recommendations for you.

Micheal Palin

Monty Python maybe his more famous work but his travelogues are some of the best in recent times. Rich in wry humor, very english! i would recommend that you listen to him in the following books.

Bill Bryson

An American who writes like an Englishman. Great humor! Some of his books read really well as Audio books while you are traveling. I will give you a couple that you will really enjoy.




Commute listening : July 12th 2016

July 13th, 2016

Author of the day: Eric Weiner

There are a couple of books by this wonderful, quirky and humorous writer.

1. The Geography of Bliss

I read the above about 10 years ago and it is all about where are people happiest in the world. Yes, money is involved with happiness but interestingly boredom plays a part too. A must read because it costs you next to nothing in the US.


2. The Geography of Genius

I am listening to the Audible version during my commute and it is hilarious. I do get strange looks by people thinking I am a bit of a crank. Can’t fault them really.

Podcast of the day

Nice Podcast on Simple Rules to run your business operation. It is really hard to make an entire business run on simple rules but the author makes a nice pitch for it. Buy this book from Amazon.

Look to the grocers for COD

June 9th, 2014

You have a very good website.

Your products are many and very well priced (read:discounted well enough).

I have been buying from you by credit card for a long, long time. Just recently, I made the mistake of ordering by COD.

The shipment was charged an extra Rs. 40 although it was delivered on the promised date. So what’s the problem?

There were a few and they bear listing out so you can handle them in depth.

1. I didn’t have change. The delivery man when asked for changed replied “We make so many deliveries. How do you expect me to have change for everyone?”[ This was not said very politely]

2. When I insisted that I didn’t have change, he reluctantly pulled out the credit card swiping machine and showed me that it did not have a signal, all the while getting more and more impatient.

3. I finally scrounged through several purses and got the change necessary. Can we shrug and say, “deal with it”?

No! E-commerce in India is already struggling to make major in-roads. In such a situation, “chalta hai” attitude will not fly.

For heaven’s sake, just follow the example of my grocer who does as many deliveries in the neighbourhood and always send change with his delivery boy to the nearest Rs. 500. It’s simple to count the cash doled out at the end of the day. Outsourcing to local delivery companies should not hinder this process.

Also, it would pay to educate the delivery guys the proper behavior expected from a Flipkart.com. I thought you had already licked the logistics problem. It is disconcerting to see these lapses.

This is not only you. Myntra.com guys, though very polite, never carry change. Neither do Jabong.com! Are all of you interested in surviving in this market?

Seriously!

I haven’t ordered from Amazon.in with the COD approach yet. I will try that and let you know my experience.

Gujarat: The unconvincing economic miracle

March 26th, 2014

modi

We are being sold the notion that we should vote for Mr. Modi and become part of his cult because he has wrought miracles with growth in Gujarat. No matter if he likes killing Muslims in well-orchestrated pogroms and belongs to the same ideology that hero worships Hitler and his SA. At least, the rest of us will get richer.  So I think to myself, let’s try and analyze if the “economic development” card holds true.

Gujarat has the highest increase in GDP when comparing the fiscal years 2004-2005 (203,373 Cr.) to 2011-2012 (620,044 Cr), a whopping 304%. Looks great doesn’t it. It is! However, as an analyst , I know that one number rarely tells the whole story. Let’s scratch around a little more and see.

If we look at the top growing states in India, Gujarat at 304% is followed by Tamil Nadu at 290% growth, Maharashtra at 280%, Kerala at 273% and Karnataka sitting at 279% growth in nominal GDP. Is there a statistically significant difference in all these growth rates?

I don’t think so; particularly if you take into account the all india GDP growth is 278%. This is looks like the “India Shining” campaign all over again.

Well, let’s take a gander at GDP growth per capita. That should tell us how each state is performing taking into account the population. In this measure, Gujarat is the sixth highest. Not bad, but is it the best among the big boys? Bihar( yes! incredible Nitish), Haryana and Tamil Nadu outrank it there too.

Not bad but hardly the best. India GDP per capita grew by 227% whereas Gujarat grew by 238%. Is it statistically significant? I don’t think so. India Shining again!

Congress walahs tend to point at Gujarat and its debt growth over the same period as if that has not happened to all states. This is a national problem and not only a Gujarat issue. This increased burden of public debt that the governments at all levels are blithely adding to their balance sheets will bear watching and curbing eventually.

In the meanwhile, I refuse to sacrifice myself so that my brethren can get “pseudo-riche”. If it really was true, we could consider sending 20 crore Muslims to the gallows. However, on present evidence this mass murderer may not turn out to be the messiah for the rest of India too.

Interesting reading for Feb 18th 2013

February 18th, 2013

Search Engines Never Forget

Perhaps they should. How long should people bear the mark of their sins? A harmless bout of drunkenness can be the cause of losing a prospective job. A wardrobe malfunction is visible forever. Some halloween costumes need to be buried after a while. There are also some other concerns. What if my name is that same as a crooked politician? My google vanity searches look horrible!!!

Anti-Jewish nature of Western civilization

No quite convinced about the fact that the only other that Chrsitians had were the jews. I believe this is a way of trying to explain why the holocaust occurred. Such a monstrosity does put a pall on Europe and the achievements post-enlightenment. However, to trace anti-jewish sentiment all the way back ot the ancient egyptians is a bit thin..

Life and Letters of P.G. Wodehouse

All my early reading and most of my writing, is trying to emulate the “Master”. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that there is no bile in his writing. His wit was lush, not dry. His characters so vivid that I would want a Jeeves somewhere close by so he can be consulted about how to deal with Aunts. Hilarious read that, “Aunts aren’t Gentlemen!

The Clear question: Can Online advertising support news portals in India?

Why is this question even being asked, one might think? Well, because Rediff.com reported it’s 18th straight quarter of losses. This is depressing because all my early news I got from this august portal.  I didn’t quite find the ads either. The site should be saturated by them. I do think it is possible to turn this ship around as more and more traffic comes online. Also, Reddif.com will have to change it’s image into a marketplace and start buying traffic on that basis. It also helps to have working payment gateways. Ghastly page design too. Needs lots of changes to make this site truly live up to the brand that they have been over the years.