Sunday, 30 October 2011

A dog saves the day

A dog might prove to be the unlikeliest saviour of Formula 1, a sport that is direly in need of saving . Bravo India, for unwittingly pointing the way ahead for the sport.

Today is the first ever Indian Grand Prix - held at Noida, at the Buddh circuit, just off Delhi. Why it has come up in Delhi is a mystery - the racing capital (of whatever racing there is) of India is Chennai or Coimbatore. But Delhi it is. This is the fag end of the Formula 1 season; the championship is already decided and there is very little to drive for. But then Bernie Eccleston, the boss of F1, has grasped that the future of the sport  depends on the growing audience in Asia - that's why in the last three or four years, new Grand Prixs have come up in Beijing, Singapore, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Istanbul (almost Asia !), Yeongam (Korea) ; to add to the more traditional Asian venues Suzuka (Japan) and Sepang (Malaysia). Now India.

Formula 1 has become a bore. The results are completely predictable; superb safety measures have ensured that there are far fewer crashes and  rules are changed every 15 days until nobody knows what they are.  There are no more flamboyant personalities of the likes of Ayrton Senna - today's drivers are more technical automatons. Even the pretty girls hanging around in skimpy clothes seem to be rather muted. I haven't watched a Formula 1 race for the last two seasons - its become that boring. When a sports nut like me does that, there is something seriously wrong with the sport.

India might offer the redemption. On the first practice session on Friday, a dog ran on to the track and the session had to be stopped for some 20 minutes. This was the most happening thing that day - the rest of it was predictably boring. Now, any Indian knows that a car tyre is irresistible to a dog.  In some cases, it is even irresistible to humans, but we shall let that pass.

So here are some very Indian ideas to make the sport hugely more exciting and get the fans back

  • Introduce the Indian cow (preferably with a calf) to roam the circuit at random
  • Two wheelers featuring two types of Indian drivers must be in the circuit - the rambo who thinks he's Rajnikanth (or whoever) and revs up his pitiful 85cc mobike and tries to do a wheelie or the uncle and aunty (100 kgs each) with three kids on a wobbly moped.
  • The tractor who comes in the opposite direction to the racing  with headlights on 
  • The overladen truck who is parked right in the middle of the fastest section of the track, camouflaged to be invisible. For good effect a small branch with four leaves can be placed 10 metres behind as a warning.
  • One giant crater right in the middle of the first corner (measurements - 1 ft by 4 ft and at least 2ft deep)
  • Four completely invisible speed breakers that will hit the underside of the chassis, placed strategically where the driver will least expect it.
If Sebastian Vettel (the current world champion) can navigate that and win the race, then the crowds will come back for the thrill. Formula 1 will become the most thrilling spectator sport in the world.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

China searches for its soul

If you are a Sinophile, this is old news and you don't want to read about this anymore; if you are not, this may be new to you. Little Wang Yue, affectionately called Yueyue is dead. She was only 2.

Yueyue, a toddler, wandered on to a road in Foshan, a southern Chinese city and was hit by a vehicle. A security camera filmed the whole scene. 18 passerbys saw her lying in a pool of blood, but walked on and did nothing to help her. The driver who hit her, drove on. Yet another vehicle hit her as she was lying injured. Finally a noble lady, a rag picker, Chen Xianmei, came to help her. Yueyue was taken to hospital. But she slipped into a coma and died.

China is going through a bout of soul searching. The security video that filmed the whole grisly thing has gone on the Net. Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter (Twitter is still banned in China), has millions of messages bemoaning what happened. China is asking itself the question - has materialism and money become so domineering that human values have taken a backseat ?

The driver of the first vehicle who hit her, has allegedly said (not entirely corroborated) that if the victim dies, he would only have to pay 20,000 yuan, whereas if she had survived, he would have to pay her medical costs for life.What about the 18 passerbys who looked and walked on and did nothing to help a 2 year old lying critically injured. What makes a human being do that ?

Part of it is the so called Peng Yu effect. In a famous case in Nanjing, a good samaritan called Peng Yu helped an old woman who had been injured in a bus stop. He even took her to hospital. For his labours, he was sued by the woman and a stupid judge ordered that Peng Yu must pay 40% of her medical bills (the learned idiot ruled that Peng Yu would not have stopped to help unless he caused her to be injured). Similar cases have happened. People have faked injuries in order to be able to sue the person who came to help. 

Money is God and undoubtedly the dominant religion in China. But that does not mean that the society has lost its human values. Far from it. Chinese can be the most affectionate and friendly of people. I know it from personal experience. One case does not typify Chinese society. But it certainly must trigger, as it has, a bout of soul searching.

Not just in China, but everywhere else in the world. Alas what happened to Yueyue would happen in many countries in the world. Including my own. People will turn their faces and keep going and do nothing to help.  But there will also be a Chen Xianmei, who will stop and assist. Usually it is the poorer sections of the society who will be more ready to help. If somebody is lying injured on the road, the BMW will slow down to look, but is more than likely to drive off. It is the pavement dweller or the homeless, happening to be around, who will rush to help.

Sorry Yueyue. The world did not care for you. Your family  may not believe in religion, but I do hope there is a God somewhere who has taken you in His arms.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Storm in an ice cream cup

Schweddy Balls ice cream is brewing up a storm. It has caught the ire of One Million Moms, who are protesting about it. Wow !

Ben & Jerry's seems to be the flavour of the month on this blog. They are the lot who are churning our a limited edition Schweddy Balls ice cream, which they claim has risen to the top of the charts - presumably charts exist for ice cream flavours too.  Apparently it is "fudge covered rum balls" , whatever that means. Schweddy Balls is a take on a Saturday Night Live skit (a television show in the US). An innuendo laced old skit aired on that programme has the "memorable" tag line - no one can resist my Schweddy Balls.

On Million Moms is some obscure conservative organisation based in Mississippi of all places. They are up in arms. They say the language is unsuitable for children. They have forced some supermarket chains not to carry Schweddy Balls and are petitioning the company to stop the production. Little wonder Ben & Jerry's is revelling in the publicity and refusing to do anything of the sort. I thought motherhood was a pretty taxing full time job - are One Million Moms having enough idle time to be protesting about some trivial stuff ?


B&J of course has a long history of quirky names. The initial lot were simply just that; quirky  - Chunky Monkey, Cherry Garcia and the like. They seem to happily coexist with the more prosaic Banana Split and Chocolate Fudge Brownie. Presumably uncolourful lot like me would prefer Chocolate, but a breezy sulo would want Bonnaroo Buzz !  But then they graduated to Karamel Sutra, which was apparently lapped up by the kilo litre. They had a Chubby Hubby flavour, which was fair enough considering that most hubbies in real life are fairly chubby, if not downright tubby. But when same sex marriages were sort of in the news, out came  Hubby Hubby. 

Perhaps Hopfrog or J or Deepa, who have access to the miracles of modern day indulgences can pronounce on the relative merits of Schweddy Balls vs Karamel Sutra vs Hubby Hubby !

Ah ; what a storm in an ice cream cup.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Corporate Japan at its worst


In the good old days when I was in business school, Japan could do no wrong. A million books were written on the Japanese style of management. America was bust, Japan was everything. Case after case taught at business school was on how gloriously managed Japanese businesses were. At that time the two words we were thoroughly sick of was Japan and Walmart ! Time has since proved that there is a fair bit to admire about Japanese management, but a lot that is thoroughly rotten.

A great example is what happened at Olympus last week. This is the company that makes cameras.They just fired Michael Woodford, their CEO, and a 30 year company veteran, two weeks after elevating him. They were brave enough to appoint a non Japanese as their CEO, one of a handful of Japanese companies to do so and foolish enough to sack him immediately. His crime - he didn't listen to the Chairman Kikukawa san and started probing into the financial skulduggery that seems to have gone on.

The skulduggery relates to the acquisition of Gyrus, made in 2008. The acquisition was for $2 bn. Olympus then made payments for advisory fees of $687 m to two virtually unknown firms. Nobody can trace who the owners of these two companies are. One of them, registered in the Cayman islands has since disappeared off the registry 3 months after receiving the last payment from Olympus. These payments were not disclosed to shareholders - instead they were hidden in goodwill by adding to the acquisition price. Now, who on earth pays advisers fees of $687 million for a $2 bn acquisition ?? Not even Wall Street is that greedy.

KPMG, their auditors disagreed with all this accounting wizardy and were promptly sacked for their endeavours.

Woodford started to enquire into this and was told to shut up and look elsewhere. His crime was that he did not listen.

Woodford was summoned to a Board meeting were he was told to zip his mouth and not speak. The solemn directors then proceeded to fire him. The function of the board, alas all too often in Japan, is to bow one inch lower than the Chairman. So much for corporate governance.

The rigidity of hierarchy in Japanese corporate life survives to this day, Grovel and obey without question. I am still amazed how they managed innovation with that culture. I am sometimes inclined to credit some divine providence for all the wonderful innovation in product and quality systems that came out of Japan. How else can you explain  that coming out of a Stalinist corporate culture.

The only lot who are thoroughly unimpressed by all this is the Japanese investor. He has cheerily driven down Olympus' share price by 24%. Kikukawa san and his deputy Mori san may still have to fall on their sword soon.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

I'll Never Do It Again


Does INDIA stand for I'll Never Do It Again ?? I cringed and held my head in shame as I listened to this podcast - this series is one of my personal favourites and represents some of the best of the BBC. It ends with a quote from a guy who did something Indians were very proud about - run the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games . But he says,  "I'll be very happy to ignore India. There are plenty of other places where they pay their bills ". Listen to the podcast if you can - it is only some 5 minutes or so.

Is India one of the most difficult places in the world to do business ? In a recent World Bank survey, India came in at a staggering 134th out of 183 countries in the ranking of the places easiest to do business in. It is easy to dismiss such rankings, as indeed the podcast, as biased and taken out of context. For after all, doesn't  India have a vibrant and surging economy. Surely it can't be a bad place to do business and still be growing like it is. Alas the sad fact is that it is growing like it is despite the fact that it is one of the difficult places to do business in.

Take the instance of the Commonwealth Games contractors which is the subject mater of the above podcast. There has been allegations of corruption over the Games. So what do we do - jail the head of the organising committee without a trial and stop all payments to all contractors associated with the games. And let this meander along for years. It is appalling conduct. Every contractor is not corrupt. Just freezing all payments is no different from piracy. And we are supposed to be a country where there is rule of law. Try taking the government to court. You may get a judgement after you are dead. India ranks second last in the list of countries where you can enforce a contract - bested only by East Timor. 

For a start, we have to abolish the Indian Standard Time. Every decision cannot take years. Government cannot take years to allow an investment or set a policy. Courts cannot grant a stay for years to some aggrieved party. They cannot take years to enforce a contract. Contractors cannot take years to finish a job. We cannot accept being late in completing anything as a national characteristic. 

Unfortunately, given the spate of corruption scandals that have infected the country, all decision making has come to a standstill. Nobody is deciding anything for fear of being labelled as corrupt . You see, you cannot be accused of corruption if you never decide anything. There are no penalties for absolute inaction.

This is an awful state of affairs crying out for leadership, with a capital L. A leader who can stand tall and do the right thing.A leader with a clean conscience, who can motor ahead and act without fear. Being terrified and standing still is downright cowardice. But alas, such a leader is not visible even on the distant horizon.

I cringe and cringe when I see "I'll Never Do it Again" as an acronym for India. But I am afraid, there is an element of truth in it.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The curious case of Ben & Jerry's

Do you like Ben & Jerry's ice cream? Most probably a resounding yes.  But this post is not about its ice cream. Its about what it has done on Tuesday.

What it did on Tuesday was to go to New York's Zuccotti Park where the Occupy Wall Street protesters are camped and dole out free ice cream to all of them. Nothing spectacular about that, except that it went on to publicly declare its support for the protesters. It also published a statement from its Board of Directors that the company has the deepest admiration for the protesters and is standing with them. You can read what the Board said here.

Ben & Jerry's has long been a left leaning company promoting a variety of causes. Its founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started the company with a clear social and sometimes political agenda. So should this latest action be surprising. Yes, because, Ben & Jerry's is no longer an independent company. It's a subsidiary of Unilever, a global multinational company, perhaps the very sort that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are agitated against (that is, if somebody can decipher what exactly they are protesting about).

Was Unilever ambushed by the act of Ben & Jerry's ? Tough to believe so - for the Board of Ben & Jerry's has Unilever representatives, including an ex Director of Unilever itself. Unilever has issued a statement that it is neutral to social campaigns and has no comment to make, but that is a blithe remark considering that  its subsidiary is indeed making a very loud statement.

How far do you let your subsidiary act on its own ? Usually subsidairies are simply legal shells and the parent runs them as one corporate whole, unless there are external shareholders. But Ben & Jerry's is different. Perhaps because of its historical brand image. Perhaps because of covenants agreed with the founders at the time of acquisition to allow the company to have a social agenda. But still, the latest action seems a step too far. I won't be surprised if the upstart is reined in.

What of the protestors ? They are objecting to evil corporations; right ? Do they want the support of one ? Some of them expressed mixed feelings. They said they were uneasy about corporations muscling in on their patch. But they also said, they could not turn down a free ice cream !

Very curious.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Improve your gluteus maximus


Do you wish to improve your gluteus maximus muscle. If so , please buy Reebok Easy Tone shoes. Alas, you should have done it before Sep 30. Because on that date, the Federal Trade Commission poured cold water on gluteus maximus fans by ruling that the shoes didn't do much for that famous muscle. 

If you are flummoxed by the Latin, don't run away. The rest of this post is in plain English. Reebok has been advertising for two years that Easy Tone shoes helped you get a firmer butt. Apparently this was endorsed by no less a person than Kim Kardashian, who is reputed to be having  that redeeming virtue. I wouldn't have known who this worthy was, until she got married to Kris Humphries, a NBA wannabe, who I certainly know about. Kris could have confirmed or denied the anatomical virtue of the said lady, but he has so far chosen to remain silent, so we shall let that pass.

Reebok has reached a $25m settlement with the FTC for misleading advertising, which Reebok has decided to pay without admitting any guilt. Presumably the ladies in the FTC did not manage to firm up their butts despite wearing Easy Tone, but the ladies in Reebok did. No evidence has been presented to attest to either claim.

I would have thought that any connection between a running shoe and a shapely butt, could be tenuous at best, and that there might be far more important factors that determine the contours of your posterior. But then , it appears that a lot of women bought the idea that they could wolf down five Big Macs, wash it down with 4 cans of Coke and still be tops in the butt department by wearing Easy Tone. Now they will reportedly be compensated by Reebok for having been misled. 

What intrigued me by this story, was that Harbans Kaur in Delhi has also been captivated by this Western phenomenon of obsession with  butts. Apparently Easy Tone shoes were being sold in the Connaught Place outlet of Reebok in Delhi and some 80 women have bought these shoes at some Rs 5000 a piece. Now, anybody with knowledge of India, would readily agree that firmness is a minor quality compared with massiveness. Athleticism is not a redeeming virtue in Harbans Kaur's eyes and  a ponderous gait is more common than a sprightly step. So Reebok's success of selling a massive two pairs of Easy Tones a day in Connaught Place is surprising indeed. Alas, the 80 worthy ladies have no recourse as yet with Reebok. The FTC ruling was only for the US. That eminent organisation has presumably decided that  Easy Tone shoes did nothing for American butts but were perfectly acceptable for non American ones.
Kim Kardashian's Indian equivalent, I have learnt, is one Shazahn Padamsee, whose claim to fame I believe is that she acted in Dil to Bachcha Hai Ji. Needless to say, I am equally clueless about her as I am with her American counterpart. To feature in the Easy Tone campaign, Ms Padamsee must also be blessed with an extremely strong gluteus maximus. Perhaps some reader can comment on the truth, or otherwise, of this.

You have to give the last word to Harbans Kaur. One member of this clan apparently said  "I use it daily for morning walk. I don't have much idea as to whether it has led to toning or not but it is very comfortable to wear."  

Nobody can accuse Madam Kaur of lack of common sense.

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