Thursday, 29 May 2014

The human side of disruptive innovation

In the blue corner - Uber, the taxi app that puts a customer in touch with the nearest driver willing to drive you to wherever. In the red corner is the traditional licensed cab. An almighty fight beckons in most cities in the world.

Nowhere is this contrast starker than in London - the home of the black cab. Any visitor to London knows the unique black cabs that are ubiquitous all over the city. I know Londoners complain about them, just as people in any other city do of their own cabbies, but having seen a fair bit of the world, I can testify that London cabs are amongst the best. The cabs are spacious, they are almost always available, they go wherever you want, the drivers are usually good, they rarely cheat you and because of "The Knowledge" they know the way to where you want to go. The only drawback is that they are outrageously expensive ! Anybody who say "Bah" at my description of the London cabbie is welcome to meet his close cousin in New York  or a more distant cousin , the Chennai autowallah who are incidentally of exactly the same rudeness quotient.

"The Knowledge" is a unique feature of qualifying as a London cabbie. To get your license you have to master the roads and routes of the city intimately. During the test, you will be asked to go to odd places chosen at random and you have to know the exact route - no referring to maps, no asking anybody, no taking any help at all.  It has been this way historically. No London cabbie would say he didn't know the place you wanted to go to. That was great..... until the GPS came. In one stroke, all that  "knowledge" has become useless.  Its easy to say that is progress, but put yourself in the shoes of the cabbie who has spent 4 or 5 years slogging away at the routes, only to find the rug whisked from underneath him in an instant.

Uber, compounds this problem. One of the great advantages of the London cabbie was that he was (mostly) available anywhere. But it came at a price. Uber changes all that. A cheaper mini cab can be put in touch with a prospective customer in a jiffy.

Predictably the London cabbies are trying to protect their monopoly. They are launching court cases, they will go on a strike and disrupt London, etc etc.  But it is a losing battle. They don't stand a chance in the long run. London is not Paris where they will protect the surly, unavailable, rude driver as an essential part of Parisian culture !

I know this is all great for the customer, this is technology at its best offering a  real value to the customer, this has happened to so many industries and will no doubt happen again etc etc. And yet I can't but help feel a bit for the cabbie.

The cabbie is often a poor guy. He knows no other trade. He doesn't have a huge education. He slogged his butt to pass "The Knowledge", and works hard to make a living. In just a couple of years, through changes he doesn't comprehend, he may be out of a job. And what does he then do ? Not many options other than to get on the dole. The "society" that benefited from the technological change, now picks up the cost through the social welfare system.

I've often felt uncomfortable when change leads to unemployment of those who aren't easily employable elsewhere. Shareholders, companies and consumers benefit. That is good. But  some workers suffer and their costs are picked up by governments, and therefore societies. I can't but help feel a little pang of regret. Yes, they should adapt. Yes, they should retrain to find another job. Yes, that is the price of progress. I understand all that. But if I am a 50 something , with a couple of kids, trying to pay off a mortgage and I am thrown out into the streets for reasons I can't really comprehend , then its tough to appreciate logic and rationale.

Yes, I know its not new. Millions of factory workers have been through this. And yet, despite all the logic, I feel just a tad sorry for the London cabbie.

PS: I write this post under extreme stress. My good friend Sriram has turned into a grammar Nazi. I know my posts might cause the Queen to raise her upper lip at the English.  But to be caught out by an American    - that will deeply hurt my pride :):)

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Narendra Modi and Ramamritham

This blog steers clear of political issues (or at least tries to), and therefore it would not be appropriate to comment for or against the incoming government in India. However this blogger is a world leading authority on Ramamritham and therefore considers it fair to warn the incoming Prime Minister on the tactics and mechanism of dealing with this specimen.

The incoming Prime Minister of India is reputed to favour high quality bureaucrats, give them political cover and a free hand and then hold them accountable for delivery. That is classic good management,  but he has thus far only dealt with the admirable Gujjubhai Shah. The situation is far more nuanced when it comes to Ramamritham, especially the variety that is found in the Central government.

Firstly the Ramamritham in the Centre has, for the last five years, forgotten what it means to take a decision. Terrified by sundry agencies like the Auditor General, the CBI, the Press, etc, he has not taken a single decision in the last 3 years. To get him to change will be difficult.

Secondly, Ramamritham has found unimaginable joy in terrorism. In the past  he revelled only in saying No. Now he has discovered the joy of positively going after everybody. The incoming Prime Minister has himself referred to the tax terrorism he has unleashed. Once a terrorist has tasted blood, it is difficult to wean him away from this.

Thirdly the number of Ramamrithams has exploded. Because we have had gargantuan ministries, Ramamritham has been delightfully cloning himself. And he will defend his turf like a cornered animal.  I believe the incoming Prime Minister wants to rationalise and reduce the number of ministries. That will be tough to do.

Fourthly the Prime Minister has reportedly asked for presentations from every Ramamritham in town. This is downright dangerous. Each character will spin yarns so convoluted that even the most intelligent of men will be ensnared in them. He will convince any listener that Section, 5 subsection 7.3 (iv) of an obscure Act is the most important life and death situation facing the country. He is capable of fantastic gobbledygook.

Fifthly, he will try his best to house train you in as quick a time as possible. Look at what happened to the savvy, experienced Pranab Mukherjee. It was Ramamritham who had brainwashed him into unleashing tax terrorism.  Your first sign that he is trying to get you house trained will be in giving you 24 forms to sign because some formality of your becoming a Prime Minister has to be completed.

Therefore, my dear Prime Minister, you have only a very short window of time to act. First, summarily sack half the Ramamrithams. Abolish , in the stroke of a pen, wholesale departments - like Dept of Youth Affairs, Hindi Implementation, etc etc. Don't merge them - the only way to treat gangrene is to amputate.

Secondly terrorise Ramamritham. Tell him that if he terrorises anybody, you will emasculate him and transfer him as special ambassador to Bophuthatswana. The only fear Ramamritham has is to be removed from the corridors of power.

Thirdly do not ask Ramamritham about anything. Just tell him. Better still order him. And threaten him with  dire consequences as suggested above. Tell him that you will defend him against the CBI, the Press, the CAG, etc, but if one citizen complains against him, you will roast him alive.

Finally hold him accountable. He is the slipperiest eel on earth and has spent a lifetime avoiding any responsibility. Tell him if he screws up even the tiniest objective, you will withdraw his pension, force him to accept a Somalian as his son in law and get the US government to cancel his US visa so that he can't go see his grand children. The pettier his action, that more rigorous the retribution.

It has often been said that the recent election saw a triumph of hope, of aspirations, etc etc. I heartily agree. For me, it is not a hope that the GDP will grow, or everybody will become richer, or we will be more powerful on the world stage. All that will happen in spite of the government. The biggest hope for me is that you will castrate Ramamritham. If you do that, I am prepared to vote for you again and again, even if you have not succeeded in doing anything else.

PS: For newcomers to the blog, let me explain this character called Ramamritham. He is a fictional petty, narrow minded, obstructionist, pedantic, useless government official. He is purely fictional and any resemblance to anybody dead or alive is purely accidental.

PPS : This blogger has just finished the first draft of his tax return and you can perhaps understand the trigger for this rant.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Uber Cup, here we come

This year, the Thomas and Uber Cup tournaments are being held in India. These are the men's and women's world championships in badminton. Badminton is one of the most exciting of sports to watch, even if you do not know much about it. Watching a major badminton tournament in Jakarta, the spiritual home of badminton, surely has to be one of the best sporting experiences anybody can have. Even the sport challenged Sriram's BP would shoot up !

India is world class in this sport, one of the few sports in which it is truly at the world level. The men's team is good, but not really in the top league. Its a different matter with the women however. With the meteoric rise of Sindhu, India has two players in the world top ten and on their day either can beat anybody in the world.

The first three days of the tournament have been on expected lines. The men's team fought well, but will not progress beyond the group stage. The women's team has won its group - they beat Thailand in a famous match last night, with Saina beating the reigning world champion. India had the swagger of a world beater yesterday. The quarter finals now beckon.

I had last blogged about Indian badminton two years ago here. It was then that Sindhu was arriving . I wrote then - " In two years time, the prospect of Saina and Sindhu representing India in the Uber Cup makes you want to drool in anticipation". That day has come.

The only "unbeatable" team is of course China. If you have the current World No 1, 2 and 3 in your team, it becomes a trifle difficult for anybody else to win. But India is right up there with everybody else, and on today's form and with home advantage, a China - India final is on the cards. 

The only pity is that it is being played in Delhi, a sports ignorant city if there was one. Crowds have been sparse (can you believe it), although those who come, try their best to be as vociferous as possible in rooting for India. If only it had been held in Bangalore or Hyderabad .....  We would have brought the roof down. Imagine a China - India final in a houseful Bangalore or Hyderabad stadium. We would have carried Saina, Sindhu, Jwala, Ashwini, Thulasi, Pradnya and Siki on our shoulders. The sheer decibel level might have even seen our girls through.

Forget the IPL. Tune in to Star Sports, all you sport lovers. Go bonkers for our girls. Uber Cup, here we come.

Monday, 19 May 2014

China , Taiwan - Not same same

If you are a Taiwanese company boss or worker , currently working in Vietnam, you deserve much sympathy and can be excused if you are bawling loudly. How unfair can the word get.

The background is this. China (Mainland China , that is) has been sabre rattling in the South China Sea and picking up a fight with every other country for the last two years now. In typical bully fashion, it is claiming almost the entire South China Sea as its own and pissing off Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and God knows who else. Every so often it does a provocative act - the latest was that it started drilling in waters claimed by Vietnam.

The reaction from Vietnam was unexpectedly massive. Vietnam is also a Communist Party driven totalitarian state and nothing happens without government sanction. In a country that allows no dissent,  it allowed protests, including street protests against China. That triggered a mob response. Chinese factories in Vietnam were attacked, Chinese workers were assaulted and an orgy of looting has happened.

Wait a minute. Now where does Taiwan fit into this. The problem is that many "Chinese" factories in Vietnam are actually Taiwanese. The average Joe (or Nguyen) on the street can't differentiate between a mainland Chinese and a Taiwanese. So Taiwanese factories have been torched. Poor guys - they are pissed off at China's action too, but are instead getting targeted.

This is a world over problem of the average Joe being geographically and culturally challenged. Sikhs being mistaken for Muslims and attacked is an occasional occurrence in the US of A. Closer home, for a number of people , every South Indian is a Madrasi. And 99.9% of Indians can't differentiate a Naga from a Manipuri or a Khasi from a Bodo - so everybody is a "chinkie" - the worst insult to our brothers and sisters from the North East is the ignorant bumpkin asking them if they are Chinese or Indian.

In this globalised world, this sort of lack of awareness is just unacceptable. In the old days, when you pretty much lived in one place and met the same set of people, it just didn't matter. Now in a globalised world blissful ignorance is a recipe for disasters of the Vietnamese kind.

The responsibility is two fold. The locals need to make a special effort to understand and appreciate the cultures of the "foreigners" living amongst them. Equally the new comer should make an extra attempt to learn and appreciate the land he has come to and not live in the metaphorical ghetto. We are privileged to live in an era where  both travel and communication is possible on an unprecedented scale. Sitting on our bums, we can appreciate and gain from the fantastic diversity in cultures in the world. Diversity is a great boon to the human race - if we were all exactly the same, the race would have been wiped out long ago.

So, here's my plea to Nguyen. Invite Hsi from Taiwan and Xi from the mainland to your home. And go to the factory and stay with them to tell them that you would protect them when there is trouble, By all means, march to the Chinese embassy and protest for all you want if you don't like China's action. But go to China's embassy. Not Taiwan's.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

JP Morgan - you did that ?

JP Morgan ought to feel at least a modicum of shame.

Look at their sweeping action last weekend - they have reportedly closed every foreign diplomat's account. In fact they have closed every current and former  government official's account and frozen their credit cards if he was not American. The reason is that they are facing increasing compliance costs because of US government requirements that non US "politically exposed persons" have to be subject to added scrutiny. The logic behind the American government action is that every foreign diplomat is, of course, laundering money - since all non American diplomats are crooks while American diplomats are saints. JP Morgan has been facing penalties on this account and they have got so fed up that they chose to simply close every diplomat's account.

If this is not rank discrimination, then I am not sure what is. US government and officials are fine. Only non US government officials are in trouble. The good José Antonio Ocampo, former finance minister of Colombia and a past nominee for the President of the World Bank was one of those affected and he has complained to the regulatory authorities of discrimination. I hope a class action suit emanates from somewhere.

Actually the problem is not JP Morgan although they must be made to pay for this action. The real problem is the US attempting to impose unilateral laws on the world. This is part of a growing trend of holier than thou practices of the US government. Every foreign diplomat is surely a crook and must be dealt with on that assumption. The rule of law is paramount in the US and all lesser mortals please bend and obey. When reciprocity is meted out, then of course, the host country laws are not "fair". Bullshit.

The justification for all this is that this happens on US soil and therefore the US can pretty much do what it wants.  Fine, then we should simply extend that principle in every country. Ramamrithams of the world unite and go after American diplomats everywhere. Subject every diplomat to the same "added scrutiny" including the principle of guilty until proven innocent and very soon we can have a wonderful balkanisation of the world.

World diplomacy acts on give and take - not on pedantic and narrow minded imposition of unilateral laws. The US presumably acts in this manner because it has the power and therefore it can do so. That's against every principle that the US, a noble country, itself stands for. It is a measure of a strong and powerful man/community/nation as to how humbly it can exercise that power. The onus is on the strong to prove that it is fairer than fair. Soft power is often achieved by not exercising any hard power at all. There are a million ways of going after money laundering, much of which the US and many other countries do today. Blanket discrimination against foreign diplomats is not one of them. The thought that a non North American, non Western European, country invariably has lesser standards than them is exactly the stuff racism is made of. Find and punish the guilty by all means, but to assume that Asians, Africans and Eastern Europeans are likely to be guilty is, well, disgusting. The United States might wish to ponder why it is, despite all its extremely great qualities,  viewed with such disdain in most of the world.

There's a fine line between being powerful and being a bully. If it does not revoke this action, a just action by the rest of the world would be unchain Ramamritham and let him loose on American diplomats everywhere.

Monday, 5 May 2014

How to make a mess of things

Elections have been over in Bangalore for a couple of weeks now and its a long wait for the results due in mid May. As is the wont in India, all government work comes to a standstill when elections are announced as the result of a "model election code" which is supposed to ensure that incumbents don't benefit by doing populist stuff just before elections. Indian love doing nothing and so all this freeze in activity is considered a good thing.

Consequently, when elections are over , it is also the time to do unpopular things.  By the time the next elections come, its all forgotten. In keeping with this tradition, the Karnataka government has been busy raising tariffs , leading to howls of protests. Vatal Nagaraj, a local character known for innovative protests  has remained true to form yesterday.

I want to pick on one such move - raising the toll on the road to airport as a perfect example of everything that is wrong in India about how we go after things.

First the facts. Bangalore airport is some 50 kms out of the city. There is a highway that connects the city to the airport. They have recently upgraded it with flyovers , avoiding all signals , etc etc and it is now a super smooth ride to the airport. All very good. Now comes the question of who will pay for all this and how.

The obvious solution is a toll. That's what the authorities have done. The problem is that in one full sweep , they have implemented a toll of Rs 115 (US $ 2) overnight.

Let's start with the amount itself. It is one of the largest (probably THE largest) single toll anywhere in the country. By Indian standards it is an astronomical toll. Still, that is probably the revenues required to offset the cost of building the roads and flyovers. But as with everything in India, there is little transparency. Nobody has bothered to lay down the facts of the costs and the economics clearly - if they had done it , many would probably consider the toll justified. As it stands, the sniff of somebody profiteering is very high.

Secondly, it would have been far better to prepare the public. Instead on one midnight it was just enforced. People catching the early morning flights suddenly found a demand for Rs 115. It is inevitable that there would be anger.

Everybody and anybody is protesting, irrespective of the logic.

The most galling protest comes from the cab drivers ferrying people to the airport. Their grouse is that it will eat into profits. Complete rubbish. It is the passenger that pays the toll. No cabbie returns from the airport empty.  Its a ridiculous protest.

The next constituency that is protesting is the lot going to the airport. The rich and pampered 0.001% who travel by air. They don't want to pay Rs 100 for the super smooth road to the airport to catch a flight that will cost Rs 5000. This is the same lot who were moaning about poor infrastructure and roads to the airport. Their solution is to abolish the toll and let the cost be borne by the government (read the poor non airport user). Fantastic.

The next lot who are protesting are the opposition politicians. I am not sure what they are seeking to gain from this - the rich using the airport road is a miniscule constituency and why defend them ?? On the contrary I would have expected them to protest saying the toll should be doubled.

The next step is very predictable. A few toll booths will be vandalised. Some old foggy with nothing better to do will launch a public interest litigation in the courts. Thee wise courts will immediately issue a stay on the toll and take the next 74.63 years to issue a ruling. Meanwhile the idiot who invested in the road will go bankrupt.

And then we wonder why infrastructure is so poor in India.

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