Saturday, November 26, 2011

Friday market - shukkar bazaar

No. of such stalls: ~100
Avg TPS: ~0.1
Tx Value Min: Rs. 5
Tx Value Max: Rs. 200
Tx Value Median: Rs. 30
USP: Fresh veggies, fruits once-a-week, best price - group buying discounts that work for real, in real-time
Tip: The stalls are set up by around 6 PM. Prices are the least after 10:30 PM (usually stocks last that long) :)

Very prevalent across north India. Usually some road converts to a market for a day/ night. The market gets the name it operates on, eg: shukkar bazaar on shukrawar 'friday'. Most used to run on kerosene lamps earlier on. Nowadays, all work on rechargeable emergency lamp batteries + CFL tubes. Some places have a leased diesel generator from where the genset provider provides a twisted pair cable with a bulb + CFL tube that the stall owner dangles on some support. A pure opex model.

Interestingly, none of them write/ display their prices :). People ask and they tell- a ritual that repeats a thousand times! The prices are reactive and can literally change every minute (based on the stall next to it, the customer's profile, time of the night, stock left- there seems to be no fixed mathematical formula- all in their mind!).

Most of the bigger format stores close by (Reliance Fresh etc..), for some reason, are not able to compete with the quality+price offers here. The produce in those stores are either of very bad quality or very highly priced! Wonder if the new Retail FDI thingy is going to make any difference.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I know despair is a part of life,
I know its a valley with a cliff beyond,
But when I sink down into its depths,
I just forget that its just a dive!

PS: These are the only 4 lines I remember of something I had penned a long time ago :(

Saturday, November 19, 2011

On mediated usage

The developing world, as the term seems to suggest; is at a stage that the developed world had crossed (or in some cases, even entirely skipped) being in at some point in time. I believe, mediated usage is a stage that most human interactions pass through initially.

Lets start from a simple but overkill-ish example. Ever heard of Bill Gates? The influential figure whose contributions range from the technology world to global policy world. Once upon a time, even he was a little baby in a diaper who could barely say 'ga-ga' and had to be fed, cleaned, clothed and taught by someone. The point I am trying to make is that doing things on our own, is not as natural or as normal as it seems. Self-transaction (of any kind) is a stage of evolution that is built upon multiple previous and related instances of mediated transactions. While mediated usage is like experiencing things using basic arithmetic, self-usage is more like calculus. In ones arrogance of context and experience, solving a differential equation might seem 'obvious' and 'simple'; try imagining what you'd have made of it as a fourth grader (if you were a calculus prodigy, sorry, this example does not apply to you). There is a certain threshold that one needs to cross before being able to be autonomous.

Let me now move to another example. Vending machines. Modern vending machines have apparently been around since the 1880s in the west! The first time I saw a vending machine was a Chocolate/ Magazines (Cadbury's?/ Malayala Manorama - don't remember which one) vending machine at an Indian railway station in the 1990s. Interestingly, there was a chair (with a person sitting) right next to it! To get a Dairy Milk bar, one had to give this person the money, he'd hand back the change from his cash-till and he would put in some kind of a special token into the machine, punch some buttons and hand over the goods that the machine spit. More often than not, he had to put in his key, open the beast up and manually retrieve what he had to from its innards. Something drove the company to invest in a layer of mediation while transplanting something that seemed to simply work by itself in the west. You'd note that the vending machine was actually made redundant by this layer of mediation. The company might as well have put a dumb shopping-shelf instead! Well, I think there is a reason to it- a longer term purpose- we'll come to that.

My most recent sighting of vending machines in India was in the new International Terminal of the New Delhi Airport. I guess these were from Pepsi co. Just for the heck of it, I tried following the instructions for a fruit-drink pack. Try as I might, the thing wouldn't take my ten rupee note! Finally, a guy came around with a bunch of keys, opened the machine up and gave me what I wanted :). Note the guy wearing a cap with a bunch of notes? He's the 'vending machine mediator'.

ATMs in India are a great example of how mediated usage has over time, evolved into self-transactions. Quite a few ATMs in India had and continue to have security guards posted outside them. Many a times, when first time users get stuck, they actively seek the help of these guards. It is interesting to note how an immediate need (for cash) or the aspirational need for becoming an ATM user drives people to trust near-strangers. We human beings are inherently 'social' and at times take decisions based on emotional reasons and relative perceptions of risk vs. reward rather than rational algorithmic ones.
(Dude: "Siri- should I ask the security dude outside this ATM to help me with my withdrawal?"
Siri: "Of course not! Your mom says, don't talk to strangers!")

PCO or the Public Call Office phenomenon is another uniquely Indian one. Long before mobile phones got in vogue and when there used to be year-long waiting lists for getting dumb rotary dial land-line phones, the then visionaries had a brainwave: That of entrusting atleast one phone line in every village with a local entrepreneur and enabling him to meter and charge for the call. Not very long ago (when mobile phones were a super luxury), when I was an engineering student at NIT J, we used to go to the village right next to our college ('Bidipur') and queue up outside the STD PCO booth there once every week (late night- they had discounted tariffs then ;))  to make a long distance phone call to our parents. Thankfully, we are in a different era/ planet now! PCOs still exist and still continue to be relevant in some parts of the country. What was interesting about the PCO was the way many of the villagers used it. They carried a paper chit with the destination number scribbled on it. They would dutifully hand it over to the booth operator who would dial the number on their behalf and once the call was connected; make an introductory announcement and hand over the mouthpiece to the caller to proceed with whatever publicly private conversation he/ she had to make.

The point is; that the option of having that mediated transaction enabled the poor villager to access a service he/ she needed which the person otherwise would not have. Over a period of time, (as is evident with the mobile telephony boom we are witnessing now), people do get over their barriers and learn whatever minimum viable product/ service that they need to use. But having an external spark, sure helps start the fire.

The last example I'd like to give shows cultural inclinations for mediated usage. India has millions of small mom-n-pop shops (grocers, chemists, textile vendors, 'paan' shops et al). Unlike the west, where people drive down to the closest mall once a month and stuff their cars with all the super-sized things they think they might need; in India, a mother would send her son/ daughter with a small list and the list could be as small as a single item ("Son, please go and get 200g sugar- hurry, I have already put the porridge on the pan!") The son would then run (or cycle) to the friendly next-door grocer (usually, no fake smiles or smile-badges here, strictly and simply business-friendly), buy the stuff wrapped in an old newspaper (+ two candies bought slyly with the spare change) and run back home- just in time for the mother to add it to the heating brew.

Self-service larger format stores are a very recent addition to the Indian retail landscape. But despite their discount offers and the promise of getting everything under a single roof, its been difficult for them to threaten the well-entrenched next-door shop's mediated shopping model. This is because culturally, we have been used to this kind of shopping (with the bargaining sessions, touch and feel instances, recite-the-shopping-list and someone hands you the goods in a jiffy shopping, mental arithmetic/ scribbled bills, moles and warts and everything that comes with it). Simply because it seems more human to us. Perhaps the next generation in the urban context may not share this perception.

Eko also leverages mediated usage to the hilt. Its promise of simplified banking and financial transactions presents a HUGE trust barrier that potential customers need to cross. While we believe that self-transactions are but a natural extension to enabling such an access, mediation of transactions through these trusted shops (where people have been buying their groceries/ medicines for years) is a great base to build on.

An important principle we've always believed in is that customers are not stupid. While this might sound like a strong statement to make, it is relevant in the context that many people still design services and solutions for the less-privileged as if they were lesser people! They might not be very educated and may not tote an iPhone but they are smart and nothing implies that they are stupid. The fact that they use mediation is not a measure of the weakness of the customer, but rather a measure of the strength of the mediator. The act of mediation represents a basic human-bond of symbiotic needs; customers' trust in the shopkeeper and the shopkeeper's need to have customers. There would of course be bad apples, people who could misuse their position of trust. The antidote is in having efficient selection and monitoring systems to weed them out.

Mediation is natural and human.
Mediated usage helps in facilitating customer adoption of new services.
Mediated usage is a good stepping stone towards self-reliance.
Mediated usage has a social, cultural and economic context.

Further reading:
Jan Chipchase,
  CGAP Blog on mobile banking mediated use
  Shared Phone use
  Designing Mobile Money use
Microsoft research, on inter-mediated usage

Sunday, November 06, 2011

To The Tech-Mecca and Back

The Silicon Valley is undoubtedly the most important place as far as high technology is concerned. It has all the major technology companies that power the internet age - Apple, Google, Cisco, Intel et al. ALL of these concentrated within a relatively small geographical area south of San Francisco.

View Larger Map
Eko was named as a laureate for this year's The Tech Awards - a prestigious event and a great great honor. I thus got a chance to tag along Abhishek and Abhinav and spend a good week in the silicon valley - The Tech Mecca, (and then back to reality :). 

It all started with an 18 hour Emirates flight from Delhi, via Dubai and over the North Pole to San Francisco International. On an airport shuttle, we traveled to San Jose, the uncrowned capital of the Silicon Valley.

The Tech Awards is a signature program held by The Tech Museum, San Jose, in association with the Santa Clara University. What stuck me was the grand global vision that the relatively small museum had (for a start, it calls itself 'THE' Tech Museum)! For the last 11 years, it has been seeking out, encouraging and supporting enterprises around the world that were trying to play meaningful and transformative roles in Environment, Economic Development, Equality, Education and Health. The program is sponsored by technology majors like Applied Materials, Intel, Flextronics (the sponsor for our award), Microsoft, Nokia and the Swanson Foundation. 

There is another great signature program for the Tech Museum - its called the Grand Challenge. I hope someday soon, we will be able to have something similar for students in India!

Stanford University
We also got a chance to visit and Abhishek got a chance to speak to a class at the Stanford University. The campus itself is so picturesque and grand; with such a great legacy that just being on that campus inspires you to think big. Imagine what would happen if you're tutored there ;)? Ans: You get to be Larry Page, Sargey Brin, Peter Thiel, Jerry Yang, Azim Premji, Ray Dolby or Vinton Cerf :)

Close to Stanford University is the Sand Hill Road - one street lined with all the major VCs. Guess why they have parked themselves right outside the university gates :) ?

From what I could observe, the valley is what it is because of three main reasons:
1. Climate. Seems to be just right! I'd call it nice cold and nice sunny. No sweat.
2. All migrants. I think I read somewhere that it was a place which did not have incumbents. Its 'history' hardly stretches back a few centuries. It perhaps represents a very open and forward looking culture.
3. Infrastructure. Things were just in place. To someone coming from India, even simple things like the highway networks, buildings, traffic lights that work, reliable electricity and water seemed awesome. While it is true that the sheer volume of the needs in India are daunting, we seem to have stretched this excuse way too far.
Consider the presence of just the Stanford University and its contribution! Even access to capital could be considered an essential infrastructure and silicon valley seems to have a surfeit of it!

At the Golden Gate Bridge
We couldn't get time to travel much, but we did travel to the Golden Gate bridge and gazed at Alcatraz from our vantage point. I also got to meet my college batch-mate Tapish and my brother Arun..

Jetlag (this thing is for real!) prevented any further ambitions of venturing out - something hit us so hard by the time the sun went down that we could hardly force an eye open.

Thursday, 20th October was the gala. That was a really grand gathering marked by meticulous planning and impeccable execution. It was encouraging to have Patrick from Creation Investments (the folks who have invested in us) with us at the gala. Silicon valley was well represented by top executives, VCs and well-wishers. It took some time for the realization to sink in that the net worth of that hall, that evening, should have been a pretty impressive $billions figure :)!

Also, each year, an individual is honored through the Global Humanitarian Award- this year's recipient was Jeff Skoll (An active philanthropist and a maverick movie producer- An Inconvenient Truth, American Gun, The Kite Runner and the erstwhile employee number one for eBay). Previous recipients include Bill Gates, Gordon Moore, Dr. Mohammad Yunus and Al Gore.

There were over 600 nominees, 15 laureates (5 in each category) and 5 grand prize winners. The names of the grand prize winners of $50K were revealed only during the gala, when Abhishek and Abhinav were on-stage. The sense of joy and exhilaration when Eko was named as a winner was amazing. Equally awesome were all the other laureates and winners. My personal favorite was WeCareSolar represented by its founders Dr. Laura and her engineer husband Hal. Their innovation was a solar power unit that fits in a suitcase and provides the necessary power and lighting required for medical procedures, especially related to child-birth; in developing countries. There is nothing technologically earth-shattering about most of these innovations, its their simplicity and appropriate use in solving real world problems efficiently that makes them noteworthy. Their solar suitcases for instance have already saved a lot of lives!

Check out Abhishek's acceptance speech video:

That was an amazing week! One last thing...
The Trophy

The trophy that we received aptly summarized the spirit of the silicon valley. On the bottom is a solid ingot of silicon (The same thing that is sliced into neat wafers and each slice could give birth to a set of microchips). On top of it rests a crystalline globe. The modern world literally runs on silicon. The Silicon Valley therefore is closely intertwined with all of our lives.

Here's a technologists salute to all the people who make the valley what it is.

To The Tech Museum, CSTS Santa Clara University, Leslie, Andy, Lee, Mike - and all the others who led us through the entire process- thank you!

[It took me quite a few sessions to finish this blog post- its been almost a fortnight now!]

That weekend, we returned home -recharged. 
To newer heights!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Entrepreneur's Song

Are you looking at the same cloud that I am?
Can't you feel the sun beyond?
Do you see that faint silver-lining?
Though the dull pall abounds?
Are you looking at the same stars that I am?
Can you see the moon full-round?
Don't you love the life you’re living?
Though the sure grave's just yond?

A walk in the park, a dance in the rain,
The smile of a child, the touch of a friend,
A call from within, a battle cry raised,
The road less traveled, mountains untread,
A cry unmasked, a pain that's felt,
The promise unspoken, that unwoven thread,
Little things that just might spark a grand trend,
Or, just lift when you’re fallen to fly again.

Friday, September 02, 2011

I am not Anna

With the chants of 'I am Anna' almost saturating the already humid Delhi August, the media and the country, let me attempt a mutiny of sorts by putting myself in the 'other' camp. The other camp consists of the Cornered party who were unwittingly caught in this tangle. This is their story.

Note: 'I am not Anna' is a fictitious concoction brewed with generous inspirational doses of jokes that should have increased the August ARPUs of our mobile network operators. This is pure uncorrupt fiction - as much a work of art as doodles on Dilbert's whiteboard. Any resemblance to any real characters is purely coincidental - as coincidental as the inevitable scratch on the glossiest BMWs temptingly swaying on the Delhi roads.

This is a faithful reproduction of what really fictionally happened:


I am M for S&T: I have called this important meeting to discuss a very serious issue brought to our notice by our honorable M for S. Our budding sports-women are unable to learn more on the great sports-woman Anna K anymore! It seems Oogle folks are upto some mischief again. I've got proof! Here, read this SMS someone sent me last midnight, it seems Oogle is now spitting out: 'Displaying results for Anna H. We're sure you didn't mean any other Anna'

I am M for S: Preposterous! This calls for a defamation motion, someone is trying to malign my name and the serious sports research being done in this country. I always suspected that Oogle was behind the Cee We Gee thingy as well!

I am M for S&T: Hmm... this seems to be a calculated campaign. Last week I typed 'Laptops for $34.5' and Oogle spit back sleaze with the header: 'Did you mean lapdance for $134.5? That seems more likely'.
I know technology and their software cant be that dumb! I suspect the foreign hand here.

I am M for D: Arrey sahab, I say Oogle is a threat to our national security! Last weekend I got lost in the 400 room you-know-which-palace; I searched on Oogle Maps on my indiPad for the nearest toilet - I am getting old and need to relieve myself pretty frequently; it said something like ... 'Sorry we don't have maps here at that zoom level. Try the woods!' This is a serious threat, what if... Shudder!

I am Advisor: Sir... I think there might be a way to get back at these people who are trying to topple our Cornered government.

I am M for S&T: Shabbash beta! Put your experience from Gold Men Sacked to some good use now.
(turning to the others) This youngster is full of bright ideas. He advised me on the fingerprint based indiPad assisted farming project for the poor farmers. Instructional videos from all those international professors and salsa lessons for entertainment free on their subsidized indiPads! All the farmers are already being enrolled for the Big-Brother-Is-Watching-You Identification (BBWYI) program- for their fingerprints.

I am M for E: (mumbling) Sir... these are poor farmers... even if we were to give them these devices for free... we have an issue with Power...

I am M for S&T: Silence M for E! All power and glory to Madame Prima Donna! Shut up if you don't want to get whacked. We have NO issues with power, do we?... Anyway, Advisor beta, please continue...

I am Advisor: Here's the plan: please listen to the whole story before interrupting me. Trust me I was the resident Oogle SEO expert at Gold Men Sacked!

So here goes... I will have our former M for S (yes, he is resting at our Sihar guest house, but he can still pull a few strings in his sleep) arrange a surprise 20-30 cricket match (we Indians are suckers for the willow) this weekend. Meanwhile, I will ask our special envoy to fly in on an emergency diplomatic chopper with Anna K to the cricket stadium- she will be our chief guest. Tonight, we will announce a press briefing where I'll invite all the journos in the city to cover the match and Anna K's latest swimsuit. The press and the internet will be flooded with Anna K. I know how Oogle's SlotGame Rank system works inside out! Within an hour Anna K will be back for good on Oogles pages!

Now comes the anti-climax... (wink) We sure don't want Anna H to walk in to the stadium and poach all the attention, do we? He's been talking something about indefinite fast- this could be a strategic Oogle SEO move by the fast food chain MyDonals!... (pausing for an effect and allowing his smartness to sink in)... So. While the media gets busy with the surprise 20-30, lets sneak up before sunrise and arrest Anna H. I know our journos are night owls, they would be fast asleep in their OB vans at that time on a weekend; neither their cat nor their mole will ever know!

I am M for S&T: Brilliant! I must get a seat near Anna K in the stadium. Dear 'I am M for H', please take care of the Anna H fellow, lock him up or do whatever- zero tolerance for people who are a threat to our democracy and are wasting our precious time. Madame Prima Donna should be delhighted! (turning to his advisor) Beta... I must recommend you for a promotion - good job!

The rest they say is history. Anna K refused to travel on the envoy's chopper and the 20-30 match never happened. The police however lived up to their expectation and their briefing - they arrested Anna H. Anna H instead announced that he wanted the stadium for his fast. Now their Oogle SEO strategy turned upside down! The entire country got out on the streets. Cornered party got completely cornered! ... and as you've all just read- it all started with an SMS joke sent by a good friend of mine that midnight.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

School of thought

When I look back at the 'education' I've got, I realize how worthless most of it (not all) has been. Arguably, the system is geared towards giving a pretty broad foundation on which individuals are supposed to build their sophisticated lives on. Education could thus be summarized as the spray-and-pray approach at the bottom and you-better-find-your-groove expectation as you get older.

If the aim of early schooling is to provide an awareness of the limitless options available and to enable a student to choose one when he is ready to - that is a worthy cause! But what if this ends up creating a generation of 'exam writers' ? Unhappy and corrupt citizens? People who can crack question papers problems but not real-life problems? I would not be very wrong if I say that this is what we have ended up with in India. There is a looming talent deficit that this emerging economy has to deal with. More worryingly, a good percentage of 'graduates' that this country churns out, are marked as unemployable! Recently, my colleague Mansi lent me her book 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman' to read. The book is a collection of anecdotes of the Nobel Prize winning, Richard Feynman. First published in 1985! What is interesting in that book is his critique on the education system that existed in Brazil. Excerpt (click this link on Rob Shearer's site to read more):

The lecture hall was full. I started out by defining science as an understanding of the behavior of nature. Then I asked, “What is a good reason for teaching science? Of course, no country can consider itself civilized unless… yak, yak, yak.” They were all sitting there nodding, because I know that’s the way they think.
Then I say, “That, of course, is absurd, because why should we feel we have to keep up with another country? We have to do it for a good reason, a sensible reason; not just because other countries do.” Then I talked about the utility of science, and its contribution to the improvement of the human condition, and all that – I really teased them a little bit.
Then I say, “The main purpose of my talk is to demonstrate to you that no science is being taught in Brazil!”
I can see them stir, thinking, “What? No science? This is absolutely crazy! We have all these classes.”
So I tell them that one of the first things to strike me when I came to Brazil was to see elementary school kids in bookstores, buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics in Brazil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it’s amazing you don’t find many physicists in Brazil – why is that? So many kids are working so hard, and nothing comes of it.If Feynman landed in India, I am sure he would have penned a similar chapter. Interestingly, Indians who continue their studies abroad seem to do well for themselves. The institutions abroad seem to be able to instill something in them that makes them thrive.

On the eve of India's Independence Day, let me attempt at putting together what I would really have wanted my school(s) to have taught me.

'The School of Thought' would only define the minimum education required, the maximum would be up to the students. The idea is NOT to enable them to recite the definition of addition, but the ability to actually add any two numbers up.

The following would be the ONLY mandatory subjects:

1. Language.
Two languages, English and the mother-tongue.
Alphabet. Words. Grammar. Phrases. Sentences. Prose. Poetry. Songs. Stories.
The pupil must be able to tell stories and read and understand stories.

2. Arithmetic.
Numbers. Counting. Concepts behind Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication and Division. Tables. Mental Arithmetic. Estimation.
The pupil must be able to handle all the calculations required in daily life.

3. People.
Self. Others. Family. Friends. Acquaintances. Colleagues. Life Partners. The Opposite Sex.
Listening. Thinking. Meditating. Caring. Negotiating. Integrity. Context. Diversity. Perception.
The pupil must be able to understanding what he/ she needs and expressing it. Grasping different contexts, people, body language. Speaking tactfully. Understanding what others want.

4. Money.
Saving. Borrowing. Lending. Taxes. Giving. Make a living. Enjoying work- doing what you love doing. Starting a small enterprise. Planning for a big one. Value of having/ not having. How does money work?
The pupil must understand the need and value of money, the nature and effects of its uneven distribution. Understanding what money can't buy.

5. Searching.
How to search for information? Optimal formation of keywords. Synthesizing information. Scanning through large data sets to get what you need.
The pupil must understand that transforming data into information creates value. Must be able to do that and use the information to get literally anything.

6. Happiness.
Staying alive. Staying safe. Games. Sports. Health. Team play. Arts. Music. Enjoying nature. Religion.
Maximizing life and joy.

7. Thinking.
Logic. Reasoning. Things beyond logic? Questioning. Controlling thoughts. Wrong? Right? Role of the community in forging individual thoughts.
The pupil must be able to spend time thinking and be able to capture the gist of their thoughts, understand which aspects have been influenced- consider the nature of each influence.

8. Exposure and experience.
Reading at least a book a week. Keeping notes. Movies. Imagining and accepting the possibilities of worlds and contexts beyond what is obvious and proximate. Exploring Nature. Places. Traveling. Understanding issues that different people face. Empathy.

In my opinion, the 8 subjects above are the building blocks. If a student masters the skills above, there is no subject that will be beyond his/ her reach. Physics, Chemistry, Botany will be things that they would naturally and out of their curiosity; be able to explore- or not! This country; any country for that matter, needs thousands of smart workers, farmers, artists, authors, administrators and politicians not just engineers and doctors. Its time this school of thought is given a 'School of Thought'. If we get this ONE thing right, we do not need to worry about anything else. Corruption, lack of infrastructure, inequality and a thousand other wrongs can be set right only through the light of knowledge.

Nothing captures this better than Gurudev's timeless words:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action--
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

- Rabindranath Tagore.

Sunday, August 07, 2011


It hit me hard today that I have not been a good friend. I haven't even wished anyone a happy friendships day (though quite a few people have wished me!). Heck, except for a few people that I interact with on a daily basis and maybe two others, I haven't called or visited ANY 'friend' for a long time!

Has work made me so callous? Family? Facebook? Orkut? Selfishness? Is this the norm for this age?- Why? I am trying to remember at which point in my life, I actually flipped over. I do faintly recall a time when friends happened to fill most of my world.

Its not that I am without friends. I know and interact with a lot more people than now that I ever did before. The truth is - there is a difference between a Facebook 'friend', a business acquaintance and a 'friend' as the word was supposed to mean in the good 'ol days when we had no online avatars. The truth is - my sense of worldly dependence has shifted to work and money. Remember the adage: A friend in need is a.... ? I do also realize that there will always be things money cannot buy, work cannot satisfy and strengths cannot influence.

I do know of a few people who still take the effort and time to keep in touch and maintain strong chords of friendship - God bless them and their friends!

As for me, I will try being a bit better.
And if you, O reader, seem to be in the same quagmire - maybe its time for you too!
Happy friendship day!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Being Varghese

'War geese' sounds as close to quack-quack as 'war horse' does to a brave compliment. That quackish word dear friends, is one of the many colorful ways in which the butt-end of my name gets pronounced. Achtung!: This is an egopost. Please exit now if allergic.

And I'm not alone :). Varghese/ Verghese/ Vergis/ Vargis including its close siblings Varkey/ Verkey/ and Geevarghese are very popular christian names in malluland.

Free Mallu-gyan: We Keralites have an interesting mutation in our genes that makes us migrate to the gulf ('gelf') and the US of A ('stayits'). Those who get the lazier strands (like me) end up somewhere in between (the distance from malluland being inversely proportional to the laziness of that particular gene). So, mathematically, those with the laziest variety of that gene remain in Gods own Country ('goads own cundree') where the national passion is to wake up every election term and switch the ruling govt. from the Left to Right or vice-versa and then go back to zzz.. 

Well, the point I was trying to make is that thanks to that gene, Vargheses could be found scattered across the planet. See?
Two authors have recently tried to protagonize Varghese. Sidin Vadukut through Dork and Mathew Vincent Menachery through Arrack in the Afternoon. I've read both of 'em curious to know how they twisted their Vargheses. Both are funny and don't claim to be literary masterpieces or anything. One thing they both did manage to portray was a mysterious attraction that their protagonist Vargheses had to the spirits in the bottle.

More Free Mallu-gyan:  Rotund mallus vie for the 'highest consumption of alcohol in india' spot and usually win against the state of Punjab with all those burly warriors!
(Dude: On the rocks?

Strange-Mallu: Yes, Coke please.
Dude: 'You're a mallu and you don't drink!!! Stupefying, petrifying, terrifying!')

As any normal netizen would; I typed in varghese and hit the search button. Earlier it used to tell me 'did you mean vargas' or something like that which gave it an Italian twist, but nowadays it points to a blog post by another Varghese who ("
Not Italian" he says and definitely nothing to do with the Borghese family. Sigh!) places V's origins closer to 'geese', quack-quack - Turkey to be precise. It seems folks there have/ have had Geewargis as their names. Hmm... but that sounds american to me: "gee! war-geese!". Anyways; if you dig further down the roots, you'll apparently find a George down there! Excavate a bit more? you'd find Greek! - γεωργος = 'Georgos' which means earth-worker (aka- farmer). Dig any further and I suspect you'll reach the molten core.

Enlightenment! So George, Geese, Turkey, Varghese, Geewargis, Greeks, farmers and the molten core are all connected! That noted and having killed your otherwise productive time, this is Varghese signing off. Light headed.

PS: Unlike what the search engine would like you to believe, 'Mallu' NOT = sleaze. 'Mallu' = native of a land where Malayalam is the language spoken... atleast that's what it used to be when Apple was just a fruit and gay was happy!

Monday, June 13, 2011

West is West

"OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet..." - Rudyard Kipling.

Well, they just did on celluloid! Sunday evening, I watched the movie West is West, the sequel to East is East and I quite liked it!

Strangely, while East is East was set in the west, West is West is set in the east: a village in Pakistan. Rudyard Kipling's classic -Kim also makes a entree in the movie. What I liked was its non-judgemental portrayal of difficult relationships, coming of age, accepting and finding acceptance. The wry wit intrinsically woven into the characters and the plot was also charming. Om Puri as Jehangir 'George' and the rest of the cast play their parts pretty well. While there was something that felt slightly fairy tale-ish... I wouldn't dream complaining. Well, whats a movie without some twists, eh!

If I were in the business of giving stars, I'd give West is West 4 out of 5.

Interesting Links: 
1. The Ballad of East and West, Rudyard Kipling
2. Free e-Book, Kim, on Project Gutenberg

Sunday, May 29, 2011

UID as my Mobile Number. An Open Letter to UIDAI

An Open Letter.

Mr. Nandan Nilekani,

Dear sir,

Let me jump straight to an outlandish idea and then delve into the whys and hows behind it:

Why not have the UID number as the defacto mobile number of an individual?

- So if my UID is 999123456789, I can simply print it on my visiting card and folks can call me on it.
- This is truly a mobile number for life. So as a customer, I will have a mobile number that will never change.
- Gives me a very valid reason to get a UID number asap.

UID = My Mobile Number for Life.


Aadhaar is slowly but steadily progressing in its mission to provide a unique identification mechanism for this country. This dashboard for instance shows 8 million cumulative enrollments in the last 8 months which I think is pretty impressive.

As the UIDAI website notes, the Aadhaar model clearly aims at attaching two attributes to every individual in this country-

a. a unique numeric identity and
b. an authentication mechanism.

This has very very profound implications on the way things are done by most of us. Aadhaar has already laid out its plans to work with its banking partners towards extending their reach by becoming the sole and minimum criterion for getting a basic savings account, which is a great fillip to the Financial Inclusion agenda.

The one thing I have learnt to value a lot above most other virtues in my past 3 years at Eko has been the value of simplicity. At Eko, we simplified the financial identity of a customer by providing it the customer's mobile number as a transactional alias and ensured that all transactions were done as simple number dialing -today we can claim that the choices have worked for Eko, where we have processed over Rs. 15,000,000,000 in cumulative volumes- way more than what all the other 'mobile banking' initiatives in India put together would have handled in the same period.


Why not make things simpler for a few billion people, now that you've anyway embarked on this ambitious journey?

Why not provide a mobile access number to everyone, rich or poor? This could be a good utilization of the Universal Service Obligation funds with the Dept. of Telecom which I guess is well worth over Rs. 25000 crore!


In India, TRAI had mandated the following mobile numbering scheme in 2003:
XXX= Mobile Operator
YY= Mobile Switching Center
NNNNN= Subscriber Identity

However, in January this year, 2011, Mobile Number Portability was launched. MNP essentially made the mobile operator and switch lookup as described above- redundant. Since launch, nearly 10 million customers have opted to change their operator while keeping their mobile number!! This clearly shows the need for an operator neutral numbering scheme. I think the 12 digit UID number neatly fits the bill.

How do we do this? Maybe, in a similar way MNP was rolled out; I guess the Telecordia solution for MNP already has some provision to achieve this. Another approach could involve UIDAI/ its nominated partner, maintaining a national master mobile switch (just as NPCI maintains a national financial transaction switch). Lets call it NMMS.

During Aadhaar enrollment, the customer is anyways asked to provide a mobile number, UIDAI would, from that point on, maintain the UID-Mobile Number mapping and the telecom operators be mandated to push any mobile number changes to UIDAI. This database could be used to seed the NMMS.

Aadhaar also does mass enrollment drives at places where not everyone might have (or be able to afford) a mobile number. At the end of such an enrollment drive, UIDAI could provide the entire block/ list of such customers enrolled to the highest pre-bid telecom operator which operates in that region. The telcom operator gets thousands of customers in one shot, which lowers their cost of acquisition and enables such 'no-frills' customers while UIDAI gets more customers in since it is now also seen as a mobile number provision drive  (Lets face it, the grandest successful 'inclusion' project so far in India has been the telecom inclusion project driven by the telecom operators in India with over 600 million customers already enrolled. The need to communicate is perhaps the biggest implicit driver!)

Dear sir, I'm sure you'd agree that its time to move the focus from thinking about 'allotment' of UIDs to mass utilization of the same. The more use cases there are and the more compelling these are, the more will be the adoption of the UID. Mandates and rules can only take an initiative so far; Only by addressing the innate needs of people can this initiative truly expand to its true potential.

I've been an ardent fan of your vision for this country and the ambitiousness of a project like UIDAI. I hope this crazy idea finds some resonance with your thoughts.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Mobile Handsets Family Snap

I have been reading and thinking of how the mobile phones have changed our lifestyle. A typical morning starts thus: Office dress? Check. Car keys? Check and finally- Mobile Phone? Check... Reached the main gate; something seems amiss. Oops, forgot wallet! More intriguingly, its interesting to think of how the mobile phones themselves have changed. The way mobile phones have developed in the past three years has been unprecedented. 

In this post I'll attempt a silhouette of this handset super-family snap and try to outline their places in the family.

1. The Young, Bold and Beautiful (TYBB)

Apple created a usability paradigm that was not just incrementally better than what was otherwise available but was transformational. It created and set standards that others have yet to surpass and has created an eco-system that others are trying hard to replicate. A techie may still call the iPhone a duh! phone, but if the queues at Apple stores and the buzz when Steve makes his "This is the most amazing thing ever invented" speeches are anything to go by, thats a killer product.

Google went ahead created a mobile OS called Andriod, where it had no prior experience. Amazingly, it succeeded in creating a worthy competitor to Apple. Actually a lot of manufacturers realized that if they had to compete with The Quick and Dirty pack (read on to know more about them), they needed to adopt an OS that would provide them the competitive flexibility of being able to churn out more designs and faster- Andriod proved to be a good bet. HTC Mobile is a great company that has innovatively adopted Android. Even Samsung has made some bold moves with it.

2. So Yesterday, Yet Trying (SYYT)

Lets start with a pioneer of cellphone technology: Motorola. Motorola literally created this market, saw its culmination and complacence in the Razr series and has been struggling to find its grounding ever since. Its recent forays into the Android with Xoom seem promising- thats officially the tablet space; its certainly lost its ground in the cellphone category.

Nokia has been a corner stone in the mobile telephony revolution that has certainly changed India. Rewind a few years, in the mobile app development world, Nokias used to be the targets for the Gold builds. The first two builds that would come out from most studios would be an s40 and and an s60 build. All the other builds would normally be ported out of these. I'm not sure if the case remains. I guess most studios now focus only on the iPhone version, the Android build and perhaps one for the BlackBerry. I'm sure Nokia still gets a spot, but the point is - its no longer the spotlight. Thankfully, to its credit, India is still flush with the Nokia torch phone (the so called 'made in india' 1100, 1200 series), second hand N Series and third hand S40s and S60 that still make it a majority by existing numbers. Some of its new avatars also seem to show some promise. Again, far from its glory days.

Sony Ericsson, Siemens, Sagem - heard of them lately?

Windows Mobile. The reviews for Windows 7 interface have been rave, but lets face it- these guys have been around for a long time (remember the iPaq days?) and have not been able to make a worthy dent in this domain; very unlikely that they could.

The Symbian OS. Once considered a powerhouse OS designed for the mobile platform, it was a developer's nightmare platform. Sigh, even its parents don't love it anymore! Nokia recently announced that it plans to orphan Symbian and has already adopted Windows (a case of: you're sinking, I'm sinking, lets party and try not sink together?). 

BlackBerry from Research In Motion is one helluva 'ol timer that seems to have been able to stand on its own amidst waves upon waves of assault by dozens of old and new handsets. It seems to have succeeded in packaging itself youthfully afresh, despite its age. RIM bastion has been its rock solid messaging interface, instant push emails to instant messaging- RIM has simply got this spot on, not to mention its messaging friendly key layouts both soft and hard.

3. The Quick Guns. (TQG)

In 2007 (I think) a miracle happened. This miracle was a chipset made by a Taiwanese company called MediaTek. Its SoC (System on a Chip) dramatically reduced the component count, the time taken and the cost of building a cellphone. At the same time, it dramatically increased the number of people who had access to the reference design, increased reliability as a platform and suddenly unleashed a wave of handsets that have swept TYBBs and the SYYTs off their feet.

Another miracle that happened was Shenzhen. Shenzhen is an electronics manufacturing powerhouse. And the scale I've read, is mind boggling. Read this blog to get a feel of its size and this one (also has a video) to read its scale. In India 'China Phone' is a known acronym and customers come asking specifically for it. But Shenzhen has something much more interesting. It churns out three categories of devices: 
1. Original handsets. 
2. Handsets that look like original handsets aka fakes/ phonies 
3. Handsets that are are ingenious. 

Suddenly new models began to get churned out every week and even days! while earlier the So Yesterdays painstakingly churned new ones out every quarter or two.

I'm not sure, but am led to believe that a spate of companies in India owe their origins to MediaTek and Shenzhen. These pack is led here by the likes of Micromax, Carbonn, Lava, Lemon and a bevy of names that just seem to keep popping up. Slowly but steadily, this pack began to corner a significant share of the market which was till now being held by Nokias and their likes (SYYTs) by focusing first on the tier-2, 3 and rural markets. They also focussed on features like music, video, radio and multi-SIM. Despite the fact that on most devices usability sucked, the sheer variety and incredible cheapness seem to have gone their way.

Micromax is an interesting company which I believe is trying to mature from being cheap-shenzhenish-copy-plus-a-few-features phone seller to a new-feature-centric phones churner. One innovation from its stable has been the Micromax A60 'My first Android'- the cheapest and a pretty decent Andriod phone for the masses retailing first hand at about Rs. 6500 when I had last checked.

The road ahead?

For TYBB, they need to ensure that they always remain a few notches ahead of the rest of the pack. Youthful looks don't really last that long.
For SYYT, they are bound to be sandwiched from the top by TYBB and the bottom by TQG. They need to ensure that they find their sweet-spots. Real fast.
For TQG, the very fact that they can themselves be engulfed by another TQG clone launched today means that they need to move from being simple phone sellers to value sellers.


Check out the stats from Business Standard India ( that support this story with some numbers!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Poxed and unpoxed

Apparently, a bunch of Varicella Zoster virus found it convenient to visit my body. Usually they visit kids, guess they'd have made a mistake with my DOB - KYC problems! Its been 12 days since their uninvited arrival and after having riddled me with lotsa red spots, they are about to hibernate in my nervous system in a benign state. It seems anyone who catches chicken pox is destined to live with a legacy of Zosters in their ganglia. The good part (sic) is, my body is now pretty immune to Zoster and co.

Its been quite an experience, doing mostly nothing and being isolated in a room. Had it not been for my BlackBerry, I should have been electronically dead as well. My folks said, since I didn't give my body a break, it simply decided to take one ;). And I got to watch, relatively guilt-free, the entire semi-final and final matches and saw India lifting the ICC World Cup :)

The saving grace has been the venerable Neem tree, 'Azadirachta indica'. As advised by quite a few people, esp my colleague Anand, I've literally been fighting the red spots with some green magic. For almost the entire first week, I'd smeared myself in Neem leaf+Haldi (turmeric) paste from head to toe. I looked pretty much like The Hulk gone terribly wrong in the makeup department. I slept on a bed of Neem leaves, bathed in water boiled with Neem leaves and also ate a few Neem leaves. All that makes it sound as if I was in some exotic organic spa resort- I've never been to one, but can vouch that the results have been pretty good.

So, while I am getting unpoxed, I've been thinking how vulnerable you and I really are (two days ago, a student in my dad's school passed away because of pox he got on a pilgrimage). Most virii, you can hit around, then some random virus hits and you're out, index finger is raised and you've got to walk back to the pavilion- even if you're the mighty Little Master. Inshahallah, the next match awaits :)
Well that is life. It screws you right when you think you have figured it out. - Five Point Someone

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Sachet Story - Epilogue

I had blogged about the ubiquitous Sachet a few months back in a post titled the Sachet Story.

The post also talked about how notoriously popular and unsightly, the discarded Gutka sachets had become on the streets of Delhi.

Well here's the epilogue,

Starting March 1st, no more Sachets to dress up gutka tobacco. Thats a really bold move by the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India considering the massive turnover and influence these companies have.

Times of India

Financial Express

While the move is great from an environmental impact perspective and certainly laudable, I guess it will only force 'innovation' (sic) in the Gutka delivery mechanism- Gutka dispensers maybe?

I have just recently witnessed, at close quarters, the devastating effect of substance abuse and how it degrades the people, families and relationships that it touches. Perhaps a firmer stand needs to be taken considering the simple fact that what our country loses in terms of its resources is way more than what it earns from these industries.

Unfortunately, it is so so easy to ignore costs that are not explicit- someday, it will hit us bad. Thank God, hope is free!