Friday, September 19, 2014

WSJ: A Mole Inside Assad's Embassy. Double Agent or Traitor?

The article by Adam Entous in Wall Street journal made for an interesting read, but to me raised more questions on the Author’s intent. (WSJ Article “A Mole Inside Assad's Embassy Aided Syrian Rebels”)

The Article’s tone was that of projecting Mr. Bassam Barabandi a diplomat of the Syrian government in the US as a “hero” for betraying his government and also misusing his authority. The article begins by describing.
In his embassy post over the course of a year, Mr. Barabandi issued travel documents for nearly 100 Syrian activists, according to interviews with him and more than a dozen opposition leaders. Through his efforts, activists were able to flee and campaign against the same regime he officially represented.
Based on the analysis of how the diplomat issued travel documents to hundreds of “Syrian activists,” the author Mr. Entous begins to project Mr. Barabandi as a modern day robin-hood. The angle conveniently omitted by Mr. Entous in his story.
  • What if the passports issued by Barabandi went to members of the ISIS/ISIL or the other bad guys? Without any due diligence, how did Mr. Barabandi ascertain the credentials of Syrian activists?
  • The article hows it is “easy” for a rogue diplomat to issue/re-issue passports of a sovereign nation. If it were this easy to hack the system, could a rogue American diplomat in Russia re-issue travel documents for Mr. Edward Snowden? (my earlier blog post on Snowden saga)
The last paragraph in the article gives away the true intent of the WSJ article’s author:
Mr. Barabandi and his wife have been interviewed by U.S. officials reviewing their application for asylum. They now are waiting to hear a decision. If the U.S. says no, Mr. Barabandi said, maybe he will try Canada.
Those of us who have jumped through visa and immigration hoops in our lifetime will immediately realize the author’s real intent: a positive cover story in WSJ added to Mr. Barabandi US asylum application dossier is sure to grease the wheels at the USCIS!
Giving Mr. Barabandi the benefit of doubt; most of the recipients of his passport scam may be good guys, but if his act happened to also benefit a few bad guys, the effort would be in vain!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Frequent flier Miles and points: how far will they take you?

I haven’t blogged in a while. The reasons are several including procrastination during summer vacation. I hope to continue with the blog, now that I am back and refreshed.
This summer, I planned a family trip (with my wife and son) from Anytown, US to Bangalore where my parents live. While planning the trip back in Spring of 2014, I decided to explore the possibility of burning some of my accumulated airmiles.

I am not a miles junkie at least not as much as I used to be. This said, I will gladly take the small, perhaps the only, perk of business travel that comes in the form of air mile credits and hotel loyalty points.
I shall refrain from naming the carrier where I had accumulated nearly a million miles and now have a measly ‘silver-elite status (but here is a hint this airline traces its roots to the illustrious Pan Am). Not long ago, when I was a ‘road warrior’ IT consultant , it was much easier to earn a lot more air miles, and more importantly acquire and retain privileged Platinum “Elite” status with the airline. The biggest benefit of an elite status, besides the ability to change flights without additional fee was that I frequently got bumped up to first-class while traveling in the US – lots of leg space without the need to worry about knee defenders.
Of course, it is much harder to maintain such coveted status with the airline, now that I don’t travel as much; and the few cross Atlantic business trips a year don’t really cut it with them! I spent a couple of days searching options on the airline’s website with the following constraints:
  • I had to be able to book three returns tickets from Anytown, US to an airport closest to Bangalore where the airline flies
  • Ensure that the major leg of our trip could be on business class
Turns out most US carriers don’t fly directly to Bangalore. A few fly into Mumbai or Delhi. And Airlines are less generous with miles on code-share flights with partner airlines, and especially less generous with those who don’t have higher elite tiers (like I said earlier, that is a perk that makes being a road-warrior worth it).

After a few days search, I zeroed in on two options: fly from Anytown, US to Mumbai or to Dubai and book an additional return flight from DXB/BOM to BLR. The difference was the return trip to DXB would burn about 140,000 miles (per seat) versus 180,000 to Mumbai. I decided on the former and decided to extend the trip with stopover for a day-long tour of Dubai.
The trip was great, with minimal disruptions. A few lessons from this experience
  • Be flexible on airports and itinerary. As I mentioned above, we were flexible in planning a trip with a stopover in DXB instead of BOM.
  • Change fee is expensive, but may be worth paying. I booked the trip in spring and didn’t have much of the vacation planned. Work and other scheduling came in the way after booking the trip which meant I had to cough up a change fee for the itinerary. Bottomline: change fee of $150 on a cross-continent trip using miles? Worth it!
  • Free is not always free. Even free tickets issued using airmiles are taxed. One has to pay the airport tax and other fees that can add up to a tidy sum for cross-continental flights.  There are other costs and incidentals one needs to plan for, especially if you don’t have a higher elite status with the airline in question. Costs like change fee, standby fee etc can add up.
  • Be prepared for “Attitude” from (some) of the ground crew. An example: on the return leg, while getting our boarding cards, I asked the lady at the checkout counter where the business class lounge in DXB was. She gave me a ‘look’ and asked if I were eligible to enter a longue on a ticket issued with points. I had to stand my ground and insist on this simple prevlidge (DXB airport requires US airlines’ staff to endorse tickets for longue access as most don’t have their own longues)
Bottomline: The effort expended in being able to burn accumulated airmiles for a family vacation is totally worth it!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Enterprise Architecture: Musing on Buring platforms and Cycle of vendor upgrades

The recent announcement by Microsoft on discontinuing support (even paid extended, extended support) for Windows XP and the debate in the media has broader implications on burning platforms at hand. To those of us engaged in vocation of Enterprise Architecture, the topic of burning platforms (a.k.a IT Debt @Gartner) continues to manifest itself in different forms and at different times. It is an event that seems to surface with regular enough frequency.  And the issue is not just restricted to an IT vendor. On the contrary, the Microsoft XP debate just surfaces a larger issue at hand: the lack of disciplined Application Portfolio review and Management (APM).

The need to upgrade a collection of application platforms (open group definition may have a cascading effect across the ecosystem. E.g for a big bank to plan for upgrade of ATM (link) systems from XP to Windows 7 (or 8) it is not just a shift in versions of software running on the ATMs. Implications to hardware (obvious need to suddenly also upgrade hardware), networks (potential increase in bandwith), integration…. the whole nine yards. A version upgrade of OS requiring an enterprise - or at least division - wide APM exercise. Such an APM exercise focused on addressing a burning platform can generally be a knee jerk reaction that addresses “A” problem than the symptom. We don’t hear much of this topic, especially the strategic implications of burning platforms for several reasons:
One reason is because it is just not sexy to talk about issues surrounding “keeping the lights on” Many Architects would rather spend their time “architecting” and designing new systems and engage business, than in planning the upkeep of ecosystem on hand. Such upgrades are generally relegated to IT/IS service teams and generally written off as operational “cost of doing business”.
Ø  In a resource constrained environment where most organizations are looking to stretch every dollar; not taking a strategic view of vendor roadmaps and upgrade plans and its implications on one’s existing architecture is not only counterintuitive and surprisingly wasteful. 
Another reason this topic doesn’t get a lot of airtime is because many corporate Enterprise-IS/Business-Architects and IS leaders are busy reacting to individual occurrences of such burning platforms; and are busy negotiating workarounds with vendors and technology partners.
Ø  No point in rocking the boat by airing dirty laundry?
Perhaps the real reason is a clear lack of communication. There is a lack of systematic and periodic effort in trying to understand and account for the total cost of such changes. 
Ø  Without being forewarned, Business counterparts react to the challenge like a deer caught in a headlight.
An idea worth exploring: A simple dashboard that can easily show the complexity and highlight the TCO implications to a CIO’s business counterparts would be a cool tool to have


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tech Giants Struck Deals on Hiring. What deals?

The front-page article in yesterday’s WSJ (Silicon Valley Tech Giants Struck Deals on Hiring) made for an interesting read. Many of us in the IT/IS-tech industry have either suspected this kind of collusion for long, and some perhaps wished for it, when faced by high rate of attrition at critical times.

The article quotes observers who expect mediations for a settlement to reach a conclusion. Settlement on this case or not, a few reasons why we might see continuum of some form of “collusion” and informal alignments among executives of tech giants.  
  • IT resources, especially skilled and experienced resources continue to be scarce. ERP consultants, Systems Integration experts, mobile device programmers and even web developers can write their own paycheck.
  • Demand for IT resources is #Glocal. Demand for skilled personnel in micro-markets (esp tech hubs like Silicon Valley, research triangle parks and cities like Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad) translates to a bulk of the “global” demand.
  • While the world continues to flatten mobility, especially global mobility of workforce continues to reduce
  • Many techies and IT managers continue to be reluctant to adopt use of tools and technologies of collaboration. Some of the challenge is cultural but there is also a strong human dynamic issue here: nothing like being able to sit across the table or yell across a cube to have a chat.
In this instance, the bosses of big giants in Silicon Valley - Google., Apple, Intel Corp. and Adobe Systems are accused of colluding to suppress wages, by agreeing not to poach each other's employees, among other things. And more interestingly, there is some “evidence” of this which is being touted in the lawsuit filings.

What is to say the bosses of offshoring IT giants in the Asian Silicon valley in Bangalore and Hyderabad aren’t doing the same?  Yes, yes, facts seem to be pointing otherwise: Infosys Q4 attrition at 18.7%One in 4 Wipro staff to get up to 20% salary hike There again, knowing how IT management “best-practices” continue to go global; perhaps . . . . .

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Feeding 9 billion people; can it start with us going vegetarian?

The cover story in this month’s National geographic "Feedingthe World" made me reflect on its byline “by 2050 we’ll need to feed two billion more people. How can we do that without overwhelming the planet?” Food for thought, perhaps topical for the long-weekend of good-Friday, Passover and Easter ahead of us.
It is springtime in the Northern hemisphere, bringing with it a refreshing change of scenery, greening gardens, and landscape dotted with multi-colored hues. With spring coming after a long winter with its fair share of snowstorms and “polar vortexes,” it is easy to ignore the latest UN report on threats from global warming. Global warming also has direct consequences on agriculture, which is bound to accentuate the problem of feeding a growing global population.
Lies we tell our children... about modern Agriculture and food
Working for a multinational agri-business giant, I am sometimes conflicted while trying to explain to my four-year-old where food really comes from. I find it amusing to read picture-books on farming with colored illustrations of quaint family farms, grain silos and barnyards with chicken, cows and goat meandering around. Yes, we still have some of these around. If you happen to drive out of Anytown USA or ride a train out of AnyCity, EU, you can still spot the big red barns, a few paddocks with horses and cows grazing. Picturesque scenery that proponents of “locally grown” and Community supported agriculture (CSA) movement would love to continue see in the landscape. But is that where food on our table really comes from?

Living in urban and suburban areas, most of us digirati are far removed from agriculture. Perhaps the closest we come to farming is in our kitchen garden experiments where we may be content to spend a few weekend afternoons sowing pre-grown plants on bags of gardening soil from Lowes or Home Depot, spraying an assortment of “miracle grow” chemical mix of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides. And by periodically watering the lawn and plants we are “amazed” to see flowers bloom along with a few veggies for a dinner salad. 

Books like “To Eat: A Country Life” and "The Town That Food Saved" that I read recently romanticizes hobbyist farmers and attempt to take us back to the quaint age of subsistence farming. The authors explain how passionate hobbyists with a few acres of fertile land can "sustain" themselves in modern day America.

The reality, as I would like to tell my son when he grows up, is that the bulk of the food we - urbanized denizens of this planet – eat is a product of modern agriculture, a.k.a industrial agriculture.
The reality of modern food: modern agriculture

There is so much cacophony and passionate debate on food and agriculture in popular press that obscures the challenge: how do we feed a growing population?

The debates also obscure the economic reality: tools and technologies supplied by agri-business are catching up with public demand; a demand for food and meat which is being shaped by modern trends and tastes. The recent New York Times essay “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” made for a fascinating read. It featured a local politician in Hawaii, Greggor Ilagan, whose quest for facts on genetically modified organisms (GMO) lead to a complete u-turn in his perspectives on the topic. The article echoes the challenge faced by policy-makers around the globe who need facts to weigh in on debates on modern agriculture. Facts that are especially hard to sift through with all the noise and cacophony.

A few basic facts food and challenge we face in the quest to "Feed the World"

Production: Growing and producing “food” is hard work and labor intensive.
  • A small minority of farmers support a vast majority of us, consumers of food.  “There are over 313,000,000 people living in the United States. Of that population, less than 1% claim farming as an occupation (and about 2% actually live on farms). In 2007, only 45% of farmers claimed farming as their principal occupation and a similar number of farmers claiming some other principal occupation.” -  
  • Rural flight (Wikipedia) is an irreversible trend. The trend to leave farms continues in historically agrarian societies including China, India and Africa.
  • Subsistence farming practiced in developing economies is impractical. The periodic wave of suicides among subsistence farmers in Asia and Africa is a heartwrenching, all too common phenomena (link). Subsistence farmers in most developing nations don’t have the social security net that hobbyist farmers in the west enjoy. (wonder how many western farmers commit suicide just because the monsoon failed?)
Consumption: Changing food consumption pattern constraints production
  • For majority of humans, Meat is coveted meal. “the amount of meat eaten by each person has leapt from around 22kg in 1961 to 40kg in 2007”  (Economist: Kings of the carnivores
  • It takes anywhere from 7 to 10 pound of grains – primarily corn, soyabeans or barley – to produce a pound of meat. Ergo the need to grow millions of tonnes of grain to feed a growing population. 
  • Converting grains to meat to feed humans is not only expensive and time consuming but also environmentally unsustainable. Massive amounts Methane generated by industrial animal farms is just another side effect. Time magazine reported that FAO data indicates that 18 percent of the Earth's greenhouse gas emissions were linked to worldwide livestock farming.  
  • The trend towards increasing meat consumption for food is not just restricted to the west. China and India alone have hundreds of millions of increasingly affluent middle class citizen craving meat; consumers who equate meat rich diets with westernization. (ref: Holy cow! Who moved my meat – Economic times)
Bottomline: Increasing quantities of grains and Meat for human needs cannot come from small-scale farms. The majority of food in our world is a product of modern agriculture – mega farms spanning thousands of acres producing corn and soyabeans to supply industrial cattle farms with hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle. Mega-farms are enabled by industrial tools and techniques  including use of chemicals – pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, growth hormones – and seeds that are genetically modified (GMO) or increasingly bred using marker-assisted techniques (ref: washington post)

Growing Demand for Meat as Food 

Behind the demand for industrial/modern agriculture is an odd little reality that seems to get little attention: our food consumption pattern, especially growing demand for large quantity of meat is unsustainable.

The national geographic article hits home when it says “The spread of prosperity across the world, especially in China and India, is driving an increased demand for meat, eggs, and dairy, boosting pressure to grow more corn and soybeans to feed more cattle, pigs, and chickens. If these trends continue, the double whammy of population growth and richer diets will require us to roughly double the amount of crops we grow by 2050.”

Growing up in middle class India in the seventies and eighties, it was not uncommon to see “non vegetarian” neighbors looking forward to the Sunday mutton biryani or fried chicken. However, for the vast majority of Indians, meat was an occasional indulgence not staple food. All this has changed as India “modernizes”. Middle-class Indians can not only afford to, but are increasingly asking for meat and chicken during regular mealtimes. My Chinese-American friends agree this echoes a snapshot of their native land too.

Is vegetarianism the answer?

If vegetarianism is the answer to world hunger, why are the gurus not actively advocating it? For one, vegetarianism is not fashionable or sexy. Most hardcore proponents of CSA and organic movements don’t claim any affinity to vegetarianism. Social icons like Oprah make waves just by trying a “Vegan Diet” for 21 days.  A few stock arguments against vegetarianism
  1. Protein: Advocates of western diet, perhaps rightly, point to the abundance of protein in meat and poultry. Protein is the basic nutrient and building block for a balanced human diet. No doubt. The myth that meat diet alone is a source of protein for humans needs is hard to bust. The western intelligentsia is drilled home this from an early age. Case in point the American diplomat who created a diplomatic furor when with her facebook comments that “mocked the Indian way of life, stating that her pet dog Paco got “more protein in his diet" than their gardener's, after one of her Facebook friends noted that Paco looks bigger than the man.” (link)  
  2. Behavior. Food habits and taste are innate behavior. Dietary preferences acquired at an early age are extremely hard to change. Even after spending a good part of the past two decades in America and Europe, I haven’t taken to eating meat, perhaps because I grew up in a vegetarian family. Same argument will be made by those who have grown up eating meat! (ref: Deepak Chopra on Becoming Vegetarian)
  3. Economics of meat – analysts have long obsessed over the efficiencies’ and economics of fast food companies. There continues to be a debate on profitability of dollar menus at Mc Donald’s and Taco bell but the debate is really about how cheap meat is! (link)
  4. Meat is cheaper than Veggie: The fact is Vegetarian menu items even at fast food restaurants cost more: A veggie patty at Subway cost more than a meat-laden foot-long that sells for $5! Wonder why? A good percentage of grains grown in the US is destined for animals and poultry feed, which in turn ends up as food. If meat is this cheap, one can only imagine how cheap grains would if we could bypass a complete step in food supply chain. 
There again, hardly any serious research exists on whether vegetarianism, even part-time vegetarian diets can alleviate the global food crisis. The occasional articles – e.g the Guardian piece “Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warn scientists” – end up sounding alarmist.
If not vegetarianism, where is the answer?

Notice the tone “force world into vegetarianism” in the Guardian piece; a tone like this is bound to unnerve many of us and is likely to minimize any rational discussion or research on the topic. An American is more likely to give up his first born child before he lets you pry away his stake, hamburger or ability to barbeque in his backyard all summer long!
But then if Americans aren’t going to change their culinary habits a bit, there is little hope in rest of world following suit. In a sense, meat eating, especially in developing nations is aspirational. For many there, a Big Mac meal at a local McDonalds is a symbol of joining the global economy as much as wearing blue jeans is.
A swing towards vegetarianism need not go to the extreme to make a difference. Abstinence of meat consumption is neither practical nor necessary to make a difference. Moderation is perhaps the mantra here. Proponents of vegetarianism should perhaps switch the tone and aspire for small changes: Abstain from meat certain days of the week. Perhaps a weekly lent  or a periodic Passover like diet to motivate a bit of reduction in meat eating?
What the world really needs is for a few more influencers like Oprah Winfrey and Hollywood stars to jump to the Vegetarian camp, or perhaps resurgence of Depak Chopra’s followers?
Of course, this hypothesis begs the question: could the savings of 7-8 times grains otherwise spent in producing meat be used to feed 7-8 times humans?

A lot would have to happen before that! Perhaps a topic for another blog.

Ps: don’t have to state the obvious: The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Souls lost on Flight MH370

After days of frantic search, use of advanced surveillance and all modern tools and technologies from around the globe at their disposal, the Malaysian government finally acknowledged today that the missing flight, MH370 'ended' in Indian Ocean. "We have to assume beyond reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board have survived," said the message. 

All 239 souls on board presumably perished!  My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew on board the ill fated flight MH370.

It is not the ending most of us following the search on digital media were expecting. And certainly not something loved ones and families of the flight’s passengers and crew are going to be able to digest. And if any of them (or us) were expecting a sense of closure to follow, it may be hard.  On a personal note, only my wife Suja and I know how hard it was for us accept the reality of the abrupt loss of our child on board Jet Airways Flt 229 on 17th June 2008; the memory of which occasionally continues to haunt. 

An abrupt loss of a loved one from an accident can be hard to fathom. All the more if it is from an inexplicable event. The coming days, weeks and months will surely shed more light on the ill fated flight with “lessons learnt” for modern aviation; but hardly something that will ensure closure for the grieving survivors.

My sentiments echo that in the statement issued by Malaysian prime minister Najib Razakwe humbly offer our sincere thoughts, prayers and condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy.”

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Khushwant Singh RIP

On the drive to work this morning, I heard of Khushwant Singh’s passing in the news. Just wee bit saddened, I began musing on Mr. Singh and his writing. Mr Singh and R. K. Narayan were two writers who influenced me and perhaps many of my generation growing up in India in the eighties and nineties. I was introduced to his writing by my dad who suggested I read the bestseller “Train to Pakistan,” perhaps one of the best books depicting the human face of Indian partition

For a while, I was also hooked on his columns “With Malice Towards One and All” that were syndicated in local newspapers. This was much before the internet age, and I would eagerly look forward to Sunday papers that included my favorite columnist

Besides Train to Pakistan, Not a Nice man to know, and several collection of short stories and essays were a perrrinial read. His narrative style, with a bit of masaala and sex was something critiques loved to hate but influential bestsellers nevertheless.

Even with Mr. Singh’s passing, his bestsellers are sure to continue to shape and influence readers and those interested in knowing what makes contemporary Indians tick. 

Passing at a ripe old age of 99. A well deserved milestone indeed. Khushwant Singh  RIP