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

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Book review and musing on Food Revolution and vegetarianism

I recently finished reading “Voices of the Food Revolution” (link to my Amazon review). The book has some very interesting perspectives on Food. The editors, Johan and Ocean Robbins, interview several authors and “food revolutionaries,” primarily proponents of vegetarianism who oppose “industrial agriculture.”

I am a vegetarian by choice. Having grown up in a vegetarian family in India this theme  of vegetarianism certainly resonates with me. What I find intriguing about the book, however, is that many of the authors interviewed in the book have also sold millions of copies of their books on new age diets and vegetarianism. If millions of Americans have indeed read up on vegetarianism, one would expect some change in behavior and consumption, but the needle has hardly moved in 2014. Last I checked, majority of fellow Americans continue to be carnivores and omnivores. So what gives?
Interestingly, in other parts of the world, including China and India, the newly affluent middle-class is taking to eating meat and poultry like there was no tomorrow.  Googling on this topic, I was surprised to read an article in Economic Times that “Indians eat more beef than any other meat. Beef consumption in India is double the combined consumption of meat and chicken, India is also the third largest exporter of beef….” Holy cow indeed!

In the book, many “food revolutionaries” make persuasive arguments on reducing or avoiding intake of meat and how this can lead to health benefits for individuals, while also contributing to greater environmental good. General argument: reduced meat intake will require fewer industrial cattle farms and lesser grains to feed cattle and poultry.  Wonder if such argument is being made in China and India that will need their share of industrial Animal Farms to feed the growing demand for meat?
Other links:
  • The New Indian Pariahs: Vegetarians - NPR 
  • China now eats twice as much meat as the United States - The telegraph
  • India's growing appetite for meat challenges traditional values - Daily news

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tech buyouts, innovation and corporate world: Case in point Agbiz!

Facebook’s $16 Billion Deal for WhatsApp announcement on Wednesday is sure to light a fire in the belly of every digirati and wannabe tech-entrepreneur. Billion with a B is a lot of money, and at times it feels like we are back to the dot.com hype era, perhaps with a fancy 3.0 moniker. And speaking of money there is a race to keep even our money virtual; Bitcoin anybody? As Brett Scott writes in New Scientist, “Bitcoin has brought with it a dream of an autonomous digital economy, free from corrupt banks and Big Brother governments.”

Reading of all this “innovation” is fun, though one generally moves back from virtual and digital to the reality of business and life. And the business of agriculture – the business of my employer - is perhaps as real as it can get. Even in AgBiz, innovation seems to be springing both serendipitously and also as a process of continuous evolution. A few months ago I was reviewing “Big Data meets big Agribusiness” (link), an example of big dollars chasing big innovation. The recent HBR blog “What Dronesand Crop Dusters Can Teach About Minimum Viable Product” made me reflect on innovation as a process of continuous evolution; bottom-up innovation if you will. Using the example, Steve Blank, highlights a few interesting lessons learnt
  • Build continuous customer discovery into your company DNA
  • An MVP eliminates parts of your business model that create complexity
  • Focus on what provides immediate value for Earlyvangelists
  • Add complexity (and additional value) later
Most of us in the corporate world aspire to innovate. Sometimes it is innovating new business models, ways of working or adoption of emerging technologies. In all cases, the end goal is to either impact the top line – increase revenue or growth – or the bottom line; reducing cost, bringing efficiencies etc. And unlike the occasional multi-billion dollar deal for WhatsApp that strikes the Olympic gold by translating virtual ideas and eyeballs to real money, innovation in corporate world is generally unsung and under recognized. Only a few innovations end up as the stuff of folklore either within the company, industry or if really lucky get a mention in a b-school case study.

Which brings us back to this case study on enabling “Precision agriculture.” Technologies, including innovative uses of data and analytics are playing their part but the end goal is the same that generations of farmers, for thousands of years have been struggling with: generating consistently better yield of crops while addressing the risks Mother Nature throws at them.  And if Ashwin's hyper-spectral cameras fitted on crop dusters can help improve yields, we will be moving slightly closer to the utopian goal of feeding the billions of fellow global citizen. Now, this is innovation with a purpose!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Corporate titles: No Head and long tails please!

The recent announcement by Zappos.com on doing away with corporate titles created quite a buzz among corporate watchers wondering if this is just a “fad” or shift like that to “open office” cube farms that other, larger corporations will follow. Washington Post reports
The Las Vegas-based retailer is now going even more radical, introducing a new approach to organizing the company. It will eliminate traditional managers, do away with the typical corporate hierarchy and get rid of job titles, at least internally. The company told employees of the change at a year-end meeting, Quartz first reported.
I have long believed in being a Free Agent (my blog), albeit with the safety net of a corporate world. Titles shouldn't mean much, especially as we consider ourselves as citizen of an increasingly flattening world (apologies Tom Friedman). But there again, we work in or work with peers in structured, complex organizations that aren’t really designed to be flat. Try imagining a Global 2000 company with 20,000+ employees being “self governed.”  A few arguments in favor retaining organizational titles:
  • Who the hell am I talking to? We frequently receive email requests at work or invitation to meetings. If the invitation is from someone we haven’t worked with ranges from mild annoyance (what does s/he want from me) to curiosity (“who is this?”). The author’s title in the email signature (generally department, designation) should give an indication, but in many cases it doesn't! 
  • Effective meetings and conference calls. Again a similar situation (who the hell is the obnoxious sounding guy/lady on the call?). It is not funny, but I have been to meetings where everyone introduces themselves as a “head” of “something,” leaving me to be the long tail; There again, introducing self as an Enterprise Architect may not mean much to the “head” of corporate marketing for south-eastern product-x US territory in that meeting. In calls, and meetings, it is worth noting the basic RACI of attendees, even if one doesn’t share all titles. This helps when it comes to a call to action and next steps: who “owns” the actions after the meeting?
  • Dealing with customers and Vendors. While dealings with those outside an organization, knowing becomes important while trying to gauge the decision making authority of the person.
In organizations with a culture of obscuring titles, many of us resort to “cheats” :
  • Where you don’t have access to an organization chart, you would have to use an educated guess based on an understanding of the organization. For example, if Bob is the “head” of the company’s Shared Business Services and I know that Information Services is in turn a key component of Shared Services, it is fair to assume Dave, the “head” of IS must (?) report to Bob. Wouldn't it be simpler for Dave to just introduce himself as the CIO? (Let us leave the hard question of whether Dave also reports to the CEO, COO or other corporate delegate.) 
  • In my previous job, the HR and managers believed in fostering a culture of “flattening” by opting not to publish organization charts, and intentionally downplaying promotion announcements. Employees, being human, would routinely sign off as “head” of some obscure group. For example a Principal Technical Architect wouldn’t always sign off as PTA but as  “Practice Head, cloud and advanced technologies, North East, North America” ..... whatever this fuzzy sounding title means. S/he was either trying to sound more modest or pompous than the actual title would indicate. In this case, a simple trick - pulling up the Distribution lists of the person in outlook - would be indicative of job-banding and, leadership teams he was in, a clear giveaway on his actual role in the organization.
I find it amusing that the same (intentional?) fuzziness is now following us in social media. Looking at Linkedin profile updates, I sometimes for simpler times and titles: if all my friends and peers are really “head” of something, somewhere, in their company who is really in their organizational long tail? Paraphrasing the Orwellian classic,all employees are equal, but some employees are more equal than others” Time for us to know the ones more equal?!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness: lessons to add to US naturalization test

As we look forward to yet another year, I was musing on the year gone by. During the past year, I had the privilege of “using” my acquired passport to make a business trip across the pond to Switzerland, sans a visa: a big deal for those born with third world passports but something westerners take for granted as a birth right.

A friend, the other day asked if I felt any different about living in America as a naturalized citizen this year, and I began reflecting on what really makes Americans Tick.
The naturalization test focuses on several aspects of civics and American history that most kids here would have learnt by rote in middle school. To prepare for the “test,” USCIS provides a handy “guide” with about 100 questions and suggested answers. The modern American society, however, is much more complex and dynamic than any test can prepare one for. The concept of Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness that America’s founding fathers envisioned is being redefined, perhaps by every generation.
My two cents, shaped in part by the topics American mainstream media seems to focus on over and over
 
Middle class America
Americans like to believe they are a classless society, but like most other societies, there is a marked distinction between the rich and poor with a middle class sandwiched in between. If Americans believe their cities, unlike those in “third world” countries, aren’t bustling beggars in street corners, ask them about panhandlers with street signs. That’s one extreme end of the society; bottom of pyramid if you will. The other extreme is the mulit-million dollar mansions that dot Anytown USA.

The point at which the middle class begins at the bottom and ends towards upper class is a topic politicians love to bring up during elections (of course without providing answers)

Fascination with Economy: whatever the term means!

The term economy is used very loosely by media pundits, analysts and others fascinated by a number of “economic measures.” There is almost a constant focus on stock market, monthly labor market report, ISM manufacturing index, housing market, crude oil price  etc etc. ADP payroll report, and the monthly “Fed” FOMC meeting where they supposedly discuss heavy sounding fiscal topics like GDP, inflation, deflation, interest rates, Quantitative easing

There is enough in the news and media to entertain us but very little to help make educated decisions: if you listen to the “economic analysis” in the media, it is never the right time to invest in stocks, buy a house, Switch jobs, or have babies and start a family. But Americans do all this, all the time.
 
Politics: A nation deeply polarized by two parties (nothing new in any democracy!)

One is either a Republican or Democrat, with extremists and centrists on both sides sandwiching the Centrists. Generally speaking,
  • Democrats have socialistic or leftist leanings and believe that the role of government includes social and “welfare” net – social security, medicare, medicade, and now “obamacare”. They generally oppose unregulated business and finance, and favors progressive income taxes.
  • Republicans (a.ka GoP), on the other hand are rightist leaning, more socially conservative and economically libertarian and believe in minimalist government and governance. In a sense, the GoP believes capitalism is the panacea for all social problems.
Although Democrats are Left leaning, Americans can’t openly profess to being far left since any alignment to Communism or socialism is a big no no.  Interesting titbit: US naturalizationapplication still asks

“9. Have you ever been a member of or in any way associated (either directly or indirectly) with:
a.    The Communist Party?”
 
Even though both parties disagree on most aspects of governance, one thing that both Republicans and Democrats DO agree on is the larger role of America in global politics, including the military machine, which beats me: how can “big” government military be a sacred cow if Republicans dislike the idea of big government?  Is it because big military equals big spending equals big military contracts equals capitalism?  Of course, most Americans are unsure how we will pay for all this!
 
Gay marriage and right

Growing up in India in the eighties and early nineties, the term Gay wasn’t associated with sexuality, but rather used as a benign verb (as in “happy and gay”). Of course, Americans like most westerners continue to be deeply divided over their collective views on Gay, gay marriage and the role of LGBT community in the society.
This is a hot button topic if there was any. Just recently A&E media did a complete flip-flop after the Duck Commander Phil Robertson the hugely popular TV series “Duck Dynasty” made remarks on homosexuals

The catholic belt in America is certainly unwilling to come out in the open (pardon the pun) in support of Gays. And as of end of 2013, most states in the US still don’t recognize the union of two people who are not Man and Woman. This said, influential opinion makers in America – politicians, media and sports superstars and to a lesser extent corporate honchos – continue to “come out” and it is perhaps a matter of time before social opinion changes. And as if charity doesn’t just begin at home, Americans want to export their values on gay rights before they firm up at home: media loves highlighting suppression of gay rights in rest of the world – Russia, or Middle East and India (with the recent Supreme Court verdict)
Make no mistake; Gay rights are not just about freedom of sexuality. The real fight is for fiscal benefits and tax rights: are gay spouses entitled to the same benefits as that of heterosexual couple? Of course, there are several other angles here including Immigration rights: are gay spouses/ partners entitled to a visa to visit/immigrate?


Immigration reform

Immigration policy gets muddled when mixed with highly charged opinions on racial and economic protectionism. America that was much more whiter – Caucasian – even a generation ago, is finding itself browning and yellowing thanks to the legal and illegal migration of people of Hispanic and Asian origin. John or Jane Doe Americans, who take immense pride in their Italian, Irish or African heritage from several generations ago, are coming to terms with neighbors’ fresh of their boat, clinging to their Indian, Mexican and Chinese heritage and values. Not an easy situation to be in.
As of 2013, Even a “black” president in his second term, born to a black immigrant and Caucasian American native who takes prides in his himself on his  an international perspective has found it hard to change the perspectives (ref my review of Obama's Biography: Dreamsfrom My Father)

Bottomline: Most first-generation immigrants, self-included, have their favorite stories on immigration snafus or dealing with checkpoint Charlie at the border or embassy. The laws continue to be highly nebulous, and enforcement of policies more so. The only beneficiaries: immigration attorneys
 
This surely is not the last word on these hot-button topics shaping and influencing our views on life, liberty in our pursuit of happiness in 2014.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My two cents: Indian-American Diplomatic Row

To followers of news on India and American- Indians, the recent “diplomatic row” over the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, Indian diplomat from the consulate in New York is intriguing to say the least.

Most of us civilians hardly understand the role diplomats play in managing foreign relations other than the terms and titbits media occasionally throws at us during incidents like these. Perhaps the closest we come to personal interactions with diplomats is while applying for visas to travel overseas or in case of those acquiring foreign passports while relinquishing one’s citizenship or acquiring national id’s while overseas. And even those dealings are extremely cursory, hardly going beyond the few minutes it takes for the “diplomat” to scrutinize one’s paperwork if done in person. Terms like “diplomatic immunity,” “diplomatic bag,” “persona non grata,” “diplomatic passport,” “expelled diplomat” are buzzwords one reads about in spy thrillers, movies or occasionally during “diplomatic row”
Which is to say those in Foreign Service are generally unsung heroes toiling away with little fame or recognition, except during times of crisis, notoriety (current example) or when they achieve some laudable: remember Vikas Swarup, author of the bestseller and Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire 

Before we look at what’s the big deal about Devyani Khobragade being arrested and “strip searched” like a “common criminal,” a few recent incidents involving American government officials and diplomats abroad
  • Missing Former Jewish FBI Agent Spied on Iran for CIA: After months and years of claiming "Former FBI agent Robert Levinson was not a U.S. government employee when he went missing in Iran during a trip in 2007,"  (link) The Associated Press stated in an investigative report that “Robert Levinson, a former Jewish FBI agent, was working directly for the CIA on a mission in Iran when he was last seen in 2007” (link)
  • An American contractor working for CIA in Pakistan claims “diplomatic immunity” after he shot dead two Pakistanis in a street in LahoreInterestingly, the contractor, Raymond Davis, was set free and came home to the US after US government paid in the region of $700,000 (£436,000) as "blood money" to each of three families whose relatives were killed.
Which brings us back to the Devyani Khobragade. The case supposedly centers around underpaying her Domestic Help. According to media reports “The diplomat had allegedly submitted false documents to obtain a work visa for an Indian babysitter and housekeeper in her Manhattan home, the Associated Press reported. Court papers said Ms. Khobragade, 39, claimed in visa documents that she paid the worker $4,500 a month when the worker actually received less than $600 a month. The Indian diplomat, who pleaded not guilty in court the same day, was later freed on a $250,000 bond.”


Wonder if the actions of Manhattan US attorney Preet Bharara – who, by the way just happens to be Indian American -  is an overzealous US official out to extract “blood money” (Political mileage) from Indian government or just someone out to ensure the rights of all foreign born housekeepers and maids are upheld?! Much as the socialist in me would like to root for uplifting the underprivileged diplomatic maids, I would hate for Mr. Bharara to claim any more political mileage from an international diplomatic row.