Book Review, India

Book Review – An Uncertain Glory

I begin this review with the authors’ quote of Shobhaa De, a political commentator.

The India we are lauding forms but a microcosm of this vast land. It is the India of the elite, the privileged, the affluent. The only India we want the rest of the world to see and acknowledge, because we are so damned ashamed of the other. Ashamed. And Ignorant.

No, this is not a half-full or half-empty glass situation nor can it be reduced to an individual being or not being an optimist.

I have long avoided reading Amartya Sen, perhaps because, deep down, I was of the view that his perspectives are very socialistic and my pro-market brain would not appreciate it. In this book, Sen, along with his co-author, Jean Dreze, explore the dimension of India that we don’t see in newspapers or television,. The part of India we see is usually filled with narratives of India that is “shining”, is “incredible”, supported aptly by advertisements of multi-million dollar homes, the latest BMW/ Audi cars, and a constant coverage of the crony triangle that includes Bollywood, Politics and Cricket, with an occasional sprinkle of demography-targeted sensational news. In this book, the authors cover the India that has not only not enjoyed the fruits of this growth, but also the one that’s constantly neglected.

an uncertain glory--621x414The first and the most profound thing I learnt is that development is not the same as growth. It is very tempting to compare India by virtue of the shiny dimensions to the likes of America, when in reality this kind of comparison is not only preposterous, but also completely far fetching. The fact that America doesn’t find a mention through the vast majority of the book, except in one chapter for an entirely different reason, is proof that India Vs America is only for sensationalist media and casual bloggers. Even a India Vs China comparison, including the anti-democracy rhetoric, is misinformed, pre-mature and irrelevant.

The second most important aspect is that India, while telling a glamorous story on growth [in GDP terms], while still being a pack-leader among major economies hit by slow or no growth, is severely behind most of the BRICS countries, most of the ASEAN countries and even most of the South Asian countries, including in some cases, Pakistan, when it comes to social indicators. In that backdrop, a comparison with European or North American countries can only be, to use the authors’ phrase, “empirical non sense”

By the same token, I was pleasantly surprised, how well Tamil Nadu was doing, vis-à-vis the other states in India. Together with Kerala and Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu has been knocking out several of the social issues since the EVR days to right now. I have very many friends that are tired of the two-party politics that dominates Tamil Nadu, but will be pleasantly surprised to know that these 3 states top among the Indian states on almost every social indicator.

The third aspect I learnt is that markets are not a silver-bullet and they are not even a viable solution for India’s public services, where basic people needs such as drinking water, sanitation, education, healthcare, law & order and a transparent, working system of government have yet to be met. This view, prior to my reading this book, would have seemed hyper-socialist for me, but the authors explained in such detailed fashion why private sector cannot be [entirely] relied upon, how other countries achieved what they have through effective implementations of social policies in these areas and what role can private sector play in the growth of India.

Without going “all over the place”, the authors pick education, healthcare, poverty reduction, governance and democratic ideals and offer deep insights in that. In some specific cases, the authors sound pro-redistribution, something I usually cannot accept, but their conviction is so good, it can only mean the story-telling skill of these authors are too damn compelling and the data they provide is substantial. I am still not pro-redistribution, but the authors made me look at social spending in a new light, including the case of Food Security Bill, which I had openly ridiculed due to its incompatibility with the free market theory.

If you identify yourself, assuming you are honest, with Shobhaa De’s quote in the first paragraph, this is the book you should read.

A note on the book:

The first many chapters are condensed with tons of information, in tables, and the narratives once again referring to the tables. India’s dark underbelly is exposed without the rhetoric – there’s data and more data. Only thing that annoyed me is that, in every sentence, there is something like “this will be covered in Chapter 9”, “more on this later”, “we will return to this in detail in Chapter 10” – I mean, its not like they expect the reader to remember while reading Chapter 9 that there is a back-link to Page 53 of Chapter 2. However, towards the later chapters, it does get less data-oriented and flows well.

Economy, India, Politics

India is #3 on black money

I had written previously about Modi’s almost single-minded focus on hunting down black money in India. His effort to make Swiss banks open up their books and his efforts to open bank accounts for everyone are but part of the larger effort to reduce the might of black money.

Black money is a menace. It condones (and is an effect of) corruption and any crackdown effort has the ability to bring people to justice, increase revenues for the government, bring more transparency in India’s own understanding of her people and use the funds to do the right things.

While Modi only took charge in 2013, this article suggests India had already reached epic scales in black money prior to his crackdown-style efforts.

Btw, I am currently reading a book that should serve Indians and India-watchers as a reality check for the “shining” rhetoric. More on that soon as a book review.

Book Review

Book Review – Outliers

outliers_malcolm_gladwellI am a sucker for empirical analysis of larger-than-life phenomenon – especially those that make suggestions along the lines of “this is what conventional wisdom suggests…but here’s the REAL reason”.

Outliers is a brilliant book – at its core, it says successful people become successful for reasons beyond what meets the eye/ media/ rags-to-riches fairy tales and he attributes majority of the real reasons to “history and community” and “opportunity and legacy”. At the end of the book, I couldn’t help feeling a bit like he is focusing a bit too much on the environmental factors, while not talking enough about the things we do control / influence. To that end, it seemed a bit – a little bit – superficial and irreverent. I am not sure if I feel this way because of the very reason the author suggests – we have been sheep-ed for a long time to believe in romantic slogans such as “hardwork pays”, as if nothing else matters. In any case, if you read the book with this warning serving as the “pinch of salt”, it is a brilliant book.


Album Review – Bombay Makossa

41YBl2Z3ZgL._SS280There is a thing with the term fusion music. The word itself has lent itself to lot of hyper-generalization, abuse and a “catch-all” genre for the music labels and sometimes the musician themselves. I prefer the word collaboration, but that doesn’t really sound like a name of a genre. In any case, when you have listened to enough “fusion” albums, the kind that includes Indian music, every album starts to sound the same. And in some sense, it doesn’t offer enough “meat” or satisfaction for someone that is looking to progressively get deeper into understanding the music and exactly what constitutes fusion.

When John Mclaughlin collaborated to bring out Floating Point, it was one hell of a remarkable album. It featured a bunch of musicians, with John and Ranjit Barot being the common thread across all the tracks.

May be because of Floating Point and because Barot was doing more tours with John Mclaughlin, I had decided to give a shot to Barot’s Bada Boom, which had some serious music, especially on two tracks “Revolutions”, and “Supernova”.

News of U Shrinivas’s death was floating around and almost around the same time, I had heard about Barot’s Bombay Makossa, a collaboration that included U Shrinivas and Etienne Mbappe, who is also part of John’s 4th Dimension tour and I had once witnessed live in New York. Etienne is phenomenal, along the lines of Kai Eckhardt and Dominique De Piazza, but in some ways more comprehendible to me than the other two.

Musically, I had no choice other than to buy this album.

There is one genre of (western jazz) drumming – the kind people like Trilok Gurtu play – which include a lot of sounds and effects, which makes it more appropriate to call Gurtu as a percussionist. And then there are people like Barot – who reminds me of Buddy Rich from the old times, Tony Williams from 2-3 decades ago, and Gary Husband in the recent times – who need no more than a standard drum set. Barot will be closer to my tastes because of how seamlessly he integrates the vocalized form of Indian percussion – called the Konnakol or the Bol – into his drumming, something even a (IMO) superlative band like Shakti did not necessarily accomplish.

Having said that, I am completely glad I bought Bombay Makossa. Makossa is a kind of bass-powered music famous in the Cameroon and surrounding region of Africa.

In every track I could trace the presence of Carnatic music based mandolin by Shrinivas, but does it in a way where he doesn’t have to stick to the rules of Carnatic music. Mbappe is not just a bassist, but an extremely good one along with his singing skills I never knew he had. Barot of course, thunders through in all the tracks, playing the drums which is Western enough in the sounds and Indian enough in the structure. The konnakol pieces are my favorites, especially how well they gel into the totality of music.

Along with Miles from India, Floating Point and Bada Boom, I gladly add this album to the list of “must listen”s for the serious listener of free-spirited music.


Software defined phones

There was a time when people’s “cool” factor was measured by how small their phones were. Innovations in hardware and manufacturing segments allowed phone makers to pack more transistors into the same form factor and as a result, phones got better and smaller.

There is now a reversal of trend of making bigger phones – mostly to offer the convenience of longer battery life and larger display. Early innovators such as Blackberry, Palm and Compaq are completely out of the game, and the current market is dominated by the likes of Apple, Google, Samsung, LG etc..People wonder, I certainly do, what smart phones will look like few years from now.

When Google initially announced their Android OS, it was intended to be completely open-source, hardware-agnostic and implicitly that it is free. Google would make the OS and control the data of the user, while phone makers could just get better at making the devices and take advantage of free software.

As it turned out, Google changed its stance significantly (though not obvious) and got into the thick of the smartphone game. At the same time, instead of being the open-source, free OS everyone could benefit from, it started playing an active role in the fiercely competitive smartphone market.

Software-defined everything

Elsewhere in the computer industry, we are seeing the early days of software defined computing or software defined datacenters. Why can’t we have software-defined phones? As much as buying, changing, upgrading, swapping and switching phones have become easier, we still deal with a small microchip called the SIM card. It is ugly, it is not elegant and it is the only reason people are not able to login to any phone with their credentials and make it theirs.

Imagine this – if you lost/ broke/ misplaced your phone, how about you borrowing/ buying another phone, login using your ID and password and all of a sudden that phone becomes yours? You can almost do this today, except your phone number wouldn’t move. You would have to get the so-called SIM card from your original phone (or if you lost it, you have to order another SIM from your carrier).

What if the phone number also moved along with everything else?

The SIM card

There are SIMs, micro SIMs and nano SIMs, but at its core all of them are the exact same thing – except the unused piece of plastic around the actual chip is cut off to give 3 different sizes.

In today’s context, a SIM card when bought of a store is a useless piece of plastic. It gains life when the carrier “activates” it against your cell phone number. If you get another SIM for your phone and activate it, the older SIM is automatically “deactivated”. In other words, the SIM card is a chip intended for one time use.

What if, instead of the carriers controlling, the device manufacturers embedded this circuitry into the phone itself and SIMs are re-designed to be multiple use? Your phone number would be attached to your user account and would move with you to whatever phone you choose to login to, in a given day. There are multiple advantages to the phone makers, the carriers and most importantly, the users.

There are many commercial considerations to this type of an idea – most importantly, phone prices and their subsidy can no longer be used as a trick to keep customer’s loyalty. Phones will become, like it is in many countries already, a retail item that has to be purchased at retail prices all the time.

But more than commercial aspects, the “rules of the game” should change. Phone providers should agree on a common technology, common identity framework etc..

This is the way the industry should go.

Google started paving the way to this innovation through Google Voice, but either the industry doesn’t want it, or there are genuine technical challenges or both.


U Shrinivas

The death of musician and mandolin player U Shrinivas is subtly exposing the “small minds” of people.

The death of U Shrinivas was followed by headlines such as –

Ananthapur mourns…

Andhra Pradesh mourns…

Music lovers in Vijayawada shocked by Shrinivas’s death

Musicians are truly global citizens – they do not care about divisions of country/ state/ city/ religion/ caste/ ideologies etc. The only category they belong to is music. You connect with a musician in a musical way, not because he hails from the same town/ caste or anything else for that matter.

On similar lines, I also see headlines such as –

Music died

Mandolin lost a string

Mandolin falls silent

The art or institution of music is bigger than anyone that is contributing to it or even the sum of all the individual contributions. Guitarist John McLaughlin says “Shakti will never find a replacement for Shrinivas”. Why is this the case? Shakti existed before Shrinivas and, John-willing, Shakti can exist after Shrinivas. Or may be there is no future for Shakti, but it doesn’t matter. Of course, John must be deeply saddened by the loss, but saying such things comes across as ridiculous hyberbole.

PS: I don’t mean any disrespect for U Shrinivas. He practically got me into listening to Carnatic music, for which the musical part of my brain is completely devoted. He plays more frequently on my iPod than on most people who have written superficial eulogies.

America, Behavioral Economics, Funny Bone, Technology

Waiting for the cable guy costs us $38 billion

Or so says CNN. But the study ignores the fact that $38 billion includes many hours, whose worthiness is defined very loosely, often assuming that the people that wait don’t do anything worthy during that time. Most salaried people continue to get paid, in several industries, it is possible to be productive while working from home.

On the other hand, when I waged a war with my cable company, when they give me a ridiculously long window and didn’t show up anyways, I basically said “my time is worth $100 per hour….therefore you owe me $400 for your no-show”. They politely said, “your being a customer to us is worth $30 bucks a month….we are happy to have you leave us or we can pay $1 for the mistake we did”.