Archive for January, 2013

Connect 2013: Gettin’ Smaht

January 31, 2013 1 comment

Just to clarify, “smaht” is Massachusetts-ese for “smart”, as in when Tommie tells Kevin on This Old House,  “Ainchu the smaht one?”

All across the Connect 2013 show you see and hear stuff that is “smart”:  Smarter Commerce, Smarter Workforce, Smarter Cities, and more.  When I first came across these “smarter” products I confess I was skeptical.  I mean, Agent 86 had a “smart shoe”, that wasn’t actually very smart, right?

But a message coming through loud and clear for me here at the show is smarter is where we need to go.  Let’s face it: The fundamentals of collaboration are the same today as they were 20 years ago at the first Lotusphere: Saving information and sharing information with people and teams.  A Connections community is logically pretty much the same as a circa-1999 Notes teamroom.

There is a difference though – the community is smarter.  It sends notifications and makes recommendations, just to name the top 2 clever things a community can do.  These are individually small things, but their cumulative effect makes a major difference.

But I have to say the smartest thing I’ve seen at Connect 2013 so far was They Might Be Giants in the OGS:

TMBG at the OGS

After 30 years these guys still have it.  They did this number for us, one of my faves:


Leaving out the whistles and bells … all time greatest – and smartest – song about a nightlight, ever.  Well done, OGS!

Connect 2013: All About People

January 27, 2013 Comments off


I’m at IBM Connect 2013 … was a long trip from India, but here now and getting into the familiar flow of going to talks, meeting people, and hikes twixt Dolphin, Swan and elsewhere.

The first talk I’m at … seen above … is all about Kenexa, IBM’s new acquisition of Smarter Workforce technology.  The topic of Smarter Workforce has a lot of synergy with the Connect show (Lotusphere of years past).  Kenexa let’s you improve your workforce, by finding the right people, developing them, assigning them and improving them.  The majority of worldwide CEOs in IBM’s CEO Survey recognize that developing talent is the top need for maintaining and increasing competiveness.  It’s the old idea on “our people are our greatest asset”, but in the modern world, where physical resources and assets can be anywhere and become less important, it really is quality of people that makes the difference.

And the Connect show?  What else is it about, but people?  On the web today we can learn whatever we want, whenever we want.  Coming to a place and seeing others F2F, we do that because a connection with someone else you make when you see and hear each other is so much more valuable than a purely virtual one.

Will try to do more blogging while I’m here.  But hopefully I’ll be doing a lot of old fashioned sit down and talk sessions.

Won’t be eating here … not for a while.

January 25, 2013 1 comment

A restaurant

This restaurant is next to the barber shop I patronize here in Pune.  I haven’t mustered the courage to examine the menu.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures Tags:

Power To The People

January 23, 2013 Comments off

IMG_0341Or at least some of them, namely: Me.

What you see here is my new, Microtek DoublePOWER 800VA UPS – an uninterruptible power supply.  Here in India electrical service is not consistent.  Brown-outs and outages are common. For example back when I first arrived in Pune and was recording my lease at the Registrar’s office, power went down there and for a few blocks around, at which point civic work halted and we collectively went out for tea.  Power was restored in a few hours and my lease was eventually duly recorded.

Buildings like mine have their own generators which pick up when mainline power fails.  However there is anywhere from a 10 to 30 second failover time when that happens – way more than enough to power down my wireless router, not a great thing to have happen when you are in the middle of, say, online banking.  So I got this UPS in the hopes that when these brief outages occur I can at least keep internet going for a while.  Kim tells me that today we had a short outage and all seemed to work as planned.  Bahuta acchā!

An amusing thing about the delivery of this unit … Saturday I received a call.  Was hard to make out what the other party was saying, but I eventually understood that there was a parcel for me at the local post office and that I needed to come by and pick it up.  So Monday myself and driver Rupesh make our way there and indeed it is the UPS.  Rupesh asked, why was the package not delivered to the address?  For answer they indicated this label on the package:


So, from a spirit of diligence they decided that “transporting” the package to my flat was forbidden.

I forebore from asking what miraculous agency had gotten the package to the post office in the first place …

Categories: Expat life, Technology

Steven Rattner, “India is Losing the Race”

January 20, 2013 2 comments

Ishanya Mall

Above you see Ishanya Mall from a few months back.  Kim and I visited yesterday to make some purchases and then, as all the times I’ve been there before, the place was nearly empty, the goods in the stores scattered and poorly presented, and the buildings themselves half-finished and the finished parts already crumbling.  Ishanya is supposed to be Pune’s prime destination for home furnishings.  You definitely can get some things there, but as I think the picture shows the place is hardly “prime”.  Ishanya does not even have its own website – if you go to you end up at a Facebook page for a fleamarket in the mall.

Our shopping experience was fresh in my mind reading an op-ed by Steven Rattner in today’s New York Times: India is Losing the Race.  The article covers a lot of ground but this quote makes a telling point:

Visits to crowded Indian urban centers unleash sensory assaults: colorful dress and lilting chatter provide a backdrop to every manner of commerce, from small shops to peddlers to beggars. That makes for engaging tourism, but not the fastest economic development. In contrast to China’s full-throated, monochromatic embrace of large-scale manufacturing, India more closely resembles a nation of shopkeepers.

Nation of shopkeepers indeed.  Everywhere you go you see these 2-3 person operations, from auto-maintenance, to plumbing, to “medicinals” (drugstores), to furniture, groceries and more.  The predominant Indian business plan goes like this: Get some stuff to sell; Find an unoccupied stretch of sidewalk; Sit down there and sell your stuff.

Meanwhile large scale efforts flounder.  Another example is the mall near my flat, Koregaon Park Plaza (their website was offline when I wrote this).  This mall boasts many western brands but like Ishanya never seems to have any customers – Hypermarket is the only store doing business.  Now, there are successful malls here, like Amanora Park Town, but Amanora is really its own township where 1,000s of better-off Indians live.  Amanora is also very close to Magarpatta City, another self-enclosed township.

From the larger perspective one reason large-scale efforts here are doomed is the transportation.  Average people here get around by motorcycle, scooter, bicycle, autorickshaw, and of course walking.  You can’t buy a lot when you are on a two-wheeler.  You see a lot of this:


I’ve seen a great many ridiculous things being transported by two-wheeler, including ladders, pipes, stacked paint-buckets and more.  The bottom-line is the majority of Indians can’t get to a centralized superstore of any kind, and even if they did they could not bring back much.  Most people do some sort of shopping every day, getting just enough food, for example, for today and tomorrow.

Wait, you say – doesn’t India boast a number of fast growing industrial conglomerates?  What about Tata Group (revenue >$100b in 2011-2012), Reliance Group (revenue >$66b) or Bharti Enterprises (revenue >$10b)?  Surely these examples prove that economies of scale are being used in India?

Yes, these are large, successful companies, but it would be incredible in a country of 1 billion persons that there were not some such enterprises.  A telling example for me is construction, obviously an important industrial category and one critical for growth.  A recent report on top 200 construction firms worldwide includes only 1 Indian firm, Larsen & Toubro, at #43 worldwide, while China has 5 firms just in the top 10 and a great many firms throughout the top 200.  India’s worldwide share of construction revenue is less even than Sweden’s, which takes 2.2% of the total.  A particular embarrassment for India is that in the neighboring country of Bangladesh, Chinese construction firms are overwhelmingly favored over Indian.  A factor here is that China has the cash to extend significant loans to Bangladesh.

One of Rattner’s pictures brings the India/China comparison into focus:


GDP growth is certainly respectable, but look at GDP per capita.  An incredible disparity.

Education has to play a key role here.  Looking at a comparison of education in India and China some things leapt out at me:


(Source: UNESCO)

In some criteria India and China are comparable, or India even excels China.  But look at the pupil-teacher ratio and primary completion rate; is it any wonder the total illiteracy rate is so high? It is no surprise that buildings and roads seem to fall apart so quickly here – imagine how many of the people building those things were illiterate.  And the metrics on females – 39% of school-age girls out of school, and literacy of men nearly double that of women.  India is purposefully not educating half of its people.

While there is substantial public spending on education, Indians at all levels with any disposable income look to enroll their children in private schools.  Recently on my way to work I saw a queue of 100s of people; I later found they were in line to file admission forms at a school close to my office.  My driver, Rupesh – in many things my touchstone for the average guy over here – told me that to enroll his kids in the school he wanted he stood in a queue for 12 hours, beginning at midnight.  Paying their fees, after rent and food, is his major expenditure.

In Pune the city government has a set-aside for poor children to attend private schools.  But that is only for 7,300-some places – this is a city of 5 million people. Even with that, the program is not being used, with only 3,000 places actually filled.  The article tells why:

According an official from the school board, one reason for the seats remaining vacant was that the schools were not being approached by children from the economically and socially weaker sections.

Only by being here can you know what this means.  Many people here in low positions can barely look into the face of a rich person.  It is an incredible act of courage for an Indian of lowly estate – a child, especially – to put themselves side-by-side with their social “betters”.


Once again, I have no answers.  India is a peculiar mix of social democracy – it has an ambitious plan for direct welfare payments – capitalism – Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment hub is South Asia’s richest city – and libertarianism – private townships and private schools.  Corruption is backdrop to it all, but no worse than the surrounding parts of Asia.  One thing I can say, looking at this picture gives me a new perspective on the needs and challenges of education here.  I would love to do something about this in my work.  I shall have to think …

Categories: Economics, Expat life

Karla Caves near Pune

January 13, 2013 2 comments

Kim at the Karla Caves

No, Kim is not scrutinizing the posture of a literally statuesque Hindu dancer.  She is instead looking up at this unexpected feature of the Karla Caves, namely, beehives:

Karla Cave beehives

Yesterday we decided to do some sight seeing and the Karla Caves seemed like a good destination.  Since reading about the rock-cut architecture of India I have wanted to visit one of these caves.  Karla, at 50 kms or so away, is a convenient destination, so we set out early and arrived at 10:30 am or so.

Before saying more about the actual caves, for the benefit of fellow visiting foreigners let me say a bit about guides, helpers and touts.  India is fraught with such characters and tourist destinations especially so.  As soon as an obvious bunch of Westerners arrive you will be accosted by “guides” who offer to help you with local knowledge.  Their usefulness is marginal, but by knowing the details of these places they can save you a bit of aimless wandering.  For me the main appeal of these fellows are the ridiculous prices they will ask and the opportunity for bargaining.  At these times, if you want the help of a guide, be prepared for something like this:

“Sir!  I am expert on the caves!  I show everything, only 700 rupees.”

“700?  For that price I expect you to carry me up to the temple.”


“700 is too much.  How about 50?”

“Sir!  With all my knowledge?  For you I give special price, 500 only …”

And so it goes.  The amounts really don’t matter to Westerners.  But there are many hard-working Indians who are lucky to make Rs. 500 (or less) in a 12-hour day of actual labor.  For that reason I’m loathe to give the same amount to some fast-talker who will spend 30 mins telling me stuff I already know from my wikiPedia reading.  Yesterday after a few minutes of haggling  I engaged a man for Rs. 200.  Ultimately he didn’t have any special insights to impart, but it helped the local economy I suppose.

On to the caves.  Karla is at the top of hill.  You go most of the way by car, but then there is a winding path of steps that takes you the remaining few hundreds of meters to the top:

Path to Karla Caves

The way up is lined with stalls like these:

Shopman at Karla Caves

Many of these sell refreshments and souvenirs, but a great many sell marigolds, spices, coconuts – the necessary materials for a puja that Hindus will perform at the temple at the top of the hill.

Karla is a very old place, dating from the 2nd century BC.  Here is the outside of the caves:

Outside Karla Caves

The upper galleries you see are closed off from visitors.  Anyway 2,000 years ago this space in front of the caves was a village-like affair, a stopping point on the Buddhist trade-routes that criss-crossed ancient India.

There are 2 main features of the caves, the first being the prayer hall:

Prayer Hall

At the far end is the stupa, a dome-like stone housing relics and adorned with inscriptions.  This hall magnifies sound; the favorite activity of the many school children visiting was to shout slogans and hear them echo.  Again, it was intriguing to imagine 2,000 years ago, the hall full of seated monks and their prayers reverberating.

The second feature are the smaller caves with meditation cells for individual monks:

Meditation Cell

These spaces inside are only a few feet across.  Seated in such a place I can see how there would be little distraction – assuming one could get over the distraction of sitting, that is. 

Hearing of these cave-cells I jokingly asked our “guide” if I could see Bodhidharma’s shadow in this place.  The guide replied that indeed many Chinese people visited these caves.  Sigh.

Between the prayer-hall and the meditation cells it’s rather amazing to consider these vast spaces were mainly cut by hand out of solid stone.  As I read here, the main technique used was to create small crevices in the stone, push in dry wood, then apply water – the expansion of wet wood fractures the stone.

In the centuries since its founding Karla has become more of a Hindu destination than a Buddhist one.  Outside the prayer-hall is a small temple to Ekveera, a goddess revered by Koli people who live mainly in Mumbai.  We all went inside and while we could take no photos, for Rs. 40 we all received a ceremonial dab of red dye on our foreheads together with, presumably, the goddess’ blessing.

Finally it was time to go, but not before obtaining a souvenir of our visit.  At the bottom of the path was a man selling minerals.  I selected these 2 pieces:

Minerals from Karla Cave

Minerals seem an appropriate keepsake for visiting a cave.  The piece on the right is calcite, perhaps two pounds in weight.  On the left is what I think is an apophyllite, a common crystal found in Maharashtra.

Once again it was time for bargaining.  The shopman started at Rs. 2,500 – “These minerals come from this very mountain!” he confidently declared.  I was very happy to see his consternation when I suggested 400.  I walked away from the booth two times – in one of those cases remarking “I had plenty of rocks back in the US” – only to return to hear more offers.  Walking away the 3rd time the shopman came after holding the minerals and we agreed on Rs. 600.  As is usual in these cases you have no idea how well you really did – he probably got these pieces for 5 or 10 – but the experience is half the fun.

All in all, a very engaging visit.  We’d very much like to go on a longer trip to a place like Ajanta Caves, one of the foremost cave temples in India.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures Tags: ,

Never Hurts to be Precise

January 12, 2013 Comments off


This helpful sign we saw at Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park, here in Pune.  Based on the detailed description, we all assumed that perturbing, enticing, needling, nagging, riling and rankling probably would be Ok.

Of course, when the representative animals are like this:


it is probably best to leave sleeping snakes lie un-rankled, as it were.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures Tags:

Rules of Indian Traffic

January 10, 2013 1 comment

Pune Traffic

I’ve blogged before about Indian traffic; if you read through the link in the picture above you’ll see this is a serious matter here.

However on the lighter side, I came across these rules of Indian traffic:

Highway Code of India

Article    I:     The assumption of immortality is required of all road users.

Article  II:     Indian traffic like Indian society, is structured on a strict caste system. The following precedence must be accorded at all times.  In descending order, give way to: cows, elephants, heavy trucks, buses, official cars, camels, light trucks, buffalo, jeeps, ox-carts, private cars, motorcycles, scooters, auto-rickshaws, pigs, pedal-rickshaws, goats, bicycles (goods-carrying), handcarts, bicycles (passenger-carrying), dogs, pedestrians.

Article III:    All wheeled vehicles shall  be driven in accordance with the maxim: to slow is to falter, to brake is to fail: to stop is defeat. This is the Indian drivers’ mantra.

Article  IV:     Use of horn (also known as the sonic sender or aural amulet.)

  • Cars: Short blasts (urgent) indicate supremacy, i.e. in clearing dogs, rickshaws and pedestrians from path. Long blasts (desperate) denote supplication, i.e. to oncoming trucks “I am going too fast to stop, so unless you slow down we shall both die” In extreme cases this may be accompanied by flashing of headlights (frantic).
  • Single blast (casual) means: “I have seen someone out of India’s 870 million whom I recognize", “There is a bird in the road which at this speed could go through my windscreen", or “I have not blown my horn for several minutes.”
  • Trucks and Buses: All horn signals have the same meaning,  “I have an all-up weight of approximately 12.5 tons and have no intention of stopping, even if I could”  This signal may be emphasized by the use of headlamps.
    (Article IV remains subject to the provision of Order of Precedence in Article II above.)

Article   V:     All maneuvers, use of horn and evasive action shall if be left until the last possible moment.

Article VI:     In the absence of seat belts (which there is) car occupants shall wear garlands of marigolds. These should be kept fastened at all times.

Article VII:   Rights of way: Traffic entering a road from the left has priority. So has traffic from the right, and also traffic in the middle. 

  • Lane discipline: All Indian traffic at all times and irrespective of direction of travel shall occupy the centre of the road
  • Article VIII:  Roundabouts:  India has no roundabouts. Apparent traffic islands in the middle of crossroads have no traffic management function. Any other impression should be ignored.

Article  IX:    Overtaking is mandatory. Every moving vehicle is required to overtake every other moving vehicle, irrespective of whether it has just overtaken you. Overtaking should only be undertaken in suitable conditions, such as in the face of oncoming traffic, on blind bends at junctions and in the middle of villages/city centers. No more than two inches should be allowed between your vehicle and the one you are passing — one inch in the case of bicycles or pedestrians.

Article   X:      Nirvana may be obtained through the head-on crash.

Article  XI:     Reversing: no longer applicable, since no vehicle in India has reverse gear.

Article XII:    The 10th incarnation of God was an articulated tanker.

I feel compelled to add my own article:

Article XIII: Your driver’s diligence in adhering to these articles shall be directly proportional to the steepness of the road, narrowness of the road, frequency of blind hairpins, and/or road’s proximity to a 100 meters or more vertical drop.


The original rules come from here:

Categories: Expat life

Growth & Robots

January 6, 2013 3 comments

Robert J. Gordon: Is US economic growth over?
What is shown here is a graph of per-capita GDP growth, starting in the year 1300 and projecting to 2100.  Neat, huh?  This is projecting the possibility that for my kids and their kids, they will be living in a static time where things pretty much stay the same generation to generation.  No problem, if by then we finally all have flying cars and universal health care – not so great if we don’t.

Paul Krugman has lately been writing about this, and another really interesting and related idea, the role of robots in future growth.  At IBM where I work I’m a member of the IBM Academy of Technology, which does a yearly internal survey of members on business, technology and social trends for the coming year.  In answering the survey Krugman’s recent observations were much on my mind – however the predictions play out I think these are critical challenges for the next 20 years.

Here’s the substance of the two ideas.  On growth, the seed is a paper by Robert J. Gordon, entitled Is US economic growth over? Faltering innovation confronts the six.  Gordon observes that the Western world has had three periods of growth: The first started in the 18th century, lasted roughly 100 years and introduced steam power and railroads – this is what is typically termed the Industrial Revolution.  The second was a technological revolution, running from around 1870 to the Great Depression; this phase brought electricity, internal combustion, chemicals, petroleum and control of infectious disease.  The third phase, shortest and most recent, started in the 1960s and is all based on information technology and communications.

Moore's LawThis arc of technological progress is familiar to everyone in the developed world and it’s central to our implicit belief that things will always get better.  The narrative goes like this: My grandparents as kids had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing; then my parents had both but no information technology; and now we have online banking, digital entertainment and hybrid automobiles.  Can the technological singularity not be fast approaching?

Gordon’s thesis however is that the growth brought by the IT revolution is far less fundamental than the growth of phase #2.  Phase #2 included numerous major innovations that created new economic baselines but were not repeatable.  For example air conditioning was a great advance in that it allowed people to live and be productive in times and places they could not before; but now that we have those productivity gains AC isn’t adding any more new benefit.

So, growth may not be a permanent state: Many of our major innovations were 1-time things, with no expectation their performances will be repeated.  And our current phase of growth has run its course in terms of productivity and now focuses on areas like entertainment.  In his paper Gordon proposes this thought experiment:

A thought experiment helps to illustrate the fundamental importance of the inventions of IR2 compared to the subset of IR3 inventions that have occurred since 2002. You are required to make a choice between option A and option B. With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002.

Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse.

Which option do you choose?

Not much of a choice, is it?

It’s hard not to be suspicious of the sticking-power of today’s IT driven growth, especially when you consider there are probably 1 billion pictures of cats on the internet.  Anyway what Gordon is saying is that phase #3 has a great many incremental improvements, but in the larger scheme of things few game-changing innovations.  Thus, phase 3 brought us a flare of intense growth but is diminishing as the world quickly becomes saturated with PCs, phones and software.

Wages vs. GDP

Now let’s turn to the robots notion.  Krugman’s first post on this was titled (in a nod to Asimov, I suspect) Rise of the Robots.  In that post he observes that labor’s portion of GDP – i.e., wages and direct payments to employees compared to total production – has been dropping steadily since the early 1970s; this is after staying mostly steady through the 40s, 50s and 60s.  In a way that is to be expected – since we are becoming more productive, each $1 paid in wages should be producing more and more goods (although I suspect socially and politically there’s more going on here than just productivity improvement).

The question is, where will it end?  A telling event is Asian tech manufacturer Foxconn’s announcement to deploy 1 million robots.  Foxconn currently employs 1 million workers.  While the company states the purpose of the robots is to enable “advanced manufacturing”, no one doubts that a great many workers will be displaced.  And this is in a region where wages are amongst the lowest in the world.  On the other hand, automation may enable the return of manufacturing to the developed world, just as Apple has stated it is investigating.

Regardless of where it happens this trend in automation could lead to even greater economic inequality.  More and more profit will go to those who own the means of production – i.e. the robots – and less and less to people who work.  Machines displacing workers is nothing new – that is how the term sabotage was invented after all – but in the recent past we have had growth to reduce the impact: Workers got less of the pie, but the pie was growing really quickly.  Now pie-growth is slowing and may even stop.

After all this I have no big conclusion – certainly not today.  Questions on my mind:

  • Are there real, move-the-needle innovations yet to come from the IT revolution?  Or will we be just using algorithms and machine intelligence to make our existing stuff incrementally smarter?
  • What kind of opportunities are there for individuals or small teams in the upcoming automation revolution?
  • Do we need to re-examine our ideas of growth?  Maybe Stiglitz is right, that we need a better GDP, that includes externalities and quality of life and not just raw production.

Like I said, don’t know.  Maybe this is the future:

Categories: Economics, Technology

The Newest Punekars*

January 1, 2013 1 comment

Alex, Morgan and Kim

Here are Alex, Morgan and Kim, outside our flat with Westin Hotel and Koregaon Park in the background.  After Christmas in the US, we all arrived in India early morning of New Year’s Eve.  We all were pretty tired and slept well last night – New Year’s fireworks not withstanding – but the jet-lag is still there and will take a few days to get over.

This week will be mostly for the girls to get their bearings; there’s some tourist spots we have on tap to visit.  And Morgan needs to start thinking about school; Jan. 7 she will start at the Indus School of Pune.  Indus has international schools in Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad; going there Morgan will have a chance to meet and study with kids from 22 countries.  I’m sure my daughter’s experiences there will give me – and her! – a lot to write about in the coming months.

All in all, it’s good to be back.  The US time was a nice rest, but all of us were impatient to get on with things and get over to India.  And I’m happy to have my bachelor life here come to an end – homemade roti (of which Kim made some last night) beats microwaved paratha any day.


* For US folks, “Punekar” is the Marathi language term for “someone from Pune”, just as Mumbaikar is someone from Mumbai.

Categories: Expat life