We Indians are an entitled bunch. Everything that goes on in the country,  be it in closed circles, has to be publicly disseminated, failing which we will protest, ridicule, pull down others, and in general be cynical jerks.

Why isn’t RAW doing anything about Dawood now that it is proved that he is in Pakistan. Yes sirs, kindly stand by while Ajit Doval emails you the entire dossier the intelligence agencies have collected on Dawood.

Why isn’t the Police calling up Peter Mukherjea in the Sheena murder case?   Why aren’t they brought face to face? Yes, kindly be patient as Rakesh Maria whatsapps you the latest investigation updates on WhatsApp.

What an idiot Jim Rogers is? When did he ever invest in India? Typical of Jim Rogers to forget to tweet to the whole country before pressing the Buy button.

If only people who understand that they are entitled to nothing what investigation agencies, and other private individuals do or do not do.

Want to question what the government to is doing? Fair enough. You have the rti act for that. In all other matters, you are entitled to diddly squat.

Restart

Mihir S Sharma

I picked up this book at Crossword after reading the rather provocative subtitle – “The Last Chance For the Indian Economy”. The author is a well-known columnist and an active participant on twitter. Although I don’t subscribe to the same political views as him, this book is on a different topic (mostly). On flipping a few pages, I found the premise interesting and decided to dive in for a read. restart book review

The crux of the book is how the Indian economy, after many false starts, hasn’t yet made significant progress on becoming a world power. The book starts with introducing the much-hallowed reforms started by Dr Manmohan Singh in 1991, and how they are considered a watershed moment for the country on its path to a better future. The author argues how these “successful” reforms were actually made less effective by the half-hearted attempts of the politicians who had a chance to actually change the direction of the country towards a brighter future. But with the politicians themselves not completely convinced of the reforms, they failed to make the impact that India needed at the time.

A few of the chapters also takes on a important yet neglected topic – to leave well enough alone. Today people often complain about what is wrong with the country. But such arguments often end with heavy sighs and a resigned acceptance of the good things that have happened till now. Unless the apathy of most Indians towards demanding the best from the government is reduced, the common man is doomed to suffer while the rich 1% (and their political allies) keep off skimming the cream from the top. The examples of how, allegedly, sibling rivalry has held up important infrastructure projects in the city of Mumbai are incredulous. But not impossible.

According to the author, the country also made a risky move by not improving the manufacturing infrastructure and directly jumping to the service industry. Although both banking and Information Technology have made rapid strides over the last couple of decades, the manufacturing industry still suffers in most parts of the country.

The book goes on to explain the spread of that notorious epidemic consuming true innovation in the country – jugaad. What was once a mental model worth Harvard case-studies has stifled real innovation. Where entrepreneurs should demand their government to remove the barriers to business, jugaad has resulted in entrepreneurs making their own way within the box itself. Within the same barriers and bureaucratic nightmares.

The author, as a closing salvo, presents the way India can yet get out of the mess that her politicians have forced her into.

Restart is eminently readable. What is good is that it doesn’t go into a dry monologue filled only with numbers. I’ve read books about India that have made me snore after only few pages. Thankfully, this is not such a book. It is a breezy read for someone familiar with basic economics, or even for someone without that background.

The content of the book is varied and covers a lot of ground, in terms of geography and time. I particularly found interesting the chapter on Mumbai and its chequered history from being a potential world-class cosmopolitan city to a den of petty politicians and crooks.

The only thing I could find fault with was the tone of writing. The book is generously peppered with sarcasm. But just like a good dish can be ruined by an excess spattering of salt, sometimes the sarcasm goes overboard. For example, just how many instances of “no sirreee” in consecutive pages can you smile at? As a result of such repetition, the author often sounds condescending towards the government and its leaders, both past and present. There are two things that the author seems to forget with his excessive use of sarcasm – one, that hindsight is always 20-20, and second, that India politicians are also subjects to human foibles, just like anywhere else.

Another example of a minor flaw in the structure is how the author has a habit of interrupting, sometimes too often, his sentences which affects, to a great extent, the flow and continuity of sentences. Once a while it does break the monotony. But when you find yourself going back again and again to understand what the never-ending sentence is about to say, it becomes formulaic. Again, this should have been the responsibility of the editor.

But these minor quibbles aside, Restart is a very interesting book about India and a must read for entrepreneurs, businesspersons and others alike, who wish to understand why India is in the state that it is, and how it came to be. Who knows, if enough people make an effort, there’s still a last chance for India.

The recent fracas on a report over a family being heckled for not standing up when the Indian National Anthem was being played has brought a rarely known fact out in the open. That it is not legally enforceable for people to stand during the playing of the National Anthem. It is only when someone tries to intentionally disrupt the playing of the anthem can legal action be taken. This rarely known law has split open twitter on yet another debate with people taking sides on expected lines. On top of that, the article mentions the religion of the family which was heckled. And that meant it was open season on social media.

My personal opinion is that even if one is not legally obliged to stand up during the anthem, it is still basic courtesy and the duty of every citizen to respect the symbols of the country that you live in. The National Anthem and the country’s other emblems are not representative of any religion or class. They were chosen for the country, and thus for every citizen of the country. Consequently, it is the duty of an individual to respect and uphold the values that they stand for. That’s all about that. What comes to my mind is a little bit of nostalgia, and how I learnt to stand during the anthem.

Yes, I stand for the National Anthem, and I stand rock still. The origins for this go way back in school thanks to our strict principal, who was also an ex-Army man. The Lt. Col. was jovial on all matters and forgave all kinds of mischief (After all, children are children). But the only time he was “intolerant” was during the playing of the National Anthem. As in most schools, the anthem played in our school’s assembly daily along with the usual prayers, news etc. For most part of the assembly, he watched with indifference as students yawned, scratched their ears, picked their noses, or generally behaved like uninterested chaps. But whenever the anthem was played, we could see his eyes furiously scanning the endless rows of fidgety students standing on the huge school ground. He never moved a muscle until the last strains of “Jaya he” faded into silence. And then all hell broke loose.

In his robust army voice, he called out the students one by one to step aside for everyone to see. These were the students who, for whatever reason, were unable to stand still for 56 seconds or so. Then, I was surprised that in a school of around 1500 students, he managed to remember everyone’s name. But today I understand he didn’t have to memorize everyone’s name. Only the ones he expected would create trouble.

So, while the rest of the assembly dispersed, furtively glancing at these unfortunate creatures who had been singled out, the victims themselves simply awaited their punishment. It varied often. Sometimes the Lt. Col. made them stand under the hot sun for hours, as the students sweated profusely and missed one class after the other. I wonder if they even treated the latter as punishment. Sometimes he would send all such students home along with notices to their parents.

But whatever his methods, the Lt. Colonel instilled a very good habit in all of us – respecting the country. The end result of this? On one particularly wet August morning, I remember us students standing on the ground on an outline of India when rain broke out suddenly and drenched each and every student. But no one moved a muscle. The whole school stood in attention, and so did the Lt. Col. on the stage, his uniform completely wet and the water dripping from the brim of his hat. But at that moment, he would have felt himself back in the army, and prided himself on transforming this raggedy bunch of uncouth students into disciplined young men and women of tomorrow.

Yes, patriotism is not simply standing up for less than a minute while watching a movie. It has to be something more than that. But for many of us, who treat it as a minor inconvenience of having to put aside the delicious popcorn and to stare at the national flag, it can certainly start from this small gesture. Don’t sing if you don’t know the words, or if you don’t want to. But stand up. Show that you’re part of something more than just a group of 1.5 billion individuals, going about their daily lives mindlessly, bound only by geographical proximity. This country deserves that much respect from you.

In the recently concluded WWDC 2015, Apple introduced a brand new subscription based music service across many countries. Apple Music started on the 30th of June and has already received rave reviews from many quarters.

Compared to the likes of Pandora, Spotify and others, Apple was a late entrant in streaming music. Even the fact that Apple decided to enter subscription based music is surprising, considering that Steve Jobs was totally against such a model. Instead, Apple offered downloadable music through the iTunes platform, and later started iTunes radio. But as times changed, and with the spread of broadband networks across the world, people were more receptive to subscribing to media databases online than to buy them à la carte. Spotify and Netflix are just two examples of this changing trend.

Apple has traditionally resisted following popular trends. In the era of Steve Jobs, Apple was definitely a bit close-ended in terms of adopting feedback from outside. But over the years, Apple has become much more flexible. And that is a very good thing. This New Apple, as I would refer to it, has brought in many good changes which can give it a wider appeal, especially in developing countries.

In terms of features, Apple Music is similar to other subscription music streaming services. No ads, downloadable music, curated playlists. I have still not had a chance to review the app and its interface. But what I want to talk about here is something unique in terms of the subscription pricing itself.

Apple has done is to keep difference subscription prices worldwide. In the US, the individual subscription plan comes at a price of $9.99 per month, whereas in other countries, it is much cheaper. In India, the corresponding plan comes at Rs120 per month (which is effectively around $2). This is a dirt cheap option for most people, even without the lack of good alternatives for English music. Of course, varied pricing across countries is common. A part of it is due to fluctuating currency rates as well. But this is something much more than that. This is an aggressive move by Apple to push itself into countries where pricing is a delicate subject.

And this is where the new Apple shines. The old Apple would have probably kept the same (or similar) pricing for various countries, regardless of the market saturation and purchasing power. Even in India, only recently has Apple accepted the fact that price is one of the most important factors for us to consider one product over another. And that applies just as much to a pair of shoes as it does to a Mercedes Benz. Apple has reduced the prices of their smartphones in order to make them more palatable to the nitpicking value-conscious Indian consumer. Sadly, this insight was ignored by Blackberry worldwide, and look at where it stands now.

Now I’m not particularly an Apple fanboy. I thrive on the Android ecosystem, and still maintain that Android provides a more flexible platform for power users. But what Apple has done with its music streaming (and to a certain extent, with its reduced phone prices) is to open up themselves to the Indian consumer. And by that I don’t mean just the rich or the privileged, but the burgeoning middle class who will dictate the spending trends of the country in the next decade. And by understanding the psyche of the crowds, Apple can find itself court-side seats in the whole game.

Apple is also planning to introduce its music service even to Android, an exciting step that would probably have been blasphemous during Steve Job’s tenure as the captain.

What is even more exciting is that both these events have the potential to set the trend for other streaming media subscription based services. Netflix is already planning to open shop in India. It will only be a matter of time before Spotify, Google Music and others do the same. And if the price points are something similar to what Apple has set, there are going to be definitely some “Achhe Din”  for the connected Indians.

 

Update: Apple has also introduced lower priced app tiers for people in countries like India. Just an example, the premium version of Camscanner is priced at Rs 10. This is brilliant and can definitely increase appstore purchases by consumers in India.

 

 

A couple of weeks ago, the Mumbai auto and taxi drivers were again on a strike protesting the increasing popularity of fleet taxis in the city. It is audacious in the first place that these unions demand a regulation in a market where they don’t want to provide the basic levels of service, yet protest against fuel price hikes and the rise of such competition. A union leader had this to say during the strike, “They will eat into our core business if they continue offering point-to-point pick up and drop.”

But the union leaders need not worry about such competition. This is because the core business of autos and taxis in Mumbai is no longer providing public transportation services. It is teaching negotiation skills.

Recently I read this article about why Warren Buffett succeeded in what he does best – investing in the best of companies. The factors which were listed in that article can be used to predict the level of success (assuming the absence of extraneous factors such as luck, chance opportunities etc.) which an individual can get in any field.

From that list, I filtered out four rules which are needed to succeed in any new venture which you have started out or are planning to. Below are these four rules and a brief description of each.

1) Ability – The first rule of success states that you need to have the ability or an aptitude for that thing. For example, being able to analyze financial statements and accounts of a company requires you to have a knowledge of the various ratios and parameters which make a good investment good. Or, if you’re planning to be an entrepreneur, you should have the aptitude of networking and being able to be calm in the face of uncertainty, for years, if need be. The ability or the aptitude for a certain thing is the foundation on which future results can be built. A person who faints at the mere site of blood cannot hope to become a cardiac surgeon.

Buffett has mentioned the importance of thissin his famous “circle of competence” quote. Both Buffett and Munger stick to their circle of competence while selecting their areas of investing. An individual should likewise analyze the areas he or she is good at and stick to those.

2) Interest – Being passionate about the subject is another criteria for defining success in any area. Unless you put your heart and soul into any task, it is ridiculous to expect a comparable amount of output from it. Doing things half-heartedly will not only result in a lot of leakage of effort, but also will result in you fizzling out before too long.

3) Willingness to Learn – As you gain expertise in a subject, it may be very tempting to feel a sense of perfection creeping into your mind. Aiming for perfection is good, but it is also prudent to keep a learning attitude, no matter how long you have spent in a particular field. Be it a simple task such as changing a light bulb, or a multi-layered complex project like building a bridge, there always could be a better, more efficient way of doing it. It is being open to criticism, learning from own and others’ mistakes, and generally keeping your antennae in an open frequency to absorb better ideas which keep floating in from the people you meet.

4) Belief – I would like to define this fourth rule as broadly as possible. This is because different people have different methods of following this. Some people call it faith, or hope. Some call it self-esteem or confidence. Some may even refer to this as patience and persistence. And I would go far to say that this is also where the ‘luck factor’ comes into play. Assuming you have jumped into a new venture, and have rigorously followed the first three rules. But thanks to the way the world generally is, and particularly to Murphy’s Law, things may not work out the way you want, or at the pace that you desire. This is when the fourth rule, Belief, becomes important. This is when you would need to ‘pray’ for all the luck you desire. This is when you sit back and say to yourself, that “I believe in myself and in this venture”. This is when you batten down the hatches. Belief is what will get you through the thunderstorm. And when the skies clear, you can go back to starting to follow the first rules again.

Starting out a new venture can be a very difficult and stressful task. You may come out winning on the other side or be battered and bruised beyond recognition. But you can be sure that the experience will change you for the better. The knowledge and the experience that you gain from it will no doubt help you immensely in the future – either while growing your current venture, or while starting out in your next. Following these four rules will ensure that it is more often the former.

Once every few years, a movie comes which re-defines the sci-fi genre. Years ago, the Matrix trilogies did that. Inception was another movie which pushed the imagination and the idea of a future where the mind itself could be controlled by others.

Recently, I saw a movie Ex Machina which explores yet another frontier in technology – artificial intelligence. Is it really possible to build an artificially intelligent robot which has consciousness? Ex Machina is a movie which asks this question along with other relevant questions in today’s world. Hollywood has explored the theme of robotics and artificial intelligence. But many of them have glossed over the philosophy and have turned into mindless sci-fi action flicks. Ex Machina brings a fresh approach to this, as it depicts the current progress in the field of artificial intelligence (at least in private research) and online privacy, or the lack thereof.

Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, is a genius at coding and has built the world’s most popular search engine. At a secret research facility, he has also built an artificially intelligent robot. He organizes a contest to invite the winner to conduct a Turing Test on his creation. For those out of the loop, a Turing Test was devised by Alan Turing to judge whether a computer can be called artificially intelligent. Read more about the Turing Test here, and a good if not great movie on Alan Turing himself).

From the first scene that he features in, Nathan looks distant, cold and calculating. IMHO, this is probably how the biggest software moguls today would behave, at least when they are out of the public eye. Think the founders of Google and Facebook. Curiously, the company which Nathan runs is named Blue Book.

The winner of the contest, Caleb, is an employee in Nathan’s company. Once Caleb is flies down to the secret research facility, he is introduced to Ava, the robot which Nathan has created. Alicia Vikander is mesmerizing as Ava, the curious yet intelligent AI robot who tries her best to learn more about Caleb and the situation she is in. The interactions between Caleb and Ava, and between Nathan and Caleb, form the majority of the movie.

Although I won’t reveal the entire plot of the movie, below could be some spoilers on what the movie is about. Read it at your own risk.

Ex Machina touches various aspects of robotics and artificial intelligence which are relevant in the future. There are a few points which I would found particularly interesting.

1) The topic of sexuality in robotics – There is a point in the movie where Caleb questions Nathan on the importance of an AI needing a gender. Why can’t the AI simply be a gray box? Nathan counters the question by asking why would one gray box want to interact with another gray box? Thus the concept of form, gender, and body language is as important as the actual brain of the AI. It provides the motivation for one AI to interact with another. But the answer is much simpler. One of the most wide uses of artificial intelligence would be in interactions with humans, and not with each other. For humans to be comfortable with AI robots, they need to have a form which they can relate to. This may, or may not, cause them to put down their guard. But in order to encourage a smooth and natural communication, all the senses will have to be developed, rather than having a screen on a dull gray box. No doubt, the sex/porn industry is one of the areas where artificial intelligence will find much use. And Nathan hints at this as well in the movie, when he mentions that, Ava, is indeed equipped with sensors at the “right” places to ensure that she too enjoys sex. But even out of the sex/porn industry, the presence of a human form, complete with gender and skin preferences would be required for humans to feel comfortable with AI robots.

2) Can robots kill? This is one of the most controversial concepts in the field of robotics. Can artificially intelligent beings kill? Or rather, should they be allowed to? Here the words “artificially intelligent” is very important. This is what differentiates machines from robots. This concept was made quite popular by Isaac Asimov through his Laws of Robotics. Of course whether a particular robot has the laws of robotics ingrained in it is decided by its creator. This is where things can start getting scary, and precisely why scientists such as Stephen Hawking and entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk are worried about the rapid growth of what AI can and cannot do.

This problem is compounded if we generalize the phrase, “Can robots kill?” to the more believable, “Can robots act against humans?” Granted that in the future, your household robot may not pick up the kitchen knife and stab you in the back while you sleep, but can it act against the general interest of you and your family, if programmed by its creators? The question, “What if Skynet becomes self-aware?” should be on our minds as we progress through more frontiers in AI technology.

3) Is your data really yours? This point is also touched upon in the movie. Nathan, being the head of the world’s most popular search engine, mentions nonchalantly how he has hacked each and every cell phone in the world to build a database of face gestures, speech patterns, etc. which he used to program his AI. He mentions that a lot of phone manufacturers did the same through their hardware as well. If you think that this far-fetched, think again. Even today, hundreds of websites track each and every move of yours on the internet. And some of the most notorious sites are the popular search engines and the social networks of the world. According to some reports, they can do so even when you’re logged out of your account. Searches, Photos, Likes, Check-Ins, Interests, Favorites, etc. can be used to build a personal preference profile which is currently used to target relevant ads to individuals. But the same information can be used for much more nefarious purposes.

This “leak” of data is even more rampant on mobile devices, where apps can read your identity, list others apps running on your devices, and monitor your browsing preferences with little to no control in your hands. Although it is easier to restrict such tracking on the computer, it is much more difficult to restrict what gets tracked through a hand-held device, such as a mobile or a tablet.

From what is available in the public domain (or commercially), one can surmise that artificial intelligence still needs to go a long way before it can achieve what is shown in the movie. Companies, in private, are already clearing the next hurdle with regard to technology and artificial intelligence. For now, we probably need not worry about what AI can and cannot do. But coupled with the kind of data which is being captured today, the AI of tomorrow will already have a lot of information about how you will react to situations in daily life (and in emergencies). So imagine, you know nothing about the AI, while the AI knows everything about you. That would, as Ava says, be one dimensional. And that is not how friendship is created.

In closing, the famous Oppenheimer quote is quite apt as far as AI is concerned. After all, artificial intelligence is no less damaging than the atomic bomb if it falls in the wrong hands. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” 

Photographs at birthday parties today are quite a different affair from what they were a couple of decades ago. And one major driver for this change is the advent of digital photography, and the shrinking of a full-fledged camera into a 5 inch device with a quality sufficient for day-to-day usage.

Earlier, during birthday parties, there was only one camera. This was usually in the hand of a professional photographer who was hired for the party. Else, the father or any other member of the household was entrusted with the camera and the responsbility of taking pictures of the occassion. People smiled together and looked in the same direction in each picture, all because there was a single camera.

Fast forward to the present day when everyone and their driver has a smartphone. This means that the lines between being a guest and a photographer in parties have blurred. Everyone wants to capture a moment or two from the event and thus almost every one has their smartphone in hand, ready to snap a picture at a moment’s notice. Hey, let’s take pictures using this phone, it has “more” megapixels. No but mine is an iPhone, it has more “clearity”.

The end result of this? In the quest of being the next Steve Curry, each photo will have at least three or four people in the background holding up their own smartphones to capture the action from the other side. To add to that, the flash lights from the other cameras brighten up your own photo like floodlights at the Wankhede.

Recently, I saw a birthday celebration in a restaurant where there were four people taking photographs from their respective smartphone cameras, from four different directions. The person blowing out the candle clearly was struggling to give equal attention to all the four “photographers”.

But the funniest aspect of this is whenever a group photo is to be taken. Since everyone wants to capture that particular memory on their own phones, each of the couple who is part of the group photo hands over their camera to someone else. The outcome? In almost every photo, you see only about half of the people smiling. Each couple smiles only during that instant when a photo is being taken on their smartphone. Also people look in vaguely different directions, each one staring and smiling towards their own smartphone. Rather than what should be a perfect snap of a happy memory, what comes out looks more like a police line up.

So what is the solution? Or is there even one? Definitely, you cannot ask people to deposit their smartphones until the party is over. Nor can you force them to keep it in their pockets. As a host, maybe you can promise them to send across the pictures as soon as possible and thus ask them to refrain from using their individual cameras. “I’ll whatsapp you the pictures.” Or maybe you can ask a single person to take group pictures, if required, from multiple cameras one after the other. Or maybe you can just stop inviting such people to your birthday parties 🙂

The advent of digital cameras and cameras in smartphones has changed the way people photograph for ever. One one side it has made photography accessible to a vast percentage of the population, but on the other gone are the days when photographers are valued the way they once were. Who needs to call the photographer when they have their smartphones in their hands. After all, people’s smartphones now have “more” megapixels than some of the DSLRs these days. Right?