Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Thank you, Kreeshnaswomay!

Saw an advertisement with the above copy at the top. Tesco, the super market chain in UK (and several other European countries), has set up its back office operations in Whitefield, Bangalore. They call it Tesco HSC - Tesco Hindustan Service Center! I thought only Pakistanis and the Hindi heartland folks referred to India as Hindustan.

Anyway, the above is a recruitment ad for software developers, maintainers to handle the back office operations. The ad copy goes on to say
The IT team at Tesco Bangalore helps shorten supermarket checkout queues, so Martha [an old lady] can get home early to her favourite pastime - baking.
All 'Kreeshnaswomay's are requested to send in their resumes to, but before doing that go to their site and go through the job descriptions:-)

Monday, March 21, 2005

AFP sues Google

AFP Sues Google for copyright violation

Google News has been crawling all over new websites and grabbing news headlines, story excerpts and photographs. AFP - a french news agency - has disagreed with this and has demanded that Google remove such links and excerpts from its site, and since Google has not done that (has it now done that?) AFP is suing Google for $17.5 million.

Google claims it "allow[s] publishers to opt out of Google News, but most publishers want to be included because they believe it is a benefit to them and to their readers."

In other words, Google by default crawls and includes every website and it is upto the news agency to explicitely ask to be removed. The option they provide is "Opt out". I think Google will lose this case and pay up. Google should have gone for "Opt in" and though a painful process, should have gone through legally defensible way of offering a service.

Let us see.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Liquid fuel from waste plastic

The Hindu reports that a group of students from Velammal Engineering College, Chennai has discovered a process to convert waste polythene and polypropylene consisting mainly of discarded bags and biomedical waste into a kind of petrol and diesel through catalytic cracking.
Waste polythene and polypropylene — consisting mainly of discarded bags and biomedical waste — are subjected to `catalytic cracking' or breaking down the carbon chain. The correct ratio of the catalyst and the plastic materials are taken in the reaction flask to get greater yield.

When heated at 400 degrees Celsius, the plastic yields a distillate crude. Fractional re-distillation yields a type of petrol at between 100 to 120 degrees C and kerosene at between 150 to 180 degree C. Finally, the process leaves diesel as residue.

In about two hours, the students were able to generate around 2 litres of crude from 2.5 kg of plastic waste and through distillation one litre of petrol and half a litre each of kerosene and diesel. The cost works out to roughly Rs. 22 for petrol and Rs. 26 each for diesel and kerosene.

Sridhar says by heating plastic in the absence of oxygen, toxic dioxin emissions are also avoided, making the fuel eco-friendly. Even the left over paraffin mass (approximately 500 gm) can be made into candles.

In the recent months, the Engineering colleges in and around Chennai have been coming up with interesting gadgets, processes or concepts. The Hindu has been covering most of them in its City Column. There have been several interesting inventions in micro-machines, microprocessors etc. These inventions may probably qualify only as toy-gun stuff, but what is gratifying is to see the engineering students jumping in to develop such interesting things and choosing them as projects. When I studied in IIT Madras we did nothing of this kind. We worked on boring and useless theoretical topics as our B.Tech projects.

News coverage in The Hindu shows that these developments are in fact coming from self financing engineering colleges with no Government support. The teachers in these colleges must be quite average, and are probably paid low salaries. This shows that the students should be quite smart and tenacious in wanting to do something unique and challenging. Good luck to them.

Friday, March 18, 2005

John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz

President George Bush of the US has appointed two icons of neocon movement: John Bolton as US Ambassador to the UN and Paul Wolfowitz, the serving Undersecretary of Defense, to the presidency of the World Bank.

Several people are trying to club the two. However there is no relationship between the two appointments. I have no concern about who is appointed as the US Ambassador to the UN. The job of the US Ambassador in UN is to present the viewpoints of US - and particularly that of the current Government - strongly in UN. John Bolton, neocon or not, would probably do that job well. Good luck to him. His appointment may annoy several people in the US, but that is their problem. They elected Bush for a second term and must suffer. Apparently John Bolton is of the view that the UN is a waste of time and wants the UN to lose a lot of funding and staff. Perhaps Bolton is right. He may fight for his cause from within.

My problem is with Paul Wolfowitz nomination. Though it is not a done deal, the US looks all set to get away with this appointment. The World Bank is a development agency. It is a pure lending agency and lends the money it gets from International donors to needy countries from around the world, on specific developmental objectives. Indian state governments borrow money from the World Bank. China borrows from the World Bank. Several Asian, African and Latin American countries borrow from the World Bank. The US, Japan and most of the European countries provide funds to the World Bank for the Bank in turn to manage lending to poor countries.

The World Bank normally links the loans to certain performance guarantees. The Bank expects the concerned governments to be free of corruption, transparent in its functioning, and fairly solvent so that they can pay the loans back to the Bank. The Bank hates to see the monies they provide to be given away by the governments in their election promises. The Bank hates to see governments building up their fiscal deficit. This is because the Bank has in general faced payment problems. Most African countries have had historically bad governance - despots and dictators borrowing freely from the Bank, stashing them away in Swiss banks and eventually fleeing the country or getting killed. The successor governments beg to have the loans written off. Several projects financed by the World Bank have delivery problems. They do not get completed in time. They are managed by inefficient governments and staff. It is indeed a worrying scenario for a lending agency to see its money wasted.

There are also success stories. Mostly in Asia, including India. Indian state governments have borrowed and paid back; such loans are always guaranteed by the central government. Indian state governments would want to borrow more.

Let us look at the countries that generally borrow from the World Bank. They are all (a) developing and hence invariably have poorer economies. (b) poorer democracies or not democratic at all. (c) will crumble and make their people worse off if such developmental aid/loans or not given for crucial projects.

It is therefore important for the chief of the World Bank to show compassion, understanding and yet a firm control and the ability to drive the respective countries/project managers to deliver on the projects (which should be the first priority) and then pay back the money borrowed (second priority).

Does Paul Wolfowitz have these qualities? Perhaps he has. But what little we know of him, he doesn't care about countries other than his own. He is too strongly entrenched in neocon beliefs and believes that confrontation and military power are the best means of solving the problems. If the US went on a war in Iraq, this man takes the entire credit for this. For all his junior status, he was the one driving Donald Rumsfeld and checkmating Colin Powell in the cabinet, to achieve the war goals. As with most neocons, he has strong links to the oil industry and the war industry. The thin veneer of a Ph.D (and a bachelors from my dear Cornell University!) cannot hide the man's aggressive intentions and contempt for diversity and opposing viewpoints.

Tomorrow, he will influence the decisions on whether Ghana can be given $20 million to build some wells for irrigation. He will oversea whether North Korea can be given $50 million for laying much needed roads in their rural areas. He will also oversea whether monies should be given to India and China.

Neocons are of the view that other countries should dismantle tariff barriers so that American big businesses can have a field day in those markets. While it is not the job of the World Bank to advice on whether or not tariffs should be dismantled or not, the World Bank and IMF keep meddling in these internal matters of a sovereign country. They have to be listened to, particularly by the weaker countries. As otherwise, the loans may simply not come through. Or mysteriously the process of getting the loans could take more time. In this sense, our local banks and the World Bank behave more or less the same way.

It may not be good for most countries to please Wolfowitz to get the loans, or writing off past debts etc. Faced with a difficult choice they may either succumb or not take the loan. The latter is also dangerous for their country.

Why should such a difficult decision be imposed on the world's poor?

Wolfowitz in an interview to Financial Times says he will not impose US' will, but will rather "got to try to bring all those different views together . . . to shape a common approach." Apparently, he "stressed the importance of fighting corruption and promoting transparency and accountability."

Developing countries are mostly corrupt and less transparent. Accountability is poor because of lack of systems and also the fact that there is an attempt at corruption. However these things cannot be imposted from the top. If loans are to be given only to the most clean and accountable country, none would receive it. The Bank should rather focus on the needy, allow for certain ineffciencies in the system and ensure that the money comes back in due course and that they do not have to constantly keep writing off the loans.

What we need is a compassionate and strong individual. Wolfowitz is strong, but is also a hawk and a man with very little credibility outside the neocon group.

He is, I think, a bad news for the developing world.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

India, Iran and the US

The US Foreign Minister Condoleezza Rice (they call her Secretary of State) is in India. From the news reports it appears that her intentions are two-fold. (1) Offer India too F-16 bombers. (2) Scuttle Iran-India gas pipeline.

The US has been traditionally selling Pakistan F-16 bombers. India in turn has been buying French Mirage fighters and Russian MIG. News agencies like CNN seem to provide a twist - saying that it is India that are looking to buy F-16s from the US.

Pakistan would like the US not to sell F-16s to India, but to themselves. India would like the US not to sell F-16s to Pakistan, and probably just that. However the US would want to sell F-16s to both the countries. Who the hell cares if these two fight amongst themselves and kill each other as long as they keep buying the fighter planes from the US and paying them much needed money? There is an interesting analysis into arm's dealer's mind in Atanu Dey's blog: The Care and Feeding of the Permanent Arms Industry. [There is also an interesting, somewhat related article in The New Left Review by Gavan McCormack: Remilitarizing Japan.]

Just as Atanu says, here we see the US offering India the F-16s. Should India accept and do the deal? If India do, it is obvious that Pakistan would want more. Then the US can offer military aid, which in turn is used by Pakistan to buy F-16s. Once India induct F-16s in their air force and get used to it, to strengthen the air force, they will keep buying more of F-16s. Then keep offering free F-16s to Pakistan in the guise of military aid, and ensure that India finance the whole process...

India would do well not to fall into the trap.

Next India-Iran relationship. India has a decent relationship with Iran. We have not had any problems with them on a country-to-country basis. The US, on the other hand, sees Iran as part of the evil and are spoiling for a fight and display their precision bombing skills with the embedded journalists in toe.

Indian External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh has refused to discuss Iran with Rice. But what is worrying is the US wanting the deal between India and Iran to be scuttled. The reason for the worry is that the pipeline has to go through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US control Afghanistan by proxy. I suppose the US spy agencies are in close touch with most of the terrorist gangs in Pakistan. So if the US want to scuttle the deal they can always ensure that the pipeline - after it is laid out - is sabotaged in the regions of their control and squarely blame it on Iran.

What should the Indian Govt. do in this scenario? We should not proceed with the deal with Iran. There is no safety guarantee until we resolve our problems with Pakistan and also for an independent and friendly Govt. comes in Afghanistan. Otherwise, we cannot guarantee safe delivery of gas to our country. Any money invested in the project will be wasted.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Arbitrage, anomalies and autos

I love the section in Business Line every Monday called "Mentor". This week, it is on Arbitrage, anomalies and autos.

Easy to follow.

We see arbitrage almost every day, but it is not always easy to make use of the arbitrage to benefit from it.

The article also explains why the stock price in India, and the corresponding ADRs in US markets differ widely, prompting a lot of companies to consider a sponsored ADR.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

How to Start a Startup

Reached this article via Rajesh Jain's blog entry.

How to Start a Startup - Paul Graham.

A fascinating writeup on how and why to start startups. And who should start startups.

Building startups is more difficult in India than in USA. The angels are not roaming around and the VCs are mostly interested in BPOs (or whatever the flavour of the year is). The paperwork is a bit more complex in India than in USA, but from what Paul Graham says, must be better than that in Germany.

In India, more startups come in the IT sector. But there is a huge need right across every field.

In my opinion, there are some strong reasons why startups do not come up thick and fast in India.
  • People are massively afraid of failing in a venture.
  • Finding a job after failing in ventures may be difficult. (Though I guess the situation is changing now.)
  • Parents are a major dissuading factor. If they depend on your salary, that constrains you in going out and doing something crazy.
  • Risk equity is hard to find.
  • You can forget about the banks. They have no clue and won't even give you a simple overdraft facility until you build a business with credible revenue streams, and have been in existence for about three years or so.

However, I feel that the entrepreneurial revolution is about to be unleashed in India. The Indians have now watched and heard about the names of people who have made it big from nowhere.

We were earlier told that to make it big you had to have the right connections. Big daddy with lots of money. Uncles in right places. Political connections. And so on. There is also this thinking that building an ethical business is not possible in India because of the pervading corruption in all walks of life.

Having been closely involved in building Cricinfo since 1996 and now New Horizon Media, I can confidently say that it is possible to build ethical businesses in India and succeed.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Soren resigns, Munda invited to form government

What transpired in Jharkhand over yesterday must have been too much for the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Sonia Gandhi remained invisible and didn't say a thing but the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs met and discussed and asked Shibu Soren to step down. Thereafter it was all about damage control. Shibu Soren invoked the by now famous "inner voice" or conscience - one is entitled to ask where the hell the conscience was all these days - and resigned. The Governor invited BJP's Arjun Munda to form the Government.

Soren resigns, Munda invited to form government

However all will not be well in Jharkhand for months to come. Goa was in a similar situation. BJP government will depend entirely on the support of the five independents. All of them have already been promised ministries by the BJP high command - rather openly. Like Goa's Manohar Parrikar, Arjun Munda will find the behavious of one independent unpalatable at some point in time, but will be hard pressed to drop him.

BJP will attempt to swallow some of the independents and pressure them into joining their party. The independents will not like it. You see, they are stronger as long as they are outside. Once they join the party, their independence goes off and they will attract the wrath of disqualification, if they want to withdraw the support to the party. But still, there will be an elected government in place. It may even fall before completing the full term of 5 years.

Shibu Soren may still come back down the line as the Chief Minister of Jharkhand after engineering resignations, defections etc. Yet, that would still be infinitely preferable to what he and Syed Sibtey Razi tried to put together over the last three weeks.

Good luck Jharkhand!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Goa and Jharkhand - Congress (I) decide to lose people's goodwill.

We have watched silently what transpired in Goa over the last two months.

In a small state, over the months, BJP had engineered mergers with small parties to increase their strength to 21. Congress (I) forced some mysterious resignations resulting in BJP's strength in the assembly coming down to 17. Then a series of shady events followed. BJP's speaker disqualified an opposition member, Governor stepped in and dismissed the BJP government and installed a Congress (I) government which in turn tried to disqualify a BJP support MLA. Then the Central Cabinet stepped in and recommended the imposition of the President's rule in the state.

What have the Congress (I) gained? They have succeeded in unseating BJP from one state, even if it means that the state will be under the President's rule and people are disenfranchised until the next elections are held.

Now, the Congress (I) are working hard to have something similar happening in Jharkhand, and also in the process fight with the Supreme Court of India.

In the recently held elections in Jharkhand, NDA clearly emerged as the largest group. However the Congress (I) appointed Governor called Jharkhand Mukti Morcha's leader Shibu Soren (who is at large on a bail in a murder case!), an ally of Congress (I) to form the ministry and to prove his majority in the assembly. The aggrieved NDA MLAs went to the President and complained. The President should have ideally dismissed the Jharkhand Governor Syed Sibtey Razi. However it isn't that easy and he would have to get the Home Ministry's support for this, so he instead summoned the Governor and advanced the date for the floor test to March 15th.

In the meantime, NDA went to the Supreme Court and complained. The Supreme Court found the Governor's action questionable (so did every right thinking person in the country) and demanded that the trial of strength be conducted on March 11th (today) and also gave a set of instructions to the pro-tem speaker on how to conduct the proceedings.

The murder of democracy in Jharkhand did not ruffle the Congress (I)/Communist leaders. Instead, the Supreme Court's directives got their goats. They went to the extend of demanding a Presidential Reference on this matter. But in the end it seems that some sense has prevailed and Congress (I) may not demand the Presidential Reference.

However JMM and Congress (I) have decided to take the Supreme Court on through "legal maneuvers". Despite the Supreme Court order that the pro-tem speaker merely provide the oath of office to the MLAs on 10th March and a trial of strength on 11th March, citing various procedural issues, the pro-tem speaker has adjourned the proccedings till 15th March.

See the date. March 15th. That was the date set by the Governor after a dressing down from The President. So this move is to tell the Supreme Court that court orders do not bind the legislature and instead they, in cahoots with the Governor, will thumb their noses at the Supreme Court.

Now the debate will be on whether the Supreme Court has the powers to direct the pro-tem speaker (or the Speaker) on what he and the legislature should do. Also there are questions on whether the pro-tem speaker has the right to conduct the floor-test whether or not ordered to do so by the Supreme Court.

Perhaps, the Supreme Court could have modified its orders by merely advancing the date of the assembly meeting to March 11th, and then allowed the legislature to elect the Speaker - which would have anyway shown who was really in control of the legislature.

Generally speaking the legislature should the powers to regulate themselves and the Supreme Court should not interfere in such matters. But this is a special occasion. The legislative process has been subverted by an officer appointed by The President. The President has implicitely acknowledged this by calling the Governor and changing the dates of the trial of strength. However the President cannot go beyond this since his decision will have to be enforced through the Cabinet, which will not go against its own handpicked Governor - perhaps Razi was hired specifically for this purpose.

Anyway, now the President's hands are forced. The Cabinet may suggest suspending the assembly and impose the President's rule. This is not acceptable. First, some kind of voting should be allowed inside the assembly to find out who indeed has the support.

Congress (I) should also accept the fact that you cannot thrust down your own Government in a state, if the people have rejected you.

They are handing needless shot-in-the-arm to BJP through Goa & Jharkhand fiascos.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Website spotting

Can you take a single look at the website of a corporate and find out which country they are from? David Bowen of Bowen Craggs & co says he can in this article in Business Standard (via Financial Times) The online transatlantic gap.

American (corporate) websites are functional but... rather poorly designed while European sites are more of marketing and image building but less of functionality, says Bowen.

For me, the corporate site has to be more functional. People are not coming to websites to watch massive commercials or to enjoy the colour combination. They want something useful.

Indian corporate websites are usually bad on both the counts, functionality and design quality. I would hope they follow American websites than the European one.

FM’s education cesspool

An article in The Financial Express points out that the education cess collected has not been really spent on education at all! Read FM’s education cesspool.

When the education cess of 2% was levied on all taxes, no one grudged the payment. The collections are estimated to be Rs. 5,010 crores, fairly close to the projections P.Chidambaram made. Which means, the education budget should have gone up by this number. Instead the money spent on eductaion has only gone up by about Rs. 2,000 crores over what was spent in the previous year. Rs. 3,000 crores have been used up by the Government to cover up for its profligacy elsewhere.

Cess was vehemently opposed by certain economists when Chidambaram introduced it in his interim budget. However I felt that it was acceptable as long as the money really went into education. In fact, the expenditure on education - if it can be seen as an investment towards future - should go manifold up. But if the Government cannot formulate a policy on where this money is going to go, why tax the people at all?

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Cheap digital audio players

I have a Dyne Digital recorder and player. The model and version (DN7128) I have cost me Rs. 5,000 in Singapore. It has 128MB space, can record audio in three modes (8kbps, 64 kbps, 128 kbps) all in proprietary formats (TVF, TCV). However the 64, 128 kbps recordings (TCV) are MP3 compatible - so any audio editing program that understands MP3 can load the audio file for you to edit and play around. The software tools that come along with the recorder allows conversion of TVF (mono) into formats like WAV but do not depend on that. The quality of conversion is fairly awful.

Dyne is a Korean company.

Besides recording audio, it plays all its own formats as well as MP3, WMA format audio. It has a built-in FM radio tuner and allows one to record any FM channel that one is currently playing. The recording quality is quite good! However it eats AAA batteries like a hungry wolf, while recording. It has a USB interface so that it also effectively works as a flash memory for your laptop!

Now, that is all great. However does anyone know of available products which are
  • capable of playing MP3, WMA
  • no need to have recording capability
  • USB connectivity
  • at least 64 MP capacity, but the more the better
  • costing less than or equal to INR. 1,000?

Next question: Would it be possible for anyone to mass produce something like this in India, with the cost to the end user no more than Rs. 500?

Or, now that import duties on a bunch of products are going off (while counter vailing duties come in?), would it be possible to import in large quantities but still the cost to the end user should be no more than Rs. 500?

I believe a product like this can make a significant impact in India and help in education, entertainment and generally turning out well informed citizens.