Thursday, May 24, 2012

Only the paranoid survive - a review

The title of Andy Grove's book Only the paranoid survive aptly reflects the philosophy of the man. The former leader of the world's biggest microprocessor manufacturing company comes across as surprisingly wary of what he calls a 'strategic inflection point' or a '10x force', an unknown and unforeseen force that brings about radical changes in the fortunes of a company, and which, if it catches you unawares, can destroy you before you can learn to cope with it. Having survived the onslaught of the Japanese memory makers in the mid 1980s and transitioned Intel from a memory company to a microprocessor company, but barely by the skin of his teeth as the company saw plunging profits before moving with the new winds, the man comes across as battle worn. In consequence, he advocates a management approach in which the manager is eternally on the lookout for the next strategic inflection point. He advocates looking for changes in one's competitors, complementors (a term he coins for allies), suppliers, or possible changes or advances in technology that could alter the market one is playing. He cites the successful transition of Next from a computer company to a software company and the continuous adjustments of HP to changing market conditions as examples of companies that survive strategic inflection points by altering their company strategies and priorities to the new market, even at the expense of shelving their sentimentality for their former strongholds. To contrast, he gives the examples of the now extinct but once massive Digital Equipment Corporation and IBM, a diminutive of its former self, which failed to survive the strategic inflection from vertically organized computer makers to horizontally organized ones, with each company specializing in one layer of the vertical integration, viz microprocessor manufacturing,computer assembly, operating systems, software etc: As much of the book is drawn heavily from personal experience, Andy recommends keeping an open ear to employees, especially middle managers, whom he calls 'Cassandras' after the lady who foresaw the destruction of Troy, as he thinks they are the first ones to sense a strategic inflection point due to changing market conditions. He derives this piece of advice from the fact that his middle managers were committing an increasing fraction of Intel's wafers to microprocessors since about 3 years prior to Intel's senior management actually making the strategic change from SRAMs to microprocessors. From today's vantage point, Andy proves to have honed his managerial instincts reasonably well because in the last chapter of the book he predicts the internet would be a strategic inflection point in the media communications and advertising industries, but not necessarily for Intel's own future and he has been proven largely correct. Overall, I think this book is a quick, light read for anyone who wishes to emulate the paranoia that Andy possessed, and which he claims, solely on the authority of his position, is the only way to survive.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

It happens only in India!

In an unbelievably hilarious case of 'It happens only in India!', the bus conductor had stepped down from the bus, and the bus driver drove off before he got back on. Then the conductor ended up having to take an auto and chase the bus! He caught up a few stops later and let's just say the driver and his family were delivered the choicest epithets for a good 10 minutes so loudly that the driver just froze at the bus stop and didn't even drive for that time! I laughed my guts out.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Came up with this pun today

Bureaucracy exists in every nation. It's just in different forms.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

84, Charing Cross Road (abridged?)

84, Charing Cross Road is an epistolary correspondence of nearly two decades between Helene Hanff and the employees of Marks & Co., in particular Frank Doel. The books begins with Helen Hanff (HH) contacting Marks & Co. with a request for some arcane literature. The request is answered with a formal letter and the relevant books by Frank Doel, as a representative of the book company. But Helene quickly slips into a more informal tone, rambling on the aesthetic appeal of the book, and ending with the puzzling postscript, "I hope "madam" doesn't mean over there what it does here.". When she figures out that its the same representative, viz Frank, answering all her letters to Marks & Co., she starts peppering her letters with humour ("M. de Tocqueville's compliments and he announces his safe arrival in America") and the kind of impudence, especially in salutations, that only a woman might get away with. In one correspondence, she opens by addressing Frank as 'SLOTH'! It made me wonder if a man might've been able to begin a letter to another man thus.

Helene succeeds in denting Frank's reserve not only with her deliberate impudence but also by showering affection on him and the fellow inmates of the bookstore in the form of gifts on festive occasions, or simply as presents when UK was suffering from post-war rationing, especially of meat, linen and other such "luxuries". Naturally, this made the employees and Frank's family extremely fond of this strange foreign girl who kept sending them such expensive gifts for no obvious reason. There is something to be said for this kind of wanton kindness. It makes a lasting impression. I still remember this lady who gave us free syringes at a hospital for some injection that someone we knew had to be administered. We'd always paid for them, and I believe it was Rs. 10 a syringe. Yet for no obvious reason, this lady said, "Take it. There's plenty around anyway" (in telugu) and gave it to us. It left me dumbstruck at that time so I still remember the frail lady who did that. Then there is this mexican woman at the campus dining cafeteria, who always remembers my face and bills me $6, the breakfast rate, for the $8 lunch, if no one else is watching. The first time she did it, my eyes widened in disbelief and she quickly raised her finger to her lips as if to suggest 'hush!' and smiled quietly, making it clear it wasn't an accident. Thereafter, she did it whenever it was safe, and I still smile in incredible gratitude. Then there's the plastic flower roadside vendor in my neighbourhood, who one devilish monsoon day, when the rain suddenly crashed down from the skies, rushed to slip an umbrella out from under his plastic sheet not to protect the source of his livelihood, but to hold it up to my mom while she waited for dad to come pick her up. Then there's Izudina. She spent 30 minutes of unpaid overtime to guide me by hand through the purchase of my first suit, for my first interview, which eventually turned into my first job. And above all, there's a woman, a friend, who's forgiven me for imbecilic adolescent past behaviour that no woman might reasonably forgive. It must be the same inexplicable gratitude that I feel for these people that the employees of Marks and Co. must've felt for the large-hearted and generous HH. Out of that gratitude they invite HH to come over to England and stay with them, and HH promises a trip to England as soon as she's saved enough. As the book progresses, correspondences are omitted, possibly to avoid repetition, possibly because the letters have been lost, and before you know it, a decade has gone by with HH still having made no trip to England. Although, if letters were omitted to avoid repetition, I would like to express my delayed disapproval to the publishers, for how can the correspondences be dull when the woman is as funny as this: "Are you a grandfather yet?", she asks Frank. And then suggests that he tell his daughters, "their children are entitled to presentation copies of my Collected Juvenile Works, THAT should make them rush off and reproduce. "(Underline and block font in original) By now, Frank, Nora (Frank's wife), and their daughters, Sheila and Mary, are spatially removed family to Helene.

Age does not wither Helene's humour, which is often nothing more than the vexed desire for the end of the many people she might momentarily disapprove of. Such phrases as "All must die.", " Death the leveler.", "h.hfffffff.", and "FRANKIE, you'll die when I tell you." only make one smile. On one occasion, her mom leaves behind a dozen knives. She resourcefully uses one for her page cutting, and in the email to Frank says, "May be I go with the wrong kind of people but I'm just not likely to have twelve guests all sitting around simultaneously eating fruit." I laughed at that.

Towards the end of the book, you come to love Frank as this simple yet knowledgeable and happy family man, whose proper British reserve Helene arduously breaks down with an endearing mix of impudence, good humour, and overwhelming affection over nearly two decades. So it left me sad to learn that he died without Helene and him ever meeting. As Nora jealously confesses in the end, perhaps Helene and Frank had more in common.

Finally, I wondered how these letters came to be compiled into a book. Was the same woman who confessed to being incapable of converting pounds to dollars a shrewd businesswoman at heart? Or were the letters simply meant to be a tribute to Frank and the employees of Marks & Co.? Whatever her motivation, I'm only happy to have been privy to their correspondence.

Addendum: The upcoming review will be either 'The rise of India' by Niranjan Rajadakshya or 'Reintegrating India with the World Economy' by T.N. Srinivasan and Suresh Tendulkar. I have an India trip lined up and I realised I know too little about my own country. I also hope to finish Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi before I set foot on home soil. Wish me luck folks!

post-Addendum: I just realised that the library copy was an abridged version of the book after buying myself a copy from I will read the full version later. Till then, please consider this only an incomplete review.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Do customer care representatives appreciate humour?

I recently made a purchase from a major online shopping site only to realise soon after that the product didn't have a feature that I needed. I placed a request for canceling the order within an hour of my original purchase. But apparently the store had forwarded the info. to their warehouse by then and so they'd in turn have to contact the warehouse. Here's that response:

Hello Karthik,

Thank you for visiting ***********, I appreciate your patience while we attempt to cancel your order # 94628027. I do apologize that we are not able to guarantee this being done.

I have sent a request to the warehouse to attempt to cancel your order. I should receive a response from them within the next 2 business days. I will contact you once I receive a response from them.

If there is anything else that I can assist you with please reply directly to this email and I will be more than happy to help. I would like to thank you for your time and your patience.


Customer Care

Two business days to elicit a response from within the same company? What kind of a warehouse is this anyway? Is it some underground nuclear explosion safe location built so that the store can continue to do sales to the vestiges of civilization after the holocaust? Peeved that their internal process should be so bureaucratic, I decided to give them a tongue-in-cheek response:

Hi *****,

Thank you for the prompt response. In the event that the warehouse is unable to cancel the order, the only thing I would do would be to return the package unopened via mail back to ******* so that I can avail the 30 day return period. Thinking along those lines, I was wondering if I might go online now and change the shipping address to the warehouse address? That way, they can ship it to themselves and I won't have to trudge along to the post-office. Then I can just place a request to file the package as a return in stead of a cancel. I am hoping the warehouse can cancel, but if not, let me know if I might work this little trick to save myself a walk to the post-offfice. If its possible, then please let me know the warehouse address. Thank you,


I've always wondered if these cloyingly polite customer care representatives have a sense of humour. Perhaps I'll know now?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Columnist pay - an idea

I was thinking today about the utter lack of brevity in most online news and magazine sites. I understand that companies do this to maximize ad space, and thus ad revenue, the same reason that a single page articles is often broken into multiple pages. I was wondering if there was a way around this menace of verbosity and it occurred to me that companies might use the hit counting tools to everyone's advantage. Since it should be possible for them to track how many hits each article generates, and since ultimately advertisers want more viewers (and therefrom more suckers) it makes sense for news sites to have a fraction of columnist pay determined by a hits/word ratio. This way, columnists are rewarded for brevity, while advertisers still pay more only for pages which generate more hits, and we as consumers get to see news and information whittled down to the essentials rather than come packaged in an armor of verbiage. What say?

Uncommon Genius (How Great Ideas Are Born) - Denise Shekerjian

As I had said in my previous post, I was uncertain if a book on genius or creativity would be worth reviewing. I had come to this conclusion after reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book 'Creativity'. In 'Creativity', a number of eminent people were interviewied, including two-time physics Nobel laureate John Bardeen, whereas in 'Uncommon Genius' Denise interviews 40 MacArthur fellows. The problem with both books is that there's too much pattern-seeking going on. Creativity requires such and such conditions or so and so methodology. The funny thing however was that in the course of the books, both Mihaly and Denise ended up mentioning a particular trait and its opposite as necessary. For instance, they would realise after speaking to some of those creative people that its important to be aggressive in one's ambition, so that one dreams big and achieves at least a fraction of what one dreams, but elsewhere come to the conclusion it is important to hold one's calm and be patient in the face of obstacles or resilient in the face of failure. They find that its important to be connected/socially networked with one's peers so that one is up-to-date on the field, but at the same time declare elsewhere its important to have isolation so that ideas can incubate. I could go on and on, but the bottomline is that there's no clear pattern or formula that can be worked out for creativity or 'genius'. If not, everyone would be 'creative' or a 'genius'. However, that being said, Denise does a better job than Mihaly and rightly points out that at least the right sort of conditions can be created to foster creativity. She says it beautifully thus: "Its the defeatist who seeks to explain away creative achievement solely in terms of luck, a perspective that would have us believe the role of luck in creativity is something akin to a fortuitous flash of lightning. A more accurate assessment would be if a person went into the hardware store, bought the best lightning rod he could find, climbed to the highest point of his roof, bolted the contraption in place, and then waited patiently for a storm." This really sums up what creativity and genius are all about. And that is what you really learn from all the people interviewed as well. It is not a miracle process and there's no clear-cut pattern. The so-called 'geniuses' themselves can find no pattern, although the authors desperately try to. When one dwells on ideas in a field for a sufficiently long time, the conditions are created for new ideas of one's own to congeal from the soup of ideas one is exposed to. As one reviewer pithily summarised on the very essential, Genius is always interesting. This is the primary reason I managed to finish both books. I will also add that Denise has a more flowing narrative non-fiction tone to the book. That makes for easier reading. However, it can also lead to character misrepresentation. There is much hero-worship of the geniuses and Denise, a former trial attorney, looks at them with the awe of one who doesn't understand their work. Her focus is excessively on character portrayal and less on accurate representation of their work. For instance, while mentioning Robert Axelrod's work on the iterated prisoner's dilemma, not once did she clearly mention that it was the iterated version of the prisoner's dilemma that she was referring to when she said Axelrod had organized a tournament on the game. One can skim over the overarching pattern-seeking by both Denise in this book and Mihaly in Creativity and just focus on the interesting, and oftentimes insightful words of the interviewees themselves. So I'll just end this brief review with words from the Fellows that I thought interesting:

'I'm not afraid of risk because risk is a part of change, and change is what new ideas are all about." - Debbie Meier

Peter Sellars - "...the first two hundred years of American culture were made by Europeans coming to New York...If something happened elsewhere in the land, it had to go to New York and get the seal of American culture stamped across its forehead...I think the next two hundred years of American culture are going to be shaped by another set of immigrants - Asians and Hispanics - who are going to create another set of vocabulary with its own sense of moral values, and the distribution center will be Los Angeles."

"Purpose is what dictates the entire range of the enterprise. Through intention, goals are shaped and ideas are generated to fulfill them. Through relentlessness come the cultivation of skills and the perfection of technique. Through motive come the decisions as to which projects to pursue and in what order. Through resolve, resources are marshaled and the necessary strength mustered to overcome obstacles rather than be overcome by them. Through tenacity, friends and collaborators are selected. And through will comes the wisdom to know when to part paths with influences one has outgrown." - Denise (author)

Thanks to (Howard) Gardner's work, the old question: How smart is he? is giving way to the more meaningful inquiry: How is he smart?

"Chance favours the prepared mind" - Louis Pasteur

...encourage our luck. There are three ways, at least, of doing this: being attentive, so you notice the nuances in daily life; being curious and inquisitive enough to follow your curiosity around a blind corner; and being able to relax and have a good time.

He took an interest in their stories and told them his, which was in keeping with his belief that only through an exchange of stories can one person know and trust another. - Denise on Robert Coles

Friday, October 29, 2010


Did I independently share a dream with Hayek (See from 2:30)?


p.s: Sorry for this distraction from the reviews, but this is way too cool :D