Saturday, May 19, 2007

Quote du Jour: George Soros 

This one is from an old post of Ethan Zuckerman's that I happened to chance upon this evening. Apparently, Ethan was at an OSI meeting to discuss challenges faced by newspapers today. This was George Soros' parting shot, apparently, and it's a classic.
Journalists and prostitutes face the same challege: competition from amateurs.”
This is right up there with Atanu's tale about George Soros at the Pan-IIT meet in Bombay. Apparently, George Soros was asked by a well-meaning IIT-ian/ex-IITian, "Sir, how does one become a philanthropist?" George Soros replied, "Get Rich First." Exactly.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What Gives in the Mobile Space? 

This news story has got buried, for some reason, with few people I know being aware of it. According to Business Standard, the net addition to the GSM subscriber base has dropped from 6.13 million subscribers in March to 4.13 million subs in April. What gives?

1. As the story suggests, there has been an inexplicable drop of subscribers at MTNL and BSNL alone, among the carriers.
2. The user-verification drive for pre-paid subscribers has led to a sudden drop in subscribers, a one-time phenomenon in all likelihood.
3. The Indian mobile phone industry has hit saturation point.

My own gut tells me that the user-verification drive is the most likely reason for the precipitous fall in numbers (CDMA numbers are not out yet). Hopefully, it's a one-time correction and the growth will stay on track, especially if the ministry can actually fulfill its promise of making India a unified calling zone (without domestic roaming, i.e.).

In the meanwhile, it is being reported that Virgin Mobile is finally entering India in a 50-50 tie-up with Tata Teleservices. I think it's safe to assume that Virgin is going in for this model because MVNO's are not yet allowed in India.

Empire Struck 

Occasionally, you come across an image that simply requires no description. This is from yesterday, during a storm in New York. Thanks to the Daily Mail.

Quote du Jour 

A true friend stabs you in the front!

-- Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Big Chill: The Mother of All Parties 

I have been meaning to post about the Big Chill Goa for quite some time, but was waiting for the website to update with some nice pictures. I have heard about the Big Chill music festival for quite some time now, so the minute I heard about the Goa edition, I bought tickets and made plans to go. Regular readers of this blog I am a big fan of electronic music, house music and just generally progressive music. In my opinion, electronica is the one genre of music today which is truly global in every sense, and which actually pushes the boundaries of music. And there is no better to check out the best electro sounds than the Big Chill.

Though I was a bit skeptical at first, the Big Chill turned out not only to far exceed my expectations, but quite frankly was the best party I've been to in India. The crowd was outstanding (it helps that i've never seen that many pretty girls in one place in India before), the atmosphere was unbelievably chill and intimate, the booze fantastic and best of all, the music was really very, very good. A bunch of the artists, I knew very well like Shri or Jalebee Cartel, but the great new introductions were The Bays (amazing website) and Norman Jay (pic below).

No DJ I've seen knows how to get a party going like Norman Jay with the tempo picking up just after sunset. I think The Bays are pretty much at the cutting edge of jam music, and probably indicative of the direction jam bands will take in the years to come. Jalebee Cartel is easily the best electro band I've heard in India and every time I hear them, they seem to get edgier. You can check out samples of all of their music on the linked websites.

As I understand it, the Goa edition was so successful that the organizers are planning to make it an annual event, so all of you resident in India are warned. For the Indian electronica fans among you, here's a heads-up: Paul Oakenfold is spinning in India on Friday and Saturday. Oakey is spinning at Elevate in Delhi on Friday, the 11th and at City Studio in Bombay on the 12th. I will be at City Studio on the 12th night.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Hunter S. Thompson on the Kentucky Derby 

The more jobless among us (that rules me out, obviously) follow the Kentucky Derby. You would, for instance, know that Street Sense won the Derby this year. I personally don't care much about horse racing, but my attention perked up immediately when Chris sent this Hunter Thompson piece on the Kentucky Derby. It is a bit dated, but by god, HST is in form here.

I also found this little interesting piece of trivia around this particular piece. Apparently, Boston Globe reporter Bill Cardoso read this piece and exclaimed, "This is pure Gonzo!" From there, it passed into legend, include a frequent misattribution to HST himself. Here is a little excerpt to give you a taste. Read. Enjoy.

He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn't seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It was a face I'd seen a thousand times at every Derby I'd ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry--a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify the weak points in a bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will likely be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient--to the parents--than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons and in their own ways. ("Goddam, did you hear about Smitty's daughter? She went crazy in Boston last week and married a nigger!")

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Which Airline will Go First? 

I have a little game going on with some of my friends to place bets on which Indian airline will go out of business first. Given the cutbacks on routes and redeployment of airplanes, most of us came to the conclusion that Jeh Wadia's Go Air would be the first to exit the ruthlessly competitive Indian airline space, where survival has become synonymous with the airline's ability to withstand mounting losses. Turns out we may have been wrong, if this Mint story on Air Deccan can be believed. Apparently, Air Deccan is dangerously close to running out of all its equity.

On 31 March, the day the company closed its books for the last quarter, Deccan Aviation, which runs Air Deccan and a small helicopter charter operation, had not more than Rs42 crore in equity, and, perhaps, even less than that in available cash for its day to day operations, according to Mint’s analysis.If the airline is losing money at the same rate today as it did in the January-March quarter—about Rs2.36 crore a day—that equity has likely been already depleted.

“Excluding the IOU that Deccan has from Investec, we estimate that Deccan has close to zero residual equity,” JP Morgan Chase analyst Peter Negline wrote in a note to investors on Friday, referring to instalments from a UK bank still due to the company from a deal completed last year. “If they cannot find private equity to inject funds immediately, we believe that their departure from the market is imminent.”
I am flying Deccan in a couple of days, and from all outward appearances, there seems to be no sign of pending trouble. In fact, as Mint says, they've even floated a new round of 100,000 free tickets. Is this just bravado or is there something wrong with the doomsday analysis?

Dr Ambedkar on Villages 

Responding to our Mint op-ed, a couple of IEB readers wrote to me asking what exactly Dr Ambedkar had said about villages and life in villages. Well, Dr Ambedkar said a lot of things about villages and those who glorified it, including Mahatma Gandhi, but I did some quick digging around and found some of the most trenchant comments in Edward Luce's excellent book, In Spite of the Gods.

"The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic....What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?"
Anyone who reads about Dr Ambedkar at length cannot but come to the same conclusion he did, that the best way out for the rural poor in India is urbanization and consequent economic growth.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

More John Foster Dulles 

Continuing on the theme in an earlier post, John Foster Dulles is back. My friend, Fawzia, pointed me to the best quote ever by Dulles, and it's about Islamabad.

"Islamabad is half the size of Arlington cemetery and twice as dead"

Can India afford its Villages? 

Mint is carrying an op-ed co-written by me and Atanu Dey. It's called "Can India afford its villages?" and I reproduce it here in full, though I'd probably prefer it if you read it on the Mint website rather than here :)

There has been a general tendency to romanticize village life as a return to our roots. What is noticeable, though, is that most people who romanticize village life in India tend to live in cities—in India, or elsewhere. They also seem incapable of noticing the irony implicit in this romanticization, since their forefathers, too, were once villagers —who migrated to cities for good reason.

There was no greater proponent of villages than Mohandas Gandhi, who had been educated in London, and had a law career in urban South Africa. Gandhi’s most vehement critic at the time was Ambedkar, who knew about village life as an untouchable. Attacking Gandhi’s view on the republic of villages as overly sentimental, Ambedkar urged his followers to leave their rural persecution behind, get educated and move to urban centres. Clearly, anyone who lives in the average Indian village and has access to information and money would like to leave for towns and cities.

The conflating of the development of rural people with the development of villages perhaps explains the misplaced emphasis on the latter. The fact that despite decades of attempts at developing rural areas, nothing much has been achieved in the development of rural people suggests that the answers may lie elsewhere.

Every developed economy has followed a path which begins with agriculture being the main source of income for the majority of the population, and ends with agricultural employment being a very small fraction of the total labour force. The shift has always been from a village-centric, agriculture-based economy to a city-centric, non-agricultural economy—as agriculture becomes more productive, labour is released into manufacturing and services, which have higher productivity and incomes.

At the low levels of economic prosperity seen in rural India, economic growth is a precondition for development. Economic growth, in turn, is a cause and consequence of urbanization. The reason is not hard to see. In urban areas, people aggregate in numbers sufficient for markets to deliver goods and services efficiently and cheaply. Consider the supply of an essential infrastructural service such as electricity. The economics of power generation and distribution do not allow decentralization to the level of villages that are home to a few hundred people. The average cost of per unit of power makes it prohibitive. The only way for a small 1-2MW decentralized plant to provide power for a village of 1,000 people is for the villagers to pay substantial premiums—which is highly improbable. No wonder then that essential services such as uninterrupted electricity are not available at the village level. By comparison, supplying decentralized power for the needs of a few tens of thousands of people is economically feasible.

Villages are not the proper object of analysis when it comes to economic growth, and hence economic development. By insisting on the development of villages, scarce resources, which could have been more efficiently used elsewhere, are wasted. The same resources can be used in the development of cities. It seems to us that the answer to the development of rural people paradoxically lies in urban development.

About 700 million Indians live in villages. Clearly, there is little scope for urbanization in their case by having them migrate to existing cities—those are already bursting at the seams. Practically all Indian towns and cities are unplanned and inefficiently use land and other resources. They are inadequate even for current residents, leave alone the idea of adding hundreds of millions of more people to them. The country requires new urban centres to accommodate the hundreds of millions of people who need to be in such centres.

In fact, the answer to Mumbai’s or Delhi’s problems is, interestingly enough, that these cities lose their centrality to the Indian economy as other regional centres come up and mass migration to large cities ceases. People tend to forget that New York (or London) was once considered an unlivable, hopelessly polluted city. At least part of the solution to the city’s problem lay in the creation of other centres such as Chicago, St. Louis and the cities of the west which relieved the pressure on New York itself.

India has a choice of futures, say, in 2030. Will the majority of Indians continue to live in 600,000 small villages engaged in near-subsistence agriculture or will they be in living in 600 well-planned vibrant cities (or 6,000 towns of 100,000 population, for that matter) working in non-agricultural sectors and enjoying a rich social and cultural life?

Depending on how we use our resources, the latter future can be a reality. Achieving that reality would be the greatest challenge for India and arguably, the most rewarding as well. Rather than trying to trap people in villages and agriculture, the focus should be on the creation of new urban centres which will lead to economic growth and development of people.

The Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting 

This went completely past me. I know the Pulitzers were announced earlier this month, but I wasn't really paying any attention. So, it came as a shock to me to realize that my good friend, and wife of former ZS blogger Andrew Lih, Mei Fong, won the Pulitzer for best international reporting as part of the Wall Street Journal team covering China. I am thrilled to bits for Mei, because I was following these feature stories from China (a lot of Mei's stories appear in Mint) and they really were outstanding.

Andrew links to most of the stories on his blog, and they seem to be available free and are not behind the subscription wall. As Andrew put it as only he can, Mei's obituary will now read -- 'Mei Fong, Pulitzer prize-winning reporter..'

A Delightful look at the Pandit 

I should have read it a long time ago, but I only just finished reading Shashi Tharoor's book, Nehru: The Invention of India. The best thing about the book is that it's short, yet informative, and it's full of delightful anecdotes. To me, the best anecdote is the exchange (quite possibly apocryphal) with John Foster Dulles about India's supposed neutrality during the Cold War.

John Foster Dulles: Are you for us or against us?

Jawaharlal Nehru: Yes
This ranks right up there with Gandhi's quip about western civilization.

The book also re-introduced me to an old and hilarious doggerel written by Ogden Nash to celebrate the pompous hypocrisy of Nehru's over-moral foreign policy. It's called The Pandit.

Just how shall we define a Pandit?
It’s not a panda or a bandit.
But rather a Pandora’s box
of sophistry and paradox.
Though Oxford gave it a degree
it maintains its neutrality
by quietly hating General Clive
as hard as if he were alive.
On weighty international questions
it’s far more Christian than most Christians;
It’s ever eager, being meek
to turn someone else’s cheek.
Oft has it said all men are brothers,
and set that standard up for others,
yet as it spoke it gerrymandered
proclaiming its private Pakistandard.
The neutral Pandit walks alone,
and if abroad, it casts a stone,
It walks impartial to the last,
ready at time to stone a caste.
Abandon I for now the pandit,
I fear I do not understand it.