Monday, 28 January, 2008

10,000% improvement in lifestyle

I was watching a roundtable relating to the world business meet in Davos the other day, where Singaporean academic and author Kishore Mahbubani revealed that in the next 50 years some citizens of some Asian countries would see a 10,000% improvement in living standards. He contrasted that to improvements of 100% in 50 years in Europe during the Industrial Revolution.

One wonders, what does 10,000% improvement mean in real terms? Two square meals a day from not even one square meal a week? A roof over one’s head? Not getting raped? An improvement of that magnitude cannot be possible unless the person’s present status is worse than a mangy dog’s, can it!

Will high fines lead to less crime?

How does one reduce crimes like unauthorised construction or destruction in third world countries, where the systems are rotten from top to bottom?

I think one way could be impose very heavy fines. For example, if the fine for digging a sidewalk is Rs 500 now, the government should raise it to Rs 500,000.

I do not expect anyone to pay that fine. I do though expect officials to hike their bribe rates many fold. That should deter digging. We must learn from Sree Krishna to use vice when good words fail.

Per capita income in Samoa and minimum wages in New Zealand

First-world economists often speak of India as being a nation with two economies: one for the middleclass nation that has a lifestyle comparable to Western Europe; the other for poor India half-naked and half-dead on less than a dollar a day.

The interpretation is surely debatable, especially the first half. But we won’t do that now. Instead, let’s use the same technique to raise a question about Western economies.

What happens when we look at a developed nation and its neighbouring countries as separate nations with one economy?

What happens if we, say, think of New Zealand and its neighbouring islands as a single economy? Or combine USA with Mexico and the Caribbean? Or Germany and Turkey? France and its former colonies in North Africa, like Algeria and Tunis? Maybe even England and the Indian subcontinent, if we allow the word ‘neighbourhood’ to mean principle supplier of immigrants, mainly low-skilled or unskilled labour? (Strangely, Japan doesn’t seem to import immigrants.)

The links may be tenuous in many areas, but it may be useful to investigate one: How does the minimum wage in a developed country vary with factors pertaining to its neighbourhood, particularly the neighbours’ per capita incomes and their unemployment rates (the two [income and unemployment rate] would probably be highly correlated).

Obviously, immigrants need not be imported in hordes to depress minimum wages. Laws threatening to welcome them should be enough, and vice versa.

I suppose the minimum wage stipulated by law changes more slowly than per capita income. Perhaps we should than look at the actual minimum wage, if such data is readily available, or the ratio of minimum wage to per capita income, or some function of that sort.

Frankly, I’d be very surprised if such an investigation hasn’t be carried out yet. On the other hand, the results seem so predictable that none may have actually done the math.

Monday, 21 January, 2008

33% better than random

Every book on the application of statistics in database gives examples of how their model overtook a random sample by so many percentages.

I am yet to come across the copywriter who says, “My mail pack did 35.78% better than the one fashioned by a one-eyed monkey banging away on his keyboard.”

What makes beating a random sample so commendable is beyond me.

Doctor, what are you reading?

Would you trust an allopathic doctor who reads, say, self-help diet books or magneto-therapy, whatever that is?

You may, if you are convinced he’s doing so out of plain curiosity, and would never try any of that on you. Otherwise, you’ll keep away from him, though, inconsistently, you may believe and adapt the magneto-therapy and magic diet business on your own.

We expect our experts to read only certain types of books, even when they are reading for pleasure. We expect their libraries to be stacked with reputable journals and tedious tomes.

Strangely, entrepreneurs and executives are exempt from this expectation. Rare is the businessperson who confesses a weakness for perplexing research papers. In fact, many unashamedly admit reading pop physiology or popular statistics.

For example, many a fat cat manager takes great pride in having read Freakonomics. It’s no doubt a wonderful book. I’d recommend it heartily, but as an appetiser, not the main course.

Similarly, executives insist that reading editorials of a business newspaper suffices for all the managerial economics they needs.

And some businessmen go to the extent of damning all reading, claiming that their intuition and commonsense allows them to keep the world wonderfully uncomplicated an profitable.

Yet we obey them unconditionally as employees, and reward them generously as shareholders.

The point is not whether business requires the same degree of continuing education as do professions like engineering, science or medicine. For all I know, excessive learning may be a dangerous thing in big business.

What is strange is the difference in the way we evaluate men in business from the way we (literally) price men in other lines of work.

Was Churchill kicked upstairs?

Was Churchill made prime minister to get his out of the admiralty? It is one of the biggest ironies of the Second World War that Chamberlin paid for Narvik with his job; which went to the person responsible for the disaster! Who thereupon completed his emergence from political wasteland to become his nation’s saviour and the greatest Englishman ever!

Yet there may be an explanation to this.

In all probability, Labour and Liberal would never have served under either Chamberlin or Halifax (Irwin).

On the other hand, the Conservatives had too large a majority to accept an outsider for PM, as they had once accepted MacDonald. Anyway, there was no such ‘tall’ figure among contemporary non-Conservative politicians.

Yet at the hour of crisis, England needed a coalition of all talents, if only for symbolic reasons.

Also, the leader of that cabinet had to stand for certain things, so that the nation could rally around him. These did not have to universally accepted virtues: instead, they had to total up to Englishness, as understood by the average Englishman.

These made Churchill a strong contender. He led no group. He was untainted by Munich. He had an illustrious heritage and quite a good deal of experience.

At the same time, there was little in his political career’s morning, midday or afternoon to infer that its evening could be its finest hour. I remember reading in the introduction of a collection of his speeches that Churchill’s real gift to his nation was his rousing oratory, because he had made a mess of practically every opportunity he had!

His nation needed him as a powerful symbol, but did not dare trust him with real power.

Hence, it had to offer him a role of extreme responsibility but limited power. After all, how powerful had any British PM heading a collation government in the preceding three decades been?

So he was put at the head of the table, where he roared, and made a few more strategic blunders (Battle Axe, Singapore, Oran), which ultimately turned out to be inconsequential, thanks to the entry of the real superpowers.

Indeed, it had been rumoured, perhaps not completely in jest, that the War Cabinet got any work done when its head went off and his able deputy was in the chair (though Churchill had willed that should he die, Eden, and not Attlee, should take over).

This sounds heretical, presumptuous and preposterous. Nonetheless, toned down and with proper scholarship, it may fly.

Friday, 11 January, 2008

4 things I must do, professionally, in 2008

Get myself into a good MBA programme, preferably in the US, preferably with CRM as the bedrock of my course. Why MBA? Because it seems to be the only step I can take to move up financially. Also, because if you can't beat them, join them. Why CRM? Because that's the one area I have some experience in. Why US? Because 19 out of 20 CRM gurus come from there.

Finish reading all the books in economics, econometrics, and multivariate analysis that I have bought. I must finish a few books on copywriting too. Most of the other books I have are classics, and it won't really hurt to wait till retirement before reading them.

Write a book on loyalty programmes, more precisely, on how agencies should run their clients' loyalty programmes, which will have everything Nobo and I think – as opposed to know - about loyalty programmes. If people find anything nice about my writing it is some idiosyncratic style and naked frustration. Nobody has ever congratulated me for scholarship. So I should stick to my strengths. This book may be useful later.

Start contributing regularly to the blogs of big copywriters and database marketers. For too long I have considered myself unworthy of their attention. That hasn't made me any more worthy.

A monkey's view of risk

If a monkey could become an anthropologist, what would he say of our way of doing business? He'd probably say, “Humans hate risk. They pay money managers millions when, according to history, I'd do a better job of picking stocks by simply throwing darts blindfolded at a board with companies' names on it.

Their captains of industry navigate their conglomerates into rough waters with amazing regularity.

And even jackals would feel insulted were I to call them 'politicians'. Yet they trust these politicians with their homes and hearths, and even massacre each other at the politicians' bidding.

Why, humans refuse to risk doing something as inconsequential as play games, preferring to pay others instead and watch the 'fun'!

Had humans been monkeys like us, they'd have never swung from tree to tree. Instead they'd have held on to each other's tails, and contracted some big guerilla to do the swinging, whose stubby posterior projection they'd have grasped for their dear lives.”

The killer average

Let's say you are running a loyalty programme where one of your main objectives is to use points to bring down discounts. Five months into the programme, you discover that average discounts outside the programme are marginally more than those in the programme (let's say, it's 27% inside the programme verses 29% outside the programme).

Worse, when you add the deferred discounts you have to give away as points (let's say, 2%), the discounts run neck to neck.

Worst, when you put in the expenses on running the programme, it seems quite clear that the programme is, effectively, extracting a larger discount.

Or is it?

Perhaps the transactions inside the programme are very different from those outside it. For instance, sales inside the programme can be of high-price, high-margin items; while those outside be of low-price, low-margin products.

The discounts percentages can be coincidentally equal.

The correct comparison would be of the fraction of the margin given away as discount. Better still, one should ask the simple what-if question: What would have the total discounts been had the programme not existed, assuming everything else remained the same?

This sounds obvious and simplistic, yet every day I see numbers being used with the minimum thought about where they came from.

Which brings me to a more fundamental problem. While finding figures for a nation like ours, where inequalities are far higher than people can ever imagine in developed countries, are agencies careful enough to cast their nets wider for data?

Or would we be better off if, while investigating anything to do with economics and money, we divided the world by borders that combined purchasing power with politics?

Wednesday, 2 January, 2008


3rd Dec Takeoff from Mumbai
Today is Nina’s (my sister-in-law) birthday.

And we’re off to NZ, via KL.

We’ve been in Bombay International Airport before, including the times when we took an Air India flight to Delhi. (They’re really cheap, but take too long, because your co-passengers’ papers are being processed.) The airport is a mess. And it’s being renovated, in the peak of the tourist season. You wait for an hour in a ‘lounge’ that’s meant for half or perhaps a quarter the number it currently ‘serves’.

Anyway, our flight is an hour or so late taking off. Malaysian Airlines is nice, and the wait staff, both hostesses and pursers, better looking than their peers in Air India.

But they don’t seem to be ‘a world apart’ - as ‘globetrotters’ would tell you within five minutes of opening on the subject.

4th Dec Kuala Lumpur
Today is G2’s (my brother’s) birthday.

The flight takes around 4½ hours. Kuala Lumpur airport and Kuala Lumpur are everything that Indian airports and Indian cities are not, but I won’t waste any time describing either.

Instead, let me make a few quick observations.
· Before we start comparing our hellhole airports with airports like KL we need to note something very simple: KL airport is further from the city centre than any Indian city’s airport. It takes about an hour to go to KL via jam-free concretised road. The train ride takes an hour, plus about 45 minutes by bus.

You can do a lot more at an airport so far from the city than one that, thanks to the spread of the city, is now in the middle of a residential neighbourhood (like Bombay’s is).

· KL is far smaller than our cities, and seems a good deal smaller. Maybe with all its suburbs KL is as big as an Indian city, if not bigger. But if the ‘big business’ area, the markets, and posh neighbourhoods are how you define a city, KL is a town compared to our cities. It’s what Simla, or even Bangalore, could have become had they got some planning and regulation. Actually, KL looks very much like the white town of colonial Indian cities. One suspects it works like one too, for Southeast Asia.

· The mall at Petronas Tower is almost thrice the size of the biggest mall we have seen in India, in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. But one wonders how many such malls are there in KL. And how many of the buyers are from KL.

· The bookshop at the mall is larger too; but the books are the same as I see in India.

· Finally, there seemed to be far fewer Malays per sqkm than Indians. Their population density, even in their capital, is probably smaller than ours. (I mean to put in the figures sometime.)

What I am getting at is this: I wish while contrasting Indians and Southeast Asians, people get down to the basic stuff, like population, area, GDP, etc first, then got into lectures on how lazy Indians are.

It’s like you do with a regression equation – use the data to see how much of the variation you can readily and easily explain, then get into the theoretical stuff to ‘explain’ the remaining differences. Sometimes, the readily unexplainable stuff turns out be quite insignificant, attributable to chance.

Before I sign off, Malay kids have the most ‘attitude’.

PS: My cousin, Chotu, had her first child today. A girl.

5th Dec Arrival at Auckland
Today is Nobo’s birthday.

We reach at around noon NZ time.

My sister-in-law (Nobo’s sister) and her husband own three houses here. In Bombay, we can’t even imagine owning one.

We get through without too much trouble at the airport, but their restrictions on what you can bring in seem excessive to me, especially for an island country where contamination can arrive via the sea and through migratory birds.

We spend the day helping clean my sister-in-law’s villa.

Here shops run from 8 am to 5 pm, the hours when one is least likely to shop! Strange.

Also, one gets the distinct impression from my sister-in-law’s conversation that the national pastime is suing each other.

6th Dec Jetlag
I sleep till 4.30 pm, making up for the two nights spent without sleep during the flight.

I’m itching to get out and explore. I haven’t checked my mail. Or sent a congratulatory message to Chotu.

7th Dec Back to the airport
Spent most of the day at the house. But went to see the School of Education where my sister-in-law studied for her certificate in early childhood education. Everything is very neat and tidy here, and very insipid.

All the cottages look like the early 20th century cottages that they are. While it’s certainly admirable to preserve one’s heritage I suppose it’s abnormal to live in a museum. I’m sure there are a dozen laws against tearing down old buildings here, but I’d be surprised if they don’t have the opposite effect as intended, that is, they make people indifferent, if not hostile, to their past.

It’s similar with rituals and customs. Continue a few, you’d find them charming; preserve them all, they become ‘shackles’.

To return to the title, as far I remember around 40 to 50% of the staff at the airport seemed non-white. Yet non-whites are less than one-fourth of the population. Do they get only the ‘bad’ jobs?

8th Dec Mask
Bought a Mauri mask for Nobo from Queen Street, which is one of the main roads here. Bus rides, converted to Indian money, are some 15 to 17 times more expensive. Food costs about the same.

Had coffee at Starbucks. Most ordinary. Neither tastes nor smells any different from vending machine coffee. And the interior looks no different than café interiors anywhere in India. Wonder why it is such a big brand.

Went to a big Border store. The variety in Management and History is not as good as in Indian shops. Prices are thrice what they are in India. Suspect other sections are not much better. At least they didn’t occupy more space then their counterparts back home. Another disappointment.

The other tow bookshops we saw were worse.

The curio shops have Chinese and Korean shopkeepers selling to Chinese and Korean tourists. The cheapest thing costs NZ$ 25 or so. The equivalent piece in India would cost one-eighth, perhaps less.

9th Dec Just one more weekend to Christmas
Saw the Maritime Museum today, and very impressive it was. Yet the ticket price of NZ$ 16 each was, in my view, very expensive. The quayside is impressive.

The chap at the Sky Tower counter advised us not to spend NZ$ 50 because the view was bad owing to the clouds. That was impressive too.

Walked back from Queen St. It took us around 2 hours, and it was a pleasure to walk through the clean sidewalks by clean roads, with no beggars and tramps around.

But what struck me was the shops had shut by 6 or 7, and this was the only weekend before Christmas.

10th Dec Little One’s School
Took Nobo’s sister’s little daughter to her kindergarten today. Almost all the kids are Chinese!

Saw the NZ equivalent of budget store. Prices same as India, if not higher. Again, both sellers and buyers are almost Chinese.

11th Dec Bookshops
Went to One Tree Hill in the morning. I cannot imagine seeing something as incredibly beautiful in India. Correction, I cannot imagine something so well-maintained and beautiful in India. And a good deal of informative material was available for free there. Though the New Zealand natural ice-cream is rather yucky.

Saw one of their bigger bookshops and the University Book Shop. Both were very disappointing. The latter had less variety and volume than the most ordinary bookshop in India! And I’m in the largest city of a first world country!

Maybe they get great books in the library. Maybe they are backward. Maybe they just buy a few standard books – and don’t believe in variety for its own sake.

Maybe, just maybe, they need to be very afraid of India.

Let’s see.

12th Dec Mount Eden
Went to the highest point in Auckland, Mt Eden. Beautiful again. This place is pretty as a picture, but it’s neither a Constable nor a Turner – rather a second-grade Victorian master.

Also saw a Chinese fruit and vegetable mart. Very expensive, I thought, though great variety.

13th Dec Parnell & Victoria Market
Parnell is their Haus Khas village. Pretty shops selling knickknacks, furniture and accessories. Unlike Haus Khas, they have cafés.

There was Auckland Cathedral before, which is impressive for its stained glass windows. The orchestra was practising for the evening’s concert.

Victoria Market was a disappointment, but we saw two quite good bookshops. On our way back, a friendly bus driver from Malaysia told us a lot about where to go and advised us to apply for PR (Permanent Residence).

Ponosby, the ‘practical’ equivalent of Parnell is ok too – we saw it from the bus on the way back – but the shops didn’t seem to have anything we don’t find in India.

14thDec Anya’s School
Anya (Nobo’s neice) studies in class 10 at Epsom Girl’s Grammar. The Asians seem to excel in the math and sciences, while the girls of European decent do better in the arts and sports. The Asians are, I thought, over-represented among the scholarship students, more so in recent years: They’d be about a third of the students but were half or three fourth of the scholarship students.

Maybe I’m obsessed with Asian, especially Indian, achievement. But we certainly need a confidence boost after four centuries of playing second fiddle – or was it the triangle?

The point is that brown and yellow people can do as well as whites on a level playing field. Maybe it’s not a level playing field though, because the former descend from the more industrious and intelligent – at least, the more adventurous – of their race and the latter come from a more dispersed population.

Even if genetics didn’t matter too much, the immigrant kids’ parents surely push them harder.

15th Dec Domain
Went to the museum at Domain. It’s smaller than Calcutta’s archaeological museum, but is far better maintained, though the War section was underwhelming.

The Mauri cultural performance (NZ$ 15 each) was disappointing, because the dances looked graceless, and the songs sounded childlike. Moreover, they hardly seemed to move their legs. I suppose the show had its merits, but I must be deprived of all appreciation of the primitive.

Didn’t see too many non-Caucasians in the museum. Wonder why Chinese and Japanese come all the way to NZ to shop for things they make.

Bought The Gossage Book at a second-hand bookshop called Hard to Find at Ponosby. This is a nice shop, with an impressive collection. I wonder how many copies of it exist in India. Strange I bought it when I have decided to bid goodbye to writing. Wonder what’s next for me…

16th Dec Devonport
Took the ferry to this beautiful island off the coast. It’s postcard perfect, in the dull way we have come to expect here. The view from Mt Victoria is great.

Saw a dance performance of Anya’s dance school today. At NZ$ 20 an adult ticket, the price was too high, compared to what one would’ve paid in India, for an amateur show. The show wasn’t anything to write home about – all white girls of Auckland and a quarter of the boys were on stage – although we felt very proud to see Anya on stage.

Both Indians and Chinese are fine dancers. Yet there were no choreographers of either race, and hardly any dancers. Has anyone researched and written about the new immigrants?

17th Dec Onehanga
Hard to Find has a big branch in Onehanga near where we stay. Took a bus there today morning. The shop is impressive alright, though I didn’t buy anything.

Onehanga looks poorer than Auckland. Probably is.

Walked back through Campbell Park (One Tree Hill) on my way back. It’s larger than I thought.

Overall, the impression is that here you are thoroughly deprived of that one that we Bengalis both despise and crave. Struggle.

18th Dec Rangitatau
Went to Rangitatau with Anya today. It’s an extinct volcano with no shops or cafes or hotels on it; indeed the only structures on it are a few unused cottage. The walk up was tiring but enjoyable too.

In the evening we celebrated Ma’s (my mother-in-law) 75th birthday (counting birth as the 1st birthday).

19th Dec Ma is ill
My mother-in-law suddenly took ill today morning.

20th Dec Waihiki
Ma was stable today so we went to Waihiki, yet another island near Auckland, and I thought it’d be very boring. Nothing except vineyard-restaurants and scenic walks. They even have a booklet on the walks!

I thought my apprehensions would be confirmed until we discovered the charming music museum and its even more charming trustee.

This gentlemen must be in his mid 60s, at least. But more fit than me. Had sailed to Java in his own boat… then over land to Singapore… sea to Madras… got a bike there to drive down to Bombay, then Delhi via Bhopal (at the fag end of the Indian summer, just before the monsoon – must have been killing for a New Zealander)… then Pakistan, Afghanistan (saw student riots there), Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Austria, Germany… finally ending up in Belgium, where he lived for many years… and all this way back in 1968!

The gentleman who restores the pieces in the museum was, by profession, the manager of a paint shop.

These people know how to live.

(Again, saw few non-Caucasians here.)

We returned to find Ma’s illness has taken a turn for the worse.

21st Dec Clinic
Accompanied Ma to the clinic today morning. It looked and functioned exactly like clinics back home.

In the afternoon, a team from the hospital came to see Ma, a doctor and two nurses. Nice Chinese chap – the doctor – but shouts instead of speaking.

22nd Dec Savage Memorial
Saw the memorial put up by the Labour Party for the first Labour PM, Savage. It’s bigger than Raj Ghat, with a large garden atop a hill.

I’m hugely interested in NZ history right now. What sort of history can a nation of two million or so have – the present population of four million being reached in the last two decades or so… perhaps a little more.

23rd Dec Psychology
What I have heard over the last three weeks convinces me that ‘pop’ psychology is the occult of our times, an evil concoction of hogwash.

Took Ma to New Market in the evening. It’s the last Sunday before Christmas, but the place was deserted by 6 pm.

24th Dec Cox Bay Reserve
Bought a couple of books, saw their art gallery, and discovered this beautiful park where very few people seem to go.

25th Dec Christmas
Rains most of the day. Had New Zealand lamb.

26th Dec Wellington
Visited the capital. Small town really.

The national museum is ok (it has Rembrandts), the botanical garden is beautiful, as is the quaint cable car that connects you to the city. Borders Wellington was a disappointment.

The most unexpected and wonderful was Gandhiji’s statue in front of Wellington Railway Station!

The aeroplane ride to Wellington and the bus ride from it were both satisfactory; neither was impressive: the flight was 15 minutes late.

27th Dec Sky Tower
Went up the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. Must confess I was under-whelmed. All you get is a view of Auckland that any aeroplane takeoff would give you. There may have been some thrill in going up tall buildings a hundred years ago. Now it’s a show whose kick has long gone.

28th Dec Howick Historical Village
Reached this interesting museum after a good deal of walking. It’s actually a number of restored cottages, resembling a village settled by retired British soldiers (most of them had served in India) around the end of the 19th Century.

Why don’t Indian cities have things like this? The closest I have seen is the Manav Sangralaya in Bhopal, and that doesn’t come too close.

The manager there sweet talked us into buying a number of knickknacks, but no regrets as they were pretty.

29th Dec Takeoff from Auckland
We’re going back. I don’t think I’ll ever come back to NZ again, unless on business. It’s a feast that invariably leads to flatulence.

30th Dec Kuala Lumpur again
Bought two shoes and a few curios. Got on the Hop-on-hop-off bus again. This time it was torturous. Too slow. Couldn’t see the museums or the aviary as we had planned.

But the check-in was nice. You go to KL Sentral, check in, take your boarding pass, and take a shuttle train to the airport. The train takes only 28 minutes and stops inside the airport! Then all you have to do is go through security. Mumbai would need something like this if we shift the airport far from town.

Tried ice khalang, their national dessert. Sickening and overpriced concoction of rose syrup and crushed ice, but that’s the whole point of new experiences, which NZ doesn’t get: you need the chance of disappointment, at least, to really appreciate the delight of the good and great.

Landing in Bombay brought us back to the nightmare our country is. I wish I could continue to blame population for the hell we have turned India into, but I can’t.

When we spread out our purchases, I felt good that we had hardly spent at all. Just a few gifts for close relatives, and a few things for ourselves that we won’t get in India.

This trip was the longest holiday either of us has taken. In many - though, sadly, not all - ways, it was also the most enjoyable.