Saturday, December 22, 2007

Kho na jayen yeh, taare zamein par

It is rare to see a movie that treats an off-mainstream topic with such lucidity, that does it justice without going overboard. With brilliant acting (particularly from Darsheel Safary), impressive direction and a moving sound score (shankar mahadevan almost does an SPB in some areas), this is a movie that deserves much kudos.

Dyslexia is a topic that is increasingly gaining attention across the country. By giving it cinemascope focus, one hopes the movie would bring about a much needed change in attitudes - at least with some of the troubled teachers and parents who see it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How open courses are revolutionalizing education...

At 71, Physics Professor Is a Web Star - from the New York Times:

Professor Lewin’s videotaped physics lectures, free online on the OpenCourseWare of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have won him devotees across the country and beyond who stuff his e-mail in-box with praise.

Professor Lewin delivers his lectures with the panache of Julia Child bringing French cooking to amateurs and the zany theatricality of YouTube’s greatest hits. He is part of a new generation of academic stars who hold forth in cyberspace on their college Web sites and even, without charge, on iTunes U, which went up in May on Apple’s iTunes Store.

He was No. 1 on the most downloaded list at iTunes U for a while, but that lineup constantly evolves. The stars this week included Hubert Dreyfus, a philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Leonard Susskind, a professor of quantum mechanics at Stanford.


Ah, the emergence of the open education era. Imagine what this and the XO together can do.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The curse of knowledge

"...Psychologists and behavioral economists have shown that when we know a lot about a field it becomes really tough for us to imagine what it’s like not to know what we know—that’s the curse of knowledge."

A good article from the McKinsey Quarterly on how to make a message 'sticky': Make it simple, concrete and storylike. | Crafting a message that sticks: An interview with Chip Heath |

"If you want to learn how to make your messages stick, the highest-return-on-investment advice is to be more concrete. Systematically go through your speech, your PowerPoint deck, or your memo and strike out every abstraction. Instead of saying 'outstanding customer service,' substitute an example."

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Jaipurean jaunt

The Delhi-Jaipur highway route is simply the best road-track I've driven on till date. Driving 3-4 hrs at a stretch at over a 100 kmph is a great experience. Halfway on the route, lies the RTDC Midway , providing a perfect "midway" refreshment point.

There are a couple of things Jaipur is awesome at: forts, good food, colorful clothes & handicrafts and a few at which it sucks: traffic in the old city for one - landed up just in time for the pre-diwali rush in the ramparts of the old city, just to be swarmed by the crazy crowd...

The city palace is certainly one of the most colorful forts I've ever seen till date, perhaps because the royal family still live there (Not as magnificent as the ones in Udaipur, but still a sight by itself). The Amer fort is , of course, impressive, particularly when you first come upon it…the sheer size and its location add to its gravitas. Nahargarh and Jaigarh, which adjoin Amer are worth a visit as well, and are a good uphill drive. The view from Jaigarh fort of the city is certainly worth catching.

Choki Dhani, which lies on the outskirts of Jaipur, is perhaps the best Indian theme park (if you can call it that) I've seen. The ambience at night is just awesome - the camel and elephant rides, the village carnival atmosphere, the amazing food - its just wonderful. A must visit.

We stayed at this really nice hotel called Pearl palace. Extremely good value for money, really neatly laid out and with impressive interior d├ęcor. Its seems to be the favorite haunt of foreign tourists, hardly saw any Indians there. But a definite night stop for any visiting backpacker.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Does a firm make its employees

... or do the employees define the firm?

About the NYTimes article on Goldman Sach's influence:

In many ways, Goldman Sachs is seen as the financial world’s equivalent of General Electric, the corporate powerhouse, or McKinsey & Company, the management consulting firm. It is a training ground — and finishing school —from which other companies, along with quite a few governments, have frequently plucked their own top leaders.

Goldman claims among its alumni Henry M. Paulson Jr., the current Treasury secretary; Robert E. Rubin, a Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton and now Citigroup’s chairman; and Mario Draghi, the Bank of Italy’s governor. Jon S. Corzine, New Jersey’s governor, led Goldman for several years. Joshua B. Bolten, the current White House chief of staff, is a Goldman alum.

To insiders, all this is a result of Goldman’s elite culture, a sense of close-knit partnership that has endured despite the firm’s decision in 1999 to turn itself into a publicly owned corporation. To detractors, the firm is alternately a cult or a secretive fraternity like Skull and Bones at Yale, one focused on profits and power.

The bottom line on Goldman is that it is stocked with bright people who practically mint money..."It’s a partnership culture that truly ruthlessly weeds out people,” said Brad Hintz...


Goldman can afford to lose some of its best people because it fosters a deep managerial bench and gives a heavy emphasis to personal coaching...Even those who leave the firm to run less managerial businesses ... were instilled with the notion that success comes from building a team.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Optimism is like red wine

From The Wall Street Journal's review of a JFE paper:

Optimists, the Duke finance scholars discovered, worked longer hours every week, expected to retire later in life, were less likely to smoke and, when they divorced, were more likely to remarry. They also saved more, had more of their wealth in liquid assets, invested more in individual stocks and paid credit-card bills more promptly.

Yet those who saw the future too brightly...behaved in just the opposite way...Rather than save, they squandered. They postponed bill-paying. Instead of taking the long view, they barely looked past tomorrow. Statistically, they were more likely to be day traders. "Optimism is a little like red wine," said Duke finance professor and study co-author Manju Puri. "In moderation, it is good for you; but no one would suggest you drink two bottles a day."


(via FinanceProfessor)

From integrated firms to orchestrated networks

... how value chains and supply chain disintegrations are changing the structure of global industry: What Does It Take to Compete in a Flat World?

...when the prosperity in the developed markets, like America and Europe, led to a situation where a lot of the young people were unwilling to take up blue-collar jobs in labor-intensive industries ...rationalization of manufacturing led to a situation where we needed to create the kinds of supply chains that oversaw the manufacturing of these labor intensive goods and eventually to bring them back to the markets of America and Western Europe, where they were consumed.

...Today we are responding to a very important consumer trend. There has been a tremendous fragmentation of consumer demand. Instead of serving one huge market that is basically uniform in demand, you are seeing pockets of niche markets...

...for a country to be participating in a global economy it no longer has to have vertical integration of the whole industry...They can actually be in a particular niche in a vertical. And indeed, they may be very specialized in a particular niche and then they can participate in different verticals.

This is an area where traditional trade statistics don't make any sense. If a product is manufactured in four countries, or six countries, what is the country of origin? I think this requires a fundamental change in the mental model that we have as to what is the country of origin because the original concept no longer makes sense...


Li & Fung is, today, one of the most powerful orchestrators in outsourced manufacturing & supply. Just ask any of India's apparel exporters to know how much. In this article, they exhibit a perspicuous understanding of changing global dynamics.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

'Twas a million twinkling lights

… that told me I was landing home on a Deepavali night. Courtesy of plans that changed at the last minute … how is one to know that Chennai celebrates Diwali one / two nights before Delhi does? Lucky though, I was, that I could at least make it home. Unlike forlorn brethren who slog away into the night, unable to dash to the tam land.

What is it about this land that steals the heart, I wonder… I always feel this sense of utmost joy when I come back here after a long absence. The eager (yet fleecing) auto-drivers who clamor as you land… the first sounds of tam fm… the old songs on radio… the chennai coffee … ah, this is bliss!

Just enjoying this moment. Thought I must record it for posterity.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The simplest turing machine award

From Stephen Wolfram's Blog:

...today I am thrilled to be able to announce that after only five months the prize is won...

Alex Smith--a 20-year-old undergraduate from Birmingham, UK--has produced a 40-page proof.


Just two states and three colors. And able to do any computation that can be done.

...And from searching the 2,985,984 possible 2,3 machines, I found a candidate. Which as of today we know actually is universal.

From our everyday experience with computers, this seems pretty surprising. After all, we're used to computers whose CPUs have been carefully engineered, with millions of gates....(but) That in the computational universe, phenomena like universality are actually quite common--even among systems with very simple rules.

From all my investigation of the computational universe, I came up with the very general principle that I call the Principle of Computational Equivalence.... What it says is essentially this: that when one sees behavior that isn't obviously simple, it'll essentially always correspond to a computation that's in a sense maximally sophisticated

(via KurzweilAI)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Doing homework may not be useful

... as a learning mechanism, that is.

From: The Truth About Homework:

I discovered that decades of investigation have failed to turn up any evidence that homework is beneficial for students in elementary school. ...The only effect that does show up is more negative attitudes on the part of students who get more assignments.

In fact, more hours are least likely to produce better outcomes when understanding or creativity is involved. Anderson and his associates found that when children are taught to read by focusing on the meaning of the text (rather than primarily on phonetic skills), their learning does “not depend on amount of instructional time.” In math, too, as another group of researchers discovered, time on task is directly correlated to achievement only if both the activity and the outcome measure are focused on rote recall as opposed to problem solving.

Lots of practice can help some students get better at remembering an answer, but not to get better at – or even accustomed to -- thinking. And even when they do acquire an academic skill through practice, the way they acquire it should give us pause. As psychologist Ellen Langer has shown, “When we drill ourselves in a certain skill so that it becomes second nature,” we may come to perform that skill “mindlessly,” locking us into patterns and procedures that are less than ideal.

(via Anand)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

India gaining ground in tech-media-telecom

It is interesting to see Morgan Stanley's presentation at the recently concluded Web 2.0 summit: Technology/Internet Trends:
  • India has moved up from 6th (2004) to the 5th place (2006) in the TMT (technology, media, telecom) rankings. Its now only behind USA, China, Japan and Germany. This seems inline with their earlier forecasts where they had estimated India to finally occupy the third place (behind China and the US) in the rankings by 2010.

  • The fastest Internet growth seems to be in non-US markets with Asia leading the charge

Some noteable viewpoints from their earlier research presentations:
- "We believe investors underappreciate the capacity of value-added mobile computing services to improve customer satisfaction and generate wealth"
- "Over the next 2-3 years, we expect the relationship between PCs and mobile devices will evolve into more of a clientserver environment. Users likely will spend more time on their home PCs using self-programmed products like My Yahoo! to customize the type of content that will be made available to their mobile devices."
- "Revenue streams for broadband and mobile Internet now differ, but will likely grow to resemble each other"
- "... in most TMT markets, a handful of companies dominate the market. ...We believe marketshare leaders in the largest markets often have the greatest revenue and earnings potential. ... those companies that we believe are best positioned in the leading market segments are often, but certainly not always, best-positioned in global markets. Economies of scale, alliances, learning curves, and the skills that come with and help create success in highly competitive markets are all factors that we think tend to apply outside of home markets."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Global imbalances and the global savings glut

Bernanke's speech on Global imbalances and the Global savings glut - an impressive essay on the state of global economics. Bundesbank lecture:

...as a key driving force a large increase in net desired saving (that is, desired saving less desired domestic investment) in emerging-market and oil-producing economies, a change that transformed these countries from modest net demanders to substantial net suppliers of funds to international capital markets. This large increase in the net supply of financial capital from sources outside the industrial countries is what, in my earlier remarks, I called the global saving glut.

...although the U.S. current account deficit is certainly not sustainable at its current level, U.S. liabilities to foreigners are not, at this point, putting an exceptionally large burden on the American economy. The net international investment position (NIIP) of the United States, although at a substantial negative 19 percent of GDP, is still smaller than the negative NIIP of several other industrial economies. As a fraction of net household wealth, which totaled almost $56 trillion in 2006, the negative NIIP is even smaller--less than 5 percent.

Ultimately, the necessary reduction in the trade and current account deficits will entail shifting resources out of sectors producing nontraded goods and services to those producing tradables. The greater the needed adjustment, the more potentially disruptive and costly these shifts may be. Similarly, external adjustment for China and other surplus countries will involve shifting resources out of the export sector and into industries geared toward meeting domestic consumption needs; that necessary shift, too, will likely be less disruptive if it occurs earlier and thus less rapidly and on a smaller scale.

...in the longer term, the developing world should be the recipient, not the provider, of financial capital. Because developing countries tend to have high ratios of labor to capital and to be away from the technological frontier, the potential returns to investment in those countries are high. Thus, capital flows toward those countries should benefit both them and the countries providing the capital.

(via J.R.Varma)

On banks being crude CDOs

Prof. J.R.Varma highlights how CDOs resemble banks in a crude sort of way. Quite an interesting discussion:

- Economist Buttonwood on CDOs
- Similarities and Differences between Banks and CDOs

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gunning it to Gan(r)Mukteshwar

It was another lazy, ennui-filled weekend, with the Sun shining bright on a morning that was displaying the chilly hues of the oncoming winter. The prospect of sighting the Ganges so close to Delhi was intriguing and the challenge of a long drive thereto, just seeming like a spot of good fun. And so we set out ...

GarMukteshwar is an area that lies 130 kms to the east of Delhi in the Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh, on the banks of the river Ganga. Its supposed to be the closest approach point to the river from Delhi and is a well known weekend getaway. The area sports a river ghat (called the Brijghat) and a multitude of temples dedicated to the dieties in the Hindu pantheon.

Lord Shiva, it seems, is the crowning diety - the name GanMukteshwar refering to this location as the place where his "Gan" (lieutenants, as my friend translated) received "Mukti" (salvation).

Brijghat has the look and feel of a mini-Varanasi, minus its crowd, dirt and fleecing pujaris. Since the location is upstream compared to Varanasi, the river is also much cleaner and faster. Its always a divine experience to do a boat ride on the Ganga, and the ability to do it so close to Delhi makes it all the more worthwhile. The river is shallow in most places and taking a dip is an easy proposition.

Apparently Gan(r)Mukteshwar has quite a history behind it. As gkamesh highlights:

This is a part of the Hastinapura region, the Kaurava capital of Mahabharata. Local lore has it that this is the place where Goddess Ganga met Shantanu, the great grandfather of Pandavas and Kauravas...

Famous among them is the Mukteshwar temple, after which the town is named, said to have been built by King Shivi, a benchmark among Kings, noble ancestor of Lord Rama. The Mukteshwar Siva Linga is said to have been worshipped by sage Parasurama. There is an even more ancient Mukteshwar temple, where Ravana is said to have offered worship.

All the temples are in a decrepit state now, but we noticed that renovation is in progress. The temple devoted to the Ganga has a hundred steps and is quite the climb. Interestingly, when one throws a stone down these steps, they give out a sound akin to that of a stone thrown into water. The local urchins have taken it upon themselves to show this effect to every traveller by lobbing a few down every minute or so - hence do not make the mistake of parking your vehicle near the steps.

To those who follow: GarMukteshwar is a 2-3 hour drive (depending on how fast you can leave delhi's traffic behind) along the Ghaziabad-Moradabad route. The roads are good (but for a small stretch) and the traffic on the weekend seems sparse. There are dhabbas along the route and hotels at periodic intervals. Is well worth a weekend day's visit (particularly in a weather with a bright sun and a wintery feel).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

India soaring - but so much left to do...

From Securing India’s place in the global economy - Adil Zainulbhai, McKinsey Quarterly:

Sustaining inclusive economic growth will require the country to focus on improving its infrastructure, both hard and soft, and on creating a thriving labor market.

To improve the infrastructure significantly on a nationwide scale, the government will also have to undertake systemic reforms. Immediate action is needed in a number of areas: land market barriers (unclear land titles and insufficient databases, for instance); inadequate long-term financial instruments to meet the equity and debt needs of large infrastructure projects; weak policies and regulations...

...state governments must repeal the Urban Land Ceiling Act (which restricts the amount of land available for housing), resolve unclear land titles by creating fast-track courts, computerize land records, raise property taxes, and change the tenancy laws.

...the government might create pilot focused-education zones, where educational institutes could be set up with complete autonomy in admissions, fees, course offerings, faculty recruitment, and delivery and evaluation methodologies.

McKinsey research suggests that during the next ten years India will need more than 10,000 public-health professionals to supply preventive health services. These experts will also be needed to train 500,000 volunteers...

...an almost limitless labor supply and consumer demand. Yet this mass of people could become one of the greatest forces against reform if they can’t find jobs; in 2003, for instance, the labor force grew by 12 million, but employment in the organized private sector fell by 200,000. India absolutely must create a thriving labor market not only to shift workers from agriculture to higher-value-added activities but also to absorb a growing workforce and sustain social equilibrium.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Chevron's Energyville

Its often difficult to wade through the mass of energy literature, for a newcomer to the field. With oil levels at peak highs, everyone actively talking about non-conventional resources, the nuclear power dilemma, the global warming worries, carbon trading .... there's just so much verbiage out there, its simply daunting.

Chevron's Energyville is a nice and simple introduction to the tradeoffs from different energy sources. By asking you to manage a city's energy requirements and its resources traded against its environmental and social impact, the game forces you to think through choices policy makers grapple with. I also found the resultant comparison against other participants a pretty cool way of shaping thought.

Being 'born global'

From "What Makes a Global Leader?":

...They are driven by technology that requires them to expand in many countries at once. They need scale economies; they need first-mover advantages. The Apple iPod is an example. Any place that has computers understands the iPod immediately." Companies that are born global, he adds, "tend to have high-tech products that immediately find acceptance in many different cultures and societies. The differences in selling across countries is not as important as they might be if you are selling toothpaste or packaged food or clothes."

And what is the key trait that defines such a global mindset? According to Black, it's inquisitiveness. "When in a new country, high-potential global leaders seek out new experiences. They want to try the local food, not the internationalized cuisine at some five-star hotel. They pick up the local newspaper; they talk to local residents."

...Shell rotates high-potential managers through positions in various aspects of the enterprise, including overseas postings, so that "by time they hit 40 and want to enter senior management, they have in their mind's eye what it looks like to be in an oil field in Nigeria when the call comes that there's been an explosion and the local mayor wants to shut the operation down," says Useem.

Useem recalled sitting down several weeks ago with Indian executives and asking how they rated Indian leadership talent compared to U.S. and European talent. "The essence of their answer was that it is good, but they primarily have people who have worked only domestically, in India. By contrast, they saw that in European firms, nearly everybody in middle to senior management had worked outside of their home countries,"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

On Google's new VC role

Making judicious investments in early stage next-gen plays is a great way to understand emerging uncertainties for a firm in a rapidly changing market. These investments act as real options, providing the firm with leverage in case any of the opportunities bloom. In the high-tech internet & media markets, this clearly seems to be the way.

Its interesting to see Google (and its brethren) take on a VC role - particularly in relation to its investments in India.

From Google's New Role: Venture Capitalist:

Google (GOOG) has begun making VC-style investments to the tune of about $500,000 or less in promising startups, often buying those companies afterward, according to partners at Silicon Valley VC firms who spoke on condition of anonymity.

...invested more than $1 million in a Mumbai-based investment firm called Seedfund to gain access to technology such as automatic translation software

Among the reasons for the corporate-investing comeback: an upswing in research-and-development spending after the tech-stock crash; the need to spot promising startups in China, India, and Russia; and increased shareholder willingness to tolerate the quarterly vicissitudes of venture investing in order to create long-term value.

And according to ET's September article by Arun Natarajan:

Google has invested into three early-stage VC funds - VentureEast TeNet Fund, Seed Fund and Erasmic Fund. And if that wasn't enough, it has also joined the India Angel Network - a group of successful entrepreneurs who invest in start-ups - as an institutional member.

Skoda - the true Volkswagen?

From Skoda: Volkswagen's Hot Growth Engine:

Lower-priced and higher-quality than similar models built by Volkswagen, Skoda's automobiles are driving a global growth jag, with sales up 13.2% in the first half of 2006. "Skoda has become the true Volkswagen (people's car)"

...and is considering a lower-priced model that could go head-to-head with Renault's (RENA) no-frills Logan

Analysts say over time VW's management may consider letting Skoda become the larger-volume brand, while making Volkswagen's cars more upmarket to defend its margins...

Skoda has now become synonymous with high quality. In the 2007 European consumer satisfaction and quality studies by market researcher J.D. Power & Associates (which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP)), Skoda ranks among the top 10 in France and Germany; and in Britain it ranked No. 2 (tied with Honda), scoring just a fraction below Lexus.

... "Skoda already outperforms Toyota, relatively," says Wittig. "Our return on capital is 19% to 20%—Toyota's is 15% to 16%."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A fortress in the sea - Murud Janjira

Located about 170 kms from Mumbai on the Goa route, is the fortress of Janjira, adjacent to the town of Murud. Considered to be the only impregnable fort on the Maharashtra coastline, the fort lies imposingly about 3 kms into the sea.

We started off on a beautiful clowdy day, early in the morning at around 7 am and headed along the Vashi-Navi Mumbai route. We broke off the Pune route to enter Panvel and headed towards Pen and Alibaug. A few kilometres from Alibaug, a diversion took us towards Murud, a scenic hilly drive with the sea on one side and fields / hills on the other. We crossed the beach of Kashid - one of the better known tourist spots around here and headed further south. As we came close to Murud, the route made a multitude of s-curves, with Keralan palm and coconut trees everywhere.

The first view of the Janjira fort is absolutely beautiful - you see it first as the road jumps over a small hill; the fortress surrounded by waters on all sides, sheltered by hills on so as to be unseen till that time, with fishing boats of all types plying around. Luckily for us, the weather was awesome as well, mildly rainy, but not too much.

Two sailboats ply periodically between the fort and the jetty. The sea was rough and choppy, but it was a great experience to go on a sailboat wedged between some 20 odd people as the sailors (oarsmen?) tried hard to pilot it right into the entrance of the fort.

The entry into the fort is the most exciting part of the expedition. The sea gets really choppy close to the entrance and the boat swings and yaws as it gets near the steps. A group of youth stand at the entrance, helping people get off and onboard. One needs to jump off & on the boat as it swings close with the wave and thats great fun.

The fort itself is pretty dilapidated and could do with a dose or two of refurbishment. Vines and assorted plants grow all over the ruins and clothe the water-bodies in slime. However, the cannons are a pretty impressive sight; supposedly the 3rd biggest cannon in India lies there. In all, it would take at best 20 minutes to make a walkthrough of the fort.

To those following us: The trip can easily be made in a day from Mumbai. The roads are pretty decent (contrary to what I'd heard prior to the trip) and the route is absolutely scenic. Just that first view of the Janjira fort makes the whole trip worthwhile. And it takes about 3-4 hrs to get there from Mumbai. For more, check out murudjanjira.com

AnnoyanceTech

Revenge by Gadget from the Wall Street Journal:

"...the field has caught the attention of graduate students at MIT's Media Lab, where it is known as "annoyancetech." Among their recent creations: a "No-Contact Jacket" that, when activated with a controller, delivers a blast of electricity to anyone who touches the person wearing it.

These devices are also a way for people to bridge the gap between the birth of a new form of annoyance (people driving while sending text messages, for instance) and the point at which lawmakers finally organize a response...

According to Dr. Tenner, the technology historian, the first widely marketed "countergadget" may have been the Zenith remote control of 1950, since it was invented in part to help people skip commercials. The trend continued in the 1970s, he says, with the proliferation of radar detectors.

But inventors say the current gadget boom is far more widespread. The chief difference is the falling cost of programmable microcontrollers, the integrated circuit chips that were once too expensive for small-scale production. Doug Freedman, a semiconductor-industry analyst, says these chips are smaller and more complex than just five years ago and cost about $1.50 on average, down from about $5 to $6 in 2002. At high volumes, he says, these chips can be found for as little as 75 cents each."

From O'Reilly Radar: Revenge by Gadget:

"...new on-demand manufacturing networks put not just the workshop but factories in China at the hacker's disposal.

...entrepreneurs are increasingly taking lessons from open source software, building business models that don't depend on proprietary IP, but instead releasing their designs in hope of building revenue in new ways

More and more sensors of various types are becoming available, making it possible to build devices that respond intelligently to more kinds of external stimuli"

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A tale of 3 cities

Continued...

Florida, the Keys and Miami

The one thing that strikes you most when you land up in the US from India is the sheer size of the country - the spread is so vast that when paired with its population, the country seems almost empty. Of course the cities are as densely populated as they get, but once you head into the countryside down an expressway, its just miles and miles of open land. Which gets me to the other aspect - the infrastructure.

If there's one thing India should emulate from the US, its how they have put in place and maintained their transportation infrastructure. The vast lanes of expressways are a delight to drive in, predictably periodic signposts highlight entrances and exits, potholes and bumps are practically non-existent and the driving lane ethic is laudable. People often debate the last point, highlighting that the causal enforcement has almost driven the US into a police-state. But I would only invite them to Chennai to experience what lane-less and rouge driving feels like. We definitely need a balance between the extremes, but I would argue that effective enforcement of road discipline is the key to developing a good driving ethic.

Florida, due to its location near the tropics, has a sultry and hot climate (at least when I was there) - akin to Chennai's weather. It also has huge expressways, incredibly rich inhabitants and a wonderful beach-lined coastline.

The Florida Keys is an archipelago of islands, interconnected by bridges all the way for some 100 odd miles (a drive of 3 hours one way). The drive is just wonderful, with hours and hours of blue sea spanning both sides of the road. The southernmost point, on the Key West island, is incidentally also the southernmost tip of continental USA - and is said to be just a few miles from Cuba.

Key West has a very colonial feel to it, with 1950 era houses and walkways. The island is a great place for water-sports. We did a bit of snorkeling in the ocean - were taken to a place where the Atlantic ocean meets the waters of the Gulf of Mexico - and found it to be good fun, with beautiful blue and turbulent waters; but the corals were nothing comparable to the those I saw in the Andamans.

On Miami, what can one say - the beaches with white sands and blue waters, the hip crowd, the colonial look, the night skyline, the expressways, the yachts, the cruise ships, the super-cars … . Just a few things I do remember distinctly though: its tough to find one's way across Miami's streets, even with a detailed map - just too many of them criss-crossing about; even 8 lane expressways can get jammed in rush-hour, and particularly so when you are rushing to catch a flight.

I went on the trip thinking that I would find a lot of things to buy, but surprisingly could hardly get anything that’s not available in India except for the chocolates and the electronics. Everything else is made and exported from China/India/South-East Asia; and is available at much cheaper prices in India. Even most of the chocolates varieties are now a common scene, baring the exotics. The electronics only make sense because they are cheaper by 30-40%. Odd.

Heathrow Return

Had an interesting experience on my return trip at London. I was thirty minutes away from catching my connecting flight from Heathrow, when came an announcement asking us to evacuate the terminal building and move into the parking lot. This was the day of the Glasgow bombings and Heathrow had received a bomb threat. Police swarmed the place and covered all entrances and exits, preventing any entry and exit to/fro the terminal. This was 12AM. There is exactly one toilet in the parking lot, where some 1000 of us were huddled - and soon serpentine queues of a 100 people formed.

Somewhere around 6/7PM, with no information being provided till then, came the icy rain. Soon, I guess in order to prevent a mob surge from the crowd, they announced an entry into the terminal for select flights. Most of them were being cancelled. My flight was in limbo - they themselves had no clue on its status! Interesting.

Somewhere down the line came an announcement that my flight might take off within the day. Thanking my stars I rushed into the terminal, only to hear after going through a laborious security check-in that it was being cancelled.

Now this is the great part - British Airways announces that since hotels in London were running full, they wouldn't take responsibility of the booking us up into hotels and that we were to find our own bearings. Second, they were canceling our tickets and that we need to contact our travel agent to rebook ourselves on the next available flight.

So what happens to passengers on inter-continental flights merely making a transit through London ? So what happens to people who do not have a transit visa to get into London? What happens to people who do not have enough currency to make those phone calls? What happens when a thousand people converge on a limited number of phone booths calling the same BA number? What happens to the elderly and those in wheel-chair? What happens to those who speak so little English that they couldn't make the BA call center understand what they wanted to book? What happens when next outgoing flight from London is 2/3 days or a week away and you do not have a place to stay or enough money? Chaos. Pure chaos.

All my admiration for the efficiency of BA vanished into dust. At 12 PM checked-in baggage came out. That night, the crowd slept in Heathrow, on the floor, on benches and seats, huddled in nooks and corners, like in a typical crowded train station at home. Blankets and food packets were handed around. First class, business class and economy slept next to each other.

My next available flight back home was 2 days away. To some locations it was only available the next week. Cafeterias and restaurants ran out of food. I wandered around Heathrow so much that I can map out its every corner and pathway. Days later, I boarded my flight back home. I shall never forget the relief when I took off.

What an experience.

A tale of 3 cities

… and a few other towns, couple of places and some airports

Note: This is a delayed post

I've never left the shores of India before, so it was with some trepidation and loads of excitement that I commenced on my first overseas journey.

My first learning: trans-continental flights are not as fun as they are made out to be. The first few hours are fun indeed - the duty free shops, losing sight of the country's shores for the first time, playing with the AV displays, chatting with an overseas crowd - all great fun; but the long travel duration coupled with the fact that one has but about 200 feet to ambulate around, suck the life force out of you (I'm exaggerating, of course, but it sort of gets there after some time).

London

London is such a beautiful city, a totally awesome place, and I loved it. It has a melodramatic South Mumbai feel to it - the impressive European architecture, the narrow stone-paved & cemented roads, the verdant gardens, the multi-cultural multi-ethnic people, the beautiful cars, and coming from Chennai - the fact that it rains all the while.

The Heathrow Airport is filled with Indians, from the luggage handlers and airport staff to a lot of the travelers. The Heathrow Connect, which starts beneath the airport whisked me off to Paddington, close to Hyde Park, where I was put up.

London is filled with historical attractions, understandably, given its place in history. Almost every road and street corner has something for a history buff, and the best part is that the most famous ones are concentrated in an area that can be covered by foot - or at least, by foot and a bit of the tube (as they call the underground train system).

The Tower of London, people told me, is a must-visit for any tourist to London. My opinion - it’s a tad costly for a fort whose only "aha!" attractions are the crown jewels and the Kohinoor diamond. The crown jewels, are impressive indeed, but once you've seen a set they're all the same, just a huge set of diamonds and jewels of every type and form. The Kohinoor of course, is a worthy sight - a huge diamond with a bluish transparent tinge. All said and done, I think the Tower is a lot of hype, Hyderabad's Golconda Fort would any day beat the attractions of the Tower by a mile. Ah yeah! its just those 13 pound entrance fees making me crib.

The Tower Bridge, is unarguably, London's most photographed spot. It's a delightful experience to prance about the bridge looking down at the cruises and trawlers plying on the Thames.

The Buckingham Palace has a beautiful motif at its main entrance with imposing facades from all sides. A great experience it is, to walk from the Palace, along the Mall, onto Trafalgar Square and then onto Piccadilly. Piccadilly has a huge electronic advertising billboard that’s certainly a watch at night. The lane that leads from Piccadilly station to Leicester square and beyond is a beautiful market-place, with milling crowds and a great carnival atmosphere.

The Kensington Gardens and the Hyde Park form a huge verdant garden enclave with the Kensington palace, the Andrews amphitheatre, the adjoining embassy residences and the bustling Notting Hill; and is a delight to wander in about.

In sum, I totally fell in love with London, its architecture, its culture and its people. If only it were not that costly a city to live in ...

Chicago

The Chicago O'Hare Airport is considered to be one of the busiest airports in the United States. I'd never been to a huge football-field-sized airport before (heathrow is large yes, but its much better compartmentalized) and one that has a roller-coaster of a train traversing between terminals; I had a great time ambling about - forgetting the obnoxious immigration and security officials.

Chicago is a beautiful, large city with huge sky-scrapers, beautiful gardens, a great waterfront, awesome museums and an avant-garde culture. It’s a city that seamlessly merges the ultra-modernism of its financial and shopping districts with its cobbled streets that ooze the Al Capone-movie feel.

The Magnificent Mile - the central shopping area - and arguably Chicago's most famous walkway is a delight to walk along both in daylight and at night; the numerous boutiques and shops that line the mile, the awesome cars that whiz by and the buzzing crowds filled with tourists, make it a worthwhile experience. The Central Park Area presents an awesome exhibition of modern art and sculpture is certainly a joy to behold.

The museum district is a must-visit and one needs to take time making a walkthrough - for the wealth of material and the form of presentation is impressive; I went into Field's Museum, thinking it'd be another of the lot I've visited over and over again, only to come out wow-ed by the quality of the presentation and the extent of detail - definitely needs a full day for a justifiable tour.

The boat ride on the lake Michigan is another wonderful experience, and presents a great panorama of Chicago's spread-out coastline and sky-scraper filled skyline. And the Navy Pier, where a lot of these boat-rides commence, presents a perpetually carnival atmosphere.

The only off-aspect, probably not related to the city, is the METRA rail system. We were half way on a 2 hour train journey when the train came to a grinding halt and came a broadcast: "We are sorry but we have a goods carriageway on our track which would take delay us by approximately 15 minutes" - a 15 minutes that became 30, 45, 1 hour and finally 2 hours. So it’s the same ol' Indian Railways blues everywhere...

Continued a little later...

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Wireless Power

Battery Charging Goes Wireless:

"Non-contact charging systems for mobile phones will go on sale in Europe in the second quarter of 2007...

... Apple Inc of the US applied for a patent relating to a non-contact charger for its iPhone, iPod portable music player and other products in February 2007"

"These technologies are attracting so much attention from manufacturers and researchers lately because of (1) market growth, (2) developments in technology, and (3) delays in competing technologies (Fig 2). Market growth here refers to the enormous surge in the quantity, variety, etc, of battery-driven mobile phones"

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The long road to invisibility

Light Fantastic: Flirting With Invisibility

Last October, scientists at Duke demonstrated a working cloaking device, hiding whatever was placed inside, although it worked only for microwaves.

...with metamaterials, scientists can now also create indexes of refraction from 0 to 1. In the Duke cloaking device, the index actually varies smoothly from 0, at the inside surface of the cylinder, to 1, at the outside surface. That causes the path of light to curve not just at the boundaries, but also as it passes through the metamaterial.

Metamaterials first took center stage in a scientific spat a few years ago over a startling claim that the index of refraction could be not just less than 1, but also negative, less than 0. Light entering such a material would take a sharp turn, almost as if it had bounced off an invisible mirror as it crossed the boundary.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Steve & Bill

(at endgadget)

Kara: what's the greatest misunderstanding about your relationship with each other? Steve: We've kept our marriage secret for over a decade. Nice Steve, Nice. Bill: Neither of us have anything to complain about. People come and go in this industry, it's nice when someone sticks around!

Steve: When Bill and I started we were the youngest guys in the room. Now I'm the oldest guy in the room. That's why I love being here. Steve quotes the Beatles. "You and I have memories longer than the road ahead."

Does Steve envy Bill's second act? Steve: Bill's goal isn't to be the richest guy in the cemetary. ... I look at us as two of the luckiest guys on the planet... we've found what we loved to do at the right place at the right time.

Q asking about a single piece of advice for a new entrepreneur. Bill is talking about economies of scale, and wanting to do great things, no worry about growth and money so much. Love of the game! Steve: It's really hard. If you don't love it you're gonna give up. It's a lot of hard work, it's a lot of worrying. Love it, have passion. You've got to be a really good talent scout. Build and organization that can build itself.

They're wrapping up... shall we recap? Steve, calculating, articulate, very guarded, playing his hand very close to the chest. Bill, very friendly, very open, surprisingly accessible. Both so clearly in love with what they do. These two guys are one in a million, and it's totally clear they've never respected anyone else quite like they respect each other.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates: At D 2007

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Microsoft Surface - Computing at the edge?

At Microsoft Surface: Videos seem to indicate interesting possibilities.

via Mike Swanson:

"We're announcing our first surface computing product today at The Wall Street Journal’s D: All Things Digital conference in Carlsbad, California. The product is called Microsoft Surface, and it's a table that integrates a 30-inch display that allows one or more simultaneous users to interact directly with images on the screen. Users can paint with their fingers, move and resize items like photographs, and manipulate content—all without touching a mouse or a keyboard."

Microsoft Surface brings computing to the table:

"Microsoft says businesses will start deploying the machines in retail and entertainment settings in November. Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Harrah's Entertainment and T-Mobile are among those planning to use Microsoft Surface."

"It's not a touch-sensitive screen. Instead, it relies on multiple cameras beneath the table that can see when someone touches it. It recognizes objects based on shape or by using domino-style identification labels on the bottom of the objects"

"Competition: Microsoft isn't alone in exploring this area. See a similar technology demonstrated by NYU researcher Jeff Han online at goto.seattlepi.com/r777."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Telepresence - The future of videoconferencing ?

via KurzweilAI

Telepresence TV:

"Equipment suppliers, led by Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Polycom and Tandberg, have created a new word — “telepresence"...

“It’s a big leap forward,” said Claire Schooley, a teleconferencing expert at Forrester Research, a technology and market research consultancy in Cambridge, Mass. “Can you imagine a sales meeting where you go to one of the new sophisticated video rooms and hear the spiel in one hour, compared to attending a meeting in a remote location? It’s perfect if you want to see the body language.” ...

"Part of the reason for the increased interest in telepresence videoconferencing is that air travel is more time-consuming than ever, just when companies are putting a premium on rapid decision-making."...

The future of videoconferencing ?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.

At: Google > Investor Relations > Founder's Letters > Original IPO Letter-2004

Somehow had missed this letter till date - I'm impressed. Any firm that can set itself such strong principles (in this era of obsessive compulsive Q-on-Q share-holder focus) needs to be lauded. It takes more than just IPO-time bravado to commit to statements like:

"we may do things that we believe have a positive impact on the world, even if the near term financial returns are not obvious"

"If opportunities arise that might cause us to sacrifice short term results but are in the best long term interest of our shareholders, we will take those opportunities. We will have the fortitude to do this."

"We provide many unusual benefits for our employees, including meals free of charge, doctors and washing machines. We are careful to consider the long term advantages to the company of these benefits. Expect us to add benefits rather than pare them down over time. We believe it is easy to be penny wise and pound foolish with respect to benefits that can save employees considerable time and improve their health and productivity."

Have been reading a book called "Mavericks at Work" by William Taylor and Polly LaBarre. The authors say that in an era of extreme competition, the only way for a firm to differentiate itself is by being a maverick, by being "truly original". While this might sound like blue ocean thinking rehashed, in truth they go one step further to indicate some of the components that create a maverick: viewing strategy as an advocacy - being passionate about defining the future and having a sense of purpose, rejecting short-term benefits to follow the long-term advocacy, having a truly distinctive value proposition and creating an environment which attracts the best talent available.

Its common sense that the essence of competitive advantage for a firm lies in its unique value proposition - however, while being lost in the mundane activities of everyday work, how many managers in established firms remember this ? how many managers in large firms go out of the way to try out something new for the first time ? how many managers look outside their industry for ideas ? and how many companies allow such critical thinking and appreciate such managers / employees ?

In mature industries, most firms resemble one another - they have a similar value proposition, a similar cost structure, similar strategic & growth plans, similar managers... - and if the industry is on a comfortable upward tangent - a similar resistance to change. The common question is "why should we do something others don't ?". They forget that, at some basic level, the existence of a firm depends on its level of uniqueness and risk taking ability.

I now know why entrepreneurship can flourish in the most mature of industries - as long there exist opportunities that managers in established firms ignore either due to sheer inertia or due to a lack of risk appetite, it is my hypothesis that one can set up a firm with a "different" value proposition in almost any industry. In other words, organizational inertia of large firms presents an opportunity for the entrepreneur.

In interesting times we live.

Monday, April 16, 2007

TED talks

TED seems to have put the videos of its talks up for public consumption: TED Talks

Some interesting sets:
A. Whats Next in Tech
B. The Rise of Collaboration
C. How the Mind Works

A very interesting set of talks.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Setting up a firm in India

An ex-colleague of mine recently decided to stake out on his own. He writes on his experiences in incorporating a legal entity in India: Incorporation of a Private Limited Company in India - Procedures and Steps Involved

According to him, it takes approximately 2 months to register a new firm ! Wish they'd make the process simpler.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Of holiness, filth, dirt and stunning beauty - Kasi and Agra

I had heard from a couple of Americans I had met that the standard itinerary for any tourist to India always included a visit to Varanasi (or Kasi) and Agra; they also opined that Varanasi was amongst the most beautiful places they had been to. So I thought that it was time I saw within my country what outside tourists traveled here to see. It was a weekend after a tough week of work and I hoped it'd help clear my mind. I went to Varanasi via Delhi - overnight trains run from Delhi to Varanasi and similarly from Varanasi to Agra

My first impressions of Varanasi ranged from "so what's different here" to "how crowded can it get!". Varanasi is an impressively crowded city - kinda reminded me of a Mumbai rush-hour train. The main township is pretty mundane, but then, this is not what people visit Varanasi for; so I headed towards the Kasi Viswanath temple and the famous bathing ghats on the banks of the river Ganga.

I had been recommended by family that I should head straight to the Viswanath temple first, as its considered to be amongst the holiest shrines of Hinduism and I had landed up there on a Sivaratri. The Kasi Viswanath Temple is located in a narrow gully on the way to the Ghats; so narrow and dirty that I was at first doubtful if I was being mislead. However, the presence of gun-toting policemen assured me that I was headed the right way.

Varanasi Temple Entrance


The main entrance to the temple is in a narrower gully, where stood a posse of policemen, almost strip-searching every visitor. To my surprise I was told that one couldn't take any bags / electronic articles inside the temple and that they had to be left in one of the numerous shops at the entrance. The shop I approached had a locker with keys which could open every locker in the cabinet!. With great reluctance (and due to a lack of choice), I left my valuables with the shopkeeper - taking innumerable assurances of their safety. It is indeed pretty sad that while having such stringent security regulations, the authorities couldn't bother to arrange proper locker facilities at the entrance.

The temple itself is pretty small one, housing the three primary deities - Lord Shiva as Kasi Viswanath, Sri Annapurni Devi and Sri Visalakshi. Thronged by devotees, the temple has a very spiritual atmosphere.

However, the most irritating part about the temple are the priests - almost every one of them looks for an opportunity to fleece money. Every Pooja needs a donation of 50/100/200/300/500 rupees, every Pujari literally clamors for money, and if one doesn't make an offering of at least 100 bucks they make weird comments like "can you only offer this much for the goddess?" / "only 200 bucks for a once in a lifetime opportunity?" / "can't you give 500 bucks to purify all your sins?" ! I was just stunned and disgusted. I'm a pretty religious person, have seen hundreds of temples across India and Kasi is one of Hinduism's most holy places - I couldn’t believe the kind of things I was hearing. I finished the multitude of offerings, "washed away all my sins" and made a hasty exit - praying to God to grant these Pujari's better intellect.
Varanasi Ghats
My next destination was the bathing ghats. The ghats are a huge array of steps leading down into the Ganga. While the ghats have been very melodramatically portrayed in all articles I had read, I found them to be pretty dirty, littered with cow-dung & all forms of horrible filth. I had heard that Kasi was the oldest Indian city, old as time immemorial - it also looks as if the ghats haven't been swept since then :|

Amidst all this filth are hundreds of foreign tourists, photographing everything in sight and viewing all the crap strewn about with amusement - as if in a jungle viewing the weird practices of the natives. I have often heard that Varanasi is the first place in the itinerary of any tourist to India - if so, they certainly take back a distorted first impression of India. True, India has more than its share dirty, filthy and crowded places - but Varanasi's ghats must rank amongst the worst in them. It is truly sad that one of India's most visited, touristed and holy places is so badly maintained.

Leaving the ghats, I caught a rickshaw to the Benaras Hindu University. The University - apart from being contrastingly clean - has a beautiful Viswanath temple of its own. Marble floored, lined with greenery and beautifully quiet, it provided the perfect solace to meditate for the crowd & dirt weary traveler in me.


Late in the evening, I headed back to the most famous of the ghats - the Dasaswamedh Ghat for the evening Aarti. It was a scenic time - with the flowing Ganges and its boats, people crowding to take a dip into the river and chants sounding from the temple. The priests came out to do a long Aarti along the river amidst a huge crowd singing praises of the Gods. It was a beautiful time - and for a moment I forgot the filth I was standing in.

Well into the night, I headed to the railway station to catch the train for Agra. Usually railway stations are amongst the dirtiest places in town - but Varanasi's station was surprisingly clean - maybe it was just the contrast with the filth, crowd and pollution in the city.
Agra Fort
The train dropped me at the Agra fort station early on Sunday morning. Agra Fort is considered to be amongst the most important forts in the country - the place from where the Mughal Empire ruled the country. Made out of red sandstone and white marble, this Fort towers over the Yamuna. The intricate patterns on white marble, the sheer expanse of the fort and the view of the Taj along the Yamuna make the fort a memorable visit point. Rapidly closing my tour of the fort, I headed to the Taj. The Taj, as the Kasi Viswanath temple, has heavy security arrangements - but is much better provisioned in terms of lockers.

Taj Mahal


I had never seen the Taj Mahal before - had only seen photographs and read about it. However, its sheer beauty took my breath away - in white marble and phenomenal in size - it has a stunning presence. A place fit to be one of the 8-wonders-of-the-world. I was truly wonderstruck by the artistic brilliance.

I then headed out into the Agra city - for a quick tour. Agra is a dusty town which makes awesome "pethas" - sweets made of pumpkin. Late into the afternoon, with the sun scorching the late 30 degrees, and covered in dust from my visits, looking like a rag picker, I headed back to New Delhi - thus closing a long and interesting weekend tour.

For people intending to follow my trail: Overnight trains run between Delhi, Varanasi and Agra - however, since they fall in the popular tourist circuit, tickets need to be booked at least a week or two in advance. Both Varanasi and Agra are pretty dusty places - so take care if you are dust-allergic. Make a trip in the hand-pulled rickshaws - very few Indian cities have them left - and despite their bumpy ride, they are a worthy experience. Do not miss the Aarthi's at sundown at the Ghats of Varanasi. Beware of the omnipresent touts. Beware of the fleecing Pujari's. Also, the Ganges ain't all that clean at Varanasi that you can take a dip and come out smelling rosy - so be careful. And don't leave Agra without a box of pethas.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The axion and the neutralino

And dark energy: Out There on NyTimes

"Which leaves abnormal matter, or what physicists call nonbaryonic matter, meaning that it doesn’t consist of the protons and neutrons of “normal” matter. What’s more (or, perhaps more accurately, less), it doesn’t interact at all with electricity or magnetism, which is why we wouldn’t be able to see it, and it can rarely interact even with protons and neutrons, which is why trillions of these particles might be passing through you every second without your knowing it. Theorists have narrowed the search for dark-matter particles to two hypothetical candidates: the axion and the neutralino. But so far efforts to create one of these ghostly particles in accelerators, which mimic the high levels of energy in the first fraction of a second after the birth of the universe, have come up empty. So have efforts to catch one in ultrasensitive detectors, which number in the dozens around the world."

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Amazing Andamans

Sunset over the AndamansIt was by chance that I decided to make a trip to the Andamans - a long weekend, total ennui and wanderlust making a fortunate combination.

The flight from Chennai to Port Blair was serene - the clear ocean below dotted with periodic boats & ships, a cirrus sky and bright sunshine. The Andaman Islands, when they appeared out the blue (literally), looked like a small patch of green land amidst a huge area of blue ocean. The weather, as we landed felt hot and sultry, even in comparison to Chennai.

Given my last-minute plans, I had booked myself into a "resort" (at least that's what it claimed to be) - the only available room in the whole acco scene of the islands. Interestingly, the "resort" consisted a few run-down rooms in the most god-forsaken area of the islands, complete with tarantula-sized spiders to share my bed.

Culturally, the Andamans feels like a part of Tamilnadu that drifted away - everyone speaks Tamil, every shop has a Tamil name and the auto-drivers seem like they've been plucked out of Chennai - the same fleecing and argument, anywhere you go.

Aberdeen clock tower The Aberdeen Bazaar and the adjoining Aberdeen jetty are the most prominent places in Port Blair. The tsunami seems to have destroyed all water sport facilities along the jetty - but as I understand, the facilities are getting rebuilt. From the jetty run periodic ferry services to all the other islands, including day-long boating trips to the popular tourist spots.

Overlooking the jetty is the beautiful Ross Island. A remnant of the British rule of the islands - the British had their administrative base here - the island is now a well preserved museum. The most beautiful aspect of the island is the breathtakingly clear waters that surround it. It is, by far, the most picturesque beach location I have been to till date - the pebble ridden waterfront, palm trees drooping in from the coast, the crystal clear waters and the matching skies - it was just a sight to behold. Ross Island

Another must-visit place is 'Corbyn's Cove' - an islet in main island of Port Blair. The approach road is a delight, running along the sea from Aberdeen Jetty for a few kilometres with wonderful sights all along. The beach is a great place for a dip in the sea, with the underlying surface remaining a plateau for quite a distance, and with calm clear waters. They also have pretty neat changing rooms.

Cellular Jail AndamansThe Cellular Jail adjoins and overlooks the Aberdeen jetty - and is an imposing structure. The sound and light show run in the evenings here is a well conducted piece, highlighting the ugly history of "kalapani" in colorful detail.

There are quite a lot of islands that comprise the Andaman and Nicobar belt, but the most well known and well visited ones are Ross Island, North Bay, Viper's Island and Havelock, apart from the main island. North Bay is primarily a place for snorkeling - I had a fun time seeing the underwater corals of different shapes, sizes and colors; but one needs to be careful of getting fleeced, the pricing is arbitrary and one can negotiate almost any figure based on one's skill. Viper's Island has nothing on it but a hangman's noose - so do not bother visiting. Havelock is the farthest - and I didn't have the time to make a visit - but I hear it's probably the best and has wonderful beaches - will probably try to make it some other time.

For others intending to follow my trail: The flights need to be booked well in advance, since most of the time they are fully booked. Arranging accommodation is a pain, with most places booked months in advance ; and even amongst the ones that exist, almost all are run down shacks. So if you want a great experience, do not hesitate shelling out more for the premium ones. If possible, book ones on M.G.Road, near the centre of town. Most tourist facilities in Port Blair are closed on Sundays and Government Holidays, so you'll be sorely disappointed if you land there on a weekend - so include a weekday in your itinerary. Try and hire a tourist cab for traversing the town - Port Blair, despite its deceptive size on the map, is well spread out and ambulating about, like I did, may leave you exhausted at the end. And finally, December to March is the best time to visit the islands.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Rambles of an exhausted air-farer

Its 6AM - Chennai airport. The line at the security counter stretches for almost a mile, almost till the second entrance to the airport - thats ~100 people per queue, and 3 such queues; of sleep-deprived, bleary eyed people trying to catch a flight. It’s the same everywhere - Bangalore, New Delhi, Hyderabad, you name it. And the bottleneck lies at the security check process. Wonder why it can't be made faster. Maybe they should just open more counters, or put in place some faster checking process. Why should every individual be manually scanned ? I bet any automated scanning technology will payback in a few days given the amount of business time lost in waiting in these queues.

And what crowds! My auto driver in Chennai commented that he ferries more people to the airport these days, than to the railway station. A newspaper report today in the Mumbai Times says that record numbers of people flew in Q3, and the numbers are expected to increase going ahead. Unfortunately, infrastructure cannot keep pace unless growth is anticipated and planned ahead, given the lead times involved. Any decent construction project has a lifetime running in years. So unless we start investing now for 2010, clogged airports are going to be in vogue.

Any city, particularly the metros, when viewed from air after dark, is a sight to behold. From the glittering golden narrow patch of land called Mumbai to the shining white diamond coastline of Chennai, each city has its own "night-light-character". I bet that there is tourism potential in this - maybe we should have a low altitude "see-the-city-at-night" tour :-)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Picturesque Pichavaram

Pichavaram is the site of one of India's largest mangrove forests. Situated approximately 280 kms south of Chennai, Pichavaram is an ideal weekend getaway.

The nearest town is Chidambaram - located at approximately 2 hours drive south of Pondicherry. There are two routes to Chidambaram from Chennai - one down the east-coast road to Pondicherry and there-from south via Cuddalore, along the coast and the second along the Chengalpat - Tindivanam high-way. We decided to try the latter as it is usually less crowded on weekends and is a much wider road. The road till Tindivanam is an awesome drive - 4/6 lane and one can cover it easily at well over 80 kmph. Post Tindivanam, however, the road is under re-laying and is in pretty bad shape. After Tindivanam, one needs to take change route to Panruti - a small road lined with villages and fields on either side. Somewhere down the route to Panruti, we lost track of the road-signs and instead landed up Neyveli - the site of the Thermal power station - a slightly circuitous route. The road from Neyveli from Chidambaram was in pretty sad shape and the car took quite a beating.

We had heard from online reports that the road to Pichavaram from Chidambaram had been badly damaged by the Tsunami - luckily for us, the road had been re-laid in most parts and was very easily traversable. The route is very beautiful, lined by water canals and green fields on either side.

Pichavaram is a small fishing hamlet with the single TTDC hotel (sort-of) - where the road terminates. There's very little left of the TTDC hotel (if there was any in the first place), but a small restaurant, a couple of rooms, a tall view-point tower and a small jetty. The restaurant serves a nice welcome breakfast; and the view-point tower has a great view of the entire estuary. Only row-boats are available and for one, two and four hour durations.

The mangrove forests seem like floating trees in the middle of estuary - so well & densely grown as to create small islands. Forming an area of ~3500 acres, the mangrove forests provide an endless area for exploration - limited only by how much you can row about. The whole area is absolutely scenic.

A few minutes into the boating trip, the hired rower asked us if we would be interested in seeing a few hidden rivulets, for a few extra bucks. Mystified, we agreed. A large number of rivulets (4440 exactly, as per the rower) criss-cross the mangrove forests. More like internal streams, these present a world by themselves - the verdant coverage blots out the sun, banyan like hangings stream-down from the trees, dead logs float along and the whole atmosphere is deathly quiet - this is just one experience worth every bit of it.

After two hours of endless photography, some rowing sessions and a glimpse of a fox amidst the greenery, we headed back. Stopping for a short while at the Chidambaram temple - to get a glimpse of the famous Chidambara-rahasiyam (Chidambaram's Secret), we headed back to Chennai via Cuddalore and Pondicherry.

For those intending to follow our trail: Take the ECR down Pondicherry & Cuddalore to Chidambaram - the road is awesome all the way and is very scenic. The one way trip should take about 4-5 hours, given the traffic. Boating at Pichavaram is open from 7.30 AM to 5.30 PM. The temple in Chidambaram is open from early in the morning till mid-afternoon, and re-opens around 4pm. There are very few decent places to stay at Chidambaram and it being a famous temple town - do your bookings before you set out - particularly during the festival season; Hotels Saradaram and Akshaya are two nice ones. Head there sometime in late December / early Jan, right before the harvest season like we did, and you'll be treated to the awesome scenery of verdant fields all over.