Saturday, January 19, 2008

To be fooled by randomness

One of the 'stud'est books I've ever read. period.

Fooled by Randomness. Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The wet and the dry of the States

Golden Gate bridgeMy travel to/in the US this time provided a different perspective of the country. I landed in the so called 'sunshine golden state' of the US, only to be drenched by a winter storm. I also got a nice view of the dry mid-west of the country.

I landed up in California hoping to escape the cold winter that plagues most of the US at this time, but that was not to be. A storm hit San Francisco exactly one day after I landed there. Apart from hindering a 'sunshine' view of the environs, it also thwarted ski plans in the Sierra up north. So we headed southwards towards LA. Driving via a scenic route, that skirted the Mojave, we reached the Big bear ski resort somewhere near Pasadena.

Skiing turned out to be a much tougher sport than I anticipated. It seems akin to cycling, with balance being the key controller. And I seem chronically unbalanced (oops..). All I could manage was to stand for a few minutes before falling into the snow. I must admit though, that the instructor did put up a brave fight to get me to learn, without much progress. Still, it was awesome to skid around in the snow, even if most of it was on my back.

With the weather deteriorating into stormy conditions, we headed back to the city of Los Angeles for the night. The storm had by that time worked its way downward to LA as well and flooded it nicely. In any case, the next day was bright. LA seems like a nice city. Though, somehow the Hollywood walk of fame and the Kodak theatre didn't seem as 'picturesque' as they were hyped out to be (maybe it was just the storm).

Back in San Francisco after the passing storm, we hit the city on foot and managed to walk our way from the Ferry Harbor to the Fisherman's wharf and then onto the Marina, before catching a glimpse of the Golden gate bridge. The bridge is truly huge in size and impressive in location. It requires quite a brisk walk to reach it from the Marina and a walk on the bridge is truly impressive.

The whole marina area in SF seems to be from a different era, with victorian style colorful and picture-perfect townhouses. Catching the tram and working one's way along the twisting and hilly streets is certainly great fun.

I then headed to Dallas (with a stop-over in Denver which was at sub-zero brrr..). Dallas was a contrast to SF, with its sunny warm weather and dry spread out plains and grasslands. It seems to be a city filled with just expressways everywhere.

The Dallas aquarium downtown which is certainly one of the coolest I've seen anywhere. With a natural atmosphere to view the species on exhibit and a really wide range at that - it even has an shy big octupus and some smelly penguins - certainly a worthy visit.

We headed home late one night, well post mid-night only to catch an Indian taxi driver, who tuned to 'dard-e-disco' playing on the local fm channel ! (while sighing at the degrading standards of modern youth for not appreciating Lata as much)

A Haiku in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of the prettiest places I have ever been to. I had but a few hours to tour the city, but I came back impressed and would definitely want to explore it sometime at greater leisure.

There are two standard modes of entry into the city from the airport - the Airport Express which whizzes one straight to Hong Kong Island and the more leisurely Airbus which takes one all over Kowloon and HK. I chose the latter and landed up in right in the middle of a crowded large road called the Nathan road, with everything in sight written in Chinese. Just as I was thinking that I was lost and started wandering in circles, I asked around to realize that almost everyone spoke English well. (Nathan road, I later discovered, is one of the most prominent shopping destinations in HK and sort of longitudinally bisects Kowloon.)

The Metro connects almost every part of Kowloon and the HK Island and is probably the fastest way to travel around. Its very similar to brethren in other parts of the world (Singapore, Delhi, London etc.) but for that its signboards are slight hard to sight amongst the omnipresent crowded Chinese signboards.

Hong Kong Island has a breathtakingly beautiful skyline, filled with skyscrapers (dominated by the WTC and other bank buildings). Viewed from atop Victoria peak, one gets a spectacular sight of buildings spread over a harbor front and the facing Kowloon island. The ride up the Peak on the tram is particularly noteworthy with a steep 45 degree climb at places and great views.

The best way to check out the HK Island seems to be on the ubiquitous trams. Surprisingly faster than Indian ones and cheap as well, they help navigate the crowded streets.

Lan Kwai Fong is one of the most interest night places on the island (has quite a few Indian restaurants too), adjoining which is a meandering elevator that takes one from the mid to the top levels of the island - considered to be the world's longest escalator, and its certainly an interesting experience. HK also has a central district called the Times Square (named like the one in NY).

Across the island onto Kowloon, is the Avenue of stars - a promenade with great views of the harbor and the island. Little further in is the traditionally touristy district of Tsim Tsa Tsui. This area is a veritable shopper's paradise, with everything from cheap Chinese goods and electronics to designer labels of every name. What was interesting is that I found prices to be cheaper than that in India and variety greater than that in Singapore. With milling crowds of every nationality, this place is an awesome cultural experience.

Bruce Lee seems to be HK's most prominent mascot, with his replicas everywhere from the Madame Tussaud's, the promenade to the souvenir t-shirts.

The only downside in HK is that in certain areas, the crowds make you feel claustrophobic. This I say even after seeing Mumbai's crowds - HK in some areas is 3-4 times as crowded as Dadar station.

In sum, HK is an awesome place that needs well over 3/4 days to do justice to. A friend of mine in HK also recommended that a couple of treks and a visit to Macau should be included on a leisurely itinerary.

A Singaporean Safari

Singapore MerlionI landed in Singapore on New years' eve with a little more than 2 days at hand. Singapore is clearly the model of efficiency in every aspect - from its stunningly clean environs, a well connected public transport system, perfectly managed tourist attractions, and its impressive airport (easily the best airport I've seen in interior deco and traveler service).

Sentosa is, of course, Singapore's most famous tourist destination. A nice cable car, with great views of the harbor, takes one down to the island resort. With attractions ranging from a museum-like tour on the history of the island nation, a captivating glass walkway across shark-filled waters to beautiful man-made beaches, Sentosa seems to be a fully-contained getaway destination.

Singapore's zoo might not be the largest I have seen, but certainly one with the widest range and one of the neatest. The orangutans, the meerkats and the elephants are certainly a must watch. The night presents the Night safari - 'safari-type' view of the animals in their night time surroundings. Very innovative, but extremely crowded and dominated by Indians on organized tours.

Orchard road is Singapore's central shopping destination. Filled with designer showrooms and roadside shops selling everything under the sun, it’s a total shopper's delight (if only for those fat on the wallet). Down the road lies the Hilton hotel. On that day 11 cars were parked at the entrance of the hotel. One was a Bentley, 5 were Lamborghinis and 5 were Ferraris. Some wealth, this city has.

The Singapore riverfront is certainly one of the most beautiful places in the city. From Robertsons/Clarke quay, all the way till esplanade - it’s a calming and beautiful setting. On new year's eve they had lit up the entire esplanade area with colorful floating balls in the river. Though incredibly beautiful, it was also well crowded with almost the entire city landing up to watch.

Singapore has quite a bit of Indian (primarily Tamil?) influence. Apart from the Tamil name-boards everywhere and Little India, Indian temples lie spread across. I managed to catch the main aarthi at the Srimariamman temple (which lies in Chinatown, a short walk from the riverside), right on new year's eve - so cool. The Saravana bhavan in Little India serves a great dinner palate (maybe even slightly better than their outlet in Delhi).

Given the time I had, I couldn't cover as much as I would have ideally liked. However, I was impressed by whatever I saw. In sum, Singapore is the probably the neatest (and most efficient) city / country I've seen till date - truly a place where the east (with its cultural richness) meets the (efficiency of the) west.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

How elephants dance

From the Jan 2008 HBR article by Rosabeth Moss Kanter: "Transforming Giants":

What I have seen in recent years is a model different from what has prevailed in the past. In the most influential corporations today, a foundation of values and standards provides a well-understood, widely communicated guidance system that ensures effective operations while enabling people to make decisions appropriate to local situations. This, rather than any traditional control system, is what enables IBM or CEMEX to operate as one enterprise in projects that span many countries and to share a culture that makes people inside and external partners connect as an extended family.

When large groups of people are subject to management by values, aspirations, and open boundaries instead of management by traditional controls, their energies and passions are engaged...If these vanguard companies lead others to adopt their way of working, then we will see a new, and I think more promising, kind of capitalism. And if it flourishes, not only will that be good for business, it will also be good for the world.