Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Complications – Notes from the life of a young surgeon by Atul Gawande

Baala Joshiyam. Virudha vaidheedam” – says a Sanskrit lore.
It means if you have to consult an astrologer or a fortune-teller, find the youngest person possible. Logic is that, he is yet to learn the subtleties of psychology and owing to his inexperience he is likely to tell what is most probable that would happen no matter how unpleasant it may be, rather than saying what you want to hear. On the other hand, when you go to doctor, choose the eldest possible since he would have done many experiments with so many folks that his diagnosis is likely to be better than a younger one.

So, with that frame of mind, “young surgeon” was more a warning than a reassurance for me.
Add to that, from childhood, I am always used to the jokes on doctors in the vernacular magazines.
(For example, patient is asking the doctor, “Is this operation so difficult doctor?”. Doctor replies, “Oh, no, it is dead easy”). Well, I was in for a pleasant surprise. It is a serious and an impressive read.

This book contains three broad sections. (1) Fallibility (2) Mystery (3) Uncertainty, each containing four or five cases. The title “Complications” comes not just from unexpected turns that can result in medicine but also the underlying dilemmas in what we do. Author says “medicine, we have taken it to be both more perfect that it is and less extraordinary than it can be”.

Fallibility section has five good chapters. I am picking up “The computer and the Hernia factory” where he specifically talks about the Shouldice Hospital near Toronto. The recurring rate is an awesome 1% where as rest of country or anywhere in the world is way above that. Since this is a hospital that focuses one and only one on hernia operations, staffs are better trained; the infrastructure is designed very well to support this kind of surgery in large volumes and so on. A defining trait of experts is that, they move more and more problem solving in to an automatic mode.
In basket ball game, they call it as muscle memory - That is, you practice so much, instead of head, hand remembers how to pocket the ball.
Reading about this hospital makes me wonder, if doctors have to be trained very early for some specific super specialty. It also gels with the observation made by one of the very leading surgeon here at Bangalore- When he was interviewed as to why he assigns relatively very young personnel for such complicated surgeries, he responded with confidence that, “it is a question of experience, that is, number of exposures a person has had. Here, we do so many operations per day, such expertise comes much early in their lives than our counter parts elsewhere”.

Mystery section reminds me of the oft heard quote “just because your doctor has a name for your condition does not mean he knows what it is”. It has five neat stories and I am picking up “The pain perplex”. He talks about a person who was very physically fit, but after a fall in the construction site developed a kind of uncontrollable pain. It was so much that, he could not work for more than 2 or 3 hours a day. He would suddenly develop pain hence sustained working was impossible. After CT-scans, countless X-rays etc source and cause could not be figured out. After that, he was directed to meet Dr Ross who is a pain specialist. Dr Gawante makes a keen observation about Dr Ross’s waiting hall. Most of the testimonies he has put up hardly talks about the cure but they are testimonials of serious “Thank You Doctor” types for simply taking the patient’s pain seriously. It looks like recognition and acknowledgement of pain for an undetected cause is an issue. Dr Gawante talks about some interesting experiments we can do by ourselves in the pain area. He also talks about RSI rise and fall in Australia. It seems to me pain as a phenomenon is yet to be understood clearly even by medical fraternity, quite so because, it is complex concoction of physical, physiological, psychological and a bit a faking or ‘making up” by brain.

Uncertainty section has 4 stories. I would pick “whose body is it, anyway?” as a sample. He talks about a sober case of a patient called Lazaroff who had extensive cancer in liver, bowel and all the way to spine. The choice was to do nothing and have a peaceful death. The second option was to attempt a spine surgery which again had low probability of success and even so it would not cure him. Mae West would say, ”Whenever I'm caught between two evils, I take the one I've never tried”. Lazaroff has not tried both and the end is sure either way but a question of time. He chose surgery. 14 days past surgery, during which time he always had life system support, finally, Dr Gawande leans towards him at bedside and informs him (just in case if he can hear) that breath tube would be taken out of his mouth. 13 minutes later Larzaroff had died. Post that the case, author delves about patient’s autonomy which leaves you thinking deeply. While autonomy is fine, I also intuitively feel that, as he also says, patients prefer choices. Yet, when it comes to making decisions on critical medical choices, they prefer some near & dear and the doctor to take that decision rather than by themselves. He neatly says “Just as there is an art of being doctor, there is an art of being patient – You must choose wisely when to submit and when to assert”. I wonder when physical condition is in bad shape, weighing the alternatives would be an appropriate possibility at all. To me, it is an equation between difficulty-in-understanding versus the-danger-of-trust. When age crosses certain watermark which is of course individual specific, one is better off on the trust side!

One of Dr Gawante’s remarks caught my attention: “It is a reality in medicine that choosing to NOT do something – to not to order a test, to not to give antibiotic, to not to take the patient to the operating room – is far harder than choosing to do it”. I could not help recalling Software testing side. G.M.Weinberg, one of the software gurus, ask us to imagine having a buffet plate and load it the way you want – except that, the number of trips to the table is limited to two or three and so would be the number of plates and its size. In short, what you include in the plate would determine the sagacity as a test leader since there is so much to choose from. Is medicine is based on “exclusion” and software testing is based on “inclusion”?.
Nobel Physicist Murray Gell-Mann once proposed an interesting question.”Imagine how complex physics would be if atoms can think”. Well, the answer may be the practice of medicine from the complexity standpoint.
This is a must read for anyone who, like me, has no clue about the field of medicine yet want to story based start! Hats off to Doctors!
Thanks a lot for reading this far…..

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Future of life by E.O.Wilson

“A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting”
– Henry David Thoreau (1817- 1862)

E.O.Wilson starts with a fascinating letter to the Poet, Henry David Thoreau (the above quote is not from the book!). He explains to the Poet how the Walden woods (one of Thoreau’s master pieces) have changed or not changed. Authenticity, rigor and the manner of delivery - I enjoyed every line
Wilson is a prolific writer and has authored many books. Surprisingly, I think this book is the least controversial and also a very passionate one.

Initially, he talks about various organisms that live on the edge of extremes (like ultra low or high temperatures or pressures, radiation etc).

As a thinker, he is very keen on the concept of “bio-diversity”. He explains with solid examples, how some of the living beings have become extinct because of our indiscriminate utilization of resources.

His point is that, humans just like other species evolved in this planet, we also exist as an organic miracle. We are all intimately inter-connected and we would better take care of other species. Each species’ disappearance from the face of earth makes the earth poorer.

From a grading point, he classifies the world outlook into three views:
1. Anthropocentricism: only the things which affects humanity matters.
2. Pathocentricism : intrinsic rights to be extended to dogs, chimps etc and finally
3. Bio-centralism : all living things.
He goes on to add they are NOT mutually exclusive.

He gives a serious warning: “After evolving for 3billion years, she gave birth to us a mere million years ago - An eye blink in the evolutionary clock. Nature will not tolerate undisciplined appetite of her gargantuan infant much longer”.

Let us look at some examples as to how bio-diversity helps…….

Serendipity is the hallmark of Pharmacological research. Routine screening for example, revealed that an obscure fungus growing in the mountains of interior Norway produces a powerful suppressor of the human immune system. When the molecule was isolated from the fungal tissue and identified, it proved to be complex molecule that is not encountered by organic chemists. Nor could its effect be explained by contemporary principles of modern molecular biology. But its relevance to medicine was obvious. When an organ is transplanted from one person to another, the immune system of the host must be prevented from rejecting the alien tissue. Thus, the new agent Cyclosporine became an essential part of organ transplant industry.

Another one which got my attention: Poison dart frogs in south and Central America belonging to the genre of Dendrobates. They are tiny enough to perch on the human finger nail. They are adored for their beautiful colors. They hop about very slowly unmindful of any potential predators. Wilson confesses that, as a trained naturalist, it triggers an alarm in him. If a small and otherwise unknown animal encountered in the wild, is strikingly beautiful, then it is probably poisonous – if it easy to catch, then it is deadly. As it turns out, it carries enough poison to kill 10 people. As a side story, Red Indian tribes rub the tip of their blowgun darts over the back of the frogs very carefully then release it unharmed. See, in those days, we have been more eco-friendly!

He also talks about HIPPO effect on bio-diversity. H (Habitat destruction). I (Invasive species – Ants and other species which are alien displacing the natives). P (Pollution).P (Population). O (Over harvesting – Hunting to extinction)

Another problem he states is that, we don’t even have a remote idea till date about how many species we have in this planet. Hence, we cannot properly fathom the loss we are incurring in terms of diversity. He narrates a touching incident of a last minute rescue operation of a snail species (Partulina turgida) which ceased to exist even as captive at London’s zoo. The memorial of it at the London Zoo reads thus: “1.5 Million Years B.C to January 1996”. Only Mother Nature would have a clear idea as to how many species we have decimated without even such memorials.

A myth he busts is that, endangered species is not like a dying patient whose care is too expensive and prolonging the life is futile. He argues that the opposite is true. They die young and healthy. They just need room to survive and goes on to give California condor bird as an example. They came to the brink of extinction because their habitats were destroyed and they were indiscriminately poisoned. Thankfully, the last 25 were held in captive in a colony in Sandeigo, given protection with uncontaminated food and now the candor population is bouncing back again.

Another point he makes is that, area of the habitat is very critical. When it is small it can hold lesser number of species that can live sustainably within it. For example in Montana, which has large chunk of habitat, did not lose a single species.

We also have be to be very careful about new species introduction (plants or animals) in a new area.For example, in 1890-91, about 100 euro starlings were introduced in New York. The goal was to establish in USA the birds that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. He laments that, “now the plague USA”. The reason is that, immigrants are held in check by natural enemies and population controls and when these constraints no longer exists, the population explode in the new environment.

Conservation biology is described as discipline-with-a-deadline. Each imperiled species is a master piece of evolution. You and I would be forgotten 1000 years from now. But, black footed ferret or snow leopards which are flirting with extinction because of us will not be forgotten – not while there is a civilization. Our conservation success is truly the enduring part of us, which will live in their survival.

To conclude, to conserve biological diversity, is to invest in immortality!
If you take this book seriously, just like Henry David Thoreau says, one would automatically start living on this book’s hint. It should be there in your book shelf and you should keep visiting it for the hints as often as you can.

Thanks for reading this far……


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Napoleon’s Buttons

Napoleon’s Buttons:
17 Molecules that changed the world.
(Book Commentry)
Authors: Penny LeCouteur & Jay Burreson (Pages: 375)

Title of the book often has an influence on purchase decision of the book. To me, this one sounded curious enough to be picked up.

Authors attribute the defeat of Napoleon’s army in Russia to the buttons soldiers used during their campaign. It was made of tin. Russian winter was so severe at that time, the buttons got pulverized and as a consequence soldiers were exposed to cold so much that, most of them perished and the war was lost.

In a highly chancy event like war, taking one factor like this as a cause is stretching beyond credulity. But then, it does make a good cover story to start with. Obviously, they did not miss the chance to mention the Challenger disaster where they attribute neglecting the molecular property of rubber as the cause of such a disastrous event saying “all for a want of ‘O’ ring”. As per them, that cold morning of Jan 1986, temperature was 15 degrees lower than previous launches and rubber would have lost its pliability. Having lost the original shape, it did not fit in properly and there by triggering the fateful leak. Since, no less than Physics legend Dr Feynman pointed fingers at this ring, I would rest my case.

Authors examine the following. (1) Peppers, Nutmeg and Cloves (2) Ascorbic Acid (3) Glucose (4) Cellulose (5) Nitro compounds (6) Silk and Nylon (7) Phenol (8) Isoprene (9) Dyes (10) Wonder Drugs (11) The Pill (12) Molecules and Witch craft (13) Morphine, Nicotine and Caffeine (14) Oleic Acid (15) SALT (16) Chloro-carbon Compounds (17) Molecule Versus Malaria
Each chapter is independent and hence you can read in any order, narration includes numerous anecdotes. Knowledge of Chemistry is required perhaps at a high school level.

When reading about Peppers, Dyes, Silk, Cotton etc, you cannot help but feel sad about child labor and other abuses these industries witnessed. To contain the inputs costs and to maintain the high profit margins, we as a race seem to have “exploitation” as a solution. How exploitation is used varies depending on the era – now, we have sweat shops instead of slave labor.
Authors clearly distinguish the two words, “Synthetic” and “Artificial”. From Chemical stand point, synthetic is a compound which is human made by chemical reactions. It may occur in nature or may not. If it does, synthetic version will be chemically identical to the natural source – for example, vitamin-C. The term, Artificial is applied to the properties of the compound. It would have a different chemical structure but its properties are similar enough to mimic the other’s role – for example, artificial sweetener does not have the same molecule structure of sugar but has an important property, in this case, sweetness to make it a good substitute.

The negative tendency reader would witness is the humans’ constant efforts to be in monopolistic regime in order be profitable without any time limit. To reach this goal, we humans have gone out of the way to keep a tight control over the key inputs. For example, destroying the lands where such resources are cultivated but not in their control, boil the seeds so that there is no scope of cultivating elsewhere before exporting them or at least soak in calcium to eliminate any chance of germination, execute people who try to smuggle the seeds etc. Eventually, the regime ends though.

On the positive side, when the demand is too high for natural compounds to be supplied or satisfied, the quest for synthetic or artificial stuff really zooms. For example, demand for ivory because of the exploding popularity of billiard game was too high to be met. They must be cut from the very center of the flaw free animal tusk and only one out of every 50 tusks provided the required quality and consistency. You can imagine the rate of depletion of elephants. First, it was a combo of wood pulp and bone dust coated with hard resin, then by Bakelite and eventually, it was replaced fully by thermo plastics fully. There are many such innovations like that – Nylon and host of polymers.

Chapter on SALT, I found it interesting. Having grown up in Tuticorin (perhaps the second biggest salt producing area in INDIA) for some time during my childhood, thereby taking the presence of salt just as ubiquitous and cheap as sand, it was indeed an awakening for me. There was a period (14th Century) where it was treated on par with the gold!
Chemical equation NaCl = Au (Chemistry fans would claim it is already an unbalanced equation, but I meant more from today’s commercial perspective) was too much for me. When I recalled Aluminum which was scarce during the Napoleon period and hence very precious so much so that, only royal folks were allowed to use it. Just like every dog has its day, it seems every element or compound has its day or eraJ.

Given the fact, this book was written much later after the book The silent spring, celebration of DDT was a surprise for me. Molecules and Witchcraft chapter was really good. Also,CFC effect was concisely explained.

Chemistry is a heavily an observational science with well designed experiments. I don’t know of any theoretical chemists who made it to Nobel. It is systematic study of nature’s inanimate side. Correct observations which are repeatable each time in various form of experiments holds the key. My school teacher used to warn or encourage (depending on your view point) us that, “Don’t take the equations I write or what is there in the book for granted. It happens like that and therefore we write those equations – not because we write that it happens”. It took quite a while for me to understand the profundity of the statement. He being a passionate Chemistry teacher was perhaps hoping that, we will take a stoic look at those equations and correct a few or come up with new ones as outstanding chemistry folks.

Scientist Ernest Rutherford famously said, “Physics is the real science, rest are just stamp collection”. Given the kind of impact chemistry has made on humankind, albeit I have majored in Physics, I may not really agree with him.

Given the anecdotal value this book delivers, it would be a very good read from your local library.

Thanks for reading this far.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Normal Accidents

Normal accidents: living with high-risk technologies By Charles Perrow
(Book Commentary)

Some books are undeservedly forgotten, but none are undeservedly remembered”- Anon.

This was the Quote in the book marker when I ordered my first book @ amazon.com (circa 1998). I happen to get hold of a book called “Normal Accidents” by Charles Perrow written way back in 1984.
If that quote had an author, perhaps I would have contested - certainly it is a undeservedly forgotten book. I was impressed by the oxymoronic title it carried and I liked it.
Science or popular writings did not get very famous those days (some exceptions like Made in Japan, Pepsi to Apple, Tao of Physics etc). The author did write an afterword for his latest edition that includes Y2k – but then, I would rate that as a meek rejoinder.

Basic theme of the book is that, as we move on, accidents are common part of life – yet, he quips that, disasters and catastrophic events are really hard to arrange. So many things have to come in unison to make such things happen. While that observation gives a whiff of relief, as you go on, an eerie feeling comes to you that, the unison events can be totally unrelated and too insignificant on a standalone basis, but can haunt us for generations to come.

Any first rate book first explains the framework no matter how abstract it is and then introduces key concepts and definitions, then moves on to the main theme.
Just to get off a rapid start on the run way, author chose the Three mile Island nuclear disaster first and then gets in to definitions in Chap2. It deals with complexity, coupling and catastrophe, system and component failures, complex and linear systems, tight and loose coupling. All are well explained with examples.

Author’s coverage areas are indeed wide. He deals with Nuclear, Petrochemicals, Aircrafts<>Airways, Marine, Earth bound systems (Dams, Quakes, Mines and lakes), Exotics (Space, weapons and DNA).
His Nuclear, Marine and Airways are really good. If we remember that it was written in 1984, you may not worry too much on DNA part for many things have transpired since then.
Earthbound, he tells very interesting anecdotes. Certainly, it broadens the sense of perspective and also lends a transient solace that, things are just about as the “same” elsewhere as in Software : )
I am refraining quoting any specific ones in that book for many of the narratives are worth reading.

Finally author classifies all in 3 categories.
1. Abandon them => because is beyond our capabilities
2. Redesign them => regardless of the short term costs
3. Regulate them => regardless of the imperfections in the regulations

It is difficult to be optimistic after reading this book –since our collective understanding of such complex things are on a very flimsy footing. But, the major take away is that, it would breed a sense of humility. It comes from the obvious realization that our understanding is really dwarfed by ignorance.

Thanks for reading so far,

Friday, September 18, 2009

The NEW age of Innovation

The NEW age of Innovation by CK Prahalad & MS Krishnan
(Book Commentary)
Book Name: The New Age of Innovation
Authors: CK Prahalad and MS Krishnan
Pages: 278 Pages
Publisher: Tata McGraw Hill

Certainly, authors have simplified the main message with a comprehensible equation.

N = 1

What they mean is that, “one customer at a time” (N=1). Resources (R) are leveraged across the globe (G) Hence R=G !. Resources, as the authors assert need not be owned – access and correct usage of them is vital. The book has heavy Indian flavor since major share of case studies are from Indian companies. Customer is no longer passive - be it buying tire, shoes, soaps or high-tech items. What they call as “co-create” during the buying process. One of their clear predictions is that, B2B and B2C would eventually converge as N=1.

This book, specifically takes a pot shot at current state of affairs at IT (Indian) industry. For example on Page-49
The economic model in most of the IT firms in India has not kept pace with the changing nature of the service they provide. As a result, revenue growth is tied to the # of employees – legacy of the cost arbitrage business model. For a firm to go from $2billion in revenue (60,000 employees) to $10billion, it has to recruit approximately 240,000 more employees in a short period of time. Needless to say, the time is ripe for fundamental re-examination of this biz model. We must add that, we do not know a single senior manager in the IT industry of India who does not understand this problem at an intellectual level. However, all their business process – be it estimation work, assignment of people to project, pricing, performance evaluation and profit forecasting – are tied to traditional model and optimized for that model”.

Since flexibility and fluidity is the name of the game, from authors’ standpoint IT architecture and its support is very critical to strategy (inputs from traditional, non-traditional, formal, in-formal) all to be processed and Biz analytics plays a key role in their philosophy.

This is indeed a far cry for IT folks. As of now, every move focuses on standardization and large projects, and here they are telling the exact opposite. Let us do a thought experiment.

Even if we take this prescription less-than-half-serious, it would mean exposing the nearly the entire potentially billable population of the firm to any potential client who can pick and choose a handful of people or just one (N=1 remember?), interview them, some short listed, some selected, some conditional bank – that is, picked up after some specific training and good number of rejects. Not be outdone in pricing, it would be based complex concoction of skills, performance, time allotted to the client, market factors for that skill-set etc. I wonder what can be discussed in Quality Meetings (assuming they would still exist) and broad set metrics that would provide indications on skills, productivity etc. Aside staffing team would have to be fully re-trained on Biz analytics and constant change - perhaps, they would be like stock traders on the floors!
It is a frightening prospect at least in near term for its overwhelming complexity it entails.

Authors do bribe us with compelling examples like, ICICI Insurance, Tutor Vista (Education), Pomafin-Finland (Shoes), and TVS Group, TCS, Satyam and a host of others.
Some of you might have read the famous essay; IT does not matter[1] by Nicholas G Carr. Theme there is that, IT is a commodity and what you do with it determine your destiny. To expand this school of thought, in this latest work, the Big Switch, he goes on to quote Electricity evolution as an example where, producer of anything also generated electricity to remain competitive. But, once transmission and cost per unit became so cheap after consolidation, industries piled on and went ahead with their main production agenda taking the electricity for granted as just as a utility or input. Similarly, quips Garr, IT is a utility we just take it for granted from various providers in the near future.

Whereas this duo presents a case where IT does matter – especially from biz analytics standpoint. It may appear exact opposites. But to me, they seem to be saying the same thing at higher level of abstraction.

Another point they make is that, the distinction between Service and product would blur beyond recognition. They take iPOD as a case study.
They are identifying 4 core drivers. (1) Connectivity (2) Digitization (3) Convergence (4) Social Networks. They form the inputs for creating value.
Innovation they insist that it not episodic but a continuous exercise of value creation taking advantage of the four core drivers.

Locus of Innovation has three grades.
ð Build Products
ð Build Solutions
ð Build Experiences for the customer

Needless to add, authors advocate highest level of innovation.
Authors also explain the Social Architecture of the firm which is also one of the key pillars.

Turnaround is typically a transformation that is tragically delayed. This book is about a transformation agenda. Lots of thought would have to go in to customize them on a per company basis, but in the end, it may be well worth the effort.

This book may not be classified as seminal book on Innovation, but certainly a work with terrific case studies that are well articulated. Authors’ passion to convert the digital divide to digital dividend is clear. In any event, one should not miss this book.

Thanks for reading so far.....



[1] Harvard Business Review , May 2003

Hot, Flat and Crowded By Thomas Friedman (Book commentary)

Hot, Flat and Crowded By Thomas Friedman (Book commentary)
As usual, this would qualify as half book review and half my own commentary. I did envy author's access to the top global talent. When you meet enough number of first rate folks in their respective fields, the job of writing becomes lot easier. Unlike a theoritical physicist or some serious original thoughts books which are of course too difficult to read, let alone comprehend, this is juicy and targets a common reader like me. I recall an African proverb which says, "It takes a village to write a book", given the awesome access Tom has more than a village ......
Also, he is far more passionate in this book (compared to previous ones)

Key mesg:
1. Growing demand for scarce resources (like fossil fuels) for energy supplies.
2. Massive transfer of wealth to oil rich countries and their petrol dictators
3. Disruptive climate changes
4. Energy poverty (between have's and have-nots)

Certainly, he is unimpressed by the current generation's careless usage of energy.
He quotes Nate Lewis's remarks.
"You remember how when you were a kid, mom would ask, what do you want to do when you grow up?" "You would reply, I want to change the world!"- he adds sadly, I guess we did :-(

Tom's chapters on petrol politics were engaging. To quote him: Maximize the demand, minimize the supply and make up the difference by buying oil from the countries who hates you the most. I cannot think of more stupid than this - it is like funding the rope to hang ourselves.
I liked his chapter titled "Stone age did not end because.....".
He quotes late Zaki Yamani. The conversation went something like that. "Remember boys! the stone age did not end because we ran out of stones. It ended because, people invented alternate tools like Iron and Bronze." Yamani knew that, if oil consuming countries got their activities together and produce renewable energy at a scale or drive the energy efficiency exponentially high - then, oil age would end with millions of barrels still underground, just as the stone age ended with lots of stones on the ground.
Yamani knew that, cost of oil VS renewable energy is everything. OPEC needs to keep the prices exactly at the level where cartel would yield maximum returns.
Such a fine balance reminds me of my botany teacher telling me the amount of honey that a given flower ought to carry has to be carefully balanced. If it is too much, there is no need to go anywhere, the pollination would not occur since bee would not go next tree. On the other hand, if it is too little, then it would not even visit that flower.
His observations on gas price and freedom chart is very good.

His examples from Satyam computers on rural data centers, Montana's elk hunting, electricity consumption reduction of the humble vending machines, pantanal freshwater lake
were impressive. It looks like, western Siberia and smaller area of Alaska about has about 1/3rd of carbon in world trapped in the form of frozen peat bogs. If the perma frost were to thaw, much of the carbon would be converted in to methane which is more potent than CO2 as greenhouse gas. Certainly, he is against the idea of Carbon neutral and remarks that, it is like half of employees use computers and the other half use paper,pencils and Abacus. Actually, he has been very considerate in his example, one of the radio host 91.1FM said, that is like reserving a portion of the swimming pool for pissing.

His main point is that, mankind is no special. We better comply to the nature's law else we would be extinct. Watson of Ecotech makes a telling point to the author.
"Mother nature is completely amoral. It is chemistry,physics and biology -and all are sum of those 3 things!". She does not care if we go to church or about poetry or about arts.
You cannot negotiate with her nor can evade her rules. All you can do is fit as species and if you don't learn to fit, soon you would be gone.
"Everyday, you look in to the mirror, you are seeing an endangered species!".
(With 6 billion in size and growing in geometric progression, I wonder about extinction. But misuse+abuses we are doing it is not difficult to imagine).

He ends with a nice story which is worth a recall......................

A CEO was having to baby-sit for his young daughter. He was trying hard to read but was totally frustrated by constant interruptions.
When he came across full page of earth from space, he got a brilliant idea. He ripped it up in to small pieces and told his daughter to put it up again.
He expected it to take at least half an hour. But, only a few minutes gone by, the child appeared with a big grin on her face.
"You have already finished?" he asked. "Yep", she replied. "How did you do it?".
"Well, I saw there was a picture of a man on the other side, so, when I put the person together, the earth got put together too".

Thanks for reading so far.....

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gently Falls by Sudha Murthy (Book Commentary)

Gently Falls by Sudha Murthy (Book Commentary)
Sometime around 1985 (yes, about two decades back), one of my friends gave his wife a memento on their first wedding anniversary which reads thus:
"No matter how much a man criticizes his wife's judgment, he never questions her choice of husband". Apparent humor apart, admittedly there is a hint alpha male dominance, but if you take a software perspective, it is an eminently re-usable quote. Just change his to her and wife to husband etc, you can sell that card to the fairer side. Well, that was 80's - mostly dominated by arranged marriages with a hint of a few love marriages here-n-there.

In 90's, I recall another one of oft used cards which reads thus....
Marriage is relationship in which dependence is mutual, Independence is equal, and obligations are reciprocatory". Seems to be fair and equally poised - at least in that card.

Now, on to 21st century.....Rama Bijapurkar, in her book (book's name is "We are like that only") makes a telling remark: Women are more educated and enterprising now a days. It is true that, mother-in-laws are more tolerant and husbands are less repressing, but is it is not the social revolution that is taking place, but it is economics! The concept of family has changed from social unit to economic unit. Model is around pragmatic business relationship rather than around romance. Role of a woman would vary depending on the class of income and the idea is to maximize the unit's income not the woman's or any specific member.

Well, we can witness an interesting morphing that seems to occur every decade....... wondering what next decade has in store for the 20's something!

Happen to read the book, "Gently Falls, the Bakula" by Sudha Murthy. Story is set @ Hubli<>Bombay belt. No major complications and comes to an end in such way that makes you seriously think. Two classmates (Shrimathi and Shrikant) are neighbors separated by Bakula tree. Both make it to state ranks in the PUC exams, there by earning accolades for the school. Needless to say who was the first and who was the second rank. This man goes to IIT Bombay and the topper chose to specialize in History locally. Amidst much family's resistance from the boy's side and misgivings from the girl's mother, they anyway get married very simply. He gets a job in an IT firm. He rose very fast to a senior position in matter of just over a decade - of course, with truncated onsite assignment in USA. Upon returning he is even more entrusted with huge responsibilities (like NYSE listing) and the job consumes him nearly all of his mind share. Very subtle instances are narrated how her interests/aspirations (doing PhD in History) gets stream rolled. I am skipping Mother/sister in-laws episodes. Story ends, when he is back from USA with great news that he has become Managing Director of that firm - only to hear from her that, she is leaving for USA to pursue her higher studies and has no intent of returning :-(

In that book, author refers to the fascinating story of Bhamati. Long ago, there was a young sage who wanted to write commentary on Dharmasastra. He was so engrossed in the work; he has forgotten the outside world. His mother used to look after him and she realized she was getting older. She went to next village, selects a girl. As an obedient son would, he went to that village and got married. Even after marriage sage was fully immersed in his commentary work. One day, his mother died and this young girl took over the duties. She took care of him much like his mother. One night, when he is done with his work fully, he noticed an old woman sleeping on the floor. He tried to recall but could not fully recognize her and hence he woke her up and asked, "Lady who are you? And when did you come here?” Lady politely replied, "I am your wife and I am here for the last 40 years!” The sage was wonderstruck and then asked her very respectfully, "Lady what is your name?” She said "Bhamati". Sage went back to his work and wrote on the first page "Bhamati". Till today, the name remains famous and author goes on to say her sacrifice/contribution is indeed more compelling than anyone in the story - rightfully so.

Well, in the main story, per author, Shrimathi's threshold-of-indignation was not like Bhamati and that is why such an end was precipitated. Narration was very simple (is it because it was translated from Kannada?). Story line had enough scope of mega descriptions, but author kept them to a bare minimum.

My grandma used to say, "A man prefers his wife to be smart enough to understand him and stupid enough to admire him". Gee, there is a load of wisdom in that line and I would agree with her. To the same grandma, if I were to ask what sort of hubby she would have preferred? ....I am sure she would have said the same thing with the genders exchanged!

Thanks for reading this far......

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

FREE by Chris Anderson

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and an almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug”. Somehow, I felt it was a hyperbole just to make a point. On similar lines, author seems to say, difference between FREE and charging some paltry amount (say one dime or one paisa) could be that much.
Perhaps, on thinking hard, I would agree for I have seen at least one episode of this occurrence. For long, Railways reservations forms used to be FREE. Ever since they started charging very nominal amount most of the problems vanished.

Chris’s main point is that, FREE is a viable biz model in the overall scheme of things. He gives plenty of examples and case studies as well as a good appendix on how it works. When you look at things which are done and deemed as “successful”, it takes some hard work and imagination to explain it in case of business. In case of science, eventually you can come up with a model like benzene rings, but it may be lot harder (like Feynman explanation on Super fluids, Einstein’s Theory, Darwin’s Evolution theory). In all these cases, they themselves took the trouble of telling what it takes to disprove their model. They also tried hard to disprove the model. Likewise, I would love to see, where and when FREE model was employed with lots of potential upside, but it bombed and why? No such examples were to be found in this book. I later reconciled myself saying that for a $30 book, it is too much to expect since it would prove very valuable.

In social systems, there is a concept called “light house effect”. If you build a light house based on the contributions from the community members and if some of them did not contribute in any form to the project, there is no way to deny them the use it brings. Most of the focus in such studies would hover around what is minimum set of people or percentage of people in the group who would have to chip-in so that, the project takes off. If numbers are too less it gets abandoned very quickly. Chris’s point is that, in the “electrons world” unlike “atom world” percentage of contributors required seems to be as low as 1%. He calls that as “FREE RIDER NON-Problem” and gives Wiki as a solid example.

Theodore Levitt, in his landmark article “Marketing Myopia” remarked “If Railways defined their business as Transportation business instead of Railways, they would have certainly taken advantage of the Airways”. A similar sentiment is expressed here about Ryan Airways,” they have defined their business not as an airline seats biz but as travel biz”. Certainly, it is a good observation but only in retrospect, like taking the same question paper for second time after preparation.

His views on piracy are worth re-reading. Also, his examples of Craigslist, Encarta, Roomba vacuum cleaner, Jell-O-o, Gillette, and radio broadcasting are impressive. For sure, he is a master in providing solid examples with a good story line.
There are special sections on “How can …………..be FREE” where the dotted lines represents Air travel , Car, DVR etc . Totally there are 14 examples. Most of the case studies are worth giving a thought for it may bring in some crucial insight to pricing decisions in the area we operate on.

Last chapter (Chap-16) focuses on doubts about the model. There, he takes head-on some of the myths and misconceptions of FREE model as quoted by some famous folks and tries to confute it. This section too deserves a closer reading.
Author recounts his experience with a friend who works for Google in his office. When he explained what he does as an editor of “WIRED” magazine, he witnessed a “mounting disbelief” from his friend because his friend was doing exactly the opposite. It was a good example where one’s poison could be other’s food.
When the availability/resource model moves from scarcity to abundance, it appears humans have not yet developed a good strategy to take advantage of the situation. His observation on Google and its CEO’s worry is worth pondering. FREE as a model works too well for few folks leaving others in dust.

FREE as a pricing concept has been there for ages. But, when to apply and how to get most of it is still an art (to the point of black magic) rather than an exact science. So, I would modify the standard Prayer like this.

“Oh God, Give me the serenity to give things which I have to give FREE anyway; courage to charge for the things which I can – and the wisdom to know the difference
Well, you would get plenty of examples for gaining serenity and courage from this book. 

As to wisdom, you would have to try for yourself : )

Thanks for reading thus far.