Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bill Gates unplugged | Video on

Great inspiring stuff from Bill Gates.

"... I am an optimist." check out the stats. Cynics, please shut up!

and the much hyped mosquito release is truly hilarious :-)

Posted via web from freddie_benjamin's posterous

Monday, November 24, 2008

SearchWiki by Google!

Google has launched a function called SearchWiki, which lets people customize their searches. Now, what it basically does is that it allows users to rate and 'rank-up' the search results based on their preferences, for personal consumption. While it does not affect the way others see the search results, it is an option to help users customize thier search results. The details of this is explained in the video below.

This is an interesting option and lets me customize what I want to see on the top of my search results, and a move towards a 'social networking' way of customizing and sharing my searches (and the comments I have about the content and relevance of the search results). But it still does not let my preference influence the overall search results others see. Nor does it help give me more targeted content. I have blogged previously about how a synergy between StumbleUpon and Google search results can help give better targeted content and advertising. You can read it here.
I agree with TechCrunch's call that this new addition, while being a move towards making it more interactive and social, will essentially be a test platform to see how to make searches better. Here is Michael Arrington saying,
But Google search wasn’t broken. It’s one of the few things on the Internet that isn’t. I love it, as does 62% of everyone on the Internet. This new stuff is a mess of arrows and troll comments and stuff moving around the page. That doesn’t make my search experience more useful. It makes it move to another search engine.
My guess is they’ve made the changes to see what kind of data they get, and how it can be used to make their overall search results better. So when Google says “The changes you make only affect your own searches,” I think they’re only being half-truthful. All this data, in aggregate, will certainly be used to improve Google search results in general.
This can also be a move towards changing the search paradigm from traffic based popularity ranking to a more content and page view friendly approach to search results. For instance, Google could use the data from SearchWiki to observe and rate websites which are 'ranked up' and based on the quality of comments make subjective, qualitative decisions about the popularity of content. While I don't forsee dramtic changes in search technology becuase of SearchWiki, it is an interesting development!

Monday, November 3, 2008

A refreshing therapy of a blog post by Kislay Chandra

It is rare that I come across a 'heartfelt' and 'confessional' post by an Indian blogger. Most Indian blogs that I follow are written in a formal, jornalist-like style.

This post (the linked one, not mine :-)) is probably the best I have read since the beginning of the year. The blogger - Kislay Chandra - has dug deep within him and released his demons - fear, anger and a battle with sanity. It is almost therapeutic to read the post and realize that there is someone else out there who feels the same way as I do.

Here is an excerpt and please do read the entire thing as well.
When I am so bogged down by the bloody mess that we live in, I often think of the easiest way out. Quite obviously, things wouldn’t get fixed over the period of a 3 hour sorry ass Indian movie, with people from all over India singing “Saare jahan se accha” or the national anthem, arms linked together and all. I am not suicidal or even close to suicidal but there are times when I wish I would get knocked down by a speeding bus. Or get blown to bits in the next bomb blast, assuming another one takes place. At times, it is all I think, how wonderful it will be to disappear from the face of this earth and never ever come back (temporarily though, because I am a believer of the Hindu theory of the cycle of birth and death). Am I unhinged to think like this? I guess a short trip to the loony bin wouldn’t hurt that much.:) At least, I would be in the company of certified lunatics, who have the failed, the “test-of-sanity” of this whacky world.
Thanks a lot to Kislay. Keep up the good work.

Friday, October 24, 2008

For your viewing pleasure: State of the Mumbai Suburban Railways

State Of The Mumbai Suburban Railway

View in FULL Screen Mode for complete satisfaction!

See what the Mumbai Railway Vikas Corp. is up to. Mumbai could have a snazzy public commute system...if only....

SlideShare Link

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What is bound to happen...

This is a simple explanation of the financial crisis and the current response towards it.

Illustration 1 shows the global financial system as it existed until very recently. The lenders deposited with retail banks which gave them back interest on the capital. The retail banks invested in the stock markets where the investment banks underwrote stock equity for the various businesses and also made loans out of the capital invested with it. The central banks and government officials had a significant say in the whole system; they dictated the interest rates (kept them low => Caused a bubble) but they also followed a misguided monetary policy based on fiat currency and fractional reserve banking. Life went on; but behind the balance sheets, the investment banks were betting on toxic assets, and the retail banks were making loans to individuals and organizations with bad credit histories.

Illustration 2 shows what has been happening in the global financial markets since early September 2008. The investment banks and retail banks are going bankrupt because of toxic assets - that they have been bundling and selling - on the stock market, not giving them any returns. The stock market has crashed. Lenders are spooked and are diminishing in confidence and are unwilling to lend money to banks hence causing a credit crunch, which is impeding the way retail banks function. Now, the government official's and central bank's role in the economy is large; they are continuing the misguided monetary policy and still 'banking' on fractional reserve banking and fiat currency systems. They are now buying assets in toxic and underperforming businessess and financial institutions, while still knowing that they are worthless assets. This is having no impact on the confidence of the retail investor who still does not trust his money with the banks, further worsening the credit crunch. His assets are also wiped out in the stock market fall denying him the ability to even lend back to the banks if they regain his confidence.

Illustration 3 shows what is expected if the increased role of the Central bank continues the way it is. The nation will become a toxic asset and this would have been caused by none other than the most toxic asset of them all, which is called 'Government Intervention'

Don't believe my prediction as depicted in illustration 3? Why not atleast listen to the scholar who knows more than any one alive about monetary history - the 92 year old Anna Schwartz! Here is an article where she has made the simple arguement,

"Everything works much better when wrong decisions are punished and good decisions make you rich."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Arranged Marriages: A thing of the future

This article from yesterday’s TOI talks about the rise in arranged (not forced) marriages in the US. It kinda makes sense to me given how complicated and busy people’s lives have become in recent times – all over the globe.

As an undergrad, marriage was a distant (almost laughable) concept to me. After graduation I witnessed some of my peers marry their college sweethearts. Those unions seemed guaranteed to disintegrate in a few years – except maybe a couple of them where it was blatantly obvious the two are made for each other.

As for us single 20-ers in our first jobs, we are still stuck in the bar scene. I worked 40 hours a week in the US after which I was expected to go to a bar, drink and get laid (or come back home and pass out) every weekend. Somewhere in between I had to do the laundry, get groceries and supplies, cook/order take-out & eat, somewhat clean the apartment, call up parents and distant friends, respond to emails, keep up with sports news (or the latest happenings in TV land) and pay all sorts of bills. And what about the small mishaps like flat tires, colds, allergies, repairing your home heating/cooling system etc. And btw, I had to squeeze in yoga classes and vacation into this somehow. By the time I was done with all these I just wanted to relax with a cold beer – not work on that hot chick’s booty.

The idea of scouting for potential mates in a bar/club is more laborious than the work I do in office. Finger 11 sum up the bar scene pretty well in Paralyzer:

I hold out for one more drink
Before I think
I’m looking too desperately
But so far has not been fun
I should just stay home
If one thing really means one
This club will hopefully
Be closed in three weeks
That would be cool with me
Well I’m still imagining
A dark lit place
Or your place or my place

After I left the US, I spent a month with my parents in Kathmandu. By the time I left Kathmandu for Mumbai I think I had at least three marriage proposals – all from friends of my mom who spotted me somehow, somewhere which I will never be able to figure out. I refused to meet any one of them and was relieved to leave the homeland still single.

I went to bars/clubs in Kathmandu as well. The crowd was way different than the one in US that I had gotten used to. Nobody was even trying to get laid. It was all about relaxation, good company, exquisite food, free-flowing alcohol and decent music. While this would have passed for luxury in the US in Kathmandu I was doing this with those at the bottom of the income pyramid. It felt amazing.

The point is - it really was easier to find a ‘mate’ in Nepal than in the US. If parents of working 20-ers or 30-ers were to introduce them to potential mates even in the US, it just might work since they don’t have the time to go around looking for one. And parents are very likely to know what their kids like and dislike – though in several cases that is arguable. Once the single, young & restless in America and Europe get their minds around the idea of ‘arranged marriages’ the trend will take off. After all, isn’t that what online matchmaking sites like are doing? They are arranging people’s marriages based on profile compatibility.

Finally, how many people still believe in love, romance and soul-mates? I mean we are all so stretched out trying to make ends meet, trying to ‘live our own lives’ and ‘meet our personal goals’ that keeping an eye out for a hubby or wife material is asking for way too much. Honestly, I would rather click and choose.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Capitalism - Still an Unknown Ideal

While I was chatting with a friend on the phone this past weekend I was asked a question. "Has Capitalism failed? Now that everyone is questioning the lack of regulation which has led to the near collapse of the global economies, isn't it time to rethink the primacy of Capitalism?" Both of us - let me mention upfront, are laymen; salaried employees who are not experts at economics. But ,we have studied economics and its many theories as part of our MBA course. Both of us are still students of economics and are learning to appreciate the many nuances which each theory in economics poses to the interested mind. But when it comes to the debate between which solution - Free Market Capitalism, Keynesian Economics or Communism should be at the helm of the commanding heights of the economy, one of us - me, is not open for debate. The solution has to come from Laissez Faire capitalism. I may have doubts about how a free market solution can be achieved to a particular problem, even profess the need for certain degree of policy regulation, but it is irreconcilable to me that such a solution can be better than one which a free market can provide - in the long run.

The problem, I think, which leads people to end up believing that Free Market Capitalism is bound to fail, or has failed is the undue importance to human greed which people attribute to an unregulated economy. It is common to hear people say of the collapse of Lehman Brothers that "Isn't it obvious? When you let people indulge their greed unabatedly, there is bound to be such failures. We should restrict their blatant freedom!". But this is a knee jerk reaction. One which casts a doubt over a system based on the symptoms of the affliction ailing it, and not the cause. This is beautifully described in an article by Quinglian He, a chinese economist. When asked"Does The Free Markets Corrode Moral Character" she replies "No" and rightly points out - 

"Ofcourse, the market economy is not a perfect system. But the market's flaws stem from the actions and motivations of its human participations rather from its design"

Free markets allow us to be what we are. It gives all of us a playing field where we compete based on merit and the rewards are directly proportional to the level of risk we are willing to take based on the merit of our judgements and capability. Free markets nurture the individual's rights and allow him to pursue his goals. It is also a test to his character and as Tyler Cowenpoints out, 

"By placing more wealth and resources at our disposal, [free market] tends to boost and accentuate whatever character tendencies we already possess."

Ayn Rand wrote in her book "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal" about the form, nature and purpose of government as being a means to protect man's right - protecting him from physical violence. It is from the person who is bound to utilize the unregulated free market for personal corruption and greed, that the government needs to protect others from. Not regulate the system itself. Any other interference by the government in the functioning of the market is detrimental. But most people find this line of reasoning a hard pill to swallow. Today when governments around the globe are bending backwards to come up with plans to 'bail out' underperforming financial institutions, it seems a far cry for anyone to keep believing in the merits of 'unabated capitalism' and the extent of greed of people who are not regulated. 

But, this is again a case of assigning blame to the symptom and not the cause. It is a mistake to point blame at the capitalist ideaology for the current financial industry meltdown, because it is not under a purely capitalist system that these financial institutions functioned. Observe the conditions of pseudo-capitalism which has been at the commanding heights of every major economy in the world today. There is always an ever present creditor of final resort which each of these countries have - a central bank. As rightly pointed out by this article

"Additionally, the only reason why the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were able to guarantee nearly $5 trillion in home loands with merely $100 billion in net equity is that both their management and other market operators knew that the government would step in if things took a turn for the worse. Acting as lenders of last resort, the Federal Deposit Insuarance Corporation (FDIC), the treasury department, and the Federal Reserve Bank fueled the crisis by encouraging a decade of careless lending"

A classic case of a Moral Hazard where the proper functioning of a free market does not happen because the players are tempted to risk more than what their judgements and analysis lead them to believe, because a pseudo net is ever apparent to cushion their fall. Free markets punish those who make unwise decisions and reward only those who take calculated risks. Free market success stories are those which exhibit fundamental growth and true value creation as against a 'sentiment' based growth. 

There are many opinions about the bailout plans which are unfolding around the world - most, even pro-libertarian ones are saying that maybe a bailout was inevitable. But interventionist solutions are unfortunately never better than what a free market can come up with - in the long run. It is almost uncanny to see how the 'bailouts' have started popping up across the world after the US Treasury department came up with the $700 billion plan. It is seen as the repercussion of the failure of the 'capitalist bastion' of United States of America and leads many an undecided mind to disbelieve the essential efficiency of a free market. 

To such doubters, I can only say - please observe where you cast the shadows of your doubts. The world may not be facing this problem in the first place had the true ideals of Free Markets been adhered to. The question of greed and favouritism does not hold too much merit in a free market economy because, like Milton Friedman said,

"In a capitalist society, it costs money to discriminate, and it is very difficult given the impersonal nature of market transactions"

Viva Liberty!