Thursday, December 27, 2007

Society - A religion?

I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine about religion the other day. It actually started off because we were looking for interesting topics to talk about. I have always found that religion, as a topic of discussion seems to evoke a great deal of passion in people and this was no different. However, while arguing my point I tripped upon an idea that got me thinking.

As part of the discussion I was asking the question – How can we bring people together under one umbrella of norms? If religion is not the binding factor then what else could it be? What is it that holds a society together and why do we all conform to the norms of society? There are basic rules in society that we do not question. We all seem to walk the line on those ideas. Killing and stealing are the most obvious crimes that we consider as an evil in society. But what is it that makes us work under that assumption? Who sets the rules of society and based on what factors do we modify those rules? If religion is not the foundation upon which we come up with these rules then what else?

Can a society by itself be the religion? Can we all come up with a set of rules that is not influenced by religion and create a society purely based on social norms? How would that society be structured and what would be the greatest influencing force in such a pure atheistic society? Did the first cave man, who tried to organize a society, come up with religion as a tool to organize?

Like Yul Brynner concluded in the “King and I”- Is Puzzlement!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Stunning

One day I was getting ready for work and happened to look out into the patio. This is what I saw. I guess the little fella got to work earlier than I did.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Market Schizophrenia

If you buy now you are catching a falling knife. If you don’t buy in a down market you are missing your opportunity. If you sit on the sidelines your cash is depreciating. If you don’t put cash in your portfolio you are over exposed.

The markets are at it again. It is the end of the year and everyone is trying to talk everyone out of the market. There are analysts galore who believe that Armageddon is around the corner. Global meltdown is only a heart beat away and the Federal Reserve chairman has no understanding of the markets. There are bankers peddling new instruments that handle “convexity of the mortgage losses” and “calculus of the…” Whatever!

In the past six years that I have followed the markets, CNBC and other business media outlets seem to take investing as a contact sport rather than a calm and calculated activity. The last time I felt this way was when I was walking down the aisles of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Apparently, I am doomed if I do and damned if I don’t. And then there is the calm voice of reason. When asked what he thinks about the rate decision by the Fed Warren Buffet replied, “It doesn’t make any difference for a long term investor like me”.

It seems to me that he is the only one around here that does not suffer from delusional Schizophrenia. The sane voice of reason is always the easiest to comprehend. Like Russell Crowe (John Nash) says in “A Beautiful mind”, “She can’t be real because she is just not getting old”.

Just like Nash I too will pretend that I cannot see and hear the wild screams of a market gone wild.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Words unspoken

Have you ever listened to a person talk and wondered – “What the hell is he talking about”.

As I was growing up, English was not the most popular language among kids. However, I was never a local of the city I resided in and so most kids had to talk to me in English. Even with their limited knowledge (and admittedly my own) of the language we never had a problem exchanging ideas and thoughts. We used expressions, sound effects and many other modes of communication in addition to the language to express ourselves. Yet everything was crystal clear to each other.

Fast forward to today. Over the last few days I have been noticing someone I interact with very closely doing the very same thing we used to do as kids. His mind seems to be moving faster that his tongue and most of his thoughts are left unspoken. He uses obscure sounds and half sentences to put together a thought and at the end of it all it makes only partial sense. So I am forced to ask for an explanation again. I am certain that he believes that all his thoughts are being framed into words and sentences as he speaks but really only a few of them get translated and the listener is left wondering what it all means.

I hope I do not suffer from the same problem. If I do I hope someone would tell me. I remember many years ago my father told me that I should slow down while talking because I was swallowing words.

It was okay when I was telling the boy next door about the interesting thoughts in my head.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Falling apple

I watched my dad iron his clothes one by one. From the time I could remember, he has enjoyed ironing clothes. As he ironed there were two stacks forming on the bed, one had his clothes and the other had everyone else’s. That was really unacceptable to me. After all I was more like my dad, I thought. My clothes belong in the first stack. I protested, and in a very deliberate manner I moved my clothes from the generic pile to the other stack. I said “Like papa”.

I was probably eight when that happened. I have always wanted to be like my dad. He always seemed to have a very reasonable explanation for the things he did. When we were commended or punished it always came with a clear explanation. So I always tried real hard to be a lot like him. Starting from the mock episodes of shaving where I applied his shaving cream to my face and used a stick to scrape it off to the time when I started driving and copied every single driving style of his, it was always about doing it the way he did it.

Over the years I have lost that obsession. I guess moving away from home and living far away for several years probably did that to me. I assumed that the similarities might have waned off. On the contrary, when I pay attention to some of my mannerisms, as I grow older, I realize that I have become even more like my father. And this time I was not even trying. These similarities are hardly as superficial as the way I shave or drive but rather more to do with my mannerisms and approach to life. Even when I deal with day to day issues I come to the pleasant realization that most of it is a mirror image of his life.

Its funny how I have become more like him when I was trying the least. I guess the apple doesn’t really fall too far from the tree after all.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Settlement

Merck is settling with a bulk of the Vioxx plaintiffs for five billion dollars. Now, on the face of it might seem like a lot of money. After all Citibank got hammered for reporting a write down of 8 billion dollars the other day. But when you consider that the amount being talked about four years ago was fifty billion, the new number sounds a lot better.

The clincher however is the way they went around getting to this settlement. When the Vioxx warning came out and Merck pulled the drug off the shelf and everybody who had anything to do with the drug sued the company. There were thousands of plaintiffs and everyone clamored to consolidate it into a class action lawsuit. People dreamt of the days when Altria was slapped with a 250 billion dollar fine. They could all see the millions.

So Merck did the honorable capitalistic thing to do. They started working on a divide and rule strategy. First they made sure that the lawsuit did not get a class action status. They then began defending each case individually. The high paid lawyers at Merck started picking off one plaintiff after another. Four years later they have won two thirds of the cases that saw the day in court.

Now you have worried plaintiff lawyers who think that they might be the next to lose the case. Wolla! Settlement on the table. The fifty billion comes down by one zero and we are back down to five billion. A lot more palatable for the investors and true to the idea the stock is up once again.

So what about the poor customer? What about Merck's accountability? Who cares right? Capitalism YEAH!!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Unstructured Investment Vehicle

It was a regular weekday morning. I woke up and headed straight for the microwave. I needed the adrenaline rush from the coffee before anything would make sense. I picked up the Wall Street Journal and browsed through it. The anchor on “Morning Call” was talking about a funny instrument that the markets have been seeing off late, “SIV”. I looked up from the paper. What does that mean, I wondered?

It begins with the mortgage lenders. When you and I go out to buy a house we obviously do not have the cash to pay for it. So we head to the nearest lender. They do a background check on you figure out that you are a worthy borrower. So the lender gives you a loan which you repay through regular payments including an interest on that loan. So it is easy for you to see that the lender makes money through the interest that you pay.

But how does the lender get the money to lend? Ok, so the lender obviously doesn’t have all that money. So he goes around shopping for people who would buy the assets that he holds on his books. The assets meaning the houses for which it has already leant money. Ah ha! So another company comes into the picture. Let’s call him company X. So X agrees to buy a bunch of these assets from the lending company thereby providing the lender with more money as capital to continue lending to you and me.

Hey wait a minute; X doesn’t print cash, so where does X get the money to buy the assets. Okay so I forgot to mention that X sells corporate notes into the market to raise capital to buy these assets. These notes are short term debt notes which promise to pay a flattering rate of return to the holder.

Ok, but that doesn’t explain why anyone would trust these “no name” companies with money. Well that is because these “no name” companies are being managed my behemoth banks that you hear about everyday. So they manage the selling of these notes and the buyers feel safe that these notes are backed by the “big name”.

So why cant the banks do this without X? Simple, because this is a high debt business and nobody likes debt on their balance sheet. So the banks let X keep the debt and charge a management fees to manage the fund. That way they get to keep the cake and eat it too. The investors of the banks do not see this debt risk on their balance sheets and obviously see the earnings from the management fees.

So what’s the problem again? Well the problem is that the assets that X holds today is not quite as precious as they were few months ago and no one wants to buy new notes issued based on these assets. So X is left holding the asset and the old debt with no capital to continue their work. Oh dear.

So let them go down in flames! Well can’t allow that either. When X goes down in flames, it will sell its assets at 30-40% of its “true” value and then banks have a serious problem on hand because the assets they hold gets hammered too. So to stop the stampede all they can do is to move those assets on to their books. Dude, come on. I thought the whole purpose of “managing” them was to stay away from getting it onto your books. Well too bad I guess. And by the way, the assets are going to be written down in value since they are not worth as much.


Wow this is really messed up. Good thing I am not involved in it. Ah ha! Think again. Where do you think your money market accounts make their money? The money that they need so that they can pay you that incredible interest rate that you were so attracted to. That’s right. Guess who bought those notes that X issued in the first place. And by the way, if you happened to buy bank stocks, say goodbye to positive cash flow and hello to high debt ratios. Suckers!!

And so the wheel goes round. Nothing “structured” about this investment vehicle now is there?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Jolted

I crunched into the last of the chips. The evening was fading and I was reclining into my chair in front of the television. It was time to open up my laptop and begin writing up the essays that I had been struggling with for a while now. And then I heard the roar. It sounded like somebody landed hard on the floor above me. I sat up startled. It was not the usual noise of someone running around or dropping something. No, it had an unearthly hollowness to it.

I looked up at the ceiling annoyed at the inconsiderate neighbor. It was 8:03 pm. Then it happened again. Bump! Bump! Now I knew it wasn’t the poor lady upstairs. I realized that the crisscross of fault lines over which I have lived with careless abandon for eight years has finally come to haunt me. My head was racing. Run for cover! I thought to myself. Do I have enough time to get out of the building? I guess not. The dinning table in the corner of the room looked like Fort Knox under these circumstances. I ducked under it. Bump! Bump! Rumble! Rumble! Wow this is taking for ever, I thought to myself.

Suddenly I remembered the wise words of an obscure news anchor suggesting that the door frame is one of the safest places during an earthquake. I got up from under the table and opened my front door. A gust of cold air hit me like a thousand needles. The night seemed chiller today. Never mind that, I stood firmly under the frame and looked around. I saw bewildered faces staring back at me from other aprtments. They all heard it. Ok so it was not just me. But for some reason that was no consolation.

I suddenly realized that the night had grown silent again. The knock from down under had stopped. Now it was just me in my pajamas standing at the front door in the darkness of the night. But I was not taking any chances. I grabbed my keys and rushed out. I was greeted by a large gathering of people standing around with a nervous smile on their faces. They all seemed to realize that the law of averages had caught up with us. We were due for a rattle sooner or later. This just happened to be as good a night as any.

After exchanging casual pleasantries we dispersed the impromptu gathering. I opened the door expecting things to be strewn around but everything seemed to be in its right place. The only sign of the event was the water that jumped out of the glass and spilt over the dinning table. I managed a grin. Apparently I was not the only one jolted out of my comfortable position.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Softie

It’s not a growth stock. There is nothing worth waiting for here. You might as well move on to greener pastures. The organization has lost its relevance in the market place. The days of it showing stellar growth are over. It’s a value stock now. All you can hope for is an increase in dividend and put it into your retirement fund.

Then it happened. The company with $32 billion in cash and $300 billion in market cap came back roaring. With 95% of the market share and a bottom line of $13Billion it was not expected to grow at a whopping 23% no matter what the conditions and yet Microsoft did the unthinkable. It turned around and became a growth stock once again.

It is not even twenty-four hours since they announced the results and there is a parade of analysts upgrading the stock and claiming that the growth days are back and yet nothing has changed in the company itself. It still holds the same PC market share. It still makes a loss in the online business, a wider loss for that matter. It still struggles to make a profit on the gaming business (though the Halo effect did help). And apparently Vista is not all that it is made out to be.

No this is not about weather MSFT has become a better company or not. I think that was recognized a few months back. The volume of the stock being traded over the last few months has been through the roof. The momentum is firmly on the buy side for the better part of the previous quarter. Everything about it was screaming a buy. It was and still is a growth stock. But then the media would have you believe otherwise even though this is the richest and the most dominant company in the world.

The psychology of the market is fantastic. It epitomizes the most fundamental characteristics of our species, GREED and FEAR. This is the place were you get extra points for stepping on people to get ahead. If you think about it, gambling in a casino is better than putting money in the stock market. At least there is nobody actively working to worsen your odds on the slot machine.

But then isn't that what makes the market the best place to invest. Fear and greed are both such overpowering emotions that very few have control over their actions in the midst of its outbreak. So wouldn’t it be the easiest place to make money if you could just get your head in order? And that is a big "IF".

Absolutely! And here’s to you softie.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ride of a life time

The offer was irresistible. It was an opportunity to be part of building something from the ground up. It was something I had always wondered about. The chance to shape the future of my career with people I knew and respected. People who knew my strengths and weaknesses. People who knew my career dreams and aspirations. It didn’t take me a moment to say "YES".

It has been a tumultuous two year ride. Things did not turn out the way I thought they would. There have been the highs and then there have been the lows. There have been grand successes and colossal failures. There have been achievements and disappointments. There have been agreements and disagreements.

Today I depart on a sad note. The disappointment of my personal failure is strong and hard. I wish things had turned out differently. I wish I was more experienced to see the issues coming. I wish I was more apt at understanding the problems and addressing them. But what I do not wish is that I was not part of this.

I love the fact that I had box seats to this show. I love the fact that I experienced the pains of building something. I love the fact that I was part of something very few people get to be part of. Now it is time to look ahead. It is time to evaluate my future based on the experience I have gathered and plan ahead for a brighter day.

Cheers friends!! It was a ride worth being on.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Rythm of history

I was glued to the web watching Charlie Rose interview Warren Buffet. There is something about the man that is truly captivating. Could it be because I am chronically aware of the things he has achieved or is it simply that the man is that good?

The interview was captivating and the man talks with such utter simplicity that it is hard but to admire how he gets to be so grounded. But none of that is why I write this. He said one thing that really caught my attention and I figured I should note it down somewhere before I forget it.

Actually he was quoting Mark Twain when he said:

"History doesn't repeat itself but it sure rhymes"

Think about it. You must have surely experienced it sometime in your life.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Unreal World

I often hear the words, “Live in the real world”. It usually refers to me not looking at things that are in my immediate vicinity or things that have to do with the people I know and interact with. So I do. I look at ways to face the real world.

Yet every time I turn on the television the real world appears far removed from what I live in. There is the war of the worlds, there are the terrorist groups, there is the civil unrest, there is the ethnic cleansing, there are the religious wars, there are the political unrests, there are the local city murders, there is the neighborhood sex predator and there is the spouse abuser next door. Yet I have neither witnessed nor experienced any of this.

Don’t get me wrong. I want no part of any of that now or ever in my life, but it does beg the question. Do a lot of us really live in the “real world” however hard we try?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Fading Images

“Naughty”. That was the reprimand that I heard as I accidentally switched on the table lamp. I was kneeling for the daily prayers and instead of concentrating on the prayers I was obviously more engrossed in the things on the table. After all it was summer vacation and I was in my grandfather’s house to enjoy every minute of it. Prayer seemed too much of a distraction and waste of time. My grandfather was very particular about prayers and no mater what the occasion he would have his daily prayers exactly at 8:00pm. A grandson playing around with the table lamp was not something he accepted during that time. Like he always said, “Play time play and study time study”. True to his word he did have his play time. He cherished the time he spent surrounded by his grandchildren. He would spend lazy afternoons sitting at the dinning table drawing caricatures of politicians much to the amusement of his young observers. He would regale us with the history of our ancestors and occasionally take a dig at my grandmother who was busy making the afternoon coffee.

My grandmother was much more of a silent kind. She would show no outwardly signs of love but you always knew that she loved each and everyone very dearly. She was a veteran at the business of raising kids since she had ten or her own. She believed in frugality and shunned excesses, be it for adults or kids. My sister and my cousin would probably attest to this following the now infamous sulking episode. One afternoon after lunch both of them decided that they were not happy with half a bar of chocolate and that they needed a full bar to be satisfied. My grandmother however thought differently and that ended up in a confrontation. Needless to say that the veteran came out on top in that standoff.

My other grandmother (Dad’s mother) spent a lot more time with us at home. She was with us growing up at different stages of our life. My dearest memory of her has to be her anxiety when I returned from school a good four hours late. She was at the verge of tears and couldn’t contain herself after seeing me. I however was bewildered (and probably laughing) at her anxiety unawares that a boy missing for four hours at the age of six is a little worrisome. “Get away of India” as she would famously call the most revered monument in Bombay still brings a smile on all our faces.

All of them were such an integral part of my growing up. Yet today, years after their passing away, they are but a distant memory. So much has happened and so much has changed since their passing away that I can hardly recollect the details of my time spent with them over the first twenty years of my life.

How quickly memories fade.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Paralyzed

There was a time at the beginning of my post graduate program when I was trying to decide about living alone. I remember one night lying in aunt’s attic bedroom in the dark and computing expenses all the way to the end of the year just so that I was sure I could afford such a change. I knew it was the right thing to do, to go out there and learn how to manage my own life. But the correctness of the decision wasn’t sufficient enough for me to make it and move on. I had to work it all in my head and make sure I was not missing anything.

I am consumed by jealousy when I watch people make life altering decisions in a fleeting moment and move on with their choice. Most times this works out very well for people. Even in my case I have found that in spite of all the analysis that I do, my first impressions have usually been right. So then why am I so paralyzed at every step of the way?

I wish I could make decisions based on first impressions. Make those decisions and live to learn with its consequences. Isn’t that what “living in the moment” really means? I have to start making choices rather than keep my “options” open. I need to be more decisive and above all I need to believe in my ability to make the right choices and even if they are not the right choices, be able to make amends and move on.

I hope to get there one day.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Truth is overrated

Is it always smart to tell it the way it is? Would it be smarter to sugar coat something if you know that that is what people want to hear rather than the plain truth. If it does no one any harm it real seems like the smart thing to do.

When you are put in a situation where you are not sure if the true answer would be something that the listener can deal with then what is the point in actually saying it if it serves no additional purpose. Even if you believe that you want to have an open and honest conversation with that person is there really a merit in actually saying it the way it is at the risk of offending that person? Is the truth more important that the persons feelings?

As an idealistic teenager I used to believe that brutal honesty is what is always better. My dad probably has something to do with that method of thought. But over the years I am not so sure anymore. I feel brutal honesty is overrated. It is probably better to anticipate what the other person likes to hear and modify truth accordingly rather than coming out and saying it as it is. After all if it doesn’t hurt it only helps.

Friday, May 04, 2007

School of life

The stock market appears to always be in a hurry. There is always panic and noise on the floor of the market on any given day. Words like “spectacular”, “fabulous”, “unbelievable” etc. are thrown around in the media. New York is the place where it all happens in the Americas and if you are not part of it you are not really an investor.

Yet the oracle from Omaha lives and operates out of the most inconspicuous of cities in the country. He has been at it for over 50 years patiently biding his time. Never an anxious word or a superlative term escapes his lips. Everything is matter of fact and understated. Over the years he has trounced the market and its theories with diligent and patient investing. Results speak for themselves. Berkshire Hathaway is a study in smart and logical investing.

I started out in the world of investing about five years back. The bubble had burst and the market had hit rock bottom. I started off by buying the companies that I had heard of the most. The market returned 120% of my investment within 6 months. Boy did I feel smart. I stormed the arena and began firing in all directions. It didn’t take a year for the gun slingers in the market to shoot me dead.

The market is like life played out in a smaller arena. There is excitement, disappointment, comedy, tragedy, thrills, spills, deceit, betrayal and everything in between. Over the years what the market teaches you is to be patient and diligent about investing. It burns you for any missteps and rewards you for smart planning. It teaches you to regroup from debacles and be mindful of success.

Today is a Friday and the school is closed for the weekend. Though I am hurting from the punishments of years past I think I will be back at school come Monday. There is no place like the market to learn the important lessons of life and make money of the side.

Like the Oracle once said: "It doesn't count to predict the rain. What counts is to build the ark"

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Raw emotions

She mostly ambles around the house with not a care in the world. Everything is fair game in her eyes and nothing is too expensive or too precious to be categorized "not a play thing". The first step is to pull down any object to her level and then examine it and see if it is interesting enough to keep her engaged.

One day she strutted around with an old can on talcum powder. Since she had no one else to play with, her grandfather happened to be her most obvious target. The grandfather obliged and played along asking for some powder to puff his face with. She willing gave him some and enjoyed doing so. A few hours later in her eternal quest to find something interesting, she found the grandfathers powder tin. Promptly she took it and walked around the house threatening to puff up the whole house. The grandfather was quick to reclaim his can of powder and explained to the child that it was not a toy. The child surrendered the tin but walked away pointing out that she had willingly shared her tin of powder and sees no reason why she was treated differently. Needless to say that the grandfather was quick to run after her with his tin of powder begging her to play with it.

One day in her usual manner she was at odds with her grandmother. The grandmother unable to win the argument warned her that if she did not listen to what was being told, the grandmother will go away and not come back. The girl not susceptible to normal admonishments began to bawl uncontrollably. It took a lot to explain to her that it was merely a joke before she stopped.

How bare and naked is the child’s mind. No social norms, no animosity, no bitter thoughts. It is all out there bare and naked for all to see. And yet my niece will lose this quality of hers in the matter of next couple of years and enter the world of controlled emotions. But till then she makes for a wonderful bundle of joy with her raw emotions out there for all to see.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Wasted life?

A number of politicians in recent days have run into trouble stating that the troops who died in Iraq were a waste of good life. Not surprisingly every time this has happened there has been outrage and almost immediate retraction of the statement. There have been accusations ranging from lack of patriotism to treason. Every person in the public eye who has said this has been left holding their head down in shame.

So how wrong is it? Why are people offended with the people who say this? Is it because they think that the person is stating a lie? Or is it the inability to accept that a decision was wrong? The majority of the country today believes that the war in Iraq was a mistake. Polls have shown with unrelenting accuracy, the acceptance of this fact. But yet the country is outraged when someone states that the people who died in this war were wasted. Is it because people feel that it is an insult to the troops who fight the battle? That this would demoralize them? Or it would shatter the families?

But such statements are less a commentary on the life of the troops and more on the decision made by the administration. If anything it magnifies the sacrifice made by the troops in an unjust war. Families of the departed should feel that their loved one fought a war as a call to duty in spite of the lack of justification. I think a statement of a wasted life is an indication how valuable that life was to be wasted on such a cause.

Then why the outrage? The outrage is probably a reflection of the inability to accept a mistake completely. To accept that the life was wasted is to accept whole heartedly that the war was a complete mistake. So even though the polls allude to this fact, I doubt if everyone is willing to come out and say so.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Look out - Its an idea!

Here is the punch line of an ad: "All Wall-Street needs are ideas". The punch line wouldn't really make an impact unless you see the visuals. Each scene has a different business setting. Everything in each scene begins to disappear except the people who are interacting in the scene. Furniture, coffee mugs, professional degrees - everything.

Though the ad takes aim at investments, I think it applies very well to workplaces. Really all we need is an idea, everything else will follow. The reason why a lot of us feel trapped at work or find our work dissatisfying is because we are all riding somebody else’s idea.

It’s true! All we need is an idea. The problem is the idea is hard to come by and even harder to spot. So then all we can do is ride along with somebody else.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Connectors

The first Barbeque party was a very innocent idea. I was in a new city and at a new job. Just out of college I knew nobody in the city and all I really wanted to do was find somebody whom I could call a friend. I started out by calling a few people from work. It turned out to be good fun. The problem is that slowly the group that I invited began polarizing and eventually it fragmented into smaller groups. Now I invite only one of those sub groups.

The book "Tipping point" by Malcolm Gladwell talks about connectors. Connectors as the book suggests are people who play the role of connecting people. They bring people together no matter what the setting. It is through them that groups of people interact with each other and remain connected. Without them the group would be a fragmented force. But with an active "connector" they form a very strong cohesive bond. With this kind of a person begins a tipping point of any great idea.

Before my experiences with entertaining, I always thought that the act of inviting and entertaining people was the hard part. But truly the hard part is not that, but the ability to form the cohesive force in a group. To be able to facilitate as the "connector" is the true art. The reason for this is that the connector has to disregard the small things that are unlikable about a person and simply build the "connection". The connector has to also bring together the disparity between different sub groups that people tend to gravitate towards in a larger group and bring them all together.

We all like to invite and entertain, but really what we are all trying to become are connectors. Alas only a few of us will actually get there.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Battle for social intelligence

How many times have you known that you are doing something wrong but yet pig headed enough not to admit it to yourself? It happens to me all the time. I wonder why it is so hard for us to accept a mistake and make immediate amends. What is it that makes us dig deeper into the hole and then later have to claw ourselves out of it?

I for one have found myself in this situation more regularly that I would like to admit. It almost always begins with a righteous stand. I am certain that I am on the righteous side of an argument or stand and I take a very aggressive pose. This is usually followed by sulking and pretending to be the victim.

As a child, arguments with my father or mother always began in this fashion. I would invariably end up throwing a tantrum and almost always not get my way. But the sad part of it is that whenever I am done with the outburst almost 99 percent of the time I have felt miserable about doing something like that. What is even scarier is that I have felt bad about it while I was doing it. But I have found myself unable to stop the emotional reaction.

So why is it that I find it hard to shake of the first burst of emotion or control it. A very interesting book that I am currently reading deals with exactly this kind of thing. It's a book called "Social Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman. The book deals with a different kind of intelligence and how important it is for us to be socially aware of ourselves and rates that strength far higher than the traditional IQ. However, the most interesting characteristic defined in that book is the separation of the human brain into the "high road" and the "low road". The low road, as the book states, is our emotions that are not controlled by us but emerge from within. An unguarded person expresses this outwardly and usually ends up as an emotional wreck during that time. But the high road is something that is totally different. It is something that we fabricate as part of our social intelligence. It is laced with the social knowledge we have gathered over the years and requires us to filter and create a response to our emotions coming from the low road. This usually requires a tremendous amount of self control and self awareness. But if successful what it does is give a more balanced and thoughtful response in any situation.

Years before I picked up this book my father used to express serious reservations at the way I would look emotionally distressed during an argument or conversation. He used to recommend that I try and control those outbursts and try to argue in a more balanced fashion. I used to believe that it was his way of derailing my "passionate" argument. It took a book written by a total stranger for me to realize otherwise.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Transferring inefficiencies

Every organization is always in search of making itself ever more efficient. If you are a keen follower of quarterly reports that every organization puts out every four months, there is not one that gets written without the words “improved efficiency” that is embedded in there somewhere. Even governments talk about efficiency in governance and efficiency in services. But is there truly such a thing as eliminating inefficiencies? Do we really rid the world of inefficiencies when a process is improved or do we simply transfer this inefficiency to another part of the system?

It all started on Monday morning when I had to report for Jury duty at the courthouse. You can never go for one of these things without at least one person giving you a horror story about the grinding waiting that has to be done for anything to happen. First day went by with no activity. At the end of the wait the judge did come over and tell us that she was unable to get to us because of some delays and will do so the next day. The following day we were summoned and immediately dismissed telling us to appear again on Wednesday. Wednesday there was a useless waiting time of two hours before we were told to go home and come back the next day. And finally on the fourth day we were excused immediately. There were about 100 people doing these four rounds and waiting for a collective 500 man hours. And we weren’t even questioned for eligibility. To the judges credit she did try and dispose us off as soon as she could.

I bet they have done extensive studies in the judicial system and figured that this was the best way to expedite the jury selection process and reduce wasted court time. But what about the 500 man hours wasted waiting the jury room? By coming up with this method of jury selection, didn’t the judicial system simply transfer the inefficiency into the individuals? Has there really been progress made in finding an efficient solution in the bigger picture?

This is true even with corporations. Your phone provider or cable provider always gives you a 4 hour window when they will show up for repairs. This is because the company can then route these technicians in the best possible fashion to reduce the time they spend on the road trying to keep appointments at different locations. This improves productivity of the technician and the predictability of his work. Brilliant!! Well so what about the 10 customers who spent 4 hours each waiting for this person? That’s 40 man hours wasted.

A lot of the times the efficiency that is claimed by one organization comes at the cost of efficiency of somebody else. It is okay for private organizations to do something like that since the customer demand and necessity will dictate if that will work or not. But government organizations will do well to study this phenomenon of “transferring inefficiencies” that is introduced into the system. After all it works for the people and not against it. Eventually if the sum total of the countries productivity is hurt no one truly gains.