Friday, March 30, 2007

2007 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders from Warren Buffet

Warren Buffet publishes an annual letter to his shareholders. The letters have a general pattern -
-- Overall performance of Berkshire over the past year
-- Analysis of the Berkshire performance by sector. Special focus on the good and bad sectors and why these sectors did well (or not)
-- Acquisitions in the previous year and why the acquisitions were made
-- Major future issues that affect Berkshire as a firm
-- Tirade against derivatives
-- Tirade against hedge funds
-- Warning about US trade deficit
-- Some interesting tidbits of info
All of these sprinkled with amusing quotes...

I am no finance wizard. So I leave it to the readers to contemplate the deeper content in the letter. You can download the letter here.

But lemme decorate this post with some of those amusing quotes...

In fairness, we’ve seen plenty of successes as well, some truly outstanding. There are many giant company managers whom I greatly admire; Ken Chenault of American Express, Jeff Immelt of G.E. and Dick Kovacevich of Wells Fargo come quickly to mind. But I don’t think I could do the management job they do. And I know I wouldn’t enjoy many of the duties that come with their positions – meetings,speeches, foreign travel, the charity circuit and governmental relations. For me, Ronald Reagan had it right: “It’s probably true that hard work never killed anyone – but why take the chance?”

We continue, however, to need “elephants” in order for us to use Berkshire’s flood of incoming cash. Charlie and I must therefore ignore the pursuit of mice and focus our acquisition efforts on much bigger game. Our exemplar is the older man who crashed his grocery cart into that of a much younger fellow while both were shopping. The elderly man explained apologetically that he had lost track of his wife and was preoccupied searching for her. His new acquaintance said that by coincidence his wife had also wandered off and suggested that it might be more efficient if they jointly looked for the two women. Agreeing, the older man asked his new companion what his wife looked like. “She’s a gorgeous blonde,” the fellow answered, “with a body that would cause a bishop to go through a stained glass window, and she’s wearing tight white shorts. How about yours?” The senior citizen wasted no words: “Forget her, we’ll look for yours.”
What we are looking for is described on page 25. If you have an acquisition candidate that fits, call me – day or night. And then watch me shatter a stained glass window.

When Charlie and I were young, the newspaper business was as easy a way to make huge returns as existed in America. As one not-too-bright publisher famously said, “I owe my fortune to two great American institutions: monopoly and nepotism.” No paper in a one-paper city, however bad the product or however inept the management, could avoid gushing profits.

We show below our common stock investments. With two exceptions, those that had a market
value of more than $700 million at the end of 2006 are itemized. We don’t itemize the two securities referred to, which have a market value of $1.9 billion, because we continue to buy them. I could, of course, tell you their names. But then I would have to kill you.

The good news: At 76, I feel terrific and, according to all measurable indicators, am in excellent
health. It’s amazing what Cherry Coke and hamburgers will do for a fellow.

The inexorable math of this grotesque arrangement is certain to make the Gotrocks family poorer over time than it would have been had it never heard of these “hyper-helpers.” Even so, the 2-and-20 action spreads. Its effects bring to mind the old adage: When someone with experience proposes a deal to someone with money, too often the fellow with money ends up with the experience, and the fellow with experience ends up with the money.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Word of the Day: Chernobyl Design Pattern

This gave me a good laugh. The Chernobyl design pattern as explained by Rob Weir (via cruizer) ...

"There is something I call the “Chernobyl Design Pattern”, where you take your worst bug, the ugliest part of your code, the part that is so bad, so radioactive that no one can touch it without getting killed, and you make it private and inaccessible, and put a new interface around it, essentially entomb it in concrete so that no one can get close to it. In other words, if you can't fix it, at least contain the damage."

The good thing in doing this is that it allows you to create a new implementation of the bug-ridden code later at your leisure. But we know that this never happens...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

How to manipulate the stock market

Update: Lots of people are coming here from voting sites. You might want to check out my posts on Simplicity, Management, Software Development, Career, or the main blog. If you like the content, you can subscribe to the feed. Thanks.

An interesting account of what actually drives the market. By Jim Cramer in a video interview on Cramer is an ex-hedge fund manager (apparently 24% annual return from 1987 - 2000) and the host of CNBC's Mad Money.

Some choice quotes -
"You know, a lot of times when I was short at my hedge fund—when I was positioned short, meaning I needed it down—I would create a level of activity beforehand that could drive the futures. It doesn't take much money."

"What's important when you're in that hedge-fund mode is to not do anything remotely truthful. Because the truth is so against your view that it's important to create a new truth to develop a fiction."

"The great thing about the market is it has nothing to do with the actual stocks."

If you have a broadband connection, you can watch the full interview where Cramer gave his "veteran's perspective". Click here for the video. Poor interviewer Aaron Task's expressions with each of Cramer's revelations are priceless!

A more elaborate transcript is below...
"You know, a lot of times when I was short at my hedge fund—when I was positioned short, meaning I needed it down—I would create a level of activity beforehand that could drive the futures. It doesn't take much money. Similarly, if I were long, and I wanted to make things a little bit rosy, I would go in and take a bunch of stocks and make sure that they're higher. Maybe commit $5 million in capital, and I could affect it. What you're seeing now is maybe it's probably a bigger market. Maybe you need $10 million in capital to knock the stuff down.

But it's a fun game, and it's a lucrative game. You can move it up and then fade it—that often creates a very negative feel. So let's say you take a longer term view intraday, and you say, "Listen, I'm going to boost the futures, and the when the real sellers come in—the real market comes in—they're going to knock it down and that's going to create a negative view." That's a strategy very worth doing when you're valuing on a day-to-day basis. I would encourage anyone who's in the hedge fund game to do it. Because it's legal. And it is a very quick way to make money. And very satisfying."
What's important when you're in that hedge-fund mode is to not do anything remotely truthful. Because the truth is so against your view that it's important to create a new truth to develop a fiction.
The great thing about the market is it has nothing to do with the actual stocks. Now, maybe two weeks from now, the buyers will come to their senses and realize that everything that they heard was a lie, but then again, Fannie Mae lied about their earnings for $6 billion, so there's just fiction and fiction and fiction.

I think it's important for people to recognize that the way that the market really works is to have that nexus of: Hit the brokerage houses with a series of orders that can push it down, then leak it to the press, and then get it on CNBC—that's also very important. And then you have a kind of a vicious cycle down. It's a pretty good game. It can pay for a percentage or two."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Real estate market in Hyderabad etc

This blog has an interesting view on the real estate market in Hyderabad.

Meanwhile, there are plans for 4 completely new cities to be built near Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bombay and Gurgaon. These will be built by Real Estate Investment Trusts.

As usual, make your own research and judgments.

Productively examine your bank statement for fraud etc

My bank sends a printed statement of my account activity every month. Going thru and validating each item in the statement can be a real pain.

Here's one trick I use. Every withdrawal I make from the ATM is always an uncommon amount. For example, I always withdraw $70 from the ATM. When browsing thru the statement, I discard all the 70$ withdrawals and scrutinize the few transactions left.

Now, this technique can be a liability in a focused fraud attack. If somebody knows you always withdraw 70$, then they can take advantage of this and withdraw large amounts in multiples of 70$. You wouldn't notice this in your statement. To prevent this, you can switch to a different uncommon amount every month.

This can also be a way to know at a glance if your significant other is making some significant withdrawals :-).

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Post-it for dummies

Great Post-It ad. See more here.

My humble contribution...
Post-It on cockpit controls
12 o' clock - North

3 0' clock - East

Pls share your ideas in the comments...

What's up with these crocs

I went out for some lunch and some detergent shopping (yeah.. very focused guy). Saw at least 20 people in the supermarket wearing these pink embellishments. Interesting thing - Most of those pple were at least 30 years old... I can understand kids loving them, but grown-up women???

Would like to know what's attractive about these monstrosities. Are we all itching to express the rebel within?... or yearning for that lost childhood?

Maybe products that allow non-confrontational expressions of our rebellious individuality have a great market. Maybe this is what's so great about those Pumas.

Discovering India the right way

The Sunday NYT tells how to have a satisfying short tourist trip to India. Pragmatically, they don't advice the tourist to pack everything there is to see in India within 2 weeks. Instead, the model should be to sample the richness of a particular region.

"FOR the first-time visitor to India, the sheer vastness of the country — more than a million square miles — all but defeats the romantic notion of seeing all that this place has to offer in anything approaching the usual time frame of a normal vacation. Retirees no longer punching the clock, college students who want to take a couple of semesters off, backpackers on a global journey of exploration: these are the kinds of travelers that India seems made for.

But what about the rest of us who are limited to one or two weeks of vacation a year? Is India completely beyond our grasp?

In a word, no. Even sampling the tiniest geographical crumb of India over a period of 7 to 10 days can be a satisfying travel experience.

Quite rightly, no one wants to miss the Taj Mahal, especially on a first visit, so our suggested route pivots around that Platonic ideal of tourist attractions. Spending a couple of days first in the nearby capital of New Delhi — a strange patchwork of imperial Mughal monuments, bustling urban villages, leafy British Raj-era avenues and expanding middle-class housing colonies — is bound to give you a good taste of urban India. Still, some two-thirds of Indians live outside the nation's cities. With that in mind, this route, after passing through Agra, site of the Taj, and the ruins and palaces of Gwalior, culminates in Orchha, a riverside village well-stocked with palaces, tombs, Hindu temples and ordinary village life.

Rajasthan? That fascinating, tourist-infested merry-go-round has been deliberately omitted, though it is a place worth coming back to when you have time to explore its less overdeveloped pockets. The hiking trails of the Himalayas and the beaches of Goa? Next time.

Read the rest of the article here.

Picture: Available on Wikipedia with a GPL license.

Giesecke & Devrient: In the business of secure transactions - From security paper to smartcards

There is a nice story that many management consulting firms use to explain the nature of their work and lure the starry-eyed graduates into the mothership. It goes somewhat along these lines...
"Once upon a time, Birmingham was the center of the drill manufacturing business. The people of Birmingham were confident they made the best drills in the world. They felt they did not have to worry about competition as their drills were so good. However, one day someone produced lasers and the people of Birmingham suddenly realized they were not in the drill business but rather in the business of making holes. They realized that if someone developed a better way of making holes the people of Birmingham who made drills would be in trouble."

Now, strategic shifts like this happen when a new technology emerges that completely rewrites the way something is done or made. Some companies identify the technology shifts and remake their themselves. But successful examples are few and far between.

An great example of success is Giesecke & Devrient (GnD as we call them).

I have been working on DB's corporate banking application for sometime. Last year, the project that I led involved (among other things) adding support for new types of smartcards to our application. The smartcards are used by the customers to digitally sign transactions. This digital signing is done to prove the user's identity and to approve a transaction. Our smartcard vendor is GnD. Being the inquisitive guy that I am, I did some Google research on this firm. What an eye-opener...

GnD was setup in 1852, and for a long long time, their business was to print banknotes and security paper. But in 1970's, GnD realized that they were not in the banknote printing business. Instead, they were in the business of secure transactions. They started an R&D arm to develop expertise in secure cashless transactions. Now GnD is a leading provider of smartcard solutions, enabling secure digital transactions.

Wow... To identify the paradigm shift to digital security in 1970. That's something. Consider that the public-key-cryptography concept that underpins digital security today was introduced only in 1976.

Friday, March 23, 2007

MapReduce plug-in for Eclipse. Now go and change the world...

Over the years, Google has developed some truly awesome "force-multiplier" architectural software components. These have helped them roll out hugely-scalable and high-performance applications very very fast at low low cost. Among them are -
-- MapReduce parallel computation framework
-- BigTable database
-- Google File System

MapReduce is a framework that -
-- Allows a programmer to define a program that needs to be run in parallel over a huge cluster of computers
-- Executes the software program in parallel by distributing it to a huge cluster, monitoring the execution progress and collecting the results

MapReduce has lowered the bar within Google for writing hugely-parallel applications. Mostly, the programmer has to worry only about writing the program in compliance with some MapReduce framework requirements. The entire parallelization and its enormous complexity is handled and hidden by the framework, freeing the programmer to concentrate on the actual functionality performed by his/her program. Within Google, MapReduce is used for building the search index etc etc.

Google has explained their MapReduce framework in this excellent paper by Jeffrey Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat. Based on this paper, Hadoop is an open-source implementation of MapReduce components.

Now, IBM has made available a plug-in for Eclipse that simplifies the development and deployment of MapReduce programs meant to be run within Hadoop. So all you brilliant engineers out there, go ahead and code the next parallel program that will change the world etc etc

Google is using Hibernate ORM? That's surprising

Update: Explanation of database partitioning techniques updated and enhanced. See towards the end of the post...

Update: Lots of people are coming here from the google-code blog. You might want to check out my posts on Simplicity, Management, Software Development, Career, or the main blog. If you like the content, you can subscribe to the feed. Thanks.

Learning that Google internally uses the Hibernate Object-Relational Mapping (ORM) framework brought my opinion of Google down by quite a few notches.

I strongly believe that in performance-critical applications, database transactions and SQL queries are best written and managed by the developer rather than by an over-generic ORM framework. If you have a low-usage application that will be simultaneously used by at the most 300 users, then go ahead, use an ORM layer and knock yourself out. But it is likely that if you have written a good app, it will become more and more popular, and you will start hitting performance problems soon. Any Google consumer application would be at the high end of performance-criticality requirements.

The reasons that have shaped my views are as follows -
-- Typically any application spends 25% of the time executing application code, and the other 75% executing database queries (Rough estimates based on my experience)
-- So if you want a high-performance app, optimize the data access layer
-- An ORM tool is very generic. It is meant to support multiple RDBMS systems and a huge variety of usage scenarios. So these are optimized for flexibility and not performance
-- Optimizations on the data access layer are best achieved by optimizing the SQL. You know your domain model and data schema best. So you are the best person to write the SQL
-- ORM tools like Hibernate do not allow you to write your own SQL. Instead you give definitions of your database tables and map them to your business objects. Hibernate automatically generates SQL from these relationships

Many people take issue with this and say that to manage transactions and write optimized SQL, you need very good developers, who are expensive and difficult to attract and retain.
My response: Of course, if you need to create outstanding apps, you need good developers. If you can't attract and retain them, that's your management problem. As for the cost aspect, hire a great developer, fire 5 average ones. You will get more work done, and save money.

Anyway, all the above is deviating from the main topic. Which is that Google has open-sourced Hibernate Shards, which is an extension to Hibernate to enable Horizontal Partitioning of Data.

What is Horizontal Data Partitioning? Well, if your app requires access to large large amounts of data (hundreds of millions of records), and performance is critical, and you have a large number of users, then storing all your data in one database will hit problems. This is because there will be too much read/write to the same database storage. One solution is to split the data in a big database table into "horizontal partitions" based on some particular criteria, and store the partitions in separate databases. For example, you will group your user profile table based on the user's location - US, Europe, Asia - and store each group of profile data in a separate database. This is called horizontal data partitioning as you are splitting the data at the "row level" within a database table.

Another option is Vertical Data Partitioning. Here, you partition the data in a database by putting different high-volume database tables into separate databases. For example, if you have lots of User Profiles, Messages, Transactions etc etc in separate tables, then with vertical partitioning, you will store each of these tables in separate databases. This is called vertical data partitioning as you are splitting your data at the "table level" within a database.

The transformaton of Iraqi Kurdistan

Michael Totten has an incredible post (with lots of pics) on the change sweeping Iraqi Kurdistan.

Fourteen months ago I flew to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, from Beirut, Lebanon, on the dubiously named Flying Carpet Airlines. Flying Carpet’s entire fleet is one small noisy plane with propellers, cramped seats, and thin cabin pressure. Only nineteen passengers joined me on that once-a-week flight. Everyone but me was a Lebanese businessman. They were paranoid of me and of each other. What kind of crazy person books a flight to Iraq, even if it is to the safe and relatively prosperous Kurdistan region? I felt completely bereft of sense going to Iraq without a gun and without any bodyguards, and it took a week for my on-again off-again twitchiness to subside.

Last week I flew to Erbil from Vienna on Austrian Airlines to work for a few weeks as a private sector consultant with my colleague Patrick Lasswell. This time I didn’t feel anything like a fool. Almost half the passengers were women. Children played on their seats and in the aisle with toys handed out by the crew. We watched an in-flight movie and ate the usual airline lunch fare served by an attractive long legged stewardess

Read the full post here.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

"Email This" Hall of Shame - NewsGator Online

For context, see my earlier post - "Email This" - The cheapest and simplest way to attract new users

Now on to today's star...

Yes. Ladies and Gentlemen. Removing spaces b/w the 2 addresses thru JavaScript seems to be an NP-hard problem.

The greatest challenge and opportunity of our time: relieving other people of their money

"You can take the temper of an era by looking to see what its brightest minds take up. Pythagoras applied himself to geometry. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Wernher von Braun built rockets to blow up London.

But if St. Augustine were alive today, he’d probably be touting the benefits of globalised markets. Isaac Newton would be running a hedge fund in London. And Henri Poincare would be working for Goldman Sachs, calculating the return on a tranche of BBB-rate subprime debt.

Scientists and philosophers alike have turned their focus to the greatest challenge and opportunity of our time: relieving other people of their money. We are voyeurs…gawkers at the merry and absurd world of money

Read the full post at the Daily Reckoning Oz - Subprime mortgage lending & the great liquidity crunch of 2007...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Bob Woolmer's death

In case any of you still think Bob Woolmer died of natural causes, please contact me ASAP. I have some lovely riverside property in Brooklyn to sell.

Marketing to human beings

SecretGeek has this hilarious reconstruction of the branding thought process in Redmond.

Proposed NameFeedback from Microsoft HQ
X#Too snappy
XenToo religious
Polyphonic C#Too arty
COmegaToo Mathematical
XOmegaToo greek
XLinqStill Too Snappy
Linq to XmlNot Long enough
Microsoft Ubiquitous
Structured Services
Framework For
XML Querying
and Collaboration 2008!

This is a trend that I have noticed in Microsoft product branding since around the first Media Center release - at that time it was branded "Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition". Then came "Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition". Topping it all up were "Microsoft Windows Mobile PocketPC Edition" and "Microsoft Windows Mobile SmartPhone Edition". Damn name wouldn't fit within a smartphone screen.

To all M'Softies - The human brain is a very advanced non-linear machine. It doesn't need to be given the full context to figure out a brand. Just call it Media Center and I know that it is Windows that can do tricks.

My wild guesses on the internal rationale for this branding strategy -
-- Microsoft thinks users are morons who need everything explained to them.
Problem: See above. With this strange Redmond rationale, people wouldn't have known what an iPod means.
-- I have a very peculiar feeling (the one I have when I think of something weird which is usually right) that there is some senior Windows VP who has a hard time tracking all his Windows-branded products out there; and so has enforced this branding convention to get his head clear whenever he has to contemplate the entire Windows family :-)

If you want people to identify with a brand, you've got to give it character. Who wants to identify with "Microsoft Windows Mobile SmartPhone Edition"?

For operating systems with character, lets hail the big cats - OS X Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard.

Related Post: How would Microsoft have branded and packaged the iPod?

Productivity tool: save & restore desktop icon layout

I am a very contextual and visual person. So I tend to keep all my working files arranged on my desktop. And the arrangement pattern of the desktop file icons usually has a particular meaning for me. Files on the right are working copies, while files on left have already been archived to Sharepoint etc etc...

So it drives me mad when my lovely icon arrangement disappears. And I am left trying to recover the pattern from memory :-). God... that is one excruciating process. I have to analyse each file and contemplate it - does it go to the left or to the right :-). This usually happens whenever there is a problem during reboot - so Windows does not save the icon layout. Also my home laptop resolution is only 1024X768 while at work I have a pretty big screen. So whenever I login from home, all the icons outside the 1024X768 area lose their position.

Help is finally at hand. There is a tool called Icon Restore. It takes a snapshot of the icon layout. Later on, I can restore this saved layout if there is a problem.

So, all ye contextual, visual, icon huggers, go yonder and download the Icon Restore utility.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Join us for the tandoori roti

A humble word of advice to all the firms in Singapore planning to shift their technology staff from the Central Biz District to the fertile welcoming heartlands of Changi, Jurong etc etc..

With the economy going gangbusters you will find that some of your best tech staff will simply seek employment elsewhere. The reason is simple - LUNCH. Nowhere else in Singapore other than the CBD do you have the choice of 100 different places to have lunch. And such great food as a bonus...

Like all good things in life, I had taken this for granted. But the realization hit me last week. I had lunch with an ex-colleague who's new firm is based quite outside the CBD. He happened to be in Shenton Way and I met him at the Pret sandwich shop (Tip: 2 full sandwiches there will still leave you hungry). The dude was wolfing down a chicken coronation sandwich with such a look of ecstasy on his face that if one of the banks there had offered him a position at less than his current salary, he would have immediately taken it.

So, in summary...
Employers - Respect Abraham Maslow
Recruiters - Exploit it

Human beings don't scale

One of my favorite quotes. From Hugh Macleod...
"Bill Gates may have a million times more money than me, but he isn’t going to live a million times longer than me, watch a million times more sunsets than me, make love to a million times more women than me, drink a million times more fine wines than me, listen to a million times more Beethoven String Quartets than me, nor sire a million times more children than me. Human beings don't scale."

Project management and teaching middle school

The NYT has a great article (free registration) on the challenges faced by middle-school teachers in the US. I can identify with the article as my mom is a high-school teacher in India and I have heard similar stories. Kids will be the same everywhere...

From the article, there was one particular characteristic of successful teachers that I can directly correlate to great project managers.

From the article... (emphasis is mine)
“You have to have a huge sense of humor and a small ego,” said Jason Levy, the principal of Intermediate School 339 in the Bronx. “There are some people who are born to do it and some who learn to do it, and there are some people who really shouldn’t do it.”

So lets look at this "small ego" aspect. The small ego here is not that you think less of yourself. Instead, it comes about when you know yourself fully well, and are aware of your abilities (and their limits). From this awareness comes a kind of calm confidence. This is the confidence that allows you to handle people with diametrically opposite viewpoints as you know fully well that you will be able to finally steer them to your point of view. This is the confidence that allows you to handle people with different behavior types because you realize that you really don't care about how they behave since you know that you will be able to get your point of view across and get something done your way. And this is the confidence that gives you the humility to accept that you might be wrong some of the time and acknowledge it when that happens.

Ultimately when you think about it, this confidence allows you to persuade rather than force other people into your point of view. Other people's perception of your ego is predominantly based on this factor and that's why people who are genuinely confident and secure in themselves appear to have small egos.

But this is not the only trait for great project managers. In addition to this, you need to -
-- Have a special insight in the field you are in. If not, you are simply a manager and not a leader
-- Be able to recognize and hire great people; Preferably people better than yourself
-- Be able to gain the respect of your team; Thru your insight and your "small ego"

Since the article might be archived behind NYT's walled gardens pretty soon, here is a short but relevant excerpt...
When a student at Seth Low Intermediate School loudly pronounced Corinne Kaufman a “fat lady” during a fire drill one recent day, Mrs. Kaufman, a 45-year-old math teacher, calmly turned around.

“Voluptuous,” she retorted, then proceeded to define the unfamiliar term, cutting off the laughter and offering a memorable vocabulary lesson in the process.

Such are the survival skills Mrs. Kaufman has acquired over 17 years at Seth Low, a large middle school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn: How to snuff out brewing fistfights before the first punch is thrown, how to coax adolescents crippled by low self-esteem into raising their hands, how to turn every curveball, even the biting insult, into a teachable moment.

But not all middle school teachers can do it.

Faced with increasingly well-documented slumps in learning at a critical age, educators in New York and across the nation are struggling to rethink middle school, particularly in cities, where the challenges of adolescent volatility, spiking violence and lagging academic performance are more acute.

As they do so, they are running up against a key problem: a teaching corps marked by high turnover, and often lacking expertise in both subject matter and the topography of the adolescent mind.

The demands of teaching middle school show up in teacher retention rates. In New York City, the nation’s largest school system, middle school teachers account for 22 percent of the 41,291 teachers who have left the school system since 1999 even though they make up only 17 percent of the overall teaching force, according to the United Federation of Teachers.

In Philadelphia, researchers found that 34.2 percent of new middle school teachers in one representative year quit after their first year, compared with 21.1 percent of elementary school teachers and 26.3 percent of high school teachers.

“There was a lot more anger and outbursts,” Christian Clarke, 29, a Bronx high school teacher, recalled of the students he encountered during his four years teaching middle school. “Twice as much time was spent on putting out fires; twice as much time was spent getting the class quiet. Twice as much time was spent on defusing anger in the kids.”

A good middle school teacher needs to know how to channel such anger into class work, and whether inappropriate questions like “Are you gay?” (as a Seth Low student recently asked her math teacher) merit serious discussion or feigned deafness.

“You have to have a huge sense of humor and a small ego,” said Jason Levy, the principal of Intermediate School 339 in the Bronx. “There are some people who are born to do it and some who learn to do it, and there are some people who really shouldn’t do it.

Rest of the article here

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Blog visitor map after 20 days of blogging

In case you were wondering...
Click on image to see full size.

A primer to customizing, optimizing and promoting your blog

This Saturday, I finally got some time to customize this blog. Hadn't done any major tweaking to the default settings since I started writing.

In this post, I will put down what all I did to customize and optimize this blog. This might be helpful if you have a website of your own. If you have any further suggestions for improvement, do add them in the comments.

Understand the site analytics services

Currently, I use two analytics services - Google Analytics and StatCounter. I had signed up for them right at the beginning, but had never tried until now to understand the different data that they collect.

Google Analytics (GA) is useful mostly if you are an advertiser and use Google AdSense and AdWords. Otherwise, it is useless. I was surprised that Google could create such a un-friendly application. But I am keeping GA for now as Google has a habit of listening to their customers and getting their act together. Prime example - Google Reader.

StatCounter is pretty good and is a free application. Also, unlike other free counters, they don't mandate putting a logo on the website being tracked. I recommend it.

Bloglines and Newsgator are the most common web-based RSS aggregators used by my readers. To see overall market trends, I did some googling. Here are some useful results...
-- Web-based feed reader data from HitWise
-- FeedBurner stats on web-based feed readers

Optimise the site-loading speed
As per my site stats, quite a few regular readers come directly a bookmark instead of using the RSS feed. But the site loading time was pretty slow. So, did some study and did the following to decrease the loading time...

1. Throw out unwanted images
I was embedding some external images which were slowing down loading of the pages. So kept only the ones that were really needed.

2. Throw out slow-loading external content
I had been using a service from FeedBurner called FeedFlare. FeedFlare adds useful interactive links like "Email This, Digg This, Bookmark This" etc to the end of every post, in both the webpage and the RSS feed. Problem is that loading the FeedFlares was very slow. Also on the main blog page, each post loaded its own "flares" increasing the load time linearly. So out they went from the website (but not from the RSS feed).

For essential external content like the site analytics code, I put them at the end of the entire page, so that they would load last and would not cause a bottleneck in loading the main content and the sidebars.

Promote the blog to search engines
Based on the site analytics data, there were quite a few hits from search engines, especially for my posts on
-- Salary Information for Pay Negotiations
-- Pay packages in India
-- Defining the core purpose of a corporate role
-- The problem with the new social network kid on the block - Geni

Unfortunately, Google was not indexing the individual permalink pages, but only the monthly archive pages, which had non-relevant posts. So it was very likely that the searchers got frustrated and left.

Some R&D led me to the mothership - Google Webmaster Central. A website publisher can create an account here, claim and attach their sites to this account, and then use the various tools to optimize the website for Google. I created a sitemap so that the Google crawler could see the individual permalink pages on the blog, and not just the monthly archive pages.

Also added my blog to the index of another blog search engine - Technorati.

Add advertisements
I signed up for AdSense and spent some time understanding the various ad formats. Then did some R&D on the optimal ad positioning on the blog. Based on this, I had to do some tweaking of the default HTML templates.

Some interesting stuff regarding AdSense...
-- AdSense allows only a max of 3 ad units per webpage
-- After you sign up with AdSense, it takes 1-2 days for the service to get activated

These are the things you can do after getting on with the blog for a few months. But based on my experience, there are a few things you MUST do absolutely when you setup the blog for the first time. I will write a post on this in the next couple of days

Friday, March 16, 2007

"Email This" - The cheapest and simplest way to attract new users

In order to grow your web business, you need new users.

There are a multitude of ways in which you can attract new users. Targeted ads, affiliate programs etc etc etc. But the cheapest and simplest way is to let your current users do it for you for free.

For this to happen, you need to do 2 things -
-- Create compelling content. It should be compelling enough that a portion of your users want to tell others about it. This is the critical path. Without this, there is no point trying anything else as otherwise any new users you manage to attract will ultimately leave.
-- Once your users find something on your site compelling enough to share, make it easy for them to tell their friends about it

I started using the Internet in 1999. In trolling thru countless news-sites, blogs, web apps etc etc since then, the easiest way I have found to share something is thru an "Email This" link right next to the content I wanted to share.

It in incredible how many people manage to botch this up. So, from my user experience, this is my cheat sheet for a great "Email This" link design...
-- Have the "Email This" link displayed prominently next to the content you want your users to share. Having a familiar letter icon will help. The aim is to put the thought of emailing the content into the mind of a user who has not even considered sharing your content.
-- Clicking the link should preferably not open a new page. The best implementation would open a new Ajaxy-layer within the same page. The aim is to prevent the user losing interest in the time it takes to load an email form in a new page.
-- Email the entire content. Most recipients don't bother clicking on URL's sent by their friends. If the content they read in their mail client is good, they will come to your site looking for more.
-- If you gotta have a captcha, then try not to make it intrusive. I hate captchas that are filled with numbers because I need to refer to the captcha again and again as I fill it out. As I have mentioned in a previous article (Corvette not GS450H), human beings prefer meaningful words rather than numbers. If it takes too long to type the captcha, I'm outta there.
-- Don't have stupid restrictions in your email form, like allowing only 1 recipient address, enforcing ridiculous formatting requirements between multiple email addresses etc etc.

In the next few posts, I will highlight some of the most brain-dead implementations of the "Email This" link that has had me banging my desk in frustration. I will also cover my search for the perfect "Email This" link for this blog.

Related Posts
Corvette not GS450H
Why "Simplicity Works Everytime"

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hot Desking, Active Workplaces etc etc

In the DB internal blogs, we have been having an interesting discussion on "Hot Desking". Hot Desking is the concept where an employee has no fixed workplace. You come in the morning and choose an available seat that you fancy.

Those in favor say that hot desking provides more efficient use of real estate as it is unlikely that all seats in an office will be in use at the same time. Another claim is that it can "free up your mind" since you are always having new experiences sitting in different places.

Personally, I am absolutely against this idea.
-- The thing is that there are so many changes around me. My project requirements keep on changing. Offshore staff jump companies every month. I would like some stability at least in my workspace... Don't want to worry about whether my favorite seat will be available in the morning

-- If you have flexible workspaces, you can no longer personalise your workspace. To many (most) people, this is a big big thing. I would like to leave my laptop, books, printouts on my desk without carrying it home every time. The moment you bring in a locker concept to solve the problem, people feel like kids, and soon the best people will leave

-- I can no longer get up, and discuss an issue on a white board with my designers and developers, as I will not be able to find them in their "usual place"

-- Things become bureaucratic as you need to have meetings and conf. calls for everything to get people together. Might as well offshore everything as being in a different building is only marginally different than being in a different country.

To generalize, I would say that ideas like this are a generalization of the efficiency (or rather McKinsey) mantra. The issue is that lots of intangibles which matter a lot but cannot be measured are not being taken into consideration with this metrics kind-of approach to personal space. And these are the intangibles that keep the best people in the organization.

It always came down to the concept of personal space. This is basically from human psychology. A human being always wants something solid, dependable and secure to call "home", and not simply a house. I guess its a lot like business travel. Initially fresh out of school, it seems to great. LA, LON, NY!! Glamorous... But after sometime, you realise there is no place like home.

TBWA Chiat/Day, an ad agency in the US tried it out, and it was pathetic. Check out this article on their experiences.

Microsoft is trying out some concepts similar to hot desking in something called "Workplace Advantage".

Sun Micro has been an early adopter of this concept. They call it "OpenWork", and it is used by around 45% of their employees.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Simplicity and iPod packaging

Continuing on today's marketing theme, lets look at the beauty of simplicity - the iPod packaging.

[If you cant see the embedded clip, see -]

Corvette not GS450H

Why is it that Nokia insists on branding their phones around some stupid number series... 6510, 6210, 8210, N73, N91, E71????? Who remembers these names?

I am shopping around for a phone, and its so maddeningly difficult to remember the Nokia model recommendations from colleagues and friends. I am reduced to asking about "that Nokia with the great camera" and "the Nokia with the good keyboard" etc etc.

Nokia should learn from the dudes at Motorola. Those guys are on a roll with the awesome "4 alphabets ending in R with a vowel in the middle" theme. RAZR, ROKR, SLVR etc etc. I hope they take it to the logical next step with FUKR and LOSR. That would be so AWSM.

So if you are a marketer, it's very simple - Corvette, not GS450H

Monday, March 12, 2007

Learning from cabbies

Today I left work a bit early. At 9. Heh... :)
Usually, its very easy to get a cab at 9. But nowadays, I have to call and make a booking by 8:50. After that, the cab phone lines are always busy. And when I get down to the DBS Tower lobby by 9, the whole place is jam-packed with at least 20 cabs. Usually its something like 5. First time I am seeing something like this.

There are lots of investment ideas, lessons and indicators you can learn simply by keeping an open eye (and ear). I still remember one from Ross Mayfield - The parking lot indicator.

Anyway, today's cabbie was telling me that its only in the last month or so that demand for taxi pickup has reached such high levels. He has been a cabbie for 26 years, and the last time was in 1997, just before the the Asian Tiger economies crashed...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The problem with Geni

Geni is a social networking application for genealogy. (From Wikipedia) Genealogy "is the study and tracing of family pedigrees. This involves the collection of the names of relatives, both living and deceased, and establishing the relationships among them based on primary, secondary and/or circumstantial evidence or documentation, thus building up a cohesive family tree".

Specifically, Geni allows you to start filling in your family tree. You can add relatives with their email ID's, and emails are fired off to ask them to join Geni. Once they join, they add more info about themselves, start filling in their relations, and so on, and in some time you have a map of your extended family with all the information that the family members have chosen to disclose.

Charles River Ventures has invested US$ 10 million in Geni, valuing the company at US$100 mill. But I have my doubts about the viability of this application. These views are also posted as comments in a VentureWoods discussion on Geni.

On the positive side, Geni is a very slick application. You can easily draw up a family tree, and makes it very easy to invite other family members to share their info and start adding relations they know.

But the service has 2 major shortcomings -
The "Getting Laid" feature is not there
The single most important feature that a social networking app should have is that it should help the user to get laid. Even if that doesn't happen, the user should think that it will increase the chances of him/her getting laid.

Thats it. This is the "critical path" feature. If directly (Orkut, Facebook, Myspace) or indirectly (LinkedIn: Better job --> more money --> better potential) this feature is not there, then users won't stick around 1-2 hours a day writing scrap entries, exploring photos and seeing profiles of friends of your friends, and adding more and more unique stuff about themselves to their profiles.

Geni cannot help users get laid. If that happens, it would probably be illegal :-).

Relevance of the application in markets outside the US
Geni applications will be relevant for India only 10-15 years down the line. It makes sense in the US where you completely grow up in nuclear families with very little contact with your grandparents, cousins etc. However, in India, even though many of us would have grown up in a nuclear family in a city, we had very close relationships with grandparents, cousins and other members of the extended family. So the usefulness of “discovering” your relations is not there. Even considering only the US market, I would think a typical user would use his application obsessively for a week or two. After that you start getting irritated with requests from your relatives and stop hanging around.

A great logo

I was checking out the website of a "boutique" software consulting firm called Vertigo, where Jeff Atwood of "Coding Horror" works.

That's when I noticed their great logo. A very nice way of representing the firm's name, catches your attention immediately, is different from most logos out there, but not different enough to appear tacky. Great thing is that you never completely forget this logo.

Red Hat just lost the chance to understand their core problem

The Red Hat Challenge:
"This is your opportunity to help solve a real-world business challenge posed by the standard-bearer in the open source software industry. The top submission will receive $20,000 in cash and an opportunity to present in-person to Red Hat management during the Red Hat Summit."


I understand your frustration at the limitations of the competition. While Red Hat wished to be as inclusive as possible, there are some restrictions on accepting ideas from people who are employed by another company at the time of the submission. Also, these intellectual property legalities vary from country to country. By targeting academia, Red Hat feels it can realize its goal of interacting with potential new recruits while being unencumbered by complicated international legalities which would arise when soliciting ideas from individuals under someone else's employ.
Unfortunately, we will have to remove your registration from our system. Thank you for your interest in the Challenge, and we regret not being able to include you.
Red Hat Challenge Team

On 3/7/07, Arun Jacob wrote:

I think it is ridiculous that this competition is open to only business school students, when most of the ideas people are not in business school.

I am not in a business school. [MO Business School = My own business schol.]
It would be great if you could accept outside nominations and count me as one of them.

Pls let me know if this is possible. I can send the details in that case.


On 3/7/07, Red Hat Challenge Support wrote:
Greetings Mr. Arun,

Thank you for registering for the Red Hat Challenge! Your account is missing some information that is needed to complete your registration. We were unable to identify your school based on the school name provided (MO Business School), and our records indicate we do not yet have a street address for you.

Please reply to this email and provide the following information so that we may update your account and complete your registration:

1) The full name and address (or website) of your school:
2) Your address:

Again, thank you for participating and Good Luck!
Red Hat Challenge Team

Vote Different

Its the iconic 1984 Apple ad. But with a twist - "Big brother" is Hillary Clinton and "1984" is the Democratic Primaries.

This video has got 10 times more views than any of Obama's or Hillary's official videos on Youtube. The idea is so good and creative that I doubt anybody in the rival campaign teams could have conceptualized this. Genuinely a video by a grassroots supporter of Obama or the GOP.

This video has given me some insight into some potential problems that the Democratic campaign might run into. More on that in a future post.

[If you cant see the embedded clip, see -]

Friday, March 9, 2007

The things that really matter

The earthquake tremor in Singapore this Tuesday was very very minor compared to the real quake in Sumatra. But when good old DBS Tower 2 built on reclaimed land started swaying a bit, I genuinely felt really afraid.

I have been looking at things a bit differently after all this. Normally I am the guy who walks around thinking I am the best in what I do. Nobody can beat me. Nothing can happen to me. But the feeling of fear I had during the tremor has taken away that sense of invincibility and has made me aware of my own mortality. You realize the things that really matter in life. What really matters is not the firm, not the project, not your awards, not your job, not your career, but family and the people who support you.

Samuel Jackson's Pulp Fiction shooting scene in true type

Watch this with the sound cranked up...
Awesome! Pulp Fiction is one of my favs.

When I think about it, if I were running an interface-design or interaction-design firm, these are the people I would want to hire. Font type designers for whom type design is not just a job; but a calling.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Oldies but goldies

If you have seen these awesome answer papers before, you will still laugh as hard...

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Define "Schadenfreude"

schadenfreude \SHOD-n-froy-duh\, noun:
A malicious satisfaction obtained from the misfortunes of others.

Now enjoy:
Rare Bugatti crashes into trees
Some lovely pics here

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Earthquake tremor experience

For context,
CNN: Deadly quake off Sumatra
BBC: Quake off Indonesia

This was just a collateral tremor we felt in Singapore.

It was around 11:50 AM. I had just finished a morning meeting and sat down to checking the 60 emails I got overnight when the swaying started. First I thought it was just my chair rocking. But strange, as my chair should not rock this long, especially as I was sitting still, trying to sense what is happening. Then saw people looking around perplexed. And then the swaying started again. This time it was scary. You could feel the whole building swaying. This was not a minor sway. This was major fear-inducing sway. And it went on and on for more than 10 secs...

It is a really weird feeling in your head when you stand up in the middle of a quake. Your head feels unbalanced. A colleague immediately said its a quake because he had been in one earlier and got the same feeling in his head.

Many things flashed in my head -
-- If I take the elevator down, and the shaft buckles, I am fucked. No one will come to rescue as they will all be busy running out
-- I wonder what it feels to have a ton of concrete crashing on me
-- If the building crashes, will it go down or spill sideways? Which way will I tumble?
-- Should I lock my desktop before running?

Still hesitated a bit. The swaying was still continuing, but nobody wanted to make the first move out. A colleague said lets go, and like cowards both of us went first to the fire exit. Apparently we were the first ones in the whole building to rush down. Everybody else was too busy trying to look calm and nice. Fuck that. I want to live!!

Then the rush started to get down 8 levels. I slowed down a bit. If the building comes down now, I am gone anyway. People overtook. When I reached the ground floor, found that people were trying to kick open the street exit door. It wouldn't budge. Everybody then rushed up 3 levels to go into the lift lobby to take the elevators down. No elevator came for 2 mins.

Somebody was calling building management on the mobile asking why the street exit door wouldn't open. I asked people around why the door hadn't opened. Somebody told me it was locked and there was no key. Fuck Fuck Fuck... Nobody had realised there is an emergency button you have to press to open this. Also, how the hell did somebody ever have building management in their mobile phone address book!!

So off I run down with a small pack behind me, and break the glass to the door emergency button. The alarm shrieks, the door opens and we are out!! Free!! But still skyscrapers all around. And in the whole CBD area, there are no open spaces. Fucked again!!! Anyway nowhere to escape. Might as well stay where we were.

I called my team to make sure they had all got out.

Then it was lunch time already. And there didn't seem to be any more swaying. Time for some nutrition and beverages... Cant go to any indoor food place in case some aftershock happens again. So 3 of us started the long walk to the only single-story food place within some distance. Once there, found a table near the exit and sat down with some food and an exit plan.

Lessons learned
-- If you think there is a quake, and you get a weird feeling in your head, go. Just go.
-- I know how to break the emergency button glass now. Actually these are plastic, not glass.
-- No point locking your PC before running.
-- Fire drills and earthquake drills have to be different. People react differently in these 2 situations. People will be saner in a fire than if they think the building is swaying
-- Sometimes, all these Biz Continuity Plans (BCP) that we have in DB Singapore make sense

In the morning, around 10 AM, my boss had called me on my mobile as part of a BCP scenario rehearsal.

A way to see if some thought has gone into a laptop's design

Sit at the laptop, crank up some music and start typing.
If your palms are obscuring the speaker, then the dumbos haven't used the laptop they designed.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Defining the real meaning of a corporate role

Via this great guest essay by Lance Glasser on Sramana Mitra's blog.

"Indeed, I have often thought that asking what you should get fired for in a job is a great way to clarify your thinking about what is really important."

"The CFO is not responsible for making revenue every quarter, but if there is a big surprise, fire him. The CTO is not responsible for delivering products every quarter, but if you miss the internet or a similar technical inflection point, fire him.”