Hungry kya?

George Dubya Bush has often been credited with having made political statements that have lacked either intellectual depth or logical sense or, as in most cases, both. Hence, it came as no surprise that when he, in the recent past, made a political statement, and this time concerning India, he was again criticized from all corners and this time, including India.

While Dubya was primarily defending his decision to use food grains like maize for the production of bio-fuels like ethanol, the additional point he was trying to put across was that rising per-capita income levels in emerging markets like India and China had given rise to additional demand to quality food grains from that segment of the population. And while he should be kicked in the rear for converting edible foodgrains in fuels, he is quite right when he says that India and China are contributing in a large way to the global food crisis.

Closer home, its not just rising demand from the burgeoning middle class that is sole contributor to rising food costs; studies have shown that per capita food production has fallen to the 1970s levels. That is, indeed, an alarming statistic and what is even more incredulous is the fact that the downtrend is not an overnight turn of events; the stagnation in the agricultural sector has been prevalent for the better part of the decade. That is a sorry tale to say of a country that still boasts to be agrarian and whose populace is largely deemed to be dependent on the farming sector. So what caused this dramatic turn around?

Since the very nature of the issue forms a vicious circle, it is impossible to point out just a couple of factors. The primary reason for the fall is the lack of irrigation water supplies at grassroots level available to farmers and the ill use to technology to aid in crop yields. As a result, farmers have to depend on erratic monsoons and age old techniques to boost crop yields. Bonanza schemes like loan waivers end up being zilch down the road since the basic problem still exists; the only effect of such schemes is to worsen the fiscal deficit.

Down the road, further problems arise due to the sales from the yields. The Govt. of India is the largest buyer of the food grains from these farmers and the price is, of course, dictated by the Govt. Termed MSP [Minimum Support Price], these prices are usually lower than global market prices [though, they are revised every year]. The differential between MSP and the global prices deny the farmers the true market worth for their grains. Their problems are also compounded by the restriction on exports of essential food grains like rice and pulses. In such a situation, most farmers reserve vast tracts of their land for the production of cash crops like rubber, sugar cane etc., the prices of which are entirely market driven and have no export restrictions.

It only needs to put two and two together to understand this does not foster a positive enviroment for a farmer; however, incredibly the problems do not end there. The food grains procured by the Govt. is distributed by an archaic channel called PDS [Public Distribution System]. While PDS incredibly suffers from manpower concerns [due to migration of unskilled labourers to cities aided by opportunities in real estate sector] for acts as simple as loading and unloading of foodgrains, the actual problems start once these foodgrains are collected into the distribution warehouses. After the foodgrains pass through various levels of rampant corruption, the supplies lying around in the warehouses are subjected to waste by the single largest consumer of foodgrains: rodents!

With limited supply from farmers and a pathetic system to distribute whatever little does get filtered through, its no wonder that inflation is climbing to double digits. Artificial counter measures like tightening exports and banning futures trading on commodities serve no purpose than to artificially set prices to hold down inflation. These, in turn, causes an imbalance in the global markets since supply from India is minimal; most countries have used this approach to contain inflation as a result of which globally prices have increased.

Hence, you would now assume that the fault does not lie at the doorstep of the United States. Of course it does. The most important factor in all this is the suddenness in the rise of prices globally; that cannot be the fault of India’s archaic PDS. That is due to the weakness of the dollar against all other currencies.

The dollar is weak because the US Federal Reserve has been relaxing interest rates over the last few months; this makes investing in other countries with higher interest rates more attractive. Which in turn infuses a larger supply of the greenbacks versus the local currency, hence devaluing the dollar.

And why is the Federal Reserve reducing interest rates? Try searching for sub prime.

Renewed vigour on visual search

Image search has got to be the obligatory burden that search engines need to carry around. In spite of the equally vast amount of spidering required, all that any self-respecting search engine can show are bare images strewn around, hopefully relevant. There seems to be absolutely no incentive for any service to throw up a decent set of image search results because in its native form, it is absolutely non-monetizable unlike its richer cousins like text or even other multimedia like audio and video.

Given that, the image search landscape was, by and large, filled with the big search players like Google and Yahoo! which indexed images by names and then threw out the best possible results. The primary incentive to serve relevant results was to siphon off most of these users to the more lucrative search categories and hence, gain a significant overall market share. Yahoo! went one up recently by exposing the vast database of images it possesses via Flickr as search results. Since the images are geo-tagged and presents readily relevant and indexed data, it was a natural progression to make them available as search results. Incentives as a result of this measure were added volumes in user engagement [capturing the user and his/her immediate social network via forwarding] and hence, a higher probability of the user conversions to signups for Flickr premium services.

The landscape, surprisingly, has seen mushrooming of a new set of players [like Polar Rose, Riya, Picitup] who base search results upon radically different approaches. A definite advantage these players enjoy is that these ventures are centered wholly around image based search and hence, their economics [or lack thereof] are not the same as those involving the traditional search engines. These services use the cheap availability of massive compute power to process images to determine patterns within them as against name/tag based approaches.

It goes without saying that relevance is of utmost importance; however, even bigger problems exist in terms of content and monetization. To counter that Polar Rose, being primarily centered around people based search, have introduced a Firefox plugin that helps bridge the content and relevance gap. The plugin scans the images loaded per page for human-colorized regions [much smarter of course] achieving near 100% accuracy in identifying faces in the image. That done, the plugin allows the user to tag the person as someone recognizable and the relevance is improved when that image is tagged again by someone else. Relevant results then get shown in the search results page. Overall, a healthy cycle that only allows better content and relevance as time goes by.

Riya has been around for some time and have recently introduced that aims to target shoppers who are visually attracted to certain products and on that basis, suggest similar products that might also appeal to the user. Tie-ups with small retailers and seeking a margin from the sales being driven by the visual search engine is, essentially, the revenue model being adopted by the venture. It remains to be seen how successful this turns out to be and how far it affects the profitability of the visual search space.

Picitup, meanwhile, is a late entrant in this field and employs a rather strange method of sourcing images, as explained in the Techcrunch article and which i have borrowed from below

An image search on Picitup begins with a textual search actually queried on Google or Yahoo. Picitup will display a set of results only from one of the two—the basis of the decision is the speed and quality of the results. The user can then select which image Picitup should fetch similar images for, or filter the results by Faces, Products, Landscapes and Color. The analysis is made in real time and is based on 100+ parameters including a propriety color space the company developed.

All said and done, its promising to see a number of players in the visual search space pitted against the traditional biggies and it would be interesting to see how the space pans out in the market share front. Picitup, as an initial arrangement towards that very goal, has introduced a celebrity match service that matches the facial impression of an uploaded image with those of celebrities and returns back those that match with an acceptable level of accuracy.


  • Polar Rose as a facial recognition engine has been discontinued and has since been acquired by Apple.
  • and have discontinued their services and have since been acquired by Google.
  • Picitup has since diversified to allow retailers bridge gap between online and offline shoppers by offering image based visual search as a platform to help find products.

Karamyudh begins

A new enterprise was formed yesterday. Like most of the speculation-based industries mushrooming in India wherein valuations reach sky-high limits even before the first brick of the enterprise is laid, this behemoth too claimed mouth watering revenue figures before its inception. Which, as i said, was yesterday.

i am, of course, referring to the Indian Premier League [acronymed IPL], which is now, deemed as the showcase for cricketing talents around the world. Either you are a part of it or you are no good. Period. IPL, but naturally, plays on the raw cricketing nerve that runs through any true blue Indian, of which, as odds favour, there are many. But what makes this enterprise different from most other sporting gimmicks we have been subjected to in the past is that IPL is backed up by a sound revenue model. And by that, i don’t just mean your run-of-the-mill game shows with advertising revenues grabbing for eyeballs. This, for once, truly sounds sound.

When unveiled, IPL was primarily seen as an altervative for the ‘rebel’ cricketing league, appropriately called Indian Cricket League [acronymed ICL] launched in a haste to make way for some head room. But when announcements kept trickling in and finally assumed the full blown shape that it took yesterday, one cannot but agree that this was no mean achievement. Ever since i read about the revenue structure of the IPL, i have been blown away by the sensibilities of the deal and the potential that it promises. The details of the deal are many, but i’ll particularly elicit my 2 cents on the most potent of the initiatives.

As any enterprise will agree, the three important [and often only] constituents of a successful venture are the employees, customers and the shareholders. The most profitable and promising venture keeps all the three constituents happy and promises each with growth potential as time goes by. IPL has managed to rein in all the three constituents almost perfectly, thus ensuring for themselves, at least on paper, a happy and a coffers-filled future.

Customers are a given. Cricket will always invite audiences and eyeballs. Give it a dash of the best players and you have managed to grab your customer. By inviting franchises per city, IPL had managed to drag in more shareholders to the venture. More shareholders means more capital and hence, grander scale for the venture which will drag in even more customers. Each of the franchise owners own the team representing the city and it is upto the franchise owners to monetize on the city crowd by creating brand loyalty and awareness. The first leg of the league will lay the foundation of the franchisees to eventually create the brand and the passion that supports it.

Which finally gets us to the players and probably, the most contentious issue of the entire initiative. The auction process, which allowed franchise owners to bid for players they wished would play in their team, has been criticized for more that one reason. Part of the criticism lies, of course, in the morals of the process. After all, no one would like to go under the hammer and be labelled as being “sold to this franchisee owner”. After all, players are no commodities. An even bigger issue with it all is that the price paid for a player does not reflect his capabilities as a player, rather it only reflects the marketability of that player and the potential for monetization that player would bring to the franchisee owner. Which explains a sum of $1.35m for Andrew Symonds and a comparably paltry $400,00 for Ricky Ponting

On a different perspective, quality and merits cannot be measured, especially in dollar terms. If so needed, the best way to get that answer is by throwing that question to other people who also have opinions on merit and quality and let them collectively come up with intelligent answers for quality on dollar value. Since there was no available yardstick to measure by, the first leg of the league used the market hype or pull metric and rewarded those with a larger pull on the Indian [this being the key] consumer. And as a result, i think that the valuations as a result are a good mix of hype [good for the franchise owners] and quality [good for the consumer]. With time, market forces will exert their pull and normalize the values of the players as well. And in more cases than less, the normalization would be on the lines of cricketing abilities.

All that jargonry aside, this venture could be a success only if the basics are satisfied; i.e. the consumer is left happy. And while all this was twirling in my mind while i sat in the galleries in Chinnaswamy stadium yesterday watching IPL unveiling itself, i could not help but realize that this would be the first truly Indian export that relies hopelessly on the Indian mass and frenzy that would show the world where the muscle of the new-age cricket sporting lies.

The model, by itself, is no genius; after all, it is followed by many sporting leagues [read English Premier League, etc.] around the world. The beauty, here, lies entirely in the complex marriage arranged by an archaic organization of an equally archaic sport, with the glitz and glamour of media and the passionate fervour afforded by a burgeoning mass of people who cheer every boundary and shake a leg to every Shah Rukh Khan’s number. A mass of people who, hopefully for the stakeholders of IPL, will shape the brand that they wish to be recognized with.

Of twisted tongues and scripts

It was a special Sunday morning when i was flipping through the multitude of channels and i paused my browsing when i got tuned into the Doordarshan frequency. Its not everyday that anyone gives a second glance at Doordarshan nowdays, so that’s what made it all the more special.

The morning transmission was on and Rangoli (literally meaning a floral decor), that had survived over fifteen years of viewership and broadcast was being telecast. For the uninitiated, Rangoli is a Hindi music programme aired every Sunday telecasting popular Hindi movie songs ranging from the old classics to the newer hits.

Normally, i would not have given a second glance to the broadcast, but this time something was different from what i had seen fifteen years back. The songs being played also had karaoke style lyrics scrolling across the bottom half of the screen. That pretty much kept me hooked for the next half hour, while i sang along with songs that i had heard years back but had never managed to get the wordings of. It seemed like a smart idea at the time, but i never ended up tuning back to it ever again.

That memory was buried somewhere deep inside till i recently chanced upon an article about the concept called “Same Language Subtitling” [SLS]. Championing the cause is Dr. Brij Kothari, an associate professor at IIM Ahmedabad who hit upon the ground-breaking idea of spreading literacy by marrying together the entertainment and the visual media together. In his own words

It struck me that early literates — those who cannot read a newspaper or a letter, cannot write or even read a bus board — in India could benefit if Bollywood songs had subtitles in Hindi. Hence, the concept of Same Language Subtitling (SLS)

The project is now supported by the Google Foundation but it continues to battle the policies and bureaucracies rampant in the broadcasting ministry who do not see the apparent benefits of the idea. The programme saw enough success to see Dr. Brij Kothari introduce SLS during Chitrahaar, another popular programme that occupies prime time slots in Doordarshan. The added benefits of wide reach coupled with low-initiation costs make this idea extremely promising and heartening. That social measures coupled with mainstream entertainment can help solve a deep-rooted problem is, indeed, a refreshing principle to wake up to.

A corollary also helps someone learn foreign languages phonetically as i learnt when i watched the Academy award winning Lives of Others a couple of days back at a cinema. i learnt enough of German that day to wish everyone ‘Guten Tag’.

Laughing at Mr. Patrick Clarke

i recently chanced upon a copy of the 1993 Booker prize winner, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, at a bookstore and promptly bought a copy since i vividly remember the news of the win coming around when i was preparing for one of the umpteen quizzes that we, as kids, usually vie to succeed in. What remained with me over the years were the catchy title itself and the confusion of whether Paddy Clarke was the name of the author or of the protagonist.

As it eventually turns out, Paddy Clarke is, indeed, our sub-teen protagonist who is narrating his childhood experiences in this diary-of-sorts pretty much non-sequitur. What, eventually, makes logical sequence is the transformation of Paddy from an unruly neighbourhood kid as he ages (both time-wise and emotionally) towards the end of the book where he records the last few painful experiences of his childhood. The fact that the book ends quite abruptly gives credence to the fact that even though Paddy has not really aged into a teenager, his playful childhood (as he knew it) has come to a pre-mature end. The toning down of the playful mood of the book to the slowly disintegrating experiences towards the end has been wonderfully captured from the eyes of Paddy.

Its not often a book about strained relationships are depicted from the perceptions of a kid; the simple acts that he hopes will avert disasters and the overawed sense of responsibilities to make things better in face of the them only brings in you nostalgic memories of your own childhood and those little, innocent acts you did over the years that eventually shaped you into the individual you are today.

Subprime or Sub-subprime

In view of the turbulent subprime mortgage crisis that has swept financial institutions the world over, its extemely pertinent to throw a glance at microfinance institutions like Grameen Bank who, in the face of it, are doing much better for themselves. The important case in point here being the traditional customers for a Grameen Bank do not have any credit history at all and can avail of loans without any collateral at all. This, by definition, would make such sort of borrowing sub-subprime, if you can call it that.

Mr. Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and Nobel prize winner, echoes just that in his interview with Wall Street Journal where he takes positions against the profit-driven measures taken by traditional institutes against the “social business” measures advocated by Grameen Bank. His views of liberating the critical mass at the bottom of the pyramid by way of a business model turning these sub-subprime borrowers into entrepreneurs in their own respect are commendable and thought-provoking at the same time.

Of course, the comparison between a Citibank and a Grameen Bank is unfair due to the sheer differences in the volumes involved. But one aspect, in the face of the crisis, that certainly cannot be escaped is the nature of the borrowers. Grameen Bank trusts the borrower to repay the credit and the way it manages this is via a strong social construct formed among the borrowers. Besides the peer pressures from your social support group to repay the loan non-withstanding, regular repayment raises the social standing of a borrower enriching the credit history and strengthens their self-respect.

It certainly makes you wonder which one makes for a better business model: cut-throat economics with distrust thrown all over the place or a social initiative which leverages the long tail of finance and liberates the masses there for a general good, both economically and morally.

Interpreter of maladies

It was that time in a kid’s life that is usually termed “career defining” or “that next phase”. In our lame vocabulary, it was time for the preliminaries which were precursors to the awe-inspiring board examinations where haversack-toting four-eyed teenagers were transformed into role models for the future; their youthful faces splayed across newspapers, most proclaiming that they would become doctors and lend themselves to community service.

Among them, you had this messy-haired short and paunchy individual who was also carried away by the impending glitz and glamour of newspapers and hoping for a miracle that would catapult him into his two seconds of fame as the next genius in Goa. That someone was me and you could forgive him for having those dreams because, i guess, that’s what kids are expected to.

On the eve of the dreaded preliminaries, i fell ill with cyclic representations of body temperature. Extreme shivering and periods of normalcy just reinforced in me the visuals of a deep malaise in the form of malaria, that oh-so dreaded of maladies among us simpletons. i was screaming deprivation from the media blitz and was envisioning my teachers crying over the prospect of a genius gone waste. i visualized my schoolmates having to force themselves to write their examinations in the face of sheer cruelty being dished out by fate to one of their friends.

i was morose in the back seat of the scooter when my father was taking me to see the doctor. i awaited the death knell when the doctor would announce ‘MALARIA’ and i would need to miss the year in academics. i was resigned to being a fallen hero for all those for whom fate had drawn the short end of the stick. The doctor examined me and got into some pleasantries with my father. ‘Must be softening the blow for my poor father’, i thought. But something was wrong. The small talks became jokes and i was just ignored. Finally, he turned to me and said that it was just a minor flu and that a night’s rest with some pill he prescribed would do it.

i was vehement with that rejection of my fate. How could you play around with the emotions of a kid like that? Was not i entitled to a belief of my own? i thought that i was in deep malady and had prepared myself fully for the consequences. i was not prepared for normalcy. i was to be the face of extreme tragedy, i could not go back to being your average joe. After all, that is all a kid can handle.

i climbed back on the scooter, morosely again. Next day dawned and proved the doctor right.

Extreme pessimism or forced empathy in the face of circumstances may provide an easy way out to glory and redemption; it is, however, far more sensible to delve in simplicity and logicism instead of romaticism lest you appear foolish in the face of it.

Governments- the business model

Upon close scrutiny, the most successful business model that has stood the test of time is employed by the government. Once you get past the humourous undertones to the statement and analyze the fundamentals of it, you’d realize that is essentially sound and workable.

Its got an exponentially growing customer base, assured revenues through taxes and no known competitors. The services that are provided [like security, infrastructure and accesses to resources like power at low enough costs] will always be termed essential.

The cost of “choosing” another government over the current is exponential or extremely high where it is possible. The large cost can be attributed to various factors like

  • low mix of cultures between peoples represented by their governments, lending to lower volumes in the business
  • low income levels among a huge percentage of the peoples thus denying any sort of accesses, be it via Internet or any other media

Considering a hypothetical situation wherein these costs are lowered to reasonable levels and other border control restrictions relaxed, multiple governments around the world could face large-scale exodus by their peoples into other friendlier governments promoting competitiveness among governments. Some may also choose to set up franchised operations so that geographical boundaries do not stop a people from choosing their free will.

Of course till such a time comes around, i do believe that governments have a utmost sound business model and its a shame that most of us cannot achieve such a parallel.

Hello World

As all bad things in life, this blog too had to start at some point of time, and so it did.

At an epochal period of time in the history of the world, amidst turbulent winds of change and desperate chants wanting to be heard, i thus begin with a seemingly innocuous note.

i hope that this collection of memoirs would soon transcend into something more memorable than some random collection of bits lying somewhere on some server in some remote corner of the stratum.

tongue in cheek. firmly.