How to save Venice. Indian cities have the solution.

Well, we Indians have inadvertently stumbled upon the solution to Venice’s problem. Not just venice but a host of other coastal cities which are under threat of being inundated.

It is not often that some good comes out of the most absurd actions and we Indians who have mastered absurdity have rarely seen any good come out of it. But not so this time. Our stupid and greedy actions have finally paid off.

What ails Venice and other such cities are rising sea levels which threaten to submerge them eventually. They are desperately trying and failing to stem the rising sea by building barricades.

But we in Bangalore, even though not threatened by this phenomenon, have been slowly but surely raising our city. Not only that we also plan for this rise.

A look at this photo will prove how we have managed to elevate our city by more than 24 inches over the past 3 decades.

fire hydrant

This is a, now defunct, fire hydrant near my house. 3 decades ago, it was fully visible and the street and footpath was lower than its base. Our stupid and corrupt practice of re-asphalting our streets every year has added so many layers that we have finally managed to sink it.

Every time the road is re-asphalted, the footpaths are also raised. But recently a new phenomenon has surfaced. Every time a footpath is raised, they raise it by 10-15 inches. This ensures that they can cope with the rising road for several years. To hell with the pedestrians who are actually supposed to use this.

ROAD_FOOTPATH

I am sure if Venice hires our city planners and contractors, they can be sure to elevate their city out of the reaches of the sea. 

An example of gaps in Indian tech evolution

There are several instances epitomizing the lack of continuity in product evolution in India.

Need based innovation is always progressive. A small tweak here and there to refine the product to suit the needs of its users. This trail of evolution does not always make the predecessor redundant. So product evolution is more of a branching than a linear progression, where each node of the branch is still relevant and can always be resurrected.

Interestingly these nodes also give birth to totally unrelated technological solutions, which themselves evolve individually, yet mystically pinging back on its source and correcting course to keep the entire ecosystem relevant,

But  gaps or leapfrogging in technology denies us access to these nodes,

I have always argued that the absolute lack of need based innovation in India and the non availability of these nodes has caused irreparable damage. But there are those who refuse to accept our historical inability to innovate. These are the people who fail to see the incongruity of such a selective and disjointed adoption of technology and the ludicrous image it portrays to the astute observer.

To all such disbelievers:

India had blindly adopted the practice of marking an ambulance like this

Ambulance marking

long before we adopted functional rear view mirrors in our cars, trucks, buses and 2 wheelers.

Who, but a country which copies others solutions without understanding the need which necessitated the innovation can do this?

PS. For the younger gen. Till about 10 years ago, all Indian buses and trucks sported a 4″ circular convex mirror which was made for 2 wheelers. These were “fixed” (minimal adjustment) in such a way that the driver had to lean forward or sideways in his seat if he wanted to watch his back. It was only when the new breed of vehicles came to India, that we gradually migrated to the present large mirrors even though the older heavy vehicles still sport the round mirrors.

But these heavy vehicles are yet to incorporate the remote adjustment facility which is common in most cars today.

 

Note counting machines – Boon or bane?

Note counting machines are relatively new to India. Large wads of currency were earlier counted by hand and verified by another bank employee before they were banded together. And finally counted once at the counter before they were handed to the customer.

Note counting machines were introduced in Indian banks to reduce the time and effort and errors involved in this exercise. More trust was reposed in the machines ability to be accurate than the humans. The initial machines were edge counters, but the newer models feed the entire note and also verifies against counterfeiting. These note counters are also found in ATMs and payment kiosks.

But the way an Indian interacts with these machines gives an insight into the uneasy relationship between man and machine.

Observe a bank teller when you are withdrawing cash. He takes a precounted wad of 100 bills and feeds it to the machine.

And more often than not it shows a few notes less or more. The teller then continues to feed it to the machine till it reads 100 and then hands it to you.

Every time this happens to me, I start wondering. What is going on in the mind of the teller?

Is he so confident that the bundle has 100 notes and the machine wrong that he recounts it till the machine agrees? If he is so confident on manual counting, why not just hand over the bundle?

If the machine is capable of making mistakes, as is evident, how can he accept the final 100 to be correct and not the initial 98?

If these machines are not trustworthy, why buy them at all and add another step in the counting process?

Are the ATMs and cash deposit machines also prone to error?

How do banks trust the ATMs and cash deposit machines to flawlessly identify the denomination and the quantity? What mental stress and agony these guys must be enduring?

This just proves that we Indians habitually distrust machines as this interaction is very new to us. The younger generation reposes more faith in machines. The conclusion would be: If you automate, do it fully. No human intervention or interaction. Use humans only to service the machines, else we will just add another cog in the process.

‘Out of the box’ thinking. How big is this box?

This an oft repeated cliche to encourage people to think differently. But it has been abused so much that its verbal definition has become very murky.

Simply put, anything different or out of the ordinary, contrary to accepted norms and processess can be defined as ‘Out of the box’. This definition was sufficient in the past. But todays connected world has forced us to do a rethink.

Earlier the box in reference was limited to your family or friends circle, town, state, college or country. Your box was very, very small, local and contained. It was easy to be applauded as an innovator if you just voiced an idea you had read in an obscure publication to a group who hadnt. Believe me. I have been doing it for ages. This was an era when information was at a premium. Those who had acquired it, brandised it and encashed on it.

But try that today and you will see everyone, including your veggie vendor, reaching for their smartphones to verify the veracity of your claim. Google has made life tougher for those who try to modify, embelish, tweak, plagiarize and rechristen ideas and try to pass it off as their own innovation.

I would like to use two photographs to define this concept specifically in the Indian context.

open cardboard box isolated on white background - rendering
Out of the box – Indian context

 

 

matrushka dolls
Matryoshka – nested russian dolls

A word of caution for all those Indians who carelessly refer to all and sundry as innovations.

Indians have to start competing with the world. It is no longer sufficient to copy an old idea, Indianize it and pass it off as an innovation for a local audience. Every idea and concept and action will be judged on a global scale. Maybe not by Indians, but the world is watching and maybe snickering.

 

Problem solving in India. The complexities.

Date: December 16, 2012

Place: New Delhi

The brutal gang rape of Nirbhaya shook India and this tragic incident sparked off several debates on how to make India safer for women.

I monitored the debates on several channels. The participants were all intellectuals and professionals from different walks of life. The outcome was very revealing and reinforces the fact that problem solving in India is a real challenge and why nothing ever gets done.

Let us look at the way the debate went and the different reasons and solutions offered by the participants and this will give an idea of how we have neglected our problems for far too long. Instead of nipping any problem in the bud, we let it grow and it grew out of control.

Some of the suggestions to solve 1 social problem were

  1. Delhi is a union territory. Who governs what? Who is responsible? -> Statehood for Delhi. Legislation and other problems
  2. Ban tints on vehicle windows -> Allows others to see inside and prevent crimes
  3. Don’t ban tints -> Women drivers feel it offers them safety and privacy
  4. Police are inactive and insensitive –> Re-train police
  5. Police not equipped to handle and respond on time –> Buy more vehicles, night patrolling, more walkie talkies
  6. Arm the police with guns
  7. Don’t arm the cops as they are not responsible enough.
  8. Police are not gender sensitive –> Social problem which stems from a patriarchal society as most policemen are from rural areas. Improve education
  9. Need more women police –> New laws needed to increase quota of women.
  10. All-women police stations to handle womens issues -> No funds
  11. Police don’t register FIR’s -> Utilize technology like FIR kiosks, mobile apps etc
  12. Police force is under staffed -> No budget to increase manpower
  13. Hang the rapists as a deterrent –> Need new laws
  14. Don’t hang the rapists –> Human rights
  15. If the rapist is a minor should the law be the same?
  16. What makes a rapist? -> TV programs and movies which depict women as objects – Ban such movies -> Don’t ban them
  17. Schools need to provide proper education on sex –> Revamp education system
  18. Schools need to stop segregating boys and girls as this leads to unhealthy (sexual) thoughts at a young age
  19. Parents should not treat sons as superior to daughters -> Create awareness
  20. Public transport is inadequate –> More buses, budgets, congestion, pollution etc
  21. Privatize public transport
  22. Install CCTV recorders in buses –> who bears the cost, who monitors them, who maintains them, invasion of privacy
  23. Call centers should provide transport for women working late night shifts –> Can you trust the driver – police verification – can you trust police?
  24. Media sensationalizes the issue –> Muzzle the media, freedom of speech
  25. Low conviction -> Why cases fail in courts – Forensics can’t provide evidence – modernize forensic labs, import better technology – retrain
  26. Police don’t gather proper evidence –> retrain them – form CSI wing
  27. Corrupt police shield rapists –> new laws to prevent it
  28. Courts take a long time in deciding cases –> back log of cases – more courts – more judges – implement fast track courts only for rape
  29. Lower court judgements can be appealed in higher courts adding to the delay –> new laws to prevent this
  30. Male judges / lawyers defame and embarass victims in court -> Sensitivize them
  31. Women dress provocatively and this leads to rape –> Ban western clothes – don’t curb the individual rights of women
  32. Ban late night movies
  33. Close bars and discotheques early -> Regressive
  34. Ban dance bars -> Loss of livlihood of thousands
  35. Street lights don’t work or don’t exist -> capital outlay, maintenance, power shortage
  36. Install CCTV to monitor all streets -> Cost, maintenance, real time monitoring. 
  37. Auto rickshaw is not a safe mode of transport as they don’t have doors –> ban the auto
  38. Auto drivers are not helpful –> sensitize them by training – minimum education

All these and many more offered by 8 people in 1 hour to address 1 problem. Imagine how many more suggestions will crop up by 1.25 billion people trying to address the millions of problems we have.

It is obvious that our laxity has compounded the problems. One solution leads to several associated problems.

By contrast,  the way Ireland, a predominantly catholic country, handled the Savitha Halappanavar abortion case, a socio-legal issue, is an eye opener.

Blood money – the real cost of technology.

What determines the cost of a product?

A scrap dealer knows it the best. Surprised at how a person who breaks down things can be right about making things?

If you scrap a car, it is broken into its basic components and segregated. Metal comprising of sheet metal and solid steel according to their physical and chemical attributes; plastic according to their color and grade; wires for their copper sans the sheath; rubber from the tires etc.

All these are valued using the basic unit of measure – weight. A price assigned to the weight yields the total value.

There is no ‘value addition’ .

So the price of a crank shaft is its weight multiplied by the price of steel and not burdened by its machining costs or the labor or overheads or profit or the cost of technology involved in making it or the cost of the R&D involved in developing it.

Simple arithmetic.

Hence a used soda can is more valuable than a computer because when a computer is broken down all you get is some plastic and very little metal.

So the less a scrap dealer offers, the more the technology cost. ( For the sake of this example let us club all the additional costs except the cost of raw material and call them technology cost). But even at this stage we have not totally done away with technology cost. For example the steel has used technology to become steel from iron ore and the iron ore itself used technology to be mined. But for this example we can start at the level of the scrap dealer and divide the basic components of a car into metal, plastic, copper aka ‘raw material’ and a technology cost to make these components into a car. And we will be calculating the cost of raw material only by weight. It is now safe to assume that where ever man intervenes there is value addition and hence a cost involved.

So what is the cost of technology? If the cost of the raw material is 25% of the cost of a car or 5% of the cost of a computer, then it is safe to assume that the balance 75% and 95% respectively are the cost of technology. He who makes the technology, controls the price and reaps the maximum benefit.

Is this fair? Should the reverse be true? That is, can we use this methodology in reverse to make and price a car? In reality we can.

The more we indigenously develop things, at all levels of development, the lesser the technology costs and hence the lesser the final cost of any product

Planning in India? What a farce.

I had posted this in praja.in on 4th November 2008. I am reproducing the same here.

I always wonder why we face so many problems. No sooner is a problem solved, than the solution poses a new problem. Why don’t we have long term solutions?

A recent example is the Mysore road – Sirsi Circle flyover. A much needed, much awaited solution to a long term problem. But it is now swamped with maintenance problems. The expansion joints are exposed and the solution is in importing the required materials, which is a problem in the long run.

A road is widened and ….. problems.
An OFC cable is laid and …. problems.
LPG is introduced for autos and ….. problems.
An airport is built and ….. problems.

One common attribute to all these problems is ‘lack of planning’. Are we bad at planning or don’t our plans work?

In very simple terms, planning is looking at and forecasting the future and making provisions for change.

The future could be immediate, slightly ahead or far ahead and planning could be for individuals, corporates or government.

Now look at the irony of it all. WE (Indians) are expected to plan for the future, a future on which we have absolutely no control whatsoever.

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Indians can NEVER change.

Indians are instinctive. Instinct rules and dictates most actions of an Indian.

Instinct is hardwired into every living organism and there is nothing bad about it. The basic instinct is to survive. Survival also involves nourishment and procreation. And hence these are the primary traits we see in, say, plants.

But any organism with even a grain sized brain has learned to control and manipulate these instincts. Since instinct is involuntary, controlling them needs discipline and a resolute mind. These are the organisms which thrive. Man is a good example, but one of many.

Thinking is essential and good. If we didn’t, we would still be cavemen. surviving by eating and mating.

But instincts can change too. And this is called evolution. A time consuming process. And during evolution, the non-thinking, only instinctive species runs a great risk of elimination and extermination. Manipulating instinct is also very dangerous. A non-logical instinct, trains the brain to do the wrong thing involuntarily. The results may not be immediately visible. But time will prove it to be the death knell of that particular species.

Take the case of the Kakapo. A parrot from New Zealand. Several millennia ago this was a parrot happily flying about. Then a bunch of them realized there was more food on the ground, or they were plain lazy and didn’t want to fly. Now, these birds have become so gigantic, they cannot even hop. They forage the forest floor, clumsily dawdling about, an easy prey and on the verge of extinction.

So how can we prove Indians don’t think and still are instinctive. Will this lead to our extermination? Or at least economic subjugation by a superior race? Can we overcome instinct and learn to think?

Let us look at a small segment of our lives. Something we do by instinct, involuntarily. Would thinking help us to eliminate this instinct and open our minds to learn to analyze. Controlling this may lead us to look for more such serious issues and tackle them successfully.

Every Indian, every damn one of us, without exception, honks.
Stupid example? May be irrelevant if you try to analyze what evolutionary impact this may have on future Indians. But critical if you look at this as an example of our ability to not think.

Why do Indians really honk? Is it really necessary? Is it justified every time we do? We use it involuntarily instead of the brake for any obstacle. Not because this obstacle was a threat but it impeded our smooth and royal passage. We do it so instinctively, thoughtlessly and obsessively, that we have even started honking at speed breakers and signal lights.

Let us all vow to take a small test. The next time we honk, count the five times you have done so. Stop your car or bike and analyze the results. Will take just a minute of your bloody precious time.

  • Did your honking have the desired effect of alerting the obstacle?
  • Did the sleeping cow run away?
  • Did the jay walker heed your call or did you just bully the pedestrian on the zebra crossing?
  • Did your honking at an intersection dangerously distract all the others who were not your intended recipient?
  • Has our incessant honking led to a ‘wolf, wolf’ situation where nobody even cares anymore?
  • If you hadn’t honked, would you have really met with an accident?
  • Was your honking a manifestation of your own lack of confidence, control and driving ability?
  • Have you started to use the horn in frustration and to vent your anger?
  • Would it have been better to just apply the brake and slow down a bit?

If after this exercise, you voluntarily disconnect the horn, then India still has hope.

Shashi Tharoor is wrong. Indians cannot innovate.

This post was long pending and lazily taking form. But a particular incident accelerated its publication – a few tweets exchanged between me and Dr.Shashi Tharoor MP, Diplomat etc.

sashitharoor_1st tweet

sashitharoor_cp_que

sashitharoor_reply

[I have been trying to hear his speech but have been unable to do so due to a tech glitch. Not sure if it is at my end (I stay in India) or the host site. Will keep trying. In the meantime I checked tharoor.in for the speech. But they haven’t put it up yet.]

Now the meat of this post. At the outset I cannot accept a superficial opinion of how well India is innovating based on an armchair expert’s understanding of what innovation is. Such well meaning people have unwittingly caused more harm than good. We have been subjected to this lie for centuries. A look at our history (err-mythology?) and our text books which perpetuate this lie are proof. This lie which has been bandied about recklessly for centuries has made us complacent. What we need instead is a jolt of reality, a shocker to wake us from this reverie.

Dr. Shashi Tharoor is basically a well read, well educated, widely traveled diplomat, author and nouveau politician of certain repute. The fact that his only claim to the Indian tag is ancestry and matrimony may be the only dampener. That not withstanding, he should, like many other celebs and politicians, realize that they are basically ‘media magnets’ at such events (Launch of the India Innovation Institute – University of Toronto) . Not experts on each and every institute and organization they inaugurate. What if Mallika Sherawat assumes she is an expert on cancer just because she once inaugurated a cancer hospital.

Why did Shashi Tharoor make this statement? What makes him and his ilk experts on innovation? Why do they mask our lack of innovative spirit as globalization? Is innovation so simple and pedestrian to define and judge? Has such careless talk of big, earth shattering innovations scared and prevented the Indian tinkerer from experimenting? Have such references set the bar too high? What is innovation?

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The Killer buses of India – MADE IN INDIA

 

run_over

  • On 24th Sept 2011,  the headlines screamed of Gourav Surekha and Ashwin Raghuram, 2 young commerce students, losing their lives to a BMTC bus.
  • On 1 Oct 2011,  Pooja Salgaonkar, a 24 year student from MCC was run over by a lorry.
  • On 2 Oct a young boy was run over by a private bus in Bangalore.

4 more victims added to a loooong list, a never ending list that we care about no more.

Going by reports, it may be  safe to assume that the youngsters were negligent. But negligence need not necessarily mean a death penalty. A mature and responsible society analyses the cause and plugs the holes. Something we Indians never do. A. Because we can’t understand the problem, B. We have no solutions.

To begin understanding the problem, lets start with a key indicator in all such reports.

“Crushed”, “Run over”,” Mowed down” –  three words essentially used when it is any accident involving a bus or lorry.

This is the problem and therein lies the solution.

When you read these three words, the questions that should be asked are:

  • “Why only a bus/lorry?”.
  • “Is it that a car is not heavy enough to crush a person?”.
  •  “Are all buses killers?”

Now delve a little more on the words “run over” & “crushed” and the answer is obvious.

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