Death toll reaches 696 in Maharashtra floods

The death toll is still rising and stands at 696 as of today. This is a really sad natural calamity that begun on July 26th and was unlike any other monsoon rainfall experienced in India. 944 mm of rainfall was received on the first day itself in the Mumbai metropolis!

Luckily, my family had planned to be away from Mumbai much before this rain and did not have to face any difficulties. One of my cousins did, however, have to get to Mumbai on the 26th for a medical exam/interview and was lucky enough not to be stranded at the airport as it was still functional on the first day of heavy rains.

Flickr has many photo galleries covering the floods.

I can only imagine the plight of the poor and the lower middle class in coping with this unwarranted natural disaster. I extend my prayers in support of everyone hit by these rains, and hope that everything returns to normal again.

Addendum: Wikipedia has excellent coverage of the floods.

AP is reporting that the official death toll is at 910.

Why are some people the way they are ?

I have had numerous roommates during my tenure at NC State University as a grad student. They have been from all parts of India too, and after some time I am beginning to realize certain “stereotypes”, if you will, about Indians based on where they come from. Sure, I might fall under a bad stereotype too, but it is always almost impossible to deduce something negative about yourself.

I am not going to name people here. I went to India this summer with the premise that I might not come back immediately to the US. Hence, I sold all my basic stuff, like furniture, electronics etc. before going on the vacation. I had an Asian roommate and an Indian roommate, who had plans to move out at the beginning of summer, and had hence expressed interest in buying my furniture. Long story short, when I come back I realize that the apartment is in a mess, there are condiments just fallen to the floor in the kitchen, the stove is messy, and the bedroom he vacated is in a mess. And on top of it, all my stuff that I hadn’t even sold was missing ! I tried to get in touch with him a couple times, but it was futile. One of these days I am going to get all my basic stuff back from him though.

What irks me most is that I was responsible enough to transfer the utilities and take care of everything before going away, whereas this person just cancels everything even though he knew I was coming back, or that people would still be living here even if I didn’t come back immediately. This is very irresponsible in my opinion. All it takes is one email to let people know about your intentions. Luckily, I knew something like this was going to happen (stereotypes) so I got an electricity connection in my name pro-actively.

I do not really mind if a person assumes that I am not coming back and takes away even things like the $3 trashcan or the $2 mop, but it would be great to get an email about this, and possibly some sort of permission. Besides, the premise for any such transaction is the understanding that the person vacating would spruce up atleast his bedroom in lieu of all this. I do not expect a person to hide or come back to the apartment to get his remaining stuff, but not show his face.

At the same time, I really like my Asian roommate. He isn’t even in the US, but I get his rent checks before the due date. His sisters are very courteous and considerate, and make it a point to send me the checks in time. He will have been living with me for more than a year now.

I just wish people realized that small actions sometimes go a long way in life …

We need a “War on Climate”

The east coast is facing a heat wave right now with temperatures soaring to triple digits. Wednesday and Thursday saw the maximum temperature exceed 101 degrees and the heat index reach 110 degrees at Raleigh. The ozone levels have been really alarming, and the heat has taken its toll on homeless people. The local Govt. has set up “heat shelters” where people could enjoy some air conditioned space. Amazingly, the heat wave has spawned an unusual crime wave too !

In India, Bombay was recently hit with one of the worst monsoons in its history. Airports, railway stations, businesses…everything was shut down due to floods and people were marooned in their homes.

Earlier this year, we had snowfall in the UAE.

Makes you wonder what’s going on …

The GM Diet

One interesting experience I had on my visit to India this summer was seeing the popularity of a weight loss diet program called “The GM Diet“. Almost everyone I know had tried this diet atleast once and seen great results in a week.

I, personally, am not a fan of diets (could also have to do with my lazy lifestyle), but I did try to find more information about this scheme, and was amazed to find very little information online. In fact, the link above is the only comprehensive webpage I was able to find that explained the origins as well as procedure for adapting this diet.

On the outset, the diet looks pretty good, and is different from other low carb diets. It is more “Indian diet friendly” as it includes a lot of fruits and vegetables that Indians eat anyway. From what I have been told, the beef could be easily substitued with any other high protein substance like tofu.

Maybe it is time for me to give it a shot …

My thoughts about my website

The proliferation of the Internet and the many businesses centered around it has meant that it is easy for anyone to get a piece of this expansive “virtual real estate” with little investment. One of the main things that fascinates me about the Internet is how easy it is to draw a corollary in the Internet realm from a law/event in the real world. The only difference being that the Internet is, by and large, an anarchy of sorts. You have clusters of peaceful co-existence, and then you have the dark side and the violent side. I would rather not provide hyperlinks to examples 😛

I guess that this peaceful co-existence of good and the bad also provides some philosophical insight to us about why such a co-existence is impossible in the real physical world we get our nutrition from.

As I write this, I am wondering about what having a home on the Internet has done for me. I have had a domain for more than 2 years now. Of course, I was lucky to get a 5 letter .com domain when all the permutations and combinations seem to be running out. I now run two different types of content management systems, a weblog, two different picture galleries, and two FTP accounts for personal purposes. The way I look at it, a domain gives you a definitive address for your home (your http site) on the Internet. The galleries, the weblogs, and the website interface are akin to having an actual home at the address. The FTP accounts and the email addresses are doors and windows to your home. Like the real world, it takes a lot of many things to make your home a sweet home.

I think that my website still does not offer something unique to the community. Like in the real world, on the Internet you gain publicity and/or recognition only when you provide something extraordinary or unique to others. This could be in the form of services, ideas, notoriety etc. In my case, seeing that I do not intend to make money off of my website (I do not even use the Google AdSense program), I have to provide something that is merely interesting. I am not here to change the world or re-invent anything. I am here just to have an identity and to participate in this anarchy by exchange of ideas and experiences that are transformed from the real world into the virtual world.

With this in mind, I think it is time for me to use my website as an outlet for my emotions (this weblog), my experiences (the static pages on my website and even this weblog), my aspirations, my achievements, and my knowledge. I also intend to use this website and the associated address to advertise myself, to communicate and share with friends and family, and to motivate myself.

Hence, my next endeavor is going to be making available all academic material I have assimilated over the years on this website. I also intend to start writing more on topics that I have an expertise in. Isn’t that the purpose of a website anyway ?

Here’s to hoping that I would be able to make these changes very very soon …

Relevance of the H1-B visa to offshoring …

I spent a good amount of time at Vel‘s place last evening drinking a couple beers and talking about the economy, university life, and other general stuff. During the course of our fun conversation, and after I had had 2 beers, the topic of the H1-B Visa provisions was brought up.

I believe that the H1-B Visa program, if implemented well, could actually curb the offshoring of jobs to a great extent. Ofcourse, like Vel said, an H1-B employee is akin to a regular employee for all practical purposes. Offshoring is inevitable, and the low end jobs are always going to be offshored to a cheaper country/location. We have seen this everywhere including India.

Before I explain my thesis, we must realize that one of the factors fuelling offshoring is the lack of a good primary education system in America. It is increasingly becoming harder for technology companies to find skilled and qualified people within this country. At the same time, it is crucial for these companies to maintain “primary” presence in the US on account of a good judicial system, mature company laws, and availability of global marketing resources. For example, Intel has 60% of its business outside America today. This is a common scenario across technology companies as the developing world plays catch-up and comes up as a big market for American products.

As a lot of people have pointed out, H1-Bs work with their American peers in America to further enhance the economy by paying taxes, buying billions of dollars worth of goods and services etc. This also means that they are being paid at par with the current wages prevalent in their industry. So, how exactly is this better than just offshoring the entire group to a cheaper place for the parent company?

You have to understand that it is not always cheaper to set up new operations in a cheaper country. We touched upon this last evening, and one argument against this was that it is always going to be cheaper in the long run. Well, when you offshore, you also have to factor in the quality of labor, and the value of such an investment. Value is derived from project turn-around times and other factors. These factors include local government policies etc. It is cheaper to offshore mundane tasks like call centers, basic IT development, and even telemarketing. At the same time, it is very difficult to offshore anything strategic. It is cheaper in other countries because of the availability of a large quantity of “mundane” labor. The very best is still in the developed world, and especially the US because of the quality of life and the higher institutes of learning that ensure that the very best stays in the US.

Sure, we are seeing the offshoring of research as well as product development now, but this is because of the growth of the developing world’s economies as a whole. USA is unable to keep development on its shore at such a high pace, and a lot of it has to do with politics, Govt. policies, and again, lack of etremely qualified and diversified people here.

Now, imagine if companies like Microsoft had their way, and the H1-B scheme was liberalized. The local companies would be able to hire the top talent from the world and stop other countries from getting forward. Sure, offshoring would still continue abated, but it would be more strategic than not. Surely, there is a reason why companies want to hire foreigners when they could just as well go with cost. I have been a firm supporter of the belief that costs catalyse offshoring, not fuel it. If costs were the only factor, then there would be no software companies in the Western Hemisphere. The McKinsey Global Institute has links to some very good articles and a panel discussion that touches on the need for a more liberal H1-B program.

If the H1-B caps are maintained at their current levels, at a time when the US economy needs more specialised workers than ever, it could prove catastrophic in the long run. I see offshoring as a short term solution. Other countries are not at all in a position politically, economically, or even socially to be havens for a global business. A car made by Ford in Mexico could cost the same as a car made by Toyota in the US. What matters is that Ford is still an American company and Toyota is a Japanese company having a bigger American business unit than a Japanese one.

I hope that the US policy makers realize this sooner than later.

Addendum: Interesting read – Immigration and Offshoring: The Graying of America

A cell-phone that receives and sends faxes …

Today’s cell-phones are loaded with features, many of which are almost too trivial or just too modern for a phone. Too much is never enough though, and we keep longing for newer and newer features.

I kept receiving fax calls from a certain number today, probably because they had the wrong number, but it made me wonder if there is technology to be able to send and receive faxes on your cellphone. This does not sound especially weird considering that there are cellphones with huge displays and excellent graphics capabilities. It is but logical to expect a modern cellphone to be capable of receiving faxes and then displaying them on your screen.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any such device on the market. I was, nevertheless, able to find third party software for smart phones and PDAs that would let me send and receive faxes on an email account.

I wonder how hard it would be technologically to implement native fax support in modern smartphones. If there is a voice call, activate the ringer, and if there is a fax call, simply receive it !

If the user wants to transfer this fax to a computer or to print it out, he/she could just forward it to an email account or simply sync with a computer. I hope something like this hits the market pretty soon !

Why India will never see anything like Kozmo …

I am sure everyone is aware of Kozmo, the first ever e-tailer of sorts that was actually somewhat successful before closing shop in 2001, three years after its inception. Google Answers has a great thread giving background information about this company. Kozmo.com was started by Joseph Park, a Time Magazine nominated Innovator in 1997. There is a movie called e-Dreams that chronicles the growth and demise of this innovative Internet based retailer that actually delivered everything from ice cream to video tapes. The idea was to have inventory for common frequently ordered items, and to forge deals with other vendors for the remaining items.

It was ultimately the pricing and the incorrect and somewhat unclear target customer focus that killed Kozmo. The new CEO had lost focus, and was trying to compete with mail order companies citing quick delivery as the only USP for using Kozmo’s services. I would also say that the idea was pre-mature and ahead of its times. There were still no stringent rules and regulations about Internet privacy, and online advertising was still controversial and somewhat monopolised in the hands of 1-2 key players. All in all, a good time to make short-term money but not to write a sustainable business plan. Only a few companies survived the dot-com crash, and hence, I would not blame Kozmo entirely for its own debacle.

Now, when I say that an enterprise like Kozmo.com is never going to be sustainable in a country like India, I base my analysis on the relatively lower importance of the Internet in an average Indian’s daily life. I will stand up against all refutations who claim that it is only a matter of time when the Internet gains as much importance in India.

India differs culturally and socially from the US in more than a thousand ways. Inspite of the Internet and all that buzz, people prefer to carry on their lives using more personal communication means. The Internet is not personal enough to make any difference in an Indian’s life. Sure, it has already replaced newspapers when it comes to classifieds, and postal letters when it comes to time insensitive communication. People still love to go out with their families to shop, and students know better than to order pizza on the Internet. Very busy professionals can often afford manpower to do their chores for them.

Even then, all it takes is a phone call to your neighborhood super-store to get anything you want delivered free to your doorsteps without any minimums or delivery charges. And this has been in place before the rise of the Internet in India. There are companies like P&G India that have actually started telemarketing operations with free delivery. The prices are actually lower than super-stores or discount stores like Big Bazaar. The delivery times are minutes not hours, and you can order anything from the P&G catalog of products.

With all this aready happening, do you still think that there is a market for services like Kozmo.com in India? I certainly don’t, and I might be proved wrong in the coming years. All I know is that it would take a lot to have an average Indian consumer pay more to get what he wants in lesser time and without physical effort.

Addendum: I just came across a similar new service in the NYC area, called MaxDelivery.com

The Global Face of the Indian IT Industry …

The Indian IT industry isn’t all about doing world class work at rock-bottom prices. That is one of its most regarded facets. There is another side of the coin that everyone so easily neglects. The Indian IT industry is global in the truest sense of the word.

Recently, I have been getting emails from college batchmates about positions in their companies that require the knowledge of a European language. There is an actual need for multi-lingual Indian software professionals at almost every company. For example, Tata Consultancy Services is hiring foreign language experts and multilingual software professionals for overseas projects.

Even in urban India, school and college students are not content with knowing just 2 spoken languages. Almost every school student is learning French, German, or Spanish as a hobby. These same youngsters would later on work for the world!

All I can say on this American Independence Day celebratory evening is that India is numero uno.

Google Earth – Can it be used to find Osama ?

Google Earth was released for free last week. After having bought technology from Keyhole, Google has released a basic version of the Google Earth software for free without any recurring charges. There are enhanced versions available for different needs that feature better satellite images and higher quality printing.

Even in its basic form, the Google Earth software can be used in many different ways, and is highly customizable. Check out this website [snotmonkey.com] for addon files that can be used to really show off this software’s abilities.

It is still a beta so I guess a lot of features would be added on later, but imagine being able to search for people using the software with only their names or phone numbers. That would be truly mind-boggling. Then, imagine implanting a “geo-tracking” chip inside every human on earth, and being able to pull up their location in real time. We could catch criminals so easily ! Ofcourse, different users would be given a different access level based on their role in society, but in theory this system should be able to curb crimes.

I will have a drink to Google’s success tonight. Let’s hope it changes the cyberscape for the better…