Monday, April 27, 2015

Story of Google's transformation from startup to mega multinational

How Google WorksHow Google Works by Eric Schmidt

Just in case you think this book is all about geeky software jargon on how Google works, it's not.

The book by Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman, and Jonathan Rosenberg, the adviser to CEO Larry Page, is a gripping, well-structured, description of the core principles that underline the work ethics of the company. The authors were CEO and senior vice president during Google's formative years.

Don't expect an objective assessment of Google as a company, because the authors are still employees!

The book is about the legendary transformation of a startup to a mega multinational. After reading it, I am not surprised that Google is what it is: one of the most successful and employee-friendly IT companies.

The book talks about what type of workers the company employs, how some of the most acclaimed products were born, how major crises were resolved, etc.

Google must be one of the unique places to work in: where almost everything is done differently -- order and perfection are looked at with worry and disappointment, chaos is welcomed, failure is not frowned upon, the dress code is: 'wear something', employees can work on bizarre ideas that they come up with during their off-duty hours, they can continue to pursue a project even if the bosses have rubbished it, the usefulness of a new product to the customer takes precedence over any discussion about the money it will bring to the company, etc.

It's a book worth reading, at least to know that there are ways of working, different from the ones practised by most firms, and such unconventional methods can also be successful.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Savile horrors, a scandal of unimaginable proportions

Saville - The Beast: The Inside Story of the Greatest Scandal in TV History (Large Print 16pt)Saville - The Beast: The Inside Story of the Greatest Scandal in TV History by John McShane

I grew up listening to the BBC. I still do. Don't exactly remember Jimmy Saville's shows, though I have heard recordings later. But I do remember those of Dave Lee Travis. I was a regular listener of his A Jolly Good Show.

Jimmy Savile was a famous radio host, largehearted philanthropist, and well connected to big names. But the seedy side of his personality, remained hidden all through his life. Only after his death hundreds of women, now in 50s and 60s have come out in the open recalling how Uncle Jimmy molested or actually sexually assaulted them.

One aspect is the horrendous crime. But the intriguing aspect is, how Savile and many others got away with it for so many years. In fact, it looks like he had to die for his victims to even make anonymous claims. And all that took place on the most revered BBC premises.

The book would have made better reading if the accounts of victims were interspersed with better insights into the social mores prevailing in those days, and what held back so many hundreds of victims from speaking out. Also, some more details on BBC of those days, which didn't do anything, though many people there knew about it.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Friday, April 10, 2015

2014: The Election That Changed India by Rajdeep Sardesai

2014: The Election That Changed India
If you need an introduction to the recent political history of India, then read this book. Good reportage by Rajdeep. Easy read. No heavy political analyses.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Online liberty and tolerance

Section 66A of the IT Act has been struck down. But does it mean that people can make objectionable comments and get away with it?

There are sections in IPC like 153, 153A, 504, 506 etc which have been invoked in the past, and will continue to be invoked in the future too.

What has been struck down is only a section that was introduced specifically mentioning electronic communication.

Since more communication today happens online rather than offline, undoubtedly we need clear idea of what is okay and what is not okay.

NEW AGE DILEMMA

I remember being told when I was a child how I should be careful while talking when elders are around. That's no longer the case now. The new generation particularly is very outspoken. However, not all their comments are objectionable.

Very often, what we see online is only an extension of what we see offline, probably a bit more as the virtual setting works as an incentive to open the minds out.

Free expression of thoughts, ideas, comments, suggestions, criticisms, alternative ways of approaching issues and problems should be seen as healthy rather than objectionable. They might look on the face of it cut-and-dried or irreverent or sometimes even outrageous. But as long as the intentions are good, it should be okay.

What should actually be seen as objectionable and clamped down strictly are incitement to violence, hatred, enmity among sections of people, statements that are coloured and discriminatory from the point of view of caste, religion, gender, language etc. made to show sections of people in poor light etc.

NEED FOR PRUDENCE

We may all have the freedom to speak out our minds. But we should also be mature enough to exercise discretion and ensure that we speak the right thing, at the right time, in the right place, in the right manner.

All of us do that in our daily lives. So many times we would have decided not to say something to someone at a particular time in a particular place, because we thought it was inappropriate. So exercise of such prudence and discretion is nothing new or unusual.

On the internet many of us tend to get carried away because we are physically way from the real world. In one way that is good, because some fresh, original thoughts flow out of our minds. At the other end, when we see such postings and comments, we need to understand that these are unfettered, true feelings of people. We need to acknowledge the genuineness behind the thoughts.

As we see more free expressions of thoughts, parallely we also need to develop greater amounts of tolerance. They are interlinked.

Sometimes I see people who actively support free speech are highly intolerant when other people exercise their right to free speech. That won't do.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Advance Reservation Period -- How early can you book a train ticket

Which is the farthest date you can book a train ticket for, is a common doubt people have especially during the holiday season. All of us want to be right there at the virtual ticket counter when the window opens at 8 am.

The most important thing to remember is -- what matters is not the date on which you begin your travel. What is counted is the date on which the train begins its travel.

Even the railway website is not clear on this important point, though regular travellers, especially who board a long-distance train midway, might be aware of this.

Probably because it depends on the date on which the chart is prepared, at the station where the train originates.

Anyway, I discovered this by chance, when I saw that I could book for one train but not for another on the same day. Thought, I must share this, for people who might not be aware.

Here is an example.

The farthest date for which you can book today (March 19), is May 18. (Currently it's 60 days in advance, but from April 1, it will be 120 days in advance.)

Assume you are booking a ticket from Bhopal to Thiruvananthapuram for May 20.

There are two trains available on that day -- Himsagar Express and Kerala Express.  But you will find that you are able to book a ticket in Himsagar Express for May 20, but you can't for Kerala Express for the same date. (The booking should be possible only for up to May 18, and at first look it might look strange why it's possible to book for May 20.)

My guess is (there is no one to confirm officially), this is because, Himsagar Express begins its journey from Jammu on May 18, and reaches Bhopal on the Day 3, that is May 20.

On the other hand, Kerala Express begins journey from Delhi and reaches Bhopal on the same day.

So, you can book in Himsagar Express for May 20, but the farthest date for which you can book for Kerala Express is May 18.

So, so if you are looking to be at the virtual ticketing counter right on the day the Advance Booking Period commences, (now 60 days in advance, from April 1 it will be 120 days), check if you are boarding the train on the same day as it leaves originating station or on Day 2 or 3.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

RIP, Vinod Mehta

The news of Vinod Mehta's passing away today was a shock. In many ways he was one-of-a-kind journalist.

My friends who have worked with him have spoken about his unique way of approaching news stories. A rare journalist, he started off his career as an editor, an editor who only looked for the merits in a story, and not whom it will hurt and whom it will please.

He had a down-to-earth, straightforward, simple way of arguing out his points of view. There were no complicated intellectual theories or roundabout deductions. No surprise, his pieces were a treat to read.

He had golden hands that made the publications he touched sparkle. He relaunched Debonair when he was just 32. There was no looking back.

He infused fresh ideas into newspaper reportage and design, as he launched the Sunday Observer, India's first weekly newspaper. Some of the design elements that he used (might have been borrowed from foreign newspapers) in Sunday Observer were a first in India and are still being used in all newspapers.

Two examples: One, on the front page, the rectangular boxes you see below the masthead (name of the paper) containing pointers to inside page news articles; and two, "briefly" group of news summary in the first column.

Then followed the Indian Post, the Independent and the Pioneer (relaunch). His policy of seeing news as only news, not bothering about whether it hurt or pleased anyone, brought him into conflict with not only political powers but also other editors and proprietors. His stints in none of the newspapers lasted long.

He launched Outlook weekly in 1995. Till then we all had only one India Today (which was a fortnightly) to look forward to as a current affairs news magazine. The fact that India Today was forced to become a weekly sums up the impact Outlook had. The newbie reflected Vinod Mehta's way of doing journalism, and quickly gained popularity.

Another remarkable feature he introduced in the Outlook was in the Letters to the Editor column. Letters critical of him and the magazine were highlighted with a boxed display, sometimes even with a cartoon. A very unusual tack for any publication to take -- the general tendency is to trash or underplay views of readers who don't agree with the editor or the line the publication has taken.

His Delhi Diary column on the last page of the Outlook was very popular.

Indian journalism will miss Vinod Mehta. Rest in Peace.

Some of the tributes:

Saturday, March 7, 2015

India's Daughter -- ban, revulsion and hope

It has now been conclusively proved that banning anything that can be online simply doesn't work. I am still clueless why the film -- India's Daughter, produced by Leslee Udwin for the BBC -- has been banned.

Is it because the government was angry that a foreign film producer managed to interview a convict on death row inside the Tihar Jail? If it was against law, no one knows who gave the permission and how the crew pulled it off.

I am told one reason for the ban is that the government couldn't allow a foreigner to “defame India and show Indian culture in poor light”. I doubt if there is a more lame excuse. What about the litany of crimes, of all varieties, that happen all cross the country every day? Aren't we shamed already? Is India in a cocoon that prevents the rest of the world from knowing what's happening in our country, so much so that there had to be a Leslee Udwin film to do all the damage to our culture?

Instead of banning the movie, every one from Narendra Modi downwards should watch it. Praise it or trash it – there's no rule that every one should praise the movie -- but why ban it?

Whether you agree or not with the way Udwin has made the film, it's indisputable that the documentary deals comprehensively with a very serious social malaise. The reasons for rape put forward by perverts are nothing new. But the normality of such people, showing no sign of remorse, while they justify their macabre deeds is numbing, to say the least.

One big shocker in the film are the views of the two defence lawyers. One of them likens girls to diamonds, which if left on the street would be taken away by dogs. Another says women are like flowers and they should choose be in the gutter or be in a temple to adorn a deity.

The brouhaha over the movie will die soon. But is there any way forward, to stem the slide?

My thoughts are oscillating between cynicism and hope.

The malaise is a deep-rooted one with its tentacles extending in multiple directions. Gender relations isn't so simple, and no such social problem has a ready-made or tailor-made solution. At the heart of it, is the way a man behaves with a woman. And, there are any number of influences: education, upbringing, surroundings, behaviour of friends and elders including parents, financial and living standards etc.

But I am just hoping, as awareness spreads, there will be a change, for the better. And, let that be sooner than later.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Careers in Social Media

I attended the Careers in Social Media session at the Social Media Week in Bengaluru today. The main reason I went for it was that I am frequently asked by youngsters, what jobs they can hope to get in online media.

Here below are some of the points I gleaned from the talks by the members of the panel and answers they gave to the questions from the audience.

Types of jobs

There are three types: Creative, Communicative, Analytic.
Creative jobs have got to do with design and visual appeal.
Communication refers to textual content.
Analytical jobs are about crunching numbers and analyzing them.

How do you know you will fit into this type of job?

Ask yourself if you have a passion for working on these lines. You should be comfortable with online social media. May be you should intern in one of the companies and check out if the job excites you.

What does the job involve?

It's about managing a company's social media presence. The generic designation is Social Media Manager or Director, who has a team that looks into various aspects of how business is publicized through social media, and how people respond to it.

What qualifications should an aspirant have?

A good knowledge of the domain area. If you are into creating textual content, then you should have good command over the language. A formal degree would no doubt add value; but what will matter is not the degree but how good are you at work.

How big is the demand?

Social media management is still evolving. The requirements of different companies are different. But the fact is that all companies are trying to scale up their social media presence. And, all of them are looking for competent hands. There is lot of opportunity out there. There is a huge demand.

How does one look for jobs?

Make sure you yourself have a good social media presence. Lot of recruitment nowadays take place via LinkedIn and Twitter.
Update your LinkedIn profile, with lot of details of what you do. Use the right key words, so that your profile shows up during search.

How good is the pay?

It's getting better and better. Right now, there are people who have been hired for around Rs 3 lakh. However, pay varies from company to company, and depends on what job you are actually doing. In about 3 years time, Social Media Managers can hope to be on a par with software programmers. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Vanishing ballpoint pen refills

You don't get them in most stationery stops.

"That's weird," my friend exclaimed, when I told her about it. "Students still use pens, so you should get it everywhere no?"

Though near the place where I stay, there is a well-known college and a school, the stationery shops there don't sell them.


Lack of replacement refills has led to accumulation of unusable ballpoint pens in my house.

So, today I took them all to the Supreme store near Ulsoor bus stand. The shop is popular as they sell stationery and binding material at very affordable rates.

But, even he has only refills for Reynolds.

I asked my friend's question to the shopkeeper. This is what he said, "When there are cheap use-and-throw pens, no student will bother to go around hunting for refills. And many college students use Gel pens."

These one-time-use ball pens come for as cheap as Rs 3. And if you buy in bulk, you get it cheaper. These may not be stylish, but they are good, and serves the purpose.

So, no surprise it's very difficult to get ballpoint pen refills.

The flip side of use-and-throw pens is environmental degradation. But when did anyone put ecology ahead of convenience?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Steve Jobs - a paradox

Steve Jobs: an Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson is a well-researched life history of a rare icon of the software industry. The author has interviewed hundreds of people -- ranging from Jobs' relatives and friends, to colleagues and competitors -- for this book, and not surprisingly the book has lots of details about Jobs: the person and entrepreneur.

My knowledge of Jobs was all picked up at random from articles on him, especially a surfeit of them that appeared when he passed away four years ago. But nothing to beat this book in terms of the depth of details.

The book is worth reading because of the innumerable anecdotes and quotes that reveal who the real Steve Jobs was.

I found Jobs a paradox. Because, he had traits that were quite conflicting. He had plenty of negative habits in his personality, that we all associate with sure disaster. But probably because of the strength of his positives, Jobs was able to not only get away with all that, but even reach commanding levels of success.

In many ways, Jobs isn't the typical role model. Rarely showered, and had a strange belief that if you are a vegetarian the body kept itself clean. He had erratic food habits -- sometimes he starved himself, sometimes he indulged in a few chosen food which he abandoned altogether later.

He had a fiery and unpredictable temper; and was very bad at managing people. Very often he was curt and rude. He could easily make people dislike him rather than like him. He curtly rejected new ideas for no rhyme or reason, but accepted them later when it came from someone else. Worse, he sometimes appropriated as his own, some ideas of others.

What made him successful in spite of all these, was his sharp focus and determination to achieve his goals. He wanted his creations to be different, and he was obsessed with details, with a sharp eye for design.

He was a shrewd businessman, and knew which side of the bread was buttered. He was fiercely protective of his products which he wanted to look good as much as efficient. He had near contempt for anything other than Apple. He wanted the users of his products to get everything from the Apple ecosystem. He hated to let anyone else in to the Apple Store.

Jobs differed with Microsoft's route of licensing Windows. He also had contempt and strong hatred for Google's philosophy of open source. That in fact laid the groundwork for one of the most intensely fought software battles. The world is divided on those lines: to be open and accessible to everyone, or be protective, exclusive and privileged.

The book also deals at length with Jobs's struggle with cancer. Even while he was losing the battle there was only one thing that brought a sparkle in his eyes: Apple.

Jobs was a completely complex personality. Definitely one of a kind. He knew often he wasn't being fair in the way he was dealing with people but he didn't know any other way to deal with people.

But at the end of it all, he created products that achieved cult status, products that dramatically changed the way people read books, listened to music, communicated with each other.

Isn't that a great legacy?