30 July 2009

Romancing the Letters 2

In my post about letters I was a little wistful. I exhorted people to send real letters across to friends. I now realize, I was far removed from reality.

To wish that folks would romance about letters is to be caught in a time warp. The days of real letters are over. Your eyes may cloud remembering all the letters that you had received, but you are not going to get letters anymore. I learnt from a teacher what we know about letters today.

There is a short story of RK Narayan titled ‘The Missing Mail’. The story is part of the curriculum in certain schools in India. The story revolves around a postcard that was wittingly not delivered to the recipient by the postman.

First a little bit of that story:

The story is set in the sixties or seventies in Malgudi, a fictitious small town of Southern India. A marriage has been arranged for a girl after a lot of trials and tribulations. The marriage must be solemnized before a certain date else the prospective groom will only be able to marry three years later. In comes a postcard for the would-be bride’s father with the tidings of a death in their family. This, before the marriage has been solemnized. One couldn’t go ahead with the marriage in those days if there was a death in the family. The postman knew that. He also knew the amount of trouble the family had gone through to get the marriage to happen. Any delay now and the marriage may well never take place. In his wisdom, he decided not to deliver the postcard. The marriage was solemnized with the father and others oblivious about the news of the death in the family.

Now about what I learnt from the teacher:

The teacher said that the students kept asking her as to how did the postman came to know what was written in the letter. She told them that the letter was written on a postcard.
“So?” they asked in a chorus. The children apparently hadn’t seen a postcard ever and had no conception of open letters. The teacher went to the post office bought a postcard and then showed it to the class.

Students hadn’t seen a postcard. I am betting that they hadn’t seen an inland letter either. Envelope was something that one received through FedEx or Blue Dart. And these carried official documents or bills. So what is the future of letters? Very bleak, I would say.

Letters are slowly withering on the vine. But let’s move on and not romance about letters.

20 July 2009

Who is entitled to road rage ?

I downloaded this image from a forward. The image went with the caption 'Speed Breaker'

These are the quintessential questions of our times:

Who is breaking whose speed?
Who is entitled to road rage here?

16 July 2009

Neo Protectionism: The World is not Flat

Sometime between the years 275 and 195 BC, Eratosthenes of Cyrene found out a reasonably accurate diameter of the earth. As a corollary, we can assume that human beings from that time knew that the earth is round.

Till Mr Thomas Friedman intervened and said, “No, the world is flat”.

Looks like we have come a full circle (or a full square, if you are in Mr Friedman’s camp). The denizens of the first world are now saying that the world is not flat; that some pockets are more equal than others.

When Mr Friedman said that the earth is flat he was talking about democratization of knowledge. He said that the world was moving towards an open source era. Through the optical fibers beneath the oceans knowledge was pouring into the third world. The first world was letting go of their knowledge not because of altruistic reasons but because it made economic sense. Outsource and get a cost advantage.

The pundits at Harvard Business Review are now saying that Americans had got it wrong. Outsourcing in the long run does not give cost advantage. For outsourcing not only ships out jobs it also ships out knowledge. And in the latter case, fear the pundits, it does not return either. The first world (read United States) is slowly becoming bereft of real knowledge. Look at the bizarre justification of the first world pundits for holding on to knowledge, for autocratization of knowledge. Gary P. Pisano and Willy C. Shih have a theory of ‘geographically rooted commons’. In their article titled ‘Restoring American Competitiveness’ in July 09 issue of Harvard Business Review, Mr Pisano and Mr Shih write and I quote:

The World Is Not Flat
Centuries ago, “the commons” referred to the land where animals belonging to people in the community would graze. As the name implies, the commons did not belong to any one farmer. All were better off for having access to it. Industries also have commons. A foundation for innovation and competitiveness, a commons can include R&D know-how, advanced process development and engineering skills, and manufacturing competencies related to a specific technology.
More often than not, a particular industrial commons will be geographically rooted.
What about the popular notion that distance and location no longer matter, or, as Thomas Friedman put it, “The world is flat”? While we agree with the general idea that geographic boundaries to trade are falling and that the global economy is more intertwined than ever, the evidence suggests that when it comes to knowledge, distance does matter. Detailed empirical work on knowledge flows among inventors by our HBS colleague Lee Fleming shows that proximity is crucial. An engineer in Silicon Valley, for instance, is more likely to exchange ideas with other engineers in Silicon Valley than with engineers in Boston. When you think about it, this is not surprising, given that much technical knowledge, even in hard sciences, is highly tacit and therefore far more effectively transmitted face-to-face. Other studies show that the main way knowledge spreads from company to company is when people switch jobs. And even in America’s relatively mobile society, it turns out that the vast majority of job hopping is local.

Can there be a more twisted argument than this? Research can prove anything, it seems. For example, take face-to-face knowledge transition itself. A recent research done on behalf of the Government of United States says that there is compelling evidence to prove that online learning is better than face-to-face learning. So, where does this theory of ‘geographically rooted commons’ go? Out of the window, I would say. The actual motivation of this article comes later when the authors talk about how the outsourcing did not stop at low end activity. Initially printed circuit boards were outsourced by the PC industry in the United States but gradually the Asian original design manufacturers ‘ended up designing and manufacturing virtually all Windows notebook PCs’. And that hurt!

Democratization of knowledge is hurting the United States. A shrill chorus is already building up there to ensure that the world isn’t flattened anymore.

13 July 2009

The Afghan Lady

Barbara Walters of Television's 20/20 did a story on gender roles in Kabul, Afghanistan , several years before the Afghan conflict. She noted that women customarily walked 5 paces behind their husbands.She recently returned to Kabul and observed that women still walk behind their husbands. From Ms Walter's vantage point, despite the overthrow of the oppressive Taliban regime, the women now seem to walk even further back behind their husbands and are happy to maintain the old custom.

Ms Walters approached one of the Afghani women and asked, "Why do you now seem happy with the old custom that you once tried so desperately to change?"

The woman looked Ms. Walters straight in the eyes, and without hesitation,Said, "---------"

The answer made Ms Walters wince and look like a real dummy.

Figure out what the Kabuliwali (See Note 1 below) said to the liberated Ms Walters. Figure out from the English transliteration of the song from the old Bollywood movie Kabuliwallah (See Note 2 below):

The song:

Aye mere pyare watan, aye mere bichhere chaman.

English transliteration:

O lovely land of mine, O lost garden of mine.


Note1: 'Kabuliwallah' in North India, would mean a man from Kabul. As a corollary, Kabuliwali would mean a woman from Kabul.

Note2: Kabuliwallah, the movie, is based on Nobel Laureate R Tagore's story by the same name.

08 July 2009

Who will inherit your blog?

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”, said Franklin. The exception list keeps growing. We had Mitchell adding childbirth to the list in Gone with the Wind. And I, humbly want to add blogs (or tweets, if you will), to this list.

We know that there will be no death to taxes but what will happen to blogs after death? Have you ever wondered? I was searching for counter arguments against Health Industry Standard “HL 7” and I got it in a blog; specifically, in Barry Smith’s blog. This got me thinking. How much of knowledge and information is locked up in blogs? Do we know? Does anyone know?

Who gets the key to a blog when a person is no more?

We know your rich aunt’s property, copyright, toothbrush and soap can be her bequest to you. But is there a legal framework for bequeathing blogs? For example, I am sure Michael Jackson must have had a blog going. What happens to it now? There must be huge amount of public interest and other information locked up in his blog. What happens to it now? Will it be gone from the face of the earth or will it be claimed by Project Gutenberg and added to its voluminous data?
Enterprises are doing eDiscovery to leverage out information from loose files and emails. I am not sure people will give a handle to their blogs. Forrester in its Jan2009 issue says that electronically stored information, or ESI, will be relevant to eDiscovery and I quote:

Although a wide variety of electronically stored information (ESI) can be relevant to eDiscovery under the revised US FRCP, most litigation to date has focused on email, loose files, and employee desktops. In 2009, other content types will become increasingly important for eDiscovery.

Yet, will libraries and individuals be able to unlock blogs and have a look see after a blogger’s demise? Who will inherit a blogger’s legacy?

Who knows, many years later, it may well be possible for a blogger to log in from up there and continue blogging. But till then will a blogger please write her will?

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