Friday, July 31, 2009

Summer Break

I'm going on break until September 15. When I go on break, I usually cut myself off from modern technology, and retreat to the ancient and well-worn technologies of pen, paper, my thoughts, and nature. I might write or tweet in between, but not much. Until then, enjoy the respite as I will...

Have a great rest of the summer. Be safe and I look forward to seeing you back here in about 7 weeks!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Navigating Air Travel's New Reality

Following up on yesterday's post, I came across this interesting article. The author went through the same sort of experience I went through but was more patient and giving to the airline industry...or atleast, she tried to explain the problems more gently and made a different point.

I am sitting in seat 10B on flight 744 from Dallas to New York, getting a front-row view of where air travel is headed in this country. Booked two weeks in advance, my coach-class ticket cost $1,258 round-trip—and that was without checking a bag, changing my ticket, or any other innocuous act that could have upped my tab by hundreds of dollars... [My] only gustatory options on this three-hour dinnertime flight are a standard-issue flagon of plonk and an unwholesome assortment of snack foods. Together, they set me back more than $10.


Raising prices for diminished service isn't a winning strategy for keeping customers. Indeed, in a recent Condé Nast Traveler survey, fully 82 percent of readers said they'd travel less if prices rose by 20 percent or more. And while 47 percent said they would be willing to pay extra for an in-flight meal, most balked at the other fees, with only 20 percent saying they would shell out to check a bag. Most agreed the air travel experience has headed south: 70 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced a flight delay of more than an hour in the past year, and nearly 30 percent said a carrier had lost their bag or canceled their flight.

How bad will it get? Here, we look at the many ways in which you will feel the airlines' changes—and what you can do to minimize the pain.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The stupidity of short-term thinking

photo courtesy: Innaminnafly

I'm flying to Europe for six weeks in August (and I won't be blogging much during that time as I know you are all dying for a break! :-) ). And, I'm VERY VERY annoyed at the airline industry right now.

Travel is a luxury item, and with the economy struggling as it is, only crazy people (like me) who are footing their own bills or business people who have someone else footing their bills are doing the traveling. The once high-flying (pun-intended) airline industry is struggling to pay their own bills, and is consequently trying to punish anyone who is trying to help them out.

Normally, with packed flights through most days of the year, airlines keep peak season rates relatively low. But with such low demand, airlines are trying to make their profits entirely in the peak poor, unfortunate idiots like myself are stuck with abnormally high rates. (I try my best to avoid peak traveling seasons in general, because I dislike crowds intensely. But this time, I had no choice.)

This is what I call stupid short-term thinking. While they make money in the short-term (really??), in the long-run, they are "shooting themselves in the foot." And here's why:
  • They are losing on the majority of people sitting on the fence about traveling. I know plenty of people who suddenly have a lot of time on their hands and have been contemplating traveling, but have given it up because of the exhorbitant rates. Airlines are betting on the few who HAVE to fly, not on the potential of people who might fly if their deals were better.
  • They are losing out on customer loyalty. What few airlines realize is that a lot of frequent travelers are loyal, and are powerful word-of-mouth marketers. I am loyal to Virgin Airlines for example (amazing customer service and in-flight service!!), and Southwest Airlines, and I used to be to JetBlue before their customer service started sucking. When you bully people into doing things they don't want to do or don't think is fair, they will hold it against you. In this case forcing us to pay unfair fees and putting up with awful customer service while it will get us this time, will lose us in the long run (this is why I will NEVER fly Northwest/KLM again!)
  • Allowing poor business practices to continue, even flourish: The larger US Airlines have the absolute worst service in the world, and they have no excuse. For years, the US government notoriously protected their airline industry, allowing awful business practices to endure. When the markets finally opened and protectionism was terminated, these "institutional airlines" (US Airways, Delta, American Airlines, United, etc) struggled. Their burgeoning bureaucracy made them inefficient against innovative, nimble, emerging airlines like Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, Frontier, and others. The older airlines have only survived by capitalizing on their monopoly routes, their loyal customers, and building alliances with better airlines around the world.
Still struggling, the institutional airlines turned to stupid short-term thinking, taking their ire out on the customers. Fly one of them and you'll find yourself paying for everything. None of the institutional airlines have on-demand entertainment, a common availability amongst every first-world airline. If you want it, you pay for it. Many of these airlines are locked into lengthy and heavy contracts with labor unions; so their staff are often old, cranky, angry people who have seen a once glorious job go sour. Naturally their customer service is terrible. Further, they've cut down on seat spacing, have aging fleets, ancient in-flight entertainment, and make you pay for everything, including your water and your luggage (in addition to your already sizable airline ticket).

Its ridiculous to me that these airlines are thriving in this economy. And why?? Because the now cost-conscious consumer is forced to go with the cheapest deal, not the best airline. While hunting around today, for example, Delta Airlines was charging $1121 for a round-trip ticket to Paris; Lufthansa, a relatively superior airline, was charging $1600 (which is currently average for all non-American carriers). Normally, I would pay the extra $100 or $15o over Delta just to get better service. But this time, I can't even afford the $1121. But its my only choice, so I take it. So here we have it...the market is working against us and them.

Yes, airlines have investors and shareholders. But shareholders are reasonable people. Everyone knows that the economy is doing terribly. It would be ridiculous to expect that Delta would churn out record profits at this time...

My point is this...short-term thinking, without considering the bigger picture is very stupid and dangerous. While the ailing US institutional airlines continue to get through another year, its only a matter of time before they will have to bow out. After all, GM just did...only a matter of time with the rest...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thwarting Terrorism

The Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, during the 26/11/08 attacks. photo courtesy:

What is the best way to thwart terrorism?? Well, how about we start with where and how a regular person becomes a terrorist...

I was reading this article about Ajmal Kasab the 21-y/o sole surviving terrorist from the Mumbai Attacks on 26/11. He was recently arraigned in court, and strong international interest followed what he had to say. Young and alone, Kasab confessed to his deeds, but what struck me was the story that he told...

He told [the judge]... that he was broke and tired of his job working for a decorator in Jhelum, a small town in Pakistan, and making a pittance. He and a friend had hatched a plan. They would earn cash by robbing people. And to improve their banditry skills they would seek out military training from the easiest source available to a young Pakistani man: Islamic militants.

Mr. Kasab and his friend went to Rawalpindi, he said, and asked in the market where they might find mujahedeen. They were directed to the office of Lashkar-e-Taiba. Indian and American investigators say that Lashkar-e-Taiba planned the attacks in Pakistan. Although Pakistan initially denied that any of its citizens had been involved, it has now charged five men believed to be Pakistan-based Lashkar operatives with involvement. The organization’s founder, Hafez Saeed, has not been charged.

In the months before the attack, Mr. Kasab said in court, he and the other attackers were taken to a safe house in Karachi, the coastal city that is the commercial capital of Pakistan and is a world away from the Punjabi village where his family lived.

There the young men were cut off from the world. He said they and their trainers were not told where they would go next nor were they given any details about their mission, though it was clear that it would involve lethal weapons and deadly force.

“They told us we were to wait for some time,” Mr. Kasab said in court. “There was some problem.” They were warned sternly that “nobody will disobey” their orders.

In a month and a half, they were allowed out of the house only once for a training exercise when they were taught how to navigate the inflatable boats that they would use to leave Pakistani waters.[...]

In his TEDGlobal talk this morning, Prime Minister Gordon Brown (who gave a splendid talk largely on foreign policy and Third World Development) said that we needed to start being more effective than the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. The reason these terrorist organizations are SO effective is because they take poor frustrated young men and treat them like human beings. Suddenly they have food, attention, and a roof over their heads, and they have "purpose"; but this comes at a cost...they must sell their souls. The way to turn around terrorism is to more effectively get to these people before the terrorists do.

On this note, I highly recommend reading Three Cups of Tea, and watching this great documentary by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy who did a phenomenal (and brave) job of covering the Taliban's recruiting mechanisms.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The meeting of great minds: Jobs and Gates

Information Technology and the personal computer have really changed the way the world works. The two big pioneers that took computing from a distant "techie-only" space and made it accessible to the rest of the world were Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Both came of age at around the same time (1975-77), followed completely different models of development, and had a significant impact on each other and the development of information technology.

Recently, I came across a rare interview that brought the two together to recount the "rivalry" and the contributions that each brought to the other and their common field. Here they are in parts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11)

(and can I say that the interviewers are just plain annoying!! Barring them, its a great interview!!)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Pixar: Interview with Jobs and Lasseter

Rounding out my past two Pixar-centric posts, I wanted to end the week with this video interview, that Charlie Rose did with Pixar creative director, John Lasseter, and Pixar owner and CEO, Steve Jobs.

Jobs, as you may already know, is notoriously hard to get on film. He hasn't done an interview in years! Also, this interview was done before Toy Story became the pioneering success that it is still perceived to be today. The interview is consequently fresh, fascinating, and enlightening. Here, Pixar is trying to make a case for the audience to believe and buy into their product (a very different place from today). Much to learn here about how the company's innovative atmosphere and focus was developed.

Bottomline: Focus on the story...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pixar's work culture

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, receives a Technical Academy Award. Below he speaks about leadership and managing Pixar's work culture (photo source:

Following up on yesterday's post, here's more from Pixar president, Ed Catmull. In the video shown yesterday, Ed emphasized the importance of having a good team. In this interview, he elaborates further about what he means.

In case you can't watch the video, here is the essence of what he says and what Pixar strives to inculcate:
  • Cultivate an air of open and honest communication: The basic work culture at Pixar is that movie production is a team effort. Everyone is needed and important, and everyone has the right to speak and be heard. Ed says that the Pixar team works constantly on keeping communication lines open. There is also a significant emphasis put on trusting each other. This comes from attracting high quality people, and maintaining a high level of open communication.
  • Keep it egalitarian: Artists and engineers work together; one is in no way above the other. And it is management's job to emphasize this.
  • Keep your eye on the ball: At Pixar, the bottomline is making a good movie. Everything else is a means to that end.
  • Maintain your quality: Get the best people you know on board, as they will not only deliver a good product, but also bring in better talent.
  • Trust the artists: Ed strongly believes that the creative people need to drive the innovation, not the technical people or management. Given this high level of trust, the creative workforce works hard to include everyone else in their decisionmaking, and deliver a high quality product

If you are further interested in Catmull's take on running successful companies, I would also recommend watching this lecture that he gave at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2007.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Pixar Story

photo source:

Pixar is pure magic and genius. It is the Walt Disney Company for the 21st century.

I've been reading the Pixar Touch (which I highly recommend) that gives the whole story of a group of visionaries whose visions were nearly killed several times. This lecture/panel discussion with the founders and main leaders in Pixar gives a great behind-the-scenes look at what makes the Studios tick, and what their recipe for success is (hint: people, people, people).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why Missionaries are the Most Successful international development agency in the world!!

(photo source:

I'm serious. I can go to any part of the world, and the best-looking hut in that area will have a missionary in it. During my work travels, I've been through numerous huts. Quite often, the people I've encountered have never seen another non-native person but for some caucasian guy with the Holy Bible (the only other thing that is equivalent is coca-cola). On one hand I get frustrated, but on the other, I'm seriously impressed. So how the heck do they do that?? And what can we learn from them??

Alanna Shaikh has done a brilliant write-up on the subject. Among her points are the following:

  • Long Term Commitment: Missionaries come for the long haul. Once they come, they often stay for a long period of time creating trust and a relationship.
  • Community Investment: They invest time in the community learning their customs and language. Further, they make the effort of living like them, generally eating what they eat and drinking what they drink. Again, the community honors the commitment and trusts them. Further, this level of investment guarantees that they understand the community well. Essentially they customize their initiatives to work with the psychology of the community.
  • Focus and Consistency: Missionaries are darned focused on their target. Until the day they die, they keep a consistent message of converting everyone to their religious beliefs. Regardless of whether you believe in this or not, you've got to respect the level of focus and consistency that they bring to the table. There are never mixed messages. If you keep drilling the same thing over and over again, at some point, people will listen.
  • Hard Work and Persistence: Missionaries are hardworking. You'll often find them on their hands and knees cleaning up with the rest of the locals. They don't act that much more different than the people they are working with.
  • Good Role Models: They are good role models. Always clean, well-dressed, and polite, the missionaries present good model citizens. Its easy to want to follow them.

Essentially, if you've been with an International Development project in the developing world that isn't working, look at their leadership and compare them to the missionaries as stated above. You'll see quickly why they are failing.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A blogger's dream vs reality

If you are a blogger, no further explanation necessary here.  :-)

(via SansSerif)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Links I liked

1. If you've ever been unhappy at work and considering quitting, read this post. It also has the best resignation letter ever.

2. Being a geek myself (and sometimes described as "Vulcan", if you are a Trekkie), I'd highly recommend reading this bit on the top ten mistakes people make when managing geeks. In fact, its so popular (and sanctioned) that its been voluntarily translated into 10 different languages, including Persian and Danish

3. An award-winning toilet made from horse-dung. Would you use it?? I would! Truly amazing what good design mixed with decent engineering can do. Here's another example of good design, good idea, and good engineering.

4.  Love reading while taking a dump?? Here's an innovative new dual purpose toilet book...literally!

5. Do our things make us happy?? Happiness Objectified...a must read on a survey done. 

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Great Quotes to Ponder

Some great quotes I came across this week:

We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow-

The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that's the essence of inhumanity.
-George Bernard Shaw-

Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers
-Lord Alfred Tennyson-

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Future of Farming: Will Allen, the Urban Farming Hero

(photo source: Growing Power)

Will Allen is a regular guy who is changing the way urban and rural societies will interact in the future. At the moment, urban societies rely heavily on rural societies for their agriculture. But with the world urbanizing at a rapid rate, and farmers' children leaving their homes in droves, one must wonder what the changing face of agriculture will be like.

Will Allen is the guy shining the torch and showing the way.

Allen is an urban farmer. He takes rooftops and urban patios and turns them into beautiful vegetable gardens and fish farms. His work recently won him a MacArthur Genius grant.

In a recent article profiling the brilliant Allen, it speaks about how a sharecropper's son turned basketball player, learned composting from Belgian farmers.

“I started hanging out with Belgian farmers,” Allen said. “I saw how they did natural farming,” much as his father had. Something clicked in his mind. He asked his team’s management, which provided housing for players, if he could have a place with a garden. Soon he had 25 chickens and was growing the familiar foods of his youth — peas, beans, peanuts — outside Antwerp. “I just had to do it,” he said. “It made me happy to touch the soil.” On holidays, he cooked feasts for his teammates. He gave away a lot of eggs.

After retiring from basketball in 1977, when he was 28, Allen settled with his wife and three children in Oak Creek, just south of Milwaukee, where Cyndy’s family owned some farmland. “No one was using that land, but I had the bug to grow food,” Allen said. As his father did, Allen insisted that his children contribute to the household income. “We went right to the field at the end of the school day and during summer breaks,” recalled his daughter, Erika Allen, who now runs Growing Power’s satellite office in Chicago. “And let’s be clear: This was farm labor, not chores.” [...]


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Emigration to Save a Life or a Country??

Illegal migrants are caught fleeing Pakistan (photo source: Islamization)

Sunday's Times paper also had a great article about how young Afghanis are leaving their country in droves, seeking asylum wherever they can.

I have actually found that emigration, particularly brain-drain, is the single biggest way of doing international development. India, China, and Vietnam's current growth, I believe, is a result of the massive emigration and brain-drain that both those countries experienced in the 60's and 70's. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities, the best and the brightest bailed in hordes, moving to the West and bringing with them their hopes and dreams.

In those days, the countries cursed their fleeing citizens. It left their economies debilitated.  But interestingly, it was the single best thing that could have happened for their long term growth.

These same generations are now older and retiring, and long for the idea of the homes they knew as children. Having fulfilled their dreams materially, many of my parents' generation are moving back home, taking their savings, their new values and their new ways of living back with them to invest in their own countries. They've known a better way of living, of thinking, of behaving, of dignity and treating people with decency and human rights. And slowly the situation is changing. 

Even years before as young men and women, many of these same people had pushed for open markets. And once this happened, many of my parents' generation rushed to take advantage of the cheap labor and the familiarity of the land and culture. They invested in businesses and had a large part to play in the export boom that has since revitalized many of these once dormant economies.

So, can this mass migration of Afghanis be the single best thing that we can do to help their countries grow in the long term?? I think so. Take the best, train them and then let them go back voluntarily. Just as this man has done...

Monday, July 6, 2009

Obama's Youthful Idealism Comes to Fruition

President Obama was ahead of his time (photo courtesy: NY Times)

Sunday's NY Times paper was chock full of really great articles. It is during this time that I physically miss having the newspaper in my hands with my morning glass of milk and OJ, under the warm sun. But I'm not complaining. 

(watching Ecotrip yesterday...the episode about what goes into making a paper napkin, I'm not going to cut down yet another tree to get my paper fix!)

Reading this article yesterday again confirmed for me that Obama started training for his critical leadership role as a kid. Obama was way ahead of his time in terms of his thinking (making him an idealist at that age...I wonder how lonely he was as a kid!). Coming of age in the greedy 80's, he formed ideas about nuclear issues that he had no business having even then.

“I personally came of age,” Mr. Obama wrote in “The Audacity of Hope,” his second memoir, “during the Reagan presidency.”

It was a time when President Ronald Reagan began a trillion-dollar arms buildup, called the Soviet Union “an evil empire” and ordered scores of atomic detonations under the Nevada desert. Some Reagan aides talked of fighting and winning a nuclear war.

The popular response was the nuclear freeze movement. Dozens of books warned that Mr. Reagan’s policies threatened to end civilization and most life on Earth. In June 1982, a million protesters gathered in Central Park, their placards reading “Bread Not Bombs” and “Freeze or Burn.” The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter denouncing nuclear war.

Many Columbia students campaigned for the freeze movement, which sought a halt to additional nuclear arms deployments. Mr. Obama explored going further.

At that point the President, then a 21 y/o senior at Columbia University, wrote about disarming our nuclear stockpiles. Not only did he write about it in his report for his class (which got an "A"), but he also went on to pen a lengthy article on the same in the school newspaper. Twenty plus years later, just as he was being elected into the highest political office, the article surfaced again and blew people away. He was way ahead of his time. (see the Conservatives' take on this article

Recently the President said this, which forms the crux of his thesis:
“It’s naïve for us to think,” he said, “that we can grow our nuclear stockpiles, the Russians continue to grow their nuclear stockpiles, and our allies grow their nuclear stockpiles, and that in that environment we’re going to be able to pressure countries like Iran and North Korea not to pursue nuclear weapons themselves.”

Thank you Mr President!!

Friday, July 3, 2009

The power of blue eyes.

Is one woman really any more beautiful than the other?? (photo source:, the meanest Indian)

Its funny how at any given time, you might perceive yourself a certain way that is completely different from the way other people think. People who are fairer and more caucasian-looking have far more power than a native does in their own countries, particularly in the developing world. I wish caucasians would understand this, and respect and use this power more responsibly, particularly when they visit the developing world. 

I have been in multiple situations (I am darker skinned and have dark eyes), where a blue-eyed blonde-haired person has walked into a situation  advocating the same thing I have and they are much more likely to get a response than I am.  I don't angry about it, but I do get frustrated when caucasians behave irresponsibly (which happens a lot).

On a personal level, I'm often struck by how beauty is so differently perceived by the women I'm around while in the field. Many of the women I've come across in the developing world are strikingly beautiful; partially because they just are physically beautiful, but more so because the hard work and years have built character, wisdom, and strength into their forms such that it really can overwhelm you. When I tell them this, they scoff. Often they have ideas like..." I wish I had blue eyes" or 'white skin" or "fewer lines on my face" or some such thing.

Recently, I saw this video of Toni Morrison reflecting on her outstanding book The Bluest Eye, that largely centers around the life of a negro child growing up in the middle of the US who desperately wants blue eyes. Somehow, this video captured the essence of what I feel everytime I speak to a beautiful poor woman in the developing world.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Skoll Foundation Awards for Social Entrepreneurship

The Skoll Foundation folks sent me the following. Looks like a great program, so please consider applying, and pass on the information to others who may be interested. More information is listed below:

The Skoll Foundation is accepting applications for the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship, our flagship program that invests in leading social entrepreneurs worldwide. Our experience has been that the best candidates are referred to us through the growing global network of social entrepreneurs and the organizations and individuals that support their efforts. Since you are part of that network, we encourage you to refer strong candidates to our online application. Attached is a one-page fact sheet on the program that you can forward to potential applicants.


The Foundation seeks social entrepreneurs whose work has the potential for large-scale positive change in the areas of tolerance and human rights, health, environmental sustainability, peace and security, institutional responsibility, and economic and social equity. Within these issues, we are particularly interested in applications from social entrepreneurs working in five critical subissue areas that threaten the survival of humanity—climate change, nuclear proliferation, global pandemics, conflict in the Middle East and water scarcity.


While we accept applications at any time, we have deadlines—centered around Skoll’s three board meetings—to assist us in managing the internal review process.

The next deadline for applications is: Wednesday, August 12, 2009

There is no competitive advantage in applying by a specific deadline. Following their selection, awardees are celebrated at the annual Skoll World Forum, held in March or April in Oxford, England.


For further information on our guidelines and application process, please go to We encourage you to review the guidelines, Eligibility Quiz, application questions and frequently asked questions and then consider applicants whom you think may be qualified for an Award. We expect that the selection process will continue to be highly competitive, with 6 to 10 Awards in each 12 month cycle.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The inefficiencies of aid: Donor Denial and lack of educated input

A constant question I'm asked is why international aid is SO inefficient. There are many answers to this question. Here's one reason...donors, who generally live very different lives from the poor, don't seem to know the difference between people who know what they are doing and those who don't.

I was reminded about this again just recently, when a good friend of mine (let's call her "Anita") got fired recently. Yes, everyone's getting laid off these days, but this was sad. Anita was the perfect person for the job she was working on. While no one can still point a finger at her work quality (against all odds, she put together a stellar work product), Anita fought hard to improve the system and then got fired.

I had met Anita on a field job in India. She immediately struck me because she was strong, fearless, smart as hell, and had a mind of her own. Growing up in a village in India, it was big dreams, hard work and determination that brought her to where she is now---well-educated, traveling the world, helping poor communities everywhere. She hasn't stopped dreaming; and I hope she will never stop.

Anita's story is almost typical of other people I know who are struggling to honestly and honorably correct flawed systems. In her latest job, she was working for a group of Americans who were trying to expand their work into India. Working out of a NY office, the team scarcely knew what they were doing (this is a common theme among donors btw!! They assume that their way is the way of the world!). Considering the short time-frame, Anita, the lone Indian in the group, desperately called attention to the coming pitfalls and warned the team against their delinquent behavior. I remember her working long hours everyday for several months trying to lay the foundation because there were just TOO many mistakes. One day after months of frustration, she threatened to step down if they didn't change their behavior. Instead of acknowledging her work and her guts, she was promptly sacked and replaced by a 23 y/o American who blindly did what she was told. Anita's boss is a powerful and well-connected man within the donor community. And he has proven to be vicious in terms of wielding his power to sideline her.

The project is still going to be a success, because Anita laid such a great foundation and the organization already has a great reputation. But its ridiculous to me that a team of 5 Americans are trying to run an Indian project while based in the US; each of who has visited India once in their lives to see the Taj Mahal. The locals they have working with them say nothing because they are getting paid in dollars, and they are just happy to have jobs. So there you have it...inefficiency perpetuating itself over and over again.