Jag Venugopal's Blog

September 30, 2011

I am a cashew nut extract…

Filed under: India — Jag @ 5:00 pm

This Bollywood subtitling gem is from the movie Dumm Dumm Dumm (2001), courtesy of Paagal Subtitle

I am a scissor
Get up, get up, you wagger
I am a cashew nut extract
The world is in the pocket
The sky is in the kerchief


September 28, 2011

What spawn of the devil is this?

Filed under: India — Jag @ 10:15 pm










What do you get when you take a 1953 Morris Oxford, chop it in half, throw out the back end, stick a farm cart on the vacated space and call it a 2011 model? You get the Ambassador Veer.

September 27, 2011

The truth about why Netflix is in trouble

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 9:13 pm

There has been a lot of brouhaha about Netflix’s price increase, and then the consequent action of splitting its DVD and streaming business into two separate companies. Customers, and media commentators are up in arms at the company’s strategies. I think the arguments thus far have been tangential to the problem Netflix really faces. The real problem with Netflix is something else.

Film and TV programs are unique goods that cannot be substituted, much like commodities can be. If you want a pound of sugar, you can purchase it from any supermarket in your neighborhood. Producers of sugar do not have much leeway in controlling the price or distribution of sugar. If its too expensive in one place, you can buy it from another.

Film and TV programs are a different beast. For example, if you wanted to watch Star Wars in high definition, you are unlikely to be satisfied with watching a different SF movie. Similarly, if you want to watch Lord of the Rings, you will probably not consider Harry Potter to be an acceptable substitute. Each work is unique, and non-substitutable. This is the case for at least popular Film and TV programs.

Netflix tries to commoditize content by bringing a large number of Film and TV programs under one roof, and making it available for a fixed rate. Once you’ve paid your subscription money, it matters little to them whether you want to watch Seinfeld or Frasier, or anything else. In Netflix’s worldview, everything is substitutable. Cannot find Sopranos? Netflix will provide any number of recommendations for similar shows.

The problem is that so long as demand exists for unique Film and TV programs, Netflix has to negotiate with exactly one supplier for each. For example, there is no way Netflix can stream Star Wars without George Lucas’s consent. Similarly, no streaming the Lord of the Rings until they have an agreement with Warner Brothers’ New Line studios.

Back in the day when Netflix had a huge DVD-by-mail operation, the studios were forced to negotiate with Netflix. And if Netflix did not like the studios’ terms, they were at liberty to go to Wal-Mart and buy up every last copy of whatever DVD they wanted. Streaming was still not commercially viable. And Netflix had worked out the logistics of shipping DVD’s through the mail in a very efficient manner.

In the new world, however, streaming is not only economically viable, but there are many players offering the ability to send programming over the Internet. Hulu, Amazon Video on Demand, iTunes, or Comcast are all competing for the opportunity to push content bits down the pipe. Studios suddenly have a number of dance partners. Netflix no longer has the technological or logistics edge in streaming that it once had in mailing DVDs.

What, then, could be Netflix’s salvation? Only one comes to mind — provide unique content on demand. Which basically means that Netflix has to get into the Movie/TV production business, much like HBO. Doing so is notoriously hard, and companies like HBO are not about to welcome Netflix with open arms. Further, the content distribution skills Netflix has built up in DVD distribution, and to some extent, streaming, are not readily transferable to content production.

So, enjoy your Netflix subscription while it lasts. And hope to heavens you haven’t invested in its stock.

September 22, 2011

Faster than the speed of light?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jag @ 9:00 pm

The world of physics is abuzz with the news that researchers in Switzerland and Italy have discovered subatomic particles known as neutrinos that can travel faster than the speed of light.

Much of physics is based on an assumption that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. In fact, it is this assumption that causes clocks to slow down on GPS satellites, and allows for the theoretical possibility of slowing down aging (just go round and round the earth at or near the speed of light. Your clock will run slower than the clocks on terra firma. After a while, the  accumulated differential will make you noticeably younger than the poor souls that did not hitch the same ride as you).

It is also this assumption that makes Star Wars fiction. You cannot visit other galaxies within your lifetime if you’re constrained to never be able to go faster than the speed of light. With the Milky Way being 100,000 light years across, its a given you won’t be able to cross a thousandth of its diameter even if you set off in infancy on a rocket traveling as fast as the speed of light.

On the other hand, if these sprightly neutrinos do indeed travel faster than the speed of light, then the obvious conclusion is that the speed of light is not an absolute limit. There may be other things, as yet undiscovered, that travel even faster. And, we or our descendants may yet get to ride on the Millennium Falcon with its hyperdrive motivator blazing us away to other galaxies.

September 15, 2011

How would you like to work for Hindustan Cables?

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 10:03 pm

Recently, I learned about an Indian public-sector company called Hindustan Cables. They were established in the 1950’s, with British technology, to manufacture telephone cables. Along the way, they set up three plants, and grew to 2800+ employees. The main product of the company is something called PIJF — Polythene Insulated, Jelly-Filled Cables. These are apparently used in laying wired landline phones.

 Along the way, India’s liberalization led to a burgeoning wireless telephony industry, almost entirely in the private sector. Demand for Hindustan Cables’ products decreased, and eventually dried up completely. But the three plants and all the people on company payroll soldier on, because no one can fire them or sell the plant and machinery.

 As is the norm for all government companies treading water, Hindustan Cable consulted with an external entity (one of the IITs), to determine whether the unit could be revived. The consultant came back with a recommendation to build entirely new plants with entirely new technology. The government is, at present, casting about for a joint venture partner to fund the new plants. Investing in such a company via a joint venture is something no private capitalist will ever contemplate. They may yet arm-twist one of the rare profit-making public-sector companies into entering the joint venture so the losses can be hidden under that company’s balance sheet.

 In the mean time, Hindustan Cables’ staff are keeping busy. They have acquired ISO 2001 certification, a fetish for Indian companies, big and small. In addition, they have developed the rather innovative concept of forming quality circles in plants where there is zero production. If ever there is production of Hindustan Cables’ obsolete product, buyers can be assured that it meets ISO standards. The research and development staff, too, have been keeping busy, finding import substitutes for various components. The research would surely come in handy if ever the world decided to abandon wireless and return to the days of wired telephone service and the rotary dial.

 The company has generously taken care of its employees as well, catering to their payroll and occasional raises for no work. Training, too, is provided to keep employees on the cutting edge of technology, circa 1950. And being the generous employer that it is, the company  “has taken regular steps … such as providing vaccines, polio, measles, tetanus etc. and other family planning measures”. As is to be expected, the company has been very diligent about implementing an affirmative action program for its employees.

 English is used to conduct most business in India. These days, most Hindi film and television program credits are in English. Virtually all Hindi spoken on television has now been corrupted to “Hinglish”, delivered by actors who barely know the national language. It is a rule that the more vociferous a politician is in support of Hindi, the greater the chances that his children are studying in a crème-de-la-crème institution where the medium of instruction is the Queen’s language.

 Hindi’s (lack of) standing in the business arena does not stand in the way of the worthies at Hindustan Cables, who have gone about incorporating Hindi into all aspects of their business, right from their web site. In their (literally) copious spare time, they have made sure to learn the national language, reply to letters in Hindi, and make all signboards, seals and stamps bilingual. Seminars and training are also delivered in an attempt to foist the language upon management and staff.

 Finally, being the good stewards of the environment that they are, the company’s management have ensured that the skylights are kept clean. This allows more natural sunlight to filter in, reducing the need to illuminate the non-functional factories with incandescent light.

 All of the above would be funny and amusing, if Hindustan Cables wasn’t losing upwards of $100 Million each year. This is but one loss-making public sector company, of which there are likely hundreds, making, as BusinessWeek states, “everything from condoms to steel”. The total loss per year on account of these companies is estimated by business week at $3.4 billion per year. This is money India desperately needs, to improve its non-existent infrastructure, to provide adequate nutrition, water, health care, education, and sanitation to its teeming masses. Unfortunately, these benighted souls will still not receive their deliverance, as the government prefers to spend the money so workers in companies like Hindustan Cables “punch their time-cards in and out … they get paid, receive the occasional raise and eat in subsidized canteens, even though they produce nothing”.


September 14, 2011

Not such a “Best Buy” any more?

Filed under: Business — Jag @ 10:02 pm

WSJ is reporting that Best Buy’s quarterly profit is down 30%. In response, Best Buy’s CEO had this to say:

“I understand there is sentiment in the market that they’d like to see me close more stores,” said Mr. Dunn. But the company’s mixture of online and store retailing “is the winning scenario for the long haul. There are still things in the physical world that are going to be important: expert advice and the ability to see and touch the latest tablets,”

Expert advice? At Best Buy? Sure, if one of the kids comes over and talks to you. Even if they did, they’d likely sell you whatever was in stock at the moment. And oh, they would surely load you up with Monster Cables. The very fact that Best Buy pushes HDMI cables for $60-$100 when I could buy functionally equivalent ones from Amazon for around $1-$5 causes me to completely distrust any advice they might give on anything else.

One cannot make up one’s mind about expensive electronics based on a cursory review in a store. An item may look very good, yet perform abysmally. I’ve found Amazon’s reviews to be a far better indicator of a product’s actual quality and usefulness than any advice that I might have received from a Best Buy salesperson. Sure, Amazon reviews can be gamed, too. But if a product has a few hundred reviews, and they span the spectrum from 1 to 5 stars, then in the aggregate, I can trust them.

Sadly, Best Buy’s business model is doomed. Unless they can overcome the inherent advantages Amazon possesses — better product information, honest reviews, and prices that are more competitive. For many items, especially those that can be shipped and returned without hassle, customers will continue to browse at Best Buy and order from Amazon.

September 11, 2011

Now showing: A beautiful celestial sight

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jag @ 7:08 pm

Driving home from a weekend outing, we saw the sky and noticed the planes queued up to land in Boston. One particular plane seemed to be brighter than the others, and was missing the characteristic blinking and red lights. We figured it was a blimp over the Gillette Stadium and that a football game must be underway.

When we went home and still found the bright yellowish spot lingering in the sky, Prerna and I decided we had to see what it was. We could see it clearly with the naked eye, but fired up the trusty Celestron 15×70’s for a closer look. What we saw blew us away. Visible clearly and large, right outside our deck was Jupiter and three of its moons. The planet was rivaled in size only by our own moon. And, at 10:00 PM at night, the angle to the horizontal was comfortable for handheld binoculars.

A greater treat awaited us when we mounted the Galileoscope on an old and wobbly photo tripod. Once we got all the vibrations under control, we could clearly see the horizontal bands of Jupiter, along with its moons. It couldn’t be any clearer.

Look for Jupiter in your night sky, and finagle either a low-power telescope or a nice pair of binoculars to look at it. At northern US latitudes, the brightest “star”, low in the east-southeast sky around 9:30 PM is likely to be what you’re looking for. An easy find, and a treat for the eyes.

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