Overtures and Undertones at the Workplace

This is an original free case-study I wrote for a class on Business Ethics. Feel free to use this in any way you like. All I request is that if you do use this case study (or a derivative of this case) in any way, please drop me a message with a link. Thanks!

Overtures and Undertones at the Workplace: an Ethical Dilemma

Rajat Sharma settled into his chair at the office. It was going to be one of those late nights again. Although he was the CEO and Owner of Globodyne Software, Inc., tonight he had sent the staff home and was alone in his office at Calcutta, waiting for an important conference call with a client based in Columbus, Ohio. This was not unusual, as Globodyne, Inc. was a small software firm, and things were run pretty informally. Bored of reviewing his notes for the meeting, Sharma checked his mobile phone. There was one new text message, from his project manager Anita Vohra. “Sir, I have mailed you some pics of mine. Let me know what you think of them.” Puzzled, Sharma logged into his work e-mail. To his surprise, he found that Anita had mailed him five pictures of herself, in which she was wearing practically nothing. The meeting was just five minutes away, but, as he looked at the pics, Sharma realised the meeting was now the least of his problems.

Undertones of Overtures

A year ago, Rajat Sharma had started Globodyne Software, Inc., in a small rented flat in Calcutta. While still at his day job, he had assembled a team of his friends from college to launch his own venture. Working for Sharma, they had developed Aegis, an security software application that was Globodyne, Inc.’s flagship product today. The Aegis software was a runaway success, and within a year it had over a million users in over 40 countries.

Despite its fledging success, Globodyne, was still a very small company with only seven full-time employees. When he needed more employees, Sharma just hired people he knew from his college days, or by references, and managed the HR functions himself.

As the software market moved towards the Software as a Service (SaaS) model, Globodyne, had just launched Medusa, an expensive project to develop a cloud-based data encryption application. The development was being outsourced to four teams, located in Ukraine, South Africa and America. To manage this complex and expensive project, Sharma had hired Anita Vohra, a smart, self-assured and good-looking MBA with a few years of project management experience.

Anita turned out to be good at her complex job, and she efficiently coordinated the efforts of Globodyne’s multiple design, development and testing teams around the world. The Medusa project was Sharma’s largest investment and his biggest bet for the future. Things were going really well, until today’s e-mail with her nude photographs attached.

Sharma’s thoughts wandered to the conversations he had had with Anita in the office. Had he encouraged her in any way? Globodyne, Inc. had a young workforce, and the average employee age at the office was 24. Since all his employees and himself were so young, Sharma had always encouraged an open and friendly atmosphere at work. He would often have friendly chats with the employees, and they would all have lunch together. He would often lend a sympathetic ear to his employees’ troubles – but now it seems his gestures had been badly misinterpreted. Had he brought this on himself? Had he misled Anita by his behavior?

Globodyne was a small company, and had no pre-existing HR policies against workplace relationships. Moreover, Sharma had been deeply involved in his venture for a year now, and that left no time for a personal life. Neither was he married, nor did he have a girlfriend; he was single. However, he knew there was no question of encouraging Anita further. As a boss, he believed he had a fiduciary relationship towards his employees, and a relationship with a subordinate could be a breach of trust, and at worst it could even expose him to claims of favouritism, or even sexual harassment.

For a moment Sharma considered ignoring the incident. If he didn’t respond or mention the matter to Anita, hopefully she would get the hint and refrain from such improper suggestions. On the other hand, he had his doubts. Wouldn’t ignoring this incident embolden Anita and encourage further such behaviour? Sharma remembered some advice his mentor had given him in a different context, but which seemed applicable here – “never leave problems to grow”. Would his silence tonight be read as acceptance tomorrow?

“So,” Sharma felt, “I should say no.” He did like Anita, after all she was smart and pretty, and he could definitely do with a girlfriend in his life – but somewhere inside he knew the right answer was no.

But could he reject her advances without affecting her work performance? By e-mailing him nude pictures, Anita had already crossed an unprofessional line. In such a situation, rejecting her outright handling the situation indelicately would affect her morale, and more importantly, her work on the Medusa project. That project was too important and too expensive. If Medusa failed, Globodyne would have to bear heavy losses, as well as be unprepared for future customer demands. Would it not be better to play along for the time being?

As he pondered his response to his employee e-mailing him nude pictures of herself, Sharma leaned back in his office chair. He couldn’t say yes, since it would be immoral. He couldn’t say no, since it could affect his expensive project. And he couldn’t ignore it either. As his phone rang for the conference call, Sharma felt caught between the devil and the deep sea.

Unboxing the Celestron CG5 ASGT Mount

After an arduous trip from China to America to Indian shores and Calcutta via a short halt in Customs at Mumbai, the Celestron CG5 ASGT Advanced Go-to mount is finally here!

Here’s a small ‘unboxing’ post, for the mount and two accessories

  • The Celestron CG5 ASGT
  • The Polar Finderscope
  • The 17A Celestron Powertank battery pack

The mount, item #91518, came in a fairly large brown cardboard box, with a gross weight of 35 kgs. That is with one counterweight, but when bought in combination with a larger scope, this mount comes with two counterweights.

Shipping box for the CG5 ASGT

As you can see, the box is huge. My Thinkpad L421 is shown for scale. There was a double-box of corrugated cardboard, inside which were 4 more smaller boxes.

Double Packing Boxes

The longest box contained the folded tripod feet, tucked between styrofoam blocks at both ends. This box also contained the accessory tray (a cast-metal spacer-cum-eyepiece-holder triangle) that goes between the feet to hold them apart. The tripod feet are capable of extending quite a bit, and I don’t immediately understand why they extend till so long.

Tripod Feet

I first set up the tripod, with the accessory tray.

Accessory Tray

The metal spacer and weight goes below the accessory tray, not above. Reviews say the CG5 has its limitations, but from first impressions this seems to be a rock solid tripod.

Where do people hang out on the other continent? At the Counterweight Bar!

Another box has a nice heavy counterweight.

A Counterweight

Since my first goal is wide-field astro-photography with only a DSLR, the counterweight might not see immediate use.

The actual mount

The actual mount was in another box, with custom foam inserts. It also came with two little allen keys (hex keys) which I didn’t end up using at all. I needed other tools, though. Even my tiny Orion Mini-EQ came with a more complete set of needed tools. This is something Celestron ought to think through.

Azimuth Adjustment Counterscrews

Since all my potential observing locations in India [(Calcutta, 22°35’N), (Mumbai, 18°55’N), and (Hyderabad, 17°22’N)] are below the CG-5’s lower limit of 30° latitude, the mount won’t work without some modification.

I removed both latitude adjustment screws (the front one is shorter, the rear one is longer). There is a small plate behind the front latitude adjustment screw (see pic). This plate is secured by two screws. I removed these using my own #5 hex key, following online instructions from Celestron.

Removing the bar behind the front latitude adjustment screw

Remove the plate that holds the latitude screw from the front side of the mount. Since it is on the same side as the counterweight, it is really not needed when the scope is in use, as equatorial head’s weight is always resting on the back latitude screw. Taking the plate off allows the latitude of the head to be lowered to your location.

The unneeded parts

So the ‘unneeded’ parts go back into the box.

But note that this modification reduces the mounts stability, in that it might increase the chance of the mount tipping over in odd positions – typically when the counterweight is absent or when the mount is pointing in an extreme direction.

Now works at lower latitudes

This modification extends the minimum latitude of the Celestron CG5 ASGT from 30° to around 7° or 10°, which covers almost all of India except the southern tip. If I ever happen to be in those parts, I will have to adjust (tilt) the tripod legs for polar alignment.

The next modification is also low-latitude specific. The mount needs to be installed 180 degrees rotated from the original position on the tripod, to prevent the counterweight from banging into the foot at low latitudes.

To prevent this, take the equatorial mount head off the tripod, exposing the top of the tripod. You will see the square-shaped azimuth adjustment post. Unthread the post from its current position in line with the single tripod leg and move it to the threaded hole 180 degrees away located between the tripod legs. Reassemble the head to the tripod.

Caution: this rotation of the head on the tripod will shift the scope’s center of gravity, increasing the likelihood of toppling the mount. Tying or weighting of the opposing tripod leg is recommended in this situation.

Since I can’t find an appropriate tool to ‘unthread’ the little square azimuth adjustment post, I leave this for later.

Now to install the polar scope.

The unboxed Polar Scope, with a Blackberry 9900 Bold for scale.

Had some trouble figuring out how to remove the finderscope housing. I had to cover one of the three thumbscrews in soft paper and hit on it with a heavy tool to get the housing to loosen. The entire thing rotates counter-clockwise and comes off.

Unscrewing the finderscope housing part with the 3 screws
The polar scope attached. Not a perfect fit.

I didn’t like that the polar scope doesn’t fit flush with the mount, but it’s no big deal.

View from the Polar Scope
View from the Polar Scope

Finally the mount goes on top of the tripod. This is pretty simple, especially without any counterweights. I think various little things on the mount might be needed to be tightened once the weights pile on.

The CG5 ASTG mount on the tripod

Opening the next box, I found the Nexstar hand controller, a declination cable, two plastic pieces that comprise the hand controller holder, a cast metal dovetail and a car lighter plug cable. Attaching the controller holder and wiring up the controller were simple.

The hand controller and accessories
Power up!

Time to power the mount up! I attached the provided car lighter cable to the Celestron Powertank, and… er, no response? I noticed the power jack on the mount has to be pushed in real firmly, and has a screw connector for more secure attachment.

Pushed it in harder, and the mount powered up. Success!

Importing a Celestron CG-5 mount to Kolkata, India

With the intention of getting into slightly more serious astrophotography, I recently obtained the Celestron CG-5 ASGT Advanced GoTo Mount, which is a computerized tripod mount that enables telescopes (and cameras) to track objects in the night sky as they move around the Pole Star.

Shipping a heavy mount into India can be a complicated and expensive affair, and though I’d had my eye on this mount for a few years, it took me a while to take the plunge. As a student I’m on a tight budget, so I first tried to get a used Celestron CG-5 off various astronomy forums (fora?) and classifieds. That didn’t work out so well, mostly because of shipping considerations. Not many amateur astronomers were willing to ship such a heavy item to India, to my disappointment.

Over the years, the price of the CG5 ASGT dropped from the ~$900 range to ~$550, and I decided it was time to import a new mount. To avoid Customs hassles and damage issues, I decided to use EBay India’s Global Easy Buy service. Though it was a slightly more expensive way to get the mount, I preferred Ebay.in’s service due to the convenience and security. If you’re taking this route, Ebay often has free shipping or other offers that are worth watching out for. For more ‘normal’ items that are not too fragile, expensive or heavy, I usually try to save and just use the regular postal service (EMS) and deal with Customs myself (but that’s another blogpost altogether!).

I moved to Kolkata, West Bengal, earlier this year. The state of West Bengal is notoriously backward and unfriendly towards e-commerce, and required me to personally visit a Sales Tax office (I visited the one at Beliaghata Road) to get a stamped Form 50a, which I had to send onwards to the seller (in this case eBay’s shipping vendor, ICC World). As a side-note, in over 80 eBay transactions from all over India and the world, this was the first time a State sought to extort money from me after the Centre had charged customs. It’s no wonder that the once glorious West Bengal is going to the dogs. Anyway, I digress.

The procedure at the sales tax office is that one goes up to the sixth floor, to the ‘central’ section and asks for a ‘waybill’ for an ‘unregistered dealer’, even though one is not a dealer. You fill up the form and submit it to the clerk, who passes it up to an official to assess tax from a bulky book (‘schedule’) issued to them. This takes anywhere between a few minutes to a day, after which you get a ‘challan’ to pay the tax. Step down to the SBI (State Bank of India) branch on the ground floor and pay in the amount demanded, following which you will get a Waybill, in triplicate. One copy is to be sent to the courier.

Since a computerized telescope mount is not explicitly mentioned in the West Bengal VAT Schedule, it is charged tax at 13.5% on the total amount (Price + Customs + Shipping). This came out to a whopping 7000 odd Rupees. In addition, to ostensibly avoid under-invoicing, the commercial taxes office routinely charges tax on 1.5 times the invoice amount, which is plain Highway Robbery. I can think of no other term for this triple taxation of personal goods. The entire affair is just an evolved version of what travellers did in Sherwood forest.

I finally decided to request the seller to just ship to my home in Mumbai instead. Gopal Krishna Gokhale once said, “what Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow”. Alas, those days are long past.

A problem and decision analysis of the HBR Clayton Industries, Inc. Case

This case is about the challenges faced by Peter Arnell, who has taken over the Italian subsidiary of Clayton Industries, a sixty-year-old U.S.-based firm in the HVAC industry. The short analysis I present is one of many possible readings of this case, and specifically covers existing problems and potential decision options.

The case is available from the Harvard Business Review website.

Problem Analysis

The key business issue facing Clayton in late 2009 is that its Italian subsidiary, Clayton SpA, has been making heavy operational losses for three years now, to the tune of over $1 million USD a month.

While these losses have been exacerbated due to a general global recession which has reduced sales (which are down by 19%), their root cause lies in the fact that since 2001, Simonne Buis had been making organizational changes, and trying to create a more integrated European organization. In the pursuit of this, she set goals for individual subsidiaries with a broad brush that did not consider the intricacies of local markets. This framing of common targets ignored the strengths and weaknesses of individual subsidiaries.

Despite customers’ preference and technical limitations for local brands, Buis drove her vision for Europe-wide sales of premium country-specific brands. This strategy was doomed to fail in the face of competition from other local brands and price competition from Asian manufacturers. In response to CEO Dan Briggs’ concerns about cost, Buis asked all subsidiaries to follow her 10/10/10 plan to reduce receivables, inventory and headcount. This would cause different problems in different geographies.

Clayton SpA had strong political connections which they leveraged to get large projects. Following Buis’ plan meant that they would have had to lose this advantage in order to push sales in room air-conditioners and ventilators market – which was never their strong suit, and where their chances of success were bleak in the face of competition. At the same time, Buis had so far refused to fund expansion of capacity in Spain for the advanced absorption chiller technology that the market was moving towards. This meant that Clayton were not preparing to offer products that customers would demand in the future.

The overall effect of Buis’ strategy was to dilute the local subsidiaries’ efforts into areas where they were weak, while inhibiting their capability to capitalize on their strengths. This hit Clayton SpA (Italy) hard on the profitability front, and also reduced Clayton Industries USA’s overall preparedness to address future market requirements.

Decision Analysis

I recommend that Peter Arnell hold off any further investments for now, and focus on efficiency measures in Clayton SpA (Italy) to restore profitability.

This course of action directly addresses the immediate business problem of Clayton losing $1 million a month, and maintains Clayton’s overall strategic course as well, while still giving Arnell time and space to plan for future growth.

Going forward, Arnell has these four options:

  1. Follow the Italian managers’ suggestions for their market, and invest there
  2. Invest in building capacity for modern absorption-chiller technology in Spain
  3. Exit the European commercial air-conditioning market
  4. Hold off any investments for six months, and tighten efficiency measures in Italy

His options should be evaluated against these three criteria:

  1. Profitability
  2. Future (post-recession) potential for growth
  3. Acceptance from all stakeholders

A brief analysis of each decision option vis-à-vis the criteria is presented here:

  1. Follow the Italian managers’ suggestions for their market:
    1. Profitability: This decision may or may not lead to profitability in the long term, based on the implementation. But it will definitely require investments in the Italian plant, which will reduce profitability at a time when there is a cash crunch.
    2. Potential for growth: The compression chiller technology is being superceded by absorption chiller technology, and investments in new products in this line will not ensure future potential.
    3. Acceptance from all stakeholders: While being acceptable to the Italians and his boss Buis, this option will not be acceptable to the CEO, Briggs.
  2. Invest in a new plant for absorption-chiller coolers in Spain:
    1. Profitability: This decision may lead to profitability in the long term, especially as market demand shifts towards absorption chillers. However, it requires an upfront investment, which will strain Clayton’s books. More importantly, choosing this option does not address in any way the problem that Clayton’s Italian operations are bleeding a million dollars a month.
    2. Potential for growth: This decision option has a very high potential for growth, and further market and technical research is advisable to make a stronger case for investment.
    3. Acceptance from all stakeholders: The investments required will require stronger justification and political manoeuvring. This option will not be acceptable to his boss Buis, who has invested politically in the Italy strategy.
  3. Exit the European commercial air-conditioning market:
    1. Profitability: Shutting down the Italian plant will immediately stop the heavy operating losses; however in the absence of a strong and developed alternative source of revenue it will affect the future of Clayton Industries.
    2. Potential for growth: This decision option by definition has extremely limited potential for future growth, unless alternatives are developed.
    3. Acceptance from all stakeholders: This strategy will be unacceptable to Arnell’s boss Buis, and is likely to cause major labour and legal problems in Italy for Clayton.
  4. Hold off investments and tighten efficiency in Italy (Recommended):
    1. Profitability: This directly addresses the profitability issue faced by the Italian plant, and is a good short-term measure that does not hamper any long-term plans or call for any sudden shift in strategic direction.
    2. Potential for growth: This decision option does not directly contribute to growth potential. However by focussing on the critical issue at hand and restoring profitability, it does bring Clayton into a stronger position from where it can plan for future growth. Options like investing in a Spanish plant call for a shift in strategic direction, and this decision gives Arnell the space for further research and analysis to support such a shift.
    3. Acceptance from all stakeholders: There will be some resistance from Italian labour (eg FILM), but Arnell can use provisions like the Cassa Ingrazione Guardagni (CIG) to implement this decision. This decision will have strong support from Arnell’s boss Buis, as well as the CEO Briggs.

To conclude, Simone Buis’ strategy of integrating all European subsidiaries, and the common policies she framed to further that goal, has created problems for individual subsidiaries. However the current business problem is that the Italian plant is making heavy operational losses as a result of those policies, and any decision should address these losses as top priority.

By holding off any further investments and focus on efficiency measures in Clayton SpA (Italy) to restore profitability, Peter Arnell should aim to being Clayton SpA into the black, and use this time to study further options that can poise the company for future growth.

How I reclaimed my Gmail inbox

I wonder how many of us remember e-mail, as it existed before Gmail. In its heydays, Yahoo Mail had a 6MB limit (!) which it later upgraded to 100MB (!!). Then along came Gmail, with its 1GB inbox, and changed the nature of e-mail forever. I was one of the early adopters of Gmail in June 2004 (when it used to be invite-only, and invites were really hard to come by), having received an invitation via my boss, who had in turn received it from a friend who was also the editor of a large computer magazine.

Gmail taught us to forget about deleting messages, and introduced the concept of archiving them instead. Of course, this was so that they could collect enough information about us to enable them to serve personalised adverts, and create a captive audience for their AdWords ads. Over the years, Gmail kept on increasing the size of our inbox, and it now stands at around 7.5GB. But for some of us, the size hasn’t kept pace with our heavy usage.

A Full Inbox
Woe, my inbox overfloweth.

I have multiple e-mail accounts from different websites, services and roles, and I like to feed them all into one Gmail inbox which I check daily. Due to a combination of laziness, bad practices and the sheer volume of e-mail I get, my inbox has always had a huge number of unread messages in it. In fact, this week I had 32,517 unread messages. And this was only in my main folder/label. My inbox was almost full (93%), and I didn’t know what I’d do if it reached 100% – I just can’t imagine losing* this e-mail account!

It was clear that things had gone out of hand, and so I decided that it was time to reclaim my Gmail inbox.

I needed to delete a whole bunch of messages, in a semi-automated way (not one-by-one) but still ensuring that I don’t lose anything important. I started out by analyzing the e-mail in my inbox, and used Gmail’s advanced search features to identify messages that could be safely deleted.

Here are a few tips:

1) First, the low hanging fruit. Personal messages to people who are no longer in my life could be deleted mostly without thought. These messages frequently contain attachments (of the literal sort) which take up more space than usual mail.
Gmail Advanced Search Term: from:nolongerfriends@gmail.com OR to:nolongerfriends@gmail.com

2) Spam v/s Bacn. Bacn is the term for messages that are not entirely spam, but almost there. These could be low-priority newsletters that you have opted-in to, messages from EBay containing discount codes, etc. Basically things that you want to know arrived in your inbox, but which you won’t care about after a few days. My previous method was to ignore these e-mails and keep them unread, but they both cluttered my inbox, as well as took up space.

My new method is to create a filter in gmail, and a new label termed ‘Delete Intermittently’.

Gmail Advanced Search Term for the filter:

from:(primermagazine.com OR highstreetphoenix.com OR mailer.sharekhan.com OR britishcouncil.org OR mylaw.net OR isb.edu OR updates.000domains.com OR info.snapfish.com OR email.thinkgeek.com OR no-reply-aws@amazon.com OR stackoverflow.com OR whereareyounow.com OR procam.in OR donotreply@pagalguy.com OR iciciprulifecares.com OR stumbleupon.com OR appsumo.com OR info.flykingfisher.com OR cpbnc.com OR livewire18.in OR buddhisttrains@irctc.co.in OR flightoffers@irctc.co.in OR railtourismoffers@irctc.co.in OR irctcpromotions@irctc.co.in OR tech2.com OR railtourismindia@irctc.co.in OR hoteloffers@irctc.co.in OR no-reply@infibeam.com OR dm.jetairways.com OR moneycontrol.com OR roadtosuccess@ebay.com OR slashdot.org OR netted.net OR snapdeal.in OR equitymaster.com OR greenpeace.org) -password

Going through my inbox, I deleted unwanted e-mail manually for a few pages, at the same time adding the senders’ domains to my filter. Once operational, the filter does not delete these e-mails; it does not even make them skip the inbox. It just tags them as to be deleted, providing me with an easy way to delete the whole lot manually every now and then.

Note the exclusion of any e-mail with the term ‘password’ in it – this is in order to avoid deleting saved passwords or password reset e-mail.

3) Social Networking Clutter. Twitter, Facebook, forums. Everyone wants to send you notifications. Reading all these notifications as they appear is a surefire way to kill productivity. I created another filter to tag all social networking e-mail and make them skip the inbox. This label can then be emptied periodically.
Gmail Advanced Search Term for filter:

Matches: from:(facebookmail.com OR twitter.com OR orkut.com)
Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label "Social Web"

4) Large files in old messages. Textual e-mail really doesn’t take up a lot of space, but media and zipped files can. Finding and deleting old attachments and forwarded messages can clear up space in your inbox really quickly. You can use a combination of file extensions to find these messages for deletion.

Gmail Advanced Search Terms:

has:attachment filename:mp3 OR filename:mpg OR filename:avi
has:attachment filename:zip OR filename:rar OR filename:tar.gz OR filename:7z

5) Single out the worst offenders. In accordance with the Pareto principle, 20% of the most prolific e-mail forwarders will contribute to 80% of your inbox clutter. These people might deserve special attention. I’m focussing on e-mail with attachments here, but you might just prefer to entirely delete all old mail from them.

Gmail Advanced Search Term:

subject:Fwd from:ProlificForwarder@email.com has:attachment

6) Just really old messages. Perhaps you’d just like to delete all old messages before 2008 that have attachments and take up space? Use this with caution.

Gmail Advanced Search Term: has:attachment before:2008/12/01

7) Make important stuff easily accessible. Receipts, Bank statements and the like should be put out of the way, but in a browsable place. This is not strictly necessary.

Gmail Advanced Search Term for filter:

Matches: order receipt
Do this: Apply label "Receipts", Never send it to Spam

8 ) Bonus tip: Notes to self. I sometimes write e-mail to myself as a convenient way to store text or information. Here’s a filter to automatically label and deal with such mail.

Gmail Advanced Search Term for filter:
Matches: from:(myemail@gmail.com OR myemail@mydomain.in) to:(myemail@gmail.com OR myemail@mydomain.in)
Do this: Skip Inbox, Mark as read, Apply label "Notes to Self", Never send it to Spam

9) Quick links. I also added some optimizations and quick links that were specific to my usage of Gmail. A good trick for quicklinks is to use the URL from advanced search options. You can do this with any label; for example: https://mail.google.com/mail/#advanced-search/subset=sent&within=1w&date=today

After automatically tagging bacn, deleting the automatically tagged mail and deleting old and large attachments, I managed to pare down my inbox to 48% full. So while I haven’t perhaps managed to entirely ‘take my inbox back’, at least I’ve given it a new lease of life.

Do you have any additional tips? Share them in the comments below.

* To put this into perspective, I had already retreated from one main e-mail account on Yahoo Mail in 2005, because of the immense amount of spam it received. Losing an e-mail address can be pretty painful when it is your primary one.

Naked into the Urban Jungle

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp.

Veni, Vidi, Vici. So many tycoons claim to have arrived in a city “with nothing but fifteen cents in my pocket” and, having done that, promptly proceeded to transfer wealth from the pockets of the citizens into their own. Today, on a sunny Mumbai Sunday, I’m participating in an interesting experiment along with two other people to test how we will fare in a similar situation.

Our challenge today is to step out into the city with just our wits and Rs. 30 ($0.65) between the three of us, and parlay our meagre capital into as much money as we can within two hours.

The rules are simple: without our wallets and purses, lacking any meaningful cash for food, water or emergencies, without any identification to prove who we are, without our watches and jewellery, without our mobile phones and having forsaken the help of any friends and family for the duration, we will be venturing truly naked into the urban jungle.

With me on the experiment are two smart women; AM, a dynamic 32 year old placement executive at a Mumbai B-school, and Sanidya Shetty, a lissome 18 year old commerce student. We set out in the Vile Parle area at 12:00 noon without much ado or preparation, empty handed except for our seed fund of Rs. 30.

Firstly, we need a cause to motivate us. We begin by asking ourselves what will we do with the money after we’re done. After a few minutes of discussion, we decide to utilize any money we raise to feed street urchins. Now that we’ve adopted a cause, it becomes really simple to figure out what we will do – we’ll just ask people for the money!

Now it’s time for some strategy. We decide to start with targeting crowded places, and places with an overall younger (and so less cynical) population, and wing it from there on.

Cause? Check. Strategy? Check. Now it’s time to go raise some funds!

We start by pouncing on the nearest people we can see, who happen to be a squad of marching cadets training to be in uniform. An impassioned appeal by the feisty AM to their commander hits home almost immediately, and he allows the marching cadets to break formation and get us any cash they’d like to donate.

My notepad becomes a subliminal symbol of authority.

This lucky stroke nets us our first cash, but we quickly realise we need more than luck. We need an authenticity boost if we’re to convince people that we’re not just hucksters looking to make a quick buck. What we need, apart from oodles of confidence, is a prop. We ‘invest’ half of our capital into a notebook and pen, so one of us can stand around taking down donors’ names and looking all official, while the other two pull off their confidence trick pitch.

We don’t have any receipts to give people, nor do we have any ID. So we decide to present ourselves as a bunch of students who’ve decided to do a good deed on the weekend. Like all lies, the imaginary backstory builds up around itself gradually, and soon we have a waterproof tale to tell while soliciting funds.

We quickly learn that it is pointless to ask shop owners for donations, they’re too jaded for that. Not even Udipi hotel owners part with their cash, despite Sanidya’s shy attempts at a pitch in her native Tulu. Students are more receptive to our pitches, and middle aged and older women even more so. There are a few poignant moments, like the young student returning from college who says she really would like to contribute to our kitty, but all she has is the six rupees for her bus fare.

It is quickly apparent that it is pointless to solicit from students, who have their hearts in the right places but not much disposable cash in their pockets. We don’t want to spend time collecting Rs. 10 per person in the trenches, when we could be collecting 100 bucks each from the right sorts. Our quest for juicier marks takes us into the noisy crowded marketplace, bustling with activity. And women who are willing to contribute to our noble cause.

Descent or ascent, sometimes the difference can be just a point of view.

Our running tally grows by leaps in the marketplace, but our story about wanting to feed street urchins gets us into trouble when a few hard-nosed ladies decide to contribute in kind, rather than cash. We’re loathe to refuse from a fear of appearing blatantly insincere, and we end up with two huge bagfuls of bananas and peaches. Which SS and I then have to lug around for the next hour.

We move towards the station, expecting more rich pickings, but people here are in a hurry to catch their trains and we don’t manage to pitch to many. We move back into the interior lanes of suburbia, where the marks are fewer but the pickings richer.

Our purse has been growing steadily, and AM’s pants soon threaten to fall off with the additional cash stuffed into the pockets. The maximum amount we get is Rs. 200, from a 30-ish anonymous well dressed male. Women give more than men, middle aged people are the most cynical, and while poorer people are more willing to give, it evens up because richer people give more.

Soon, it’s almost two o’clock, and we decide to call it quits. The total we’ve raised today is Rs. 2156 (and some bananas and peaches). While not a fundraising miracle, we’re happy in the context of our original goal.

If we were a scam, we’d have a whopping 7187% return on our original Rs. 30 in the span of two hours. Actually, we’ve ‘invested’ only Rs. 15 of our ‘capital’, so the ‘returns’ are more to the order of 14,373%. Not bad for a couple hours’ work.

This has been an interesting experience, so let me try and list the lessons learnt.

  1. God helps those who help themselves, but people help those who help others.
  2. It is simpler to act when you have a cause you believe in.
  3. All you really need to take money from people is a lot of confidence.

We end up sharing a bit of the fruit among ourselves, and donate the rest, along with the cash raised. Anything for a good cause, I say.

The Constitution of the Republic of India

Slightly over two decades before Indian independence, Winston Churchill had famously declared “India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the Equator.”

His point of view is indeed understandable. Anyone travelling even a fourth of this country by road or rail cannot but notice the striking differences in geography, language, culture, and even race and ‘genetic stock’. Anywhere else, smaller differences would have been reason enough to split such a landmass into more homologous parts. (Here’s looking at you, Europe!)

However, in the past half-century India has disproved Mr. Churchill’s contention stoically, transitioning (albeit painfully) in that period from a collection of independent states to a united republic. We have had our secessionary movements, notably Khalistanis and Naxalites, but the concept of India seems to be in no sense in any grave danger.

The Constitution of India is the foundation stone of the idea of modern India. It is, in verity, the document that defines India, introduces the idea of being Indian, and safeguards India against Indians at the same time.

The Constitution defines the fundamental reasons and objectives for the existence of the Indian Republic. It breathes life into the systems that make the functioning of this country possible. The Constitution draws its power from the people, in that it outlines the rights we give to our ‘Government’ over us.

It is this document that makes us an island of stability in a subcontinent rife with disorder. It is this document that allows you and me to go to work today while our neighbours are burnt alive because they are Tamil or Rohingya.

“It is only one document,” they cry. “Exactly,” I say. Have you read it?

You can download a PDF copy of the Constitution of India here.

Astute readers might notice that the sub-title of this website refers to this document.

Preamble to the Constitution of India.
Preamble to the Constitution of India.

Having iCal speak out scheduled calendar events

I’ve been looking at having iCal (the calendar app on Mac OS X) to help me inject some order into my schedule.  In life, at the very least, you need to have a basic “to do” list, a schedule, and a budget. iCal takes care of two out of those three. Not bad for a start.

While it’s a simple matter of entering in items into my schedule, what’s a realistic way to enforce adherence to that schedule? On the face of it, it seems simple – just keep on referring to your calendar every now and then. But I believe a ‘push’ model would work better than a ‘pull’ model here; it would be awesome to have your calendar tell you what to do when it needs to get done!

iCal has e-mail options which enables it to e-mail you about upcoming events and scheduled items, but it does not take advantage of text-to-speech for some reason. So here’s a little Applescript to add that functionality. Calling this script on the event will read out (in the default MacOS ‘Alex’ voice) your event, in this format:

Attention! It’s 10 o’clock. Time to Sell Nesco shares.

This is assuming my event was ‘Sell Nesco shares‘, and scheduled at ten.
(Statutory disclaimer: This is not stock advice, and the author has interest in Nesco shares)

Without further ado, here’s the code:

set Now to current date
set Earlier to (current date) - (0.1 * hours)
set Later to (current date) + (0.1 * hours)

tell application "iCal"
 set AllCalendars to every calendar
 repeat with EachCalendar in AllCalendars
 set CalendarName to name of EachCalendar
 tell calendar CalendarName
 -- just change the above line if you want to 'say' events from one calendar only
 repeat with thisEvent in (every event whose start date is greater than Earlier and start date is less than Later)
 -- or (start date is MidnightToday and allday event is true))             

 --say ""
 -- say CalendarName
 if contents of thisEvent is not missing value then
 set TheEvent to contents of thisEvent
 set EventProperties to properties of thisEvent
 set EventName to summary of EventProperties
 set EventLocation to location of EventProperties
 set EventDescription to description of EventProperties
 set EventStartDate to start date of EventProperties
 --say (time string of (current date))
 set {hours:hr, minutes:mn, seconds:sc} to current date
 set SpokenTime to "Attention! It's "
 set SpokenTime to SpokenTime & hr & ":" & mn
 say SpokenTime
 -- say mn
 set SpokenEvent to "Time to "
 set SpokenEvent to SpokenEvent & EventName
 say SpokenEvent
 end if
 end repeat
 end tell
 end repeat
end tell

To use this script, open up Script Editor from  Applications/Applescript. Paste the script in and save it to a good location. Apple recommends /home/library/scripts, I believe.

While adding or editing the event you want to be spoken out, you can now choose Run Script as your alarm, and point to the script you just saved. here you can see my own screenshot, where I’ve saved the script as iCal_SpeakEvents.

Editing iCal Events and using a custom script
Editing iCal Events and using a custom script

Suggest modifications in the comments below!

Is CIBIL depriving Indian Consumers of their Civil Rights?

CIBIL: One Sided Conviction?
CIBIL: One Sided Conviction?

Credit Information Bureau of India Ltd. (CIBIL) is an organization that provides information on Indian individuals’ borrowing and bill paying habits.

CIBIL is the major credit bureau in India. This means if you apply for any financial credit (home loan, personal loan, credit card, car finance etc) within India, your lender  will ask CIBIL about you before approving your loan or credit. Your lender and CIBIL identify you by your PAN number, among other things.

CIBIL does not tell your lender to give you a loan (or not to),  it only provides the lending bank with a report of your loan and repayment history, as told to them by other banks. This report is called a Credit Report, and each report is identified by a 9-digit ‘Control Number’. Your lending bank uses this Credit Report to generate an internal Credit Score, based on their policies. For example, Axis Bank might have a stricter policy, and not provide loans to you based on your report, but ICICI might overlook a few discrepancies and charge you a higher interest rate to compensate for the increased risk.

So based on the information about you provided by CIBIL, you might receive or be denied credit.

But are all Credit Reports accurate?

One important point to note is that CIBIL does not actually investigate whether your payment history – it just collects information provided by banks, and allows other banks to access it. This means that CIBIL does not have any true responsibility for the content of the reports it provides.

But the information contained in the Credit Reports can be inaccurate due to many reasons. According to American studies done on their credit rating systems, 80% of all credit reports in the USA contain factual errors such as duplicate listings, incorrect dates, tradelines placed on the wrong person’s credit reports, and omitted positive credit accounts. These American studies also indicate that 25% of credit reports containing errors significant enough to result in a credit denial.

With the opaque and review-less system in India, the error percentage is bound to be higher.

Since lenders are not suitably penalised for reporting credit defaults incorrectly,  they have no incentive to correct errors in the reports. CIBIL’s current policies therefore push the onus of correcting errors in the Credit Report on to the individual consumer – while denying them access to tools or information to do so.

Also, American consumers are entitled to one free copy of their Credit Report every year, which means they can try to correct errors. Indian consumers have no such option. CIBIL has been promising to allow Indian borrowers to access a copy of their own credit report, for a nominal Rs. 100 fee. But since 3 years, CIBIL has not delivered on it’s promise. Which means that the Indian consumer does not even have proper access to his own reports, let alone access to means of correcting errors in them.

How is an inaccurate report corrected?

Because you don’t have access to your own Credit Report, you cannot resolve any potential problems before they affect you. At the most, you can request your bank to pass on a Credit Report if they have one on you. But there is no reliable mechanism to know for sure if a report has been drawn on you.

If a Credit Report accuses a person of not having paid up, the person has the inalienable right to confront his accuser. Every time CIBIL delivers a credit report to a bank but denies access to the same report to the individual, CIBIL is depriving the consumer of these rights.

While Banks and Lenders face the risk of default if a Credit Report is incorrect, denying appropriate credit to individuals who deserve credit stifles the country’s financial growth. CIBIL needs to start being responsible and accountable for it’s actions.

How should we fix the lack of transparency in Credit Reports?

As we have seen, CIBIL’s current policies tilt the playing field against the individual consumer. What is the solution to this imbalance?

  • CIBIL should immediately allow individuals access to their own Credit Report.
  • For each day CIBIL denies an individual access to their own report, they should be held accountable and fined Re. 1 per day per report, per person.
  • Banks and other entities who report transactions to CIBIL should be held accountable for the accuracy of that information. Any organization that provides incorrect information to CIBIL should face punitive fines, to the extent of having their license suspended for repeated errors.
  • Till the time CIBIL does not provide Individuals access to Credit Reports, they should suspend Lenders’ access to the same Reports.
  • Every individual should be entitled to one free copy of their own Credit Report, per annum. Additional requests can be charged a nominal Rs 100 fee.

The crux of the problem is that CIBIL has been dragging its feet over making reports accessible to individuals. This is not fair to the individual Consumer, making CIBIL a one-sided and unaccountable entity.

Denying credit when it is due has far-reaching effects on India’s growth and development, and transparency in the Credit Reporting system will ensure that lenders don’t deprive people of credit without due cause.