Nov 6, 2010

English tea, anyone?

I was on a HK-Singapore Cathay flight and the attendant came around offering 'English tea' as usual. Normally when I hear this, I smile to myself because there is no such thing as English tea since tea does not grow there. I was pleasantly surprised even shocked when a Canadian lady sitting next to me made exactly the same comment as if she was reading my mind!

I would not go so far to say it is a small sample of our colonial slavish mindset. After all the girls also serve Chinese tea and they have to make it clear to the passengers. Having said that, Asia has a long way to go, not just to become more prosperous but simply to be aware of and proud (in a positive way) of our own heritage and contributions. While we can be thankful to the English for making tea universally popular (which is why Tata's who have thousands of acres of tea gardens and so many brands had to go out and buy Tetley's) we dont have to make it sound like we drink it because the British do.

Then it brings the question of what else to call it - Indian tea? One can expect objections from Sri Lanka tea? Again does not sound appropriate as Chinese tea can also be black though tastes very different. Darjeeling tea - that would be false since served on economy class is of much cheaper variety. Perhaps just calling it tea would be appropriate. Chinese tea can be called whatever it actually is - Green, Oolong, Jasmine etc. Or perhaps calling it English tea is not a bad idea since alternatives are going to be controversial. 

It is so easy to lose something that always belonged to you - for example, how many of us are aware that Turks were drinking coffee long before anyone else knew about it, in coffee bars that are a lot older than Starbucks? Today how many of us think of Turkey when we drink coffee? Any Turkish coffee brand/chain comes to our mind? It took the elegant beauty of Italian language (nice sounding names like cafe latte, cappuccino and machiatto) but more importantly the marketing genius of corporate America (Starbucks being the main one) to make it popular in Asia beyond Turkey and India (and a few other places where people have been drinking it for hundreds of years).

The lady mentioned earlier (who declared she is of British origin, though Canadian) also made another interesting comment - once again saying exactly what I felt of after visiting the British Museum in London  - it is full of artifacts stolen from elsewhere. I told her if they have to return all foreign objects obtained immorally if not illegally the museum would empty itself. But more importantly, we once again have to be grateful to them for keeping it safe and in good condition. Anyone visiting museums in India would certainly feel happy if something is kept safe and clean even if overseas.

Oct 22, 2010

Look before you delete!

Yahoo makes it easy to export your contacts to CSV. I wanted to start with clean slate, so I exported them to CSV, opened them in Excel and edited them...when I wanted to import that back into Yahoo, guess what? NO, it does NOT support CSV import,even its own export!

So I had to go back to ever reliable Gmail - it imports Yahoo CSV
And Yahoo imports Gmail contacts!

Sounds convoluted? It indeed is...but that is the Google difference...

The LG GT540 Optimus mobile

I bought myself this phone just to try out Android. Some initial impressions...

It came with Android 1.6 but I managed to update that to 2.1 with the ROM intended for Baltic states. The official ROM for Singapore is not out yet. Takes a bit of hacking and lots of prayers as it is easy to 'brick' the brand new set, but luckily it worked.

For those long used to the Microsoft world of each update becoming considerably slower on same hardware, and sometimes barely usable, Android 2.2 is a surprise, it runs faster than 1.6 on the same phone...

Why this particular model?

  1. It is cheap - I could get one on the net for S$250 brand new. Which means I can afford to hack it or do things that I would not do with a Galaxy S that costs thrice as much.
  2. It is the right size - 3.2 inch screen - any smaller internet is unusable, any larger it becomes a nuisance to carry around if you are used to small least from my perspective..While on this topic, isn't it strange that we spent much of the last decade developing smaller and smaller  mobiles only to reverse course?! I remember the Motorola StarTAC which was advertised as the smallest mobile, back when mobiles were the size of bricks, and used to cost S$3,000+. Now big is back in fashion again...
  3. It is from LG - I believe the No.1 in any market is arrogant, the No. 2 competes but still tends to be pricey as they dont want to be seen cheap, and the No. 3 or 4 tries hard and prices sharp. Hence LG. And I was not disappointed. This is my first LG device. They are moving up from the 'yet another oriental brand' to somewhere near Samsung level...
  4. It has features you need...and features that look nice on reviews but you rarely use are cleverly left out. Example HDMI output. Do I want to use the crappy lens used in mobiles to take serious video and project it on screen 10 times bigger? Even still shots on mobile are bad when compared to even the cheapest of dedicated cameras
  5. We normally buy expensive phones because they have expensive features (8 Megapixel camera!) but then end up carrying dedicated devices anyway - so what is the point. For instance all of us normally have a digital camera, a MP3 player, e-book reader, netbook or IPAD and so what is the point of trying to have each device do whatever the other does? So I tend to buy each device for what it does best..
Interestingly, LG has also released the entire source code of the handset in the open...which is great for hackers and programmers who want to learn the nuts and bolts of Android - I have no time for that...

Tips for gadget buyers (from long experience)

1. Decide the maximum screen size you are comfortable with - no point having a gizmo that you can't lug round. This applies to many things - netbooks, readers, mp3, phones, even laptops.
2. There are always compromises. Decide them in advance. List out features you really use or plan to use.  How do you use them? Where? In rain/sun/indoors and so on..
3. Most gadgets these days support USB cable charging with micro-USB becoming the de-facto standard. I can charge my phone, my wife's, my Nook all with one charger. However, it is still common to have to carry around several chargers. This means if you travel often, stick to gadgets that can last long on a charge and support standard chargers. It is very expensive to buy chargers in a hurry.
4. Resale value - this is very important if you often trade in stuff or sell them on the net, like I do. Keep earphones in original cover if not used, original box, cables, receipt, stickers etc., they enhance the resale value. 

More on this later...

Oct 2, 2010

Do more with Windows 7

An interesting snippet from the HP website:

You can do more with Windows 7 -> it shuts down 5 times faster so there is time to do more interesting stuff! You have to agree with this...sometimes ads do tell the truth..

Sep 14, 2010

Google Translate - even better than sliced bread?

I know I am raving about something people are using on a daily basis for months now - Google Translate. But each one of us I guess discovers it in a unique way and is amazed by its possibilities...

I normally type or copy and paste a few words in the Google translate web page. Then the other day I had to translate a document. So I tried to upload an Excel file. The results were good but did not come out in Excel format.

There had to be a way...

Yes, there was. Google Docs!

I simply uploaded the excel to Google docs, and searched for translation option there - just assuming Google being so clever, they would have found a way. Yes, they had! It is a deceptively simple function called GOOGLETRANSLATE() that works wonders.

Simply point to a cell and ask for any language ("ES" for Spanish or "CN" for Chinese),  you see the translated version of any cell in another language! Some copy and paste later, an entire spreadsheet with a thousand plus rows was available to me in two languages, the whole process taking less than 10 minutes from start to finish.

People talk about big things using big words like game-changer, revolutionary, paradigm shift and so on...I have simply run out of words to describe what Google is doing!

People are also worried if Google may one day destroy Microsoft or Apple or perhaps both...I should say I look forward to that day...

Aug 15, 2010

Three ways to cleanliness, eco-friendly life style

Anyone visiting India would agree that we folks treat the entire country or city as one big trashcan (dustbin). People of all race, religion, economic status and caste are united when it comes to one thing - throwing trash anywhere and everywhere, often right outside their own houses caring a damn for themselves and their health, let alone neighbours.

Anyone traveling to Singapore would also marvel at its cleanliness that is often compared to a hospital ward. Singapore has achieved it with two distinct measures - one positive and one negative. The positive aspect is that one need not often walk more than 10 feet to find a trashcan. They are everywhere, right under every table in offices and in front of every shop or eating joint and every bus stop, some even providing two of them. So you simply have no excuse not to use them. The other of course, is the famous and ubiquitous 'FINE's advertised by numerous signs and well publicised 'corrective work orders' where offenders don bright orange vests and clean streets with media clicking away to preserve your image for posterity..

But there is a third way - the TAIWAN way. There are no signs threatening financial and emotional ruin to recalcitrants. More importantly, there are NO dustbins or trashcans on the street especially in residential localities, away from city centers and their malls. Often I have walked hundreds of meters, holding a crumpled receipt or used can in my hand, looking for a dustbin, finding none. Finally I have to get back to hotel/residence to trash it. Yes, the streets are still kept clean because the biggest ingredient that matters, without which all other measures fail, is there - it is called decency, civic sense and responsibility.

In many ways, Taiwan shows the way to other Asians. Convenience stores, for years now, don't hand out plastic bags. Even stores selling more expensive stuff life clothing and supermarkets like Carrefour don't. In Singapore we expect plastic bags even for newspapers. In Hong Kong you not only get a plastic bag with your newspaper but also a free packet of white tissues, adding even more trees to the casualty list. People use  fold-able steel chopsticks and often bring their own instead of wooden throwaway ones.

Where there is a will, there is a way...

Aug 5, 2010

Talking down electric cars

Electric cars are going to hit the market in a big way, at least in the United States. And in so many ways US is like India - it never runs short of pessimists, party-poppers, skeptics, doubters and so on...pundits ready to give 1001 reasons why something will fail. Their arguments are all perfectly logical until you stop and think.

One of the biggest 'complaints' is that in comparison with petrol / gasoline driven cars, electric ones are poor in terms of return on investment - they will cost a lot more even with subsidies- so they will bomb. So they expect electric cars to match and exceed their petrol cousins on every parameter including cost, range etc., and until then they would not sell...

That is a strange argument. Since when did people started buying purely on cost and return on investment? People spend over $500 on mobiles when perfectly usable ones can be found for $20 and end up using 1% of the features, only to buy another one after a year. You can get a nice, good looking, functional and decent leather bag or watch for $30 for which some even spend $20,000 or more. People do fly first class, eat in super-expensive restaurants and in many cases spend money simply because something IS expensive, just to show off.

 What I mean is just like other such 'investments' that make no sense financially but deliver enormous value to those that have other criteria, electric cars too will have ready buyers, may be in thousands, tens of thousands,   and over the years, millions of them. Even if they are still expensive, limited in range and speed.

Who knows, they may become a rare political 'statement' that both the right and left would embrace proudly for their own reasons - the left because it is green and cool and the right because it sends less or no money to 'terrorist' pockets. Mr. Limbaugh are you listening?

Good luck to Leaf, Volt and other such pioneers!

Jul 30, 2010

Got my Income Tax refund

One of my problems is that I spend lots of time in Singapore as well as in India. Unlike people that live mostly in one country, I have to adapt constantly. Returning NRI's after a long stint abroad eventually get 'immunised' to the Indian way of doing things fairly quickly. They 'system' 'normalises' them, even if they have to be dragged in kicking and screaming. And Indian executives and businessmen that travel abroad often get back to 'local' settings practically as soon as they land in India (with new airports they have to wait until they are out of the airport into the streets).  But my case is different, I have to constantly switch modes.

Which means when I am in India I have to learn to live with all its well known problems. The sound of vehicle horns, which signals an emergency or life threatening situation in Singapore is practically a always-on device used to 'clear' traffic ahead of you when back in India, for instance. I never can get used to that...

But I am going to talk about a good thing here - Income Tax (IT) return filing, assessment and refunds.

I got the refund for AY 2009-10 which for the fiscal year ending March 2009, already!!!

The amount is fairly small (less than Rs.5,000) but tells us a lot about how India is moving ahead in its own pace but in the right direction...

  • Firstly the return was filed hardly a year ago, back in July 2009.
  • Secondly it was filed electronically without any need to mail in anything.
  • Thirdly I did absolutely no chasing, follow-up, certainly no bribing or 'baksheesh' to get it done!

I remember the days when Chartered Accountants used to spend practically their entire working day in IT offices, greasing palms, begging, pleading and cajoling IT staff into processing returns, and getting the 'assessment order' done. They used to know if the officer likes Scotch whisky or is the one that goes to Tirupati temple for prayers every other week and modify their behaviour accordingly. It is the kind of knowledge that can save your career or make it. I also remember IT staff went on protest when the system of  random checking was introduced - for obvious reasons.

But now technology and reforms are making all that redundant. You don't need to know who your ITO is (unless you get raided for tax fraud) or even where the returns are processed. I heard they are done centrally and is also partly outsourced....the dirty word outsourcing is not a one way street. And tax rates are more reasonable now.

All this is fairly commonplace in Singapore and has been that way for at least 20 years to my knowledge. Around April each year you file a return that barely takes 5 minutes to fill in, (for 99% of folks), mail it (now electronic) and get your assessment order three or four months later, with 30 days to pay your tax. No TDS, No Advance tax, no nonsense. That simple.

Give them a few more years and India's IT process may get there...I am optimistic.

Time to celebrate that little cheque for many reasons!

Jul 20, 2010

An Octopus tale..

Thanks to Paul, Octopus-es (or is it Octopussy/Octopii?) are quite popular these days. But we are not talking about the 8 legged variety but the plastic ones. The card used by people in Hongkong to ride on MRT, buses and do many other things..

Well Singapore has one too, but this is one area where there is something to learn from the other uber-efficient city state in East Asia. Unlike the Singapore card aka Ezlink card, which can be used only in a few places, like trains and buses, the Octopus card of HK has as many uses as Paul has legs, and more. I even paid for entry fee to an IT show using the card (IT shows are free in Singapore, unfortunately, as anyone squeezed to juice there can testify).

And unlike Paul and the HK Octopus, the Ezlink card has competitors which means further fragmentation of an already small market and reduced acceptance.

You can also top-up the Octopus card anywhere, including convenience stores for no fee. I had to pay $0.50 surcharge to top-up mine in a Singapore 7-11. Outrageous...perhaps not but only reduces card usage and makes people stand in queue at railway stations when there are so many other places they could get it done..

Time to rethink the top-up fee? Wonder what Paul has to say about that!

Jul 9, 2010

Memories of '82

I only vaguely remember watching Brazil play in the 1982 world cup - as well as the 1986 one as well..but one thing I remember fondly is the way they passed the ball around...keeping it firmly on the ground, fluently passing to one another as if the other team, however talented, does not matter in the least, not just keeping possession but always moving towards the other sides' penalty area...the whole thing looked well orchestrated, deceptively simple, like watching a good violinist play..and then they had such nice (and easy to remember) names like Zico, Socrates and Junior.

When I watched Spain play Germany in the semi-finals, I was pleasantly surprised because they were playing almost exactly the same way. As I do not watch European league games, I was not familiar with their style and it was such a pleasure to watch.

It is as if there was a hidden magnet in each Spanish boot that makes the ball stick to their feet...and promptly attach itself to the team mate they pass to. Only in very long passes they were not so precise.

Good luck Spain...I will be cheering you on Sunday..hopefully from a nice pub somewhere in Singapore! It may be 2.30am in the morning, it may be that I have to catch a flight next morning but it is not often one gets to watch such talent..

Jul 3, 2010

Beauty of Linux

My laptop hard disk failed yesterday. I was on Windows 7. Compared to all other versions of Windows, such as XP or the dreaded Vista, I should say 7 is the best. However, I got to know how far Microsoft has to travel when I was forced to use Linux for a day or so...

I was trying Windows 7 rescue but it ran for about 6 hours only to restart and re-run again. In the meantime, I was stuck. I gave up.

I had to find a way as there was lots of stuff in the disk I had not backed up. I slotted in a Ubuntu DVD I had received with a magazine and rebooted. It is a live-CD which means no need to install anything. In 5 minutes, I was running a nice graphical operating system, with Firefox and everything. It automatically found my wireless connection and connected to the net. It also came with a truck load of useful software including Office equivalents.

It found my laptop's hard disk, along with brand, serial number, temperature and practically everything about it other than the name of the salesgirl that sold it to me! Naturally it could also show me all the files inside.

I could happily move critical files to another disk and wipe it clean, so I can reinstall Windows 7 again, without losing anything (other than a few hours of valuable time, of course!)

So my advise to anyone using a laptop or desktop - keep a Live DVD of Ubuntu (or any other linux distro) handy - it may not save your life but it will surely save a lot of other things...

Even if you dont fry a hard disk, it is still useful to boot this DVD to browse the net with no risk of any malware or spyware or virus affecting your laptop's operating system  and not leave any trace behind, in case your one someone else's laptop. You can choose to unmount your laptop's hard disk and just work on the DVD alone. Now that would frustrate not only the spammers and virus makers but also those corporate busy-bodies that 'mine' your computer for valuable information so they can spam you even more...

May 17, 2010

The search for sugar-free

I am sorry if this blog is becoming too health focussed or sounds like one of those anti-establishment green ones...but I have to talk about sugar..

Around the time I started avoiding milk, actually a few weeks prior to that, I had also stopped taking sugar with coffee etc.

Again, this was not driven by any particular health concern - I had actually checked for diabetes (blood sugar) a month or two prior to that and it turned out ok. I am not over-weight or otherwise unhealthy. As Donal Rumsfeld put it so elegantly, I am one of those guys that simply does not know what he is going to die of.

Still I had always felt no particular interest in adding lots of sugar to drinks. This was the case for as long as I can remember.

I had also read a lot about the harmful effects of sugar on our body, about how the 'industry' gets us addicted to sugar and develop a sweet tooth that stays for life and troubles us, about how there is anyway sugar (glucose/sucrose) in so much of what we eat even without adding it as sugar and so on...

So why not try and avoid it?

I would say it was quite inconvenient not because of the craving for sugar, but because this is something so hard to avoid as an ordinary shopper or diner or drinker. I don't know about God but sugar is everywhere and anywhere.

I divide my time between Singapore and India and I will talk more about Singapore because it is easy to avoid anything if you are in India.

Firstly all of the drinks that I used to enjoy - Soya bean, Green tea, Fruit juice cans etc., were loaded with sugar. It was a revelation when I started reading the labels. Often they had more than 5-7 tsp of sugar each without even counting the sugar already in the fruit.

Finding sugar free versions of them was tough if not impossible. I could only find one - Pokka Green tea brewed without sugar. Most others had 'reduced sugar' versions that were still full of sugar. I am not a big fan of Coke, Pepsi etc., so it did not matter that Coke Zero, Diet Coke etc., were available easily.

For all the rest (Chinese tea, Green Jasmine tea, fruit juice, soya bean) I had to get them fresh from hawker stalls where you can ask for sugar-free versions. Strangely, in Singapore hawker stalls, they add sugar even to sugary fruit like papaya when they juice it for you. You have to tell them not to. Now, I sincerely hope it is sugar syrup they are adding, not some synthetic (and more harmful but cheap) stuff like HF Corn syrup...but it is good to ask for a drink without 'it' whatever it is.

While it is easy to drink fruit juice without sugar, drinking soya milk takes some practice and may be particularly hard or even impossible if you have sweet tooth. Thankfully I don't so it was hard but do-able.

As for hot coffee, tea etc., it is easy enough because they are anyway added later. But if you are adding condensed milk remember that it has tons of sugar already. Anyway, I started avoiding milk soon enough so that takes care of that...

Some 'conveniences' are also out of the door - such as those three-in-one's you mix with hot water and consume. Because one of the three is sugar. The other is usually cream or non-dairy creamer which in turn has many artificial stuff.

One ready benefit I can state - my appetite for decent breakfast is much better since I do not load up with milk and sugar in the name of drinking coffee early in the morning. Secondly my weight is in control and has even dropped by 2kg or so, without any cutting down on other stuff I like...

Talking of stuff I like, I should clarify I have kept my balance - I have not avoided sweets like chocolate or Indian sweets etc., because of this no-sugar policy and I continue to enjoy them, of course in small quantities.

It is just that avoiding added sugar where it adds no value gives you extra room to indulge in sugar where it is a must....may be that is one good way to encourage and get ourselves into that habit.

Cricket - sports, fun, obsession or national disgrace?

There is a saying in Tamil (my mother tongue)...if you exceed limits even nectar becomes poison...I am sure similar sayings can be found in other cultures and languages.

Indian media's obsession with cricket has reached ridiculous heights.

I am not referring the disgraceful IPL saga that has been unfolding in the recent weeks and occupying bulk of real estate in our newspapers and TV...IPL itself is a classic example of how quantity can triumph over quality and how a nation of poor can bestow super-rich status on a few selected individuals who are already super-rich anyway, just because there are so many of us...

As we all know, England won the recent T20 world cup and India could not make it beyond last eight. Let us look at news coverage (website, not print editions):

Note: The finals were played yesterday between England and Australia. India DID NOT play, even in the semi-finals..

  • Guardian, a leading daily in UK which won the cup, did not feature it on front page. The only sports coverage that made it was Webber winning Monaco Grand Prix..
  • I could not find it on the front pages of Timeonline, another leading UK newspaper.
  • It was not the main Sports news item either on the website of Sydney Morning Herald, the leading daily from the runner-up nation Australia.
  • Nor did it feature on the main page of the Melbourne based Age, which had several other sports related items featured on front page.
  • Times of India, Indian Express, even The Hindu - ALL of them had it on their Top Stories Section, front page or otherwise prominently featured. Hindustan Times had nothing but T20 coverage on its sports section of the front page!

Now, let us stop for a moment and think - has this gone too far? Don't we or our newspapers have anything better to do or talk about?

Have we ended up in a situation where the sports has come to be dominated by shady businessmen, politicians, movie-stars (all of whom have tons of money and want even more of that)? Are we feeding this insatiable monster through our own irrational obsession with this game?

Have we turned a gentleman's game into a money-bag's game?

It is yet another matter altogether that a game that requires cool weather, lots of space and lots of time, all of which are in scarce supply (except of course to our Bollywood stars) in a place like India ends up occupying so much mind-share and ad budgets and dollar flows...

Isn't it funny that this game which sucks out so much productivity has come to be dominated by politics and Bollywood?

Is this what the great Tamil poet Bharathi referred to as 'when will our fetish for slavery end?' way back in the 1920s?

May 9, 2010

Milk or no milk?

It is impossible to read health columns of newspapers or dedicated health magazines or websites without coming across some food item we consume on a daily basis criticised for its harmful effects on human health. If one were to list out all of them, even ignoring the fringe ones, and strictly follow the ban list, it would be hard to eat anything save a few that we surely don't want to eat.

But it does not pay to simply ignore these warnings and just carry on because sometimes they are true and sometimes we realise too late.

Like in all other matters, it is better to exercise discretion and have a healthy level of skepticism without being cynical or without becoming too naive and sway with every passing wind.

I was quite impressed by the arguments in favor of a milk-free diet and have decided to avoid milk for the last few months. I do not have lactose intolerance and have been drinking milk and milk beverages since birth.

But these arguments appeared valid:

  • Every animal has milk designed by nature for its own young - cow's milk is designed for the digestion and growing needs of baby cows, not humans.
  • Most westerners (and nowadays that also includes most affluent people even in poor countries, that includes people like us) get enough protein and calcium anyway through other means.
  • A high protein diet, particularly rich in animal protein (that includes milk) actually depletes bone calcium - this has been validated by very respectable doctors and studies.
  • Americans have some of the highest levels of bone disease and bone fractures in old age despite drinking lots and lots of milk in comparison with other people.
  • Even cows dont drink milk beyond the first few months of their life and they only eat green vegetables. Same goes for elephants..
The key question is, how far do these arguments apply to Indians who, affluent or not, do not eat as much meat as westerners and hence do not have this protein overload problem? Hence if they give up milk are they giving up a cheap and valuable source of both protein and calcium?

I don't know. But I have played it safe by doing two things - not giving up on yoghurt or curd, a standard staple of Indian food and taking calcium supplements.

But no latte's and no hot milk or Milo etc.

I am also happy I am making a very small contribution to keeping milk prices low for those that need them, keep methane emissions low, alleviate the sufferings of cows that are now treated as machines in food factories. Actually a lot worse than machines.

And I should say I don't miss milk - I can appreciate the flavor and taste of tea and coffee much better these days and also restrict calorie intake without sacrificing taste, at least taste as defined by myself for me.

You can read the anti-milk propaganda website for more details...but I for one, am convinced.

Apr 29, 2010

Economic growth - end or means to an end?

We often see articles or commentaries by 'experts' who predict that demographic changes would be 'devastating' for countries like Japan who face declining population. Their message is that 'economic growth' would be seriously affected and therefore, urge these countries to speed up immigration & of course baby-making to ensure 'growth'. Scary headlines and tag lines using words like 'crisis' are often used to emphasise on the 'danger' of low birth rate.

There are many countries facing such 'crisis', including fairly large and thinly populated ones like Russia and Eastern European states. It can, in such cases be a genuine national security threat. But in the Asian context, is lower population really a crisis? How many times have you felt 'what Japan (or for that matter any other country in similar situation) needs is a few more people' as you ride the crowded subway to work in these countries?

This brings us to the topic of 'economic growth'. It seems, at least to 'experts' and financial analysts and the 'Wall Street' gang, it is an end in itself, instead of merely being a means to an end.

One can understand that in the context of a listed corporate entity that has to constantly produce growth and higher profits. Even there, it leads to ridiculous situations. A random stone thrown in any 'developed' city is likely to hit not just one, two but sometimes even three Starbucks (or 7-11 or you-name-it) outlets. Until someone wakes up and realises may be it has gone too far...often the pendulum swings the other way with closures and sackings, only to swing yet again in boom-time.

But in the context of nations, is 'producing' steady and sometimes increasing economic growth mandatory?

Simple common sense arithmetic will tell us that size of the economy is a factor of two things - how many people there are and how productive they are. That is why a country like Switzerland is rich because with fewer people, they produce more - produce meaning not just factory output but services such as banking. A country like India is poor because people produce less even though they are more in number - which is also why sheer numbers give Indian (and Chinese) economies large size even with low 'per-capita GDP'.

The latter - 'productivity' is much more difficult to fix in the short or even medium term. In countries already highly productive like Japan it may even be difficult in long term. But the former, population size, can sometimes be 'fixed' in the short term, by encouraging immigration and discouraging emigration as well as in the medium term by encouraging couples to have more children.

That is where 'Gross National Happiness' comes in. Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan nation is considered a very happy country based on surveys, even though by most financial measures it is poor and backward.

Instead of going for higher economic growth as if it were compulsory and mandatory, it is good if we can satisfied by simply having stable or even declining economy, as long as living standards stay high and people are happy. And trains less crowded.

People already are making that choice - which is why, even though New Zealand, for instance, is more 'backward' when compared with many Asian economies from a per-capita GDP perspective, there are more Asians queuing up to move there than the other way around.

Apr 28, 2010

Do things really change?

Wish you had a dollar for every "times have changed" or some such well-worn cliche you come across? If you follow press releases or marketing PPTs of software companies, among others, you often come across this message that somehow in the last few years, times have changed and therefore we have to do this or that differently. Globalisation, Internet-age, MTV generation, 21st century, these are all often used as keywords that tell us that we are in some drastically new era that is vastly different.

Many a times we also come across anecdotes or incidents or flashes from the past that remind us that, times may appear to have changed but in some respects, not much has changed. Let me give you a few..

I like Gary Hayden's articles on "philosophy" that features every week in Singapore's Straits Times. Now we all get scared when hear that p-word but he really conveys simple messages in a simple and straightforward way which is not so easy. Recently I looked up his blog and he has posted a link to one of Seneca Jr's writings sent to him by a reader. Gary considers this article, along with a few others, as potentially 'life changing'.

This guy Seneca is from the first century (50AD), that is almost 2000 years ago. And the quoted article starts like this ... "... we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live".

Who would have thought that back then life goes so swift that you don't have time to live? We normally assume that even 50-60 years ago life was laid back and relaxed and it is only in this bullet train internet tweet era that things are moving fast. After all our parents did not have to tweet every movement of theirs or blog every thought as we do :-) but then they had other things...

Then there are others...some researchers recently compared paintings of Last Supper by various painters over hundreds of years, to conclude that our meal or portion sizes have grown steadily through the ages (presumably implying that we are overeating)....with all respects, have they found something new? There is this Egyptian saying supposedly engraved on a 5000 year old pyramid "you live on one fourth of what you eat, your doctor lives on the other three fourths" over-eating is probably not a new fad at least not for the affluent.

We all have also heard "today's kids are so different" so often. It seems that is exactly what some ancient Greek thinker also said, 3000 years or more ago...

I am sure you have come across many such cases.