Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A modern-day soap opera

An Indian-origin nurse in the U.K. working in the hospital where Kate Middleton is admitted, gets a call from "the Royal family" which she passes on to some other nurse. Some detailed questions are asked which this other nurse replies to.  It later turns out that the call is a hoax, from a radio station in Australia.  A nice practical joke, if you ask me. There was nothing to suggest anything indecent or offensive in the call, and everyone could have had a good laugh and moved on. But the story took a twist.


The nurse, Jacintha, who passed on the call, naturally gets named  in the media, may have been a bit embarrassed by the whole affair, and had to endure a bit of leg-pulling from her colleagues. She went and  committed suicide!  I don't think being on the receiving end of a prank like this  is sufficient cause to commit suicide, and if she, well, happened to do it, it was her problem. May be she was depressed or something. Or unhappy with her family. Or slightly unhinged. Who knows? Anyway, since anything to do with the royal family grabs a lot of attention, this came to the attention of the media. Who blew it up bigtime.


The problem is, the story starts with a death – a real death. So no one can put things in perspective, and talk reasonably. Especially not if they are representing big institutions like the media, or the radio station in question, or if they are getting quoted. It is extremely politically correct to show concern at a tragic occurrence like this, while condemning those who may have been even indirectly a cause for such an action.


There is an uproar. Everyone says it is a tragic thing (which I guess it is), and everyone says that the caller (the guy from the Australian radio station) is responsible – by that logic, I can trace every death to someone or the other who had been cruel to the chief protagonist some time in their life.  The latest fashion in the media seems to be to pick up one death at a time (we will ignore incidents of mass killing like what keeps happening once every year in the US) where we can sympathize with the victim, and feel that they were unjustly done in. And then milk it to the hilt. Emotion sells. So make sure the newspaper drips with tears.  There are photos of the grieving family – notice how well they seem to have adjusted to the situation? The family is always shown with a grim visage, hugging each other, and dabbing tears – I am sure this happens whenever there is a camera in sight, since you can't sustain this kind of behaviour for days on end. 


Even if someone feels that this is being over-hyped, he or she dare not speak up. It is really, really, politically incorrect to sound so heartless. You can't even do it around the lunch table with your colleagues nowadays.  It seems to be a race to sound more holier-than-thou than the next man. Anyway, that is the subject of a separate discussion. Meanwhile, every day newspaper readers are exposed to tearful photos of the family hugging, or rather, of the family hugging tearfully, for a whole week. This happens across three continents, since the nurse who died was an Indian from Mangalore, working in the UK, and the call originated from Australia. The radio station in question is totally on the defensive and they have to be seen to be making amends. So there is a very tearful, regretful, apology from the callers in question, who are "very very sorry" and "devastated" by what happened, no doubt drafted by the communications department of the radio station, vetted by their lawyers across three continents, and released very tearfully; never mind what the callers are actually feeling. The radio station is also compelled (no doubt by its own conscience) to announce a couple of million dollars compensation to the victim's (sic) family, which I am sure, makes them hug each other more tightly when the cameras are in sight.


They follow her all the way to the funeral in Mangalore, and there are more tearful photos.  For the near future, whenever they are seen in public, they have to maintain a grim visage.  May her soul rest in peace.


What is the likely fallout of this? All big organizations, not only media houses, will be drafting fresh guidelines as we speak. No more practical jokes. No more jokes. No levity even.  It may lead to someone committing suicide.  Even jokes over the lunch table will be banned. As it is, it is taboo to mention "sensitive" subjects like race, religion, sex, politics, and anything in which there are diverse opinions. Now it will so become that you can't even pull anyone's leg, since they may take offence and commit suicide. That will not be a very good thing, so we should avoid taking any risk. What is the bet that all Vision Statements will start incorporating the word "sensitivity"?  Once they put it in their Vision Statements, you can't accuse them of being insensitive.


Meanwhile, people keep drowning by the hundreds in boat accidents, dying in fires in garment factories where the exits are blocked from outside, getting killed by pilotless drones dropping bombs into their weddings. Someone should take these tearful photos of single deaths to places like Kashmir, Af-Pak, North Africa, and ask them what they think about it. I am sure the response would be very vocal. But no one would dare publish it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A tribute to Ravi Shankar

A rainbow that straddled the world,
Wowing both the East and the West,
With the traditional that he revered,
He broke bounds, mingling with world's best.

Bringing India to the world at large,
No better ambassador can be found. 
Who said "East is East and West is West"?
He proved him wrong, for through him, they met.

As did traditions of hoary age,
With the colour and dazzle of life.
His zest for life could not be contained,
By the usual rules that bind others.

At every stage in life he rebelled,
Breaking bounds, exploring the new.
But he kindled afresh where he went,
A respect for the past, born anew.

Genius cannot be contained by rules,
Nor should ever be made to comply.
His own path the Genius must choose,
Blazing trails for others to walk by.

Dinesh Gopalan
13 December, 2012

Dinesh Gopalan
mob: 9845257313; blog: http://www.dineshgopalan.com

Saturday, December 1, 2012

My thoughts on what "Food" means

Article attached below on 'White Bread is "dead" bread', as an example of many such articles that we keep coming across.  While this one is correct in what it states, or at least the conclusion is correct (don't eat white bread), the problem with such information is also that, with food industry lobbies, government lobbies, allopathic lobbies, so-called scientific lobbies, sheer misinformed lobbies (like modern day nutritionists who don't know what they are talking about) controlling a lot of the research in the world, you don't even know what to believe. Plus the fact that some of the "accepted truths" about food and health, the postulates if we want to call them that, that are based on the "modern allopathic western" construct, are faulty. Any theorem built on faulty postulates is likely to be faulty as well, and most of the "wisdom" on food and health out there are theorems built on faulty postulates.


Most of the research on health and nutrition out there is absolute junk, and actively contributes to the deterioration of health standards the world over.  Is it a coincidence that health standards in the US, which is the country with the most processed/ industrialised food, and with the most research as well, and the biggest per capita "health (sic)" budget by far, are among the worst in the world - one-third of all US people are obese, and they don't know what positive, vibrant good health really means.


So what are some of the fundamental stuff about food that I consider "self evident truths" (self-evident at least to me)?


Listed below are some of the rules about food and health that I believe in and follow (at least substantially if not completely or fully, and for the record, I am not in the least fanatical about following these rules)  - all of these conclusions are based on a lot of reading over the years, distilled wisdom of natural-health experts, sifting and sieving, and eliminating all that is contrary. If you want more "proof" for each of these assertions, I cannot oblige because that would be a huge waste of time! 'Tis better to be considered dogmatic, than to waste time trying to prove your faith to non-believers (saying that I just made up)!  

Suffice to say that there is enough material to support each of these assertions - google, and thou shall find!  There is also enough material to support exactly the opposite assertions, and many other shades of assertions in between, as well. But then, "the essence of faith is to ignore the nay-sayers, the liars, the agents of the devil, the provocateurs, the saboteurs, who will sway you away from the true path" (another saying I just made up).



1) Eat only what nature gave, as close to what nature gave. In other words, eat "food". Manufactured products are not food. Examples of manufactured products, is anything that comes out of a packet or a bottle! That includes breakfast cereals and juices whether called "Real" or not.  


2) The body is a chemical factory, and breaks down food into its components and rebuilds the components into what the body needs. Therefore, food needs to be easy to breakdown. All natural foods are easy to break down, since they "spoil" - any foods that don't spoil  are by definition, not food.   "Only eat foods that spoil fast, but eat them before they spoil"


3) Do not count calories. It is a useless wasteful exercise. 


4) Drink lots of water. (Not soda)


5) Foods to avoid: those foods that are actually dangerous and highly harmful to health: white sugar; refined flour; any foods with high fructose corn syrup (which means most of what passes off  as food in western supermarket shelves); too much salt, dalda / hydrogenated vegetable oil; any kind of junk food - that includes pizzas, burgers, and all things of their ilk; white bread; carbonated drinks; ice-cold water / water from the fridge; all bakery products; all milk products (except butter and ghee which are good for health)


6) Foods to preferably avoid:  old food, stale food, food that has been cooked more than a few hours back, reheated food. Food kept in the fridge after cooking would by definition belong to this category


7) Foods to avoid at any cost: microwaved food. Avoid the microwave at all costs


8) Let your diet consist predominantly of plants / plant-based foods. In other words, fruits, vegetables and their ilk.


9) Minimize the consumption of grains - rice, wheat - as far as possible while increasing the consumption of fruits, vegetables, etc. as a proportion of the diet


10) Super foods - foods that are most excellent for health: all vegetables, all fruits, sprouts


11) Foods that are brilliant for maintaining health and have a lot of medicinal value as well (just a brief list, there are many): amla, honey (not the store bought honey that is processed, but raw unprocessed forest honey), flax seeds, fresh fruit juice (freshly extracted, less than five minutes old, since most of the nutrients get oxidised very fast), fresh vegetable juice (ditto)


12) As far as possible, buy seasonal, locally-produced stuff. It is not harmful to not do so, but generally better for health to follow this principle. Also, do not keep raw vegetables, etc. stored for too long – the extreme ideal is to buy directly from the farmer and cook the stuff immediately – though for logistical reasons one may need to buy for a few days at a time. In short, "Preferably ensure that the distance (and time) from farm to the table is as short as possible"

13) Eat sparingly. The less you eat, the less your body needs, and the healthier you will be

14) Fast frequently, for more and more extended periods.


15) Ignore fad diets. Following the above rules should be enough.



The above is a top-of-the-mind partial list.  There's more, but you get the general idea...


Also, I am not even getting into the science of food combinations (trophology) or into organic food.  Those are different dimensions of what good food means...


Would love to hear your reactions (which, by the way, it's enough to state, you don't have to prove your assertions!)



PS - forwarded article on 'White Bread' attached below









White Bread is "dead" bread  (author unknown)

The Swiss government has been aware of the dangers of eating white
bread for decades and in order to get its populace to stop eating it,
Switzerland has placed a tax on the purchase of white bread. The tax
money is given to bakers to reduce the price of whole wheat bread to
encourage people to switch.

The Canadian government passed a law prohibiting the "enrichment" of
white bread with synthetic vitamins. Bread must contain the original
vitamins found in the grain, not imitations.

Essentially, white bread is "dead" bread. Frequently, consumers are
not told the truth about this and so called "enriched" flour.

Why is the color of white bread so white when the flour taken from wheat is not?

It's because the flour used to make white bread is chemically bleached
, just like you bleach your clothes. When you are eating white bread,
you are also eating residual chemical bleach. Flour mills use
different chemical bleaches, all of which are pretty bad. Here are a
few of them: oxide of nitrogen, chlorine, chloride, nitrosyl and
benzoyl peroxide mixed with various chemical salts.

One bleaching agent, chloride oxide, combined with whatever proteins
are still left in the flour, produces alloxan. Alloxon is a poison and
has been used to produce diabetes in laboratory animals. Chlorine
oxide destroys the vital wheat germ oil. It will also shorten the
flour's shelf life.

Good Nutrition: You Won't Find It In White Bread
In the process of making flour white, half of the good unsaturated
fatty acids, that are high in food value, are lost in the milling
process alone, and virtually all the vitamin E is lost with the
removal of wheat germ and bran. As a result, the remaining flour in
the white bread you buy, contains only poor quality proteins and
fattening starch.

But that is not the whole story as to the loss of nutrients. About 50%
of all calcium, 70% of phosphorus, 80% iron, 98% magnesium, 75%
manganese, 50% potassium, and 65% of copper is destroyed. If that is
not bad enough, about 80% thiamin, 60% of riboflavin, 75% of niacin,
50% of pantothenic acid, and about 50% of Pyridoxine is also lost.

Scientific Study Has Confirmed What The Swiss Have Known For Years
These horrific numbers are the results of a study run by the
University of California, College of Agriculture.

It is obvious, from what we have learned, that white bread should be
avoided. Whole wheat, rye, and grain breads made with whole wheat
flour is a better way.

It is a good idea to always read the labels and never buy foods that
contain artificial flavors, colors, bleached flour, preservatives,
hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.

Dinesh Gopalan
mob: 9845257313; blog: http://www.dineshgopalan.com

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Cauvery dispute

The Supreme Court asks the two Chief Ministers to meet and agree!  How naive. What happened when Jayalalitha and Shettar met was as anyone would have predicted...

Tweedle dum and Tweedle dee
the two of them, could never agree.
Cauvery, Kolaveri, di,
Nanni adige dhaani ki,
meeru yovar andi?

Tweedle dum and Tweedle dee,
sat together to have tea,
The Court wants them to agree,
across the table, over some tea!

Tweedle dum and Tweedle dee,
have played this game for many years.
They don't really want to agree,
Some problems are not meant to be solved.

Tweedle dum and Tweedle dee,
lob the ball back to the court.
If it decides, they don't agree,
for they have voters who support.

Tweedle dum and Tweedle dee,
have roused thousands with ire.
If they say they agree,
Both their states will be consumed by fire.

The sides send their champions to fight,
if they lose, they can't return.
Who wants to listen to the other side,
When their own lives are threatened?

No one else wants to handle,
the hot potato thrown at them.
governments and courts fear this squabble,
for no one listens to reason.

Meanwhile Tweedle dum and Tweedle dee,
have elections to win, rabbles to rouse.
Nothing on earth can make them agree,
threatening blood, they enact a farce.

Dinesh Gopalan
30 November, 2012

Dinesh Gopalan
mob: 9845257313; blog: http://www.dineshgopalan.com

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The increasing clamor against gold

Over the last few months, coinciding with the time Chidambaram took over as Finance Minister, there is an increasing lobby calling out for curbing gold imports into India. 60 billion dollars of India's annual import bill is due to importing gold.  One of the ways of shoring up the domestic currency is of course to discourage dollar outflows arising due to imports. Subir Gokarn, deputy Governor of RBI seems to be at the forefront of this campaign – he can be frequently seen deploring the love of Indians for gold, and exhorting banks to come up with innovative schemes to divert this money into some innovative schemes 'linked to gold'.


It is being reported that finance ministry mandarins and bankers are considering introducing 'gold linked deposits / schemes' where people can invest in financial products whose price will vary with the price of gold. Whether the underlying investments of the scheme will actually be in physical gold is hard to guess. What the government really wants to do is to pander to Indians' appetite for gold – it knows it can do nothing to curb that – while at the same time appropriating the money for its own uses.


The financial industry seems to have taken this cause up with enthusiasm. There is suddenly a spate of learned articles appearing in dailies extolling the virtues of investing in 'fictional derivative' (the term is entirely mine, they never use it) products linked to the price of gold.  To those who followed the 2008 financial meltdown, this could evoke a sense of déjà vu. Synthetic credit default swaps, anyone?


Of the approximately 2400 tons of gold produced worldwide annually (of which India contributes a negligible part since India never produced gold in any significant quantities), India imports about 800 tons every year.   Indians' appetite for gold dates back to ancient times when India imported gold and precious stones in exchange for spices exported out of the country. It is estimated that one-third of all gold ever mined and existing above ground – i.e. one-third of about 160,000 tons – is resident in India.


Gold while being intrinsically useless – it has no utilitarian value worth talking about – has always been considered a very good investment. The primary reasons are: it is scarce thus preserving demand, it is 'dense' thus taking up very less space, it does not react with most chemicals or corrode thus preserving value over time, it can be easily divided into small pieces or melded into large ones, and it has value around the world and has been considered valuable through the centuries.  All qualities that made it ideal currency material till the governments of the world conspired to move away from the unsustainable (to the profligate) gold standard.  Indians have always understood this instinctively – you don't need to hold a class to explain all this to the most illiterate villager. She understands the value of gold, and does not get swayed by specious arguments against it, smart woman!


Witness what happened when Morarji Desai, then finance minister, tried to place restrictions on Gold in 1963 following the India China war. The Gold Control Act, 1962, banned gold loans given by banks, banned forward trading in gold, and banned production of gold jewelry above 14 carat fineness.  This did not have any significant impact and was followed by the Gold Control Act, 1968, which prohibited Indian citizens from owning gold in the form of bars and coins! Goldsmiths were not allowed to hold gold more than the bare minimum required to make jewelry. Did the demand for gold drop due to these measures? Not at all. It is estimated that about half of India's imports in those days were of gold!  This is about the time when smugglers became the new badshahs.  Those who grew up in the seventies will remember the Hindi films where the hero entangles with crooks landing contraband gold on a suitably desolate coastline.  Moral of the story?  It is easy for governments to control imports of elephants. But it is somewhat more challenging when it comes to a commodity like gold!


The US has also had its fling with banning gold. In 1933, the Roosevelt government made it illegal for private citizens to hold gold, and ordered them to hand over the gold they had to the government. The measures met with a little more success in the US than in India, but then they are not genetically wired the same way as Indians; in fact I would go further and say that US citizens are more naïve and  prone to accept things at face value! It also goes to show that governments are wary of gold in private hands – no institution likes power being distributed widely in so many hands that it cannot exercise control over.


What has been the performance of gold recently as an investment? In the last five years, gold has increased 200% in value while the sensex has dropped 6 percent. While this need not always be the case, and one needs to take a longer term view, it is true that gold is at the very least guaranteed to protect your money against inflation. And against debasement of the currency which is a real risk nowadays with all governments indulging in a race to the bottom, by printing more notes.


Real estate and gold are the two things one can physically control, without other people determining their fate. By gold in this context, I mean gold held physically by you in your own hands. What is to prevent governments from commandeering all gold and giving you currency notes in return under the excuse of a real war or an imagined crisis?  I am not wishing to sound alarmist here, but historically that has happened. Of the two, gold is more easily 'hideable' and transportable than real estate, thus making it ideal for holding against extreme eventualities. 


As to 'gold linked derivative' products, I have no faith in them.  The total outstandings of such products out there in the market are far more than the actual quantity of gold available. Also, financial instruments, whatever the underlying may be, and whoever the guarantor may be, are prone to default or expropriation.


It is good to continue holding gold for a certain proportion of your net worth. Gold in physical form. In your own custody. Not as a financial instrument.   But then, if you are an Indian, I don't have to belabor that point. You understand that instinctively, don't you?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Who are they trying to protect us from?



A recent news item talks about how authorities in Los Angeles are thinking of introducing a legislation mandating that porn stars should wear condoms in their movies!  While I am sure wearing condoms is a good thing, maybe this is a case of taking things a bit too far. Or, at a deeper level, it is what happens when we let Big Brother take over all aspects of our lives.  Big Brother in this case is convinced that HIV and AIDS are a menace that need to be controlled (no arguments there – except that worldwide they anyway seem to be more under control now than a decade back), and that wearing condoms helps prevent the spread of AIDS (better than advocating complete abstention at least). So far so good.


Then is where it begins to get interesting.   Big Brother – in this case whoever is the competent authority in the city of Los Angeles – has decided that it wants to ram this message home to the target audience. And who would the primary target audiences be? – people who have more sex, in other words not friaries and nunneries(again an assumption). And people who have more sex, or likely to have unprotected sex, are most likely to watch porn videos (once again, I wonder if that is the case). So voila, ensure that everyone wears condoms in them!  And then you pass a law to do that!  No one in Big Brothers’ councils can oppose it since it would not be considered politically correct to oppose a measure of this sort and thus the law gets passed.


It was very interesting to see a statutory warning pop up in large type whenever someone lit up in the latest James Bond film “Skyfall”. It certainly took away a little from enjoying the movie, and it is debatable whether this measure will in any way help to reduce smoking. In any case, who was Ramadoss trying to protect us from? From ourselves? Why is he forcing his views on me when I am watching a James Bond flick?


And who is the government to decide what is good and what is bad? Are they the final arbiters of good taste, or for that matter, health?  What is to prevent them from decreeing that every time a character drinks a cola, he/she has to turn to the audience and announce “to reduce calories use aspartame in instead of sugar” (when in fact diet colas could turn out to be more harmful than the sugar-filled one because of this very chemical); or every time the family sits for a meal of desi paratha with ghee there is a message saying “ghee is full of calories, replacing it with mono-unsaturated, non-transfat ,HDL filled, vegan, refined, fatty acids is good for the heart (when in actual fact most of that rubbish is bad, and ghee is good!)?


Do they have the right to interfere with our right to enjoy things we want, unadulterated with someone’s views of what they think is good? Do we allow Big Brother to invade all aspects of our lives, and reach out to us both overtly and subtly through every means that we reach out to the world with? Will we let every lobby or powergroup out there try to manipulate our thinking?


Why can’t they too put out their views out there like everyone else and let us decide what is good or bad? As individuals shouldn’t we be left to decide on our own what is good for us?


The irony is that the US is the nation that professes to believe most in individual liberty, but it is the place today where being politically incorrect and airing contrarian views is the least accepted.  There are more and more holy cows which cannot be questioned… and Big Brother wants to ensure that we all subscribe to those views…


A further irony – the porn industry in the US is the only place in the world where the incidence of AIDS / HIV is zero.  Yes, zero. That’s because they have taken self-regulatory steps to ensure this!


Monday, September 24, 2012

Power, pollution and the internet: article on data centres

A very informative New York Times article on data centres, carried  in today's Mint (link at the end).

The transition from 99% reliability to 99.99999.... percent reliability in most fields is not considered worth the effort. It results in too much wastage of resources that could be productively used elsewhere. The human brain which is the most efficient computer imaginable runs on a minuscule amount of electricity, but is never 100% reliable. It has though, an inherent capacity to sift through loads of information and focus on those bits which are most relevant. 

The modern craze for big data, internet of things, and digitization goes against this fundamental maxim. Google is storing all the data in all the books of the world, all the data on continuously changing landscapes and streetscapes, and generally all the data it can lay its hands on, indexing, classifying and sorting it and making it available through increasingly intelligent search engines. Social media sites such as Facebook derive their valuations from all the data they hold about trillions of human interactions - which are only going more and more online and generating more and more data. Companies and other networks where humans interact want to store all the data that they generate, for all the time, and some of this is even mandated by law. From simple text it moved on to pictures, and then to videos and from there to storing 3d movies - and one does not know where it will head from here, only that it will be more data intensive and growth will be more exponential.

If all the people in the world were given a unique number or identity, all their characteristics identified and stored, all their interactions indexed and logged; if all the things in the world were similarly indexed; if one took a photograph every second of the state of the world through a zillion cameras; if all the communications between all these elements were recorded and stored; if there were algorithms capable of extracting threads of meaningful information out of them; there is no end to the amount of data that can be generated. Which is where we are heading - the amount of data sloshing around the world's computers now is nothing compared to what is in store in the future.

And you need to store all this information of course. Maybe in future data centres will come with their own nuclear power plants attached. With the enormous 
amounts of electricity needed to power them, there will be no other option. 

We don't need this much data, of course. Maybe at an individual level we can take a philosophical call to resist this explosion. But as with all advances in technology, the group or nation that pursues the technology enjoys too much advantage over those who don't - the only way to equalize is not for everyone to agree to moderate their pace (which will never happen) - rather, everyone competes with each other in a race to the finish line. The finish line in many cases, is a sheer drop over a cliff - but then, lemmings are not the only animals that are known for collective insanity.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Our recent trip to Nepal and Kailash manasarovar

(link to pictures at the end) 


Travelling to the roof of the world does not need any excuses. Tibet is one of the last frontiers, one of the least populated regions of the world, among the most inaccessible. Our excuse to go there was the “Kailas Manasarovar Yatra” and the trip did not disappoint. Neela (my wife) and I, along with two of our friends, joined a tour group, and the comforts of cooks and guides were assured throughout the trip. 


We reached Kathmandu on the 7th of June, and were supposed to get into Tibet on the 9th. However, that week, the Chinese authorities clamped down on all visas for entering Tibet due to some “Free Tibet” protests instigated by some foreign nationals in Lhasa. That gave us less time to acclimatize at the high altitudes of Tibet.  But it did give us some additional days in Nepal – the compensation was spending a couple of days in Pokhra which is a beautiful hill town and at a resort near the border.


We reached the Tibet border from Kathmandu – a journey that usually takes half a day - on the 14th, and then ascended rapidly from a height of 1000 metres to around 3500 metres. The day after that, we were on the high Tibetan plateau stretching miles and miles in all directions at a height of 4800 to 5200 metres. The road having been built by the Chinese, was of course sans any potholes (what is that?) and better than any of our national highways. The roads are good, but the less said about the hotels on the Tibet side, the better. The hotel facilities are rudimentary, to put it mildly. A dip in Lake Manasarovar at 3 in the afternoon (when the water is not freezing, just biting cold) with Mount Kailas in the background, and then on to the foot of Mount Kailas.


The parikrama around Mount Kailas usually takes three days, but we had only one day to do what we could, due to the delay in getting visas. We went ahead for about five kilometres to a point which provides a very close view of the holy mountain, and then returned the same day.  For those doing the three-day parikrama, porters and ponies are available. Tibetans too believe in doing the parikrama around Mount Kailas – as to taking ponies, they believe that if they do that, since the ponies are the ones doing the walking, all the punya goes to them and not to the rider!


Any travel is important for the journey, as much as for the destination. The starkly beautiful landscape of the Tibetan plateau offers breathtaking  views of snowclad mountains at every turn.  At that height of 5000 metres, it is almost a desert in terms of vegetation, but whatever grass grows out there supports animals like Tibetan gazelle, yaks, wild ass, and marmots. Since the population density is very low – one of the districts has 13,000 people inhabiting 8000 square kilometres – it is like driving through a vast national park. The mountains in the background seem small, rising as they do from a base of 5000 metres, but several of them count among the tallest peaks of the world!


The altitude did get to us, especially due to the short time we had to acclimatize. Most members of the party were nursing headaches, had some difficulty breathing, or felt nauseous. A small price to pay for the privilege of seeing Mount Kailas up close and taking a dip in the holy Manasarovar.  The return journey to Kathmandu was quick and uneventful – we reached on the 19th, and flew back to Bangalore on the 20th of June.


Attempt this trip if you are deeply spiritual or if you like the idea of undergoing some hardship as part of your travel. For people who belong to either of these two categories, it is a must-do at least once in your lifetime.  


Pictures (with captions) taken by Neela, Subbu and Sudhakar in the link attached:





Dinesh Gopalan

mob: 9845257313; blog: http://www.dineshgopalan.com



Sunday, June 3, 2012

Our obsession with lists

Now that Viswanathan Anand has won the Chess World Cup, this event coming as it does, soon after Sachin scoring his hundredth hundred, there are learned articles once more analyzing ' Who is the greatest Indian sportsman of all time: Sachin or Anand'.  Of course there are other names that are briefly considered. Dhyan Chand, Ramanathan Krishnan, Geet Sethi, Prakash Padukone, Sunil Gavaskar… and discarded just as quickly.


At a fundamental level there seems to be something wrong in making these kinds of comparisons. Each sport is different, each era is not the same, and each individual named above has achieved greatness in his own sport in his own unique way.  Why can't we just celebrate them all as they come, the victories and the victors, take satisfaction in their achievements, and just let things be?  Ah, but there lies the catch. We cannot. We have an obsession with making lists. Our minds are conditioned to understand achievements only in terms of rankings and ratings – even world champions are not spared – everyone needs to be shown his place in the pecking order.


The whole nation waited with bated breath for a year for Sachin to make his hundredth century. That it was an artificially contrived list (one-days plus tests) did not matter. That he was part of a larger game where the objective was for the team to win the match first, that too seemed to matter little. That we lost the match, and that too to Bangladesh, when he finally did reach his much awaited landmark, again did not seem to matter at all. The whole nation seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief, gave a collective whoop of victory, and started celebrating. Cola giants who had been waiting with their cans in the godowns – cans which commemorated Sachin's victory – got into action. His legions of fans stood up in salute. While I admire Sachin and his cricket, and hundred hundreds is no doubt good, I wonder what is the achievement that we are celebrating – what has he achieved now that he had not when he had completed 99 centuries?


For that matter what is the significance of the number 100? Just because the world collectively chose to follow the decimal system, numbers like 100 and 1000 achieve a special significance. Why not 108?  That has always been an auspicious number as per Hindu tradition. Why not 1024? That marries the binary system, used so much in modern computers, with the decimal system since it is 2 raised to the power of 10?


Now let's talk about Anand, who recently won the Chess World Championship against Boris Gelfand.  It is of course a great achievement, and for Anand, par for the course. But are we satisfied with merely celebrating the achievement? We want to make lists and go over them to see where he stands in every pecking order possible.



Anand is the first recipient of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the highest award for sports in the country.
Is the only sportsperson to get the Padma Vibhushan award in 2007.
Is the first Indian to become a Grandmaster in 1987.
He is one of the few players in the World to defeat six computers simultaneously…


And the lists go on…  The uncharitable would of course point out that as per his ELO rating, he is actually only number five in the world (or is it six, does it really matter?), and when he drew with Gelfand in this tournament in the regular-time format, his ratings dropped and Gelfand's went up. 


The following quote from Wikipedia again underlines the point about our obsession with lists.

"Anand is one of 6 players in history to break the 2800 mark on the FIDE rating list, and in April 2007 at the age of 37, he became the world number one for the first time. He was at the top of the world rankings five out of six times, from April 2007 to July 2008, holding the number-one ranking for a total of 15 months. "


And there are many more examples like the above, both for Sachin as well for Anand. They are masters of their games, brilliant exponents of their craft, who have created many magical moments in the flow of play, and have provided countless moments of pleasure for millions of people who follow their games -  is that not enough?


Why do we need lists?


Or is it just symptom of a larger reality? The fact that we are not comfortable with our place in the scheme of things unless placed in relation to someone else?  Or that we refuse to get into the flow of things, some part of us always holding back, trying to calculate where this effort will place us?  Do we enjoy the process of doing things for their own sake, and let the results follow whatever they may be; or do we let our enjoyment itself get colored by the various lists we create in our minds? Life is multi-dimensional, and perhaps the only way to enjoy it is to immerse ourselves in the experience, and experience the whole in the moment. Why do we want to divide the whole into various parts, and look at each part in isolation and in relation to someone or something else? Why does our sense of achievement come from slicing experience into small little pieces, ranking ourselves on each piece, and comparing ourselves with others, and our experiences with what we think others are experiencing? Does our obsession with lists have something do with all this? After all, what we want our heroes to do and what we celebrate as achievements are nothing but reflections of what we are.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Time to look at Farmland Investments

We are now at a time when investing in almost any asset class seems fraught with risk  - actually, that may have always been the case, I am sure every generation felt that way.  The exception was investments in equity post World War 2, along with the consequent rise in mutual funds dealing in them. The theory was – and still is – that you invested a constant amount in a SIP and the returns took care of themselves. There are detailed explanations of why a SIP works, but the basis on which the whole performance rests is a steadily rising long term trend line.  If there is volatility but the underlying trend line is rising, a SIP can be justified. If the volatility is high, then a longer investment horizon takes care of it.


All this was fine in an era of post-world war industrialization in the western countries which enjoyed a steady period of growth coupled with access to untapped markets with their superior mass-manufactured products.   The last half-century of prosperity that the western world has seen, which was helped in a big way by relative peace and prosperity, rise of democracy, free markets and capitalism, and increase in cross-border trades ensured that anyone who invested steadily in equity would win in the long run, since the companies in which they invested in prospered.

That unprecedented run has now come to an end. There is increasing uncertainty around the outlook for every world economy. Europe, US, China, Japan… the stories are too familiar and the ongoing crises very recent to require any repetition. In such an environment I would be hesitant to put my money in equity, SIP or otherwise. Any investment in stocks has to be highly stock specific where one is convinced of the story. Investing on the faith of underlying stock indices is risky in the current situation.


Investment in debt too has done reasonably well for many years, till a few years back; at least it protected you from the ravages of inflation. But returns on debt are being eroded by governments to close to zero. Any asset that you have accumulated, should work for you, i.e. generate passive income. But Governments are going around printing money these days like, well just like it is paper which it is, and the way they are handing it out free on the pretext of quantitative easing only ensures that the money you are holding now will soon erode itself to zero value if you hold it in the form of cash.


That leaves out gold and real estate. Gold has always been a good hedge against inflation and will continue to be so. But real estate is probably the only asset left where one can expect some real return, at the very least one which is higher than inflation, and most likely, returns that beat inflation. It is an asset that will hold its value under inflationary conditions, and it is probably the most productive asset that you can have under your direct control.


Within real estate, one can choose among various options – residential apartments/plots/villas, commercial buildings, and farmland.  Farmland is looking increasingly attractive as an investment option. There is always going to be demand for food, and the increasing depredations caused by innovative financial engineering are bound to result in some kind “return to the basics” backlash. There are several other reasons given in the nice article attached below.


I would suggest – start considering investing in farmland. And in case it happens to be on the outskirts of a city/town, that’s even better. At some point in time, you might end up selling by the square foot what you bought by the acre!  Believe me, there can be no greater satisfaction that that!


Attached: a good article on Farmland that was forwarded to me by a friend. The best line is the last, "farmland is not a miracle investment, but a solid investment from old fashioned investing. Go walk a field and you will learn so much."



The Allure Of Farmland Investments: Consistent Performance, Low Correlation

May 17, 2012  | 4 commentsby: CFA Institute

By Robert Stammers, CFA

Few have ever considered farmland to be an alluring investment. However, in recent years it has been getting more attention from investors, primarily due to strengthening fundamentals and a consistent performance record. Most people realize that the world population is growing and, as a consequence, the demand for food is increasing.

Net income per capita is also growing quickly, especially in countries like China that used to have surpluses but have become net importers of food, as of late. The change in diet around the world toward more expensive foods, an increase in the consumption of meat, and the consistent use of biofuels are also increasing the demand for grain and other agricultural commodities. All of this bodes well for the value and returns from direct investments in farmland and farmland-based funds, in which performance is tied to these ameliorating basics.

These were the central themes discussed at "Investing in Farmland and Feeding the World," an interactive session at the 65th CFA Institute Annual Conference in Chicago last week. The session was presented by Shonda Warner, a partner at Chess Ag Full Harvest Partners, the firm that advises and manages the Full Harvest Agricultural Opportunities series of funds. In addition to answering the question, "Why invest in farmland?" and highlighting the benefits and risks of investing in farmland funds, Warner spent time explaining how investors should approach valuation and where farmland values may be headed in the near future.

According to Warner, the investment returns on direct investment in farmland have been fairly consistent over the last 60 years, with appreciation of the land averaging 6.13% annually between 1951 and 2010. Current yields derived from renting land to farming tenants ranged between 2–5% annually over the same period, with the level of rents being a function of the level of interest rates, irrigation, location, and the types of crops that could be produced on the land. Total returns for the period averaged 11.52% annually with a standard deviation of 7.36% (USDA NASS returns, as compared to the S&P 500 return of 11.81% with a standard deviation of 16.83%).

Warner enumerated many other benefits of direct investment in crop land:

  • Returns have not been correlated to the stock market or other commercial real estate markets. (Correlations with the S&P 500 and REITs for the period 1972-2008 were -0.09 and 0.00, respectively.)
  • Rents can be increased, allowing crop land to provide a hedge during inflationary periods. (Correlation with inflation for the period 1972-2008 was 0.50.)
  • Crop land is not as heavily leveraged as some other real asset sectors.
  • Rents and the income component of returns should increase with an increase in the level of interest rates.

In addition to providing the investment rationale, Warner touched on the suitability of crop land as a portfolio diversifier and why obtaining a financial exposure to agriculture is gaining significant interest and acceptance from the investing public. "Investing in agriculture is a popular subject these days," Warner said. "When I started in the business in 2006, agricultural investing wasn't written about in the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, or anywhere else for that matter. Now it is everywhere."

The new and increasing interest in crop land isn't only a function of return expectations; it continues because the asset class provides a good fit with investor needs. Warner discussed some portfolio benefits, outlining how the asset class provides solutions to many investor concerns such as:

  • The need for uncorrelated and diversified investments.
  • Unease about high deficits and possible ensuing inflation.
  • Worries about the false economy created by continued cheap financing and apprehension over the normalization of interest rates (and their impact on the capital markets).
  • Demand from family offices and high-net-worth investors for alternatives to the equity markets.
  • Worries from many investors, especially aging baby boomers, about liability matching. These investors also require investments with some kind of stable coupon or income component.

Strengthening fundamentals in the agricultural market and the many positives that Warner mentioned had audience members wondering if farmland was witnessing a valuation bubble and what potential risks might derail the sector from its current course. According to Warner, most economists would say that farmland is not overvalued. She pointed to growing global demand, low interest and inflation rates, and a reliance on lower leverage and fixed-rate financing in the sector as reasons that values might continue to grow from current levels.

As for risks and potential trends that could impede future growth, Warner mentioned that new technologies could increase crop production at a rate that outpaces demand and puts downward pressure on commodity prices. She also mentioned that political support for ethanol could waver if oil prices drop, and that could impact corn prices and farm values. The expectations that interest rates will rise over the medium- to long-term could pose another risk. New types of ownership and the entrance of new, less-knowledgeable investors paying unsupported prices could also cause land prices to rise faster than they normally should, potentially leading to an asset bubble.

Although the increasing interest in farmland is motivating the creation of new ownership structures that can serve different segments of the investing public, investors need to understand that it is still a relatively inefficient asset class. Warner admitted that agriculture is a long-term investment, it is illiquid, and it is difficult to value correctly. One invests in the asset and can withstand short-term fluctuations due to a belief in its long-term potential. Investing in farmland-based funds is one way for smaller investors to gain an exposure to the asset class. Investments in commodities or stocks that service the agriculture sector may lessen some of the structural issues of direct investment but may also be more volatile or have a greater correlation to the stock market.

Warner acknowledged that regardless of investor interest, "farmland is not a miracle investment, but a solid investment from old fashioned investing. Go walk a field and you will learn so much."


Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Facebook Story

Mark Zuckerberg has changed the world. He is the pioneer (actually I don't know if he is, but at least he is the successful pioneer) of this new thing called Facebook, which is part of the new phenomenon called Social Media, which has changed our lives in profound ways.  Tracing the history of that and the impact it has had on our lives is interesting.


Young college kid starts a social media venture and becomes immensely successful.  He offers a platform for people to 'friend' each other and socialize online. Lots of people join up – it's free, it's a new way to communicate, it's a great place to hang out, and there is something immensely gratifying about letting people know what you are up to. We human beings are social animals and want to see and be seen with each other. We want to know what everyone else is doing, and want to impress them with gory details of our entirely uneventful lives.


Many people join up, it becomes popular and soon Facebook crosses a point where more people join because of the lot of people that are already on it. If you joined another social network – and dozens of them came up and vanished back into the ether – you were likely to be very lonely. And loneliness is something we don't like. Being in the company of other people, even virtually, is comforting.


So people go online and check out what their friends are up to. And all their friends seem to be having a great time. They have posted pictures of themselves at a party, in a group, drinking with friends, out on the beach, with beautiful babes or gorgeous hunks as the case may be, standing on the mountain top with a backpack and clouds for company,  wearing a new dress; and pictures of their cute boyfriend, cute child, and even cuter kittens. No one posts pictures of themselves lonely at home, staring at a wall depressed, getting abused by the spouse, being shouted at by the boss, crushed in a crowded train travelling to office, doing mundane daily chores,  or doing what most people actually do most of the time – that is, navigate the mundane aspects of daily life.


Which is what, you the Facebook user are doing, most of the time. Navigating the mundane aspects of daily life. And you resent the fact that all your friends are having a gala time, while you are stuck in your daily rut.  And this leads to Envy.  In the real world you envy your neighbor for her Miss Universe looks and the million dollar inheritance she has received from her dad, but this is quickly tempered by the fact that she has an absolutely pathetic dolt for a husband, and cannot speak good Hindi. Life has a way of equalizing which is not apparent on Facebook.


You get more and more hooked to the whole thing, and visit Facebook whenever you get time. You connect through your mobile, and post pictures of whatever you are doing immediately. There are cases of couples interrupting the marriage ceremony on the third phera, uploading a photo on Facebook, "getting married right now – doing the pheras" and then resuming walking around the fire. The pundit doesn't mind since he is catching up on mail in the meanwhile. More than focusing on what you are doing right now, you are always focused on your next update so that you can tell the whole world what you are doing right now, and checking out what others are doing right now. Instead of living in the present, where you are, and enjoying the moment, you live for projections – projecting what you are up to, and imagining what your friends are up to, based on what they are projecting about what they are up to.


And it is not even true friends that we are talking about.  Your friends consist of people you have last met while in school, whom you never got along with while there, ex-colleagues who just happened to be in your lives for a brief period, and friends of friends who are into collecting friends on Facebook. There was somebody called Dunbar who did some research on friendships and came up with the conclusion that no one can handle more than 150 friends in real life, and that includes real friends and virtual friends.  By definition, friends are people whose lives you keep close track of, and the brain switches off if loaded with too much data on too many people. In the process, what is the bet that you become less and less  aware of what your real friends (as in true friends, those who will come to your aid in times of need, stand by your bedside when you are ill, and have a drink with you when your spouse has thrown you out of the house) are up to, and load yourself up with useless data on people who don't matter to you, who you have not met and are not likely to meet anytime, and people who are staying thousands of miles away? You have crossed the Dunbar limit long back, and you find you are unable to cope.


In the meanwhile your girlfriend breaks up with you. Publicly, online. She posts it on Facebook – "with new boyfriend on the beach – left the old one, poor sod, whose face looks like a truck ran over it" – without even bothering to inform you about it. Seventy three of your friends "like" her post which makes you even more depressed. Your true friend, who is not on Facebook by the way, breaks open your door, and rushes you to hospital where they extract the residues of thirty sleeping pills with a stomach pump. Of course you cannot keep away from Facebook for long – you post "was in hospital for a minor stomach problem", get two hundred likes, and are rehabilitated into life.


Meanwhile your spouse sees a photo you are tagged in, with your arms around your girlfriend, not the one mentioned above, but the one whom you broke up with after college and caught up with after fifteen years, courtesy Facebook. The court case becomes very messy since her lawyer has dug out lots of dirt on you from Facebook, which proves that you are a philanderer deserving of the greatest punishment and the most punitive alimony. Your wife does not post anything on Facebook, since  vicarious voyeurism is her kick in life, and there lies your misfortune.


The alimony is really punitive. You feel like you are being punished for the sins of your past lives as well. To compound the misery, you have just seen a Facebook update where your wife is tagged with your ex-girlfriend – the one who didn't like your face – having a gala time on the beach in Hawaii.  You have had enough of girlfriends and wives in general and want to divert your energies to getting rich. Which is when the Facebook IPO is announced.


A once in a lifetime opportunity! Mark Zuckerberg  will be among the world's richest men! Grab a part of the story!  Subscribe to the IPO of Facebook!  You are at a very vulnerable time in your life, and you borrow a huge sum of money to invest in the IPO.


What happens after that is another story – we shall leave that for next time…

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Facebook IPO


Facebook goes from $105 billion to $93 billion, within a couple of days of its IPO!


Who is to say what the right valuation is?  Who has seen a hundred billion? With revenues of 1 billion, what justifies a 100x valuation in a company that provides its primary services for free, and depends on “eyeballs” (reminds me of the dotcom days) and “stickiness” to generate revenues from advertisers? 


Where is the asset that is non-replicable? Where are the entry barriers? If these are solely due to the fact that people won’t move to other social networks, what benefit do you get by people sticking to your network? You allow them to post unlimited amounts of data and pictures, free,  and run datacenters with a capacity of gadzillions of bytes to allow people to socialize. And then what? Provide space for advertisers to display their hoardings, provide access to “big data” to firms that will do “analytics” – how much revenue will this result in?


I can understand religious faith – visit the temple and the Lord will shower blessings on you!  But what kind of faith is this, where people pour billions into an IPO where the revenue model is just that, a model – something that arrives at a Net Present Value of highly imaginary future cash flows? Pour your offerings into Mark Zuckerberg’s Hundi – if you don’t you are likely to suffer from a severe feeling of rejection, since everyone else is doing it, and there is comfort in belonging to the crowd. The Dutch Tulip case and several other examples of unsustainable price increases come to mind.


Ok, for that matter, why did people invest in Anil Ambani’s power projects, when all he had was a plan, to enrich himself?  Why are telecom companies selling stakes to each other at high valuations (maybe that is not true any longer)?  Why do people still invest in airline companies, which have no chance of making money, or in airline companies run by aging playboys, where the chances are even less?


Why does common sense desert us, and why do we always follow the herd?




(encl: nice article on Facebook, see below)



Facebook CEO: YOU Said Jump, I Said How High

By Damien Hoffman


Let’s forget about the scam underwriters such as Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) perpetrated on the public by manipulating Facebook’s (NASDAQ:FB) IPO price and share count in the final 48 hours. Instead, let’s take a look at the deal from 10,000 feet: after 2 bubbles and crashes in a decade of stock market activity, Mark Zuckerberg et al acted perfectly rational in sucking dry the equity value pre-IPO. Don’t believe me? Just ask Ivan Pavlov.



Yes, Mark Zuckerberg’s decisions regarding the Facebook IPO were as predictable as Pavlov’s dog coming for dinner at the sound of the bell. Our culture of greed has conditioned a new generation of entrepreneurs to meticulously pull as much wealth as humanly possible from their companies before throwing the stock certificates to the sleazebag thieves on Wall Street. Reid Hoffman, Andrew Mason, and Mark Pincus did the same atLinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD), Groupon (NASDAQ:GRPN), and Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA).


At first blush this behavior sounds hardcore, but is it? Is it unethical to spend every waking hour and ounce of energy building a company (which in this case 900 million people use for free) only to try to capture the full value of equity? Do value creators such as Zuckerberg owe public investors a piece of the upside? Can any of us truly look in the mirror and say we would’ve called our underwriters and said, “Hey, wait a minute. I am making too much money here. Can you please bring the price of the IPO down so the general public can get rich too?”

Right. I don’t think so.


So, before we go bashing Zuckerberg as a greedy bastard, keep a few things in mind:


1) He is merely a product of the culture we find ourselves in circa 2012.

2) Younger people like Zuckerberg have seen nothing but cycles of Wall Street ripping off entrepreneurs and the general public in what amounts to a rigged casino.

3) Zuckerberg had the steel nerves to leave a huge portion of his risk on the table much longer than almost every other entrepreneur who hit world shaking milestones.


And now for the most important lesson from the Facebook IPO:

When a stock is over-valued, don’t buy it. Plain and simple. It’s a free country … and stupidity is a personal freedom.

As the proverb goes: don’t hate the player, hate the game. And if we’re genuinely sick of the bullsh*t game, then we need to stop playing instead of letting greed get the best of us. Or has Wall Street turned us into Pavlov’s dog too?


Now check out The Decline and Fall of Facebook’s Empire >>


Friday, May 18, 2012

The Facebook IPO


Success has always been valued,

But now the game is valuation.

Each new investor now comes in,

Paying for future expectations!


Who has seen a hundred billion,

A tiny slice of which each will own?

Do they think it’ll reach a trillion,

Pray, what’s it they know that I don’t?


Brick and mortar demands actual cash,

Money flowing in that you can see.

With firms that run on the web and Net,

Who has actually seen the money?


It’s price paid for world dominance,

Through services based in the cloud;

A position easily threatened,

By  the next newborn upstart!



The pie is now so attractive,

That everyone wants a slice of it.

They’re paying to be in the party,

Each share’s a ticket, not investment!