Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Sunday, December 21, 2014
Why the 'Best Places to Work' Often Aren't
I can't imagine going to work at a company without first checking how its employees feel about working there. If you want to know what it's like to work in a given company, what better way than to ask its employees, and providing them anonymity, so they feel safe to say what they really feel?
Last week, the website Glassdoor released its seventh-annual list of the 50 best places to work among large companies. You don't have to read far into the reviews to discover how vastly different it can be to work in a high-rated vs. a low-rated company.
For example, 95 percent employees at Nestle Purina and 91 percent at In-N-Out Burger would recommend their companies to a friend, compared with just 29 percent who would do so at RadioShack and Sears.
Google, the highest-rated company on both Glassdoor and a list compiled by Fortune magazine, promotes a culture of constant innovation and an inspiring mission. It also offers a remarkable array of services and perks to employees. Alongside competitive salaries, Google provides terrific food, at no cost, workout facilities and low-cost massages.
But these lists don't really measure something even more important: the quality of their employees' lives. Over the last decade, I've spent countless hours interacting with employees at all levels in many of the companies that appear on the Glassdoor best-companies list, as well as on the Fortune annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list.
What these employees tell me, with increasing consistency, is how exhausted and overwhelmed they are. The relentless work demands take a toll on their health, happiness and family life. That also affects their morale and their ability to think creatively and reflectively.
Why, then, do employees at all of the companies on these lists rate their employers as highly as they do, including on their internal engagement surveys?
They are, I believe, the prisoners of low expectations. They're grading on a curve.
Their vision of the possible is limited by the workplace experiences they've had. They've been rewarded for working long hours while sacrificing other aspects of their lives, including time with their families and time for themselves. They've learned how to rationalize their choices, and not to expect more from their employers.
In turn, even companies genuinely committed to creating positive work environments mostly continue to operate as if their people have infinite capacity, and are able to do ever more, with fewer resources. Precisely the opposite is true.
Energy is our most precious resource. In physics, it's defined starkly as "the capacity to do work." Higher demand in the absence of sufficient rest and renewal means less energy. Less energy means less capacity.
So how can you define a great place to work? It begins with creating a work environment that enables and encourages all employees to regularly refuel and renew themselves, both on and off the job. That will make them capable of bringing the best of themselves to work.
As demand rises ruthlessly and relentlessly, employees at the "best places to work" aren't less willing to go above and beyond what's expected. That is the definition of engagement, but it's not sufficient. K. Anders Ericsson is the researcher best known as the architect of the "10,000 hour rule," which suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a given field. But Mr. Ericsson has also found that the best performers in a range of disciplines practice in surprisingly small increments. Typically, it is for no more than 90 minutes at a time without interruption, followed by a break, and rarely for more than 4½ hours total in any given day.
How many employers on the Glassdoor and Fortune lists actively encourage their employees to work no more than 90 minutes at a time? Or to take regular renewal breaks during the day? Or to truly disconnect from work in the evenings and on the weekends?
Precious few companies recognize that it's not the number of hours their people work that determines the value they create, but rather the energy they bring to the hours they work. As Mr. Ericsson has found, it's possible to generate more value in less time by focusing intensely and then renewing than it is by working long and continuous hours.
The simplest measure of a great place to work is how it makes employees feel to work there day in and day out. That requires meeting the four core needs of their employees: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
Is there any question that if people feel healthier, happier, more focused and more purposeful at work, they will perform better? In turn, here is the question employers atop the Glassdoor and Fortune lists would be well served to ask themselves: How much time and energy are you investing to ensure that your employees are healthier, happier, more focused and more purposeful?
Saturday, December 13, 2014
This remarkable new product by Amazon (link at the end of the article) raises several interesting thoughts.
Starting with Charles Babbage's analytical engine, the world has moved rapidly. We learnt to convert things to binary, and represent the binary bits in the form of vacuum tubes. Then we learnt how to use them to convey simple instructions through a language which could codify algorithmic thinking. We learnt to think and represent our ideas in algorithms, representing them in simple paths that involved yes/no, if/then/else, and 'do/until' kind of language. We started communicating with the machines through punch cards, then with low- level languages, then developed high-level languages with compilers and interpreters to translate them into computerese. Then came GUI's and the mouse, and all we have to do now is point, click and drag. The storage capacity on the computer and the processers themselves evolved at a furious pace, giving rise to the famous Moore's law, a pace that had never been seen in the world before. Computing power is doubling roughly every two years, and costs are halving, which effect has been seen over several cycles - given the power of compounding, the gains in just a few decades are nothing short of miraculous.
In parallel, telecommunication technology is growing at a scorching pace. More and more data are now being transported more and more distances, at a faster and faster pace. This enables the linking of all knowledge in the world into one huge source of information and the capability to handle auditory and visual media which require more number of bits to store.
The gains in processing speed and storage capacity look likely to continue; as the current materials used reach their limits due to the laws of physics, newer materials are being found; from using electricity for carrying information, experiments are on to use light itself, and so on. The linking of the whole world is continuing apace, with the same pipes carrying ever-higher loads, and almost everything being linked wirelessly. 3D printing is evolving to such an extent that in a few years, manufacturing anything will involve downloading the design, customizing it, and feeding it into your printer.
In all this progress in computing, there were two big barriers - the first was one of battery life and battery size, and the second was how to interact with the computer. Even now interaction is largely through an interface like typing which has to be fed in, and the output of the computer is through something like a screen which has to be read out. The battery is still a problem, but the interface world is changing fast. Computers are being equipped with sensors to hear what we say, and natural language processors to interpret them. AI algorithms are giving them the ability to learn from their own past, and modify their behaviors depending on the context. They are becoming more and more like humans, in the sense that they can take cues from the environment through their senses of touching, hearing, and seeing. Smelling and tasting are still some distance away; but the evolution of 4D and 7D movies is a sign of things to come - smells and taste are also being digitized and broken down into bit sized pieces, capable of being transported, interpreted and manipulated. The human sense organs are limited to particular spectrums - what we see, for example, is not the same as what a fly sees; what we hear is not the same as a bat; and what we smell is not the same as a dog. We operate within a limited band of spectrum for each of our senses; a constraint that the computer does not have. The computer's inputs will be as good as the range of instruments we provide it with. Couple this with the fact that it has an infinite storage and retrieval capacity, along with the entire world's information available for immediate retrieval, and you are looking at a superhuman being slowly taking shape.
As we speak, drones are raining death in Afghanistan, controlled by someone playing video games at the Pentagon. Other drones, which can attack in swarms, communicating with each other and deciding attack strategies without any human intervention, are already a reality. Robot security guards are being deployed at the Microsoft campus in the US, and there are robot shop assistants in Japan like this one:
Cars are driving themselves, and they are safer than human drivers. The machines can already beat the best grandmasters at chess. The days of robots like Endhiran (from the Tamil movie of the same name) are not far away.
Meanwhile, as machines are getting smarter and smarter, we humans are getting dumber and dumber. Our attention spans are getting shorter, our physical bodies are weakening and getting obese at the same time, and we are stopping to think for ourselves.
Humankind is doomed. The 'Amazon Echo' device shown below is just a precursor of things to come. (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkOCeAtKHIc )
Friday, December 5, 2014
It is very puzzling for us to see people doing something, but professing to be doing something else. It is even worse when what they profess is not what they actually believe, and what they believe itself is often an amalgam of what they have been told they are supposed to believe; often a situation where they do not know whether their beliefs are their own, or merely what they have been telling themselves they should believe.
Whenever there is a dichotomy between belief and thought, and thought and speech, and speech and action, there will be conflict. Whenever you set out to achieve a set of conflicting objectives, there will be dissonance.
Modern organizations are full of these contradictions. Management theory plods on in the mistaken belief that many of these problems can be solved, and constantly keeps churning out tools and techniques to solve these problems. My submission is that many of these problems cannot be solved, due to the inherent contradictions in the way modern organizations are structured. At the same time, we cannot admit that these problems are not solvable, for reasons we shall see later in these articles, thus complicating the situation further and creating the ground for a tragi-comic screenplay which keeps getting re-enacted across organizations.
So what are these inherent drivers of contradiction? This is just a free-flowing top of the mind list, based on my experience of working with large organizations:
1) As you go higher and higher in an organization, the degree of ambiguity increases.
But as you go higher and higher the need for managers to project that they are omniscient, all knowing, also increases.
2) In order to scale up, you need to cut all processes and everything that people do, into littler and littler pieces, thus destroying the very soul, destroying its wholeness.
But as you become more successful as an organization, you need to retain people by pretending and proclaiming that what they are doing is good for their soul and makes them evolve on the Maslow scale.
3) In order to do something well, you need to measure it. In order to measure it, you need to institute metrics and reward people based on those metrics. All organizations are big on metrics, since that is the only way to control the complex beast called an organization.
But the moment you measure something, it becomes useless as a measure of precisely that which you are trying to improve. This stems from Heisenberg's uncertainty principle which states that you can either fix a particle's position, or arrive at its momentum, but not both, never both. Also called the Observer's paradox, where the moment you observe something, it influences behavior and changes the outcome.
4) All organizations work for profit. ( I am only talking of commercial for-profit entities in this piece).
But they have to pretend that they work for all kinds of ennobling objectives, and appear as serious responsible corporate citizens.
5) All organizations want to become one efficient, functioning, integrated whole, something like the human body, where all our body parts work in concert to create something so wonderful.
But what they become is efficient, functioning, isolated islands, where each part works on, growing in isolation for its own survival disproportionate to the needs of the body as a whole. This results in completely disproportionate body parts.
6) All executives in an organization, being good corporate citizens, are supposed to work for the overall good of the organization. They are all supposed to be driven by one grand vision.
But what the executives are actually driven by, are in most cases, visions of their own grandeur. Each person's vision is his own, shaped by his limited context, and towards selfish advancement.
7) All organizations imagine themselves to be like a military operation under command of a great general, marching relentlessly towards a well defined target that will be conquered.
But in actuality they are a bunch of disparate people, pretending to march to similar goals, towards an ill defined objective, in most cases not knowing what it is they want to conquer.
8) In order to scale anything, you need to dumb it down. Organizations have realized this, and are dumbing down drastically, to grow.
But they cannot admit that they are dumbing down. In the modern age, everyone demands self actualization. So organizations go to great lengths to convince people that the dumb things they are doing, monotonously day in and day out, is actually good for their well being, and will lead to their nirvana.
9) it is more and more difficult to measure knowledge work. In the old industrial age, productivity was very easy to measure, like number of nuts fitted around a bolt. Modern work is much more amorphous, more mindwork, making it very difficult to measure.
But organizations like to pretend that they can measure everything. They continue to endeavor to measure everything, continuously mangling the soul of the work in the process.
10) All things when they grow, become big, ponderous, and inflexible. Organizations are the same.
But organizations have realized that in order to survive they need to stay flexible. They have constant nightmares of how the dinosaurs became extinct, and in their hearts, they know that they are dinosaurs. So they try to teach the dinosaur how to jump like a monkey and soar like a bird. This leads to many hilarious situations, as you can well imagine.
11) All organisms are born, grow, mature, and die. This is the law of life.
But organizations don't want to die. They want to live for ever. So they are constantly on the lookout for making an old body look youthful, and like the phoenix, want to keep rising young from the ashes of the old. This too leads to many hilarious contradictions and interesting situations.
12) All organizations need to compartmentalize in order to do things better. All work is compartmentalized repeatedly till it is possible to dumb it down to the lowest possible unit, and then scale it by mindless repetition by unthinking robots.
But at some level, they need to retain a soul, some soul, some impression of wholeness, some pretence that it is a thinking, feeling, entity. The romance of an artisan creating pieces of art can never be retained by a modern organization; the problem is that the organization wants to pretend that it is so.
13) All organizations need to kill diversity, in order to align and grow. Their people need to dress alike, think alike, behave alike. And that is what they strive for.
But all organizations, without exception, like to believe that they are encouraging diversity. A lot of this has to do with political imperatives and social considerations.
14) As organizations grow, innovation dies.
But all organizations realize that they need innovation to survive. There is an inherent contradiction here that they constantly juggle with. As with many other things in corporate life, the proposed solutions to increasing innovation, are in many cases mindless repetition of some activities with some innovative slogans. The irony is usually lost on everybody.
15) Due to the contradictions that are inherent in working for an organization, employees' health and well-being is a casualty.
But organizations like to believe that they promote their employees' health and well-being. They implement a lot of programs, which also suffer from many of the contradictions mentioned above, for the well being of their employees.
16) All organizations like to think that every 'stakeholder' is working towards a common goal, for common benefit, for the lofty ambition of making the said organization the best in the world.
There is nothing farther from the truth. The shareholders are bothered about profits, the Board about their position, the managers about their perks, the employees about their jobs; and all of them are remote from the customers who they don't really care about except as milch cows to give them their daily milk. This one factor in itself leads to many contradictions.
There are many more contradictions inherent in organizations, I am sure. As I think of more of them, I shall not forget to put them in. It will also be interesting to go into each of these contradictions, and see how organizations repeatedly get themselves tied into knots by these. The most ironical part about organizations is that the people working there cannot admit that these contradictions exist. They keep meeting each other and assuring each other that life is one fulfilled whole, where fulfillment is of course defined as meeting the organization's goals, and retiring happy every night.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
Monday, November 10, 2014
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
OPINION Detroit's Stupid Plan to Kill Tesla
In watching the illicit attempts of dealers and U.S. auto companies to try to kill Tesla, I have to think they are all wrongheaded. I don't drive a Tesla, but this kind of thing makes me really mad because it is so incredibly stupid.
Tesla is as much an idea as it is a company -- and an idea that should be flowing through the car industry anyway, because the world is changing. The way we buy most things is changing, and firms that try to fight waves like this typically find themselves out of business. I don't think the U.S. government will bail out the auto industry a second time.
This is my not-too-subtle way of saying that the market will move to Tesla's model -- the question is whether U.S. car companies will ride this wave or be buried by it.
Change Is in the Air
All markets are in the process of changing, from how we pay for things -- which largely had shifted from cash to credit and debit cards and now is shifting again to near field communications services like Apple Pay -- to how we buy them, shifting from stores like Sears to online retailers like Amazon.
It certainly could be argued that banks should be leading the charge to a different and far-safer payment method rather than a technology company, and that catalog companies like Sears should have done the online thing right before Amazon figured it out, but folks just don't like to learn to do things differently. You can almost hear the old codger executive say, "If it was good enough for my pappy and grandpappy, it is good enough for me," a few months before a firm goes out of business.
We exist in a world of change, and successful companies either learn to change with the world, or they receive the pleasures of early retirement or unplanned unemployment, and the U.S. auto industry has just missed that direr outcome several times in the last decade. You'd think auto companies would learn, but apparently they don't want to.
The Tesla Model
Tesla isn't just about the car, which is cool -- it is as much about the model, which is based solidly on how Apple brings things to market. The reason Tesla can do this is that the car, while looking a lot like other cars, is very different underneath. It has few moving parts, being mostly solid state, and the keystone feature is a large screen tablet-like interface that sits between the seats.
Because it is solid state, it doesn't need service often -- and because it is modular, it often can be repaired easily in the field or, like a laptop or tablet, sent to a centralized service facility for repair. Rather than you driving to a dealer to wait in line and waste half a day, Tesla drives a loaner to you and then swaps it back. (It will sell you the loaner for a slight upcharge if you'd rather keep it).
Even updates don't require a trip to a service facility because, like wireless devices, the car is always connected and tied to a cloud service that handles that part. It isn't just different -- it is like most of the devices that currently are causing upheaval in the technology market. That means this is a trend in much the same way as moving from horses to cars, or gas to electricity.
The Tesla is a big electronic appliance. It is solid state and very reliable, and much of its value actually comes from the cloud services it is connected to and the apps it runs. If Apple were to make a car, it would be a Tesla.
As a result, its move to self-driving appears far more quickly than similar moves from other companies, and given that self-driving cars have to be connected not only to some kind of centralized service but also to each other, the overall solution looks more like something you'd see in a high-technology product than in a typical car.
The thing is, to compete, all cars will need to evolve to become more like Tesla's, and dealerships simply won't be needed unless the industry embraces and changes the model.
Test drives likely will ensure that some kind of storefront will be needed. I expect we'll evolve away from brand-only stores to multibrand stores, with manufacturers sharing a footprint to keep costs down in low-volume regions. However, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the future, because cars have to become more like the Tesla, and the Tesla car forces a very different sales and service model.
Tesla's Problem Is the US Car Industry's Problem
Tesla's problem isn't that its model doesn't work. It works very well, which is why we are up to our armpits in expensive Tesla cars where I live. The problem is that there is an impressive number of politicians who own dealerships, and they don't want to lose their businesses.
I get that, but using political power to lock out Tesla is not just wrongheaded -- it should be illegal. Change is coming, regardless. With the latest law being passed in Michigan, Tesla appears banned from the Detroit auto show, which is just nuts -- because, gee I don't know, it basically makes the whole U.S. auto industry look stupidly blind.
Improving on Tesla
Now the Tesla S is a modular car, and you could certainly see how a dealership model could be made to work at scale. You build the basic cars, but given they are modular, the dealer then modifies them to order, swapping in and out the components, and the software can be smart enough to automatically scan and enable anything the system has to be connected.
Buyers can come back for upgrades as needed. As a buyer, you'd never again have to regret not getting something up front, and dealers could have upgrade specials, bringing you back in regularly to buy more stuff. That would help even out their revenue stream and offset their loss of regular service revenue as cars become more solid state.
They even could use wraps to change the color of cars, which would be designed to be wrapped more easily. Want a different color? For a relatively low fee, you can get that, stripes, or even a picture of your puppy on the vehicle.
Rather than fighting Tesla while the auto industry gets buried in recalls, why not learn from it and create something better that embraces the dealer model? Rather than denying choice, provide a better one. The outcome should be far more survivable, because the market is moving there, whether we like it or not. Self-driving cars, which basically will be rolling supercomputers, will require this change.
Wrapping Up: Pivotal Moments
In every industry, there are pivotal moments when influential people decide to go one way or another, and the industry changes forever. I think the auto industry has reached the moment when it can decide either to embrace the future and become something better, or fight the future and be crushed by it. I'm afraid the industry is making the wrong choice, and I doubt it will get another government bailout.
You don't support Tesla just because you like the car, you support it because it represents the future of automobiles. If we want the auto industry to survive in the U.S., we need to be on that wagon -- not under it.
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Monday, October 13, 2014
( Article by Dr. B M Hegde (may he live long) attached below after my comments)
Reminiscent of Medici and charlatans of medieval times, sickness merchants today actually go out hunting for patients through 'free' checkup camps. As a result, doctors are made to believe that a healthy person is one who has not yet been thoroughly examined!
The title is from the German book "The Disease Inventors" by Jörg Blech, original in German, translated by my friend, Herbert Nehrlich, a family physician in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, especially for my use. The contents of this chapter are drawn heavily from that translation. Like the "free" check up camps in India there were traveling healers roaming the countryside in Germany. They also do not ask for any payment like their Indian counter parts. They used to come in their vehicles stopping in public squares or church yards. They lure people into their vans and examine them thoroughly only to release many of them as patients! "The gleaming bone-white Osteoporosis Research Mobile went on its maiden voyage in the summer of 2002, from Hamburg to Erfurt, through much of Germany. Women over 60 were urged to have a thorough preventive check-up done, with bone density measurement included. With this method, the aim is to find and identify those female citizens who suffer from age-related deterioration of the bone structure: the so-called Osteoporosis. This search for sick women is not entirely devoid of self-interest. It is sponsored by a foundation and by 14 pharmaceutical companies and makers of medical equipment and products.
"Men were not spared, either. Workers from Pfizer criss-crossed the country, visiting about 30 cities in their blue-white truck. "The Healthy Man" is displayed on the truck in large letters. The truck's platform can be extended so that the space on the ground floor is tripled in size. Inside are five examination cubicles as well as an "information bar". There, the assessment of visitors and passers-by is done inside of 10 minutes. Medically trained personnel measure cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure and weight. "If the man doesn't come in for his check-up then the check-up must visit the man", so says Pfizer. In the vicinity of a large golf tournament, for example, 6297 normal men were processed through the diagnostic vehicle. And, see the result: half of the men showed increased blood pressure and in 44 % the blood tests were outside of normal limits."
"The Osteoporosis Mobile and the Pfizer Truck seem like messengers for a medical profession that wants to permeate all of society. Reminiscent of Medici and charlatans of medieval times, sickness merchants today actually go out hunting for patients. The fact that they apparently find sick people everywhere affirms the nature of the situation. While it is true that Germans today are quite alert and long-lived, as never before in their history they do not fit into the norms of modern medicine. The medical risk factors have been deliberately set so that everyone can potentially be sick." And it works like this:
A laboratory test is performed on a large number of healthy people, for example on blood donors, military recruits or sport students. The next step is the calculation of the average of all the measured results. The 95 % in the middle are then arbitrarily declared Normal Value and the 5 % outside of this –up or down- are declared "conspicuous ", even though all subjects were healthy people. It follows that one can label all of mankind as ill: If always 5 % of a population shows an abnormal lab value then every subsequent testing raises the number of "suspects". After 20 measurements only 36 % of the subjects will be regarded as healthy. And, after 100 procedures this number shrinks to less than 1 %. Doctors deduced from this a malicious result: A healthy person is one who has not yet been thoroughly examined!
Some risk factors, however, were set from the outset in such a way that not 5 % but large segments of the population are instantly affected. Take cholesterol, where several years ago in Germany the margins were determined so that people with 'normal' values were in the minority and those with abnormal values were in the majority. How can this be? A large study of 100,000 Bavarians resulted in an average cholesterol value of 260 mg/dl. The "National Cholesterol Initiative", a private interest group of 13 medical professors, nevertheless recommended in 1990 an upper limit of 200 and was able to have this accepted. The doctors of this "Cholesterol Initiative" represent lobbying groups, among them the industry-friendly "German League against Blood Pressure" as well as the "Lipid League" and the "German Society for Lab Medicine". In a "strategic paper" they demanded an aggressive expansion of the diagnosis. "Every doctor ought to know the cholesterol values of his patients".
Through the dedication of financially interested medics, the majority of the German population has been declared risk patients. In the 30 – 39 year age group, according to the arbitrary upper limit, 68 % of men and 56 % of women displayed abnormally high cholesterol. In the 50 – 59 year age group this rises to 84 % for the men and 93 % for the women. The absurd consequences of such margin limits: The patients alleged to be at risk feel healthy and fit. The Viennese satirist Karl Kraus is right: "The DIAGNOSIS is one of the most common diseases". Pre-occupation with cholesterol values is widespread, promoted and encouraged vigorously by certain doctors and institutions because of the immense profits that can be earned.
One example, the National Association of Practicing Cardiologists, together with margarine manufacturer BECEL and pharmaceutical company PFIZER, as well as ROCHE DIAGNOSTICS regularly undertake "Health Initiatives" which are designed to persuade many people to have their cholesterol tested. In a brochure, available to anyone visiting a pharmacy, it states: "Starting at age 30, everyone ought to know his cholesterol level and have it re-tested every 2 years." The motto is: An increased cholesterol level is one of the most important risk factors for heart and circulatory diseases. The "New Pharmacy Journal" designates cholesterol as the "TIME BOMB" for your health. Yet, this wax-like substance is an essential part of life; it is needed in large amounts by the brain, which consists of 10 – 20% cholesterol (dry substance). Most cells of the organism can manufacture cholesterol if it is lacking in the food, which is fortunate as without this devilish molecule the cells would be doomed. However, many people become fearful of facing an early fatal heart attack at the mere mention of the word cholesterol. It spoils the breakfast egg for many and causes concern at the thought of buttering their bread rolls and having a piece of sausage. Driven by a guilty conscience, over one million people have had their cholesterol tested in 2001 as part of a "Health Initiative". Not unexpectedly, over half of the ones tested showed values above the arbitrarily set figure of 200. The participating doctors and companies of this "Health Initiative" reap direct profits: ROCHE DIAGNOSTICS manufactures instruments for cholesterol testing. Cardiologists get new patients who are immediately told to stop eating butter – which in turn helps BECEL, the margarine manufacturer.
PFIZER then sells cholesterol-lowering medicines – its world-wide sales are in the billions of Eurodollars. It is rare that a medical campaign which puts the label "PATIENT" on the vast majority of the population has been carried out with such force and marketing investment expenditure. A committee of the American Heart Association demands that regular cholesterol testing of 5-year old children be carried out. As soon as the child starts on solid food, doctors urge the parents to give their offspring only cholesterol-poor foods. Blood pressure would need to be checked from the 3rd birthday on. Actually, such early tests permit no conclusions as to future health of the tested children. "The screening of children, including of those 25 % whose families have been identified as having a high incidence of raised cholesterol levels and early heart disease, is a waste of money which probably does more harm than good", says Thomas B. Newman, epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco.
If these recommendations were to be taken seriously, breast milk could not be given to babies, as it is a veritable cholesterol bomb. The reality however shows that breast-fed babies do rather well in their development, which isn't a miracle - the bounty of cholesterol from the mother's milk is used for construction of nerve cells and the brain. The general impression that the public campaign clearly gives is that the cholesterol theory is an established fact. This is incorrect. Many physicians are very doubtful about cholesterol's alleged bad-guy role in the drama Heart Attack. As early as in 1990, when the dubious upper limit of 200 was announced in Germany, cardiologist Herald Klepzig of the German Heart Foundation in Frankfurt distanced himself from this. Surrounded by cholesterol hysteria he said: "We would be happy if we could point to a single medical controlled study that shows that lives are saved through reduction of cholesterol. However, it is not difficult to find ten studies that show that a reduction of fat actually is correlated with increased mortality."
And Paul Rosch, president of the AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF STRESS and medical professor at New York Medical College comments: "The brain-washing of the public has been so successful that many people believe 'the lower the cholesterol values the longer the life span' , nothing could be further from the truth!" Indeed, the label of the 'evil cholesterol' is not supported by proof, only by circumstantial evidence – and of those, many are unable to stand up to scrutiny. In 1953 the researcher Ancel Keys of the University of Minnesota published an article which eventually became the foundation myth of the cholesterol theory. In his paper he shows a diagram that suggests a clear relationship between fat consumption and mortality from coronary heart disease in six countries. "The curve shows that there is hardly any doubt that there is a correlation between fat content of the food intake and the risk to die of coronary heart disease." (Comments from LANCET).
Impressive though the curve is, it has a flaw: Keys considered data from six countries only, even though data from 22 regions were available. And, when these are examined the correlation between high fat consumption and heart death disappears. Says Swedish physician Uffe Ravnskov "Had Keys included all countries nothing would have come of the curve"." For example, mortality from heart disease was three times higher in the U.S. A than in Norway, although fat consumption in both countries was roughly identical." Critics like Ravnskov do not deny that there is a correlation between blood fats and coronary heart disease. Considering that 0.2 % of a population suffers from familial hypercholesterolaemia. People with this inherited illness do not have sufficient numbers of cholesterol receptors. Thus the cholesterol can barely be transported out of the blood into the cells. The result: Raised blood cholesterol. Levels are between 350 – 1000 mg/dl. The affected people have an increased risk of dying earlier than others, from heart infarct because they often suffer from a severe form of arteriosclerosis. Post mortems on people who had familial hypercholesterolaemia have shown that the cholesterol does not only get deposited in the blood vessels but everywhere in the body. "Many organs are practically impregnated with cholesterol", says Ravnskov. Therefore, it is a mistake to extrapolate this relationship between cholesterol and arteriosclerosis to people with normal cholesterol levels.
When the physician urges "risk patients" to switch to low cholesterol foods the consequences for old people can be potentially dangerous. The nutrition of old people is "already compromised through dentures, constipation, lack of appetite and food intolerance to many foods', says U.S physician Bernard Lown, a well-known heart specialist who, as a member of "International Physicians For The Prevention Of Nuclear War" received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. He was my Chief at Harvard. As a doctor, Lown witnessed how a very old female patient lost weight rapidly and became emaciated because of her attempts to lower her cholesterol levels. Lown stopped the dangerous nonsense. "I recommended that she ignore all doctor's advice eat whatever she fancied. Within six months she regained her lost weight as well as her vitality and spirit." The devilish cholesterol –we need it from cradle to grave.
This in short is the essence of the whole book. There is another chapter on how blood pressure became a disease but I could not get it translated. That shows how the disease high blood pressure was born out of the necessity to sell more drugs on long term basis to net billions of dollars of profit! Since this book is difficult to get for the common reader, I thought I better give the gist in the form of a chapter in this book. I am grateful to my friend, Herbert, for translating it to me so willingly. Herbert is a great humanist and an excellent doctor and a great writer. His ancestors came originally from Germany.
* Jorg Blech. Disease Inventors. German 1999
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Smoking has become very socially unacceptable nowadays. We are slowly going the way of the west, and it is difficult to light up in any gathering without getting withering glances from the others, if not face outright hostility. Media is full of messages against smoking. Any health article starts with the injunction to avoid smoking.
Looks like people are all committed to good health, right? A commitment to healthy habits and a healthy lifestyle? If you are one of those self-righteous ones who does not smoke, you also have a smug superior attitude which you wear on your sleeve, on how you are more responsible in taking care of your health. Anyone I ask is positive that they are concerned about their health and are taking care of it well. Are you though? Whether you are a smoker or a non-smoker, you are very likely slave to a host of habits and lifestyle issues that are worse for your health than smoking. I am listing a few of them here.
The first is excess of sugar in your diet. The human body is not capable of processing the amount of sugar we dump into it every day. The sugar we consume as part of our tea and coffee directly is bad enough, but if it were only that, the body would still manage. The amount of sugar we consume through soft drinks, breakfast cereals, ready-to-eat foods, and any kind of food that we buy off the shelves is humongous.
Do you put that much sugar in the food you cook at home? You don't, right? If you think the "sugar substitutes" like aspartame are the solution, think again. The body cannot be fooled that easily – they are chemicals, and they have long term damaging effects on your health and wellbeing.
The second is table salt. Yes, ordinary salt of the variety all of us eat. The stuff that you buy as "refined, purified, salt" is nothing but a chemical powder NaCl. Natural salt has been a part of human diet for millennia, in fact it is essential to health. Natural salt has about 80-odd minerals and trace elements that make it a complete food easily assimilated by the body. That has been replaced with processed salt, which we have been convinced is good for us, since it is "processed" with "added iodine". Guess what, the amount of salt in processed food is perhaps more than even the amount of sugar, which is what makes it bad, as anything excessive is bad. What makes it worse is that the processed foods of course use the "refined" variety of salt. Thus a perfectly natural part of human diet has been demonized. Salt is not bad for health, in normal quantities, what we normally use for our home cooking. Use unrefined natural sea salt (yes, that unglamorous stuff which our parents used to buy) and powder it at home. And put up with the fact that it absorbs moisture and becomes lumpy – that is because there are no chemicals in it to prevent that.
That of course brings us to processed food in general. What oil do you use at home? Refined, of course. And what does refined oil mean? To start with, at the extraction stage itself, a lot of heat and chemicals are applied to increase the yield of the press (which is why cold-pressed is much more expensive). A bunch of chemicals is then introduced including detergents to remove the "odors". As with all processed foods, a lot of the processing is done in order to improve the shelf life, transportability, and appearance. Your health, and the fact that you are going to eat this stuff, is of no concern.
Processed food has several chemicals added to it, in fact there is a list of several hundred for use by the food industry.
I can hear you say "But, they are FDA approved!". Give me a break. The FDA knows nothing when it comes to health. They are here to serve industry, and not our health. "But, they are within the safe limits for consumption". Is there any safe limit when it comes to arsenic, or radiation? Or for that matter, any other toxin? The body can handle bad stuff thrown at it, up to a point. But the rate at which we are throwing bad stuff into our bodies nowadays, it's a wonder we are still alive.
So you think smoking is bad for health? I don't deny that, but you consume stuff worse than that every minute of the day, which you think are healthy, but are as much or more damaging to your health. Food for thought - ruminate on that!
( this series of articles will be continued – I welcome your reactions – please post in my blog or write to firstname.lastname@example.org )
Sunday, September 28, 2014
It is interesting to note the reactions to Jayalalitha's arrest. The usual protests by AIADMK supporters, and the discussion of the law and order problem is of course present; but they are anyway to be expected.
Whenever a big political figure is threatened with arrest or conviction, there is always the threat that their lawless supporters will cause a total breakdown of normal life. No one managed to do anything to Bal Thackeray in his lifetime, and whenever a figure like Jaya is involved there is always discussion of what their "cadres" might end up doing. This is a threat that is held out whenever these people are involved, and the political figures themselves encourage their supporters in this. At some level they behave as if they are above the law and not accountable to anyone; and messing around with them will interrupt normal life for everyone. This shows contempt for the law and it is a not too subtle attempt at blackmail.
It is felt that AIADMK may have to become "closer" to the ruling BJP dispensation at the centre, to mitigate or reverse some of the fallout. Politics is all about this, of course. There are several cases pending in various courts, and several possible cases lying under cover in various forums, and several instances of corruption with proof that can be brought to light. These are not used by the politicians and the powers that be to cleanse corruption from the system, but rather to blackmail each other, thus maintaining a delicate balance of blackmail and counter blackmail. One wonders where Jaya went wrong in this game. If she were savvy enough, the chargesheet would have been full of holes, and the prosecution lawyers incompetent, the witnesses would be contradicting themselves and turning hostile, some of them could have even made an early trip to meet their maker, and the case would have been riddled with holes worse than a swiss cheese in such way that no judge could have handed out any conviction. However, in all this weakening of the case, there would be enough solid evidence still available with someone to nail the person in future, the proverbial sword of Damocles which always hangs by a thread but is not supposed to snap. Of course, this is just a special court. There are several layers of appeals possible – all these could still happen if Jaya plays her game well.
If it is a way of cutting its potential threats down to size, then it is a masterstroke from the BJP. It is rumored that the Saradha case is being used to keep Mamata in check. There are cases pending against Mulayam and Maya which could turn nasty; no doubt their emissaries would be reaching out to the centre to fix things before they turn nasty. All kinds of electoral and political considerations will come into play in deciding on the quid pro quo.
It is also true, say commentators, that DMK will get a shot in the arm with this verdict. Not because they are honest. No, everyone knows no one is. It helps them to prove to the TN public that the other person is equally bad; after Kanimozhi and Raja they badly needed this.
They are discussing which puppet Jaya will seat on the throne while she is away, and already talking about how she will rule her empire from jail. When Ram went to exile, Bharat ruled in his place keeping Ram's slippers on the throne, refusing to sit on the throne himself. Ram went for noble reasons, and he didn't interfere in the kingdom from his vanvas, but that is hardly the point. We have our own traditions to guide us; when the leader is in exile, or jailed, his / her puppet will rule. The last time around, Panneerselvan apparently refused to sit on the CM's chair when he was playing the role; I am not even sure if Rabri Devi stepped out of her kitchen to tend to her state. Akhilesh is slightly better – he is a younger puppet with a better accent.
In all this, the point to really note, is that no one is lamenting the fact that she is corrupt. No one is talking about cleaning up the system. There is no mention of sweeping the stables clean and starting afresh. There is no figure with a high moral standing who is an alternative to any of these people. Everyone is talking about how she is now in trouble because she got convicted, meaning of course, she was stupid enough to leave enough evidence lying around. No one is talking about how shocked they are that their leader let them down, no one seems to have been disillusioned that their leader is proven to be corrupt.
We know all that. There is nothing this case tells us that we don't know. Disproportionate assets? Of course. We would be extremely disappointed with our leader if she were still poor. We only look up to people with wealth and power. Either we worship them after they become wealthy, doesn't matter how, like Jaya, or we make them wealthy because we worship them, like Lord Balaji. That is the moral compass of this nation. We should be proud.
Saturday, September 27, 2014
After delaying for several years, SEBI has just approved the draft regulations for Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). There has been some hype of expectancy around this product and the market has been eagerly awaiting it. So have the HNI's (High Net Worth Individuals). Such products appeal to the HNI's since they seem to be an avenue to invest in high-yielding real estate without actually getting their hands dirty by going and actually purchasing some real estate. And HNI's, especially of the salaried variety, don't want to get their hands dirty. They want to get high returns while ensconced in their offices, trusting the money managers who, they are assured, are there just for that purpose – to ensure that they get good returns while being inured from all the hardships such investments entail. And therein lies the rub. We think that since it is a structure that works fine in the developed western economies it will work fine here too.
But first the structure. SEBI has mandated that all these funds should be closed-ended, with an initial asset size for each fund of at least Rs.500 crores. Each unit in the initial issue will be at a minimum of Rs. 2 lakhs; follow-on issues at a unit size of minimum one lakh, thus ensuring that only the wealthy invest in it. In other words, it is risky, so don't blame us if it turns sour – you wealthy can afford to lose money! There are no great entry barriers for becoming a sponsor, and the sponsor can of course appoint his own "manager" who manages the fund. The trustees, needless to say, will be appointed by the sponsors, thus ensuring that there is no real "independence". But so far, it is no different from any Mutual Fund. These funds have to be compulsorily listed, but mere listing does not ensure liquidity as we all know. The manager has to invest at least 80 percent in completed and revenue generating properties. The balance can be invested in under-construction properties, or mortgage backed securities, or debt or equity of real estate companies. This whole bucket of the balance of upto 20 percent looks scary. This money will basically be invested directly with the builders and we know how honest and transparent they are reputed to be in India.
I see several problems with this structure.
1. How independent are the managers, trustees and sponsors going to be? Who will be setting up these funds, and who are the entities that will control them?
2. When you invest in real estate directly, even if in an under-construction property, you have more skin in the game. What kind of oversight and control over the builder will be exercised by the money managers? They are more into managing money; are they going to manage all the problems that come with being a landlord? They will leave it to the builders to manage, and send them periodic reports, preferably already in ppt form, so that they can present it to their bosses and investors.
3. The primary problem in my view, is that this is a highly unregulated, opaque, non-transparent, not very honest, black-money prone, unstructured industry in India. Things, especially with regard to valuations and cash flows, are never as they seem to be. There is a great incentive for the money manager to cut side-deals with the builder. And the investors will never know.
4. SEBI has not mandated that any building regulations should be followed or checked for the investment properties. There is nothing in the guidelines pertaining to real estate; SEBI is treating this like any other mutual fund. The money managers who enter this game may not be experienced in the real estate industry, and the builders, as we know, are very experienced. The managers will be like new fish entering into a pool full of sharks.
5. Valuation for NAV calculations will be an issue. In equity mutual funds there is a ready liquid market with daily quotes. Here the fund will appoint "experts" to determine the value. Since the assets are illiquid, and the valuations depend on assumptions, they can be manipulated to show a steady increase in NAV. Or a sudden drop as a prelude to some insider purchases. Or very aggressive valuations not providing for long-term repairs and renewal. The potential to play around with the numbers is enormous, and we as investors, are going to be investing at these NAVs.
6. The upto 20 percent that can be invested in "under construction" projects is actually another conduit to lend money to the real estate industry. Anyone who knows the Indian real estate industry will be worried.
7. Exits from investments, both for the funds for their investments in projects, as well as for investors, is not going to be without cost. There will be a heavy illiquidity premium built into the price.
So where does that leave us? To invest or not to invest? Those of you who are not "HNI's" don't have to bother, this product is not for you, even as per SEBI's definitions. Those of you who are HNI's, remember all those PMS schemes you put your money into? The odds are you didn't make too much on it – as to the problems with PMS, I shall reserve that for some other time. You are going to trust your money to someone who may not know much about real estate, to invest it with builders who are not known for their honesty and fair dealings, in a market that is illiquid and full of "cash" transactions, in expectation of a higher return.
I would advise caution. At the very least, invest only if the sponsor is HDFC or something.
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
A riotous orchestra of ringing bells, thumping drums and the oboelike shehnai reverberated in the cool predawn air. A piercing call emanated from a silver-tipped conch shell. And a semicircle of onlookers, draped in magenta, saffron, violet and burgundy, clapped as if in chorus.
At the Hindu Temple Society of North America, in Queens, this week is time to worship Ganesh, the elephant-headed, many-armed deity who is believed to remove obstacles. Here, as at temples in over a dozen countries, Hindus are celebrating Ganesha Chaturthi, which marks the god's birth (and rebirth).
"The coconut shell is like the human ego," said Mohan Ramaswamy, who teaches at the temple. "You have to crack it open before you can let in the lord."
In Queens, which has one of the largest Hindu populations in New York, more than 10,000 people will pay homage during the jubilee, which started Friday and ends Sunday. More than 400 gallons of milk, 100 boxes of apples, 50 crates of bananas and 5 kilograms of sandalwood paste will be used.
And each day, dozens of liters of ghee, clarified butter, will be ladled into the fire pit for the homam, or fire ritual, which is believed to carry offerings to the deity. Visitors will consume some 50,000 prepared meals, according to the organizers.
At the Ganesh Temple, ancient traditions are carried out with a relentless, New York-style efficiency.
On Saturday, volunteers and staff members wearing laminated "May I help you" name tags and white T-shirts bearing the temple's logo used iPads to check the schedule, which was detailed on the temple's website. In the courtyard, rows of devotees repeated hypnotic hymns asking the lord for his protection as they faced a large fire pit. A bare-chested man with a clipboard and a counter was on hand to ensure that the requisite 400,000 mantras were offered.
Inside the main hall, flat-screen televisions broadcast live-streaming video of each ceremony. Devotees sat cross-legged on the polished granite tiles as a corpulent priest wearing only a maroon lungi, or sarong, poured plastic jugs of whole milk into a silver cup before splashing it on a 3-ton black stone effigy in the center of the room.
Roman Garcia, who has been a janitor at the temple for 11 years, moved about the room with a bucket and a broom. The refuse will be taken away in a specially ordered sanitation truck, he said.
"The goal of all of these rituals is to gain the power of the vibrations," said Mysorekar, a gynecologist and the temple's president. "A temple is not just brick and mortar. It's filled with energy."
Lakshmi Sundararaman, 75, from Queens, who volunteers on the decorating committee, said that in the past women would spend hours with a needle and thread making garlands to adorn the hallways and statues. But two years ago, they opted for a more modern option.
"We outsourced to India," she said.
Last week, a shipment of 400 custom-made garlands, some 12 feet long, made with yellow, white and red roses, purple pompoms and white jasmine, landed at Newark, New Jersey. Twelve priests and musicians were also imported.
According to Mysorekar, the temple spent about $100,000 on last year's events, and individuals donated money or materials. Each prayer ritual, or pooja, has a suggested offering ranging from $11 for one day of chanting to $3,500 for the ceremony in which the large stone statue will be cloaked in gold armor.
In the food distribution area, where plastic containers of tamarind or yogurt rice, sweet carrot paste and pickled lemon were on offer, tables were set up to advertise temple activities: Sanskrit lessons, a march for breast cancer, math and spelling bee classes. Banner advertisements for the Bank of India hung on the walls. Over the loudspeaker, a recorded announcement reminded attendees how to donate.
For the closing ceremony Sunday, a silver chariot bearing a 3-foot effigy draped in garlands will tower above the crowds as it wends its way down Kissena Boulevard and Main Street in Queens.
Like Easter for Christians or the High Holy Days for Jews, Ganesha Chaturthi can be as much about the community as it is about worship.
"Of course it's a religious thing," said Sumanth Murthy, 29, who works for a hedge fund. "But it's also a chance to see people you haven't in a while."
Murthy was wearing a white lungi trimmed with elephants, and a blue polo shirt on top. Since moving to America from Bangalore, he said, it had been hard to stay in touch with his Indian heritage. Temple activities are a way for him to "balance two different lives."
For the next generation of devotees, they are an opportunity to practice religious duties. At a special chanting ceremony for children, 9-year-old Siddhaarta Venkatesh clasped his hands and shut his eyes tightly as he recited the mantras.
"Ganesh is my favorite god," he said before explaining how he learned the mythology behind the deity's elephant head, and how Ganesh saved the river goddess by tricking a dwarf.
He said, "I Google 'Ganesh stories in English.'"
Monday, July 14, 2014
Till now, all debt funds held for more than one year were taxed at a concessional rate of 10%, or 20% post-indexation (where the purchase price is indexed for inflation, before ascertaining the gains subject to tax), whichever is lower. As against this, Bank FD's are taxed at full marginal rate (30% if you are in the highest tax bracket). This obviously is an advantage for debt MF's who have been garnering money from the public and lending onward to Banks/ Corporates.The budget has now changed the rules. From now on, all debt funds held for less than three years will be taxed at the full marginal rate, i.e. be considered short term. This is in line with the definition of short term which is three years for all other capital assets (except equity which is one year). Also, the option of 10% is withdrawn. It will now be 20% post-indexation, like all other capital assets.
Saturday, July 12, 2014
I knew it. I intuitively knew that Malcolm Gladwell's famous ten-thousand hour rule would not hold under real-life conditions. But it sounded romantic and appealing. Practise for 10,000 hours in any field, he claimed, and you become an expert. Not merely any expert, but an acknowledged guru in the field! Of course, the unsaid assumption is that, to spend 10,000 hours on anything – it means three hours a day, every day, for ten years – you need to give up on a lot of other things.
In his book Outliers, Gladwell outlined this theory which caught the imagination of people. It appeals to our sense of fairness and how things should be with the world. If anyone has become successful in any field we like to think that they have paid the price for it. We get a sense of perverse satisfaction thinking about all the parties they missed while they were practising, poor sods; all the vacations they had to forego; and we visualize all the joy being sucked out of their lives like water from a sponge, leaving them dry of everything else but the skill they chose to become expert at. And then we grudgingly acknowledge their expertise at singing / dancing/ boardroom politics or whatever, all the while smug in our belief that we did not commit those mistakes and miss out on life.
Of course these are mere rationalizations. We really do not want to acknowledge that some people are very good at what they do, and at the same time enjoy other things in life as much or more than we do. They seem to have achieved levels of extreme competence, without putting in even a semblance of effort, or at least, by working on it as much as we do, no more. The guy who was CEO in my previous company has a well-rounded life and goes home on time every day, the topper in my college used to be always on the football field, or playing cricket, and was very active in college plays with the stage presence of a Rajnikanth, and Richard Branson seems to make everything seem fun and effortless, including making lots of money. Your neighbor who was a no-good wastrel in school now has the biggest car in the neighborhood, and takes the most expensive vacations, and you don't see him really working even today.
We all like to think that life is a linear equation. You get what you work for; great achievements entail great sacrifices; you put in more effort, you get more reward; if you laze around, you are not going to make it in life – these are all comforting thoughts we encourage in ourselves since we find ourselves working so hard all the time. Unfortunately, life is not so fair. Gladwell is wrong, and someone had to do a lot of research to prove it. Of course, this research talks more about how some people, in spite of putting in lots of effort – significantly more than 10,000 hours – seem to be as clueless as when they started out. It seems depressingly similar to the story of my life L
( article on disproving Gladwell's 10,000-hour theory from the latest issue of Economist below: )