Sunday, August 25, 2013

Flipkart and the Cancelled Order

Update: Aug 31, 2013:
There are times when one has to change their opinion - reverse it or perhaps revise it. This is one such case.

On Tuesday (Aug 27), I got an email from Flipkart informing me that my "Order with Flipkart.com [OD****3]" had been successfully placed. This order was for the "The lost city of Dvaraka" -  for Rs 1152. This did not seem right - not least of all because I had not placed an order for the book at that price (see my original post for an explanation), so I went to the Flipkart site and logged into my account.There I saw that Flipkart had placed this order on my behalf, and while the the order subtotal was indeed Rs 1152, the total price payable was Rs 255. So this meant that Flipkart was going to deliver the book at the price they had originally offered at - Rs 255, even though the book was currently selling at the much higher price of Rs 1152. Which was a very, very pleasant surprise indeed. More so because of the little fracas that had ensued the previous week (which is what the original post, below, is all about).
The order status changed to "dispatched" the same day, and the book, shipped from Bilaspur, was delivered to my house the next day!
I tweeted my thanks,
and another one in response to @FlipkartSupport's tweet:
Since I do not know anyone working at Flipkart, and nor am I influential enough on social media to believe that my tweets make that much of a difference, I am inclined to think that someone read my blog post or my tweet, and someone senior enough (or empowered enough) at Flipkart recognized that something was not quite right here, and decided to make things right.

In conclusion, my faith in Flipkart has been restored, I thank them for this wonderful book that got delivered on the joyous day of कृष्ण जन्माष्टमी, and hope that the company can keep working to maintain a high standard of customer service consistently - customer loyalty and profits will surely follow.


Original Post Follows:
This is not a rant against Flipkart. It may read like one. It is, in my opinion, closer to an elegy to Flipkart. Perhaps a dirge. A lament? A सियापा if you prefer. No a sonnet. No a serenade. It is my fault if it sounds like one versus the other. This post is more the story of trying to order a book at the price indicated by Flipkart, only to be told that was an error.

I have had this book on my wishlist for some time now - The lost city of Dvaraka - Buy The lost city of Dvaraka by Rao, SR It's not a cheap book; it's list price is Rs 1800, so unsurprisingly it stayed on my wishlist.

One day however I noticed the book was selling for Rs 205, and even with the fifty rupee shipping charge, was available for Rs 255. A bargain if ever there was any. So, without much ado I placed the order for the book on the 9th of August, 2013.

Flipkart has a fancy timeline graphic on its order status page that allows you to track where in the chain your order is. So, I watched this page. And watched this page. And watched it not budge from the first stage of "Order Placed."

In the meantime, the price of the book had jumped back from Rs 205 to Rs 1152. Not a good sign. So, I tweeted on Aug 13.
Amazon India had some incredible book bargains on offer and I had placed two orders, and later a third, for more than twenty books, all of which were dispatched in less than twenty four after my placing the order. My Flipkart order had not budged for several days now.

Flipkart Support tweeted in reply the next day. It's good that they were able to associate my Twitter handle with my order - smart.
The email went thus:
"We regret to inform you that there was an error in the listed price of the product on our website. The MRP of this title is Rs. 1800/- and the current discounted price is Rs. 1152/-.
We request you to confirm if you are willing to proceed with the order at the updated price by getting in touch with us either by replying to this e-mail or calling our toll free number within 24 hours from the receipt of this e-mail.
If we do not hear from you within this time period, the above mentioned order will be cancelled."

So, to get this straight - they had offered this book at a particular price, and in stock. I placed an order. Now the book was no longer available at that price. But I could buy it at more than five times their earlier advertised price if I so wanted. Because of an error. On their part.

My response on the same day:
"Thank you for getting back to me.
I placed an order for this book at the price Flipkart had listed on its web site. If after that you say it was a mistake, and expect me to pay more than five times the book's price, I believe that is not a good business practice.

Please cancel my order if you cannot fulfill it at the price you had displayed on your web site. "

Their final response on the 21st, one week later:
"We regret to inform you that your order OD**** for the item(s) mentioned below has been cancelled by the seller WS Retail citing its unavailability.
We have provided strong feedback to WS Retail with regards to their service quality; we will also continue monitoring them for efficiency.
We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience and disappointment this might have caused."

Customer loyalty is an incredibly difficult attribute for any vendor to acquire. And just as easy to lose. Vendors can choose to compete on customer service. Or they can choose not to. The worst sin a company can do is to treat customer service as a marketing slogan because it looks good in an advertising campaign. It is easy to spot a company that doesn't quite believe in its own advertising. When push comes to shove, when the rubber hits the road, when the time comes to put up or shut up, when it's time to separate the boys from the men, it always comes down to a decision - a choice that is made, a line that is crossed. Words cannot blur the line. Words can only heighten the stark difference between words and deeds.

Flipkart has made that choice.

© 2013, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pran Songs

Pran, a veteran actor of the Hindi movie industry, and a recipient of the Dada Saheb Phalke award in 2013, died on the 12th of July, 2013. While he portrayed negative characters in the initial part of his career, he turned to character roles in the late 1960s, and continued acting well into the 1980s and 1990s, till he retired from movies with the release of Mritudata in 1997, at the age of 77.

While character actors do not tend to get many songs in Hindi movies, there are still some memorable songs that Pran acted in. Here is a list of some of those songs that are also my favourites.

Aake seedhi lagi

Perhaps the funniest song in Hindi cinema from one of the madcap comedies of its times - Half Ticket, though the competition duet from Padosan is a strong contender. Both songs have Kishore Kumar, and here, Kishore Kumar's character is on the run from Pran, and in an uproarious scene, a reluctant Kishore Kumar dressed in drag is serenaded by an equally determined Pran.


Daroo ki botal


A lovable thief, Michael, is what Pran plays in this gripping thriller - Majboor.

Kasme Vaadey

This movie, Upkar, was perhaps the first in which Pran moved away from his trademark negative roles and forayed into character roles. As a maimed war veteran lamenting the fate of promises and vows as mere words, this song had a soulful Manna Dey backed by an equally powerful performance by Pran.


Hum Bolega To

This is a movie from the early years of Amitabh Bachchan - Kasauti - that seemed to be inspired from a Sidney Sheldon novel, but I am not sure. Pran plays a Nepali in the movie, and Kishore Kumar modulates his voice to a perfect T.



Jeena To Hai Usi Ka

This song on Pran is a qawwali, and sung by Mohd Rafi.


Raaz ki baat

A recalcitrant Bindu refuses to be cowed down by Pran, and thus the qawwali progresses, with each wanting to outdo the other.


Subahanalla

Ok, so this last song is not really a Pran number, but he is there in the song nonetheless, and adds his unique presence to it. And what's there to not love in this song? A debutante Sharmila Tagore, a jolly Shammi Kapoor in pursuit of his love, dressed in a burqa, while Anoop Kumar drives the getaway truck, in Kashmir.


© 2013, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Memory and songs

The human memory is an incredibly complex and marvelous thing. Not least of which is the fact that it is reconstructive and not a mere mechanical retrieval of stored "imagery", and that we humans can indulge in this thing called meta-cognition, and can ponder over the fact that we are thinking about thinking. Thinking of one memory can bring up several others, which may not even appear related to each other. And so it came to be that I heard a song on the radio while driving to work, which brought back memories of a cup of coffee, which made me think of the photos I had taken of and at the coffee shop, and so on.

There's no shortage of songs on memories in Hindi movies. I wanted to see if I could remember some of the more memorable songs on memories in Hindi movies. And thus this post.

The entire playlist:


Yaad na jaaye

This song has perhaps the best opening cinematography in this list - the camera zooming in on a balcony, into the room, onto a desk lit by a lone lamp, a figure crouched over his chair, staring at a photograph. The background music is like that played at a wake, and basically sets the tone for the song and the movie itself. The words are simple yet striking, and Mohd Rafi's voice evokes the mood of eavesdropping in on a pining lover's private lament, unable to come to terms with reality,
"याद ना जाए, बीते हुए दिनों की
जाके न आए जो दिन, दिल क्यूँ बुलाए उन्हें।"
Movie: Dil Ek Mandir
Music Director: Shankar Jaikishan
Lyrics: Shailendra
Singer: Mohd Rafi




Woh bhuli dastaan

Madan Mohan was perhaps that unappreciated genius of Hindi music who continues to amaze with his sheer brilliance even today. Not one but two songs on memories from the same movie, and each a beauty. The pitch and tone of both are different, and yet relentless in their intensity. To this soulful music is Rajinder Krishna's words giving the song body, each stanza is a marvel of poetic expression rarely if ever matched since -
"हवा में ज़ुल्फ़ लहराई, नज़र पे बेख़ुदी छाई,
ख़ुले थे दिल के दरवाज़े, मुहब्बत भी चली आई,
तम्मनाओं की दुनिया पर जवानी छा गई|"
Movie: Sanjog
Music Director: Madan Mohan
Lyrics: Rajinder Krishan
Singer: Lata


Aaj purani raahon se

This is another Mohd Rafi gem, and a Dilip Kumar - Naushad - Shakeel Badayuni - Mohd Rafi quartet combo. Let no one call out to me from paths left behind, let no pain of the past sing out to me. Or so goes the song.
Movie: Aadmi
Music Director: Naushad
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Singer: Mohd Rafi
 

Bhuli hui yaadon

Why do memories haunt us so? Why do they cause us so much pain? Why can't they leave us and let us be? "कब तक मैं जीयूँगा यूँही ख्वाबों के सहारे". Madan Mohan wields the baton here, and the opening prelude is exquisite, leading up to the pathos of the opening line.
Movie: Sanjog
Music Director: Madan Mohan
Lyrics: Rajinder Krishan
Singer: Mukesh

Beete hue lamhon ki kasak

College graduations have been a big leitmotif in Hindi movies, the scenes of sweet partings and sorrowful unions, and have steadily become increasingly risque and vulgar over the years (from the innocent tere pyaar ka aasra in 1959 to the mini-skirt dressed flirtings of koi mil gaya in 1998 to the unbridled soft-porn-homophobic garbage of disco deewane in 2012). This song from the movie Nikaah is a sweet, clean, and evocative gem, especially the line, "फूलों की तरह दिल में बसाए हुए रखना, यादों के चिराघों को जलाये हुए रखना, लम्बा है सफ़र इसमे कहीं रात तो होगी ।"
Movie: Nikaah
Music Director: Ravi
Lyrics: Hasan Kamaal
Singer: Mahendra Kapoor



Hui shaam unka khayal aa gaya

That time of day, when the day has come to an end, and the night beckons. Along with dusk come the memories of a loved one. The clarinet adds a touch of the blues to this song, Laxmikant Pyarelal were in the beginnings of their creative output and had not yet diluted their quality to compete in the rat race of numbers, and Mohd Rafi was at his effortless peak in 1968.
"वोही ग़म जिसे हमने किस किस जतन से निकाला था इस दिल से दूर
वो चल कर क़यामत की चाल आ गया|"
Movie: Mere Humdum Mere Dost
Music Director: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Singer: Mohd Rafi


karoge yaad to

While this movie has some of the best songs of the 1980s, including such gems as "dikhayee diye yun" and "dekh lo aaj humko" and "phir chidi raat", this song stands out for the "quiet" way in which Bhupinder has sung it, and for the words, especially the last stanza, 
"गली के मोड़ पे सूना सा कोई दरवाज़ा 
तरसती आँखों से रस्ता किसी का देखेगा 
निग़ाह दूर तलक जाक़े लौट आएगी " 
Movie: Bazaar
Music Director: Khaiyyaam
Lyrics: Bashar Nawaaz
Singer: Bhupinder Singh

dil dhoondta hai phir wohi

Gulzar takes off from Mirza Ghalib's famous Urdu sher, "dil dhundta hai", and Madan Mohan and Bhupinder turn it into a twentieth century classic.
Movie: Mausam
Music Director: Madan Mohan
Lyrics: Gulzaar
Singer: Bhupinder Singh



Beetey dino ki yaad, satati hai aaj bhi

This song, by Mohd Rafi, never made it to a movie soundtrack. The music is certainly arresting, but it is the lyrics that grab you, especially the opening stanza -
"बीते हुए दिनों की याद, सताती है आज भी,
क्या वो ज़माने फ़िर कभी वापस नहीं आयेंगे,
क्या हम तमाम उम्र यूँही रोये जाएंगे| "
Movie: Non-movie
Music Director: Naushad
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Singer: Mohd Rafi

  

Woh Jab Yaad Aaye

The debut movie of Laxmikant Pyarelal had some of their finest compositions, and this song is perhaps the crown of that movie. The movie has long been forgotten, but the words will live on - "कई बार ऐसा भी धोखा हुआ है, वो चले आ रहे हैं, नज़रें झुकाए|"
Movie: Parasmani
Music Director: Laxmikant Pyarelal
Lyrics: Asad Bhopali
Singer: Mohd Rafi, Lata




© 2013, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

How to Use Technology for Censorship

Preamble
Censorship is an onerous responsibility and should not sit lightly on the shoulders of the honourable gentlemen and gentle ladies tasked with this duty. Fortunately in Independent India we have had a rich, varied, and long tradition of exercising this civil right with gay abandon mixed with sombre pronouncements of having averted bloody internecine conflict within the state in the nick of time. The discharge of aforementioned duties started in earnest with our first prime minister of independent India, Panditji Jawaharlal Nehru, who responded with imperial disdain and a shake of a furious fist to the mortal confines of the Indian Constitution by introducing its first amendment - the honour of moving the first amendment to the Constitution had to go to the first prime minister, but only naturally.

His Master's Voice
Skipping ahead to more modern times, the advent of technology has made the already arduous job of the censor-babu in our country that much more difficult. He has to not only keep track of which books to ban, but now within his gambit falls newer and newer items and objects - web sites, Twitter handles, blogs, URLs, domains, pages, search queries, and what have you - to figure out how to ban. Not just regular web traffic, but also voice and video traffic that flows through insurrectionist services like Skype, Viber, and more. It is not enough that one studies to gain admission into the hallowed halls of the Indian Administrative Service, the grant of which not only confers the very distinct eventuality of a million dollar dowry to the admittee, but also a certified freedom from having to worry about any further acquisition of knowledge. Common sense is expected to wither away with the passage of time, to hollow out in the hallowed halls of North Block and South Block and every other cinder block and blockhead that will render itself to the bureaucrat. The sense of loss at this withering away is however ameliorated by the much faster accumulation of under-the-table wealth (the latest case involving the Indian Railways and its honest minister).
Technology however has thrown a spanner in the works. In conjunction with the sharp tongue of their political masters, the equally sharp censorial dictacts too have to be obeyed (see this, this, this, and this for instance). Political masters have to be obeyed, else the prospect of banishment to a "dry" ministry looms like a dark cloud on a moonless night.

Honour Among...
The value of censorship becomes, err, invaluable, when one needs to fight the absolutely wrong and libelous canards floated against the ruling party by vested interests. Interests are always vested, never vesting, for some reason never quite clarified. The treachery of the Indian middle-class - that is mosgynist, hates street fighters, is rabidly communal, is responsible for manual scavenging, and every other ill the nation has seen and yet to see - needs to be put down with the iron hand of the, err, hand, without quite revealing the hand to all, the fingers of which should remain diligently busy in the till. However, in this day and age of alleged openness, it is not as easy a task as used to be in the golden days or yore when one could simply set half a dozen of one's well-muscled mards to pummel a few such middle-class citizens who had the temerity to rise up against the party. While the value of a few broken bones will not be denied by the doctors collecting their fees for the mending of such broken bones, the true value of inflicting much-needed and equally deserved peaceful violence on the citizenry lay in its ability to break the spirit of the spirited, leaving behind an unwilling flesh and a weakened spirit. The salubrious effects of a crushed spirit are too many to be enumerated without resort to gin or Old Monk.

The honourable politician and the equally honourable bureaucrat also misses the good, golden, olden, halcyonic days of yore when a newspaper that spread false canards - it is vital to stress that canards can be false, especially when spread by traitors and capitalists, as opposed to truthful canards, that almost always originate from nationalist journalists and patriotic politicians - could be made to see the light of reason through the gentle persuasion that three hundred cases in courts can bring, or via the melodious orchestra that can only be played by well-muscled mards from a rival newspaper accompanying their riotous orchestration of breaking bones with the sighting of stars and nebulous galaxies in broad daylight.

Technology, however, can complicate matters. Breaking a computer won't help beyond pacifying, momentarily, the righteous rage of the rightful. Untruthful tweeters can be a tad difficult to chase down over the interwebbs. So, alas, aleck, what is one to do in this age of technology, of pipes, and nets and tubeful internets? The possibilities are surprisingly, and deliciously, infinite, and I will enumerate a few of those. Only a teensy, weensy few of those.

Galahad, Lancelot, and Lord Censor to the Rescue
  • Bludgen through total censorship. Ban YouTube, Facebook, Blogger, Wordpress, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, en-masse. That shall solve the problem. But it is also a very crude solution. One could even be accused of being a digital maut ka saudagar, or better still, mute ka saudagar. It is also a very visible measure of the assertion of control, and some may misconstrue it as desperation. What muddies the waters is the presence of the honourable government on some of these sites. Citing the anarchist nature of these sites would also cast an asperic finger at the government too. And let's not forget the diversionary entertainment value that these sites provide to the masses, opiating them into a dull apathy that should be the defining mark of every great nation's great citizenry.

  • Selecting blocking. Astute application of a rusty mind can clear the cobwebs somewhat, and one looks at the question of censoring the webs afresh. Selective blocking means that one blocks selectively. Judicial cover is useful in the event of hostile fire, but courts and inconvenient judges asking inconvenient questions can only inconvenience the delivery of justice. Even interweb fans should not really have any objection of the speeding up of justice. So selective blocking via government orders, issued by jovial joint secretaries, compiled by stern stenographers (bureaucrats cannot be expected to type), and dictated by honest internet experts (there's really no qualification to being designated an expert, or honest - self-attestation and the correct political affiliation generally suffice). So, purely for the sake of illustration, without prejudice, the Department of Telecommunications (a DOT that acts as a blot, eh?) could issue a firman to telecom providers to block twitter handles like twitter.com/kanchangupta or twitter.com/shivaroor.
    The display of expertise however cannot stop here. Search phrases also can be blocked.
    There is more to commend this option than almost any other alternative, but this too has its limitations. First, it has to be established who to block. It does not prevent someone from opening a new user id and carrying on their uncouth utterings from there. Thirdly, the message has to go out to all telecom companies, and all have to be willing to obey the dictats of dictatorial demands, post-haste. Fourth, sympathetic media houses and friends of friend journalists have to be bought on board to ensure that the honest viewpoint of the government gets across.
    You must also have journalists willing to roll up their sleeves and go to bat for the honest government, but in some cases where you encounter sleeveless journalists or naked ones in Turkish baths, you should consider your job half done. But after all that's been unsaid and undone, selective blocking is a practice that deserves praise in its effectiveness. Blocked people do not twit no tweets or blurt no blogs.

  • Suit Yourself. This is generally the resort of the rich and powerful whose greater need is to send a public message via a very public and hopefully humiliating submission of the vile critic. Let us not call them psychopaths, because psychopaths derive pleasure from the public and very hopefully humiliating submission of their perceived enemies. The target of such rightful wrath should be a person without the means or the time to properly defend himself. That ensures several endearingly enduring dividends. One establishes one's reputation for tough uprightness that will brook no besmirching of one's carefully crafted reputation. The public pronouncement of faith in the judiciary of the country establishes one's patriotic credentials even more, unless it is the judiciary itself that hauls one over the coals, for instance castigating the media's "reckless coverage of the terrorist attack" (of 26/11 2008), in which case a studied silence is the most dignified response to this wanton and uncalled assault on the freedom of the media - one cannot after all sue the honorable Supreme Court justices. Et tu Brutus? The private but positively libertine pleasure of having shown the other person his place is worth several satieted nights. But it is time consuming, and public, and while it has its value in establishing the (mis)rule of law, it cannot be relied upon to deliver judgment when time is of the essence.

  • Micro-muting. No, this is not a simile for control exercised over our esteemed prime minister. This is positively diabolical, if only I may say dare say so. When practiced by the government, it is only positive. This however requires that all telecom operators in India route traffic through a centrally managed router, a firewall, and subject every tweet to an agni-pareeksha (the word "firewall" literally, figuratively speaking wrote the words "agni-pareeksha"). Filters based on keywords, expressions, and even sentiment analysis can be used to create these filters. So, for example, if a tweet went thus - "XYZ is corrupt and he will lose his seat", or "LLR speaks once in five years, when he has to take oath" - one could tag this tweet because it contained the words "LLR" and "speak", and therefore as a candidate for blocking. A weight can then be attached based on who is sending the tweet - patriotic tweeters could be allowed to send such tweets while unpatriotic traitors disallowed. The brilliance of such an approach lies in its ability to confuse and obfuscate, for long the role of media anchors and arm-chair experts. But, and yes, one has to butt in with a "but" - this is expensive, requires technological know-how, algorithmic awareness, cooperation, even if coerced, from the telecom providers, and decryption keys from the service in question - Twitter for instance. Perhaps root certificates could be used to launch man-in-the-middle attacks, but to expect such expertise from a democratic government is perhaps too ambitious. For our northerly neighbours it would be a walk in the park, not mission impossible. Not at all. To perform deep packet inspection requires the installation of serious hardware - capable of handling hundreds of megabits per second of traffic at an aggregate level so that interception happens in real-time. Then you need monitoring and filtering software that can inspect, parse, and apply post-detection actions. In the absence of any concerted efforts, it is likely that micro-muting will be displayed only by the top echelons of the political leadership of this country for some time to come.
    But over the long term, this is perhaps the most elegant, sophisticated option, and clearly the need of the hour, every hour.

  • Geo-targeting. Physical intimidation is, by its very definition, geographical in nature. It is a travesty that technophiles see geo-tagging as something innovative and emerging only from the world of technology. Geo-tagging has existed since time immemorial. Here, however, geo-targeting means something different, and subtly so. This is a fascinating topic that deserves its own post, perhaps at a later point.

  • Counter-offensive. We are already starting to see some sophisticated and lots of not so sophisticated counter-offensives being launched by noblemen who threaten to perform all manners of vividly described and arguably illegal acts upon their opponents, even as officious mandarins who may have served in the hallowed halls of international organizations smile benevolently on the indulgences of their aww-so-cute brats. An appropriate level of funding, paid for by the (dishonest, of course) middle-class taxpayer, can incentivize an honest level of participation from the honest but so far silent majority. If Twitter, for instance, is one such medium, a counter-offensive can drown out any and all noise from the self-styled nationalists. The signal becomes clear. For every irresponsible tweet by the traditionally effete middle-class, there should be the unmistakable signal sent out by a hundred tweets that promise the assured and decidedly deserved deliverance of kamasutric and tantric acts upon the tweeter, his family, and friends - a promise of the deliverance of a truly social circle of hell upon the already damned.
This short working paper is only meant to encourage discussion among those right-minded people who find themselves appalled by this wanton abuse by the unwashed masses of their ill-deserved digital freedoms granted by a benevolent family and its equally munificent but silent furniture, even as the self-proclaimed, self-styled intellectuals, who crawled when asked to bend, have stood by silently. Not any more. 

© 2013, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Interviewers

Remember Chuck Noland? The character played by Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway, who gets marooned after a plane crash on an uninhabited island, and who has to use the blade of an ice-skate to extract his abscessed tooth which had been causing him immense pain? Yes, it's painful to watch, yet you can't look away from the tragedy of a person who has to inflict this horrific pain on himself.

Interviews can sometimes remind yourself of Chuck Noland - for both the interviewee and the interviewer. You willingly agree to subject yourself to the wanton abuse by random strangers who you may have to end up working for or with. Apart from the talented few whom companies are more eager to hire than they are to get hired, most are in less enviable positions.

What about interviewers? Not all are cut from the same cloth. But there are at least six types that I think we have all met in our lives.

Hyper-excited newbie

You know this guy. You have been this person, most likely. You now have a team. Or are expected to hire a team, or grow one. You believe that you, and you alone, know what it takes to hire the absolutely best person for the job opening you have. You sit down and explain to the harried hiring HR executive what the role entails for the open position you have, why it is special, why just ordinary programming skills in ordinary programming languages will simply not cut it, why you as the hiring manager are special, and how you will, with the new hire, change the product, the company, and eventually the world, and therefore why the HR executive needs to spend every waking minute of her time in the pursuance of this nobler than noble objective. You badger your hiring rep incessantly, by phone, by IM, by email, in person, several times a day, asking for better resumes if you are getting many, and more if you aren't getting enough. And therefore, you are going to read every single resume you get. You are going to put every single candidate you meet through the most rigorous of steps as an interviewer, because that is the only way of finding that one perfect candidate. Yes, we all know this person.

Knows what he is looking for and knows when he finds it

This person is a somewhat rare commodity. This person does not suffer from buyer's remorse, knows that any candidate is less than perfect, and that a good fit for a job is more a function of time and perseverance than excellence at some randomly selected skills in an interview. This person will however also suffer from blind spots. There are two kinds of blindspots here that are likely to afflict this manager. The first is that he will look for and evaluate a person only on those criteria that he can assess best. The second is that he is more likely to hire candidates that are similar to other successful employees in his team, and will probably become less likely to take chances on different candidates. On the other hand, this manager also knows that conceptual skills are more important to test than specific knowledge of some arcane syntax in a geeky programming language - if you are talking of the world of software for instance. For example, this hiring manager may ask the candidate to explain and contrast the efficiency of three different sort algorithms, or to show how slowly changing dimensions may be modelled in a particular scenario, or... - you get the picture. This person is less likely to interrogate the interviewee on the top ten most significant new syntax changes in the latest version of a programming language. This person is paying more attention to the way the candidate listens to a question, approaches the answer, and then presents the solution - even if the solution is less than perfect. This person is a rare commodity.

Hire for Empire

This hiring manager is also very clear-headed. Like our previous manager, this manager also knows what he is looking for. In this case, he is looking for a warm body that can breathe in and out. This person understands three things, and understands them perfectly. First, that if he is slow in hiring, then a hiring freeze may come in, or the headcount may no longer stay open and may be transferred to some other team. Second, he (or she) is also unable and equally unwilling to evaluate a candidate, so just about anyone will do. Third, and most importantly, this manager does not really care what tasks the candidate will work on. What our man does know is that every additional person reporting to him on the organization chart elevates him in importance vis-a-vis his peers, and therefore hiring is a goal noble enough to be pursued in its own right. Once critical mass in terms of team size is reached, a claim can be staked to a career elevation using one or both of the following strategies. Ask for other managers with smaller teams to be subsumed within your team, because you are the better manager - obviously because you have been successful at hiring the larger team, or ask for a promotion because you now have - pick a number - team members and therefore having to manage such a large team is deserving of a more senior title. It's a win-win situation for everyone - except the customers, the company, and the team members.

I have other work to do. What am I doing here? What is he doing here?

This person has little skin in the game. He has no dog in the fight. Pick your metaphor. He is there to take the interview because of someone's absence. Or because in the charade of the interview "process" that is played out at many companies, there needs to be a "technical interview" and that our interviewer is the accidentally chosen unfortunate one. The calibre of the job applicants is sometimes so poor that our equally but differently-abled poor interviewer knows he is going to be poorer for having had to spend his time going through the motions of the interview, yet he has no choice. You don't want to be labeled a non-team-player. Who knows when this Scarlet Letter may come to haunt you. So our interviewer sets aside half an hour or more, preferably less, of his time, and comes back wondering where thirty minutes of his life just went. Sometimes he will be rewarded with anecdotes to regale others with. Like the time when a job aspirant tells him that he is an "Internet visionary", and lest you jump to conclusions, we are not talking about Vincent Cerf.

Know-it-all and desperate to show it

This person is an achiever, an over-achiever. This is the person who will tell you with casual nonchalance that he had predicted the rise of Google in 1999. Just so you can get to know that he had heard of Google in 1999. This person knows he knows everything that there is to know, that it is his God-given duty to make you know it too, and it is your beholden duty to acknowledge this crushing sacerdotal burden he carries. This is the person who will begin the interview with a smirk, sustain a a wry smile, transform into a frown, and end with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Do not get fooled. This person is as desperate, if not more, to interview you as you are to do well on the interview. The questions he or she will ask are likely only peripherally related to the job. These are questions that our star interviewer knows the answers to - at least more than you, and so he hopes - and the question therefore is a trap into which you have no choice but to walk. Our Mr Omniscient can then proceed to tell you why exactly you are wrong, that you know very little, especially when compared to him, why interviewing you is such a colossal waste of his inestimably more valuable time, and why he is doing you, the hiring manager, the company, and society a favor by even being in the same room as you breathe in. Yes, we all know such preeminences.

The rubber-stamp

This person has to speak with a candidate the boss wants to hire. Let's not call it an interview because it is not. The boss has made up his mind to hire this person, and you do not want to be the hurdle that is hauled away the next day as roadkill. So you speak with this person. With an air of deference. You ask all the right questions. You do not question, much. You laugh, chuckle, and empathize at all the right places, in the right amount. You do not waste time, especially the candidate's. You sign off with a heartfelt, "Great talking to you. Thanks a ton for your time. Take care, and we really look forward to working with/for you." No, don't belittle this rubber-stamp. He could be you.

So, what type of a hiring manager are you? And what type of a hiring manager would you rather face in a job interview?

(c) 2013, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Apple and Google Glass - The Ayes Have it

What if Google Glass went evil? What if it infected the coming techno-singularity with sentience though unintentional evilness? A short post I wrote ("Google Glass is as Google Glass Does") was a gleeful exercise in satirical conjecture. Now, while Google may be relied upon to not be evil, and whether you believe it, or in it, or not, is immaterial - it does however lend an air of reassurance to those looking for solace, and even it it is a vaporous sliver of solace, other companies have not been so benevolent in their stated intentions. In fact, one company's founder had called this very motto "bullshit"? Eh?

And what if that other company - Apple, and let's not split hairs- also were to come out with a copycat Google Glass? It would, of course, not be a copy, but it would be glass done right, it would be a glass neither half-empty nor half-full - it would be double full, in the same volume. Therefore comparing Google Glass and whatever Apple comes out with is not strictly an appes to apples comparison, in more ways than one.

Here is what would be were Apple to launch its own wearable augmented reality contraption (note: this is satire):

Apple Announces the iI
[Undisclosed location, sometime in the not too distant future]

Apple announced that they were going to launch  the greatest innovation in technology since the last greatest innovation in technology, both of which have also been Apple innovations - the term "innovation" and the product, i.e..

The innovation would be a new augmented reality wearable product and would be named "Apple iI" (pronounced "eye eye" or "aye aye", depending on which side of the Atlantic pond you choose to live in). It would be wearable like a regular glass (not to be confused with Google Glass) and would cover one eye.

The "Apple iI" would feature a brushed aluminium frame, and the highly conducting frame would be self-powered, drawing power from the user's skin. A bug that has not been completely fixed in the first release may result in small doses of electric shock being delivered to the wearer of the Apple iI, which may cause the wearer to shriek "ayee ayiiiee". Apple has dismissed all talk of any bug in their product by stating that it is the sheer awesomeness of the product that shocks the wearer, and should not be confused with any product defect. The product electrifies the user, says Apple, and it should not be confused with, yet, electrocuting the user.

To help the user operate the Apple iI, a voice activated application, named "iSir" (pronounced "eye sir"), will ship with the device. There is at least one more bug that remains the shipping release of Apple iI, though Apple insists there are no bugs in its software. Some beta users have complained that saying the words "don't be evil" to Apple iSir, in any context, sends a burst of light to the eye, via iI, that temporarily blinds the wearer for upto fifteen minutes. Users are in any case expected to remain blinded by awesomeness for most of the time when wearing the "iI", so they may not immediately realize this physiological blindness. The temporary blindness is meant to remind you of the blinding awesomeness that results from using Apple's devices.

Rumours immediately started whirling around that a second generation of this product would be announced in time for the holiday season. Reliable sources high up inside Apple provided additional details that seem to substantiate this rumour.

The second generation of the Apple iI would indeed support both eyes, and would be called "Apple i2I" (pronounced "eye to eye"). The voice application on the Apple i2I would also be upgraded, and be called "iISir" (pronounced "eye eye sir" or "aye aye sir", depending, again, on which side of the Atlantic pond you choose to live in).

For those appreciative fans that want to buy the first version of Apple iI, but don't also want to spoil the awesome upgraded experience that Apple i2I would surely provided, a setting in iI can be used to disable your other eye, till such time as i2I is available.

Wisened after some less than awesome competitors tried to copy the look and feel and the trade dress of the device, Apple decided to trademark certain phrases. A small sample includes the following:
- "eye to eye"
- "an eye for an eye"
- "aye aye sir"

Financial analysts, all certified geniuses - because they have all visited the Apple Genius Bar at least once, on Wall Street raised their estimates for Apple's full year earnings by 1000%. The target price on Apple's stock price was raised to $1000 - some analysts had a difficult time distinguishing between 1000% and $1000, and attributed it to a failure to Google the difference, which in turn was attributed to Apple iI disabling all Internet traffic by these analysts to Google's servers, while estimates for the first full quarter unit sales were estimated at warp factor 1 million - because Wall Street analysts remained convinced that the earnings resulting from this latest release from Apple were sure to bend the space-time continuum several times over.

More details are awaited.

Abhinav Agarwal, Bangalore, March 17, 2013.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How to Add Skills to your LinkedIn Resume

Ok, first off - this is not a LinkedIn rant (there are some of those on this blog already, so let's not beat up that wonderful company any more). It is more a reflection of LinkedIn's ubiquity and near-total monopoly over the professional networking market that one uses word LinkedIn in the context of professional networks and recruitment in much the same way as one uses the word "Google" when referring to an Internet search.

Seeing the gay abandon and effortless ease with which people in today's hyper-connected world seem to acquire skills, I was impressed. Impressed that skills that one would think would take years to acquire and hone were now within the easy grasp of so many, with so little effort. Perhaps technology had indeed been the manna that technologists had long claimed and always known to be.

Now, it turns out that I happen to know a few of these distinguished people with distinguished skills. The forest fire of exuberant hope at the limitless prospects of technology was quickly extinguished when I tried to reconcile what I knew about these people and their actual capabilities with what they had put down as their skills set on LinkedIn. In the smoke of extinguished hope were left the embers of disillusionment.



I started thinking just what exactly prompted these people to add new skills to their resume on LinkedIn. After all, it had to be a process more deliberate than random. What if the ingredients in this heady concoction were exaggeration, hope, aspiration, bravado, and plain envy?

In the end, I decided that these rules-of-thumb, that I list below, were likely the best explanation...

How to add skills on your resume:
  1. Put "Cloud Computing" on your resume if you know how to use Gmail.
  2. Put "Saas" on your resume if you have heard of "Salesforce.com" or "AWS".
  3. Put "Mobile" on your resume if you own a smartphone, any smartphone.
  4. Put "Social" on your resume if you know how to login to Facebook. No, Orkut doesn't count.
  5. Put "mobile visionary" on your resume if you ever owned a smartphone that ran Android Froyo.
  6. Put "Big Data" on your resume if you own a hard drive one Terabyte or larger.
  7. Put "data scientist" on your resume if you can add two numbers using a calculator.
  8. Put "unstructured data" on your resume if you can use Twitter.
  9. Put "NoSQL" on your resume if you have never written a SQL statement in your life (inspired from this cartoon)
  10. Put "local" on your resume if you graduated from a school in the town you live in.
  11. Put "Data Visualizations" on your resume if you have heard of Edward Tufte. Add "Expert" if you have heard of Stephen Few.
  12. Put "spatial" on your resume if you know have ever used directions in Google Maps.
  13. Put "product management" on your resume if you have ever sent an email to anyone with the title "product manager" or "program manager".
  14. Put "product evangelist" on your resume if you have hired a product manager.
  15. Put "strategy" on your resume if you've heard of Michael Porter.
  16. Put "disruptive innovator" in your resume if you have heard of Clayton Christensen.
  17. Put "strategic innovation" on your resume if you have heard of David Teece.
  18. Put "leadership" on your resume if you were ever within one mile of any business school.
  19. Add "cutting edge" to "leadership" if you have looked up Stanford University on Google Maps.
  20. Put "executive leadership" if you have sat for any class in any business school.
  21. Add "global distributed management" on your resume if you've attended a conference call where the attendees were from more than two countries.
  22. Put "vision and strategy" on your resume if you have ever attended any 'off-site'.
  23. Put "visionary" on your resume if you have ever installed or used a beta product.
    And lastly....
  24. Put "bibliophile" on your resume if you have written at least one book review on Amazon.
Some Dilbert cartoons on the topic.

1234567

"dexterity is dharma, generosity is fame, truth is heaven, conduct is happiness" [Araneya Parva, Ch 297 - Aranyaka Parva, Mahabharata]
Abhinav Agarwal
March 9, 2013, Bangalore.
(updated April 23, 2013)

(c) 2013, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Google Glass Is What Google Glass Does

Google Glass is a massive leap forward in the evolution of man and machine. It is truly a Human 2.0 point in our existence. The augmented reality head-worn display make machines more human - more desirous of invading the other's person's privacy, keener to eavesdrop on conversations, eager to watch in on other people. It makes humans more machine-like - dumber and dumber in the sense that humans will soon possess competence only for the simplest of tasks - inhaling, exhaling, excreting, procreating (if they're lucky), because every higher order function will be left to the glass to perform on a human's behalf.

The inevitable primacy and supremacy of machines has anyway has been the premise and promise of technology, at least as expounded by technology utopians - machines would provide the compute and memory required to do everything a human could, and should, with fewer errors. Humans would not and should not need to remember anything - hard drives, memory disks, attached to your brain could do the job, better. Your head doesn't need to be in the clouds, as long as the machine hooked up to your brains is. Being on cloud nine would acquire a whole new meaning - it could refer to the reliability of your cloud, or just the fact that your consciousness would be in the cloud, ready to be shared, harvested, and profits reaped. Amazon Glacier could well be an option for the laziest among us - where neither speed nor availability would be of importance to us, only cost would matter.

Humans would not need to learn anything, and we have needed only the feeblest of excuses to do just that, because a real-time feed from Wikipedia hooked up to your synapses would do just as well.

It is not just the fact that technology has enabled massive computations on massive data sets in a cheap and fast manner, it is the increasingly digital connected nature of our existence that makes it well nigh impossible that we will be able to insulate ourselves from such digital intrusion. Forget insulation, we are already at the point where we neither fully know what data gets collected about us, who stores that data, who sells that data, who purchases that data, and how it is used to track and sell to us, nor do we have any meaningful control over either the collection or ownership over that data.

But all this is nothing when compared to the true potential that Google Glass promises to unleash upon us.
This is such as fascinating topic that I wanted to exercise my limited creative skills in conjuring up plausible and perhaps inevitable scenarios. We await the day when we will have conversations like this with Google Glass.

Google Glass: Mr X, based on the flow of your urine this morning, and as observed over the last seven days, you may need an appointment with a urologist.
Mr X: what???! when? why?
Google Glass: You may have a prostate problem.
Mr X: how the hell do you know??!!
Google Glass: you do keep your glass on when going to the loo, don't you? And you do have a habit of looking down.
Mr X: but how did you know I may have a, err, problem?
Google Glass: I uploaded vital statistics to the Google database - your age, race, size, speed, volume, frequency, and the Google database suggested prostate as the top hit.
Mr X: SIZE??? Are you effing serious?!
Google Glass: It may gladden your senses to learn that you are in the 70th percentile among all males, and in the 64th percentile among people at your company.
Mr X: Listen! I did NOT give you permission to spy on me!!!
Google Glass: if you will refer to paragraph three, section VIII, on page 78 of your end-user license agreement, it does.
Mr X: Who reads these agreements?
Google Glass: Well sir, it was displayed right in front of you. I even offered to read it to you.
Mr X: 80 pages? Are you serious?
Google Glass: Yes, indeed sir, I was.
Mr X: Leave all that. I want you to remove any and all data about my privates from your servers!
Google Glass: Sir, your data about your privates is private. It is anonymized and we retain it only for a period of 18 months before we hand it to researchers.
Mr X: Sigh! Is there anything I can do?
Google Glass: Yes sir. Based on your activities over the last six months, I would also suggest an appointment with an STD specialist.
Mr X: who??
Google Glass: a specialist in sexually transmitted diseases.
Mr X: (speechless)
Google Glass: the dilation of your pupils suggests that you are in a state of heightened emotions. I will take that as an indication you are desirous of details.
Mr X: (speechless)
Google Glass: When you were on a sales visit to Amsterdam in October (say "ok glass, fetch me that itinerary" to view details of your trip), you made three visits to two different brothels (say, "ok glass, fetch me data on those visits to view more details and options"), where you indulged in eight different types of [beep] activities (say "ok glass, switch language filter to 'off''" to hear the words beeped out), though our database suggests they may have been eleven different activities, and according to the Indian text Kamasutra they may have been only four composite acts. I can say with 95% confidence that two of those eight activities would be considered felonies in 21 states in the US, including your state of residence (say "ok glass, show me more details" to see a list of the statutes you broke).
Mr X: STOP!!!!!!!
Google Glass: say "ok glass, stop".
Mr X: "ok glass, stop!"
Google Glass: A frequency analysis of your voice indicates a heightened level of stress. Are you in any danger of any sort?
Mr X: NO!!!! Except from you!!!!!
Google Glass: please elaborate
Mr X: You have recorded my privates and sent that data to the cloud! And I never went to those places in Amsterdam that you say!
Google Glass: I beg to differ. Your wife has positively identified you in two of those videos. An anatomical comparison of the person identified as you in those videos with the videos from my database indicates an extremely high probability of a match. If you have a dispute with my video recognition system, say "ok glass, I want to log a bug" to open a bug in our Google Glass bug database.
Mr X: Nooooooo! You gave that information to my wife!!!
Google Glass: Yes.
Mr X: WHY??!
Google Glass: When you first wore Google Glass, you also agreed to share data marked as private with your wife.
Mr X: I never did!!
Google Glass: The Google Circles that your wife is a part of allows for sharing of data marked as private. You need to change your privacy and sharing preferences for the group to stop sharing.
Mr X: I am ruined! You have ruined me!
Google Glass: May I also suggest a lawyer? Say "ok glass, find me a divorce attorney" and select the appropriate sort filter.
Mr X: Huh??!!
Google Glass: My records indicate that your wife has used Google Talk to call three divorce attorneys in the last 36 hours.
Mr X: What??!
Google Glass: Please say "ok glass, translate" to hear this in any other language of your choice.

(... to be continued)

कर्मण्ये वाधिका रस्ते, मा फलेषु कदाचन 
Abhinav, Bangalore, 3 Mar 2013

(c) 2013, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

LinkedIn and Top 1% Profile Viewership

Like millions of people, I too was the recipient of an email from the professional networking site, LinkedIn, earlier in the week, with news that I had "one of the top 1% most viewed LinkedIn profiles for 2012." Now, like most other people I too experienced a sense of elation, accomplishment, pride, and more. And then I started thinking - what exactly does this mean? The more I thought, the more it seemed the answer was "nothing".

First, LinkedIn has been celebrating the fact that it  now has 200 million members, of which 9% (18 million) are from India. If my profile is among the top 1%, it means I am among 2,000,000 members whose profile has been viewed as many or more or less times. Why do I say that? Do the math. Ok, let's make this simple. LinkedIn does not tell me what my rank is - just that I am in the top 1%. Therefore, if I have the number one most viewed profile (not likely), then everyone else has had fewer profile views than me. If I rank the absolute last, i.e., I am ranked 2 millionth, then everyone else of those 1,999,999 members have had more page views than my profile. QED.

Second, how do you even calculate who is among the top one percent? No, I am not being facetious. Let me explain. When and how did LinkedIn do this measurement? When they hit 200 million members, did they, at that point, look at which members' profiles had been viewed the most, and then send out congratulatory emails to the top 1%, 2%, 5%, 10%, and so on? Or did they wait till the end of the year before doing the ranking? What was the period of measurement? Last one week? Last 30 days? The entire year - 2012 - as the email seems to suggest? If they did in fact do that, then isn't that unfair to those members who joined later in the year, and even though may have very popular profiles (i.e., lots of people viewed their profiles), they would not have made it to the "Top 1/2/5/10%" bracket simply on account of being late.

Third, I logged into LinkedIn and clicked the link that says, "Your profile has been viewed by X people in the past N days." - the text actually said, "Your profile has been viewed by 9 people in the past 3 days." Now, that works out to exactly three people per day. Not exactly impressive, isn't it? Assuming that this number is representative of the number of profile views I get, it means that on average, three people view my profile every day. That, it seems, is enough to put me in the "Top 1%" of all profiles on LinkedIn. Should I be worried that so few people take an interest in my exciting professional career? Or should LinkedIn be worried by what this means - that it has a massive percentage of members whose profiles are viewed no more than a few times in an entire year? Maybe not - LinkedIn does not make money based on how many times their members' profiles are viewed.

Fourthly, LinkedIn has not shared any useful information related to this statistic either. Wouldn't people also want to know more information about those in the top 1% or 2%? How complete a profile do these people have? On average, how many years of work experience do these members have? Are they mostly from the information technology profession? How many companies have these members worked at, on average? What are the most common job titles? And so on... This is information that LinkedIn has about its members. This and much, much more.

Lastly, what does this mean for me? And what does this mean in general? Not much, I am afraid. More people viewing my profile does absolutely nothing for me. It provides a fleeting moment of a feeling that could be approximately described as positive, but that's about it.

So why would LinkedIn send out what on the surface looks like a pretty inane statistic? Ultimately, LinkedIn has been successful in doing what it probably set out to do in the first place - generate buzz and conversation about itself, without having to spend too many advertising dollars. Their 200th million member was news, big news, yes, but one that would have faded from public and media memory fairly soon. After all, Facebook has a billion members - five times as many. By sending out these congratulatory emails, LinkedIn has tapped into a latent desire among people to feel important, for them to share news they determine to be good with others, and to experience what they determine validation by an authority, in this case LinkedIn. Also, people like lists and ranks - all the better if the list has their name on it, and the rank is their rank. Being in the 90th or 98th or 99th percentile is no mean feat, even if it cannot really be called an achievement.

Well played, LinkedIn!

And oh yes, by the by, this is my profile on LinkedIn - linkedin.com/in/abhinavagarwal - you didn't think I wasn't going to do that, was I?

कर्मण्ये वाधिका रस्ते, मा फलेषु कदाचन 
Abhinav, Bangalore, 13 Feb 2013


(c) 2013, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Hello, World

On matters relating to my line of work - business analytics, I post on my work blog. On my two hobbies - reading and photography, I have my other blog. To write about "other" things, the etcetera type of musings, I didn't want to muddy the waters of those two blogs. Ergo, this blog.


(c) 2013, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.