Monday, December 24, 2012

The Nexus - Conspiracy Theory

Significant airtime is devoted to denigrating and insulting the “Fossil Fuel” industry conspiracy. How they keep out alternative energy, don’t want a cleaner earth (they’d be happier, I suppose, if we all died of lung cancer) and influence govts (horrible people, the rest of us don’t try to). Let’s ignore the fact that barely 10% is in the control of the “evil” oil companies, the rest are government owned. Let’s include gas as part of the conspiracy, and of course, coal. Cross holding of coal and oil by private enterprise is pretty low, if at all. Coal fuels powerplants and power plants are increasingly owned by someone else, but lets assume they’re in bed together for good reasons. They must be all bad guys in a nexus, determined to destroy the planet or at the very least, screw us.

Its possible that they aren’t the only bad guys around. The leading lights of the LCD business got busted and fined last year for......rigging LCD prices! Guess how many billion devices they sold / sell? The big banks rigged the LIBOR rates that determine how much you pay as interest on loans. The stock market already sold us out. Politicians are corrupt “sell-your-soul” human being even if till the day before they were elected, they were our neighbours and we drank coffee together every evening. Soccer and cricket matches are fixed, cyclists dope their way to victory etc. Genetic scientists are turning humans into cyborgs and growing food that will turn nature into machines. And the drug companies looking to make profits by killing their clientile. Bleak world.

There are these other blokes who’ve stayed under the radar - if we used similar yardsticks. About 10% of what they produce actually goes into something useful. 90% is based on keeping “perceptions” going that reflect in high prices. Unlike any other such commodity, rising prices don’t fuel further exploration. They’re happy there’s less going around. In fact, not only them, but half the world’s govts are happy there’s less going around. So more than 90% of it sits around doing nothing, while prices are high. Meanwhile, the millions of people who’ve bought it, under the same illusion of value, are also happy. They  can hang on to their lemons and live with the cartelization of markets and pricing.

The leading light under discussion is gold. About 10% has industrial uses. Industry is happier with lower costs. 90% goes into something called “investments”. Global mining production is around 2,500 tonnes (give or take) while consumption in India alone is close to 10,000 tonnes. A lot of it is, therefore, traded or recycled gold.

Gold is produced in a handful of mines in a handful of countries by a handful of producers. Active traders of gold in the banking system are few. Its a little group that’s active. A sub-set of these guys handle platinum too.

Official Gold holdings are about 35,000 tonnes of which ⅔ rds are held by the US and EU countries plus IMF. If the market is supplied by this useless product, then prices will crash (as they should).

No one’s asking why exploration and production hasn’t increased when prices have, like they do for anything else except land. Its in the interests of all gold producers, banks and govts to keep the price high.

There are 17 listed “rare earths” - none of which compete with gold. Sure, the term rare earth isnt’ a reference to existence but meaningful availability. Like found almost everywhere - soil, air etc - but unlike that clever fiend in an Agatha Christie novel, it won’t kill you.

How come no one writes about a Gold conspiracy? Why successive generations are being misled into thinking its of some value - when it has little utility to society? Or why the govts are collaborating with the industry to keep the prices up?

Just thinking aloud!

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Dance of the Ttulu (excerpt)

(This is an excerpt of a story I've been Just wondering if I should complete it, meanwhile..what the hell..let's push it out anyway!) 

Part 1 - The Journey                              

The car rolls on in the early evening traffic. The pre-five o clock action is relatively smooth on the road and the air-conditioning is set to a perfect 21 degrees C. Perfect because it accommodates the penguin attire that Sanjay is in, the international dress code of the financial services community that he is part of. 

“…..Amit, I’m looking through the SteelPro numbers on the spreadsheet. I realize that the project note has to be circulated to the Investment Committee in 2 hours, but I have some queries…..”.

He is on the phone to a colleague he was sitting with about 20 minutes ago at their office. As Leader – Greenfield Investments, at FinExt, he has the mandatory cell phone at his ear and a sleek VAIO notebook on the tray in front of him. The sedan he’s traveling in has airline style foldable trays at the rear of the front seat. He’s read somewhere about six months ago that the heat radiating from the battery section of notebooks can create make one sterile due to frequent positioning on one’s lap. At 29, Sanjay is still single and doesn’t want to preclude offspring in his grand design of life.

Amit has put him on wait as he opens his spreadsheet at the office. This is when the music on the FM radio dominates the environment.  The jockey is in an extra excited tone while she announces…”…you can win free tickets to the designer show being held his Friday at the Palace Mall and hear live performances from Cradlesnatchers, End of Days and Pavitra’ Avail special discounts on apparel! Gangmember pyjamas for as low as Rs 4000/-…..”. Notwithstanding his high net worth status, he still hangs around with his soccer shorts at home picked up from the export reject stocks at Firang Bazaar.

“..whew! as low as Rs 4000/-…” Sanjay thinks as he instructs his driver to turn down the volume. Amit is back in his earpiece.

The car brakes sharply. A red Accent has just zigged across the lane.  It’s moved from lane 4, near the divider, across to lane 2. In large yellow print on tail of the Accent …..”F 1 – Senna rules”.  Sanjay is momentarily distracted, lets out another sigh – “Senna’s dead, pal, and you’re driving skill is heading there…” - and returns to the SteelPro conversation.  Over the next five minutes, Amit has successfully answered his queries and the note must go.

The  sedan pulls up at a red light. It’s the last hurdle before the airport turn-off and in plenty of time for the flight. That’s when he notices that the F1 sensation is pulled up alongside in Lane 2. The driver has rolled down his tinted windows and exhales smoke. The drum beat from the music system is now the background score to the 50 metre radius around the car. The driver has wraparound sunglasses and tattoos on his forearm where his black T shirt ends. The co-pilot in the car is a clone…..another turning-20 youngster, male, who is wearing wraparound sun-glasses, has tattoos on the arm visible and a cigarette dangling out of the other window. A silver caption on the driver’s door says “…do your own thing”. The F1 team is in row 6 on the grid at the light alongside Sanjay’s sedan even after it’s breathtaking slaloms through the traffic. But it doesn’t bother the dynamic duo.

The traffic light syncs with the phone ring. “Sir, would you have two minutes available (no pause here for a reply). I’d like to tell you about the new Platinum holiday package in Mauritius…..” goes the voice on the phone.  

The car pulls in to the airport. This is one of the new privatized airports in the country. All of them assure “a dynamic new experience” for the traveller. The dynamic experience presently includes two uniformed airport personnel rushing to open the car and asking if he flies “Kingfisher”.  He is and now has to defend his strolley bag, designed to hold a notebook computer, from the eager hands while he says, “ I’ll carry this one”.

He’s led to the self-service check-in counter. Another suit takes over the console to punch in flight details, while Sanjay can admire the apparatus. So much for self-service. Only in India. A manned self-service booth. Sometimes Sanjay has this sneaking suspicion that ATMs actually have a person sitting inside who’s pushing the cash through the dispensing slot and that the airconditioning units installed are meant for their survival….and of course the security guard with whom you share the luxurious cubicles with.

To the security check he marches. It’s not too long. About a dozen people. Enough time to squeeze in another phone conversation with his personal banker. He’s soon upto number three in the security sequence……when a pear shaped guy also on his phone wanders in ahead of him. He’s wearing an-off white suit with a maroon shirt  open two buttons to reveal a gold chain. Pear Shape is engrossed on his mobile…

“…… just tell him that I will take care of it and the maal can be dispatched….”.
“Gupta saab” thinks Sanjay. He’s wrong.

“Ji, main Malhotra bol rahan hoon,”, continues Pear Shape, who’s now firmly ensconced in the queue. There are now about a dozen passengers behind Sanjay, some of whom notice the queue breaker.

“Sir, could you join the queue…” Sanjay begins..

“…..arrey, I’m sorry. Please go ahead”  says Malhotra waving him in front. Malhotra has in a rapid manouver seized the initiative from Sanjay and dropped back to sequence four in the queue! Sanjay can’t help smile….

“HOW CAN YOU BREAK THE LINE SO BLATANTLY”. Woman in a  cotton sari, late 30s, notebook slung on her shoulder is just warming up. “DON’T YOU HAVE ANY CIVIC……..”
Sanjay misses the climax of this episode while he goes through security. Yet again he can’t help noticing the healthy collection of cigarette lighters next to the cop who frisks him and wonders where they end-up.

It’s another 30 minutes to the boarding call. Time to grab a bite. The snack counters are overpriced. It’s like a national cartel of snack counters. The chicken sandwich ordered is accompanied by a ketchup sachet. The kind that never opens until it spills on your shirtsleeves.  Sanjay returns the sachet and wonders if its just part of a scam since hardly anyone uses it. Probably just spongy waste inside.  He’s not far from the truth.  Research showed that only one of seventeen customers actually took the sachet. Ram Seth, head of product research, presented this finding to management with the recommendation that the sachet be withdrawn from customer offerings. The snack counter is part of a national chain with 413 outlets – “The Snack that doesn’t stay back – healthy snacking” featuring the slim backside of a youngster in the ad.  Sriram Sreenivasan, the marketing head opposes the move at the senior management meeting. His viewpoint, “We will be disappointing more than 5 customers in a 100 by this withdrawal”.  The spin kills the sin.  The sachet rules. Ram reflects on this with his team at the ritual Friday night booze up at Gerry’s Watering Hole.  At the end of round three, vodka on-the-rocks, Ram’s at blast-off. “This fucking Tamilian bastard! Just opposed the move because he hates Gujuratis!”.  The team chips in with a few of their gems. This bonding session is designed to release work stress, according to Ram at least, with an omerta code on proceedings.  Sheetal, senior researcher and only female in the team, winces. She can’t stand the language, dislikes Ram and is waiting to slap a sexual harassment charge on Ram based on this. But Ram never uses gender specific abuse.  At some point, Misra, the wiley systems nerd comes up with a numbers game with the losing team picking up the tab for the next round. Three rounds later its time to go home. 5 guys (drunk), 2 sober plus 1 girl (tipsy). Two get fined by cops on a Friday night spree on drunks when driving home. One totals his left headlight parking at his home. Misra walks home, he stays 10 minutes away with his parents. He’s doesn’t drink but loves getting the gang drunk. He’s the ninth guy on the binge.

Departure is announced and Sanjay heads for the departure gate. The security guys checks out the boarding pass, he’s trained to spot the stamp that looks like invisible ink to ordinary people.  On board, there’s a scramble for the overhead lockers. Hand luggage includes 24 inch girth suitcases that must fit into the slot. Geometry is clearly a weak subject nationally, Sanjay muses, as he settles into his window seat.  A few minutes later, the Captain gets chatty on the intercom.  Competition in aviation has promoted public speaking in a big way and everyone near a PA system always joins the party. New information provided includes that the weather at destination is 38 degrees Celsius (cheering) and that the flight will land at  630 pm (in case the passengers missed out on this) and geography lessons on cities crossed in between.  Also that the aircraft will fly at 33,000 feet. Who’s to know if the pilot is lying, it all looks a long way down after the first 10,000 feet.

In the evolution of airplane rides, a big development over the last decade has increased the workload of flight attendants. The cellphone.  The world has discovered that all “my-life-depends-on-it” matters come to roost during take-off and shortly after landing.  Live updates of Facebook in case friends and family are confronted with data starvation deaths.  

Friday, December 07, 2012

The Concentration Paradox

Its the toughest thing to do, by trying. And you don't even notice it, when you are. Concentrating. When the latter happens, you're in the zone. 

Try 60 seconds at a stretch, non-stop on anything. Its difficult. Not impossible. It also means you're trying. While you are trying, several other thoughts flash through.....strangling your boss, that new smartphone at the store, the good looking guy / lady at the coffee shop.......! 

The mind naturally  multi-plexes. Think about how the smartphone has become the next thing on the "always on" exercise of living. After your hearbeat and breathing, the phone fills in pretty  much all the gaps in the day. (Lets assume for this article, we're all rich and can afford a phone).  The term multi-tasking is better described as multi-plexing. The mind uses the vacant slots to fit in other things. 

The best visible examples of concentration around are babies of a certain age,  dogs while you hold some food in your hand meant for them. No distractions. They don't even realize its happening. 

I discovered the 60 seconds conundrum while doing some mind-training exercises. Never mind why I was doing it. I thought it was because of age, slipping mental faculties etc. Then I asked around, observed and spoke to some docs and they told me its the norm. Everyone's flighty (oooh, the marketeer's wet dream!). 

The exercises in meditation and such are attempts to train concentration, since it is hard to contrive. Meditation includes regulating breathing that has an impact on the vagal tone, which is good for well being. The vagal tone (as in vagus nerve) is an index of high / low achieved when breathing. A higher number indicates better state of being. Breathing exercises are a common part of the meditation game. I didn't make this all up, its a subject of serious study.

What if you aren't into this meditation thing? After all, you can't be with the Meditation Master (Eminem?!) all the time. How the hell do common folks manage? We aren't the "guru" types, even if unctuous reportees at work suggest it is the case.

One approach I've been experimenting with is "The Observer" state of mind. Train your mind at the task of looking at your state of mind. This entails asking yourself,  every few minutes, existential questions like:
"Why am I doing this?"
"Why am I feeling irritated?" 
"Why do I hate those orange colored trousers that idiot across the road is wearing?" (make up your own).

There's a Mind #1 - spontaneous you and the Mind #2 - The Observer.

You will rapidly realize that the focus of the mind isn't different from the stylus on the vinyl record playing on the turn table. For the younger generation, this is the "double-tap" on the new icon. The stylus skips sections very fast. Channel surfing on TV will seem like a slo-mo  compared to this. 

Can you do something about it? Sometimes, yes. Most times, no. If you could do something about it, write down your "Guru Memoirs" already and discuss your tryst with God.

I've thought about how to use it. Its really handy in managing emotional states. Let me present a scenario :

Visiting Aunt at Home

Minute 1 of monologue : "..oooh! Pras. You've grow up, and I knew you when you were still in school....."
Minute 13 of monologue : ".....and you know, you always used to tear up my favorite scarf....:

At this point, visions of gruesome torture are already flitting through your mind. Racist thoughts (she's from some community) and parochialism will abound (all people from that town are jerks..). You get the drift?

Switch the stylus to something you feel passionate about - maybe about Sachin Tendulkar retiring from the game or should Sylvester Stallone opt for character roles. The current grief vanishes and you may even smile at the visitor.

I've found the jumping stylus is an effective way of handling strong feelings - especially negative ones. The mind will readily accept a new thought to compete with old one, and given enough competition the now 1/10th market share of the negative feeling has a low impact. You might even feel cheerful. 

On the other hand, the same negative feeling thing can help Concentration. Its the reason why we get on a roll so easily when feeling lousy. We can focus totally on being depressing, nasty, evil etc. Now if we channeled this to the work at hand, it can be a winning formula. Think of Silva in "Skyfall". Pure hatred and anger can help build concentration on an activity. Of course, you could loose track of the larger picture. Its what allows Bond to sneak the knife in his back, a cool headed Silva would have remembered he'd have done the same. 

Try it. It might work. If it doesn't then think about how you'll torture me for this advice. It'll take your mind of yet another of your failures...(oops, I didn't mean to be so nasty!). 

The Concentration Paradox.