Saturday, December 10, 2011

Not So Great?

His central message, which has remained the same through global booms and recessions, is admirably humdrum. He seeks to describe, in detail, how great bosses run their companies. After decades of minute observation, he concludes that hard work and perseverance matter more than genius. His heroes are self-effacing company men who spend years patiently building their organisations, rather than self-promoting egomaniacs who leap from fad to fad and firm to firm. In essence, Mr Collins is repackaging the universal message of self-help literature. Everybody can be successful, he argues, so long as they stick to a set of demanding but not impossible rules. For most company men and women, few of whom are geniuses, this is heartening news.

Schumpeter: Built to last | The Economist

Yet it seems the argument is not so convincing..

Mr Collins’s love of vanilla virtues is as refreshing as a bowl of ice
cream. Other gurus who encourage companies to tear themselves apart in
the name of “transformation” have caused terrible harm. Few companies
have suffered much from trying to be more methodical. Yet it is hard to
read Mr Collins’s latest work without feeling doubts. Are his
conclusions as reliable as he implies? Some of the companies that he has
celebrated over the years—Hewlett Packard and Motorola in “Built to
Last” and Circuit City and Fannie Mae in “Good to Great”—have fallen
from grace. Circuit City, an electronics retailer, went bust. Fannie
Mae, a mortgage giant backed by the American government, is worse than
bust, having burned up tens of billions of dollars of taxpayers’ cash.
Mr Collins is allergic to egomaniacs, but how else can you describe the
late Steve Jobs, perhaps the most successful businessman of his era?


Friday, November 18, 2011

Religion and Economics

AS PROTESTANT Europe, in its own eyes virtuous and thrifty, wrestles with the debt problems of the continent’s Catholic and Orthodox countries, the idea that religious affiliation may influence the way people save, work and spend is more appealing than ever. The toppling of Arab tyrants has lent urgency to a similar enquiry: do Islam and Islamism permit the legal and social conditions that make for prosperity?

Religion and economics: Holy relevance | The Economist

 

Does religion have influence on Economics? Probably less than it seems.

Contemplating Greece’s economic woes, it is easy to dream up some theory that connects Orthodox Christianity (and its comparatively charitable attitude to human weakness) with corruption or cronyism. Orthodoxy has a less pessimistic view of “original sin” than the Christian West—and its prayers for the dead emphasise “no man lives who does not sin”. Does that imply winking at misdeeds? Possibly—but then try explaining why Greek-Americans, who are at least as devout as their motherland kin, do so very well in business, education and public service. The plausible reason lies in America’s institutions which make it easier to prosper in an honest way.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Farewell Andy Rooney

"I try to look nice. I comb my hair, I tie my tie, I put on a jacket, but I draw the line when it comes to trimming my eyebrows. You work with what you got." -- from an essay on his eyebrows, Nov. 24, 1996

"We need people who can actually do things. We have too many bosses and too few workers. More college graduates ought to become plumbers or electricians, then go home at night and read Shakespeare." -- from an essay on finding a good job, March 21, 2010

"We didn't shock them, and we didn't awe them in Baghdad. The phrase makes us look like foolish braggarts. The president ought to fire whoever wrote that for him." -- on the start of the war in Iraq in 2003

Great lines from "60 Minutes" commentator Andy Rooney - CNN.com

Great lines from Andy Rooney the commentator on CBS's show 60 Minutes. He passed away ages 92.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Energy Miracle

At the influential TED conference last year, Bill Gates declared that if he were allowed one wish to improve humanity’s lot over the next 50 years, he would choose an “energy miracle”: a new technology that produced energy at half the price of coal with no carbon dioxide emissions. He explained that he’d rather have this wish than a new vaccine or medicine or even choose the next several American presidents. To help understand the reasoning behind Gates’s thinking, one should read Daniel Yergin’s intelligent new opus, “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World.”

The Quest — By Daniel Yergin — Book Review - NYTimes.com

Even though the abundance of fossil fuels is finite, it will continue to be available in the foreseeable future. However other risks of fossil fuels remain.
Unless we shift our ways. Burning fossil fuels has a cost — perhaps an
unbearable one. We now have a mountain of evidence that the 30 billion
tons of carbon dioxide that humans pump into the atmosphere every year
are changing the earth’s climate in ways that will have negative effects
for most people.
And currently the alternative energy sources do not fit the bill. Solar, wind, even nuclear all have their issues. The need for new technology in energy is at the forefront like never before.
The reason Bill Gates wishes for a technology that creates energy at
half the price of coal with no carbon dioxide emissions is that he wants
a technology so compelling that it is adopted by poor countries as well
as rich ones. Coal is plentiful worldwide, and unless the new
technology is much cheaper, China and India will never adopt it. And if
these two countries — which together are building four coal-fired power
plants a week — don’t get off coal, nothing that happens in the West
matters, since the levels of carbon dioxide they will pump into the
atmosphere will be well above the danger mark. Half the price of coal
and no carbon: That’s a tall order, which is why Gates is looking for a
miracle. But what he means is a technological miracle of the kind that
happens from time to time. The steam engine, the automobile, the
computer, the Internet are all miracles. We need something on that order
in energy — and fast.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

East and West

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

If It Feels Right - NYTimes.com

While the author laments the disappearance of the group as a moral unit in favor of individualism in the West, there still too much of it in the East. While the individual freedom prevails in the West, this same freedom is curtailed in the East. Neither condition is ideal. A happy middle of personal freedom and morality will hopefully emerge one day East or West.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

French Revolution

With Dominique Strauss-Kahn out of the running there is just one French Socialist primary candidate who understands all this. Manuel Valls, a deputy and mayor with a refreshingly modern view of the left, says Socialists are not being straight by promising retirement at 60. He dares utter such truths as “we need to tell the French that the [budgetary] effort…will be as great as that achieved after Liberation”. Alas, the 49-year-old Mr Valls is considered too young to be a serious contender. The day the paleo-Socialists of the Mitterrand generation allow such figures to emerge would be the dawn of a real revolution.

Charlemagne: Among the dinosaurs | The Economist

Will France catch up with the revolutionary spirit that is taking place in different parts of the world?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Buy Signal?

The recent gyrations in global stock markets are just the beginning, says U.S.-based economist and author Harry Dent, who believes the Dow will fall below 10,000 in the near term before crashing to around 3,000 in 2013.

Dow Could Crash to 3,000 in 2013: Author - CNBC

Remember the book Dow 40,000? When published in 1999 perhaps it was an early sell signal and a predictor of the Dot Com crash that followed. As the height of optimism indicates a downturn, the trough of pessimism could be a buy signal! As the saying goes sell when they yell and buy when they cry. Dow 3,000: they are crying already!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Reversal of Furtunes

He returned to Apple as an adviser in 1996, when the firm was in dire straits. A year later he was made interim chief executive. Asked at the time what he thought Mr Jobs should do with Apple, Michael Dell, a rival computer-maker, helpfully suggested that he should shut it down.
Mr Jobs ignored that advice. Instead he led the company on to its greatest triumphs.

Steve Jobs resigns: The minister of magic steps down | The Economist

Interesting case of reversal of fortunes. At the time Apple was in trouble, Dell was dominant.. Now it is the other way around. Could things turn around yet again?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Aid from India

EVERY so often something comes along which shows that almost everything you know about a subject is wrong. Such a development is happening in the world of foreign aid. It is a proposal by India to set up its own aid agency to distribute $11 billion over the next five to seven years. That’s aid from India.

Official development assistance: Aid 2.0 | The Economist

This could very well extend to employment.. Soon enough we will be working for Indian enterprises.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Apple on a Dip

“You could make the case that Steve has injected so much of his DNA into Apple that Apple will continue,” said Guy Kawasaki, who was an Apple executive in the late 1980s. “Or you can make the case that without Steve, Apple will flounder. But you cannot make the case that Apple without Steve Jobs will be better. Hard to conceive of that.”

Jobs Stepping Down as Chief Executive of Apple - NYTimes.com

I would like to think that people move on but institutions keep going. To keep going as strong as it has been in the past is probably beyond any single person or institution. Yesterday it was Microsoft. Today it is Apple, Google and Facebook. No one knows who will be in the lead tomorrow. However, for the time being I would consider buying Apple on a dip.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Start Up or Start Over

This is precisely why LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Garrett Hoffman, one of the premier starter-uppers in Silicon Valley — besides co-founding LinkedIn, he is on the board of Zynga, was an early investor in Facebook and sits on the board of Mozilla — has a book coming out after New Year called “The Start-Up of You,” co-authored with Ben Casnocha. Its subtitle could easily be: “Hey, recent graduates! Hey, 35-year-old midcareer professional! Here’s how you build your career today.”

Hoffman argues that professionals need an entirely new mind-set and skill set to compete. “The old paradigm of climb up a stable career ladder is dead and gone,” he said to me. “No career is a sure thing anymore. The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions in which entrepreneurs start companies is what it’s now like for all of us fashioning a career. Therefore you should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business.”

The Start-Up of You - NYTimes.com

Sound advice to start up or start over!

Eastern Europe vs Arab World

Unlike eastern Europe, all Arab countries (those with oil wealth and those without) have capitalist economies, in which prices and private enterprise play a big role. Yet it is a distorted, patriarchal capitalism, characterised by a dominant state, kleptocratic monopolies, heavy regulation and massive subsidies. This has fuelled corruption, stunted growth and left millions without jobs. High oil prices give petro-economies the wherewithal to counter discontent by dispensing largesse. Those without such wealth face a growing fiscal mess.

The economics of the Arab spring: Open for business? | The Economist

A good interpretation of the Arab Spring and the economic impact compared with eastern Europe example after communism.

So the Middle East’s economic transition could be a lot bumpier than
that of eastern Europe (which was itself a pretty rough ride at times).
The West’s strategy for assistance must change accordingly. Up to now
the focus has been on financial help: America has offered debt relief to
Egypt, the IMF has lent cash with few strings attached. That buys time
but does not promote reform. In future, aid should become more
conditional, aimed at helping private enterprise. And far more important
than cash will be the West’s willingness to offer freer trade and real
integration to the successful reformers and democratisers. Maybe not EU
membership, but something close.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

The $300 House

Last year Vijay Govindarajan, of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, along with Christian Sarkar, a marketing expert, issued a challenge in a Harvard Business Review blog: why not apply the world’s best business thinking to housing the poor? Why not replace the shacks that blight the lives of so many poor people, thrown together out of cardboard and mud, and prone to collapsing or catching fire, with more durable structures? They laid down a few simple guidelines. The houses should be built of mass-produced materials tough enough to protect their inhabitants from a hostile world. They should be equipped with the basics of civilised life, including water filters and solar panels. They should be “improvable”, so that families can adapt them to their needs. And they should cost no more than $300.

Schumpeter: A $300 idea that is priceless | The Economist

Now add three zeros to that figure for a minimum land in Kuwait!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Smile

Martin Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, would approve. He has uncovered various structured ways of perking people up, all of them, he insists on the very first page of his new book, “grounded in careful science”. Much of this book consists of the results of various complex tests and interventions designed to reduce depression and anxiety and increase resilience and self-discipline. Writing a “what-went-well-today-and-why” diary for a week, for example, tends to lower depression levels for as much as six months, he claims.

The study of well-being: Strength in a smile | The Economist

Interesting enough, I tried this approach of making a mental note of at least one thing that went well during my day. It helps. Even when things are not exactly going your way, it makes you focus on at least something that went well. And there will always be one. From there you will notice there is more of a positive mental energy inside of you. This can take you a long way -six months or more!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Five Habits of Effective CEOs

These aren’t theories. They come from decades of collective experience of top executives who have learned firsthand what it takes to succeed. From the corner office, they can watch others attempt a similar climb and notice the qualities that set people apart. These C.E.O.’s offered myriad lessons and insights on the art of managing and leading, but they all shared five qualities: Passionate curiosity. Battle-hardened confidence. Team smarts. A simple mind-set. Fearlessness.

Corner Office - The 5 Habits of Highly Effective C.E.O.’s - NYTimes.com

Very interesting article. I suggest reading the full text.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mercenary

The Colombians had entered the United Arab Emirates posing as construction workers. In fact, they were soldiers for a secret American-led mercenary army being built by Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater Worldwide, with $529 million from the oil-soaked sheikdom.

Blackwater Founder Forms Secret Army for Arab State - NYTimes.com

It seems Libya is not the only place where mercenary army exists. Perhaps a lesson should be drawn from Libya that legitimacy comes before power. Once legitimacy is lost, power will not get you far. Rulers should reinforce their legitimacy through more open and democratic systems rather than revert to power and suppression. Most Gulf countries enjoy goodwill between rulers and citizens. It would be a shame if this is wasted rather than developed. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Plan A

On these trips he would have a vague plan A, a goal in view, for he had learned to appreciate planning during a wartime spell in the navy; but plans B and C might be good, too. Like Tristram Shandy, he preferred the apparently random and open-minded route. His scientific method was to gather huge amounts of data, with exuberant curiosity, in order to let some discovery surprise him. “Goal-oriented” institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health, found it hard to work with him, and he with them, but he would cheerfully decamp to freer places, such as the Institute for Cancer Research, which let him roam until relevance emerged from his roamings. “Expect the unexpected” was his motto—after Heraclitus, who said you could never step into the same river twice.

Barry Blumberg | The Economist

The late Barry Blumberg is the Nobel prize winner who came up with a vaccine for hepatitis B. His obituary describes his life journey and love for exploration that doesn't always lead to the desired goal, that's when plan B and C can turn surprisingly good!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Kuwait Government Can Learn from Warren Buffett

Unlike Jeffrey R. Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, who spends much of his time on airplanes traveling the world to visit the company's 287,000 employees and oversees a giant campus and management team in Fairfield, Connecticut, Mr. Buffett ``manages'' Berkshire's 257,000 employees with just 21 people at his headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska.

NEWS ANALYSIS Dissecting Buffett's management ethos

Interesting what you can do and how much you can manage with 21 effective employees.. Compare this with the army of government employees in Kuwait!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Our Renaissance and Enlightenment

I am a brain child of two major turns of history, mainly european history but
those turns had a major bearing on the world history: the Renaissance and the
Enlightenment.

The Renaissance is essentially an italian story,
starting in the XVth century (the quatrocento), soon developing in the
Netherlands and finally over most of Europe (France was late, when it started we
were just finishing the one hundred year war against England and later we were
busy fighting each other in a civil war between catholics and
protestants)

The Enlightenment is essentially a french story,
starting in the XVIIIth century (le Siècle des Lumières) which developed over
most of Europe, initially in a peaceful and progressive way until the french
revolution (1789-1799) and Napoléon Bonaparte's rules (1799-1815) gave this
development a sudden and dramatic acceleration. 


In both cases, but more radically with the Enlightenment, the idea was to
question what as been proclaimed as THE truth by the king and the pope acting
jointly. Suddenly, the society decided that men (and women, after a while) were
able to think by themselves, to form judgments and draw conclusions.
The
Renaissance liberated the arts and still to this days, we are amazed at the
creativity and freedom the arts of the Renaissance produced in an unthinkable
renewal after centuries of only religious art (also called sacred art). It was
also the time Luther and others challenged the authority of the clerical
hierarchy on the church and the faithful. 
The Enlightenment went further in
depending entirely on the ability of human beings to think by themselves. Thus,
there was no need anymore for "TRUTH" to come from the top, whether the sky
(God) or any other higher authority. The king was renamed the first civil
servant of the kingdom. A monarchy could still be acceptable provided it is a
constitutional monarchy (the english monarchy was seen as the model of the type)
but republic was even more trendy after the establishment of the american
republic.


My good friend Jacques on two important periods of world history that shaped the Western World. Will we have our own renaissance and enlightenment? It seems, judging from the events in the Middle East, we are finally heading in the right direction. It is too early to say though.. if those events will lead to an enlightened society or further dark age.. will it get better or would it have to get worse before it gets better?!









Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Historical Perspective

Segregation was the civil war’s long tail. In 1963, two years after the mock inauguration of Jefferson Davis, George Wallace, Alabama’s governor, stood on those same capitol steps and declared that “from this cradle of the Confederacy, this very heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland…I say segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever.” Segregation was so unjust that it is easy to see it as inevitably doomed. It was not. It took blood and struggle to end it. But ended it was, and two decades later Wallace himself, the face of segregation, apologised for his words.

The civil war: Finally passing | The Economist

This resonates with what is going on the Middle East currently. As people are waking up and demanding their rights for freedom and democracy, we are beginning to wonder how it seemed acceptable all this time for dictatorships to exist and be considered normal in our part of the world!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bye Bye Therapy

A typical course of a modern talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, consists of 12-16 hour-long sessions and is a reasonably efficient way of treating conditions like depression and anxiety (hysteria is no longer a recognised diagnosis). Medication, too, can bring rapid change. Nevertheless, treating disorders of the psyche is still a hit-and-miss affair, and not everyone wishes to bare his soul or take mind-altering drugs to deal with his problems. A new kind of treatment may, though, mean he does not have to. Cognitive-bias modification (CBM) appears to be effective after only a few 15-minute sessions, and involves neither drugs nor the discussion of feelings. It does not even need a therapist. All it requires is sitting in front of a computer and using a program that subtly alters harmful thought patterns.

Psychiatry: Therapist-free therapy | The Economist

New computer based psychotherapy that could prove very helpful. Especially in this part of the world where psychotherapy is still frowned upon. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

King's Speech

I got a chance to watch this wonderful and inspiring movie that deservedly won Oscar awards. The acting was impeccable. The message that came through the stuttering, and in spite of the stuttering, was loud and clear.

A King was facing external battles, in the form of Hitler's Germany lurking by as well as difficult succession of a passing King, and internal ones, lack of belief and an ensuing stutter. Through persistence and humility of a helping soul the difficulty was overcome to unleash greatness.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Bling-Bling History

He first trotted out the notion of a Maison de l’Histoire a few years ago while concocting a ministry for immigration and national identity. The president described both undertakings as responses to the country’s dwindling morale. His culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, chimed in, promising that the history museum would illuminate France’s “soul,” whatever that meant. Henri Guaino, the president’s speechwriter on matters of national identity and an important player in proposing the museum, went further, envisioning the Maison as a solution to the nation’s “identity crisis.”

Sarkozy’s History Museum Plan in Paris Stirs Controversy - NYTimes.com

I had a very interesting conversation with my dear friend Jacques about the French identity recently. What triggered the conversation was the way France dealt with hijab by prohibiting it to preserve the French identity. I clarified to Jacques my disagreement to this approach of preserving national identity by enforcing a single identity. I explained my admiration of the US model of multiculturalism.

Jacques explained to me where this approach has come from. Since the French society has been historically factious, there has been much emphasis on unity and centralization. It seems Sarkozy is now jumping on the national identity crisis wagon! (despite his multicultural background!) I wonder if his motivation is real or political..

Friday, March 04, 2011

Dignity, Not Just Bread

In Saudi Arabia itself, last week, seven men were thrown in jail for establishing a political party. This week King Abdullah, who is 86, returned to the country after lengthy medical treatment overseas. He offered $37 billion in new public spending to stave off unrest. Civil servants will get a pay rise; unemployed students will get grants; more housing is to be built. But as Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, has observed, Arab protesters are seeking dignity, not just bread. Saudis have been offered no more say in the way they are governed.

The nervous Gulf: Bullets and bribes | The Economist

The rich Gulf is not isolated from the events going on in the region. Even though the events were sparked by hunger and dismal living standards, peoples' aspirations go beyond their stomach and comfort. People aspire to be dignified human beings with rights and responsibilities towards their countries. In other words: citizens not just inhabitants.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Gorbachev Says..

For too long, conventional political thinking about the Arab world was based on a false dichotomy: authoritarian regimes or fundamentalism, extremism, terrorism. The leaders of those regimes also seemed to believe in their roles as guardians of stability. Behind the façade, however, severe social and economic problems kept mounting. Stagnating economies, pervasive corruption, the widening chasm between rich and poor, and a life of frustration for millions of young people fueled social unrest.

Egypt's Agonizing Choice - NYTimes.com

Just as everywhere else, the only way forward in the Arab world, with
its tortuous history, unique culture and numerous risks and dangers, is
toward democracy, with the understanding that the path is difficult and
that democracy is not a magic wand.

It would be a mistake to see Islam as a destructive force. The history
of Islamic culture includes periods when it was a leader in the
development of world civilization. Its contributions to science,
education and literature cannot be disputed. Islamic doctrines strongly
advocate social justice and peace. An Islam that emphasizes those values
can have great potential.


One needs to muster courage for real change, because power without
accountability cannot last. This is what hundreds of thousands of
Egyptian citizens, whose faces we’ve seen on television, stated loud and
clear.


Looking at those faces, one wants to believe that Egypt’s democratic
transition will succeed. That would be a good example, one the entire
world needs.





Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rented Countries

I spent part of the morning in the square watching and photographing a group of young Egyptian students wearing plastic gloves taking garbage in both hands and neatly scooping it into black plastic bags to keep the area clean. This touched me in particular because more than once in this column I have quoted the aphorism that “in the history of the world no one has ever washed a rented car.” I used it to make the point that no one has ever washed a rented country either — and for the last century Arabs have just been renting their countries from kings, dictators and colonial powers. So, they had no desire to wash them.

Out of Touch, Out of Time - NYTimes.com

This reminds me of the time when Kuwait was under occupation by the Iraqis. All Kuwaitis volunteered to serve their country. There was the barber, the street cleaner.. etc. When Kuwait was liberated, the youth fell back to their comfort. Adversity made people cling to their country and gave them a sense of ownership when the enemy was trying to take it away from them. Once this adversity vanished we returned to renting the land.

The events in Egypt and Tunisia before that, and God knows who is next, are once in a lifetime monumental events. The people have awakened and asserted their ownership of the land! May this spirit spread to every repressed corner of this universe be it a country or otherwise..

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Mental Fitness

Whether it is by learning a new language, traveling to a new place, developing a passion for beekeeping or simply thinking about an old problem in a new way, all of us can find ways to stimulate our brains to grow, in the coming year and those to follow. Just as physical activity is essential to maintaining a healthy body, challenging one’s brain, keeping it active, engaged, flexible and playful, is not only fun. It is essential to cognitive fitness.

Don’t leave learning to the young. Older brains can grow, too. - NYTimes.com

Often New Year's resolutions are the subject of physical fitness (i.e. losing weight). Perhaps we should consider taking on mental fitness, as there is much to gain!