Saturday, December 10, 2016

Atlas smirked

Just finished Atlas Shrugged. I have to admit I am confused by Ayn Rand and the hype her works beget. Don't get me wrong, rationality and laissez-faire capitalism appeal to me but I do find her narratives rather contrived and decidedly odd.

Despite its didactic tone and lack of fiction, I felt Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom" enriched me more than "Atlas Shrugged". I felt "Serfdom" conveyed the intimate link between economic freedom and liberty far better than "Atlas": self-determination of one's financial choices is a necessary pre-requisite to any and all other freedoms; freedom of speech, freedom to pursue ones ambitions and dreams, political freedom and, ultimately, free will, share the fate of financial freedom; take one and the others follow. I believe Rand's motivation is to present this same thesis in more comprehensible and intuitive narratives.

I believe Rand struggles to convey this in both "Atlas Shrugged" and "Fountainhead". Both works describe protagonists and antagonists who are equally featureless, amorphous and, ultimately, unbelievable. The denouement in both works involve lengthy, monotonous, repetitive tirades by the protagonists; Roark rambles in court during his trial, while Galt drones mercilessly for pages. Both novels also attempt to show strong women but end up almost glorifying sexual assault e.g. when Roark follows Dominique from the quarry.

Even if one were to blame Rand's milieu for the disservice to female characters, the parables fail to suspend disbelief and distract from the core message. The Fountainhead, for example, constructs a society inexorably hurtling into the abyss of coercive governmental altruism. In this context, Roark and Dominique represent a dwindling minority of individuals fighting for their personal freedoms. And yet, the court and jury in Roark's trial, populated with individuals from this same universe and who most likely subscribe to the disfavored altruistic ideology, are swayed by Roark's inconceivably long "since the beginning of time" testimony. This incongruity essentially places the court and the jurors outside the putative social construct, to the extent that the jury nullification exonerates Roark for vandalism and destruction of property. Not only does this seem highly unlikely, it also violates Rand's notions of capitalistic ownership. Even if Roark owned his initial designs, he owned neither the land, the raw materials, nor the final chimerical building. So in demolishing the building, Roark essentially usurped and destroyed another's property. How is this not anathema to Rand's essential capitalistic, "unfettered ownership", message? How does the jury fault the government for misappropriating Roark's designs and yet excuse Roark for destroying government's property?

Meanwhile, Atlas Shrugged creates a sci-fi world tormented by a totalitarian government which overtakes hardworking businesses in the name of the common good. The "Atlas" government connives to use its legislative power, foments public opinion to blackmail, and uses coercive policing to achieve its endeavors, motivating all the capitalists, including intellectual capitalists such as those trained in the Dark Arts of science, technology, engineering, math, art, music, cigarette rolling, fossil fuel extraction, banking, etc. so basically people who like to make things in exchange for fair wages for their efforts, to up and leave in protest. This capital flight causes "Who is John Galt?" to enter the vernacular of the hapless and feckless masses as an expression of futility paralleling perhaps "God knows" or "Who knows" or "Who cares" (and the like) from our real-world.

The individuals who thus decamp the carcass of the increasingly communist United States of America congregate in a secret valley in the Rocky Mountains. This "Hidden Valley" is an allegorical microcosm of the erstwhile laissez-faire United States of America. The residents of "Hidden Valley" shun contact with the external world and instead trade amongst themselves goods and services wrought from their superlative capital, be it monetary, physical, or intellectual, by means of a gold-backed legal "dollar"; there is no reserve bank, but the initial market and coinage was apparently bankrolled by a certain banking magnate named Magnus Midas.

The Valley is protected from prying eyes by a science-fictional vision field akin to the one from the latest edition of "Star Trek: (Bed, Bath and) Beyond". The whole commune, including the "Cloak of Invisibility", is powered by a perpetual motion machine housed in a fully autonomous power plant. The power plant is protected by a speaker-agnostic natural language processing voice sentry system.  The passphrase to unlock said hi-tech theft deterrent is inscribed in bold capital letters above the door. All these technologies and the commune itself were created by a brilliant engineer, the aforementioned John Galt, with funding from Midas. It's not clear if the commune is owned by a corporate structure or what the terms of agreement between Galt and Midas are. It's also left unspecified if the entire valley is owned by the founding members and its inhabitants as a limited partnership. The readers are also spared from the basic politico-socio-economic construct of utopia: it is unknown if the newcomers are forced to rent from Midas-Galt or are assigned habitats or what the general laws governing land titles and deeds and life in general are.

The reader is steered clear of any tangible alternatives to the impugned socio-economic constructs of the "outside" world. Instead, the story (mainly) revolves around three super-human industrialists endowed with pulchritude, gumption and wealth, Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart, Francisco D'anconia, and their mustached self-deluding nemesis, James Taggart.

Hank Rearden is a self made steel magnate who is beset in his domestic life by moochers in the form of a dainty socialite wife, a resentful mother and a lout of brother. Rearden's family is happy to denigrate his dedication to his business and consequent fortune, and yet is given to emotionally blackmailing him into providing comforts borne by the same. His greatest accomplishments include a science-fictional green steel-alloy "Rearden Steel" and an extramarital affair with Dagny Taggart.

Danny Taggart, the train loving scion of the Taggart dynasty, serves as the sole sensible executive of the railroad behemoth Taggart Transcontinental. In addition to experiencing teenage sex with fellow industrial heir, Francisco D'anconia, Dagny labors to restructure and turnaround her eponymous family business. In this endeavor, she is often frustrated by her misguidedly altruistic brother, James Taggart. Her attempts to revive the company hinge on laying new tracks with Green Steel and improving the company's bottom line by reducing the cost of transportation while fairly competing with the rest of the increasingly regulated train industry. She's also romantically involved with the aforementioned Hank, Francisco, and John.

Francisco D'anconia is an apparent paragon of physical and mental perfection who realizes the error of the world's ways after (or around the time of) having teenage sex with Dagny. He then promptly disappears for a large section of the book to mysteriously appear in unexpected situations, including as an anonymous but highly skilled steel worker helping Hank Rearden fight a molten steel leak in Rearden's mill. It is not clear if Francisco is a founding member of the valley or holds a pecuniary stake in its financing structure given his large patrimony.

James Taggart in addition to being the president of Taggart Transcontinental serves to highlight the errors of self negation and altruism: he marries a department store salesgirl to demonstrate his humility leading her to eventually commit suicide. He also attempts to work with the government to create a legislated and regulated transportation monopoly which is supported in part by public funds. His personal and financial abnegations are contrasted against the laissez-faire sexual competition and business actions of his adversaries.

In the process of plumbing the depths of despair and ruin inflicted on society by a coterie of legislative altruists and communists, the reader experiences the struggle of the industrialists as they lose their companies and a portion of their souls to the soulless socialists. Science and media are perverted to spread destruction and canards as companies are taken over by nebulous and nefarious "worker's unions".

The narrative climax sees John Galt captured by James Taggart and his cohorts. The malcontents proceed to torture Galt using a electrical contraption fashioned from science purloined and perverted by their unholy nexus. When the machine breaks down in the midst of torture, John offers technical support to his non-technical persecutors from the torture bed. This causes massive cognitive dissonance, not just in the minds of the reader but also the tormentors, leading to the villians' nervous breakdown. This event is also coincident with the advent of a rescue team formed by the aforementioned industrialists now transformed into gun toting action figures. It is left to imagination if Dagny wore heels or a bracelet fashioned from "Green Steel" on this excursion.

The sheer incredibleness of the plot, the implausibility of characters and the impossibility of critical story constructs distract from the central message that free will and free economics are inextricably intertwined. Rand repeatedly expounds that contradictions "do not exist in nature", yet they apparently proliferate in her work.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Lather, Rinse, Respawn

Just saw "Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow" starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. I'm a sci-fi buff and if its got aliens and explosions (and isn't something made by Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tony Scott, McG or others on my no-watch-list), then I'm most likely watching it. So the fact that this was about  time-travel and had humans battling aliens in a War of the Worlds slug-fest had me ponying up the required time to watch this. Plus there was Emily Blunt. 

So how would I rate the movie? Entertaining. 

Does the plot make perfect sense? No. 

Is it enjoyable? Yep. 

Are there interesting bits about it? Sure. 

Are there niggles? Aplenty. 

Would I recommend others to watch this movie? 
Given the plot-less insipid pabulum that we are often subject to, to me, this one's refreshingly different. So yes, I would recommend watching this. If you like aliens, time-travel and humans-in-exoskeletons battling off-world monstrosities for the future of humanity.

SPOILER ALERT: PLOT DETAILS BELOW. STOP READING IF YOU WANT TO NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS (or if you're bored by this blog).

The story revolves around Major Cage, an American soldier played by Tom Cruise. Major Cage is the face of the united earth's resistance against the invading aliens. He's the one the military junta uses to drum up support for their ultimate offensive plan against the invading aliens. He's the one promoting the "solution" to human volunteers, to raise a million human army against the entrenched aliens. 

What's the "solution", you ask? A mechanized exoskeleton. Others may recognize this as the Mecca of the Japanese humanoid robot anime genre, a.k.a the "Mecha": a suit that fits around one human and gives them strength and ability to take a few hits, but requires actuation using the actual limbs of the "pilot". American movie goers saw a version of this beast in the third part of the Matrix trilogy, "Matrix: Revolutions" (Yes, there was a third part to the Matrix. No, I'm not taking that back. It happened). 

And who are the aliens? They can only be best described as super-fast dog-octopuses that prefer subterranean ambushes. The do seem to posses some projectile plasma-like weapons, but their main attack mode is a close-in puncture wound with one of their several tentacles. They bear a fleeting resemblances to the "squids" aka "Sentinels" seen in the  Matrix Trilogy. Just so we're clear, I mean "fleeting" literally because they seem to move so fast you barely can focus on them.

Major Cage is not a combat seeking die-hard. On the contrary, he's a self-admitted media personality with an intense desire to avoid any action whatsoever. Through an odd series of events and machinations, he winds up being compelled, literally, to take arms against the invading aliens.

He gets killed in the first 5 minutes of landing on the beach-head. And each time he dies, he gets to relive that same experience over and over again. This should ring a bell: think Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day.

If you think the resemblance is uncanny, consider that Tom Cruise's character is name Major *Bill* Cage.

And just like Bill Murray's character, Major Cage remembers each time he respawns and gets better and better at surviving a little longer. He eventually uses this to save the planet, kill the aliens, end the cycle and get the girl. Yay, six more weeks of winter! Go Punxsutawney Phil!

Given that I've seen this before, why then do I still call it entertaining? Because it's got:
a) aliens fighting against humans for the planet
b) time-travel
c) action
d) Emily Blunt
BUT, equally more importantly, this movie is so "Meta". 

What's with Emily Blunt you say? You ask because there's no mention of her in the foregoing plot-description, correct? Well, she's the bad-ass female warrior, nicknamed "Full metal bitch" in the movie, who's going to help save the planet. And she looks pretty great-ass in her jumpsuit. Reminds one of Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Entrapment", though without the obvious focus on derrière.

What's "Meta"? 

A lot of things, which is what made me appreciate the movie. 

The name of the movie alludes to "Lather, Rinse, Repeat" or the constant reuse or recycling of things. Which given the plot, is very apposite. The meta part is that this plot is being recycled too, think Groundhog Day, War of the Worlds, The Matrix (humans against machines), and several such. 

The meta-recycling goes a level deeper: the aliens have essentially conquered Europe. They came on an asteroid that hit Germany first and they then conquered pretty much the rest of Europe. England is next in line, but survived thus far because of the natural separation offered by the English Sea. The United Defense Front is lead by the British and involves American troops and involves an attach starting in France. Does this sound familiar? The part about the evil emanating from Germany, the US helping the UK launch an offensive against a hostile Europe from French coast should. It's reminiscent of the D-Day, aka Battle of Normandy aka Operation Overlord during the Second World War. It marked the first united response to Nazi Germany and involved an amphibious response.

They also mention the Battle of Verdun, which has its own interesting history! In 1916, during the First World War, the Germans fought against the French for nearly a year and lost.

The dings I have against the movie are some obvious Hollywood Sci-Fi assumptions it makes about "tapping in" to a "network", advanced civilizations' network security be damned (I'm excusing the whole time-warp / broken arrow of time premise because that's what the movie is about), obvious questions one could ask. I've always found the Hollywood penchant for romantic scenes in the midst of peril, while destruction is merely seconds and a couple feet away, head-scratchingly odd. But I guess the audiences respond to it?

But all in all, it made for an entertaining take on Ground Hog Day. Have watched again.






Monday, October 14, 2013

The Bell Curve

Looks like the universe is speaking to me.

I was reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's tirade against the Bell Curve earlier today. Then as it often happens to me, while reading about something completely unrelated, I wound up on the web. One thing lead to another, and I was reading an article on the New York Times. Don't ask me how.

The article read more an ad hominem onslaught than journalism directed against the social scientist (or Klan member, depending on how you view him) Charles Murray. Apparently, he wrote a book called the "Bell Curve" that allegedly imputes the struggles of a significant section of society (particularly, low-income blacks and other non-white races) to bad genes. No kidding.

Actually, the argument isn't as direct: his assertion is that poor standing in life of a certain section of the population can be chalked up to an inherent lack of intelligence, as measured by IQ, which is, in turn, is engendered due to genetically non-intelligent (inferior) parents. He argues that the less intelligent don't make as much money, and consequently can only attract and mate with other less-intelligent partners, while the more intelligent interbreed with other geniuses to produce the Ubermensch. The brainy (rich) get brainier (richer), while the have-nots (non-brainy / non-rich) get more so (non-brainy / poorer).

The racial link brought to mind a certain ruthlessly funny and pointedly poignant African American comedian (philosopher?) by the name of Walter Kamau Bell whose program "the Walter Kamau Bell Curve" aims to "End Racism in about an Hour".

Kudos W. Kamu Bell, I now understand (or at least pretend to understand) why you chose to name your show "the Walter Kamau Bell Curve". Kudos.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Six degrees of separation from Bernard Madoff

Just to be clear, I'm in no way shape or form related to or anything that Bernard Madoff perpetrated. He Made-off with peoples' money. I do nothing of the sort. at all. ever.

I was researching First Solar Inc (FSLR) for a class project. I noticed something very weird: FSLR paid USD 54 million in TAXES on NET LOSS of USD 96MM. This simply boggled my mind: typically, companies making losses don't pay tax (because they didn't have any INCOME). Actually most companies can extend their losses to reduce their net income (and consequently taxes paid) to future years! in some cases, they can also extend them backwards to claw back taxes already paid. So this makes no sense at all. at least not readily.

So to determine the strength of their business, which includes making photo-voltaic solar panels and using those panels to build and sell complete solar power plants, i wanted to see how FSLR maintains its competitive edge. One of the ways of doing so is to make a better PV cell, cheaper than others. This typically translates to technical innovation, which is normally enshrined in enforceable patents. So off I headed to search for "FSLR patents".

The first few results to comeback surprised me: they included patents for determining the value of tradeable securities. When I saw the inventors, I was in for a bigger surprise: Peter Madoff. The patent assignee is Primex Holdings, LLC. 

For those just tuning in, Peter Madoff is Bernard Madoff's brother. The same Bernard Madoff who purportedly ran the world's largest Ponzi scheme (initial estimates were around USD 65 BILLION). Bernard Madoff single handedly made the words "Ponzi scheme" a household name during the 2009 economic meltdown. Well, maybe not single handed, but with help from his brother Peter, and two sons, Mark and Andrew. Mark eventually committed suicide. Bernard is serving 120 years in prison for defrauding the likes of Steven Spielberg, Bon Jovi and Kyra Sedjwick, and many other Jewish charities.

Here's a Bloomberg news report of Peter Madoff, Primex Holdings LLC and others related to Bernie Madoff being sued by several investors. The article also includes a brief history of the scam, and the main participants.


Here are a couple of the patent search results:

Opening price process for trading system

www.google.com/patents/US8024254
Grant - Filed Aug 29, 2006 - Issued Sep 20, 2011 - Peter B. Madoff - Primex Holdings LLC
Branch, “91 CCH Dec., FSLR 1I79,804, Exchange Services, Inc. Inquiry Letter”, No-Act, NAFT WSB File ... Hood, “91-92 CCH Dec., FSLR 1)76,093, Instinet Corp.

Auction market with price improvement mechanism

 
www.google.com/patents/US7617144 
Grant - Filed Mar 19, 1999 - Issued Nov 10, 2009 - Peter B. Madoff - Primex Holdings LLC
 

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Zen and the art of municipal codes


Every once in a while, I come across something weirdly strange on the interwebs that surprises me. Imagine my surprise when I experienced a moment of Zen when reading through the definition of municipal codes. The universe is trying to speak to me!



Excerpted and adapted from generally insipid municipal code:

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Special 22.50



Bollywood has been surprising me of late: I have seen more good movies come out in the past few years, and more frequently than I can remember. And my mental library of movies, foreign and domestic, spans several decades; if not by the dint of my years on this planet, then by the sheer man hours I've spent watching movies. Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann's epitaph is s = log w. Mine might be, "tried to spend life watching only good movies" (Now that's a scary thought. I hope my life amounts to more and those that I leave behind are considerate enough to enshrine their kind lies in my eulogy. On a practical note, what happens if one is cremated? Do they still get an epitaph? if so, what piece of land survives their memory?)

Flash forward to the current topic:  I recently enjoyed the morally ambivalent heist caper "Special 26" (स्पेशल छब्बिस ) starring Akshay Kumar (अक्षय कुमार ), Manoj Bajpai (मनोज बाजपयी ), Anupum Kher (अनुपम खेर ) and Jimmy Shergil (जिम्मी शेरगिल ). It is perhaps a sign of the times that this movie resonates so well with paying audiences. Honest folk are portrayed as hapless, impecunious, wretched beings suffering the daily atrocities and injustices of a cruel society, while desperadoes who disrespect the rules and plunder the ill-gotten riches of the privileged corrupt are projected as paragons of success. The "system" shackles and extorts those that dare possess a moral compass, while audacious outlaws pervert the system and rule the roost. The fact that some of the movie's capers draw inspiration from India's crime history serves only to bolster the disconcerting and depressing hypothesis. 

At face value, Special 26 is a heist comedy drama that is taut, at times intense, and almost always, engaging. The lead characters are not one-dimensional, but are carefully and artfully imparted depth and credence. They have distinct personalities and roles. The Thespians Anupam Kher and Manoj Bajpai morph beautifully into their respective characters: their characters' excitement, intensity, gravitas, vulnerability, determination, joy, and despair are brilliantly subtle, and because of that, supremely evocative. Akshay Kumar tones down his goofiness and brings forth a Clooney-isqe pizzazz that is equal measure Dean Martin's Danny Ocean, and Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill.

(image source:

http://i43.tower.com/images/mm107307886/oceans-eleven-frank-sinatra-dvd-cover-art.jpg)


The petulant arm chair movie critic me detected smoky undertones of the Edward Burns, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, and Andy Garcia starrer "Confidence", and noticed hints of cinematic inspiration from the masterpiece that is The Illusionist (starring Edward Norton, Jessical Biel, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell), and the subtle after taste of the original Ocean's Eleven (starring Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis. Jr). But the overall brew is definitely as Indian and robust as Masala Chai, Bhel Puri, Paapdi Chaat and Chana Masala (though thankfully, not all at once). The locales, the sub-stories, and the action sequences are decidedly Indian: you won't get to see a stunt involving a toppling auto rickshaw and an over-crowded bus elsewhere (Vijay Amritraj driven auto-rickshaws carrying womanizing British uber-spies needn't apply. Thai Tutktuk's conveying newer incarnation of said spies through sewer tube wormholes are excluded as well).


 (image source:

http://www.mattfind.com/12345673215-3-2-3_img/movie/t/a/f/confidence_2004_800x600_282844.jpg)

The fact that the story is set back in 1987, a time when land-line telephones were a concept still unknown to a large majority of the Indian populace, and when the hegemony of a socialist government ran unchecked, is made utterly believable by the use of appropriate props (clunky cars, bulky rotary dial phones, just to name a few) and relevantly dated attire. Clever use of computer graphics wizardry helps carry the suspension of disbelief a little further. CG is jarringly perceptible in only one instance, but mercifully it is in the one and only song, and thus the concomitant distraction is limited too.


What is perhaps more striking, to me, is the production value and the overall message, intended or not, of the film. That CBS media conglomerate (think MTV, Nickelodeon, Dora the Explorer, and Spongebob Sqaurepants) seems to be the lead producer, is in itself telling: the developing world is where the Occident find itself yet again, seeking untold riches.

What bothered me a little about the movie though, is the apparent pandering of lawlessness to the masses. An ivory tower commentator might be tempted to deride and chide the nexus of foreign media-conglomerates and Bollywood for eulogizing anarchy and crime through the lionization of crooks and con-men. A casual observer might argue that such depictions are, in the net, harmful to society since they seem to encourage desperadoes, while demoralizing the law-abiding, educated masses. 

Contrary to the above, I am convinced that the success of such capers is more a result of art imitating life; more a result of popular demand than a concerted push to demoralize a country. 

Truth be told, there is already plenty wrong to be dispirited about the Indian dream. The continuing social outrages, be they the unimaginably cruel rape of innocents on city streets, or the daily terrorist attacks, or the brazen murder of well heeled builders in broad daylight, or the perpetual pillaging of the entire country by corrupt politicians, have desensitized the general population. I contend that the reason such movies do well is because they appeal to the sub-conscious helplessness of each and every Indian. I believe Indians are innately aware of the law of the jungle: every one is Mowgli, the sole human child amongst animals, and is constantly struggling to ward off the Sher Khan of a predatory society. Amidst the decay and unsanitary environs, it is quite literally, the Lord of the Flies. 

Any fantasy that shelters the weary souls, even momentarily, from the despair is reflexively appealing. Any nostrum that promises escape from an unjust and stifling system is accepted as elixir. It is not the movie that promulgates law-breaking, but rather the yearning of the masses to be free to live their lives in peace and security. 

Yeah, it was a good movie.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Got Milk? Laissez faire be damned!

I'm confused.

Isn't Louisiana supposed to be a normally conservative Republican state? And don't Republicans portray themselves as the stalwarts of free-market capitalism? And aren't the Republicans currently beset with the Tea-Party, the same Tea-Party that champions self-determination and derides intervention by government in business?

Then why is the Louisiana government preventing a super-market from selling milk below cost? Why aren't the conservative zealots all over this case? Why aren't the Republicans shouting themselves hoarse pontificating the ills of the coercive authority of the government?

What happened?

http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/01/27/louisiana-stops-sale-cheap-milk-at-market/?intcmp=obnetwork
A Louisiana supermarket was forced to yank its low-cost milk special after state auditors objected to the price.

Fresh Markets in Perkins Rowe was selling milk for $2.99 a gallon as part of a weekly promotion deal, but Louisiana requires that retailer markups be at least 6 percent above invoice and shipping costs, The Advocate reports.

State Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain said Fresh Market violated state regulations by selling milk below cost as part of a promotion.

The supermarket routinely sells a gallon of skim, 1 percent, 2 percent or whole milk for $2.99 on Tuesdays, limiting the quantity to four per customer, according to The Advocate.

“They can sell it 6 percent over cost all day long. It’s when they sell it below cost that it becomes a problem,” Strain told the paper.
Seriously, what happened? Is it an anti-trust thing? How is the super-market being anti-competitive?

If the fact that the above article is from Fox News, here're some more sources (are all these sources owned by Fox? I don't know)
http://theadvocate.com/news/4992757-123/state-stops-sale-of-cheap
http://dailycaller.com/2013/01/26/state-regulators-crack-down-on-grocery-chain-for-selling-cheap-milk/
BRAVE released a prepared statement from Drewry Sackett, Fresh Market’s marketing, public relations and community relations manager.

“Because milk is a commodity product with regulated costs that are subject to change, at the current cost, due to Louisiana state law, we are unable to honor the $2.99 Tuesday deal for (Fresh Market) milk ... Because the cost of milk fluctuates, it is possible that we will be able to offer the $2.99 deal on milk again in the future,” Sackett said.
http://couponsinthenews.com/2013/01/28/sorry-louisiana-and-others-no-cheap-milk-for-you/
To make things even more confusing, the “price floor” doesn’t represent a set price – it’s based on a percentage of what the retailer paid for it. That explains why Winn-Dixie was able to sell milk for $3 in Louisiana last week, while Fresh Market couldn’t sell it for $2.99. If Winn-Dixie (orWalmart, or ALDI) can acquire it for less than the Fresh Market does, it can sell it for less than the Fresh Market.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The epitaph of a giant

Just read the news that Eastman Kodak sold all its imaging patents to 12 companies for $525 Million. Let's take a minute to digest this news.

Eastman Kodak became the household name nearly a century ago by ushering the art of -popular photography. Kodak was a behemoth, a veritable giant. It kept innovating with film: from black and white to color photography to photo printers, to instant photo developing shops available in your local grocery store. It obsoleted portrait makers and painters. It forced art to evolve and become more modern, impressionist and abstract. The camera's unflinching fidelity enabled motion pictures, and Kodak's technology brought forth live motion in color.

Kodak had its years under the sun. It stayed, however, blind to the changing world:  the Internet and the digital camera flummoxed it. Kodak never managed to change its business model to adapt itself to the changing world. Not fast enough.

The following Yahoo news article reported the auctioning of Kodak's family heirlooms succinctly enough:
http://finance.yahoo.com/news/news-summary-kodak-sells-patents-002729235.html

STEPPING STONE: Eastman Kodak is selling its digital imaging patents for about $525 million, money the struggling photo pioneer says will help it emerge from bankruptcy protection in the first half of 2013.

GROUP OF 12: Apple Inc., Google Inc., Samsung Electronics Co., Research In Motion Ltd., Microsoft Corp., China's Huawei Technologies and Facebook Inc. are among the 12 companies paying to license the 1,100 patents, according to court filings. 

HISTORY: Founded in 1880, Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January after a long struggle to stay relevant. First came competition from Japanese companies, then the shift from film to digital photography. Kodak failed to keep up. 

The brief article highlights Kodak's insuperable, if feckless, descent into oblivion. The younger, fitter, nimbler, better adapted carrion carvers of Google, Apple, Microsoft, RIMM, Facebook, Huawei and Samsung feast on the cadaver of the fallen dinosaur. But it is the last line of the article above that serves as the moral of the story; a chilling reminder to all of our own mortality.

"Kodak failed to keep up"

Intel founder Andy Grove always said, "Only the paranoid survive". I guess Kodak wasn't paranoid enough. Interestingly, both Yahoo and Intel these days are on the ropes, and didn't seem to be part of the companies participating the patent feast. Wonder if we'll be lamenting their passing soon. Perhaps only Darwin knows.

For all the giants' accomplishments, this is what the fossils remind us about the giants:

"Failed to keep up"

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Justice is served

Qasab is dead.


NEW DELHI — India on Wednesday hanged the lone surviving gunman from the deadly terror attack in Mumbai four years ago that left 166 people dead, including six Americans.

Ajmal Amir Kasab, a Pakistani citizen, was one of 10 heavily-armed terrorists who sailed into India’s financial hub of Mumbai and launched a series of attacks on two five-star hotels, the city’s main train station, a restaurant and a Jewish prayer center

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/india-hangs-lone-suspect-in-2008-attacks/2012/11/21/271adf26-3397-11e2-bfd5-e202b6d7b501_story.html

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

India's continuing infrastructure nightmare

Sometimes, I hate being right.

image source: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/photo/15300593.cms

600 million people in India are without electricity. In my response to another blog, I had insisted that India's infrastructure situation is precarious and can only get worse with time. Today's headlines and the past weeks' suffering from nearly 33% of India's population (60+% by today's headlines) clearly point to the worsening situation.

my thoughts on this issue and the original blog that precipitated my article can be found via:
India's infrastructure nightmare




more on today's happenings from the Economic Times:


Power grid failure: world's biggest blackout points at years of power sector neglect

[quote]
Power grid failure: World's biggest blackout points at years of neglect of power sector

NEW DELHI: Electricity supply crashed across a vast swathe of India for the second time in 36 hours, disrupting lives of over 600 million people and presenting an unflattering picture of an aspiring superpower struggling to provide even basic power. 




[/quote]

People are literally dying. What more will it take to set an apathetic government and populace into motion? This incident is tantamount to an act of war on the country of India; not due to any external entity, but due to the reprehensible dereliction of duty by the populace and the media. Yes, I blame the people of India. The politicians, the IAS and other bureaucracies might be more directly responsible, but it is essentially the populace that has failed themselves by regularly choosing to be governed by a cabal of nitwits. This is the government the country has not because of some celestial misfortune, but because of its actions. This is the government the country deserves. This is karma in action, and as the wise philosopher said, "karma is a bitch".




Thursday, July 05, 2012

Investing in Indian mutual funds does not inspire confidence

Investment pundits, gurus, speculators, and charlatans long touted the BRIC sector. These days, the Indian hot-market story seems dated and out of vogue: probably because the Indian market's recent decline has besmirched some of its luster.

However, there still remains a case for prudent investment. In any market. Especially a down one.

And one of the easiest ways to start investing in any market is perhaps through mutual funds.

To buttress the motivation behind this blog, a minor sojourn follows.

The basic idea of a mutual fund is captured fairly in its name: it is a fund mutually owned by all the fund investors. Consider the case where 3 individuals with limited financial resources want to invest in the equity market. Sane equity investment requires that investment risk be mitigated through diversification. In simpler terms, the individuals should NOT plunk down all their money into just one company because then they'd have all their eggs in one basket. Instead, they should consider spreading out their risk by investing in a diverse set of companies. However, that can take a lot of capital (e.g. brokers might sell only in slabs of 100 shares), and this restriction can (rightly) keep out a lot of low net-worth individual investors.

Instead of individually trying to diversify their company specific risk, what if the investors got together, pooled their money and bought shares of 3 companies with their combined resources? that would spread the risk over 3 egg baskets, instead of 1 risky basket for each individual. What if they decided to take this good idea further and involved their in-laws, neighbors, friends and other communities? With a 1000 individuals, they could buy shares of every strong company on the market, almost totally diversifying away company risk!

In its simplest terms, this is what a mutual fund is: an investment company capitalized by several individuals for the express purpose of investing in an underlying asset class. The management of this special company (henceforth referred to as the "mutual fund") has one clear role: investing peoples' money for them. To ensure that the company can attract investors, the management has to show that it has scruples and that it is competent. Attention to detail, openness and presentation then become benchmarks by which managements try to demonstrate, and potential investors evaluate, managements' worthiness. Of course, these are in addition to the actual fund performance. But, as managements are obligated (morally AND legally) to often remind us: "past performance does not guarantee future results". Which essentially places a lot of emphasis on the foregoing exhibition and evaluation.

In light of above, I find the lack of attention to detail in the Indian mutual fund industry utterly dismaying. In reading through prospectus' and official website descriptions of several mutual funds (and of governing bodies!) I routinely find spelling errors and grammatical blunders. This horrifies me: the management that does not care to look at automated spell checkers (or rather know enough to employ people who would care about such simple, low hanging fruit) are being entrusted with hundreds of millions of peoples' hard-earned money!

Exhibit A: Page 2 on Goldman Sachs' BeeS Benchmark S&P CNX 500 fund


There can be no assurance or guarantee that the investment objective of the respective Schemes will be achieved. However, the performance of Benchmark S&P CNX 500 Fund may differ from that of the respective underling index due to Tracking Error.


Exhibit B: HDFC Mutual fund

Entry Load
(For Lumpsum Purchases and investments through SIP/STP) NIL 

Unfront commission shall be paid directly by the investor to the ARN Holder (AMFI registered Distributor) based on the investors' assessment of various factors including the service rendered by the ARN Holder.


I actually googled "unfront" to see if this was some new jargon in the Indian markets. I concluded it is a typo for "Upfront". Also, I actually had to fight my auto-correct to type "Unfront".

Exhibit C: AMFI

Disclaimer
The Information provided on the AMFI website is based on the information provided by the members. As such AMFI does not take any responsibility for its accuracy, completeness and timeliness.


The AMFI Disclaimer above is by far my favorite. It is tantamount to blanket recanting of everything posted on the website of an association formed, by the mutual fund companies themselves, with the explicit mission of spreading trust and awareness of mutual funds in India. I wonder what information  AMFI actually is responsible for on its own website.

I'd be happy if these were the only instances of head-slapping reading I have as yet encountered. Sadly, that isn't the case. I don't list them here since I have long since lost context on where and how I encountered these errors. I'll add to these as and when I run across more.

Till then, share my agony and ecstasy.