Oh! Calcutta

I was in Calcutta over the weekend. I like the city. I guess it was after some 15 years or so that I visited this eastern Metropolis where it starts getting dark at 5:30PM (during this part of the year) itself. Bits and pieces of this neglected city have changed – many parts remain the same. Cars are smaller and therefore quite numerous on the many narrow lanes. There is still a lot of seemingly hostile but good natured haggling over daily transactions, which I admire in this part of the country. A successful haggle results in an exchange of not just currency notes and coins – sweat and grime change hands too. The climate is quite humid and the Ganges is quite muddy furiously blushing at the confession of sins that it brings in all along it’s flow. I managed to fight my way using a few broken, mispronounced words in the local dialect and restrict a particular cab fare to 100 rupees instead of the 120 that was being asked for. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Speaking of coins, I guess this is perhaps the only major city where 25 paise coins are still in currency.  I felt nostalgic since the scene reminds me of my childhood spent in Eastern India – red soil, open spaces (on the outskirts of Calcutta now) and the relatively slow pace of life. And the fact that a 10 rupee note goes a long way here. While I did not board a bus, but was craning my neck to to catch a glimpse of the “cash fans” – the bus conductors here, fold up currency notes longitudinally into slim rectangles and use each gap between their fingers in the palm of their hand as placeholders – the gap between the index and the middle for fivers; the middle and the ring holding up the tens while the ring and the pinky holding on to the fifty rupee notes! I am not sure of this distribution – but I did not get a chance to verify. It looks (or used to) like an expensive fan. I saw this 15 years back and became a fan of wristy conductors. Maybe by now, with a change of government in West Bengal, the conductors have got shoulder sling bags made of leather like their counterparts in Bombay. Maybe not – only citizens of Calcutta that travel in busses can elaborate. The yellow toad-like taxis are everywhere – these run on (2 x reading + 2) meters while the white ones represent the privately negotiated OTC market. These are the dinosaurs on Indian roads – the Ambassadors. The dexterity of the drivers though would rival any accomplished drag racer anyday. Or Pokemon. Or Garfield.

Apropos my earlier post on the pani puri, I did manage to plop some puchkas down my maw. Awesome! Especially when the server kept plunging his dirty stubby fingers in the heavenly soup of pungent tamarind water. Meanwhile IFCI has cantered up. I wrote about it 3 months back on 05Jul’10 and while there does not seem to be any clarity around the digital event regarding its banking foray, the long term resistance has been broken and people are talking about it reaching the 90s pretty soon. I guess I’ll wait and watch for some time.

The Facebook

Running around between client and my company’s offices and getting to adjust to the time that I have gained, just wanted to quickly share two updates:

A) Apropos my post of 5Aug’10, the daughter moves up to the national round of the spelling bee. This gig will be held in Calcutta on 10Oct’10 – I plan to be there (work permitting) and catch up on some friends there as well. I’ll leave the wordy matters to my daughter!

B) Just finished reading The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick. The copy of the book that I have was published this year itself and is therefore quite current. As you all know this book should tell the story of the teenager that built this social networking behemoth, which it does quite well but it is a quite patronising at times. Many times the butter is laid on so thick on this new toast of the internet industry that it stops your reading momentum and distracts you. This review by Michael Arrington likens the author to Bella, painfully and proudly obsessed by the fang toothed The Facebook. Perhaps it is not The Twilight of his writing career! It’s a good read nevertheless since it allows you a peek into the culture that built the company. More than that it’s really a management lesson in one basic trait that most professionals of today must have: focus.

The one quality that Mark Zuckerberg demostrates to us in spades,via Kirkpatrick’s eulogy, is an unwavering focus on the end game: world domination of internet social communication and building a self contained universe therein. And the passion and hard work that went into building the platform that now has close to a billion people online. I keep seeing hordes of people hunched over their laptops in my hotel lobby since the lobby has free internet. Last evening, I discreetly checked out a dozen or so laptop screens and I found that 10 of them had The Facebook on them! My hotel being a touristy one, these people are obvisouly from outside of NY updating their statuses and travel notes on their The Facebook profiles telling all their ‘friends’ about the great time that they are having here. The Facebook, likewise has always been a viral phenomenon.

The possibilities on a global spider web of personal connections are endless. There are talks of a parallel economy with alternate currency units (facebook credits) and perhaps a currency exchange as well off The Facebook. And the growth has not petered out – there are still many people that are not on The Facebook. Myself included. Every month I get at least 4 – 5 invitations to join it but have resisted so far. I have my reasons and thats that but in my own little way I can see the viral effect in full play. While I remain humbled to receive such requests from my friends, I have picked up one little business lesson here – try to build solitions that can be viral in their propagation. Satisfied/ecstatic customers selling your products is the best possible thing to have. I keep trying to come up with insights and solutions that help solve a pervading industry pain point and then get happy and ‘cured’ customers to advocate their bliss on platforms specifically created for this purpose.

Mark’s platform has had its share of problems though the chief among them being intrusion of privacy and data theft by application developers/advertisers. I think that The Facebook architecture needs to evolve. Just think about how relationships are laid out in real life – our social relationships are like layers of an onion. We all have an inner circle of relationships whom we trust the most and can bare our soul fearlessly. Then there is another layer where the information is quite cordial and a lot of personal information does get shared but we would never go au naturel with them. Finally, the outmost layer are casual acquantances. I am not sure if this layering of contacts exists in The Facebook. I am sure Mark and his design team would have thought of it, but if the platform has to resemble the physical world then this layering might be required. At one point in time I was accussed of not having friends – while I don’t know which layer the readers of this site belong to, I can definitely tell you that I, for sure do not need The Facebook to keep my social synapses alive. But for those of you who are on The Facebook, please do let me know if and how I can use it to promote this website.

In the meanwhile, equity markets back home continue to rock and I feel that my trade on Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL) seems to have redeeemed itself! I’m up 4% now 🙂

I know you do not follow the “experts” and like to think for yourself and might already be aware that India Infoline has come up with  a price target of 1,141; Geogit BNP Paribas has a long term date on RIL to end at 1,450 (16-24 mo). As far as I am concerned, I think there is a small amount of steam left here and I will get out soon (if I can remain awake during tomorrow’s India trading hours – or on my return)

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