Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A few good books

Some good books I happened to read recently and would recommend to others:

  1. Freakonomics: This is top on the my recommended must-read. It is a very popular best-seller, and for a very good reason. Steven Levitt, the author and professor of economics comes out as very intelligent and inspiring, and brings out several examples where conventional wisdom seems as obvious reason but wrong. The right reasons are not obvious, but intriguingly true. For example, he argues reduction in crime in the 1990s was not due to better policing, better economy or better gun-control, all of which seem obviously true, but due to the abortion becoming legal way back in 1970s - the criminals for 1990s were never born!
  2. Who says Elephants can't dance?: MBA types working in a corporate environment would love to read this book by Louis Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM. He describes his experience in fixing IBM's woes and bringing it back on track. Lots to learn from a great leader, who brings to bear his experience and wisdom in finance, marketing, organization structure, corporate governance and so on, to turn a huge ship around. An interesting thing that caught my eye was Mr. Gerstner's resolution not be obnoxious as he got older - we must all make such a resolution.
  3. Getting to Yes: Many of us lack negotiation skills, communication skills or people skills. This book, written by 3 co-authors based on a Harvard project, will be an eye opener, and will change the way we think and react to situations at work, home or outside. It helps us think about creating win-win situations out of what could otherwise become a losing proposition for one or both parties.
  4. The Economic Naturalist: Again, written by an economist, Robert Frank, this book answers a boat load of enigmatic questions about things that happen around us. As an example, why does drive-up ATM machines have Braille dots on keypads? It's just cheaper for the bank to order and use same key pad on all ATM machines.
  5. Winning: The author is Jack Welch, the legendary & former CEO of GE (co-author is Suzy Welch). Interesting read on corporate dynamics, and a great reference for managers, leaders and executives. Part of the book talks about how corporations should work, and part on how corporations actually work, so it got a bit confusing at times. It also talks about how you can manage your career given the way it actually works. For example, the author talks a lot about the need for candor (how it should work), but also states not showing positive attitude can be suicidal to your career (how it actually works). So, you should speak out, but also watch out, and how to manage that trick is not easy to tell. Nevertheless, this is a difficult topic to write about, and the author is done a great job in documenting advice about almost anything that relates to running a company (strategy, hiring & firing, M&A, managing careers & bosses etc).

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Assembling own PC from scratch

Just around the turn of this century, someone gave me a Intel Pentium-4 processor (just the CPU chip) when it was just out in the market. The expectation was I can get a motherboard and other paraphernalia and assemble a PC myself. Sounds like fun? Read on and you'll know what it took me to get there.

Motherboard almost obsolete: At the time, only expensive motherboards based on Rambus memory were available (~$300). So, I waited for DDR memory based motherboards, which would be much less expensive. I finally bought one three years later for $80. Motherboards go with the specific packaging of CPU, and since mine was some kind of a limited time version (Intel released other Pentium 4 packages down the line), the motherboards were almost obsolete when I looked for them!

DDR memory: Obviously, I had to buy the DDR memory chips as well, and I settled for 512MB worth of memory, which at the time was another $80.

Chassis: The chassis or the PC box that holds everything. This can get exciting, but I settled for a $60 chassis at Fry's, the usual off-white color, that had 4-slots in the front (for CD drive etc), 4-PCI slots in the back, fans, power supply and cord, and a bunch of screws. It is important to get a chassis that has the right power supply for the motherboard.

CPU test: At this stage, I thought the barebones hardware exist to see if the CPU works. I screwed the motherboard onto the chassis, put the CPU and memory in the respective slots, and switched on the power supply. The goal was to hear the beep, which means it is booting. The idea was to get the CPU to wiggle before investing further in other components. Well, as it turns out, there was no beep! Since the CPU didn't seem to generate the beep, I was wondering how to test if the CPU was working. One test was to see if the CPU gets warm. I touched it soon after booting a couple of times, and it was actually warm!

Heat sink actually obsolete: The CPU did not come with a heat sink, which sits on top of the CPU chip and dissipates the heat. My friend told me that the CPU is likely toast, since I already booted without a heat sink - apparently, it only takes a few seconds to heat up and go in smoke. I didn't believe him, since I had heard there are power management features that shutoff the CPU and prevent overheating (later I learned this used to be a feature only on Intel CPUs - so both of us were right!). The heat sink is specific to the CPU version, and this one was actually obsolete, and I had to search in stores that I had not heard about before (called Weird Stuff, Surplus), to find the right heat sink and a paste that goes with it ($10). Not a bad investment to move ahead. However, this didn't help a whole lot either. I wasn't sure if I had already roasted the CPU to death, or if the motherboard was faulty.

Changing Motherboard: There was no investment to change the motherboard. Obviously this involved unscrewing, pulling out the CPU, heat sink and memory, and a trip to Fry's to return and exchange for another brand of motherboard. But even an exchange didn't help. I returned the motherboard to Fry's for a refund, and got another one from another store that sells older computer parts (Weird Stuff). The return policy would only be an exchange. But, I decided to take the risk and tried anyway. After screwing in the new motherboard, putting back the CPU and all that, I actually heard the beep! Great progress, except that I didn't get it every time I tried plugging in! But, now I was sure the CPU is ok, and there must be some connection issue with the motherboard, or the memory chip must be bad.

Changing motherboard... again: This time around, I got innovative, and called VIA, the company that manufactured the motherboard. Their customer support was very helpful, and asked me to bring it over to their facility in Fremont, CA. It was some 20 miles away, but I thought it was worth a shot. They asked me to wait for a few minutes in the lobby, and after checking out the board for a few minutes in their lab, the engineer came back and gave me a new board saying the memory connector was bad, and this new one works! I was so happy, that I forgot to take back the power cord I gave them. Shelled out another $6 to replace it.

Graphics card, Monitor: Now that the basic hardware was working, I was ready to invest in other components to build the system. I got a good graphics card (nVidia G4MX440 for $60) that goes into a PCI slot. The connections on the mother board and the chassis were straightforward. I got a new monitor (NEC TFT 17") for $350, and tested the monitor on a different machine, before connecting to this system. When I rebooted the system, I was able to see some text on the screen spelling out the hardware on the system!

Hard-disk, CD drive: I got the hard drive (80GB for $140), a good graphics card (nVidia G4MX440 for $60) and CD read/write drive for $40.The hard disk and CD drive are necessary to install the operating system. Obviously, I bought a keyboard and mouse as well ($20).

Operating System: When you assemble a PC on your own, you have to shell out for Microsoft Windows OS, which can run from $100 to $300 depending on Home or Professional version. Then, there is additional money to be spent for MS Office for word, excel application software. I wasn't willing to blow any of this money, nor willing to use any pirated copy. So, I went with Linux OS, which is free, and comes with free software as well for a variety of applications. A friend of mine gave me the installation CD for Red Hat Linux, and installing it on the PC was fairly straightforward. I just had to insert the Linux installation CD into the CD-RW drive, and boot, and follow on-screen instructions. It partitions the hard disk, installs the OS, as well as a host of free software for word processing, spreadsheet, games, music etc.

Getting Soundcard to work: For some reason, the sound card was not working (other than the beep from motherboard), I never heard a sound! The only way I could fix it was to upgrade the OS to the next revision, which fixed some driver problem. Now, it was a great media PC!

The system was up an running as a standalone PC. Took me a couple of months to get to this point, runnning around different stores, and making things work one thing at a time.

Network: I bought a Ethernet PCI card ($10) to get it on the network. Plugging it on the PCI slot, and connecting to the DSL modem was fairly straightforward, and it worked right away upon reboot.

The total cost was a little over $700 (including $350 for the monitor). Ever since, it has been serving our desktop PC needs. I have fixed so many geeky Linux stuff along the way (like getting WiFi USB card to work, browser plugins etc), but it has been very stable, and fast for our needs.

Was all this worth it? Yes, from a hobby standpoint. Not really, from a value standpoint. I may have picked bigger and better components (memory/HDD size, graphics, CD-RW speed etc) than the assembled ones from the known brands, but they bring value in support, warranty, installed OS & other software etc. Since they drive so much volume, they get all the hardware and software components at deep discounts, and you also get bundled pricing with monitor and printer, so it is really a wash at the end. Also, not worth it for anyone with a faint heart.

Finally, it was really fun typing this blog on my own assembled PC, after full five years of it's existence!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Panasonic TH-42PZ700U is best big flat screen TV

Just noticed in the Money magazine May-08 issue (p107) - they have rated Panasonic model TH-42PZ700U as the best buy for big-screen TV. I am gratified - you'll know I bought a Panasonic plasma (my model is different, TH-42PC77U), if you have read my blog on buying a big-screen TV.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Health insurance for visitors to the US

It's that time of the season - parents visiting from India, and their big engineer "kids" wondering where to go for insurance coverage for mom & dad. Here are two tips from my experience, but not specific advice for your situation:
  1. Check out the website www.G1G.com. You can enter some specifics on age, deductible etc and Mr. Jeewanjee provides you a 3-4 provider options to pick from. If you are ok with the conditions that apply, you can complete the purchase online. I like options that have an US phone number and physical address - else, it may be impossible to catch them or make them accountable when you need, or the doctor/hospital may not be willing to work with that provider.
  2. The website www.kvrao.org. This is run by a professor as a non-profit, and works with a bigger provider like AIG to get good deals as a group insurance.
I have purchased from both at various instances, for my parents visits over the last 12 years. G1G is the recent favorite since it has cheaper options. However, I have never filed a claim, so I can't speak to the claim experience.

These generally wont cover pre-existing conditions such as diabetes (KV Rao has some options around this), but can come in handy for emergencies. There is one friend I know, whose mom was hospitalized for nearly 30 days with a broken hip (she tripped over a shopping cart and fell inside a grocery store), and the KV Rao insurance worked in his favor - they paid the $50k maximum benefit to cover various things such as Xrays, doctor fees etc (the bills don't come singly), and it limited his out-of-pocket expense (he still had to pay a few thousands). The key thing to note was the hospital (it was a top notch non-profit community hospital) looked at his case favorably, since he had some type of insurance and was willing to provide him discounted rates and worked with the insurance. If he didn't carry any insurance, they may not have been forthcoming with discounts.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Advantages of commuting by bus

It's been over an year now since I have been commuting by bus to work and back home. Many friends wonder why I kill myself going by bus. To the contrary, it has the following advantages:
  1. The bus stop is 10 minutes away from home. So, that's 20 minutes of exercise daily walking to and from the bus stop. The bus drops me and picks me up right in front of my work place so I don't end up walking too much.
  2. It saves gas - around 26 miles each day roundtrip and my car gives 20 miles per gallon. At $3.5 per gallon, that comes to around $100 per month. The monthly bus pass costs $60 and my company reimburses $30. So that's a net savings of $70 per month (or ~$800 per year) on gas alone, not counting other benefits like mileage savings, fewer repairs on the car.
  3. It is an express bus that makes few stops, and goes on the carpool lane to reach in 30 minutes (plus the 10 min walk to the bus stop). Nothing to complain on the speed. Going by car during the peak hour takes 40 minutes, if I don't carpool, so time difference is a wash. However, if I can find a viable carpool partner, that can bring time savings and similar advantages.
  4. No stress of driving - who likes to drive in peak hour?
  5. Contributes to efforts on preventing global warming. Makes Al Gore happy, and that could come in handy some day.
  6. Allows me to keep just one car for the family. My wife uses it to get the kids to school and run errands. Else, I'll be forced to buy another car at some point, and pay loan interest, insurance and gas for another car as well.
  7. Better work-life balance. My boss was single and used to spend longer hours after 5pm discussing work stuff, expecting me to stick around. The excuse of having to catch the bus imposes a hard stop (company policy encourages using public transport anyways), and forces a better work-life schedule.
Given all this, I have always wondered the following. I have heard some extremist organization called Earth liberation front scratches gas guzzlers like minivans and SUVs in parking lots or wherever they can get their hands on. How would they treat my mini-van, if they see it secluded? Since I actually use it little, I think I should be exempt. How will they know that someone who has a minivan or SUV can actually be responsible and contributing to the environment in other ways?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Leadership & Swamigal

For the uninitiated, Swamigal (or Swamiji) refers to a holy man in the Hindu religion who has renounced earthly desires and leads a pious life. They act as a spiritual leader to followers who look upon them for such guidance, and weild a powerful influence in society around them. Perhaps, the best known example in recent times is the Paramarcharya of Kanchi mutt. We have read leadership and influencing books written by many CEOs, Presidents and such people who wielded immense authority. However, I think there are lessons to be learned from the leadership and influencing skills that the Paramacharya demonstrated, with no real power to mandate, nobody reporting to him, a simple image that consisted of a saffron clothing, not even any foot wear. Yet, people all over the world, regardless of their social standing would simply prostrate before him on sight, took his word as final and bent backwards to oblige to his wishes. Why so much respect for someone who can hardly control your destiny? I think it is beyond just the culture or religion - even if so, one wonders why such culture came about:
  1. Swamigal derives his power from knowledge. The mastery of scriptures, and being able to interpret and teach others is a virtue that is valued and respected, especially those that need the spiritual guidance. This is indeed similar to some great professors influencing minds of students.
  2. Swamigal earns trust from almost anyone through renunciation of material desires - we know such renunciation is extremely difficult, and that establishes the basis that there is no personal agenda of any kind. It is easy to influence when such trust is established. The rigor of their food habits, that none should make physical contact etc, contribute to keeping their mind and body controlled toward renunciation.
  3. Swamigal is a great out-of-the-box thinker, since he is detached from the world we are caught up in - that includes family, job, politics, environment, whatever. This makes his opinions a possibly unique and different perspective, and when some of them come true, people think of them as prophecies come true (a.k.a "Gnana Drushti" which is usually meant as divine foresight, but the sanskrit word literally translates to "knowledgeable view"). Such a perspective provides hope and confidence to the common people caught up in difficult situations, who are not willing nor have the mindset, or just not able to take a step back and look at things holistically or differently.
In my view, it is not so much about a god-send or having a divine blessing that is generally touted, nor because of culture or religion that swamigals are able to lead and influence masses, but it is more about the way the swamigal concept is designed and structured. A swamigal for the Kanchi mutt is typically chosen carefully from among young boys that potentially demonstrate the ability to learn, think differently and follow the rigor. And when everything falls in place, we end up with a great leader for decades that benefit society. So, lesson on leadership & influencing for B-school students - it is about knowledge and trust, folks, not about power and position!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Affimative Action in India

Hot off the press this week: Supreme court of India OKs reservation or "quotas" of jobs and college seats for "backward communities". (The Hindu, 11 Apr 2008). Some exceptions such as "creamy layer" apply.

There is a parallel with affirmative action in the US, where the idea is to get some folks who are either women or minority population (based on color or race), up to speed with the ones that do very well, but structured in a way that doesn't result in "quotas" as a matter of right due to an individual's color, gender or race. The Indian context is different in the sense, it is the majority population that isn't doing well, and they are now effectively using the democracy to advance themselves through quotas. No one would have a problem, except that the majority is based on quotas for "caste" or specific community identities, so:
  1. The deprived in the minority castes are left out,
  2. The well-to-do in the majority castes will get to enjoy the quotas (though the supreme court has excluded the "creamy layer" in these quotas, this may not easily get sorted out).

Obviously these are divisive hot potato socio-political issues, and resolution will take a few generations. Here is my take on how all this might pan out:

  1. The" backward community" folks will take advantage of the quotas, get the much needed education and jobs, and hence become wealthy enough to pay for good services. When enough of them get to this level, they will want the very best doctor, lawyer, financial consultant etc, and will not accept average or even above average. That will gradually trigger the questioning of the quota system and the majority population will want the best brains to go into the colleges and jobs - eventually paving way for the egalitarian society people dream about. This is not unusual - majority whites in the US have fought to end slavery of minority African Americans, and minority forward community individuals in India have fought for ending caste discrimination of majority population even before Indian independence.
  2. The quota system remains, but it will become a non-issue if supply increases. Since more private colleges equally good may emerge that everyone gets a degree and college of their choice, government jobs become a mundane choice versus lucrative private company jobs (where there are no quotas). Premium colleges may now become more at par with the tier-2 colleges, so the issue of premium colleges may become moot. Even here, everyone gains, as those who need the education and jobs have gotten it, and eventually catch up with the rest of the society.
  3. Other ways exist, both negative and positive, but what matters is may optimistic solutions can happen naturally, though the policy makers may never think of a step in that direction.

Instead of focusing on the what the government is doing (which, in a democracy will always be what the majority wants - can't solve that "problem"!), the forward community is better off in:
  1. using its resources to bring it's own needy folks up to speed,
  2. helping speed up the process of educating the backward classes, so they eventually demand the right minds go the right jobs.
Guess what happens then - India would have it's caste system working the way it was intended and written by it's vedic proponents! That caste system will not be based on birth, but will make the country stronger and forward looking!

More on divorce - India and Spain

Two news items that caught my eye last week: 1) Parents in Spain faking divorce so their kids can get extra points to get into favorite schools (click here for news article) 2) The national commission for women in India wants to "save marriages" through conselling, now that they have strengthened major laws related to women (The Hindu 11 Apr 2008) .

If you have read my blog that divorce laws are poles apart you might find these interesting as well. Apparently in Spain, there is fast track divorce - you can apply for one and get it in 5 weeks! To fix some single parent issues, the government gives extra points to such kids, so they end up in the better schools. Now, parents who are together are using this scheme to get the best for their kid - apply for divorce, get the extra points for their kid, and then go for counseling. I don't agree with the approach, but it is amazing how different people are.

Now, across continents in India, they want to "save marriages" that are broken. The belief is only in extreme situations couples must divorce, young couples are breaking up over trivial issues, and women suffered in most cases. So, the police, the state and some third party mediators are being sensitized so tha laws are properly implemented, couples who have undergone domestic violence get into conciliation and settlement. My belief is that's a lot to chew for the government of a billion+ population. Spain, incidentally had pretty tough divorce laws until recently due to conservative christian culture, and now it all changed - the goal is to "save individuals" or "save individual freedoms", so even single parents can effectively bring up kids, single women can lead an individual and respectable lives on their own, instead of reconciling with domestic violence, settle and save the marriage.

Hope someone points out Spain to the Indian law makers.

Costco cafe - truly a slip between cup and the lip

There is many a slip between the cup and the lip - so the proverb goes. Here is one such slip you'll love to know. I saved $6 today buying razors at Costco. As I proudly came out the store, the Costco cafe's very berry smoothies and sundae for $1.50 or less caught my eye, and I told my kids I am going to get them icecream. So, I stood in the line, and my kids sat in the benches with their mom. It took me a good 20 minutes to get to the cashier. The guy in front asked for a sundae and I heard the woman at the counter say "No" for some reason. He just threw his arms and went away. When it was my turn, she told me "No" again, and explained she couldn't take orders for sundae or smoothies because they ran out of cups! I was completely frustrated, and I told her she should put a note up her window so I'd have known not to stand in line, or give false hope to my 3 year olds. The person next to me agreed, but the cashier lady went on to explain she couldn't put a note because she didn't know when the cups might come in! I figured we were far apart to converge on something sensible, and was glad she didn't say it was my fault for their slip with the cups! We settled for the Baskin Robbins in the same complex.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Add-on adventure in San Jose airport

This is a follow-up to my blog on anxious moments during travel. A couple of weeks back, I was in San Jose airport during the morning rush hour. The second floor has the line for security check - that usually goes all the way to the parking garage. Alongside security, there are also ticketing lines for folks with baggage, so the place is a real mess in the busy hours. This time around there were two lines, and since there are 2 security check points, it is natural for someone to assume both are security lines. So, I smartly stood in the shorter one, but something told me it wasn't the right one - people had bigger bags which was clearly not cabin luggage, and someone was kind enough to mention in a few minutes that it was the ticketing line and not security! Lucky me, I quickly moved over to the real security line! As the lines move forward, they cross over, so a TSA official allows folks in batches to the 2 security check points, as well allows another batch of people from the ticketing line to cross over to the ticketing area. The TSA guy yells and screams that ticketing line is to the left and security line is right, but it is hard to understand in the din or people are not listening but look for signs that don't exist, and it is too late in the queue! So, the guys who picked the wrong line and came to the crossover point got an earful from the TSA official -he was asking them if they can't hear him screaming, or if they can't tell Left from Right, before letting them get on the security check! No one wants to argue and miss their plane, so let's hope everyone gets lucky like me, or the TSA or Southwest guys post signs all along the lines.