February 22, 2005

Success : Meaning and Measure

There are many, often contradictory, definitions of success of which the most obvious and in-your-face one is that which hinges on wealth, power and social recognition.

And if we temporarily delude ourself and accept this definition ... then the next question is how does attain this success.

It is very obvious that native ability, basic competence or any other natural attribute, has very little co-relation to success. There are too many incompetent people who are successful and there are too many very able folks who languish in the shadows.

I believe that there are three steps to success.

1] Destiny or Divine Grace : is the first and the most important. In mathematical terms D & D is the necessary and sufficient condition for any success.

2] Perseverance : This falls in the necessary but not sufficient category. A lot of effort, painful effort, goes into the crafting a success story.

and finally ..

3] Unscrupulouness !! .... another necessary but not sufficient condition. To be successful in the material world you just need that little tinge of evil in you, for example the kind that allows you to rough-shod over the feelings of others, or to further your own interests that the expense of your colleagues .. that is what separates the winners from the also rans in the corporate world and in the analogous social world as well.

However [2] and [3] can be always be rendered superflous by [1] which is why we say that career progression finally depends on being at the right place at the right time. Nothing more.

Of course .. if you look at other definitions of success ... then none of these really matter but that is another story

February 20, 2005

India's economic resurgence & the Gayatri Mantra

Sorry if you have been misled into believing that there is some connection between the two items in today's heading but the fact is that the only thing that is indeed common is that I have been thinking about both for the past few days.

First the simple stuff.

What is the mystery behind India's current ecomonic resurgence ?

It is kind of uncanny, the way India's economy is booming .... not only the software / ITeS .. but also things like construction, roads .... and other infrastructure. Who on earth is paying for all this ? How do we suddenly have the money to pay for so much infrastructure ? The forex reserves that are piling up belong to the shareholders of exporting companies .... not the goverment and certainly not the aam-janta .... who are in anyway struggling to survive.

Frankly I do not enough about this. At a basic level I can translate India export led growth into (a) higher disposable income in the hands of a handful of employees and (b) higher income & corporate taxes that flow into goverment coffers. It also helps to know that with no legal tax friendly savings scheme in the market, a lot of money is also flowing into equity.

But all this explains the FLOW, not the origin. Where is all this money coming from ?

For an answer I would turn to today's (as usual ) excellent article by Swaminathan S Ankleshwaria Iyer. This money is coming from the US deficit .. both US personal and US Goverment. Both are borrowing heavily and spending as if there was no tomorrow. And all this money is washing up ( greenback Tsunami style ) on Asian shores ... in India, China and the rest of the Asian Tigers.

So what happens when the river runs dry as it must someday. Who will carry the water of love ? My only guess is that by that time, we would be rich enough to carry on with our own affairs. But I would still keep my fingers tightly crossed.

My next thought of the day is

Gayatri ...

That mysterious mantra that all of us, Brahmans, chant every day. Have you ever tried to translate it ? Please do not .. I believe it just cannot be translated. The syntactic structure is such that it is not possible to move it into a convenient and intuitive semantic framework. But let me try my own transcreation ...

The trinity of the world, the transworld and the self -- adores Savitri and contemplates upon that divine effulgence that animates ( us).

Now that is out of the way .. couple of things more.

First the name Gayatri mantra is wrong !! This is the Savitri mantra, that is set to the Gayatri metre .. consisting of three, eight syllable stanzas.

Second .... why is it that of all other Mantras, this is the one that all most all of us chant. In fact if a Brahman knows just ONE mantra it would be the gayatri. What is the mystery behind this pre-eminence. I have some ideas .. but perhaps I will elaborate on another day.

February 16, 2005

Services Science : A new discipline

One of the "Breakthrough Ideas" identified by the Harvard Business Review for 2005 is the emergence of a new academic discipline called "Services Science".

This is certainly a very interesting and important concept because of two reasons. First "services" is something that is gaining prominence from a financial perspective as the focus of the global economy moves from goods ( or products ) to services ... and an increasing proportion of corporate revenue is being derived from the latter. Simply put, that which brings in the moolah is worthy of my attention.

The second reason is that the definition of services is now expanding to include an ever expanding gamut of tasks. From pizza delivery to tax-return processing, from clinical design to hair stying there is a vast area of economic activity that falls into this category. This is precisely why we need to a theoretical basis that isolates the core essentials of this elusive activity and presents it in a manner that is relevent to all.

We study arithmetic ( or mathematics ) as a science because the same principles can be applied across a vast range of physical and economic phenomena that are useful to mankind in general. Similar is the case of any of the other sciences. This process of abstracting the general from the myriad specifics that surround us and giving it a structure that is independent of all that is emerged out of is the challenge that is worth addressing.

The analogy with Management Science is both intuitive and illuminative. Management Science emerged from the fuzzy and ill-defined process of running a business and has now acquired a respectable structure based on two fundamental pillars .. of which one is quantitative ( based on Operations Research and other 'hard' disciplines ) and the other is behavioural ( based on psychology and other 'soft' disciplines)

When we move to Services Science, we need to do something similar. The single most difficult area in the area of services is to put a value to the service being delivered. Costs are easy to determine, based on inputs and prices are dictated by the market. What is most elusive is the value that is delivered and it is this perception of 'value' -- which is in general always over estimated by the provider and underestimated by the consumer -- which is the at the heart of most disputes in this area.

A fair estimation of value, based on (once again) quantitative techniques PLUS psychological insight could be be key to a sound Services Science.

February 14, 2005

Panspermia ....

What is panspermia ? It is a theory ( and process ?) which states that the transition from inanimate organic material to animate organisms is NOT something that happens in every planet or global society.

Instead, it has happened ONCE somewhere and subsequently life forms are carried between galactic and intergalactic space either randomly or through the co-ordinated activity of sentient and intelligent agents.

I had heard about this somewhere but it was brought home through a very powerful book that I read over the weekend. "Titan" by Stephen Baxter is a very powerful novel that talks about how human travel to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and then from there even further.

What makes the book immediately current is the the fact that the Cassini-Huygens probe has just deposited the Huygens part of the spacecraft on Titan's methane and nitrogen environment this year itself ... and this forms a very integral part of the story.

Wonderful ( though rather melancholic ) book on the follies of the human race but an excellent technical introduction to panspermia.

Read it, if you can.

February 11, 2005

The In-Silico BackOffice

For labour intensive BioInformatics processing

July 20th 2001 / February 11, 2005

Prithwis Mukerjee, Ph.D.


India has become a favourite destination for multinational companies setting up back-offices for large volume data processing activities. This involves creating a world class computing infrastructure that is used by a large number of low cost resources to churn out a high volume of repetitive transactions based on data collected, electronically or physically, at high cost client locations. The people who perform these transactions are not highly skilled, but they work under the supervision of very experienced and knowledgeable supervisors and with the help of detailed instruction sheets and easy to use enabling technology. This model can be extended into the area of biological data processing.


Contemporary research in the area of life sciences has revealed the need for extensive usage of computers for ultra large volume data processing. The sequencing of the human and other genomes and the subsequent mapping of individual nucleotides sequences to specific genes and then to the corresponding

proteins are some of the more glamorous examples of these requirements. However there are other areas, for example in the area of processing of clinical field trial data that are equally important but not so well publicized.

Software tools for performing these tasks are very often already available or under development and refinement in more “advanced” research environments. However few, if at all any, of these tools allow a fully automated process and generate a complete and self-sufficient result. Instead, most of these tools, like BLAST, FASTA etc [in this case, from the world of genome sequencing …] do a part of the work and leave the result in a stage that needs some more human [ intelligent ? ] intervention. This human intervention calls for two kind of skills, first a low end “technician” grade skill to do some preliminary spade work – to weed out inconsequent and otherwise irrelevant results, followed by a high grade “deep” skill that results in a fundamental decision point. The closest analogy would be a pathological laboratory where the technician does the initial work that is then “signed off” by a qualified and licensed medical practitioner. The pathology laboratory is a “wet lab” for in-vivo or in-vitro activities, whereas the model that is presented here is a “dry lab” for in-silico activities.

Value Proposition

The volume of work associated with many of the problems is extremely large and this is where India has an advantage. The “low end” work could be done in India by an army of adequately trained technicians under the tight supervision and guidance of a small number skilled biotechnology professionals. Considering the difference in salary levels between India and the industrialized countries, the cost advantage would be significant – in fact it would be on par with the corresponding advantages enjoyed by Indian software companies. The cost difference multiplied by the potential volume of work is the value proposition.

While the initial focus would be on low end “Y2K” style work [ to draw an analogy from the world of software] there is nothing that stops a successful Indian operation to build upon these skills and then climb up the value chain to enter the world of high end software development and biotech services.

Four Questions

There are four main categories of questions that need to be addressed before any further action :

• What are the various technical problems that we can solve ? Or what are the specific services that can be offered in this mode ? Some possible examples could be :

o Transformation of nucleotide sequence data into potential genes and then to amino acid sequences and finally proteins

o Structural genomics leading to validated target molecules and drugs

o Data mining / Statistical analysis / Annotation of data generated by companies engaged in population genomics and clinical field trials

Here we must keep in mind that the window of opportunity that presents itself can close with the progress in the area of automated tools. For example, the medical transcription market, that is being exploited for the past 10 years, may just disappear with the development of reliable speech recognition and speech-to-text technology.

• Is there a significant pool of “technician” grade people who have the skills or can be trained ?

Traditional back office operations have depended on the available pool of B.A, B.Sc., B.Com graduates who could be easily trained in the area of invoice processing and reconciliation. Can something similar be done with B.Sc., M.Sc. graduates who have a “good” background in Chemistry and BioChemistry ? Using the software analogy, we need NIIT/Aptech certified programmers, not general stream graduates or Computer Science graduates from IIT.

• Who would be the client for such services ? Would it be pharmaceutical companies ? Companies involved in population genomics ? Research laboratories ? What kind of budgets do they have and can they be persuaded to part with their data ? In short, what is the market for such services ?

• What kind of hardware, software, communication links and offshore methodology would be necessary to support such an operation ? Do we invest in this infrastructure or do we leverage global infrastructure by working “over the wire” ? Do we have the technical skills necessary to install, configure and if necessary build and/or tailor the tools that can deliver services on a reliable and timely basis ?

Next Steps

The first step would be to have a forum, address the four issues and evolve a broad consensus. If the outcome is positive, the next step would be to :

• Create a pilot project team consisting of biotechnology and computer professionals who would

o Identify a specific problem or service

o Create the solution delivery platform in terms of hardware and software

• In parallel, identify a set of target clients for such services

o Convince one client to participate in this service delivery model at sharply discounted prices

February 10, 2005

Privatisation of Tax Collection ...

It has been quite some time since I have written on this blog and that is kind of unfortunate. Fact is that I am generally bursting for ideas but unfortunately there is no platform where I can put these up. From that perspective, these blogs could be the equivalent of a Hyde Park corner ....

In any case, what is my big idea of the day ? You would have guessed it by now from the title of the blog ..

Every year the Finance Minister tinkers with the tax rates. But let him also focus on the collection strategy.

The income tax department is generally viewed with suspicion and there are many stories about corruption, extortion plus rude and irrational behaviour. Identical behaviour was the hallmark of DoT and the nationalised insurance companies. However there has been a sea change with the introduction of private operators in these fields. Both BSNL and LIC and it sisters are now far more user friendly AND efficient.

Let us adopt the same strategy for tax collection. Let there be Tax Collection Regulator ( like SEBI, TRAI, IRDA ) and let it license multiple private agencies for tax collection in each tax circle.

Each agency can be given a tax collection target and let them compete for 'business' from existing and potential tax payers. The finance ministry will set the tax rates and guidelines but the implementation will be done by these private agencies. Remuneration for the agencies can be on a licence fee + revenue sharing basis. Enforcement can be through civil and criminal suits filed with existing tribunals and courts.

The idea may sound initially ludicrous but with the passage of time would certainly prove to be immensely beneficial.

That is me in a Pugree in Pune
That is me ...