Sunday, August 26, 2012

I hereby patent everything in this world that has not yet been patented

Conventional thinking is that without patents,we would not have innovation. Mankind would stagnate in the Dark Ages. Really ?? 

This port is triggered by the drama between Apple and Samsung . In the tech industry, everybody is suing everybody else over patent infringement. Hundreds of patents are granted over what goes inside one mobile phone. Is this all necessary ? These days, that business seems to be driven by lawyers rather than technology - M&A activity in this industry seem to be driven mostly by patents.The patent industry has exploded so much that this blogger even blogged about the ridiculous patents that have been granted.

The central premise that innovation will be stopped if there are no patents is nonsense. Right through human history, innovation has flourished with no help from the patent office, thank you.  Patents are a recent human invention - perhaps in the 15th century. Innovation has not exactly been stifled throughout human history.  You may say, ancient history is not relevant. But take even the 20th century - the discovery of the cure for malaria, the satellites that make today's communication possible, the green revolution , the internet, and even the cellphone itself arrived with no help from patents. NASA, which has helped an incredible amount of innovation in the last 50 years, does not patent stuff.

Human nature is to innovate - thank God. No amount of pressure can stifle that. The central problem with patents is that they create monopolies. Monopolies, by definition, stifle competition and are against the consumer.  Huge ethical issues arise when drugs are patented and the poor are excluded from the benefits of life saving drugs.

I am not saying that we should afford no protection to the inventor and simply allow free boarders to copy and ride on somebody else's work.  But the current situation has gone too far. My prescription is a drastic reduction in what can be patented, significantly lower patent periods and public funding of research to compete with private industry.

This would be absolutely heresy to the business world, and if I were important enough, I would simply be branded a communist. I know of at least one reader of this blog who is going to call me and express shock that I have morphed into Kim Jong Il. But I know business They will simply adapt to a different regime. Innovation will not slow down one bit. It might actually become  more cost effective.

There is zero chance that any of this will happen. But just on the off chance , I hereby patent this idea and in case anybody wants to adopt it, they can only do so after paying me $4,567,984.32 .

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A car journey to remember

I hadn't met her for 35 years. After school, we went our own ways. Our leaving school was chaotic- we were not even supposed to leave that year, but the powers that be, changed the rules and packed us off to college. Literally overnight we had to run; for the town we were from had no college and we had to go to the big bad city. There was no time for goodbyes. No time for farewells. We simply ran.

Thirty five years later I got a call from another ex schoolmate giving me a number. She's at this number ; call her there, the friend said . I did  and discovered that she was in the same city as I am in. Fancy that - no contact for such a long time and then all of a sudden, here she was not more than 5 miles from where I lived. I called her and was delighted to find the same old voice of the days when we were school kids. We were planning for a reunion back in school in a month's time and would she come ?? She took literally 30 seconds to say yes. 

We drove down  together to our old town , a fair drive of some 7-8 hours and B joined us for the trip. The two ladies brought  all the old memories back and we marveled at both how time had flown by and yet how we were going to set the clock back for the next two days. We had a reunion that would stay in our minds forever and when it was time to come back, she and I were the last to leave. The heart was heavy and I don't think I would have survived that drive alone. But she was there and we fondly recalled every moment of the time we all had together. As we reached Bangalore, we promised to be in regular touch. I dropped her off at  her house, had a cup of coffee with her mother and reveled in the knowledge that we had been through something very special. That was the last I saw of her.

We kept in touch on the phone.  We knew that when any of our other mates happened to visit, we would probably get together again. But imagine my shock, when I got the dreaded call three days ago. It was from another mate who had somehow heard of the news. 

How does one reconcile with the passing away of a schoolmate with whom you had shared many a moment in school, lost touch for decades, rediscovered recently and had spent a magical time together. All you can do is reel in complete shock. This is not supposed to happen, is it ? School mates are eternal, aren't they ?

All I have is that magical car journey to remember you by.

Rest in peace my friend.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hey you commenters; you better behave yourselves !

I am now in some serious trouble. It appears, I am responsible for all the stuff you lot comment on my blog. If anything you write is untrue or misleading, it looks like I will go to jail. Good Lord!

As usual, this blogger is guilty of hyperbole. But, as has been repeatedly stated, any prose, sans some journalistic license, is a sure cure for insomnia. So with some hyperbole, I am musing about Diageo's Facebook page, that has got into trouble with the Australian authorities.

If you don't know Diageo, it is the company that makes Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Baileys etc. Because their Board has been told that they must be "in" to social media, they have a Facebook page for their brands such as Smirnoff. The site encourages reader comments, opinions, etc, which you would expect to be a fairly harmless thing to do. Now anybody, who knows anything about social media, know that the vast majority of comments on anything (notable exception, this blog) will be vulgar, absurd, defamatory, etc etc. But any self respecting site would have some mechanism to keep spam and filth out, but would let most other comments stay, even if they were outrageous.

The Australian Standards Board has however ruled that Diageo must police  all reader comments on their site and that any comment by a reader would be treated as an advertising claim by Diageo and it would be liable if that were untrue, or misleading. Now anybody who has worked in a consumer products company knows that before any ad is released, lawyers pore over every statement made to ensure that they would not be sued later for wrong advertising. If the same standard were to be applied to reader comments, then essentially social media becomes off limits for advertisers. Forget having to delete obscene comments. If a reader posted a comment saying Smirnoff has 7.5% alcohol, instead of the actual 7%, Diageo will become responsible for misleading advertising !!

Right now, this is a problem confined to Australia. If other countries followed suit with a similar view, companies will have no option but to pull their sites out of interactive media. That would be a real shame, but the impact on social media sites would be disastrous. Imagine what will happen to Facebook revenues. If ad revenues did not come, social media itself cannot survive.

Before you say that the Australian decision is crazy and possibly issued by gray men who "don't get it",  think just a little more. Any reader can reasonably say that matters stated in a company's site can be interpreted to mean that it is comping from the company or that the company has approved it. After all it is possible for a clever company to structure a site such that its advertising is largely in the form of reader appreciation and response. Such appreciation and glowing reviews is what the company is aiming to get in the first place; isn't it. So there is some merit in what the Austraian Standards Board is saying, although their stance appears a bit excessive.

Laws on adveritising were framed way before even the internet came, let alone social media. They need some serious reconsideration and  global consensus.

Until then, I better be careful. After all, I do go once in a while to Australia and don't want to get arrested. Readers are therefore requested to only post completely truthful comments attesting to the fact that I am indisputably tall, dark and handsome !

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

US law should stop at its borders

I recommend that Benjamin Lawski, head of New York state's Department of Financial Services takes my good friend Sriram's  Geography 101 course . He might want to learn where the borders of the United States lie and where his jurisdiction is. The laws of the United States are enforceable in the United States. They are not enforceable on the world.

I am referring to the spat between the DFS and Standard Chartered Bank. The problem is this. US law does not allow US entities to have any business dealings with Iran - neither the country nor its nationals. The US is perfectly entitled to have such a law - its merits or otherwise is for US citizens to decide. The problem is that the US would like everybody in the world to follow that law. That deserves the response - mind your own business.

Standard Chartered Bank is a UK headquartered bank that largely deals with Asia and Africa. It has very little business in the US. However it does have a branch in New York where transactions are routed through if they are in US dollars - since most Asian and African countries deal in US dollars for their international trade, much of it gets routed through the US.

There is no doubt that Standard Chartered Bank deals with Iran. But the laws of the UK where it is registered and the other countries where it operates, does not prohibit it from doing so. There are certainly laws  prohibiting dealings with crooks and terrorists, but it is a reasonable fact (that may however be surprising to Mr Lawski) that all Iranians are not crooks or terrorists. US law  permitted in the past  the sort of transactions that Standard Chartered did, called U turn, but there are grey areas and , no doubt, this case will be enmeshed in legalese.

But the impact of the DFS report has been devastating on Standard Chartered Bank. The damage has been done, irrespective of whether the bank is found guilty or not. It's share price tanked some 16% yesterday. 

Standard Chartered is livid and has said it would vigorously contest the case (code for saying screw you). It is asking the British government to intervene and put the DFS in its place. One Standard Chartered executive described the colourful DFS report – packed with allegations of “deception”, “fraud” and a “staggering cover-up” – as “like a John Grisham novel”. A director is reported to have allegedly remarked to a colleague "You f---ing Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians? "

My language is somewhat more restrained, but I must admit I have to agree with the worthy !

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The spirit of sport

Here's a quiz. Who won the gold in the following events in Beijing 2008.

1. Men's decathlon -  for the title of the greatest all round athlete
2. Women's 1500m - the metric mile
3. Men's football -the most popular sport on earth
4. Women's individual all round in gymnastics - the most "wow" event
5. Men's 50m freestyle swimming - the fastest swimmer in the world

If you scored zero out of five, congratulations. If I modify the questions to simply say which country did the winner come from in each of the above events, and if you still scored zero out of five, then even more congratulations. We are all in the group of 99% of the human race.

If you are wondering where I am going with this post, let me just say that I was inspired to write this by a brilliant column in today's Hindu by Nirmal Shekar.  It is an outstanding piece of writing, even by Nirmal Shekar's high standards and is a perfect exposition of the spirit of sport.

Yes, sport is about winning. But of course, its not just about winning. If you can't remember who won some of the blue riband events of the last Olympics, only four years ago, does winning really matter ? Yes and no, is the answer. Sure, the world loves a winner. Whoever is going to forget Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt from Beijing. But winning, for most, is momentary. Its also about achieving a personal excellence,  a personal ambition, doing your best, and soaking in the spirit of sport.

The spirit of sport is something undefinable. Its why after you batter each other to exhaustion, you shake each other's hand at the end. Its also why after the medal ceremony, all three medalists stand on top of the podium, arms around each other.  Its why Kobe Bryant, on the day he's not playing, is sitting at the velodrome cheering the cyclists , whom he has probably never seen before. Its why, when the national anthem is played, you can't escape tearing up.  Its why it is an indescribable honour for Saina to get her bronze medal from Li Lingwei, one of the immortals of women's badminton, who congratulated her warmly and gave her an affectionate pat. Its also why the antics in the women's doubles event in badminton is such a sad violation of what sport stands for.

So you can perhaps understand, why for me, one of the finest Indian performances in the Olympics thus far, came in the 20km walk , perhaps the most unglamorous event in athletics. It was a gripping event , if you saw it. There was attack after attack and the tactics were enthralling. The Chinese finally dominated and Chen Ding won. The defending Beijing gold medalist, Valeriy Borchin of Russia,  collapsed close to the finish after giving his all and had to be taken in an ambulance. Amidst all the drama, young Irfan, an armyman from Kerala, had the race of a lifetime. He smashed the national record as well as his personal best in coming a close 10th. He barely made the qualification mark for the event in May, and yet here he was at the finish with the world's best, performing way above his level. That is a stupendous achievement , a world class performance if there was one. He didn't win a medal. But his was a fabulous achievement.

I searched today's papers for a mention - couldn't find much. No Chief Minister is going to announce a reward. No shrill TV anchor is going to interview his mother. No crowds are going to receive him at the airport. In the usual tyranny of the first name, surname naming convention, that bedevils most South Indians, they didn't even get his name right - his bib said "Kolathum Thodi" ! Even the TV coverage during the race barely caught him, except his wonderfully happy grin when he finished. But for me, it was one of the highlights of Olympics thus far, by an Indian.

For , you see, he embodied the spirit of sport.