The Story of Mankind

HIGH up in the North, in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.

The Story of Mankind, Hendrik Van Loon


We shared the same first names. Unfortunately that is where all similarities ended, for he was about my father’s age and much different from my father. And I was a student in the 8th standard. A colleague of my father’s – though not the engineering shop-floor type – he drove a motorcycle that made such a racket that it was easy to spot his arrival even when he was a quarter of a kilometer away from our home. My father had detected – perhaps pretty astutely – that my education in the English language needed external intervention which he (my father) was not able to provide. So, Subrata Sinha, started his Monday-Wednesday-Friday routine to our place – to teach me the three Rs.

Mutual consent quickly reduced it to just two Rs as we found it was much more pleasurable to figure out the riddles of Alice in Wonderland than work out the devious progress of that monkey climbing a slippery pole. Sir – as I would call him – had a great flair for astronomy too. It is almost impossible to find clear skies in polluted industrial townships but he was relentless in his attempts to explain to me how to identify stars and constellations (I learnt that the “Saptarshi Mandal” or the Big Dipper was a misnomer because one of the stars – the smallest one in luminance – was named after Angira, the consort of sage Vashishtha). And why planets emitted a steady light while stars twinkled. One day Sir said he’d change the routine. He would read me, once every week, a book he thought was important for me to form a world view (it never crossed my mind why he could not just leave the book with me for me to read). Thus started my first introduction to world history (actually much more than just world history – history of the world, to be more accurate). The book started with the same quote that I started this piece with – lines that got seared in my mind (Later on I have read Richard Dawkins using a metaphor of one-century-per-page to explain the vastness of evolution and I would go – why can’t you use the mountain-bird thing). My journey through the history of mankind became fascinating and it opened up vistas in my young mind that shaped my subsequent love for history, anthropology, evolution and sociology.

We had reached about the middle of the book – a small, hardcover, greenish volume that Sir would carry tucked in his trouser (carry-bags were unheard of those days in semi-urban Bengal). It was the 30th of January, 1984, Monday, and I had returned from school, deciding not to go out to play like we usually did because I needed to complete an essay that Sir wanted me to write. Tears welling up, my mother informed me that it wouldn’t be necessary. Subrata Sinha – Sir – had had a cardiac arrest while at work that morning and had breathed his last even before they could rush him to the town hospital.

Yesterday I discovered the book – The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Van Loon – on Amazon. The price was a piddly $2.99 to get it on my Kindle. Yet it was priceless. I shall start retracing steps of my first quest of knowledge exactly twenty seven years after the one who got me past the start line passed away. Thank you Sir, for starting me on this wonderful journey. I hope you pardon me that it has taken an excess of a quarter of a century for me to resume. But in the larger scheme of things, the little bird has not eroded much of the tall mountain at Svithjod.

Amazon Singles: A Gamechanger Once Again

Reed Hastings of Netflix had once argued – correctly – that two types of people get on the internet for commerce. The e-bay types, looking for a good bargain on stuff that is even otherwise easily available and the amazon types, who are seeking convenience and things they cannot find elsewhere. That is, they are looking at the long-tail. For a company that understands the long tail really well, Amazon delivered another winner yesterday with Kindle Singles (By the way, Hastings added to his statement that if you cannot appeal to either of the two types that he mentions you might as well not bother about an e-commerce venture. Spot on)

Kindle Singles are the middle ground between a novel and a blog post. They are 10,000 to 30,000 word write-ups on a focused line of thought, priced between $0.00 – $4.99. Amazon seems to have a collaboration of sorts with TED to publish as Singles what is being called TED Books (interestingly, the curator of TED, Chris Anderson is the pioneer of the term long-tail, in his book by the same name). Like its consumers, Amazon’s sourcing idea also goes to the long-tail. Reports have it that the (erstwhile) retailing giant intends to directly reach out to authors, bypassing the entire publishing ecosystems pseudo gatekeepers. This is great news for creators of content, so long as Amazon does not end up acting like the same publishers it is eliminating. Not only do authors get a chance to directly reach out to their readers, they can do it on a platform that has proven its mettle on the matter of long-tails.  The e-book format suits that kind of length – and viewpoints – that Singles are expected to serve. It is easy on the readers too – and provides them with a way to segment their reading habits (Singles on short flights, full format books on long-hauls and so on).

At another level – is this the solution for newspapers and print magazines too? How many times have we gotten stuck with a magazine that really has just two or three insightful articles. How many times did we have to buy a full newspaper for reading just two great op-eds. Publications lock me in for long term subscriptions whereas what I would really like is to purchase just a piece of an article that I would like to read (socially reviewed and – this is for monetization – “appropriately” priced. That is, an article that twenty of my friends have “liked” is priced at about twice that of something “liked” by only ten. You get the drift)

Amazon singles puts the industry of the intellect firmly on the path of disintermediation, besides of course continuing to play to the consumer-values of readers. I strongly believe this will also change the way some adjacent industries work. After all, the app store idea was born out of the Amazon concept.

PS: My first Single. And five minutes later, my second Single.

Attention is Precious

So is that the reason why you are wasting spreading it around?

Everyday we start with a finite amount of attention and choose to do something meaningful with it. Faced with options to choose between investment choices for attention, we make immediate – yet conscious – decisions. Finish off that presentation takes higher precedence than updating Facebook status, for example. The universe of choices however is increasing at an alarming rate. There are so many blogs to read, so many posts to comment on, so many interesting people to follow on Twitter, your RSS feed is bursting at the seams – and not to mention the demands of your professional and personal lives.

We go about this in a manner of “let’s do more” – let’s get more attention to spare from somewhere. Unable to make ruthless choices of cutting down the demand side of the equation, we stretch a finite resource like it was a bottomless pit. Remember the rubber-band that got pulled endlessly? Why don’t you try the “less” approach. What if you scaled down your activities and did only a handful of things and did them well outstandingly well? Yes, you’d be less informed about ash spewing Icelandic volcanoes but become a force to reckon with in your chosen field.

If you doubt the veracity of this approach, I have two words for you. General Electric.

Picture courtesy:

Who’s Managing Your Money?

About an year back I was part of a team that studied the habits of Indian investors about how they manage their wealth. Some traits were common across the demographics – Advisors were not trusted (they are merely product pushers), too much information overload, no way to understand a 360 degree view of current wealth and so on. When it came to the high net worth individuals (those with an investible surplus of greater than five million US Dollars), there was another refrain that we heard several times. “I really don’t know much about the advisors. I have people to deal with them. They do everything for me”. This implied a commutation of trust – from the financial advisor to the personal assistant(s). I also had the opportunity to witness first hand how such personal assistants to high networth individuals are given VIP treatment by the wealth managers and get their own personal tasks executed by these wealth managers. It was quite evident that two things had happened. One, the power of wealth was surrogated to the gatekeepers who by definition should have played a mere fiduciary role on behalf of the HNI and two, the wealth advsiors were treating these gatekeepers as their client.

In light of the embezzlement that happened by a Relationship Manager at Citibank defrauding his clients – mostly high net worth ones – this not-so-subtle switch of relationships and power becomes important. It so transpired in the case that this Relationhip Manager had managed to get blank forms, power of attorneys and in some cases financial instruments signed by his clients which he went on to use in illegally moving funds from their accounts (included in this roster of clients is someone who had started Daksh and later sold it IBM. This person included Vikram Pandit in his police complaint). I suspect that at least in some cases the clients really had no idea of what they were doing, because there were gatekeepers. It also is not above suspicion if there were collusion between the Relationship Manager and the gatekeepers (nothing has come out on that as yet though). The promise made by the relationship manager to his “clients” was a 2-3% return per month. Now anyone, including my seventy year old mother, would know that such returns are just impossible (else, Puri, the relationship manager would not have been working for a salary). I find it difficult to imagine a conversation between Puri and Sanjiv Aggarwal that gets to this point and where Aggarwal pulls out his Mont Blanc and starts signing those blank forms. Such conversation between Puri and a gatekeeper with a promise of kickbacks – not too difficult to imagine.

The moot point here is that the supply side malaise in form of rogue advsiors is just one dimension of the problem. There is a structural demand side issue as well and this cannot be labeled as an education deficit challenge. The problem is with individuals surrogating their money management responsibilities to questionable fiduciaries and taking a hands-off approach. A systemic behavioral problem takes more time to solve than mere correcting operational principles, which Citi is probably doing right now.

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2010. That’s about 5 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 11 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 108 posts. There were 12 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 318kb. That’s about a picture per month.

The busiest day of the year was August 5th with 132 views. The most popular post that day was Waving Good-bye.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for anti facebook, signing treaty, treaty, signing a treaty, and facebook logo.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Waving Good-bye August 2010
1 Like on,


Product Management in a Start-up March 2009


We hereby agree… July 2009


Now on Facebook! October 2009


Hierarchy of Equals: Mahesh Ramakrishnan January 2009