September 02, 2012

Rewalsar, Himachal Pradesh, India

(This article was published in The Hindu Metro Plus dated 1-Sept-2012) 

In the hills of Himachal Pradesh we stumble upon a little town of gompas, temples and silences.

I could hear a thousand bees buzzing and the occasional chime of bells interjected by a clang, as if two super bees had just collided and sent a ripple of high frequency waves across the foggy mountain air. The moisture in the air absorbed this distinct clamour, and the buzzing continued and became more pronounced as I climbed further up. As I trudged a few steps off the serpentine road, a small structure emerged as the source of this humming. The human hum now took on the distinctive shape of the morning prayers of the nuns in the Buddhist monastery there.

Just a turn away from this came another unassuming one-storied building. With much curiosity, I interrupted the lama sitting there chanting and rotating his handheld prayer wheel, to ask for directions to the caves, only to shown into the building. A few steps inside and I felt the sudden drop in temperature and the anxiety of an impending stillness. A small inverted V-shaped opening to the right made me feel I was just about to enter a new world, like Alice. 

A huge statue of Padum or Guru Padmasabhava, as he is known, looked down upon the small room created by the walls of the caves and illuminated by many candles and a few tube lights. The silence in the air was discontinued only by his looks and the pointed goatee beard. The pale gold statue of Rinpoche, in his classic sitting pose, had just enough space to be ensconced between the two cave walls. The small cave room became the perfect time-capsule for a few passengers who wanted to digress from earthly harangues and meditate in this stillness. A sharp ear could hear water trickling down the walls in the adjoining smaller cave that housed a small idol of Padum’s consort Madarava.

Stepping out of the cave, my eyes were blinded by the whiteness of the fog and the clouds passing by. I climbed up the mountain to Naina Devi temple where there was more human presence. Bhajans could be heard clearly while my mind yearned to collect the prasad on my way out. The clouds eclipsed the temple towers and the heat from the havan kund was perfect for the weather. A newly-wed couple sought blessings from the mountain Goddess Bhagwati, an incarnation of Durga, while a few kids busily clicked pictures with the clouds as backdrop. The time for arathi made the pilgrims congregate at the sanctum while I ran out to get the prasad. After the unassuming fanfare at the temple, a government HRTC bus took me back to Rewalsar via a densely fogged road lined with pine trees.

I could see the 123 ft statue of Padmasabhava overlooking the town of Rewalsar from a hillock while rains continued to wet the green coloured lake called Tso Pema, Padmacan or The Lotus Lake. The sun's rays impregnated the clouds and struck the statue making it much more lustrous. A hot cup of tea in the cafe outside the Nyingmapa Gompa, whichmade a perfect resting place, where I could sit and watch the huge statue while letting the monsoon sink into me. Reading a book was not an option, as the silence of the staccato was mind-numbing. The mind picturised the whole sequence of events of Vajracharya on the burning pyre, which instead of consuming him turned into a pool of water and hence the water body called Padmacan and the genesis of Guru Padmasambhava, who went on to preach Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet from here.

A much-revered destination for Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs alike, Rewalsar on the hills had a charm that not many pilgrim sites possess. During a quiet walk around the lake, I stopped at different places to just look at the huge statue and get into a minor trance. It is believed that Rishi Lomas meditated here; and also that there is a Gurudwara built by the Raja Joginder Sen of Mandi to commemorate Guru Gobind Singh's visit. Having been mentioned as a sanctuary in Sau Sakhi, the town is sacred for Namdhari Sikhs as well.
Nestled between all these religious sites I found a small zoo that housed some ghorals, barking deer, porcupines and bear. The panoramic view from the side of the lake, which housed a huge prayer wheel and hundreds of smaller prayer wheels (or mane, as they are called) was the perfect culmination point after perambulating the lake.

After a few days in this quaint little town, I rushed back to the madness of the city to immerse myself in some post-travel research to find out know more about this uncharted destination.

Rewalsar in Himachal Pradesh is 25km from Mandi and well connected by buses and taxis with Delhi. HPTDC operates comfortable Volvo buses.  

Drikung Kadyud Gompa and Nyingmapa Gompa offer basic rooms at cheap rates. HPTDC Traveller's Inn and Hotel Lotus Lake behind the bus-stand are other options. 

Momos, thukpas and noodles are aplenty and the road outside Nyingmapa Gompa has many small eateries. Kommunity Kafe has nice thalis, albeit slightly pricey. The Tso Pema cafe sells organic tea and banana muffins. 

(This article was published in The Hindu Metro Plus dated 1-Sept-2012)

September 01, 2012

Book Review : The The Art of Intelligence by Henry A.Crumpton

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-07-2012)

We've got thousands dead. All I want is the mission. You gave it to me. I'm grateful." Thus responded Henry Crumpton (Hank) to his call of duty towards operations in Afghanistan. In The Art of Intelligence, Crumpton recounts how he joined the CIA as one of the youngest recruits, carried out operations in different geographies and rose to be the head of Special Operations in CIA's Counterterrorism Center and later as Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State. The book is packed with many instances of action that involve running agent networks all over the world, collecting valuable intelligence, executing global covert action, leading men in war, and helping defend the US — aspects that make the book a good read for students of international relations.

This enjoyable read starts with the various components of the tradecraft and Crumpton's experiences with these. The first half talks about training, recruiting and liaisoning skills. Having spent around a decade running agent networks in Africa, Crumpton says, "Good spies are like athletes; good spies are born, developed and trained." A key step, as Crumpton explains, is how CIA transformed itself with the inception of new technology. Like how usage of GPS during the war in Afghanistan was instrumental in sharing intelligence quickly with ground forces. Or how proliferation of the Web made espionage an important part of collecting digital intelligence. Familiar with tough decisions that affect many lives, he notes that though engaging the enemy lethally is important, understanding and winning over the people is crucial. Parallels could be easily drawn in a corporate zone.

The dynamics between the CIA, Department of Defence, the FBI and policy-makers figures as a running theme in various contexts. Crumpton often takes a dig at the FBI for an almost non-existent intelligence analysis and sharing mechanism with the CIA, and compares it to that of the CIA's success in thwarting al Qaeda's Millennium Plot, which used a constant feedback loop between intelligence collection and analysis.

He stresses on the need for intelligence and covert action, while underlining that it is not a magic bullet. His frustration is visible when he mentions, "We had UBL (Usama bin Laden) in our electrical-optical insights, but we had no realistic policy, no clear authority..." He also mentions how Barack Obama came into office with negative views of the CIA and how it changed with CIA's key role in UBL's death.  That said, the constant eulogising leaves a false impression of CIA being a ‘perfect' body. Also, the stress on the importance of the private sector in intelligence collection hints at publicity for the author's firm — The Crumpton Group, a strategic international advisory. The author underscores the importance of crucial leadership skills needed in challenging and risk-filled environments.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-07-2012 .This review and other book reviews by me for BusinessWorld Magazine can be accessed here. )

Book Review : Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 09-07-2012. This review and other book reviews for BusinessWorld Magazine by me can be accessed here.)

  Why did Steve Jobs have the only set of bathrooms in the heart of the Pixar Studios office? Do we solve puzzles by insight or analysis? How did an autistic surfer invent a new killer surfing move? What led Bob Dylan to write ‘Like a Rolling Stone'? What was so special about Elizabethan England that it led to a literary explosion? And how do some companies and cities become innovation hubs? Explore these and many other interesting anecdotes in Imagine: How Creativity Works by popular science writer Jonah Lehrer.

Lehrer is a staff writer with The New Yorker, and has been in news this month for a reason that, ironically, his works can explain well — self plagiarism. A controversy broke out when media critic Jim Romenesko found out that Lehrer, who moved his popular pop-science blog ‘Frontal Cortex' to The New Yorker from Wired, rehashed parts of his earlier pieces in his posts on Lehrer later apologised. Despite the row, Lehrer is among the best science writers of the day. He is young (32) and effervescent, and is touted to be Malcolm Gladwell 2.0. His earlier works include Proust Was A Neuroscientist (2007) and How We Decide (2009).  

The book has two parts. The first one focuses on the thought processes in an individual and the next one discusses the (social) dynamics in a group or a city. For Lehrer, creativity is a discovery process; it is like taking two already existing things and connecting them in an entirely new way. This, in some ways, reflects views of Greek philosophers such as Plato, who viewed creativity as a form of imitation. Lehrer says an idea has a promise when it looks obvious in retrospect. Creativity, he says, is more a state of mind than a phase of mind and different aspects such as colour or travel can drastically influence the flow of thoughts. Lehrer explains how comic artists improvise to let themselves go and not inhibit their impulses.

Without getting too deep into neuroscience, Lehrer succinctly explains the importance of the prefrontal cortex in the creativity process, how certain drugs affect the activity of neurons and how the eureka moment always comes along with the certainty of the success of the idea. The ‘aha' moment can be due to either an insight or analysis and it is easy to differentiate between the two problem-solving abilities. Citing Crockett Johnson's children's novel Harold And The Purple Crayon as an example, Lehrer explains how different ideas coexist in our brain (conceptual blending) — an important aspect of creativity. He corroborates this with the thought processes behind the invention of the airplane, printing machine, velcro, Google search algorithm, etc. Yes, you will find Lehrer digging out anecdotes from almost everything.

Lehrer says cities are indeed engines of innovation and it is where good ideas originate. Dense populations lead to more diversity and interactions which, in turn, generate more ideas — ‘knowledge spillovers'. Stressing the importance of interactions and communication, Lehrer explains how Silicon Valley won over Route 128 (a highway around Boston, which housed a hi-tech industry along its lanes in 1960s and 1980s). Despite the density of talent, Route 128 could not interact courtesy non-compete clauses and non-disclosure pacts, which resulted in stifling of innovation. There was no free flow of information. Lehrer says imagination is a talent that takes multiple forms, while creativity is an emergent property of people coming together.

Lehrer is not trying to prescribe a set of rules for you to be a more creative person, but he tries to touch upon the various internal and external phenomena that trigger creative thought processes in us. He combines aspects of neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, humanities and urban geography to make the book a comprehensive read. He has done his homework well, and refers to works of several scientists and researchers, making the book a must read for all innovators and out-of the-box thinkers.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 09-07-2012. This review and other book reviews for BusinessWorld Magazine by me can be accessed here.)

Book Review : Velocity By Ajaz Ahmed & Stefan Olander

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 11-06-2012)

As Seth Godin says, a trapeze artist can never succeed if he cannot let go his rope to get to the next one. Ajaz Ahmed and Stefan Olander carry forward this idea in Velocity. Ahmed is the founder of AKQA, an award-winning creative agency, and Olander is the vice-president of digital sport at Nike, and they come together to translate their extensive experience in the digital world into seven laws for any organisation to be successful. Written as a conversation between the two, this book would help any entrepreneur, decision-maker or innovator in streamlining their thought processes.

The central premise rests on the adage: "If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got." The authors present why innovation is important in today's rapidly changing and challenging business ecosystem and how it is mandatory for survival. Richard Branson, in his introduction, says that change is often seen as a threat, but to an entrepreneur it is oxygen. Ahmed states how AKQA embodied this spirit and transformed  into a big company with a clientele that includes Nike, Heineken, Volkswagen, Fiat, Audi, XBox and Virgin.

The book cites many product successes and failures to demonstrate the importance of innovation, vision and perseverance for an engaging customer experience. Though the laws might sound axiomatic, the authors cite several instances where organisations have gone wrong in taking calculated risks. Examples include firms such as Borders, which missed the digital revolution and ended up filing for bankruptcy, or Segway, which tried to be the harbinger of the next revolution in personal transportation and failed. Emphasising on doing rather than on just thinking about an idea, Ahmed casually remarks, "Don't tell me you are funny, tell me a joke".

Marketing and advertising also figure prominently in the book. The authors emphasise that "being cool" comes with offering well-designed, interesting and indispensable solutions. Technology is only an enabler, and it helps aid imagination in offering customers simple and intuitive solutions. The many channels of customer engagement should not interrupt customers, but offer them a nice memory of the product.

No book on innovation can exclude Apple. The authors do discuss the indefatigable spirit of Steve Jobs and Apple's employees who have always offered great customer experiences. They discuss how ‘convenience' does not feature in the vocabulary of Apple and beauty and simplicity are a standard.

This book can also be called a successor to Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, with a lesser intensity. Though it is noteworthy that Gladwell is probably the best storyteller of our generation, Ahmed and Olander have done a good job of keeping the reader tuned in and sharing their insights, observations and enthusiasm for the digital world in a jargon free language.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 11-06-2012. This review and other book reviews for BusinessWorld Magazine by me can be accessed here.)

Book Review : Understanding Oil Prices by Salvatore Carollo

(This story was published in Businessworld Magazine Issue Dated 21-05-2012)

Bedlam is the right noun to denote the oil market. Especially to qualify the fluctuations in oil prices. Everyone is affected, but few have a clue about the why of it all. It takes a great deal of toil and pots of good luck to crack the code. You should know more than what is what and who is who. Understanding Oil Prices by Salvatore Carollo is a helpful guide for students of the oil market. Carollo walks the reader through different avenues of the oil industry and explains how factors such as technology, environment, financial markets and governance (or the lack of it) affect oil prices. He also elaborates on how a simple universal model is just not applicable in predicting oil price movements.

The book starts by explaining the crude oil ‘paradoxes' and moves to recent market vents (2008-11). It also chronicles events since the 1970s oil crisis that have shaped this industry. Carollo covers all the key events in the history of oil trade such as the closing of the Suez Canal in late 1960s, which brought in the supertanker era, or the Chernobyl disaster which led to stricter environmental laws or the 1980s when a ‘paper market' (futures contracts) was started. It also analyses key issues and events such as the world energy policy, the financial crisis, the evolution of oil price since the 1960s, the rise and influence of Opec, etc. The author digs deep into the futures universe — the financial Mordor (courtesy Tolkien), where paper-wielding analysts determine the future of the barrel. Such a world holds no links to the actual oil industry, but it rules the industry and triggers fluctuations in the price of ‘real' oil. The author reiterates that the economic principles on supply and demand are no longer useful in forecasting or predicting  oil prices. Carollo will help you understand why even when the Opec keeps increasing production, markets respond with an increase in the crude oil price. Thankfully, and interestingly, the book does not go very deep into the technical analysis of price movements. Further, the book is full of interesting nuggets of information. Do you know, for instance, that the US consumes 30 times more gasoline than Italy, but its tax revenues from automotive fuel is about a third of Italy's?

The author concludes by emphasising the importance of nuclear power and its relevance in the future and the need for an active political and organisational leadership at a global level in guiding and governing this extremely important commodity. The book is backed by extensive research, which reflects the author's experience. Carollo is an engineering graduate from the University of Palermo, Italy, where he worked at Italian energy giant Eni, before trying his hand and refining, market research, supply and trade of oil. That said, he is not didactic in his views, and his observations make the book an extremely enjoyable read. Informative charts and tables add to the pleasure.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 21-05-2012. This review and other book reviews for BusinessWorld Magazine by me can be accessed here.)