What makes an Entrepreneurial Society?

If there are two countries in this world that have an Entrepreneurial spirit embedded deep within their genes, its USA and Israel. What has caused this? Why have these two countries turned out to be fountainheads of entrepreneurism? What makes these two societies hold their Entrepreneurs in such high esteem? Its not simply a matter of having an economic system favorable to this cause, for there are affluent European countries which have liberal capitalistic economies and yet have shown only feeble signs of Entrepreneurism. Though Americans have descended from the Europeans, why are the former so entrepreneurial and the latter very much less so? One can argue that Europe has a more socialist mindset but then that would be missing the wood for the trees.

Im currently re-reading the book ‘O Jerusalem’, the fascinating account of how the Jewish state of Israel came into being, sixty years ago. That’s when I realised why this Entrepreneurial spirit is found in abundance in Israel and by a similar analogy in America.

The book illustrates the travails of the early Jewish settlers who migrated from Europe into the Holy Land(Palestine) in the early 20th century to build the state of Israel. They came from all parts of the world. They were of all shapes and sizes. All colors and hue. But they all had a single goal: To build a state on their traditional land so that they would never have to face persecution at the hands of non-jews again.(How valid it was to do so in Arab Palestine is a violent debate that has not ended even today.) But all these early settlers had was the land that they had bought. A desert for most part. They had to make the desert bloom if they wanted to establish a suitable home for themselves and the future generations of Jews that would come to inhabit those lands.

These settlers then set to work on building the farms, industries and institutions which would be needed to sustain a modern nation state. They may have had successful professions in their old homes in Europe. But here they were all alike, starting on a blank slate. So, lawyers dug ditches, pianists milked cows, teachers laid bricks etc. Whatever was needed to be done. They did not have the vestiges of past civilizations to fall back on. Everything that was needed  to run a country had to be built ground-up, brick-by-brick. And these settlers rose up to the challenge and how. Everyone took responsibility for building a pillar for Israel. Everyone became an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneur: a person who starts or organizes a business company, especially one involving risk.

What better example of entrepreneurs than these brave Jews who established Israel? What greater risk than doing it in the middle of a desert surrounded by hostile forces? Despite all the political turmoil, Israel remains one of the economic marvels of the world. Having built everything themselves is the reason I suspect that Israeli society holds Entrepreneurship in such high esteem.

A similar analogy can be extended to USA. North America was settled by peoples from Europe. Here too there was no legacy of civilizations ancient. Everything had to be started from scratch and the earliest settlers did just that. As the East coast became populated, the settlers ventured into the unknown lands of the West. The settlers initially struggled to cultivate the lands of the Mid-West due to the thick upper-crust soil. A man called John Deere then invented a steel plough which enabled the settlers to cultivate the land successfully. John Deere is now a massive farming company. The settlers overcame other odds too. Wind-pumps were used to draw up water from deep down, for irrigation and animals. Dry Farming, special ploughing and other methods were used to conserve moisture. Hard winter wheat (e.g. Turkey Red), introduced by Russian immigrants, was found to be suitable for the climate. New machines were invented.

Here too, like in Israel, development came on the back of immigrants and settlers. People who had left behind their pasts and took ownership of their futures. People who did not conform to the standards of comfortable living and constantly pushed boundaries, literally. Its only natural then, that with such a rich history, the societies of USA and Israel have entrepreneurship embedded in their cores.

In Europe and Asia it was different. Ancient civilizations had left behind sound structures and systems that did not have the need to be replaced. Occupational patterns set in the days of yore continued unquestioned. There was never a need to build anything from scratch. A well established order then, held back these societies from toying around with ideas of self-ownership to the extent done in America and Israel.

I guess entrepreneurial societies are a function of their historical legacies.


Movie Review: Restrepo

Restrepo is a documentary movie about a platoon of the US Army that battles the Taliban in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, for a year. Having been pinned down by the Taliban on all sides, the platoon decides to fight back and build a new outpost called Restrepo, named after one of the fallen soldiers, deeper in the Korengal Valley. This was done to put further pressure on the Taliban and provide an additional fire-base for the US  troops. How the platoon defends these posts and fights the Taliban is captured in this documentary.

This is unlike any other war movie you would’ve ever seen. No visual gimmicks. No recreated sound effects. Its gritty. Its hard-hitting. Its as real as things can get. The explosions are in-your-face. The gunshots ring in your ears. By having no specific storyline, the movie successfully captures the raw war zone in all its grime and glory.

The movie gives the viewer a very good insight on how the war in Afghanistan is being fought by the US troops and why they are finding it so difficult to win the war in this “Graveyard of Empires”. The platoon takes fire from an almost invisible enemy day and night. The majestic mountains belie the darkness they hide within, as the sounds of gunfire erupt in all directions forcing the platoon to scramble for cover, wondering where on earth they were being fired from. The Taliban are never seen, yet they cast an ominous shadow on all the valley, like ghosts from another world. They have their informants in the villages who pass on crucial info about the Americans. The platoon cajoles, bribes and threatens the villagers, yet fail to wean them away from the influence (or fear) of the Taliban. The villagers know that one day the platoon will be gone and then they will have the Taliban to answer to. That basically sums up the entire US strategy in Afghanistan.

Faced with a battle hardened and blood thirsty enemy, a harsh and indomitable terrain and a hostile local populace, the platoon struggles for its survival everyday. Their body language clearly shows that they know that victory is all but impossible against such odds. Most war movies Iv seen involve soldiers shouting out patriotic slogans and being happy to fight in battles and die for their nation. Here its different. Is it because the platoon knew that they were faced with an impossible task? Or is this how all soldiers in all war zones are? Weary and tired of war. Disillusioned by the deaths of countless friends. Broken by nightmares of blood and fire.

A gem from the ’70s

Suddenly remembered this song in the morning. Its been stuck in my head since.

An absolutely beautiful composition by Illaiyaraja, great lyrcis by Valee and sung by the evergreen SPB, from the movie Ilamai Oonjal Aadukirathu. A great movie too, starring Kamal Haasan and Rajni. Definitely among their best performances. The last scene as Rajni drives off in his car is very poignant.

Where is the Apple “Kinect”?

Microsoft released ‘Kinect’, its all new motion control system for the Xbox, last week. Kinect is an Xbox peripheral which allows users to play games without the need for a hand-held controller. The Kinect basically uses a camera and sensors to track the movements of the player’s body and translates that into the specific action on-screen. Think players swinging their arms at Table Tennis or throwing punches in Boxing. The Kinect hardware system as such has been receiving mostly positive reviews with users pointing out the need for having a very controlled environment and a lag in games as the only negative points.

For long I have wondered about the feasibility of a game controller which would make gamers stand in front of their TVs and swing their arms and jump and perform all sorts of juvenile actions. You see, we gamers are essentially a lazy lot. A bunch of couch potatoes if you will. Theres nothing more we would like than to unwind by slinking on the couch, playing the latest Call of Duty while hogging on a bowl of chips dipped in mayo. But more on that later.

Point is, the Kinect is a revolutionary way to interact with game systems and any system for that matter. It also has voice-recognition which allows users to issue voice commands to the Xbox. Combine the voice recognition and gesture recognition features and we have an intelligent way to interact with our computers or A.I systems.

We could give voice commands to run programs and use hand  gestures to navigate through menus . Its a whole new user-experience. While the input systems for mobile devices have shifted from hardware keypads to touch screens in the last 5 years, the input systems for the PCs have still remained pretty much what they were in in the 1990’s. High time for a change don’t you think? Touch-screens have not seeped into the PC space as, research has shown (and as Steve Jobs pointed out recently) that touch-screens are not easy-to-use for vertical displays i.e our PC monitors. Its called the Gorilla Arm Syndrome. So, that rules out touch screen inputs for our PCs. The next logical step would be voice commands and/or gesture recognition.

And Kinect has shown that this is feasible. Is it possible that Kinect for the Xbox was a testing ground for this feature to be implemented in Microsoft Windows too? Steve Ballmer has already mentioned that Windows 8 will be their most risky venture till date. Does Microsoft have plans of using this Kinect system as a new mode of user interaction in the next Windows?

And if Microsoft has such plans, can Apple be far behind? Steve Jobs definitely prides himself on revolutionizing the music and mobile phone industries. He brought mobile touch screens in vogue, changing the way people used their mobile devices. I’m dead sure hes got an eye on the Kinect and realizes how it can change every single form of device-user-interaction across all industries. While the next Mac OS Lion does not have any such features, there’s no telling that Apple is not already working on its own Kinect-like system for its Mac and other devices like Apple TV. With his strong focus on providing an innovative high quality user-experience on Apple products its only a question of when, and not if, Steve Jobs will announce Apple’s own “Kinect”.

Introducing: Google Music (India (Labs))

Google has launched a new online music service (for fans of Bollywood songs) called Google Music India. Google has a tie up with other sites like in.com and saregama to allow streaming of songs from their music libraries. To be fair, a pop-up window basically just plays all these songs from one of the aforementioned sites. However, I dont think the majority of people were using in.com to listen to music earlier. With Google coming into the picture I think a lot more users would find it easier and more natural to use Google Music India to listen to online music. Google claims this service is to help fight the rampant music piracy in India. Users can only stream the songs online and cannot download them.

I tried it out and found that Google Music(or should i say in.com?) has a pretty comprehensive music collection. Whether you want to listen to a soothing retro Kishore-da track or the electrifying Tanvi in Delhi-6, the obscure Altaf Raja or the Pakistani rock band – Strings, you’ll find your type of music here. More power to the cloud.


India in the UNSC: Much Ado About Nothing

The Indian media is awash with the news that India has become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council after 19 long years and the MEA pundits are patting themselves on the back for a job well done. But is it really worth all the hype? I think not. Let alone non-permanent status, even a permanent seat on the UNSC is just a bag full of hot air if you ask me. Its nothing more than mere symbolism.

There are many reasons for this. Let me not even get into the colossal failures of the UN in preventing genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Sudan, Bosnia etc. Lets also forget for a moment that the UN has mostly failed to prevent military conflicts, right from the Korean war to the recent Israel-Lebanon war. The UN has also failed to resolve territorial disputes like Israel-Palestine, J&K, North-South Korea in any meaningful way. The greatest successes of the UN lie in its humanitarian divisions like UNICEF, WHO etc.

Given this shaky track record, why should being on the upper echelons of this old-timer’s organization even matter? True, the UN is a global forum and for all its flaws, it does provide mechanisms for arbitration of disputes, however poor their track records may be. In this sense, it is enough to just be a member state of the UN and I do not believe that being a permanent UNSC member is of any added advantage to a country like India. China’s global clout is a result of its massive economic power and not because China is a UNSC member. If India sustains its current healthy growth rate and flexes its diplomatic muscles to forge long ignored partnerships with various countries in Asia and Africa, there is no stopping India from being counted among the world’s super-powers, with or without a UNSC seat.

But, I also believe, that as much as a UNSC seat should not matter to India, India too does not matter to the UNSC. This is because of India’s largely neutral stance on all global conflicts. Sure, India is a big economic player and it is given a lot of respect in the G8. But thats economics and India has been good at that of late. Geo-politics is a totally different ball-game altogether and India’s track record is very poor in that field.  We are not key players in any global issue and hold little influence over countries that are. Russia and China have considerable clout in Iran, and China has strong links with the North Korean leadership. In fact China wields great influence over many African nations. All this makes China an important global player. Brazil and Turkey too have been pro-active on a global-level of late. Contrastingly, India has been doggedly muted over the burning issues of Iran, Korea, Middle-East etc. The only time we have raised our voices is with regard to the Af-Pak scenario and even then noone listened to the song we were singing. So what exactly will India bring to the UNSC table I cannot fathom. Countries that are supporting our UNSC bid are doing so only as a policy of appeasing a rising economic power-house. Lets not fool ourselves into believing that we matter in global geo-politics.

Given all this, I dont think we need to bite our nails over the non-committal of US and China to our UNSC seat. Instead, we should pull our socks up, resolve  internal issues like Naxalism and Kashmir, focus on alleviating poverty, improve education etc. We have our hands full and we can do without stepping into international quagmires till we set our own house in order.

Where are the water cannons?

The Valley is burning…

Since June 11 2010, when a 17 year old boy was killed after being hit by a tear gas shell, the Kashmir Valley has been gripped in a spiral of protests. People rally to protest against such deaths and start pelting stones at the police and CRPF. The security men, unable to control such large violent mobs with tear gas, resort to firing in the air. This results in the death of more people. The next day a larger crowd turns up to protest the deaths of the innocent people killed in the previous rally and eventually they start throwing stones against the police out of anger, who as a last resort, fire in the air resulting in the death of more people. The next day more people turn up to protest this brutality and this violent vicious cycle continues….

More than 110 people have been killed on the streets of Kashmir since July this year. Which brings me to a basic question. Why doesnt the Kashmir police use more sophisticated methods of crowd control? For one, rubber bullets could be used instead of live ammo. However, there are instances of deaths caused due to rubber bullets too. Lathi charges are ruled out because of the presence of large angry mobs. So what about using water cannons? Why havent we seen the use of even a single water cannon in the Valley? And why hasn’t anyone asked this question to our politicians? Is the answer something so plainfully obvious that nobody has asked it? Are water cannons ineffective as a measure of crowd control? I dont think so. Iv never heard anyone offer any logical rationale for the J&K police and CRPF choosing to fire live bullets in the air rather than resort to water cannons. So, why are there no water cannons in the Valley?

A policeman fires a tear gas shell

The citizens of Srinagar have legitimate grouses and they have every right to conduct rallies and protest. And it is no surprise that such rallies turn violent. It has nothing to do with being Anti-Indian. Even in other Indian cities we often see protest rallies turn violent occasionally resulting in mobs burning buses, stoning buildings etc. There will always be unruly elements in any crowd trying to take advantage for their own nefarious means. The way to counter it is to have a well trained riot-police squad with the necessary riot gear. Most of the cops I see on television have nothing close to proper riot gear as seen with riot police of developed countries. With good training, sufficient man-power, necessary protective gear backed by water cannons and tear gas, such unruly protests can be controlled and subdued in a non-lethal manner by the police (as is done in other democratic countries). This would prevent fanning the flames of anger among the populace and giving legitimate reasons for more protests.

In the last few years we have seen such protests occur alarmingly regularly every summer in Kashmir, whether over the Amarnath controversy 2 years back or the Shopian murders last year. The separatists and their handlers in Pakistan have realised that terrorism is an unfeasible strategy after 9/11. Terrorists get no sympathy, however noble a cause they may claim to espouse. Their solution was to resort to Palestinian-style intifadas which garnered a lot of international sympathy. There was something rebellious yet tragic about pictures of young Palestinian boys,  facing Israeli tanks, holding nothing more than stones in their hands. The powerless innocent vs the brutal might of the State. David vs Goliath. This brought a lot of international attention to the Palestinian cause, but at the cost of hundreds of innocent Palestinian lives. A similar attempt is being made in Kashmir, by some vested interests who want to bring in international scrutiny on Kashmir.

However, it would be foolish to bracket these recent protests as being orchestrated ONLY by enemies of the state. As the parliamentary delegation found out recently, it has been for the most part, a spontaneous mass uprising (Ofcourse helped by Geelani’s protest calendars). The only way to cut the oxygen source of these protests is by stopping killings of protestors and innocent civilians. The police need to show more restraint and avoid causing fatal casualties at all costs. The J&K police force needs a dedicated riot control unit which can effectively counter these protests in a non lethal manner resulting in zero casualties, or else we are doomed to repeat the same tragedy over and over again.

True, Kashmir is a disputed territory and its people have long suffered in the cross-fire between terrorists and the Army. But it does not mean that ordinary Kashmiris will not live in peace until they are given independence from the Indian state.  The Indian govt needs to create a conducive atmosphere for the people of the valley. Once this peace is established, the govt should strive for political packages for J&K which could ease the sufferings of the common man. This is the only way to douse the simmering anger in the Valley and prevent further deaths of Indians on the streets of Srinagar.