26 November, 2007

You are invited

That’s the wedding invitation cover of a very close friend of mine, who will bid farewell to the ‘Bachelors Club’ in another two days. I found this invitation very novel. And what was more novel was the reason for the invitation – straight out of a ‘Yash Raj’ production.

Boy traveling by train. Girl enters same cubicle. Boy decides to try his luck. Girl falls for it. Boy/girl who live in different cities, go their own ways. Gross abuse of technology follows. In come the parents. The climax of course, as in any decent Bollywood flick worth its name, ends in marriage (will in this case). And as the images posted above suggest, he had an RAC ticket that got confirmed. Of course, it was not just his RAC ticket that got confirmed (Ok, so I’m copying some witty stuff that he had printed on the 2nd sheet of a 4 page wedding invitation). But I think he’ll excuse me for the publicity that I’m giving him through this wonderful blog, which has readers pouring in from all over the world.

Nice, isn’t it? Nice – Yes. Believable – No. Yeah, it did happen in his case, but I know better. I’ve been traveling by train for the whole of my life, except for a few trips by plane, and not once have I come across an interesting girl in my cabin. I wish I were exaggerating here. Well, I guess I can’t say ‘never’, because there was one time when I had a chance, perhaps.

Last year, I was traveling to Goa for the New Year – “by train”. Along with me, was my loser pal Aravind, and we were to join 4 more friends at Goa. As luck would have it, an interesting girl happened to have a reservation in our cubicle. We decided to put up a disinterested act, immersing ourselves in the latest edition of one of those snotty business magazines, and thus putting to rest any hopes we’d harboured of impressing this girl. And what does this girl do? She picks up some alcohol that she has stacked in her rucksack and gets on with it. In the next station she is joined by some more friends and then more, and very soon, all you could smell is Whiskey. And we were left to get all the business gyan that we wanted to, on our way to Goa. Of course, we’re not total losers, and we did have our share of fun in Goa. But that’s the story of my shot at a ‘Bollywood style’ love story.

Of late I’m getting worried, that my mom has given up all hope. When she points out to the good looking girls, while we go shopping, it’s not a very encouraging sign. Its an indication that left to me, my mother doesn’t think I’d ever get married. But who knows. Maybe the next train journey would be different. In the meantime, I’ll make sure I book an RAC with has a good chance of getting confirmed.

25 November, 2007

The Story of Iqbal

I was home on a Saturday night after quite a few weeks yesterday. So, I just decided to laze around and catch a movie. I had recently bought a ‘War movie’ collection, but since I didn’t want my mom to get bored (the last time I watched a war movie named ‘Hiroshima’ with my mom, she was out after the first 20 mins, and so this time I knew better). DD1 was showing ‘Iqbal’. For those of you who didn’t know, it’s a sports film by Nagesh Kukonoor.

The protagonist, a young teenager named Iqbal (played wonderfully by Shreyas Talpade) is deaf and dumb, born into an impoverished family of a farmer, but is absolutely passionate about cricket. He finds an unwilling coach in Naseruddin Shah, who was a one-time cricket star, but is now a perennial drunkard. The story is about how Iqbal, makes it to the Ranji team and finally to the Indian cricket team. A wonderful film, and towards the end, you’re really praying for Iqbal to make, although you how the movie is going to end.

But other than the wonderful story of the under-dog winning in the end, there was something else about the movie that I really liked. The coach was a major factor in the success of Iqbal. But how many of us actually get that kind of a coach in real life? A coach who really wants you to succeed? Who would go out of his way to ensure that you do well? One of the biggest regrets of my college life was that I didn’t have a teacher who I could really look upto. And if you had known the rules that my college had, you’d know that there was a lot to regret about. There were some who would teach you what was prescribed in the textbook, and others who would come and chat with us and try to be a friend. But none who could inspire us to learn more about what they had to teach. Not surprisingly, when I was at a friends place recently, I could hardly remember the names of some of my teachers

Recently, I was watching a show on NDTV, where during a college farewell, the teachers had something to say about each and every outgoing student and presented each student a gift to remember. In comparison, my convocation was a song and dance show and we were not even invited onto the stage to receive our degrees.

The second story coming from Iqbal was the story of differently-abled children. And what was wonderful about this film, was the manner in which it chose not to focus on his disabilities, but rather to focus on his abilities. I think in real life too, its important that we give differently-abled people their place in mainstream society, and treat them whenever possible as normal people rather than sympathize on their disabilities.

My neighbour has two children, one of whom was born deaf and dumb. But due to the dedicated efforts of his mother, he is now able to speak and hear to a good extent. While, initially I did pity him, I later realized that he is a wonderful artist. And I’m not even exaggerating here. He’s won a scholarship and a state-level drawing competition to prove that.
I think we all strive for recognition, and not pity. So why differentiate?

21 November, 2007

31 --> 1... In progress

My worst fears have been confirmed. I've hit a new low. I've been working on this for two years now, and then I see this!!! I ask you dear lord, why this injustice?

"How could you let my blog show up only on the 31st page on a Google search?"

Yeah, you heard it right. It showed up on the 31st page, when I gave a search for Nikhil + blogspot a few days back. And now, I believe only God and perhaps some knowledge on SEO (Search Engine Optimization) can help me. Determined to get this thing sorted out, I began my quest for redemption.

First stop: 'Google Analytics'. This is really a very neat product from the Google stable and a godsend for all those on the Internet bandwagon. It basically allows you to monitor traffic to your site and analyze it based on 'keyword searches leading to your site', 'geography originating from' and a lot of other such criteria (I'm still to figure out how to use the rest of the features). I realize that while visitors from India maybe yet to discover the genius in me, I do have a good number of visitors from the US, Europe, Australia, and even places like Nicaragua, and a country I didn't know existed till now. Apparently a lot of these people were coming for the wrong reasons, and some innocuously used words in my posts were being thought of in a rather naughty context.

Time to Google (incidentally Word didn’t give me an error on Google, which it did a couple of months back. I’m not sure if I added it sometime. But if that isn’t the case, then maybe Microsoft is finally realizing what’s hit them) on ‘Search Engine Optimization’ and the ‘Page Rank algorithm’, and based on some advice, I made some cosmetic changes to my site, including adding meta-tags, mentioning ‘GOOGLE’ quite generously in this post, and then adding labels, and some online campaigning for the blog.

And then, today I borrowed a book from my office library (prompting questions on whether I have a thriving online business) called ‘Blog Marketing’. An interesting book (at least till what I’ve read) which talks not only about how best to position your blog to gain maximum moolah for the stuff that innocent visitors get lost in, but also takes a psychological look at why people blog at all.

I’m hoping all of this improves my blog rank. Well, maybe I’m just doing it the wrong way. I remember having recently read a blog, where the author talks about sending Diwali SMS’ to his contact list. For some reason, he finds this complex enough to plot a graph with the ‘X’ coordinate represented by ‘prospective professional contacts’ and the ‘Y’ graph represented by ‘Closeness to him’, and then split it as 4 quadrants and… well, some more stuff, which I wasn’t very interested in. (and this when companies like Aircel have only the 'Free SMS' as their USP). I’m not sure if he did send those messages finally, but he sure made sure that everyone knew he is a recent B-School grad. ;-)

I guess, I’m also doing something similar here. Maybe all I need to do here is write some good, readable posts and improve upon the frequency of 2 posts /month.

19 November, 2007

Decoding the world - through finance

Today at office we had a session on 'Sub Prime Lending'. While the topic sounded interesting, my previous experience at such sessions, made me think twice. Anyway, the presenter seemed to know a lot about this, and did a neat job of explaining it to the ones who didn't. If you're among the ones who has often wondered what the fuss about 'Sub Prime' is all about, and if the world is coming to and end because of this, you're pretty close - or at least thats what the presenter seemed to believe... Let me try to explain this as best as I can remember it, because, its a whole lot of mess to remember in 1 hour. And having finished 'Snapshots from Hell' just a day before, I can probably relate to what Peter Robinson was trying to say.

The players: Borrowers (the ones who started the rut), Sub-prime mortgage lenders (and these guys took it forward), the i-Banks (who decided to give it a new shape, and take it still ahead) and people again (after all, what goes comes, albeit to the wrong address).

So, how did it all start?

By the year 2003 or so, The grand old man of America 'Alan Greenspan' stabilized the market, lowered the interest (to as low as 1%) and took some decisions which succeeded in bringing the recession to an end, but which also probably set the wheels in motion for another likely recession. So, with the interest rates being so low, there was hardly any investment from the people.

What do the lenders do?

In order to get some business, they decide to give out loans to just about anyone who might be interested (including the NINJA's - 'No Job No Income' category). But you don't expect them to pay up huge EMI's rite. So the mortgagers come up with a scheme, where the borrower needs to pay a very low interest for the first 2 years (as low as 3% or so, which apparently even the jobless people could pay), and after the two years the interest rates shoot up to something like 10-11% (this is based on the LIBOR rates).

And the borrowers think...

Maybe I'll pay the interest for the two years, and then try and sell off the house at the end of the second year (the real estate market was on the rise) and pay off the loans. That way, I'll make a good profit with hardly any investment. In the worst case, the property would be taken over by the bank. Pretty smart thinking huh?

And then step in the mortgage lenders..

These guys are now having good business, but then they realize they're dealing with people who can't be totally trusted to pay the money. So, they decide to pass on the risk,and bring in the Investment banks. They create a financial instrument out of this called the 'Mortgage Based Security'. In simple terms, they got cash from the i-Banks, promising to pay them money which they expected to get from the NINJA group.

But hey, the i-banks can't possibly be that dumb right...

After all the pay a whole lot of money to recruit the best B-School grads from all over the world... So, they decide to pass on the risk... to just about anyone who wants to take it. They create another financial product out of it called the CDO (Centralized Debt Obligation). Hmm... , but it can't be just that simeple right??

In come the rating agencies...

The Investment banks creates an instrument, showing it to comprise 80% good loans, 10% mezzanine (loans which can't be totally trusted, but are pretty safe in any case) and 10% bad loans (loans given to the NINJA's). The rating agencies, who need business from the i-banks, tend to ignore the mezzanine and bad loans, and give it a high rating based on the good loans. So, now what u have is a very good looking and prospective financial instrument.

Ok, so far so good.. But what next??

A lot of these i-Banks have a hedge fund arm, which is a ready market to buy the CDO. And how is the price fixed for these? Its based on what the i-Bank decided to peg it at... And how do they do it? Based on the underlying - the loan (which is actually the bad loan that is worth nothing). And the hedge fund then sells it off to anyone who is willing to buy it. Then just to complicate matters further, there are some instruments called CDS (Credit Dwfault Swap), which is like an insurance for the loan, which is given out by the hedge fund company (which still makes sense). But then there are others who give insurance for this CDO (peopl who are in no way related to / own the CDO), and so on and so forth, derivates are created and recreated...

So, what brought the happy story crashing down??

Two things... 1) A majority of the bad loans were made out in the year 2005. So two years down in 2007, when they have to sell off the property,they realize the market is suddenly turning bad, and so a huge number of loan defaults surface.. 2) Morgan Stanley (or one of the cmpanies) realizes that something is going wrong here,and offloads a large amount of CDO's in the market... This creates a chain reaction, and suddenly there is no market for the CDO's, with practically millions of CDO's and CDS' floating around. Add to this, many small time insurance firms have insured products for which they have no money to pay. And so that matters don't go out of hand futher, the banks finance these insurance companies so that it looks hunky-dorey... But for how much longer? Banks are taking huge losses, and its just expected to get worse...

Did, u say its just the US?

There's a fire in the forest and u expect to be safe in ur cabin in the woods?? The European market has been equall badly hit, and the Indian market, while mainting its position thanks to strong fundamentals in the market, is beginning to feel the effect. With the dollar rate going down, the RBI has increased CRR rates, which mean fewer loans and has bought 35B worth of USD, to stabilize the rates... And the industries are just showing the effect...

Ok, thats a pretty long explanation. But thats a whole lot of mess too....

18 November, 2007

A long weekend

Well, it was still just the Saturday and Sunday, but there’s just so much that I could get done these 2 days, that it feels pretty long. An English Christmas play to begin the weekend, followed by dinner at Don Pepe, a fusion music performance by a Korean band, dinner at New Yorker (which is surprisingly empty nowadays), a couple of Hindi flicks (Bhool Bhulaiya and No Smoking), a visit to an orphanage, and the weekend classes that I help with. Add to this, a jog at the beach after a pretty long time, and now I’m still left with time to post a blog…. Will someone please remind me of this weekend, the next time I complain about not having enough time?