Monday, June 26, 2017

Interesting memoir, Moving Au Revoir


Sudhir Raikar, IIFL | Mumbai | August 11, 2016 16:43 IST
Courtesy: http://www.indiainfoline.com/article/general-life-style-book-review/interesting-memoir-moving-au-revoir-116081100752_1.html

With his no holds barred memoir, former RBI Governor Dr. Duvvuri Subbarao has inadvertently unleashed a new literary genre, a thriller of a primer. Sudhir Raikar takes a closer look at the style and substance of his enduring work which ex-ICICI Bank chief KV Kamath aptly calls ‘unputdowntable’.




Media is abuzz with citing, interpreting and analyzing the seemingly contentious issues of 'Who Moved My Interest Rate?' conveniently ignoring the delightfully enduring aspects of the incisive memoir. Hardly a surprise that, given the typical fourth estate obsession with theatrical story-telling, thriving on sensationalism that, more often than not, is bereft of sense.

But the undeniable fact is, Dr. Subbarao’s tell-all book is an endearing primer for posterity that unfolds a rainbow of his emotions - while at the helm of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in what was a terrifyingly tumultuous tenure – including fear, anxiety, hope, surprise, shock, delight, contentment, lament and predicament. He provides the context to each conflict he faced which in turn tells us more about the man’s stoic character and his resolute mission – beginning with the 2008 global meltdown and his struggle to shield India from the unforeseen tremors of an intertwined financial world (but with little say to emerging market economies) and ending with the nasty rupee fall of 2013 which raised lethal questions on the lack of forex build up in the relatively happy years. Interspersed in between was the chronic fight against the government’s hardcoded stance on the age-old Growth vs. Price Stability debate where Dr. Subbarao was implicitly expected to toe the line, more so given his long, eventful stint on the ‘other side’.

Dr. Subbarao’s sincere account, among other things, brings to light the pathos of the Governor’s job where acknowledgment of short-term pay offs is ephemeral while the unforgiving evaluation of long-term consequences in the light of hindsight experience seems eternal.

The innovation that Dr. Subbarao has steered towards making the RBI federal in thought and action – free of hierarchies and confirmation biases – is a case study for both public and private sector players. Wish we had many more CEOs with Dr. Subbarao’s vision and values. The quality of corporate sector governance is as big a problem as are cyclical ups and downs and external shocks. And there's a lot to learn from the prudence and precision of Subbarao’s outreach programs towards making our social development initiatives fit for purpose.

Dr. Subbarao’s effort to free each concept of its intimidating jargon - more so for the novice reader - is evident across all chapters, which makes this book a treasure trove for students of economics and finance in particular. Every illumination has been made in simple language with a discerning desire to reach out to the common people who don’t have the time, inclination or intellect to decipher inflation numbers and interest rates – whether of the measure of financial integration, double-edged sword of globalization, supply-side triggers of inflation, perils of working with flawed data, myth of inflation targeting being opposed to growth, RBI’s unflinching transparency on government’s fiscal stance, the typical central bank quandary in striking a balance between the demands of the privileged, vocal industry fraternity and the mute voice of the common people yearning for lowering of prices, intricacies of monetary policy transmission and ensuing liquidity management through instruments like Open Market Operations, RBI’s lesser known roles and responsibilities including its social development agenda, domestic issues behind the currency slide beyond the taper tantrum trigger, challenge of exchange rate management and the attached Do something vs. Do nothing dilemma, tenets of financial inclusion or modus operandi of NBFCs.

Even readers who feel they have little to do with economics and finance will find the revelation absorbing, one that will evoke a powerful imagery of things you don’t expect from a mainstream book by a bureaucrat – capturing vivid details of the structure and layout of the Governor’s office and the timeless charm of his British-brand BHNS-maintained residential bungalow with ‘its wafting fresh air, cacophony of birds and heavy bunches of jackfruit’. Don’t miss his incisive interpretation of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist observation ‘Man is condemned to be free’ in the context of the question on what he would have done differently as the governor of the Reserve Bank.

In wonderful contrast to his profundity on philosophical issues is the ex-governor’s passion for adventure and recreation which is evident from the umpteen references throughout the 300-odd pages – whether his interest in 24-carat Bollywood products like Chennai Express and offbeat Prithvi Theatre plays, craving for Tardeo Maharashtrian eateries or penchant for inquisitive history tours around South Mumbai in ardent appreciation of the city’s emblematic blend of diverse architectural styles. And his wit, a recurring highlight of his insightful account, is superlative to say the least. Of course, it’s best read than cited.

The engaging anecdotes in the course of his pan-India journeys for outreach programs and financial inclusion initiatives are truly inspiring. Wish our branded activists take a cue from Dr. Subbarao’s freewheeling, ventilated approach to financial literacy. Thanks to the arid, bureaucratic mechanisms of conventional NGO bodies, proletariat activists and CSR practitioners across the globe, social responsibility, knowingly and unknowingly, has come to harbour several blatant assumptions about the larger cause of end-beneficiaries (often generically slotted as ‘target groups’ or ‘deprived’ communities) Conveniently overlooked in the process is the plain fact that their deprivation is only circumstantial and in no way indicative of the instinctive and intellectual capacities inherent within the community. Contrary to popular perception, the supply-side forces, in the mad rush to emancipate the downtrodden, are themselves found deprived when it comes to even reading the minds of the audience, leave alone identifying its needs. In peddling their jargon-heavy black and white prescriptions on financial prudence and general well being, they are knowingly and unknowingly oblivious of the expressions of playful amusement and suppressed yawns that the so-called ‘deprived’ reserve for the seemingly ‘privileged’ - - stemming more from doubt than disbelief.

As for those from the journalistic tribe who wished Dr. Subbarao was more alpha male during his tenure, he has shown the virtues of a public beta release in the form of his book that now allows anyone to download his thought process. How many governors would attempt such introspection for open dissection which also talks of what he felt he could have done differently – like the need to adjust the stated policy on foreign exchange and make it more specific with respect to defining and managing volatility and building self-insurance?

Dr. Subbarao’s submission of the ‘twinges of guilt at the thought of millions of Mumbai slum dwellers under leaky roofs for whom the rain meant the loss of daily earning, and hungry children’ is particularly moving, given that he candidly shares his helplessness rather than choosing to overlook the obvious in line with the implicit demands of his official stature, for such predicaments, protocol says, are deemed too poetic for certified comfort.

Given Dr. Subbarao’s conviction in sharing his no holds barred account, the real tribute to his effort won’t merely be the book’s critical acclaim; but some quality introspection by the powers-that-be as to how could the Government-Central Bank relationship be made more cohesive and solution-centric without diluting the sovereign fabric of the latter that we are all proud of.

Central bankers across the globe, we have seen time and again, are compelled to facilitate government access to near-free debt under the guise of fiscal spends. This ends up building a toxic cocoon for government debt issuance in the name of achieving growth targets. The haphazard lending that follows, eventually leads to systemic chaos in the form of rampant bank failures and consequent turmoil in bond and equity markets.

A healthy synergy between the Central Bank and the government should lead to more credible and sustainable solutions to various problems that stand in the way of India’s economic development. Prime among them is the NPA issue. It’s common knowledge that dealing with doubtful and distressed assets has always been the Achilles Heel of the banking sector. Barring a few players known for their stringent lending norms, most bankers try and downplay the whole issue through the usual philosophical sermon: That NPAs are an integral part of banking given the criticality of broad-based operations to profitability which exposes banks to all kinds of unavoidable factors like economic downturns and political upheavals. So, they claim, even the safest of loans can be rendered unproductive…

High time we stop hiding behind these lame excuses and collectively address some tough questions that make NPAs more elusive than what meets the eye. There’s no doubt that more RBI enactments would follow in the time to come. But unless we turn our attention to the fundamental questions surrounding NPAs, every RBI intervention will always seem more palliative than curative.

Hope the new wave ushers in an environment of proactive prudence that penalizes banks and auditors for suspect motives that serve as a green house for NPAs. This way, banks, ARCs and their regulators would be left to deal only with the genuine cases of NPAs. For the Indian banking sector, that would a big leap forward.

It’s high time we also demystified the glorious economic abbreviations that fuel a debate among practising economists and fiscal experts and yet mean little or nothing to the common man. Rather than board ceremonial flights of imagined realities consequent to the published data, our experts would do well to demand a governmental initiative to simplify the data for better public comprehension. Needless to say, caring for this precision and validation is the collective responsibility of the government and the private sector.

As Dr. Subbarao astutely reflected during his inaugural address at the July 2011 Statistics Day Conference: “The decisions that we in the Reserve Bank make have a profound impact on the macro economy, and errors can be costly. Our policy judgement should therefore be based not only on state of the art skills in data analysis and interpretation but also on an intellectual value system of ruthlessly honest validation and peer review.”

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Celebral void on Marathi celluloid

There have been many a debate - staged and otherwise - on what "ails" the Marathi entertainment industry of today. In fact, such arguments are in themselves a mega industry, and a rewarding pastime for the few enterprising among Marathi minds.

In recent times, we have seen offbeat Marathi films surfacing with unfailing regularity but variety, as we have often seen, does not necessarily promise quality. Worse, intoxicated by their disproportionate success, some of the directors and lead players of such films have become demi gods. And ironically, the flood of "offers" leaves them with little time to explore sensitive themes, busy as they are settling for sensitized themes.

No wonder, despite a strikingly rich and insightful literature, Marathi cinema is still stuck with family sob stories and mindless comedies. This is indeed a collective failure - of film makers, writers, actors, viewers and of course the oh-so-powerful critics. While most of the Marathi film makers operate in a "compromise" mode to desperately design a hit film, our viewers are happy with only such relief that allows them the luxury of switched-off minds. On the other hand, our actors have a single-minded aspiration of making it big in Bollywood - after all, a half-scene with Shahrukh Khan makes one a global icon zillion times faster than a Marathi film that could at best fetch an award at a film fest.

The less said about the critics, the better. While the mechanical star system of the regional press - print and electronic included - is largely shallow and disgustingly objective, the "English" scribes covering Marathi entertainment are an elite community - overtly thrilled with their brazen authority and thoroughly convinced of their intellectual superiority. Now that leaves no room whatsoever for something called responsibility. No wonder, they have no qualms in resorting to plagiarism and borrowed wisdom, however subtle and camouflaged it turns out to be. In the sole excitement to showcase their intelligence, they invariably miss the film's soul. There's hardly any respect for the maker's perspective in the blatant endorsement of their perception.

And the theory of relativity in their heads is simplistic, not simple - the more sarcastic and bitter the condemnation gets, the more learned the critic becomes (read appears). Interestingly, when the same critics turn filmmakers, they merrily chew the same gums that they once loathed with such disdain. Yet, such is the mighty aura that aspiring film makers try to win their approvals, ahead of engaging viewers.

There's no acknowledgment whatsoever, from filmmakers and critics alike, of the pressing need to raise the bar in as many aspects as possible - whether choice of scripts, methods of acting or directorial styles. Like every other field, this industry badly needs the participation of thinking individuals across disciplines. If not co-creation, collaboration is easily feasible if the industry wakes up to it. For a vulnerable industry where the availability of funds defines the framework of creativity, nothing can be more heartening. Only if the industry opens up to the spirit of open source..

Talk of timeless creations and one thinks of directors like Raja Paranjpe, actors like Chandrakant Gokhale, writers like G D Madgulkar and music maestros like Sudhir Phadke. Not that their films were free of pet patterns and cliches, but their unquestionable sincerity, way ahead of brilliance, in furthering the cause of good cinema is still a coveted benchmark... only if we care to look back.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Right Season, Wright Reason


Recalling a dated piece that has enough to keep it relevant in the wake of the Kohli-Kumble controversy...

John Wright’s Indian Summers may not be a pithy commentary on the technicalities of the game but has enough substance to remind the stakeholders of Indian cricket to revisit the age-old system that runs it, as early as they possibly can.

Indian Summers by John Wright



Sudhir Raikar recalls a forgotten gem in the wake of the Indian team’s disgrace in the recently concluded English tour. John Wright’s Indian Summers may not be a pithy commentary on the technicalities of the game but has enough substance to remind the stakeholders of Indian cricket to revisit the age-old system that runs it, as early as they possibly can.

Lurking in the dark recesses of our cricketing tradition are many glaring loopholes engineered and nourished by unseen architects that Wright hints at but never pin points. Call it grace or indecision, but Wright’s shielded words sure ring true for most of us despite the fact that they were largely dismissed by the fourth estate. The Indian media, as also many of the ex-players and managers, picked up all the potentially sensational elements in lashing out at this loner Kiwi while ignoring the sheer beauty of his verse and the apparent sincerity of his purpose. Of course, this ruthless attack should come as no surprise, given the ever-growing power of vested interests and the ever-falling standards of journalism in India.

John tells an engaging life story, right from the days when he called it quits as a player to suffer a short-lived accident with the corporate world. (“My job at Fletcher Challenge, then NZ’s largest building supplies company, was a crash course in everyday reality”)

The coaching stint at Kent paved the way for the prized job and the subject matter of the book - the Coach of the Indian cricket team. Cricketing legend Colin Cowdrey’s dying advice to Wright before the latter left for Indian shores indeed proved prophetic - a nip of whisky in the evenings to keep the bugs away and a SOS call to Raj Singh Dungarpur when in trouble. Only that Wright seems to have replaced whiskey with beer. There was of course no substitute for Dungarpur, as he found out throughout his India stint.

Wright seems to have been a lone crusader to inculcate a sense of professionalism among the players. Not that he failed completely but the players who were fed on a staple diet of tea or biscuits at net practice or taped fingers while fielding would have proved tough nuts to crack. And more than the playing eleven, his real detractors ran the very establishment, whether as tour managers, team selectors, board presidents or governing committee members. His most studied observation is on the selection process where he brings to light several startling practices that run deep in the name of process and convention. We always knew there was something seriously wrong with India’s team selection, but we never knew the culprits could be so brazen in peddling their vested interests.

Certain things are clear and explicit - like Wright’s fluent chemistry with physio Andrew Leipus, his soft corner for players like Kaif and Laxman (although the latter was allegedly axed at his behest for the World Cup), his professional interaction with Jagmohan Dalmiya, his genuine respect for Dravid, his awe for Tendulkar, his trust on Ravi Shastri as an advisor and of course - his love-hate relationship with Sourav Ganguly. (The media only found the last bit worthy of discussion)

He gives an amusing account of the advertising and sponsorship market that’s ever chasing players with star status. In the process, he makes some great observations - Like having to watch Ganguly struggling to ape John Travolta or Rahul Dravid in an uncharacteristic black matrix-style outfit or the fact that Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble never became billboard heroes despite their success, thanks to their less glamorous image, compared to their counterparts. Tendukar’s engaging smile, of course, sends sponsors laughing all the way to the bank. Wright is honest to reveal a secret desire to pose in a TV ad himself but the offer that came his way was a show stopper - “advertising an ointment for old-age aliments at one-tenth of the going rate.”

Though of a poetic disposition, the verse he cites in the book is nothing special. He also does not come as a guy who would really put his foot down despite the repeated claims of “blowing my top”. He rather comes across as a soft guy who would make proactive adjustments to stay put. But more important, Wright is never harsh or prejudiced in pointing out the systemic flaws. “Many a times, things just fell in place, often without you understanding how and why.” His self-deprecating stance is worthy of both adulation and emulation.

The most striking part of his narrative, however, is his accurate sketch of the phenomenon called India - the blended fabric of culture and cricket in a deprived nation that unanimously regards the game as a religion, and the only one that binds people together. (“Indian cricket lovers are never in a state of emotional equilibrium - it’s either ecstasy or despair for them”)

Wright also peeps into the lives of ordinary Indians - like Pintu, the masseur, who supports a family of eight on a salary of Rs 8500/- per month, Prasanna Raman, the enthusiastic software engineer who later became the technical head of National Cricket Academy or the nameless cabbie from Bangalore who religiously handed back the tip of Rs 120/- to Wright as it had not been explicitly labelled as a tip during their first encounter.

Wright throws good light on the mockery that rules the Indian cricketing system - ripe with selection hazards, zonal mandates, blatant favouritism, ruthless axing, bureaucratic hang ups, administrative nuisance, advertising diktats, and rags to riches stories, evils of heady success or the miseries of forgotten heroes. The nuisance for Wright came from all quarters. “A guy with the biggest diamond ear-stud once came wandering into the viewing area as if it was his private box”. This was India’s biggest beer baron, no marks for guessing who we are talking about. Wright invariably found playground boundaries shortened and ‘roped’ to ensure a healthy shower of fours and sixes that rakes in the moolah for the value chain of advertisers, sponsors and broadcasters.

John Wright is a poet at heart. His humour, his idiom and his melancholy all prove arresting and above all, the ring of pathos in his tales and anecdotes is soul-stirring. Yes, he may not have been the best coach in the annals of the game (or a truly great player either) and his knowledge of technicalities could fall short of the Gary Kirsten benchmark, but his hold over the psychological aspects of the game is undoubtedly striking. More often than not, cricket coaching as we have seen it, is about boosting minds, not pushing bodies. The book lingers in memory but more as a fabulous book on India and its cricketing fanatics - a neat summary in the league of Mark Tully’s ‘No Full Stops in India’. If not the bigwigs at BCCI, the beleaguered Indian team led by M S Dhoni will find a handy guide in this book to reinstate conviction and commitment and get back to their winning ways.

Monday, June 19, 2017

NoSQL in perspective: Biz above Buzz, Needs above Names


Random notes from the seminal "NoSQL Distilled by Pramod J. Sadalage and Martin Fowler", aimed at enabling faster comprehension



Business needs of the Modern Enterprise

Real-time capture and analysis of big data – coming from multiple sources and formats and spread across multiple locations

Better customer engagements through personalization, content management and 360 degree views in a Smartphone era

Ability and agility in proactively responding to new markets and channels


Constraints of the RDBMS environment

Frequent database design & schema revisions in response to fast-changing data needs have serious application-wide ramifications as RDBMS is the point of business integration

Growing data storage needs call for more computing resources but RDBMS ‘scale up’ is prohibitively expensive

Clustering is an effective solution but cluster-aware Relational DBs can’t escape the ‘single point of failure’ trap in making all writes to an abundantly-available shared disk.

Sharding in RDBMS puts unsustainable loads on applications



NoSQL in perspective

Over time, enterprise with complex and concurrent data needs created tailored non-relational solutions specific to their respective business environments.

They are a natural fit for the clustering environment and fulfill the two principal needs of the modern enterprise, viz,

Cost-effective data storage ensuring fit-for-purpose resilience and several options for data consistency and distribution

Optimal and efficient database-application interactions


It would be appropriate to name this ever-expanding universe as NoSQL, which contrary to what the name implies, is ‘non-relational’ rather that ‘non-SQL’ since many RDBMS systems come with custom extensions. (NewSQL hybrid databases are likely to open new doors of possibilities)

Each data model of the NoSQL universe has a value prop that needs to be considered in the light of the given business case including the required querying type and data access patters. There’s nothing prescriptive about their adoption. And they are not a replacement for SQL, only smart alternatives.

NoSQL data models

A closer look at two common features:

Concept of Aggregates

Group all related data into ‘aggregates’ or collection of discrete data values (think rows in a RDBMS table)

Operations updating multiple fields within each aggregate are atomic, operations across aggregates generally don’t provide the same level of consistency

In column-oriented models, unit of aggregation is column-family, so updates to column-families for the same row may not be atomic

Graph-oriented models use aggregates differently – writes on a single node or edge are generally atomic, while some graph DBs support ACID transactions across nodes and edges


Materialized views

To enable data combinations and summarization, NoSQL DBs offer pre-computed and cached queries, which is their version of RDBMS materialized views for read-intensive data which can afford to be stale for a while. This can be done in two ways:


Overhead approach
Update materialized views when you update base data: so each entry will update history aggregates as well
Recommended when materialized view reads are more frequent than their writes, and hence views need to be as fresh as possible

This is best handled at application-end as it’s easier to ensure the dual updates – of base data and materialized views.

For updates with incremental map-reduce, providing the computation to the database works best which then executes it based on configured parameters.

Batch approach

Update materialized views in batches of regular intervals depending on how ‘stale’ your business can afford them to be



Domain-specific compromises on consistency to achieve:

a. High availability through Replication: Master-slave & peer-to-peer clusters

b. Scalability of performance through Sharding

In each case, the domain realities would matter than developmental possibilities –what level and form of compromise is acceptable in the given business case would help arrive at a fit for purpose solution.

Many NoSQL models offer a blended solution to ensure both High Availability and High Scalability - where sharding is replicated using either Master-slave or peer-to-peer methods.

Replication

Master-slave cluster:

Works best for read-intensive operations

Database copies are maintained on each server.

One server is appointed Master: all applications send write requests to Master which updates local copy. Only the requesting application is conveyed of the change which, at some point, is broadcast to slave servers by the Master.

At all times, all servers – master or slaves - respond to read requests to ensure high availability. Consistency is compromised as it is ‘eventually consistent’. Which means an application may see older version of data if the change has not be updated at its end at the time of the read.

Fail scenarios in Master-slave cluster and their possible mitigation:

Master fails: promote a slave as the new master. On recovery, original Master updates needful changes that the new Master conveys.

Slave fails: Read requests can be routed to any operational slave. On recovery, slave is updated with needful changes if any.

Network connecting Master and (one or more) Slaves fails: affected slaves are isolated and live with stale data till connectivity is restored. In the interim, applications accessing isolated slaves will see outdated versions of data.

Peer-to-peer cluster:

Works best for write-intensive operations.

All servers support read and write operations.

Write request can be made to any peer which saves changes locally and intimates them to requesting application. Other peers are subsequently updated.

This approach evenly spreads the load, but if two concurrent applications change the same data simultaneously at different servers, conflicts occur which have to be resolved through Quorums. If there’s a thin chance of two applications updating the same data at almost same times, a quorum rule can state that data values be returned as long as two servers in the cluster agree on it.

Sharding

Evenly partition data on separate databases, store each database on a separate server. If and when workload increases, add more servers and repartition data across new servers.

To make the most of sharding, data accessed together is ideally kept in the same shard. It’s hence recommended to proactively define aggregates and their relationships in a manner that enables effective sharding.

In case of global enterprises of widely-dispersed user locations, the choice of sites for hosting shards should be based on user proximity apart from most accessed data. Here again, aggregates should be designed in a manner that supports such geography-led partitioning.

Sharding largely comes in two flavors:

Non-sharing Shards that function like an autonomous databases and sharding logic is implemented at application-end.
Auto Shards where sharding logic is implemented at database-end.

Sharding doesn’t work well for graph-oriented data models due to the intricately connected nodes and edges which make partitioning a huge challenge.

Ways to improve ‘eventual consistency’ : Quorums Versioning

Read and Write Quorums

Quorums help consistency by establishing read and write quorums amongst servers in a cluster. In case of reads, data values stored by the read quorum are returned. In case of writes, it is approved by a write quorum of servers in the cluster.

Applications read and write data with no knowledge of quorum arrangements which happen in the background.

The number of servers in a quorum – read or write – have a direct bearing on database performance and application latency. More the number of servers, more the time for read and write quorum approvals.


Version Stamps

Consistency problems can arise in Relational and Non-relational despite ACIDity or quorum rules. A case in point is a lost updates from concurrent access of the same data where one modification overwrites the changes made by other. In business cases which can’t afford pessimistic locking, version stamps are a way out:

An application reading a data item also retrieves version information. While updating, it re-reads version info, if it’s unchanged , it saves modified data to the database with the new version info. If not, it retrieves the latest value probably changed by another application and proceeds to re-read version stamp before modifying data.

In the time between re-reading the version info and changing values, an update can still be lost from a change made by another application. To prevent this, data can be locked in the given time frame in the hope that it will be miniscule.

Few NoSQL models like column-oriented DBS enable storing of multiple versions of the same data in an ag­gregate along with version timestamp. As and when needed, an application can consult the history to determine the latest modification.

When synchronicity between servers in a cluster is in question due to network constraints, vector clocks are seen as a way out. Each server in the cluster maintain a count of updates enforced by it, which other servers can refer to thereby avoiding conflicts.

What ‘schema-less’ actually means?

Onus shifts to Application-side

In NoSQL databases, data structures and aggregates are created by applications. If the application is unable to parse data from the database, a schema-mismatch is certain. Only that it would be encountered at application-end.

So contrary to popular perception, the schema of the data needs to be considered for refactoring applications.

That applications have the freedom to modify data structures does not condone the need for a disciplined approach. Any unscrupulous changes in structure can invite undesirable situations: they can complicate data access logic and even end up with a lot of non-uniform data in the database.

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