Saturday, April 13, 2019

General Elections 2019

As around most other elections these last few years, the election campaigns have begun with shrill accusations and far fetched promises. The incumbent NDA government is facing a combined opposition, with many regional parties suggested to give a stiff fight in the elections for the 17th Lok Sabha.

In this post, I will try to analyze the major trends that in my opinion will be witnessed in these elections:

1. Election promises and cash freebies

Farmer distress is real, and the message was delivered to BJP and Congress alike by the verdict of the Vidhan Sabha election results of 2018 in 5 key states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh. This resulted in formation of the PM-KISAN scheme (6000 per annum basic income to farmers), farm loan waiver across 17 states since 2017 (estimated at ~50 billion dollars), and now promises of a basic income support (NYAY) of Rs. 6000 per month to poor families by Congress.

Even for the unorganized workers, the pension scheme (PMSYM) promising pension of Rs.3000 per month is a step in same direction, since workers of age < 40 years are eligible and thus can reap benefits after 20 years only.

2. Dusk of Rahul Gandhi’s and Dawn of Priyanka Gandhi’s political career

Junior Gandhi has been heavily trolled for years now. A section of Congress had always yearned for Priyanka Gandhi to take command of the party, given her organizational and oratorial commands, and her uncanny resemblance to Indira Gandhi. With the election results win in 3 key states in 2018 assembly elections and with the general expectation that from the previous tally of 44, Congress tally is expected to go up to 70-80, Rahul Gandhi will get an opportunity to take a reduced role in a resurgent Congress and leave command in the hands of a more capable Priyanka Gandhi.

3. Nationalistic fervor and comatose rafale scam

The BJP has well capitalized on the surgical strikes in Balakot in a response to Pulwama suicide attack masterminded by Jaish terrorists based out of Pakistan. The narrative that Indian air force bombed terrorist camps in Pakistan territory (going beyond PoK) and in the dogfight managed to shoot down a 5th generation F16 with a 3.5th generation Mig21 has been bought by Indians. The opposition has been mostly rendered toothless now on the rafale scam with no incriminating documents brought on record so far, other than alleged parallel negotiations which could’ve made the deal costlier. In a way, Modi Shah duo has managed to take complete steam out of the Rafale scam narrative that was a major agenda item for Congress for past 1 year, for the purpose of these elections. The law will continue taking its own course on finding if there were any actual irregularities, but for the purpose of these elections there should not be much spillover effect now.

4. Modi vs Combined opposition

During the state elections in 2018, one of the interesting election slogans in Rajasthan was “Modi Tujhse Bair nahi, Rani teri Khair nahi” (Modi we have no problem with you, but the queen Vasundhara will not be spared). The slogan is an interesting insight on how the average voter might vote - many see the humbling defeat of BJP in the recent assembly elections as enough of a punishment/lesson, and may vote for the incumbent. The fact that direct benefit schemes like PM-KISAN was launched also helps BJP in an image makeover vis a vis farmers. Even though demonetization failed in its stated objective of bringing black money to surface (while having some other unstated benefits), many voters still consider Modi to be a better leader than the projected/absent alternatives for a better development of India. This sentiment is going to hurt the opposition in its final tally.

5. Transition of Congress party from a national party to the national glue

The Congress of today is not even a shadow of its formal self of the 1950’s, when towering leaders of Indian independence movement were all part of it. So, many regional parties (like AIADMK, DMK, JDU, JDS, Trinamool, BSP, SP, BJD, AGP, NCP, TDP, Shiv Sena etc), and a national party (BJP) have now taken over the space vacated by it over the past 70 years. However, being the oldest party, Congress still has a large recall value for the lay Indians. Thus, the party is today acting more like a glue holding the other regional parties together in a combined opposition, rather than being the challenger in its own right.

6. The downfall of AAP

Aam Aadmi party has a sub altern core base that will continue supporting it in the next few elections to come. However, with the antics of incessant Dharnas and honesty certificates in the first half of its tenure, with an insistence on a Congress alliance for Lok Sabha election, and reports of cash hoarding by one of its MLAs, the party is steadily moving away from its core ideology of clean politics on which it was founded during the Anna Hazare movement. With exit of intellectual political brains like Yogendra Yadav, and Bhushans, AAP is slowly becoming a shadow of its former self, and will continue disenchanting its urban supporters.

Given the party largely uses clean donations to function, it is going to be squeezed further in the future for its party funding. Even otherwise, with its stellar performance in 2014 Delhi elections where it won 67/70 seats, its tally is bound to come down, which will strengthen the narrative that the party is on a downward trend.

7. NDA vs Mahagathbandan?

BJP has managed to swallow its (IMO vainful) pride and has accommodated key allies in Bihar(JDU, LJP), UP(Apna Dal, Nishad Party), Maharashtra(Shiv Sena), Punjab(Akali Dal), Tamil Nadu(AIADMK) and north east (North East Democratic Alliance with AGP and others).

Given that 1) TDP is not contesting in Telangana 2) YSRCP may gain some seats in Andhra, and 3) BJD has stayed away from both BJP and Congress, there is further room for NDA to cobble up post election allies amongst Jagan Mohan, KCR, and Naveen patnaik. There is a definite appearance of NDA coming back to power, though for BJP to get a majority if its own seems almost a miracle at this point (But then, so was it the last time in 2014).

On the other hand, Congress has been hit by its inability to have seat sharing arrangements in UP, and Delhi/Punjab. Even in other states such as Maharashtra (NCP), Bihar(RJD, RLD), Karnataka(JDS) and West Bengal(CPI), its partners have driven hard bargains, thus Congress having to surrender 2-3 extra seats in every state. Thus in terms of political arrangement, BJP appears to be on a much stronger footing than Congress.

8. The social media effect

Social media is an echo chamber, and once a high decibel argument enters inside, it gets reverberated incessantly. BJP realized it early on, Congress and other parties have caught on well to it now. However, with the Cambridge Analytica and US election meddling by Russia already disclosed in 2016, most of the social media companies are going to be extra vigilant about avoiding another PR nightmare created by a non state actor again. Thus while the ability to influence will hopefully be limited, the basic echo chamber character of the social media sites is bound to produce hyper amplification of opinions. With the Jio launched price wars having brought 4g internet in power of many lay Indians, social media effect is here to stay, and election campaigns in future will continue to get shriller and more divisive.

9. Fake news

There is a popular meme: “On the internet, nobody knows you are a dog”. Similarly, on the internet, nobody knows if the news is authenticated or validated or not. Thus in an environment of social media supported echo chambers, fake news gets propagated unchecked. One just needs to view one such post, before the automated algorithms start showing similar news posts with higher frequency, since most social media sites are algorithmically designed to grab more eyeballs.

10. Right is the new centre

With its successful election wins from 2014 to 2017 in the national elections as well as in many state elections, the BJP was able to project an aura of invincibility. This led to the Congress adopting tones of Soft Hindutva (for the first time in its history of existence in independent India?). Temple runs by Congress president, Flip flop and agitations against Sabarimala verdict of Supreme Court, Usage of NSA against Cow smugglers, schemes for temples and cows in newly won states of Rajasthan and MP in 2018 state elections seem to be a new normal. This has pushed the other right wing party further right, where many unfortunate comments can be seen in news today. However, by this step, there is also the perception of space vacated from the centre. This could explain why Congress/Rahul Gandhi may have decided to also contest from Wayanad (Kerala) against a candidate from left - to give the projection that it is still a party of centrism.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Book Review: Indira - India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister

There has been a lot of brouhaha in the press that current situations in India are comparable to the emergency years of 1970’s. A lot of debates, like those around right to privacy around Aadhaar, cross border surgical strikes, appointment of judges in apex court, and patriotism in an environment of mob lynchings end up in cries of increasing authoritarianism and rights of press being curbed. Intellectuals routinely associate above generalizations with the emergency era of India.
I’ve been curious for a while about the emergency and the polity of India before it, and so picking up a book about the person at the center of it all - Indira Gandhi - seemed the best option to learn more. For a contemporary reading, I picked up this book by Sagarika Ghose.
Important disclaimer: This book is a biography of Indira Gandhi, so naturally, it tries to paint a rosy picture of her achievements and choices, while shedding limited light on her shortcomings and failures. Also, the author has intermittently pushed in her own narrative sections that eulogize Mrs Gandhi - which make for a boring read because of their patronizing nature. Other than these two issues, the book makes for a good reading of the events in the mid 1960’s - mid 80’s
The book talks extensively about her multiple prime ministerial terms, and those of Morarji Desai, Nehru, and Shastri as well. It goes into details of emergency, and also sheds light on role of Sanjay Gandhi during emergency, and how he came to be. But as pointed by many, it is silent on many things like her nuclear agenda and establishment of RAW.
Overall, I think the book makes for an interesting read only if you are not aware of the topics before hand. The book would have made for a much better read if the author included more facts and happenings, and cut down on the eulogies that are injected throughout the book. But otherwise, the book provides very good outline to understand the events of the decades which overlapped with Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership. Overall Rating: 3/5

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Flipkart - Walmart deal: What Snapdeal lost, and lessons for entrepreneurs

The market is all buzzing with the Walmart Flipkart deal that happened last week. And why shouldn't it be, at $16bn USD, this is the biggest acquisition deal to have happened in India ever. The fact that the fortune #1 company is involved in it, investing in the e-commerce sector that it couldn't crack on its own, in an emerging economy like India, is only going to help the investor sentiment for Indian companies in general. But I am not writing this post to cover this deal - there is enough coverage out there already.

Note: Back of paper calculations follow, with lot of hindsight knowledge.

As I was reading through the news, I couldn't help wonder that Flipkart's valuation has almost doubled from $11.6bn in July 2017 to $22bn in less than an year. And how Snapdeal has missed the proverbial bus, spectacularly.

Here is a breakup of all funding raised by Snapdeal (all figures in USD):
$12M Nexus Venture, Indo-US (Kalaari) Venture Partners
$45M Bessemer and existing
$50M eBay and existing
$75M Softbank
$133M eBay, Kalaari Capital, Nexus Venture, Bessemer, Intel Capital and Saama Capital
$105M BlackRock, Temasek Holdings, Premji Invest and others
$647M Softbank
$500M Alibaba, Foxconn and SoftBank
$200M Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan
$17.5M (INR 113 crore) Nexus Venture
Total: $1.8 billion USD overall

Once valued at $6.5Bn, Snapdeal had been offered a USD $950M payout by Flipkart in June 2017. If Snapdeal had agreed, Flipkart could be having a better cumulative market share at around 45% compared to the 34% it has currently (at that time, Flipkart + Snapdeal stood at 37+14 % respectively). It would also have a wider reach amongst sellers, at least at around 300K vs the 100K it is believed to have currently. Snapdeal was a pure marketplace play, and it alone had 300K sellers. Finally, Snapdeal wouldn't have needed to sell FreeCharge, UniCommerce, and Vulcan Express to keep itself financially afloat. Without the sale at a steep discount of USD $60M from the purchase price of USD $400M, Freecharge would have been a readily available platform to complement UPI based PhonePe.

Given that Walmart's deal would have included private valuations of Myntra and Jabong as well within the final numbers, its anyone's guess how having Snapdeal in the clutch would have led the investors getting an even better valuation for the Flipkart group of companies. Even with a doubling up of valuation that already happened, Snapdeal's potential value would stand at ~ USD $1.8Bn today.

My optimistic guess is that the deal would have happened at a USD $25-26bn valuation if Snapdeal was also included, since having Snapdeal in kitty would have made Flipkart the market leader by a huge margin (compared to just the 5-7% lead it has right now over Amazon), with a stronger seller base, giving an ~2.3 multiplier.

In terms of the personal fortunes made, the founders of Snapdeal were reported to be making ~INR 250 Crore at the time of deal, having already made ~150 crore from previous stake sale. The Walmart deal would have meant that within an year of stay at Flipkart, they would be getting double the value they were initially receiving. Given Walmart is not keen on retaining non - core founders (Sachin Bansal to exit), it could have been an easy way out for Snapdeal founders as well. Employees of Snapdeal wouldn't have needed to be laid off, since Flipkart would have retained most of them.

Finally, the investors would stand to exactly recover the base investments they made in Snapdeal. Investors after all, like everyone else, want good return on their money. Snapdeal founders deciding at the last minute to kill the deal didn't really help anyone, probably except themselves. Its funny to see that a stake projected worth USD $450M is now being sold for INR 40 Crore, at almost 1/60th of the price when it could have been a very different story for the first investors who put their trust and money in you.

While Snapdeal isn't dead yet - it actually reported an increase in number of transactions - to me, there are 3 important lessons here for all entrepreneur's to remember:
  1. Never underestimate the deal making abilities of a Power Investor, in this case, Softbank (PowerInvestor:Investing::10XProgrammer:Coding)
  2. Good things happen to those who wait. Shortsightedness can (literally) prove costly in the startup world
  3. While coming on top at the first position is best, a position at the pedestal is still worth more than being an also-ran.
PS: I'm an ex Amazon techie, but wasn't high up in the food chain to know any of the sensitive market penetration details or strategies involved. All the content is my opinion alone, and builds from publicly available information.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

AWS Summit 2018, Mumbai

Today, I attended the AWS Cloud Summit in Mumbai. Held at the massive Bombay Exhibition Center, the event would have been attended by over 3000+ participants by my estimates. Overall, there were 6 different tracks for the talks: 
  • Build: Building on AWS
  • Scale: Scaling your AWS
  • Secure: secure your position in the cloud
  • Migrate: Migrating from on-prem to Cloud
  • Innovate: Innovation with the Cloud
  • Impact: Cloud in Public Sector & Education for digital India
Based on my current interests, I figured that Migrate would be far fetched for me, and the talks under Secure seemed completely promotional. So, I made a list of the ones that I liked from the description, and here are the talks that I attended which avoided most conflicts:

  • 11:30 – 12:10 <Scale> Optimizing Costs as You Scale on AWS
  • 13:30 – 14:10 <Build> Accelerate Business Innovation Using AWS Serverless Technologies
  • 14:00 – 14:30 <Impact> Addressing Risk and Compliance in Public Sector
  • 14:30 – 15:00 <Impact> Cloud Procurement in Public Sector - Making It Work
  • 15:00 – 15:30 <Impact> Smart Cities – The Journey Toward Greater Economic, Social & Environmental Achievement
  • 16:00 – 16:40 <Innovate> Building Engaging Voice Experiences with Amazon Alexa
  • 17:00 – 17:40 <Innovate> Data Driven Applications with AWS AppSync and GraphQL

You may notice that I attended a few talks from the Impact series as well. I felt that this track is also to mid and large sized organisations which can have elements of bureaucracy in their processes, and hence the content may be relevant. There was one more track on startups, that was in an open lounge setup (rather than conference setup for the others) - but I found the talks in it repetitive and plain copies of what the folks at AWS booths were anyway telling manually.

Since the AWS rep who confirmed my participation informed that registrations would begin at 7.45 AM, I left by 7 AM and managed to be there by 7.35 AM. Even though officially registrations were to start at 8, by the time I went in, the sweatshirts meant for first 1500 participants were over. Though there was more swag from various booths, and one at the end of the conf, so I guess it was ok.

This Summit had over 40 Companies partnering at different level. Some of the renowned ones included: Intel, Vmware, Arista networks, Dell EMC, Druva, Kaspersky Labs, mongoDB, SendGrid, SumoLogic, Talend, Knowlarity, Kuliza

Overall, I found the summit and it talks to be quite informative. My favorite talk, not surprisingly, was the first one: Optimizing Costs as You Scale on AWS. Having worked at multiple startups, and tried my hands at few ideas of my own, I believe AWS costs are something every one tries to optimise sooner or later.

Among the booths, I really enjoyed visiting the ones under innovations. These stalls featured startups which are working on next gen ideas, like Wattman by Zenatix for power consumption analysis, Imaginate for VR conferences, and Scapic for generating AR and VR content. Amongst the AWS booths, the one informing on the EdTech program was really helpful. EdTech is an AWS initiative which helps less than 5 year old EdTech startup get access to credits, communities and senior folks to make their product better. Its live only in the US right now, but will be launched in India soon, and is definitely something to watch out for.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Alexa meetup: Designing Multimodal Skills

Yesterday, I attended a meetup on designing multimodal skills for Alexa, and in this post I'll share some of the interesting pointers from the presentation and discussion.

-> We are in the era of Voice UI

While terminals were the primary mode of interacting with computers when they were first invented in the 70's, systems have evolved over the years to support different types of interaction paradigms - from GUI, to Web, to Mobile. In one way, 2010's are are the era of Voice User Interface (VUI).

Voice comes naturally to us, and we have been using it for thousands of years for interacting with one another. Voice, is the next big computing platform

-> Cloud enables experiences that were not possible earlier

While sentient chat systems and bots have been imagined forever, our efforts used to lack earlier because of the limited computing available to the edge machine.

For example, designing an AI assisstant like Alexa broadly involves many complex steps, like:

  • Speech Recognition
  • Machine Learning based Natural Language Understanding 
    • convert user's utterances to an intent
  • Text to Speech

This was not possible earlier when all the processing was done by the device. Cloud computing enables AI like Alexa to flourish, by offloading all computing from the end device.

-> Multi Modal experiences are the way forward

Multi modal experiences refer to applications where there are multiple modes of experiencing the skill. For example, with an echo spot, your users can have both voice and visual experiences.

While the focus is always on voice first apps in case of Alexa, experiences can now also be augmented with the help of visual cues.

-> The introduction of multi modal approaches call for new design principals

While Alexa is not yet suited for cases where there are long of list of items, or complex nesting between them, there are some general design guidelines that can be followed:
  • design voice first - you just don't know if the user will have a visual feed or not
  • do not nest actions within list items - it becomes poor Voice UX
  • choose images that look great on all devices - while echo spot has a circular screen, an echo show has a rectangular screen
  • use font overrides sparingly, and markups in meaningful ways
  • a good way to design better Voice UX is to write the interactions down and read them in a roleplay - you better change it if it doesn't sound right

The presentation was followed by a hands on Alexa development session, where attendees created a fresh alexa skill for space facts, and deployed a pre-coded lambda on the cloud from the serverless repository. This was a standard JSON - in - JSON - out kind of session, which helped familiarise participants with Alexa developer portal and lambda deployement process.

The meetup ended with a presentation by team YellowAnt, who were demoing the public beta notifications feature of Alexa. YellowAnt is a chatops startup, and the gist of the demo idea is that the Alexa now supports notifications in beta. These notifications can be leveraged to ping end devops users to notify them of system updates (downtime/deployments done etc).

However, given that Alexa is a voice first ecosystem, it was very interesting to hear the Alexa AI pronounce lengthy text and URLs character by character, and try reading multiple notifications one after the other. All this would have made sense as strings over email/chat notifications, but ended up loosing all the context when delivered via voice. To me, this re-emphasized the need to design voice first applications with Alexa.

Overall, I found the meetup very helpful in understanding the Alexa ecosystem, and learnt a lot of cool new things.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Book Review - Trump: The Art Of The Deal

While going through some news a couple of days back, I came over the news article on a US team visiting China for trade negotiations. These talks have been necessitated due to the mutual embargoes US and then China placed on trade from each other. In line with Donald Trump's many other statements, actions and policies which fly in the face of conventional procedures and wisdom, the unilateral move by US in March to impose trade sanctions on China had left most analysts dumbfounded.
This, coupled with his anti immigration policies around restricting the H1-B visas and the associated restrictions on the EAD (Employment Authorisation Document), which are supposed to hit the Indian IT workforce hard piqued my interest. A simple question arose: why is this guy, Donald Trump, who was much vilified by US media during the elections and afterwards, able to take such an unconventional decision? (It is only recently that the negative PR he receives has started going down, and he is getting mainstream credence, due to the possibility of North Korea's denuclearization).

Going through the list of books that could help me here, I zeroed down on Trump: The Art of the Deal since he is has credits for the book, and it would contain information to his business and personal lifestyle. The guys at Amazon delivered the book quickly, and as soon as I got my hands on it, I was lost in reading it. The book has 14 chapters. It begins by recounting a week in his office (~1980's), where he gives out details of business calls he has made and received, and a gist of each of those calls. Now this is a very fascinating chapter, not because its about Donald Trump, but because it offers an example of the topmost guys at the foodchain spend their time doing business. As a lay person, I've never come across anything similar - which describes how a top executive works day in day out, with much juicy details in there. From the second chapter onwards, he starts talking about his business principles, and his business dealings. Some of his observations regarding politicians and rich people are spot on. Though the book has a solid start, I found the book to become unceremonious slowly with time. There is a lot of talk about business transactions, some of which could point be thoughtful of as boastful, and bordering on bullying.
In any case, I found the book a good read, some of the incidents it narrated were really insightful (not about Trump, but the wealthy folks per se). I think it is  definitely something worth checking out. Overall rating: 4.5/5  

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Stanford Log-linear Part-Of-Speech Tagger

Another day, another requirement. I was looking for projects, when I came across one project asking for an integration with Stanford NLP POS Tagger. So here were 4 big words, about which I obviously needed to do some search on to understand them in detail.

A google search for the exact term gave me the page to Stanford Natural Language Processing Group's site, which had this to say:
A Part-Of-Speech Tagger (POS Tagger) is a piece of software that reads text in some language and assigns parts of speech to each word (and other token), such as noun, verb, adjective, etc., although generally computational applications use more fine-grained POS tags like 'noun-plural'.
Digging a step further, it seems this comes already pre shipped with the nltk package. From the downloads section:
Python: NLTK (2.0+) contains an interface to the Stanford POS tagger.
And this is the package called as the Stanford Log-linear Part-Of-Speech Tagger.

Why the Log-Linear? Well, from wikipedia:
A log-linear model is a mathematical model that takes the form of a function whose logarithm equals a linear combination of the parameters of the model, which makes it possible to apply (possibly multivariate) linear regression.

I think freelancing is a good idea once in a while - it helps one come across a multitude of technologies, and even basic reading on them helps one grasp the direction industry is moving in general.