Monday, August 15, 2011

Justifying the higher price of a Sony VAIO VPCYB25AG/B compared to a HP Mini netbook

When some weeks back I had to choose a small, light, ultra-portable notebook for my father [primarily for accessing the Web], I faced a dilemma - whether to go with the cheaper HP Mini [or equivalent alternatives from Dell, et al.], or to go with the relatively expensive Sony VAIO VPCYB25AG/B.

I decided to compare to differences between the Mini and the VAIO and assign individual costs to these differences, in order to determine if the VAIO justified its higher price [INR ~25K, compared to INR ~17.5K for the HP Mini 210-2103tu PC].


The VAIO has the following extra stuff compared to the Mini, and I've assigned an approximate price to each of the extra things. It has to be remembered that the extra stuff will be enjoyed over the many years one is expected to use the product, so the actual value realized might be significantly more than my conservative estimates.
  1. CPU: The CPUs can be considered broadly equivalent. However, judging by some online reviews, the AMD chip in the VAIO beats the Mini's Intel chip in standard CPU benchmark tests by a material margin. INR 1,500 value.
  2. RAM: The VAIO has double the amount of RAM than the Mini has, although its memory is slightly slower than the Mini's. INR 1,000 value.
  3. Display: VAIO has a 11.6 inches display, compared to 10.1 inches on the Mini. My hands-on experience made me realize that a while a 10.6 inch display fares poorly from a readability perspective [defeating the purpose of buying a machine for Web access], a 11.6 inch display passes the minimum acceptability barrier by a decent margin. INR 2,000 value.
  4. GPU: With its AMD Radeon GPU, the VAIO easily beats the Mini when it comes to graphics performance [increasingly important in more and more products, such as in Internet Explorer 9]. INR 1,500 value.
  5. HDMI port: The port is absent in the Mini, but available on the VAIO. INR 500 value.
  6. Software: The VAIO has a better bundled software package. INR 500 value.
  7. Design: The VAIO has a far more elegant and tasteful design than the Mini, one that's both more functional and more pleasing. INR 1,000 value.
  8. The "Sony" and "VAIO" flaunt value: One must assign a price to the extra flaunt value that comes from carrying a Sony VAIO. Acer, Compaq, Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc., just can't beat the Sony and VAIO brands. INR 500 value.
  9. Build quality: A minute spent with both the Mini and the VAIO makes it clear that the Mini doesn't match the build quality, finish, manliness, ruggedness and workmanship of the VAIO. The VAIO gives the feeling of a machine that has been designed and built from scratch, with care and love, while the Mini gives the feeling of an assembled machine, a toy. INR 1,000 value.
I concluded that the extra differential value offered by the VAIO is about INR 9,500, which more than compensates for the INR ~7.5K difference between the actual market prices of the products. Even if the extra value is not taken into account, essential attributes such as display size, design, and build quality made the VAIO the more sensible choice.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Hidden, ugly truth: It's the petrol buyers in India who are subsidizing the price of diesel!

I'm strongly against sale of diesel cars in India. Diesel has been subsidized in India for agricultural use and for use in trucks, etc., and not for use by wealthy owners of Audi, BMW, VW and other cars.

In India, we're repeatedly told that the government subsidizes diesel (and kerosene, etc.) for welfare reasons. Yet we see the super-wealthy segment misusing this subsidy by buying diesel versions of cars (next time carefully look at every Mercedes and Skoda that passes by, you'll notice that a majority of them are diesel-powered).

The ugly truth Indians are not told is that diesel is not subsidized by the Indian government.

It's subsidized by the petrol buyers!

It's the petrol earnings that subsidize the price of diesel. And who pays for petrol? Those with bikes, scooters, Maruti 800s and the scores of other petrol-powered vehicles. While someone driving a Toyota Corolla can easily afford petrol, someone driving an 800 or an Alto or a Nano probably finds it difficult to buy the ever-more-expensive petrol. And yet, this individual finds himself in the uncomfortable and unacceptable situation of subsidizing the fuel costs of a BMW owner, who clearly has enough money to pay for petrol.

Automobile companies in India are clearly trying to profit from the rate difference between petrol and diesel.

Solution: I believe that taking all of the following steps will play a significant cumulative role in ensuring that car-owners cannot and do not misuse the subsidy on diesel available in India:
  1. Ban the introduction of new diesel cars (let existing ones sell - read more below).
  2. Allow car companies who have already invested in diesel cars to continue selling these for the next 5 years. This will ensure that these companies are not at a disadvantage, after having already invested.
  3. Make it mandatory for all fuel stations to sell diesel to cars at a higher price compared to the price charged to tractors, trucks, etc. While there are some obvious holes in this step, it'll help at least partially.
  4. Increase the costs of owning and operating diesel cars (by increasing insurance costs, pollution certificate fee, taxes, etc.). This will recoup the subsidy that diesel car owners have misused over the years.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Humans and the right to roam freely on Earth

Sometimes I wonder, animals and birds can freely roam from any place to any other on Planet Earth. Nobody stops them from walking over the mountains, crossing the "borders" and moving or settling in a new territory.

Us humans, arguably the most special species on this planet, in contrast, do not enjoy this right to move freely on our very special planet. I ask why. Why aren't humans allowed to travel freely on Earth? To whom does this planet belong? Can anyone be stopped from traveling to other celestial bodies (like the Moon, or perhaps Mars or to an asteroid)? Most likely not. So why cannot humans travel to any part of Earth, a planet that belongs to all of us collectively but none of us individually...

An aerial view of a dense forest.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

SEO (along with PageRank) has wrecked the Web

This thought has been going on in my mind for many days now, and I've finally decided to put it in words after reading the PageRank-busting post by Rich Skrenta today.

I have to agree with Rich. PageRank has indeed wrecked the Web. It has incentivized "publishers" to create utterly useless pages infested with paid links to other websites. As Rich said, the value that Google has attached to a hyperlink has had the side effect of encouraging the mushrooming of billions of trash-worthy pieces of content on the Web. The result? The Web has got wrecked. I won't be surprised if a future study reveals that 90% of the content on the Web is trash.

However, accusing PageRank alone of playing havoc with the Web would be an injustice to this arguably marvelous mathematical model. The other offended that has also played an important role in screwing the Web is SEO, or search engine optimization.

Without digressing into details of SEO, I claim that SEO is a major distraction for publishers that publish their content on the Web. Instead of focusing solely on creating quality content and writing what they want to write, these publishers also have to optimize their content for the major Web search engines [all of which employ broadly similar techniques to rank content]. This so-called optimization means that, in the case of news stories, both the title and the body of a news story is filled with keywords and phrases that help to jack up the visibility of that story on the major search engines. So, instead of giving a story a witty but obscure title, an author would rather include important keywords in it to attract clicks, virtually killing the title by making it mechanical [CPI is another culprit responsible for encouraging production of useless content, as it encourages publishers to use tricks to maximize page impressions].

Friday, April 08, 2011

The broad path the Russians should follow to sustain and grow sales of Ilyushin Il-96 aircraft

The Ilyushin Il-96 is a nice, large-sized aircraft. It's relatively modern, large, based on the proven Il-86 product, and crucially, it hasn't faced the quality/reliability issues that have plagued the Tupolev Tu-204. Plus, it's significantly cheaper than comparable offerings from Airbus/Boeing. Equally importantly, it belongs to the Russians' political camp, meaning thereby that anti-America nations such as Iran and Venezuela can buy it.

A beautiful Il-96 taxiing in Poland. (Source)

However, these good points aside, the Il-96 can't really match the comfort, economics/efficiency, prestige, quality, reliability and safety of comparable aircraft from Airbus and Boeing. Additionally, while all-new Russian aircraft are being developed in the small and medium categories (Sukhoi Superjet 100 and Irkut MS-21), there's no program to develop an ultra-modern, large-sized airliner to replace Il-96. Finally, as of today, the Il-96 has logged negligible sales.

What should the Russians do to sustain and grow the sales of Il-96? I think UAC should launch a program to release an overhauled and Westernized version of the Il-96, with the specific intent of selling it to the West. The Superjet 100 and MS-21 both incorporate a large amount of Western technology, and it shouldn't be a concern if this Westernized version of Il-96 also relies significantly on Western technology. The objective, it should be remembered, is to steal at least some sales from Airbus and Boeing. And any airline that matters in the West asks for brute quality, something that can't be achieved using contemporary Russian technology alone. In any case, if pure Russian Il-96 results in zero sales in the West, and a hybrid Russian-Western Il-96 results in some sales in the West, then choosing the latter is preferable.

Apart from this, I think UAC should also do what Airbus and Boeing do - release frequent and regular updates to their aircraft, that improve performance and reliability, reduce cost and increase safety. The Il-96 is a nice aircraft that can sell more than it's selling at the moment. There's no other aircraft of this size at this price (neither passenger nor cargo), but the Russians apparently aren't taking advantage of this strong advantage.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

On treating adulterators and criminals equally

That there are a lot of adulterated food (including beverages, etc.) and spurious medicines on the market today is not hidden from anyone. I'm quite concerned about it.

A thought has been running in my mind for the last few days - that adulterators (not to be confused with adulterer) should be treated just like criminals. What does a criminal do? He shoots at you or stabs you can causes you bodily injury. What does an adulterator do? By way of making you consume adulterated food and spurious medicines, he too causes you physical harm (albeit slightly indirectly).

This striking commonality alone is sufficient to convince me that all those who adulterate cosmetics, drinks, fruits, medicines, milk products, vegetables, etc., should be considered dangerous to the public and punished harshly - like criminals. Remember, a murderer might kill only one person, but an adulterator will probably harm dozens simultaneously, including such delicate lives as infants, little kids, pregnant women, the elderly and others.

It's my desire that every product on the market be pure, so that I and others can start enjoying the pure milk that once sold in Punjab :)

Monday, April 04, 2011

Foreign companies operating in India shouldn't be allowed to take Indians for a ride

I've frequently read complaints (on Consumer Complaints, MouthShut and other websites) about cheating, fraud, poor service, etc., given to Indians by foreign companies operating here (AIG, Allianz, Barclays, GE Capital, HSBC, RBS, etc.). I feel outraged when I read such complaints, and I wonder why foreign companies operating in India are allowed to deceive Indians and get away with it. Why aren't they punished harshly, making it clear to the world that if you're coming here to make money, you won't be allowed to cheat Indians.

I'm not suggesting that Indian companies should be allowed to deceive Indians, but I'm proposing significantly harsher penalties for foreign companies. I would also like to see these penalties delivered quickly, so that the affected customers don't have to wait for remuneration for a long time.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Antennagate, iPhone 5 and Apple's opportunity

As an attempt to calm down the negative publicity about iPhone 4, Apple had initially posted a webpage (since taken down and replaced by a milder version) comparing the antenna performance of various smartphones from Apple's competitors (HTC, Nokia, RIM, Samsung, etc.). The comparisons showed that phones from Apple's rivals had at least as many antenna issues as iPhone 4 has. A backlash ensued and Apple quietly removed the offending material from its website.

If the following assumptions are true, Apple has a nice opportunity in its hands to humiliate and hurt its rivals:
  1. Apple, based on innovative engineering, virtually eliminates the antenna/signal issues from iPhone 5.
  2. Apple's rivals do not take any material steps to eliminate the antenna issues highlighted by Apple's original comparisons.
Assuming that the above two assumptions come out as true, Apple can reinstate the offending material that it had put up on its website, and this time (with iPhone 5, that is) its rivals won't be able to claim that the comparisons are false. Apple will have a potent marketing weapon in its hands with which to strike at the heart of its rivals.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A dealbreaker weakness in Web standards (CSS, HTML, JavaScript, SVG, etc.)

For me, the fact that all of the code written in Web standards (CSS, HTML, JavaScript, SVG, etc.) is readable by anyone is a dealbreaker. Why do Adobe and Microsoft protect the source code of their desktop applications so fiercely? Because the source code is their most important piece of intellectual property.

These companies, and others, cannot extend the same protection to client-side software (or documents) built using Web standards. These standards have been designed to be human-readable.

An example of a company that's facing serious issues because of this openness of Web standards is Google. Because documents built using Web standards can be read by humans and parsed/processed by machines, Google's rival Bing is able to process Google's search results to better its own ranking. Would this have been possible if Google SERPs were served inside proprietary desktop software? Probably not.

I consider the openness of source code of applications and documents built using Web standards a serious issue. Frankly, I don't like it. I'm not in favor of it.

Disclaimer: I do understand that it is openness that has led to the proliferation of the WWW. I also understand that the proliferation of the WWW and of Web browsers has been a significant contributor to Google's success. I'm not contesting any of this.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Corrections needed in India's NEFT/RTGS systems

  1. Make NEFT and RTGS free: There's no fee charged for using cheques, and so should NEFT and RTGS be. More so because cheques cost banks much more than the cost of NEFT and RTGS systems. It's unfortunate that these fast, electronic systems are not free, forcing people to use slower, paper-based methods.
  2. Abolish IFSC: We don't need this. Really. If a customer of HDFC Bank wants to transfer some money to someone who holds an account with SBI, only the account number of the recipient should be required. The NEFT/RTGS systems should be redesigned so that the communication is from bank to bank, rather than from branch to branch. HDFC Bank should be concerned with transferring money to the specified account number of SBI. It should be up to SBI's computers to determine the branch and transfer money to it.
  3. Allow hot transfers without addition as beneficiary: It's possible to write anyone's name on a cheque, but it's not the same with doing a NEFT transfer through a bank's website. You have to first add a beneficiary, a process that, for some banks, requires a mandatory 24 hour waiting period before a payment can be made to that beneficiary. Ridiculous! Reminds me of License Raj and how it inhibited India's progress. It should be possible to do hot transfers to anyone without having to go through the ordeal of adding a beneficiary (I'm not sure if this step is mandated by RBI, but it's possible that it's the banks that have implemented this requirement and that this isn't an integral part of the NEFT system). The philosophy should be the one followed in online email services - you can add someone to your address book if you want, and this'll make your life easy, but you can also always send an email to someone without having to add him to your address book.
  4. Introduce a NEFT/RTGS book, like a cheque book: The process of transferring money using cheques (clearing) typically takes two days. This can be reduced by one day if banks introduce a new NEFT/RTGS book (can be named Tatkal cheque book to make it easy to remember by the Average Joe in India). An individual or a firm needs to mention only the name, bank name and account number of the payee (this assumes that IFSC isn't required, as listed above). Give this Tatkal cheque to your bank and the transfer will be done on the same day (using NEFT, RTGS, etc.).
  5. Allow NEFT/RTGS 24x7x365: I find it appalling that two of the most important/popular electronic methods of money transfer in India, NEFT and RTGS, have been handicapped by some arbitrary cutoff timings set by the RBI. Cutoff timings for electronic systems? What's the rationale behind this? Credit and debit cards work 24x7x365, and so should NEFT and RTGS. After all, there's no human involved in these transactions, and barring the occasional maintenance and rare outages, computers can work nonstop without breaking a sweat!
  6. Eliminate "free-floating" RTGS forms: A gaping hole in the way RTGS transfers are conducted is that some banks (such as SBI) have placed booklets of generic RTGS forms at various counters, openly available to anyone. A signature is now the sole barrier to fraud. Unlike cheques, that must be issued to the firm/individual who wants to transfer money, these RTGS forms can be picked up and filled by anyone. This makes it futile to securely keep the forms in your locker (something most people do with their cheque books), since both payer and payee can be filled in these generic forms. This hole must be plugged, by issuing NEFT/RTGS books in the same way that cheque books are issued today.
These are just some of the improvements that I think will encourage the use of electronic money transfer in India, and also make the whole process more convenient, efficient, quick and secure.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fiction books - a waste of valuable time or just another source of personal entertainment?

I'm not a fan of fiction novels. I consider them a waste of valuable time. I don't read fiction, and I suggest to others to not read fiction.


Because I believe that one should instead read a nonfiction book, because a nonfiction surely teaches you something, in addition to entertaining you. Better deal! Better utilization of time! And you can't disagree that there are tons of great nonfiction alternatives to fiction books, so you can't say that nonfiction ain't good enough.

This old belief became fresh once again when I read the following opening sentence in a recent article by Dwight Garner in The New York Times:

"Reading a dull, charmless nonfiction book is almost always better than reading a dull, charmless novel. With a nonfiction book, you might at least learn something."

But this time I thought - isn't my belief equivalent to saying that one should watch only documentaries [assuming that most documentaries are based on reality] and never watch movies [assuming that most movies are fiction], because documentaries both entertain and teach you. When I tell others to never waste their time reading fiction, why do I watch scores of fiction movies?

I guess I'll stop opposing fiction from here on and accept it as just another source of personal entertainment.

P.S. Interestingly, I just googled this and found that a lot of debate has already been done on this question!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Against naming airports after popular individuals

Indira Gandhi International (Delhi), John F. Kennedy International (New York), O. R. Tambo International (Johannesburg), Paris-Charles De Gaulle (Paris), Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee International (Amritsar), etc. These are names of some of the airports that come to my mind when I think of airports named after important individuals.

I'm against naming airports after individuals (political, religious, etc.). In my opinion, such names:
  1. Are used by politicians and religious leaders to only further their interests.
  2. Serve some sections of the society, but (can) make others uncomfortable.
  3. Unnecessarily introduce additional complexity that could've been avoided.
Clean, easily memorable, neutral, self-explanatory, simple

I think names of airports should be kept clean and neutral. Airports should be named after the respective cities in which they are located. So the above five airports would look like - Delhi International, New York International, Johannesburg International, Paris International, and Amritsar International.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Interference to airliners from electronic devices, possible terrorism, and my vision for the future

That electronic devices might pose a threat to commercial aircraft through electromagnetic interference has already been discussed many times (for example here).

What I'm concerned about is the possibility of executing a terrorist activity through a nefariously modified electronic gadget. An iPod touch or a MacBook could be modified by adding high-power radio transmitters, and could be used to reliably cause interference with an aircraft's communication and navigation systems. Such a modified device would easily pass the security checks at airports, since it would look and work just like any other iPod touch or MacBook.

I'm not sure if anyone has ever thought about the possibility of what I've written above. Most of the published material appears to be concerned about electromagnetic interference from electronic gadgets used by travelers (and travelers either forget to turn their devices off or they deliberately don't turn them off - we all know this).

However, I can predict that in the near future, devices will begin to automatically recognize their current location and take at least some safety-related actions based on their location. For example, smartphones or tablets of tomorrow will realize that they're inside an aircraft or a hospital and will either alert their owners of the possibility of interference or will automatically turn off their wireless components. Alternatively, a transmitter in an aircraft's cockpit will send a signal (at the order of a pilot) ordering all electronic devices to turn themselves off. Compliant devices will either alert their owners or will automatically turn themselves off.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Why are humans the only intelligent species?

That's the question that struck my mind as I was driving back home a few days back. It seems odd that humans are the only species on the Earth that are intelligent (of course, this statement assumes that whatever intelligence is exhibited by non-human species, it's so primitive in comparison to the godly intelligence exhibited by humans, that it's easily ignorable).

This looks even more odd because the Earth is the only astronomical object known to possess life. So at least as of today, humans are the only intelligent species in the entire (known) universe.


I queried this on Google, and interestingly, so many people have already asked this question!

Update (9-Jan-11): A related question that just struck me - what would happen if there are two or more intelligent species on our planet? Would they fight against each other? Would they be able to live in harmony? Is it possible that there was at least one other intelligent species on the Earth, but the early humans killed it? When many animals species are physically similar to each other in so many ways, why has intelligence not spread to any other species?