Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Burmese History

Burma (now more commonly known as Myanmar) has been in the news lately because of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, it has been on the world's radar ever since Ms Suu Kyi stood for and won the elections back in 1990. Unfortunately, that victory was taken from her by the erstwhile military rulers and she has been in house arrest ever since.

What kind of country is Burma anyway? Why, when its close neighbour and ally, China, has shaken off the shackles of communism, does its military rulers remain intransigent over the handing of power back to the people? So my curiousity was pricked when I chance across a book with the title, "The River of Lost Footsteps - A personal history of Burma". It was a paperback with 388 pages, something that I thought I could sink my teeth into in the limited time that my busy schedule afforded. I was wrong, it took longer than what I had expected to finish it, if only because the content of this book provides some much information through a broad sweep of history of and around Burma since the time of the Sakiyan Prince Abhiraja. 'Around' because the history of Burma cannot be told without mention of India and China, its neighbours to the West and Northeast. In fact, the author, Mr Thant Myint-U, brings in the Thai, the French and the British nations into the narrative because they, at one time or another, shaped and influence the development of Burma.

The book narrates the Burmese Kings, their conquests and their rise, and their eventual demise, to be replaced by another strongman, not unlike the history of most other kingdoms, such as China. The French came in the 1700s, and in the 1800s was displaced by the British colonisers. Burma relationship with China on its Northeast and Thailand on its eastern borders are also covered in this book. All these make for fascinating reading. But the book is not only about ancient history. It covers the period right up to the 1990s where the narrative involves General Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, U Nu its first post independence PM, and even the author's maternal grandfather, U Thant - the Secretary General of the UN in the 1960s. General Ne Win, who started Burma's current militaristic rule has not been left out.

The breadth of the narrative is truly amazing and one would pick up nuggets of history as you read along, and begin to understand the psyche of the Burmese based on its long history. One of the things that struck me is the author's conclusion, based on its history, that political and economic sanctions against Burma will never work because it has been isolated for so long anyway. Rather, Burma needs to be engaged. Hopefully, such engagements will eventually draw the reclusive military regime, through its people, to became an active part of the world community.

The world seems to have begun to realise this.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The best that he could

Reading a book brought back a lot of memories. Memories of a boyhood home. Fond memories indeed. What book has had that power? "Subhas Anandan - the best I could" is a semi-autobiographic account of Singapore's best known criminal lawyer, Mr Subhas Anandan. This book covers his early life and the criminal cases he has dealt with over his long legal career. What's so interesting in this account? Well, Mr Anandan writes in a simple yet engaging style, shorn of any legalese that might deter anybody except fellow lawyers. Yet this is not what drew me to the book in the first place. After all, the author devotes half of the book recounting cases he has handled - cases that have, in their time, received wide public coverage through the local print and broadcast media.

The reason I picked up the book was because someone else who had read the book told me that he is a Naval Base boy. And so I found out through this book that he lived in the Naval Base workers' quarters, like I did. His father worked for the British, like my father did. And he went to Naval Base school, like where I did. One might wonder why I never realise these earlier, given our shared history. Perhaps it is because because he preceded me by a generation - he had already qualified as a lawyer when I was just in primary school. Or perhaps we only know it now that he has written this book, which was published only at the end of last year, 2008. Whatever the reason, his account of his experiences, places, things and people brought me back to the place - Naval Base - as memories came flooding back. In this sense, I enjoyed the book, but I was wrong about the second part of the book, where he recounts some of the more famous criminal cases he was involved in. Yes, I have read about the cases in the public media, some in great detail, but his account gives the 'inside track' on these cases. They are more personal accounts as he wrote about the criminals themselves, and their motives and drew pithy lessons from each of the cases.

My mother used to say that if nothing, lawyers do one bad thing - they defend criminals. How can one act on behalf of a person who has done wrong, who has cheated, who has maimed and worse, who has killed somebody else? Mr Anandan appears to have addressed these doubts in the pages of this book. And he has more. His experiences in jail, his encounters with fellow lawyers Francis Seow, JB Jeyeratnam, David Marshall, and even the famous playwright, John Mortimer, are absorbing reads. Truly, when you pick up this book, you wouldn't want to put it down until you reach the last page.

Monday, August 10, 2009

To Find a Page

No one knows how many websites there are in the world today. Some estimates have been attempted in the past. According to a CNN article, dated 1st November 2006, there were 100 million websites with "domain names and content on them". Another research reported 11.5 billion pages as of January 2005 whereas Yahoo reported that it had 19.2 billion documents in its directories in the same year. In February 2007, the Netcraft Web Server Survey reportedly found 108,810,358 distinct websites. The Internet Domain Survey conducted in Jan 2008 reported 541,677,360 host sites that had responded to a ping. If nothing, these numbers, surveys and research tell us that nobody knows exactly how big the world wide web is, let alone the Internet. The exact number is really not that important, except perhaps to those who need to set the million dollar question in "Who wants to be a millionaire" or to trivia buffs. What really is important is whether people who surf the world wide web (www) can find a particular website in the quickest possible time. From the earliest days, Search Engines and Directories, such as Alta Vista, Yahoo, Lycos, etc., were invented to do just that - help people navigate the www to find a particular website. Search engines have become more sophisticated over time. They have become automated. Most search engines today don't so much rely on humans to do the categorizing and listings. Search Engines like Google's employ search bots to crawl the internet and do the indexing of websites, including positioning and ranking the websites it finds, based on some algorithms known only to the Search Engine provider.

But the broad rules that these algorithms implement have been known for quite some time now, which is why many firms can promise to optimize a website such that it appears at the top of search engine result pages. For example, modern Search Engines look at the descriptive title tag, which appears on the upper left border of most internet browsers. It used to give weight to the texts in the meta tags, until some unethical SEO firms abused this by stuffing the meta tags with keywords that were irrelevant to the subject of the website. The process of ensuring that a web page is listed in the first search results page is called Search Engine Optimization (SOE). It is big business in the web for some time now and have grown in tandem with the increasing importance of Search Engines such as Google in web marketing. Shari Thurow has written on this subject again in her book, "Search Engine Visibility" (New Riders Publishing, 2008, 2nd Edition), in which she discusses the subject of SEO and offers many practical examples and methods of optimizing websites to ensure visibility on the search engine's results pages.

She points out that there are 3 major components of search optimization - text component, link component and popularity components and proceeds to discuss, in detail, why these 3 components are so important to SEO and how one might go about implementing these. Along the way, she debunks a few 'urban legends' that are a hold-over from the earlier days of SEO. Shari does not offer any magic bullet. She makes the point that SEO can be hard work, beginning with keyword research. But she also shows how to Yahoo Search Marketing, Google adWords and Microsoft adCenter, amongst others, to determine common keywords used by searchers for a product or service and structure them into the website to optimize the page's visibility in search engines. She also discusses links, which are often embedded in graphics, and how search engines indexes these for searching purposes. Website popularity has to do with external links. While not within the entire control of the website designer, Shari offers practical advice on how to build such externals links through appropriate Web Directory links, reciprocal links, and most importantly, through good original content.

So what's so different about this book compared to the hundreds of them already published? I am afraid I can't compare with other books because this is the only book I have read cover to cover on the subject of SEO so far. But a few things impress me about Shari's book. First, she comes across as sincere, practical and honest about the subject. She doesn't guarantee anything because in SEO, nothing can really be guaranteed. I tend to agree with her. People come up with the rules (the 'algorithm') to place a web page in a particular position. These same people can change these rules tomorrow.

Second, she strikes me as having the experience that makes her discussion and recommendation on the subject credible. She cites examples of one or two of cases where SEO has gone wrong and how they had to be fixed. And she provides checklists of things to ask and steps to take in order to arrive at a desire outcome.

Third, she is clear about what are important, what are secondary and what are useless in SEO, so that users spend time on the really important things that will truly make a difference in putting their sites on top of a search engine result.

Fourth, and probably most important of all, she promotes an ethical approach to SEO. We are all familiar with e-mail spam. Shari points out that many dubious SEO providers engage in Search Engine spam - techniques and methods that seek to put a website up the search result rankings by exploiting the behaviour of the search engines. These include setting up artificial link farms, cloaking, doorway and gateway pages, free-for-all (FFA) websites as well as keyword stuffing and stacking, amongst others. She points out that some of these may have worked in the past, but that search engine providers such as Google have responded to these instances of abuse by changing their algorithms to, for example, give less priority to keywords in meta-tags - a technique much touted in the past to gain visibility in search results. Shari devotes an entire section in the book discussing the dos and don'ts of SEO, which is important for, as Shari points out, abusing Search Engines can lead to the website being blacklisted.

This an excellent book if you want to learn how to promote your website on Search Engines effectively and ethically. It is also an eye-opener on the design of Search Engines today and what are important and what are peripheral in any consideration of Search Engine behaviour. I recommend this book highly.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Blog log

I have been blogging since 24 July 2005. Not a long time and certainly not the longest time. Blogs, as a genre, started appearing as early as 1998/1999. At that time, I thought little about it. I thought it was nothing more than a platform for a person's personal diary. I was more interested in constructing the next big web site then.

But simple things have a way of taking on a life of its own, blogs included. By the time I started blogging in 2005, there were already millions penning their thoughts, their lives and their rants on platforms such as, Movable Type, LifeJournal and Wordpress. Today, I am still blogging, though not at the rate I used to. But I am still keenly interested in the ever changing blogging technologies out there. So when I came across the reasonably thin book (its 207 pages long), "What no one ever tells you about Blogging and Podcasting" by Ted Demopoulos, I was intrigued.

The book is organised into 101 bite-sized chapters of no more than 2 pages long. Each chapter focuses on a particular topic or tip, some of which are familiar while others are new - even to one who has blogged for that last 4 years. It is a book that you can get through very quickly. You skim those chapters which you are familiar with, and dwell on those chapters which has more to say to you. I have tried to read some books on blogging and gave up 2 chapters into these books as I found them heavy going. Those books are probably suitable for those doing research on blogging. This book, on the other hand, is for those who want to do it and get on with it. The good thing about the book is it covers podcasting and, to a lesser extent, videocasting. I am not familiar with Podcasting, so that was were I spent more time on the book. But I have found new things to learn in the chapters on blogging too.

The 101 chapters cover a wide range of topics on blogging and podcasting, from the basics to the use of blogging/podcasting in business, making money (or not), promoting your blogs and extracting statistics on how your blog is performing - quite a plateful, I must say, but easy to read and get through. My only minor complaint is that it has some typo in the texts, which lowered my perception of the quality of the book. I wouldn't go out to buy it (sorry), but if you can find it in the library, or if your friend already has it, it is probably worth a read. However, to each his own. Maybe it should sit in your library, for that instance when you want to find out what more you can do with your blog.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Black Coffee

Black Gold - something you'd associate with oil at the first instance. But Antony Wild has used the same phrase, aptly it appears, to point to coffee as black gold. At first, it is not obvious, because coffee, and indeed most other cash crops, hasn't always yielded obscene riches to people who grow them. The prices of coffee goes up and down according to worldwide market supply and demand. Mr Wild suggests other reasons, particularly, for the low prices of coffee.

As a coffee trader of more than 10 years (he took over the family business) and a sometime historian of the same, Mr Wild would be qualified to write about coffee's origins (in Ethiopia) and development as a beverage. In this book, "Black Gold - A Dark History of Coffee", he traces the beginnings of coffee and the development of the beverage derived from the coffee beans among the Arabs since the 1200s. Much of the information will be new to the average reader, given the esoteric nature of the subject. One would normally read of the rise and fall of civilizations rather than the development of a humble bean. Yet Wild's narrative encompasses both - of how people, cultures and conflicts interacted with this cash crop in the transmission and clash of civilizations. As expected, Wild discusses the various strains of coffee beans and offers his take on the relative value of each strain, the principal locations where they are found, and its propagation, particularly into the new world of Central and South America. Along with this narrative, Wild injects a lot of social and political commentary. He spent no small part of the book discussing Napoleon Bonaparte's exile on the island of St Helena and the coffee that probably converted him into a regular coffee drinker where once he advocated chicory, a coffee substitute, for his European empire.

Coffee appears to have spread globally through the slave trade, from Africa to Europe, and to Central and South America, perpetrated by the Spanish, Portuguese, European and British colonialists, both to the East and West Indies via their Navies, and in the case of the British, via the East India Company. Wild is highly critical of the use of slaves and slave labour for the propagation of the beverage. His commentary on the evils of the oppressive ways of the colonialists can be uncomfortable reading for some who have been brought up on generous doses of the adventure and heroism of these voyages of discoveries in the 14th to 18th centuries. He continues to lambast the neo-colonialists, sans slavery, in the 20th century, who did no better in its use of low cost labour and low coffee prices to reap huge profits for itself. Starbucks is mentioned as one example of how big corporations reap their great profits at the expense of the pittance that people who actually farm the coffee beans receive. Wild also discussed the coffee industry in Central and South America before turning his attention to Vietnam and Timor in the East.

This book discusses coffee - the beans, the roasting techniques, such as espresso, and, in Wild's opinion, the quality and desirability of each type of coffee. But it also discusses the darker part of the development of coffee by commenting on the people and their means of propagating and profiting from the bean. The former was enlightening, but the latter can make for uncomfortable reading at times.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tweet Now

Twitter is the rage nowadays, and as usual, I am late to the game. Yeah, an early adopter I am not, and still a lagard with the newest new thing on the internet. Well, Twitter isn't all that new, really. It has been around for more than 2 years. At one point, it was teetering on collapse, with a lot of bad user feedback on its responsiveness, or lack of it. Today, it still has issues, although it is being overlooked by many because of the sheer popularity of the platform.

So what do I do whenever a new popular thing comes along? I pick up a book to read all about it. In this case, I read to learn how to promote my blog by expanding my community of readers. When I came across the book, "Twitter Power - How to dominate your market One Tweet at a Time", by Joel Comm, I borrowed it and read it from cover to cover. In the process, I fast-forwarded my grasp of Twitter, which was great because in these internet days, speed is of the essence. You just don't have the time to figure out the great stuff all on your own. You need somebody who is been there, done that, and then some, to kickstart you.

Well, this book has certainly kicked me with lots of ideas and I am off to a running start. Yep, I am on now, although I must admit that I have, till now, a grand total of 1 tweet to my account. That's because I am encountering problems with getting the background changed. And, I discovered, Twitter actually has an unresolved bug here. But hey, I expect these problems to be ironed out in time. Only I hope it doesn't take too long.

But back to the book. What I like about it is that you get a lot of tips on how to do a lot more with 140 words or less. Joel discusses how he, and other Twitterers, have used Twitter to promote their products, and their blogs online. One of the most useful tip for me was how to and why to change the background. Joel also goes into some length discussing branding issues and how one should go about doing it. His common refrain? Marketing yourselve and your business through Twitter will take time, he says, so one has to be patient. That's pretty disappointing advice to anyone who wants to make his million before he is 30, but to me, it makes sense. His point is that this platform should be treated with respect, that you can't keep throwing marketing messages at twitterers ad nauseam. Instead of winning a following, which is key in Twitter, you'd hemorrhage followers.

There's a ton of interesting tools that are out there in Twitter-verse to fill in the gaps that Twitter, by its very nature, has. For example, how do you schedule a twitter message, how do display pictures with your tweets, how to keep track of popular tweets...? Joel ends the book discussing some obligatory legal stuff so you don't get into trouble. This is standard fare, so you can skip this chapter, really. Joel can be ponderous, but on the whole, its an easy book to read with lots of things to pick up.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Profit with people

Sam Wyly? Never heard of him. Is he related to that famed Warner Brothers cartoon character, Wily E. Coyote? Well, yes, if you consider that both live in Texas. But no, because the first is immensely rich while Wily continues to pursue the Road Runner and gets its head smashed in a desert rock.

Sam Wyly, as I only recently read about, is a serial entrepreneur who started businesses such as University Computing, Sterling Software and took over the running of Bonanza Steakhouse, amongst many successful commercial ventures. The first I have never read about, but I know the second and third businesses. He was a millionaire by the time he was 30 years old. Today, he is 70 something and a billionaire. Now why did he fall under my reading radar all these years, when even his compatriot and friend, Ross Perot, is so much more well known, though not necessarily more wealthy? I really don't know. But I am glad I made his acquaintance through his autobiographical book, "1,000 Dollars and an Idea". I would normally not pick up any book that boasts about getting rich or how to do so. Not that I don't want to but I am realistic. Let's just say it isn't in my genes to become one - financially rich, i.e., though Mr Wyly might disagree. It was those technology companies mentioned in the jacket of the book that interested me.

The book recounts Mr Wyly's rags to riches story, of how he exploited, legally of course, opportunities that came along to enable him to build companies that made lots of money. And doing so with hardly enough money of his own in the bank. Would-be entrepreneurs could learn a thing or two on how he did it. He is a person of his times, when computers (NOT personal computers) were becoming important. Is it any surprise that he cut his teeth with Tom Watson Sr and Jr while working as a salesman in IBM? His story is a fascinating one, as he recounts how he started companies, built them, then sold them, acquired others, sometimes through leveraged buyouts, and accumulated wealth in the process. Of course, he did lose money along the way, lots of it, and he failed to realise some of his ideas, or dreams, but he is sanguine about it. One has to be patient and it will pan out. They did, most of the time, i.e.

One of the things that I took away from this account is the importance of people in your lives, and how it is important to identify them, trust them, get them to work for you, nurture them and share the rewards with them. That is probably one of the keys to his success. The other is the lesson of creative destruction - to know when to quit, when to exit a business. Many hold on to their babies, see them grow up and old, and die.

Not so Mr Wyly's approach. He does not seem to be sentimental about any company he has formed. Instead, he is sentimental about the people who took the journey with him forming these companies. As it turned out, he was right many times and profited from those decisions, some in the nick of time. Some would say he has a good sense of timing. Others would say it is just dumb luck. Whichever way, he made his fortune with an eye for opportunity and, shall I say, a lot of daring.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Debunking Enterpreneurship

The world is in recession right now, deeper than any since the Great Depression of the 1930s, so every conceivable media is reporting. Unemployment has hit record highs, with many people thrown out on the streets because they can no longer pay their mortgages. Many in the US are living no differently from those in 3rd world countries, who call a tent, or a 'house' built from 5 wooden planks stringed loosely together their home. It is heartwrenching, but what can these people do? They can probably do one of three things:
  1. Live on government (or any charitable) dole
  2. Do odd-jobs (if any are available, i.e.)
  3. Start their own business

Starting their own business looks like the best way to 'get up and going' and not wallow in self-pity. And that is really what happens in a recession, or at least when jobs are few and far between. Statistics from the past have shown that this is what the unemployed do. But statistics have also shown that most such businesses (if not all) are bound to fail. Don't ask me, ask Prof Scott Shane, a professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at the Weatherheard School of Management, Case Western Reserve University. He has written the book, "The Illusion of Entrepreneurship", in which he debunks popular myths about Entrepreneurship.

And what are some of these myths?
  1. The US isn't one of the most entrepreneurial countries in the world. Countries such as Peru and Uganda are more entrepreneurial (page 28)
  2. Most entrepreneurs don't select the most profitable industries, but instead pick industries with highest firm failure rates (page 38)
  3. Psychological factors account for very little of the difference between enterpreneurs and other people...(page 61)
  4. ...The typical start-up is very ordinary, not-very-innovative, home-based business that starts and stays tiny (page 76)
Prof Shane goes on to list a total of 67 such 'busted myths and key realities' in this book. And he does not do so with bald assertions, as many who write management books do. In all instances, he appeals to authoritative statistics and studies collected and conducted in the past. The book has 33 pages of notes citing references and authorities. It certainly corrected many perceptions that I have held before. For example, that getting an education will help, not hinder, one's performance as an entrepreneur (myth #50 - page123). The adage to study hard and get a good education continues to hold true. Another important point he made was that public policy towards enterpreneurship (and by extension, schools teaching entrepreneurship) should not blindly support any and all types of start-ups. He asks a question towards the end of the book:

Between a high school dropout entrepreneur who starts a personal cleaning business and a former Microsoft employee of 15 years of experience with an MBA starting an internet company, which is more likely to succeed?

The answer may or may not surprise you, but this question goes to the heart of message of this book - that most enterpreneur fail, but there are some with particular characteristics that will do well. Read the book to find out.