Saturday, December 25, 2010

Internet Log

The Internet is certainly the greatest invention in the last century. It is certainly no hyperbole to state that in this century, the 21st, it has already changed people's lives, and the way businesses are conducted. Many accounts of the invention and development of this marvelous platform starts from the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web really became popular. Many mention, rightly, that ARPANET is the precursor and that the US military was one of the main sponsors in its development. But who were the people behind its development? What were their dreams and intentions? How did they envision technology in the future? These are answered in Johnny Ryan's book, "A History of the Internet and the Digital Future". More than this, Mr Ryan goes on to discuss recent phenomenons such as social networking via the internet.

The first part of the book begins with a discussion of the need for a distributed network by the military as far back as the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Cold War was on. Russia and the US were pointing their nuclear missiles at each other. This need, to ensure survival in a MAD world, gained importance, which eventually resulted in the creation of RAND, a think tank formed to advise the US armed forces. It was here that Paul Baran proposed that messages could be transmitted via small "packets" of information rather than the conventional end-to-end  transmission method. This single idea, which was also proposed by Donald Davies, underpins and drives the entire internet today. A detailed account is given of the people who developed on this idea, people you may not have heard of unless you are in the scientific community.

In transitioning from these early days to the www of the 1990s, Mr Ryan also recounts the developments that took place in Universities and hobbyist communities that resulted in technologies such as BITNET, FidoNet and for a time, the very popular Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) . This part of the book will be interesting to people who missed out on this transitional phase in the use of communications technologies leading up to the ubiquitous e-mail systems today.

These, really, are the interesting parts of the book.

Mr Ryan goes on, in the second part of the book, to discuss the development of the World Wide Web, stressing a common underlying approach that brought it so much success - the centrifugal/community/social dimensions. The book concludes with Ryan's discussion of the future of the internet, including its use in the political/social arena (e.g. Obama's very successful use of the Internet to reach out to the electorate, and how US candidates for the Presidency have managed to use the medium to gather monetary contributions for the expensive campaigns that characterizes bids for US political office). Topics and issues on Web 2.0 are also discussed. These issues have been covered in numerous books but Ryan has brought the account up to date.

This is a "can't put down book" once you start.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Intel Inside China

Perhaps to some people, China has now developed into a 7-tonne gorilla, able to push its weight around the world at will. Witness how China is 'buying up Greece'. Certainly China has come a long way since opening up to the world in 1978. Many businesses have rushed into this new 'gold-rush' town, and in the process go themselves burnt or bankrupted. I personally know of one which nearly went under due to its venture in China. Yet there are those which tread carefully and came out the better for it. One of these in Intel.

In "Embedded - Intel in China: The Inside Story", Intel China's once-CEO of 12 years standing, Mr Tan Wee Theng, recounts the careful approach Intel took to establish itself in China. This is not a detailed account of the business operations in China, but a broad sketch of the journey that Intel took going into China. The narrative starts with an explanation of why China was important to Intel, and the gradual establishment of sales offices and the marketing and branding campaigns that followed.

Having tested the waters, more developments followed with the establishment of R&D facilities, and eventually the building of Test and Assembly factories in Shanghai and Chengdu. Intel China's ventures culminated with the building of a wafer fabrication plant in Dalian, China, which is situated in the Northeastern part of the country.

This book highlights the key people who played a significant part in the development of Intel in China. And these people were not just the sales and marketing people, but also people with skills that Intel reckoned were important in doing business in China, including an organisational and cross-cultural specialist who helped to 'integrate Intel's values with the local culture'. This book contains personal reflections of many of the key players mentioned in the book - a feature that makes the narrative that much more interesting.

China is still a very structured society, and this carries over into the business and government arena. There remains specific protocols that one has to observe, such as those that deals with seniority. But one important point that Mr Tan made is to give weight to lower level officials because some of them are likely to rise to the highest levels of government one day.

The author covers issues of 'guanxi', corporate social responsibility, intellectual property and the east-west integration issue, amongst others, but from first hand experience - Intel China's experience. While it may not all be applicable to every company that wants to do business in China - remember that Intel itself is a giant in every sense of the word - the various lessons that are drawn provide good points of reference to one and all. Certainly, students of International Business should read this book.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Lion of the Nation

Even as I write this review, I received news of the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wife, Mdm Kwa Geok Choo. But what does that have to do with the book, "The Singapore Lion", on the life of Singapore's long-time Foreign Minister, Mr Sinnathamby Rajaratnam? Everything, I suppose, because Mr Lee became a significant part of Mr Rajaratnam's life, and through Mr Lee, Mrs Lee would also have figured greatly too. I am only speculating though because that second part of Mr Rajaratnam's story has yet to be told in Irene Ng's biography of Mr Rajaratnam.

"The Singapore Lion" chronicles the life of one of the founding fathers of modern Singapore, tracing his life from his beginnings growing up in Seremban to the time when Singapore attained merger with Malaya to form Malaysia. Mr Rajaratnam was a Ceylonese Tamil, whose family migrated to Malaysia to escape the poverty of his homeland. His father eventually made well in Seremban, which enabled Mr Rajaratnam to proceed to study Law in London. This book begins with an account of his growing up in Seremban and about the hard life of the rubber tappers which his father supervised. So Mr Rajaratnam has known days of want and observed the lot of the poor. It describes him as a quiet and sensitive person totally devoted to books. He loved books, and he devoured them like a Lion (though this is not why the book is so titled). This is perhaps the single unchanging  aspect of Mr Rajaratnam throughout his life. Indeed, it would contribute towards his single ability to weave words into power language in his struggle to build a Singapore according to his ideals.

The book gives much space to his life in London, and especially his interaction with people who believed passionately in communism. The Left Book Club was to be the main vehicle for him to wade into the world of Leftism, where he formed friendships with people of like mind. His own passion about social consciousness in life and society, and his beginning to write on the same eventually led him to abandon his studies in Law, dashing the hopes of his father. As events would have it, the Germans began to bomb London during the Second World War and Mr Rajaratnam, who was not able to make his way back to Malaya, stayed in London, dodging bombs and trying to eck out a living for himself and his Hungarian wife, Piroska.

The second major part of Mr Rajaratnam's life is recounted in his days as a journalist, first with the Singapore Standard and later, the Straits Times. By now, he had begun to agitate for the abolition of British colonial rule. The book describes in great detail his life as a journalist, perhaps because the author, also a journalist, shares with Mr Rajaratnam the love for the word and world of journalism.

A third phase of Mr Rajaratnam's life began when he formed a close association with Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the shared objective of getting rid of the colonial government, and working for an independent Malaya. Mr Rajaratnam had always believed that independence had to mean the integration of Singapore into the then Malaya to form a Malaysian Malaysia, void of racial segregation or any special consideration for one race over another. The idea of equality, regardless of race, language or religion, was his creed, which he fought so valiantly for. Mr Rajaratnam eventually gave up his career as a journalist to become a politician, finding common cause with people like Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and yet able to work with erstwhile communists such as Lim Chin Siong. The book describes Mr Rajaratnam's mighty and valiant hands with words, and how he would make use of his powerful pen (actually his typewriter) to challenge, debunk and defend his ideals and those of the PAP, like a fearless and fearsome Lion, the Singapore Lion.

The book is written in a sympathetic manner, where Mr Rajaratnam failings, if there are any, are explained in the context of the times, the difficulties and challenges. This is not surprisingly as the author has known Mr Rajaratnam both at the professional level and a personal level. Nevertheless, the treatment of his life is both sensitive and factual. It is obvious that much research has gone into the writing of this book.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Qings

History is a pet subject of mine, and non more so than about the country of my origin - China. No, I wasn't born there because my parents/grandparents migrated to Singapore in the middle of the last century. And I haven't really found out from either of these 2 parties why exactly they quit China. Perhaps it had something to do with the chaotic situation in China that characterized, so I am given the impression from popular history, much of the the latter part of the Qing dynasty into the Nationalist period after the fall of the Empire. This book doesn't cover all the ground I am interested in, but it does give me a sense of how China 'progressed' towards revolution and thus the birth of modern China.

Mr William Rowe has written a scholarly yet highly readable account of the Qing Empire, from the fall of the Ming dynasty to the 'golden era' of the Qings under its 3 most illustrious and effective Emperors, Qianlong, Yongzhen and Kangxi. Rowe writes extensively about Chinese society under these emperors - the imperial examination system inherited from the previous dynasty and its effect on social stratification, politics, customs and practices. Rowe also covers the period of the 19th century on the arrival and intrusion of the Europeans and Japanese people onto China's soil and highlighting the opening of trade with the 'outside world'. An unfortunate by-product of an otherwise beneficial trade relation resulted in the Opium Wars, and the Taiping rebellion owed its origins to people who embraced, though later, distorted the Christian religion that was brought to its shores by western foreigners such the British and the French. A heart-wrenching (from a Chinese perspective) account of how these foreigners, including Japan, 'bullied' China into ceding precious land and monetary reparations highlighted the overall weakness of the Qing emperors in the latter part of the 19th century.

I am no historian, and I do not know if Mr Rowe's account is revisionist or otherwise. He does cite accounts from earlier sources to evaluate what happened and how, with the hindsight of a 21st century knowledge, long held beliefs about Chinese history during the Qing period could be mistaken. For example, he shows that China expanded its territories significantly under the Qing empire, subjugating much of the foreign tribes and nationalities in North-eastern China (for which China is now paying a price), its annexation of the island of Taiwan, and its tributary control over the Korean Peninsula. Mr Rowe also makes that point that the Qing emperors largely devolved the governance of its far-flung domain to appointed governor-generals working with a hierarchy of local literati-gentry-merchants over the span of its history. This perhaps made its dynastic rule much more manageable from the center. And he does make the point the were it not for the Empress Dowager Cixi and her group of followers, China would have been more unstable in the twilight of its empire.

Finally, Rowe discussed the role of the various people who contributed, either more or less, to the brewing revolutions that eventually toppled the Qing empire in 1911. He quite frankly portrays Sun Yat Sen as a bungling revolutionary and, at best, a representative, though largely symbolic  figure, in the overall toppling of the Qing empire and the establishment of the Nationalist government. He makes the point, more than once, that Sun was faraway in Denver, USA, when the revolution in Wuchang succeeded.

This is an absorbing account and will no doubt engage even the non-historian.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Harry's Bar

I haven't raced through a book as quickly as this one. No, I didn't just skim over it. I pretty much read it cover to cover. You just must appreciate the tight narrative of the book "The Story of Harry's" by current owner, Mr Mohan Mulani. It is concise yet it has managed to bring out the story of home-grown (i.e. Singapore) jazz bar complete with a narrative of its founding by Mr Jim Gelpi, a Louisiana native expatriate in Singapore, the author's involvement, first as a customer, then an investor and ultimately its sole owner. All of which makes for fascinating reading. The author has even slipped in a chapter on his life before Harry's. This account is to lead up to why and how he eventually ended up giving up much of his original business ventures into developing the Harry's business and brand. After all, by his own admission, he is not familiar with the restaurant and bar business, being more experience and having made his fortune in the trading business (consumer electronics products) and in property and real estate investments. The author draws out an important lesson from the failure of this early part of his business ventures, which is to be honest and to honour one's obligations in business.

Against this backdrop, Mr Mulani then narrates the development of Harry's Bar, which is located in Boat Quay. It is still there. He also writes about the key people whom he relied on in the early years to run the business, and the people who regularly came by after a hard day's work in the central business district just a stone's throw away from its Bar on the banks of the Singapore River, including the infamous Nick Leeson who wrecked Barrings. Just as interestingly he has included brief narratives of the many jazz musicians who have played at Harry's over the years. The book is interspersed with pertinent photographs throughout the book that lends intimacy to the stories. The book even has a discussion of the origin and and development of the Harry's well-known business logo.

Within this fascinating story, Mr Mulani has weaved in material one would expect to find only in business books - building up the Harry's chain of bars and restaurants, brand making while expanding the business, and a look into future ventures. There is even a chapter distilling the business wisdom that he had spent a lifetime learning.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a quick but good read. Along the way, you would pick up a gem or two regarding starting and growing a business. But above all, you will get a glimpse into one of the iconic brands in the F&B industry in Singapore.

p.s. If you buy the book, you can claim a free bottle of Harry's Premium Lager upon presentation of the book. Now that's what I call good value for money. This offer is good till April 2011.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Being Just

I confess, I haven't read a book on such a topic for a long long time. I used to read these category of books when I was much younger, when I had much less commitments, a teenager looking for meaning and devouring ideas that people have taken the time and trouble to pen. Perhaps I was a bit tired of the business and technology and politics/history books that has been my staple for the last 10 to 15 years. So as I nibbled at the book, I was tentative about completing it. Well, the material caught on and I eventually completed the book. This is perhaps a measure of its quality.

In Justice, Michael Sandel discusses the subject of, well, Justice, what doing the right thing means for people past and present. He starts with the Utilitarians, probably best represented by Jeremy Bantam, where the 'right thing' is determined by the weight of alternatives, that that which gives the greatest happiness is the 'right thing'. For example, it is just to tax people and forcibly spread the wealth in a society so that the greatest number attains happiness. The Libertarians differ. Is it not obvious that forcing someone to do something against his will, or on pain of penalty, unjust? They insist that inequality is a fact of life. Whether you are rich or poor, and whether you rise above your poverty, or stay poor, all things being equal, is a matter of personal choice. Thus the libertarians advocate minimal interference from the powers that be in the affairs of men so that freedom prevails. These 2 fundamental philosophies underlie issues of justice and freedom.

Sandel goes on to discuss Immanuel Kant's views on freedom and and introduces morality into the picture. Kant is not easy to understand. I read about him many years ago, and even heard people quote him in public talks, but I have never understood him. Sandel has been able to shed light on Kant's philosophy in this book so I now understand him better. Sandel argues that whether one accepts a particular position on justice, morality and freedom, one cannot ignore one's own context. So the contexts of affirmative action, abortion and the common good, are discussed. Aristotle's thinking on morality and freedom is introduced as a counter-weight against Kant and John Rawl's position. Aristotle insists that one's objectives as opposed to an abstract, in the case of Kant and Rawls, is probably just as important, if not more so, in the final analysis on issues of justice, morality and freedom.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

New New Things

Chock Full of stories - this is the main impression that you are left with after reading half of the book, Upstarts, by Donna Fenn. This book is about the stories of young entrepreneurs in America, how they saw a need, worked out a solution either on their own, or with friends, or with the social crowd (crowd sourcing), typically on the Internet Forums, and became profitable, some wildly so. So if you are looking for examples and case studies on entrepreneurship, particularly of the younger set, this is a good resource. All the examples in this book are about young entrepreneurs in the US, and their business varied from technology startups to publishing. Ms Fenn has helpfully categorized them into Extreme Collaborators, Technology Mavens, Game Changers, Market Insiders, Brand Builders, Social Capitalists, Workplace Renegades, and Morph Masters. Each chapter in the book discusses these categories of enterpreneurs and cites many examples of actual startup businesses, which Ms Fenn dubs 'Upstarts'.

The many examples are fascinating and each provides a lesson or two about starting a business. However, at about the half way marked (of the book), you can't help feeling a bit tired. The stories, while still interesting, get a bit formulaic. So this is probably a book not for reading cover to cover, but a rich resource of case studies and analyses of the many ways and paths and types of ideas and endeavors that can become springboards for successful businesses. Of course Ms Fenn warns what not all businesses succeed, that probably more companies fail than succeed, but the stories of those that failed is just as important as those that succeed. Keep it for a ready reference source.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fool's Gold

The worst of the storm seems to have passed, so it is time that people looked back to learn some lessons from the greatest financial meltdown in recent times. Fortunately we have the lessons of the Great Depression 80 years ago to thank. Had it not been for the lessons of that Depression, America would not have put in place certain policies that would prop up the banks and keep capital flowing. They got flak for it, but as  it turned out, the US government inadvertently profited from their massive spending of public money as it returned ownership of many banks it acquired a year ago at huge profit.

But why did the meltdown happen in the first place? I suppose this has been written about, dissected, argued in the press, books, TV, the World Wide Web, and any media that is available today. But for me, nothing beats sitting down with a book to learn about the background and history of this financial crisis. One of these is a book written by Gillian Tett - Fool's Gold, in which she recounts how 'unrestrained greed corrupted a dream, shattered global markets and unleashed a catastrophe'. Yes the financial crisis has its roots in investment banks looking for ways to minimise the risks on the loans that they advance to businesses, like the securitization of mortgage loans. They came up with the idea of aggregating such debt and selling them to the consumer, you and I, and enticing us with high interest returns. Bank interest rates has been depressed for a long time now, since the days of ex-Federal Reserve Chairman, Mr Alan Greenspan, so any investment that gave returns of more than 1% is attractive. Of course, the typical interest earned on these debt instruments was considerable higher.

Debt securitization is an accepted and valid method of spreading risks, and according to Ms Tett, that was what some finance whiz in JP Morgan, led by Peter Hancock, did. They created BISTRO - Broad Index Secured Trust Offering, which later, much to Hancock's original team at JP Morgan's concern, morphed in the synthetic collateralized debt obligation, or CDO for short. And so the train of financial engineering and innovation was sparked, but eventually turned for the worst as people threw risks to the wind to reap obscene amounts of money. Risks didn't matter so long as people were willing to buys these CDOs, until some people could no longer continue paying for their houses (they weren't credit worthy to start off with) and the whole deck of CDO cards began to crumble and the shockwave reverberated throughout the globe. Of course this is a highly summarised account of what happened. Much more was happening behind the scenes and this book tries to give an account of these goings on, to explain how the world got into such a financial mess.

As fascinating read indeed.