Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Laws of Grave-ity: post death torture

Sometimes, atleast in our tradition, the worst thing that people can do to you is to die. Not that it is a crime, but it makes things terribly inconvenient for the family. And inconveniencing others is Rude.

The post-death project management requires different data flows, has multiple overlapping and conflicting objectives, making it a nightmare. An important aspect of this event is Informing Others. There is a tradition that if someone very close to the me dies, I become temporarily "untouchable" for a few days, the duration determined by degree of closeness and with due higher weightage given to paternal ties than to the maternal ones. At the end of the period, I magically become non-"untouchable" by having a ritualistic cleaning. At the very least, I must take a bath immediately. At the worst, I become "untouchable" for 2 weeks.

None of this appears to be strictly necessary, of course. This "untouchability" was probably a forced quarantine conceived as a common social defense against deadly epidemics that wreaked havoc during the past few centuries. The higher weightage to the paternal line is a dead giveaway (forgive the pun) - because many families were joint families, joined along the paternal ties.

Anyway, because nobody likes being untouchable, and the news of someone unfortunate demise means atleast a mandatory bath that a lot of people abhor (!), we'd rather not hear about someone's death. Our society has created wonderful loopholes to escape these rituals. I sometimes think our shastras are tactics of two kinds of jokers - one, the sadists, who kept adding restrictions, and other, the hackers, who kept finding loopholes. Both will be laughing up their sleeves looking at us.

One such loophole is that the family of the dead person doesn't always inform immediately relatives who are need-not-visit-and-in-return-dont-want-to-inconvenience-you types. So, they inform in the morning, before you take your bath. We don't want to waste precious water and electricity, you know. The second, and admittedly, the cleverest is to write down on a piece of paper the name of the person who died, send it to the recipient with the message "somebody died in our house, and since you dunces won't be able to guess, wait till morning, and just before you take your _daily_ bath, open the chit" ...

Now, how many can come up with that ?

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Financial value of Vaasthu

There is a quote I chanced upon at Wikiquotes - "Software and cathedrals are much the same - first we build them, then we pray." But in civil construction, we seem to follow the opposite - we first think about the pray and then build.

There was this rage around five years back. I thought it was a craze that would die down. But, probably because it doesn't have any rationale, it has continued to be a craze. Only hard-nosed business calculations and mis-application of NPV (net present value) has stopped me from falling into this quagmire ... it is called Vaasthu.

Everybody acts as a free consultant these days for Vaasthu ... as long as you foot the bill. It is supposed to bring auspiciousness for the constructed building, but it only increases suspiciousness. Mind you, it is not that I disagree with this Vaasthu, but given that I don't know anything about it, and can't seem to understand the principle on which it operates, I'd rather not believe it.

In our plans for renovating our home, the fundamental thought was to reduce demolishing and keep the existing structure intact. So far so good. It was actually taken to a different level by a very close and elderly relative of mine, who pointed out that by doing so, I'd be sleeping facing the south direction and that was "not good".
That wasn't all. Even the carpenter considered himself an expert and suggested that rainwater drain out from the terrace to the right side and not to the left side, as otherwise it was "not good" and against Vaasthu.
The contractor himself didn't want the overhead water-tank to be on the left side of the house as it was against this mysterious Vaasthu.
Then, there was this friend of my mother, who tried to explain that following Vaasthu meant that "good things" happened to me.

Now, in all this, the trick that people use is, they never explicitly define the value of "good" and "not good". As a business grad, I'm interested not just in the value, but also in the net present value of the investment of following or not following Vaasthu. I'm even ok with "not good" as long as NPV of "not good" and "against Vaasthu" is still positive. Or maybe we should have a system of "co-pay" (like in insurance) where the consultant also foots a part of the Vaasthu bill.

Let me take an example: as quoted in the first anecdote, to renovate my room, so that I sleep "east-west", it would cost say INR 1 lakh extra versus nothing if I did not bother with Vaasthu. Over an investment period of 20 years (assuming that is the time horizon of next renovation to my house), and a very conservative return of investment of 15% if I invested the same money in (say) mutual funds, the future value of not following Vaasthu is INR 16.36L (=1L * (1.15^20)). Therefore, to follow Vaasthu, I must have a requirement that the "good" that is going to happen to me in the next 20 years purely by Vaasthu must exceed INR 16L. Even investing in risk-free securities at 6% annual returns, the future value turns out to be INR 3.2 L.

Now, can you prove that this Vaasthu can give me a positive net present value or future value so that I can choose to follow it ?

Btw, I was talking about business plan in my last post. Here is one more ... if you got any brains, you'd invent Vaasthu for software and become a consultant. You'll easily rake in millions per assignment :D

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Civil construction v/s software engineering

There is an oft-seen quote deriding software engineering that goes something like this; "If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization". Maybe that's true, maybe that's false ... but what I can definitely deduce is that the person who gave the quote hasn't tried to renovate an existing house here in India.

So, let's see the state of affairs ...
a) Cost escalation is guaranteed ... upto 30% over the original contract. Time escalation is guaranteed too ... upto 50% over the original contract.

b) Workers turn up and then say "no mood", and go back. They also claim bus/commute expenses for that day.

c) One mason turns up very early in morning - 6 am actually. He then waits, because his helper, who is supposed to mix the cement and give it to him doesn't turn up. He then goes home and claims his daily wage + commute expenses.

d) The in-charge (called foreman ??) is afraid of scolding the workers. This being an unorganized industry ("disorganized" is more appropriate), the workers may not turn up at all the next day.

e) Till 3 days ago, it was hot and dry. The workers were doing internal work - plastering the walls etc. Now, it has started raining regularly. But, they have just switched to doing the outdoor work - laying the clay tiles on the terrace, waterproofing etc that I'm told mandates that there must be no rain - otherwise, the waterproofing "muddy" is washed away. What can I do ? Drive the rain away ? Brilliant project management.

Now, all this when we've engaged a work contract with an architect and an engineer, who are supposed to be responsible for project management. Now, some people undertake an adventure called "labour contract" where they directly try to hire labour ... I can't imagine the nightmare ....

I think a great business plan would be to start a company focussing on small-scale building and renovation. Owners will be happy, Government will be happy (now, they can make trade unions out of construction labourers :-), labourers will be happy (job security, pampered constituency for politicians etc) ...

Wonder why nobody wants to take the plunge ? As for me, I'll stick to software.

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