I’d like all the Mac users to join me in a moment of silence, for Apple has removed Dashboard, that much-beloved feature of MacOS that allowed you to see multiple clocks, sticky notes, search bars, etc., all in one place. WHAT THE HELL?! WHY? WHO GAVE THEM PERMISSION? I WANT STEVE JOBS BACK, SO THAT HE CAN REVERSE THIS COURSE OF STUPIDITY THAT APPLE HAS EMBARKED ON WITH THE MACBOOKS NOW. I’m gonna channel my inner Martin Niemöller here, so bear with me for a minute.
First they came for the multiple ports that made the macs such a delight to use, and I did not speak out - because I didn’t use some of them. Then they came for the top line of keys, and I did not speak out - because I only used the Escape key. Then they came for lighted Apple logo, and I did not speak out - because I rarely saw it. And then they came for my lovely dashboard - and there was nothing I could say.
For old times’ sake, here’s Steve Jobs introducing Dashboard for the very first time (YouTube link, use headphones) at the Apple WWDC in 2004.
Harry Markopolos was an Investment Analyst (and later Chief Investment Officer) at a Boston-based trading company called Rampart Investment Management. While there, his boss asked him to do due diligence on someone named Bernie Madoff, who was making amazingly consistent returns using a relatively simple strategy. Markopolos did the work, and realised that Madoff was a fraud. He alerted the SEC thrice about Madoff’s activities, to no avail. When Madoff’s cover was eventually blown, Markopolos was (naturally) lionised as the man who knew it all from the beginning, who selflessly worked to expose Madoff only to meet disappointment. Which is nice, Markopolos utterly deserved the acclaim.
Cut to the 16th of August 2019. Markopolos now works as a forensic auditor, and he came out with a 175 page report alleging accounting fraud at GE, which he detailed on http://www.gefraud.com; following the report’s release, GE’s stock fell by around 10% (wiping out $9b in market value), because Markopolos enjoys some well-deserved cache around Wall Street post-Madoff. If you clicked on the website link, though, you’d have seen that the website doesn’t exist anymore - it was taken down on September 26. And the report itself received wide criticism - The Druck bought more of GE as its price fell, as did GE’s current CEO, Larry Culp. Analysts across the board said that while GE had problems, Markopolos’ report alleging fraud was a bit of an overreaction at best, and market manipulation at worst. The people at CNBC have very nicely put up a copy of the report here, if you want to have a look. The report basically says that GE will have to take more writedowns in its long term care insurance business, and they haven’t disclosed those charges.
All of us know the loopholes that you have to jump through in order to value and assess a financial services business. To do the same for an insurance business is harder. And I have the feeling that Markopolos was a little out of his depth here. But that’s not all. This guy was wrong on purpose, and he knows it (if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have taken down the website). There are various ways of confronting a company about bad accounting, but writing out a 175 page report with “Bigger Fraud Than Enron” on every fourth page is not one of them (for example, you could participate in their quarterly analyst conference call and ask them pointed questions, making everyone uncomfortable - but you’ll get your point across). Because if you do what Markopolos did, then you’re just a short who was trying to agitate the stock, and that’s called market manipulation.
Somewhere in India lives a retired Air Marshal named PV Iyer, who can knock out multiple pull-ups at the grand old age of 90. If he’s such a legend, his progeny must be wild, too. And they are. His son just finished supervising the building of 110 million toilets all over India, a feat that has catapulted him into the exalted league of mandarins who changed India for the better. At this point, I think a brief introduction to India’s civil service (in India we call our bureaucrats “babus”) is in order - our bureaucracy is quite similar to the Singaporean civil service (both are modelled on the British Civil Service). Every year, more than 1 million (I’m not kidding, here’s the source) sit for the civil service recruitment process, and in the end, around 900-1000 are selected (so a pass rate of 0.1%). So effectively, the crème de la crème of India’s rote-learning-reliant population become civil servants. Even among the 1000 people chosen, there are different services that are allotted to them based on their rank - the smartest go for the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and Indian Administrative Service (IAS), followed by the Indian Police Service (IPS) and Indian Revenue Service (IRS) and so on and so forth. That’s the only exam that these guys have to clear, and if they do it, their life is set. They have a guaranteed job till the age of 60, automatic promotions and a whole host of other perks. I don’t envy them, though - their job (should they choose to do it properly) is nuts. For example, I once met an IAS officer who told me that he’d been in the service for about 25 odd years, and that having served for such a length of time “you’ve seen atleast 10-15 riots” (!). Imagine being having a gig that causes you mention something as mad as this so off-handedly!
But I guess because of the number of people in India, the vast variety of completely random things that you encounter in India every day, and the mentality that seeps in an organisation as a result of automatic promotions, and corruption, the effectiveness of our Civil Service officers is rather non-uniform. So we have some officers who are legends in India and abroad, some who do illegal things and go to jail, and a great number who fall in the middle of these two categories, who just keep their heads down and do some (not all!) work till they reach their retirement age. So the good officers, as you may have realised by now, are a class apart.
Back to the Air Marshal’s son, though. His name is Param Iyer, and he belongs to the category of “good” officers. He left the IAS in 2011 to go work for the World Bank, helping them assess sanitation projects in developing countries. One of Modi’s first declarations when he was sworn in as India’s PM in 2014 was that he was going to improve the country’s sanitation coverage. And lying on a couch in Vietnam as part of a World Bank project, listening to Modi speak about India’s sanitation problems, Iyer felt a strong urge to return to his old job, which he expressed through the proper channels (is there a special telephone number that you must dial requests like these? I don’t know). Knowing a fellow who knows a good thing when he sees one, Modi appointed him to lead the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Since then, Iyer’s led a team of bureaucrats, charities (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example), researchers (from several universities’ health departments) and private enterprises, with one goal in mind - to build as many sanitation facilities as possible, and change the mindset of Indians so that those facilities are then used. They’ve done the first bit, it’s the second one that they’re focussing on now. And good luck to them; they’re gonna need it.
I think that’s a lot of text to digest for a week, so I’m gonna reserve the rest of the articles for next week. Enjoy your week and weekend, people.