Overdraft Saving the Indian Saver – Urjit Patel

Overdraft: Saving the Indian Saver eBook by Urjit Patel ...

The 24th Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Urjit Patel in his latest work “Overdraft” mounts a scathing albeit nuanced indictment on the malaise and miasma plaguing the Indian banking sector. Taking utmost care to ensure that his views do not transmogrify into an all-out polemic, he is measured in his criticism and optimistic in his outlook. As Mr. Patel clinically expostulates in his compelling book, a pugnacious desire to further populism, a byzantine set of self-defeating regulations and a regulator who is reduced to a mere bystander if not a toothless tiger, all contrive to produce a parlous ecosystem, that is ever engaged in temporary ‘repairs’ with hardly any time for ushering in meaningful reforms.

“I HAVE BEEN IN the news; while it lasted, the contretemps made good theatre. It ended when I stepped down. The theatre of eminences has been going on for centuries and will continue for many more; eventually, everyone is forgotten.” Any book which begins as loquaciously as this invariably does not disappoint and “Overdraft” certainly doesn’t. Dwelling about the banking crisis in the country, Mr. Patel attributes this condition to the phenomenon of creeping banking sector-fiscalization, which in layman terms refers to “ownership of banks as a means for day-to-day macroeconomic management rather than primarily for efficient intermediation between savers and borrowers.”

At the root of the crisis, lies the issue of ownership. As Mr. Patel holds forth, despite three decades of banking sector reforms and an encouragement accorded to the entry of private banks, state-sponsored credit creation retains a majority share. The looming presence of government institutions in all segments, according to Mr. Patel has resulted in a mushrooming of ‘Stackelberg leaders’, an allusion to a strategic game in economics in which the leader firm moves first and then the follower firms move sequentially.

The mandate and priorities of the financial institutions in India seem to be haphazard and misaligned. These institutions have been tasked with priming “vague (and extraneous) objectives – underwriting the government’s disinvestment targets, preserving employment in public enterprises, contributing assistance to states based on the political clout of the representatives, intermittently providing artificial support to stock markets, and occasionally overt lapses in due diligence.” Mr. Patel identifies 9 “Rs” against which he undertakes an impartial evaluation of the performance of the Indian banks, both in the public sector as well as the private banks.

9Rs

For the canard spewing reprobates who strive to lay the blame of a broken-down banking system, squarely, on the doorstep of the Narendra Modi Government, Mr. Patel in no uncertain terms, traces the genesis behind the horror story. …”the dominant antecedent is excessive lending and borrowing; it is not surprising that in the decade since 2009/10, the bank credit–GDP ratio peaked in 2013/14.1 (If we include corporate bonds outstanding, credit from non-banking financial companies [NBFCs], housing finance companies [HFCs] and cooperative banks, the augmented financial resources/GDP ratio for 2018/19 is around an estimated 85 per cent.) Secondly, the asymmetry of information between the regulator and lenders, which is why the supervisor is almost always too late, is inevitably a critical ingredient. Thirdly, policymakers and regulators convince themselves, when the credit cycle is motoring along, that ‘this time it is different’ so there is no need to judiciously apply brakes – take away the ‘punch bowl’ or, at the least, dilute it. The present mountain of bad debt in India is no exception. The lending cycle/asset build-up started in the mid-2000s and even through the global financial crisis, we kept lending channels wide open – at a growth rate of about 17 per cent (in non-food credit) as late as 2011/12 – based on ambitious projections of debt-servicing capacity underpinned by an assumption of 8–8.5 per cent annual growth over a long period. Project execution would, in turn, have assumed minimal glitches or hold-ups. There was a (systemic) failure to maintain balanced credit expansion; non-food credit growth annually over 2006/07–2011/12 was 20 per cent versus the real GDP growth rate of around 7 per cent per annum.”

Mr. Patel also identifies gaping and inexcusable holes in the Corporate Governance of the Public Banks which leads to a rot in the system that is both systemic as well as endemic. With a dearth of senior management in place, governance according to Mr. Patel transcends the plight of a neglected child. “Ditto for the GBs’ board of directors; it is common knowledge that this has traditionally been a placeholder for sinecure to political supporters. Key committees of the board, like the audit committee, have suffered from both inadequate membership, as seats go unfilled, as well as paucity of talent/domain knowledge to carry out fiduciary responsibilities to the level that is required and expected.”

An insidious arrangement of quid pro quo also contributes to ensure a virtual stagnation of reforms in so far as the banking sector is concerned. Consider this damning fact, “In July 2019, the regulator imposed fines on eleven banks for a wrongdoing. A few months later, in September 2019, one government bank in that list received an award from a financial publication. In October 2019, a private bank that had been punished in July won an award from another financial publication. One can go on, as there are other such instances.” As many as 90 per cent of frauds (by value) occurred in the government banks as against 8 per cent in the private banks.

Since the advent of the NDA, a plethora of reforms have been initiated to stem the rot. The Asset Quality Review (AQR) exercise was initiated in the second half of 2015. “The clean-up started with a candid assessment of the sloth hiding in the sector’s balance sheet. Asset Quality Review. Around one-sixth of GBs’ gross advances were found, at first pass, to be stressed (non-performing, restructured or written-off), and a greater part of these were bad debts. For some banks, the share of assets under stress approached or exceeded 20 per cent. The estimate of stressed assets had doubled from 2013 in terms of what had been recognized by banks and acknowledged by the RBI. The Strategic Debt Restructuring (SDR) Mechanism was introduced in February 2014 (and revised in June 2015). The 5:25 scheme was introduced in July 2014 and its scope was extended in December 2014. The Scheme for Sustainable Structuring of Stressed Assets (S4A) was notified in June 2016. In May 2016, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) was enacted as a watershed towards strengthening India’s financial architecture”

As Mr. Patel illustrates, reforms more than punitive measures are the need of the hour. Imposing penalties on errant banks in general and Public Sector Banks in general, result in a perverse play of “neutrality.” Large fines and strictures on banks have been imposed for underreporting NPAs, accounting fudges and regulatory violations, more generally. As mentioned earlier, banks in December 2019 have had to reveal bookkeeping discrepancies and restate balance-sheet figures. This casts doubt on the effectiveness of penalties imposed by the regulator. Frankly, the flow of funds in the case of GBs suggests that monetary penalties are a case of money going from the ‘left pocket’ to the ‘right pocket’ (money collected by the RBI is passed on to the government as surplus), and back to the ‘left pocket’ (government returns the money to GBs for recapitalization).”

Further, the Reserve Bank of India, although the primary regulator is rendered infuriatingly impotent as the powers to remove Directors and appoint a new management etc. in the case of Government Banks is totally taken out of the ambit of the RBI. This has the effect of transforming the premier regulator of the banking industry into a spectator lamenting over unfortunate occurrences.

However, all is not lost. A firm resolve, a firmer mindset and a paradigm shift in resoluteness can still bring the Indian banking sector back in the reckoning. For that to happen, the need of the hour is people with the caliber of Mr. Urjit Patel.

Understanding Coronavirus – Raul Rabadan

Understanding Coronavirus by Raul Rabadan

A very concise and clear book, rather a handbook on the pandemic that has put the entire world in a tailspin. Since the time the first cases of COVID-19 were unearthed in the Hubei province of Wuhan, surmises, conjectures and conspiracy theories have abounded about the origin, nature and trajectory of the pandemic that in transmissibility has taken the entire planet by devilish storm. At the time of writing this review, more than sixteen million spanning 215 nations have been afflicted with this virus with close to 650,000 succumbing to it. Even as the medical and scientific community is racing against time to develop a vaccine/drug for this highly infectious virus, the discourse surrounding the same has taken on contours ranging from the sublime to the silly.

In his book, “Understanding Coronavirus”, Professor in the Departments of Systems Biology and Biomedical Informatics at Columbia University, Raul Rabadan tries to set matters straight. Mr. Rabadan us also the Director of the Program for Mathematical Genomics at Columbia University. A former fellow at the Theoretical Physics Division at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, Switzerland, Mr., Rabadan joined the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey in 2003. He has been faculty at Columbia University since 2008. He has been named one of Popular Science’s Brilliant 10 (2010), a Stewart Trust Fellow (2013), and he received the Harold and Golden Lamport (2014), Diz Pintado (2018) and Phillip Sharp (2018) awards. Impeccable credentials indeed. In a language that is easy and bereft of alphabet soup and “medicine speak”, Mr. Rabadan handholds his readers through the basics of the workings of the corona virus and a possible cure.

As Mr. Rabadan informs his readers, that “at the end of December 2019, an outbreak of pneumonia cases of unknown origin was reported in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. The patients presented with high fever and had difficulty breathing. Most of these cases were related to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where, in addition to seafood, a variety of live animals were also sold. Other infections occurred in people staying at a nearby hotel on December 23–27. All tests carried out by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention for known viruses and bacteria were negative, indicating the presence of a previously unreported agent. A month later, by the beginning of February 2020, the virus was found in several countries across the globe, and on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a global pandemic. The disease caused by the new coronavirus was called coronavirus disease 19, or COVID-19.”

If any of you wondered how the viruses are named, you need not look beyond Mr. Rabadan’s book. The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) represents a group of experts that determine how to name and classify viruses based on a series of criteria, including the similarity with other viruses and the hosts they infect. The committee on taxonomy of viruses determined on February 11, 2020 that the new coronavirus responsible for the outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019 belongs to the existing species of SARS-like viruses.

Mr. Rabadan goes on to highlight the various factors associated with the virus such as the basic Reproduction rate, the transmissibility potential, the myriad health care initiatives undertaken by countries across the globe in response to this virus, the progression of the disease, the most vulnerable segment of the populace and the limited risk mitigation measures by way of treatment that we have at our disposal. Mr. Rabadan also dispels the myth that COVID-19 is akin to Influenza in its working. To paraphrase him, “these are very different viruses. Influenza viruses are similar in size to coronaviruses, but the genome of influenza is much smaller, with only 13,000 nucleotides split into eight different segments. The replication strategy, the way of entering the human cells, and the range of hosts are very different from SARS-CoV-2. Influenza and coronaviruses are two very different viruses, belonging to two very different families and having very different means of entering cells and replicating. They also encode their genomic material in different ways, and the proteins and genes of the two viruses have no resemblance to each other. They have different incubation periods – a couple of days for influenza and five or more for SARS-CoV-2 – and the pattern of infections is different. Seasonal influenza is mostly a disease of the upper respiratory tract. Although complications and pneumonias can occur, they are not as common as in COVID-19. Seasonal influenza morbidity and mortality are associated with the very young and the old, whereas COVID-19 cases in the young population are rare. There are specific drugs and vaccines for seasonal influenza, whereas no drugs or vaccines are available for the 2019–2020 COVID-19 outbreak.”

Mr. Rabadan also explains concepts such as “super spreaders” in a manner that is easy to comprehend and grasp. “Super-spreaders have been identified as deviations in the number of infections from the expected number. By estimating the R0 of an infectious disease, one can calculate the maximum number of infected people from an infected individual. Deviations from that number indicate the presence of super-spreading. For instance, if the R0 is estimated to be 1, the probability that a single individual infects more than 10 would be very low, less than one in a million. If we find a few individuals infecting more than 10 cases in a disease with an R0 of 1, it would suggest that there are super-spreading events.”

Dexamethasone an anti-inflammatory steroid, has, in a trial conducted in the United Kingdom proved that it could save lives of those afflicted by the COVID-19 virus. Along with the repurposed drug Remdesivir, this provides hope for millions of people across the globe. The first results of a large clinical trial of Remdesivir with more than 1000 individuals has shown that it could reduce the time of infection by four days, but not a drastic reduction in COVID-19-associated mortality. Based on these results the US Food and Drug Administration issued an “emergency use authorization” for the treatment of SARS-CoV-2 infections.Clinical trials for vaccines are underway in various geographies and are in various phases.

While we may be a long way away from a definitive cure or a vaccine, there is no doubt that we need to institute some measures that prevent a surge capacity in the disease that overwhelms the health care infrastructure. We all need to do out incremental bits by wearing masks in public and practicing uncompromising respiratory and hand hygiene. We can also educate ourselves by reading Mr. Rabadan’s wonderful book!

Call of the Wild

(Image Credit: Crispina Kemp)

The mammoth truck came hurtling down the highway.  Trucks in general, and trailer trucks in particular are rumbling behemoths whose concept of speed is restricted to encouraging trudges, exceptions being Jason Statham movies. But the man behind the wheel seemed possessed by the Devil himself. With a determined foot obstinately fixed on the accelerator, and hands furiously working on the steering wheel and the gears, the heavy set man with a bull neck and a cigar precariously dangling between his lips seemed to be on a mission. A mission with suicide written all over it.

The the friction ignited sparks on the road. Swerving in a serpentine manner the truck was a giant python on steroids. Finally it crashed through the check-post before cartwheeling and transforming into a rolling ball of flame. The driver’s last words were, “all i asked was for a PCR test.”

(Word Count: 149)

Written as part of the Crimson’s Creative Challenge #89 More details regarding this challenge may be found HERE.

Blood Runs Cold – An Anthology

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The British poet, historical novelist, critic, and classicist Robert Graves once memorably exclaimed, “A well-chosen anthology is a complete dispensary of medicine for the more common mental disorders and may be used as much for prevention as cure.”

The very concept of an anthology is intriguing. An act of harnessing contradictions, tying together diverse perspectives, unifying vibrant, restless and throbbing threads of individual imagination into a cohesive structure is what distinguishes an anthology from its other cousins such as let’s say the essay. The father of essay writing – arguably – Michel de Montaigne meant the act of an essay to mean an attempt. An essay is to “try”. An anthology however does not just attempt. It goes even beyond that act. While an essay aims to play within limits, an anthology plays with limits. In “Blood Runs Cold” – the title itself seems to be a clever take on Truman Capote’s spine-chilling true-life chronicle “In Cold Blood” – seventeen young and talented authors bring together their perceptual sweep and wake of the genre of thriller to assemble an anthology that mesmerizes. Before I bore my reader to death with my monologue on anthologies, let’s dive into the stories (sans spoilers of course) that form part of this arresting bouquet:

  1. The Crypt – Priya U Bajpai

What does an attractive woman with acuity and alacrity do when after engaging in a wild celebration to usher in her twenty seventh birthday, she wakes up to find herself not only in a state of post-inebriation, but also isolated in the deep dark confines of a crypt? Vani would know. The protagonist of Ms. Bajpai’s story “Crypt”, Vani stares at a situation that might at once be dangerous and one that puts her very existence in peril. She needs to bring to bear all her verisimilitude to get out of this conundrum. But why has she been abducted? Or has she even been kidnapped? Where or what is this crypt? Ms. Bajpai’s imprimatur is her simplicity. The plot is tight, the narrative easy on the eye and the tension, palpable. “Crypt” sets a humdinger of a platform for what is to follow!

  1. Hollywood Murders – Anshu Bhojnagarwala

At the end of every story in the book, there is an ingenuous chapter that illuminates the idea behind the story. Ms. Bhojnagarwala’s reason for penning her story is apparently, to challenge herself to tackle a genre which she has not tried her hand at before. If this is true, then Obama is my Uncle! The poise and panache with which she deals with the investigation skills of Inspector Savio and his Hollywood thriller obsessed sidekick Sridhar, makes Ms. Bhojnaragwala seem a seasoned veteran of her craft. Shades of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and flashes of Denzel Washington’s “The Bone Collector” assail (pleasantly) the reader as she races through the story in one breathless sitting. “Hollywood Murders” – One for the Judge, Jury and Executioner! This is one short story that would have even made Hitchcock deliver a silent chuckle of approval.

  1. Crimson Circles – Pranav Kodial

Mr. Kodial elucidates that the inspiration for his story stemmed from the epistolary work of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The effort one must admit is linear to its outcome. Of a near perfect length, a crispiness that is effervescent and a gripping plot that whizzes forth like an arrow from commencement to conclusion, “Crimson Circles” is a delightful exercise in combustive spontaneity. A eulogy-cum-obituary that waxes eloquent over the accomplishments of a dead murder mystery writer takes a catastrophic hue and demonic colour as the words progress from the prosaic to the perilous.

  1. Shadow Wars – Sarveswari Sai Krishna (Sarves)

In his seminal work, Finite and Infinite Games, Professor James Carse, expounds that the objective of players playing an infinite game is to never strike a terminal blow that would end the game. Their very motive of playing is to keep the play, in play, perennially. “Shadow Wars” bears classic testimony to this aspect. One of my favourite stories in the book, Ms. Sarveswari pulls off a veritable master stroke in this fight between two gangsters seeking to usurp the fortunes of each other. Engaging in a deadly predator v prey gamble, both know that irrespective of their existence the show must go on. There cannot be an end to exploitation. R.E.A.D. T.H.I.S!

  1. Swipe Right to Die – Ell P

“When Shammi auntie spoke, people shut up and listened. Don’t mistake my Shammi Auntie; she is neither eloquent nor charming. In fact, with a face leathery enough to look like a third generation ‘hand me down’ Louis Vuitton, a body flappy enough to gather puddles of sweat in between the folds, she is positively grotesque.” This is Ms. Ell P at her vintage best! This is exactly what makes this woman one of my favourite authors. She writes in a vein that is irreverent, a manner that is irascible, and a style that is inimitable. One ought to write for oneself with nary a thought for the “sentiments” or “reservations” of the reader, unless such supposed transgressions are religious. Ms. P does just that! A couple of indescribably gruesome murders, a hulk of an inspector, an Alzheimer’s afflicted sleuth and a horny writer who just cannot wait to get into the jeans of the inspector all add up to make a “Tinder” box (no pun intended) of a story! A slobber knocker this! Think twice before installing any dating app on your smartphone!

  1. Tango in the Woods – Srivalli Rekha

A voluntary dalliance with danger, a macabre dance of death in a dense clearing, a confident and arrestingly beautiful Mayor and an intrepid architect all come rushing together in a crescendo of mystique, mystery and menace. Ms. Srivalli does a fantastic job of coalescing a dogmatic and ritualistic past with a contemporaneous present in the ambivalent and quaint setting of Mayanagari. Svana the Mayor with a languid elegance and Razi, an architect with a purpose fix a combined date with destiny, as there are feuds to be settled and sins to be atoned for. The most compelling aspect of this story is the attention to detail, especially, for the settings in which the most vigorous of actions take place. From the cozy confines of a bed to the wilderness of bushes, this is total bedlam!

  1. Countdown to 100 – Christopher R D’Souza

One of the shortest stories in the book is also one of the crispiest and lingering! This will remain with the reader long after the covers have come down. A homage to the fact that a story does not need either an expansive setting or a convoluted phalanx of characters, the life and times of the serial killer Billy Arnold in solitary confinement and waiting to meet his maker, is one that cannot be missed.

  1. An Insidious Affair – Ratnakar Baggi

Rashmi Joshi is a starlet who has resuscitated an almost terminal career in the Kannada film industry by creating ripples with a universally acclaimed comeback. However, this second coming receives an unwelcome jolt when her Koramangala apartment in Bangalore plays host to an “accidental murder.” To add agony to anguish is the fact that she must put up with a dysfunctional marriage. When to this already unsavoury mix is introduced the involvement and appearance of an intransigent security guard, intrusions of an intrepid neighbor, and frequent appearances of intellectual man of medicine, mystery takes on proportions that are of a different dimension. A breezy one by Mr. Baggi.

  1. The Lone Soldier – Aradhana Shukla

One of my personal favourites in this anthology, “The Lone Soldier” is a stirring, reverential and resounding tribute to the sagacity, and sacrifice asked of uncountable number of repressed women, unfortunate to have fallen prey to the sadistic vice of the ISIS. Viewed purely as chunks of meat to be ravaged before being taken to the cleaners or discarded, these women have shown that the change that they can birth, is putting it mildly – revolutionary and earth shattering. Faryal, The Lone Soldier is one such woman. The frail figure hidden beneath Ms. Shukla’s ‘Abaya’, is in fact the very epitome of resilience. Defiled and desecrated by many filthy hands and filthier souls, Faryal decides to take revenge and since the illiterate clan of the ISIS have no idea about either Shakespeare or his timely warning that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, they are equally oblivious to the fate awaiting them. Neither does the enraptured reader until reality hits her like a ton of bricks! Read this, re-read this and once done, get back to it again. Unmistakable traces of “The Beekeeper of Sinjar” and unmissable shades of “The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State”, adorn this story.

  1. The Family Man – Sreeparna Sen

Ms. Sen, in an ingenious way uses mystery as a tool to deal with a seminal and topical concern that is tormenting the medical profession throughout the world. The insidious killer that is depression is also a remorseless leveler. Caring for neither fame nor inconspicuousness, distinguishing between neither fortune nor impoverishment, this murderer strikes with an impunity that is startlingly unbiased. Ms. Sen takes this issue head on and deals it with an aplomb that is refreshing.  The protagonist-is-the-antagonist conundrum leaves the reader in a bind and provides a real perspective of the sufferer himself. One has no choice but to detest as well as sympathise with Bishwambar Mishra.

  1. Asphyxia – Yatindra Tawde (YT)

“A sozzled Ronnie stumbled out of the pub.” Thus begins YT’s story. What seems like a happy hour tryst gone wrong in a pub takes on contours that will make the reader wince, squirm, and squiggle. Extrinsically, a revenge-is-a-dish-served-cold story, the quintessential theme permeating the story is one that is intrinsically inimical to our country. The issue of women’s safety. Let me be clearer. The responsibility of a cultured and civilized society does not and should not end in merely ensuring the safety of every women. There must be a preservation of dignity of the fairer sex as well. If the law and order cannot ensure this, then as YT illustrates, women might be forced to take extraordinary measures and those I assure you might not be one bit pleasing! Asphyxia is the strangulated rights and privileges that ail women globally and a release from which is imminent.

  1. The One Who Got Away – Tina Sequeira

The right dose of adrenaline juxtaposed with a strong social message. Ms. Sequeira’s “The One Who Got Away.” Is a where-Mila Jovovich-meets-Angelina Jolie-meets-Michelle Pfeiffer tale that encompasses sex, salvation, and everything in between! Thrill-a-minute stuff with a strong and telling threat – “treat women as pure objects of lust at your own peril. You might not live to tell the tale.” And deservedly so!!! Wonderful job. I hope this story sprouts a thousand Kushas but preferably not the accompanying decapitations!

  1. Scarlet Shadows – Sheerin Shabab

What secrets can a serene and tranquil garden nestled in a quaint setting possibly harbour? Rajan Mehra is soon going to find out. Keen to escape the unrelenting hustle and bustle of a concrete jungle, Mehra beats a retreat to a bungalow leased out to him by a former Major. The only other occupants of the house are Ms. Cardozo the cook-cum-maid and Mohanlal, a grumpy, indifferent and intransigent gardener. When Mehra plans to alter the replanting setting of a regal and imperial “Parijat” tree, skeletons begin tumbling out of the closet – literally. The highlight of this deftly concocted short story lies in the fascinating elucidation of nature that plays an integral albeit unwitting role in unraveling a mystery that hitherto lay dormant.

  1. Cause and Effect – Kanika G

The only Science Fiction thriller in the book, “Cause and Effect” does not disappoint one bit. This, to a great extent is attributable to the pedigree of the author. If the cause is Science, the outcome must be an invention. “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I will move the world” said Archimedes. “Task me with a story forming part of an anthology and I will transform the dimensions of thinking” Ms. Kanika seems to exclaim! An amalgam of theoretical Physics, metaphysics, ecology, ethos and human foibles, “Cause and Effect” has at its heart an angry young man of Science, Dyson, steadfast in his intention to avenge the havoc wrought by purveyors of ecological destruction, and to ensure the visitation of doom on all individuals whose collective action has resulted in a bereavement which Dyson cannot overcome. But for his ambition to be fulfilled he will need the assistance of his able friend and a master of time travel Kaster? Will Dyson & Kaster achieve the impossible?

  1. ABCD – Varadarajan Ramesh

The most innocuous title in the book disguises within the most complex and intricate story of the book. Encompassing layers of psychological intricacies, maniacal intrigues and unexpected interludes, “ABCD” by Mr. Ramesh is a head spinning act of originality. Miffed by what he perceives to be an unjust, unfair and unwarranted rejection of his acting caliber, a method actor decides to take things in his own hands. What follows is mayhem unlimited! Even though the story does not have spilling intestines and smashed cerebellums, the tension is so palpable that it can be cut with the proverbial knife. Don’t read this if you have a drink or two in your hand, or on second thoughts read this only after a drink or two!

  1. No divorce for Mrs.Das – R Pavan Kumar

A fantastic story about a struggling detective who nurses fantasies of a goldmine when an attractive and alluring woman comes calling to his miserable shack seeking assistance to trace the whereabouts of her missing husband. The missing man is no ordinary individual. He is Mr. Das, a premier real estate tycoon whose middle name is cash. But detective Sahil Solanke might just have bitten more than what he could possibly chew as the contours of the investigation take a murky turn. Mr. Kumar does a commendable job of conceptualizing a plot that is tight and which never lets its intensity levels to drop.

  1. The Healer of Dreams – Rashmi Agrawal  

Freudian in construction, Ms. Agrawal’s short story juaxtaposes the paranormal with the parapsychological. The protagonist of the story Mr. Ranjan mirrors the character “Eleven” in the popular Netflix series “Stranger Things.” The treatment of the story is expert and riveting. The ambiguous ending that leaves the interpretation open to the readers is the icing on the cake.

To paraphrase Yehuda Berg “Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” I have employed the medium of words to genuinely express my unbiased and impartial feelings about the concerted efforts of a dedicated and bright band of people who decided to put pen to paper and, in the process, conjured a memorable anthology.

Please read it. You won’t be disappointed.

Factfulness – Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling & Anna Rosling Ronnlund

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why ...

An incorrigible optimist, the late Hans Rosling would have taken on the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic head on in his own inimitable and indomitable way and perhaps even devised an ingenious method to put paid to his rampaging hopes. This Professor of International Health and a veritable superstar in so far as both his work and views are concerned, created a sensation with his TED talk titled “The best stats you’ve ever seen”when he expounded on some jaw breaking information and data that left his audience pleasantly reeling.

Now in the book titled “Factfulness”, Mr. Rosling brings to bear his entire sweep of alacrity, acumen and assiduousness in informing his readers as to why the world is not at all as bad as some have it to believe. Lest one be misled by the preceding statement, the book is not an exercise in ‘Pinkeresque’ Panglossian fantasies. It is a meticulous, measured and methodical expostulation of the strides which some of the most impoverished of the world have taken, thereby cumulatively ensuring that the Earth is in fact a better place to live when compared with what our ancestors or even our grandfathers were made to put up with. As Mr. Rosling himself narrates in the book, his own thinking underwent a paradigm shift when as a young doctor in Mozambique in the 1980’s he was reprimanded by a visiting friend, a fellow medic as well, for not caring better for a seriously ill child in Mr. Rosling’s health clinic. Mr. Rosling provided the child with a feeding tube for oral rehydration, whereas his friend was of the educated and informed opinion that the baby deserved an intravenous drip, which would increase her chances of survival but take more time.

The incident served as an eye opener for Mr. Rosling. He reflected on the fact that while there was no reasonable manner in which a standard and decent level of care could be provided for the relatively small number of children who visited his district hospital, and with the time saved from treating patients at a ‘good enough’ level, Mr. Rosling could instead stop a multitude of children expected to die in his district every year by training health workers, and vaccinating children.

Mr. Rosling poses 13 seemingly innocuous questions at the start of his book, the answers to most of which turn out to be nonlinear to the conventional modes of thinking. Try answering some of these questions if you can:

  • What is the is the percentage of girls who finish primary school in low-income countries – 20, 40 or 60 per cent?
  • What is the life expectancy today – 50, 60 or 70 years?
  • In the past 20 years, has the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty almost doubled, remained the same, or almost halved?

Mr. Rosling is of the view that it does not make any sense to divide or label the world into developed and developing countries. Alternatively, he envisions the world as being amenable for classification into four logical and informed income strata, each continuously advancing. The poorest of the poor, mainly in Africa, subsist at Level 1; but even their fortunes are depicting an upsurge. Then there are the Level 2 countries where there is a burgeoning lower-middle-class. Many of these Level 2 nations will soon make the leap to Level 3, where people can boast savings, own consumer products, and avail themselves of secondary education. Finally, there are the Level 4 countries, the abode of the 1 percenter where opulence and ostentatious consumption represent a way of life. There can be no more startling example of the progress mankind collectively has made than an assimilation of the following facts:

  • Worldwide since 1800, the percent of children who die before age 5 has steadily declined from 44% to 4%. Over the same period, global literacy grew from one in ten to nine in ten;
  • Just since the 1970s, the undernourished share of the population has dropped by two thirds, while children surviving cancer diagnoses have increased more than a third, to 80%; and
  • Today, 90% of primary-school-age girls around the world are enrolled in school.

However, as Mr. Rosling emphasizes stories chronicling incremental albeit telling improvements, are not front-page fare. Sensationalism, pessimism and downright negative happenings are devoured by people and it is these tragedies that embellish the TRP ratings of television channels and newspapers. To paraphrase Ohio State University psychologist John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D. “your brain is simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. The bias is so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain’s information processing.” As Mr. Rosling illustrates, even though violent crime rates in the United States have been steadily dropping since the year 1990 each time something horrific or shocking happened – pretty much every year – a crisis was reported. People still believe that violent crime is getting worse.

The book has an arresting reference to Rosling’s tryst with studying in India. This incident also exhibits the negative, stereotypical and banal mindset harboured by the West towards the East. While studying public health at St. John’s Medical College, Bengaluru in 1976, he recounts his first lesson there as a fourth-year medical student: “How could they know much more than me? Over the next few days I learned that they had a textbook three times as thick as mine, and they had read it three times as many times. I suddenly had to change my worldview: my assumption that I was superior because of where I came from, the idea that the West was the best and the rest would never catch up.”

Stories about gradual improvements rarely make the front page even when they occur on a dramatic scale and affect millions of people. And thanks to increasing press freedom and improving technology, we hear about more disasters than ever before. This improved reporting is itself a sign of human progress, but it creates the impression of the exact opposite. At the same time, activists and lobbyists manage to make every dip in an improving trend appear to be the end of the world, scaring us with alarmist exaggerations and prophecies. In the United States, the violent crime rate has been falling since 1990. But each time something horrific or shocking happened – pretty much every year – a crisis was reported. Most people believe that violent crime is getting worse.

Mr. Rosling also backs up the evidence for advancement by using some of his own family’s experience in Sweden. For example, in a moving passage, he talks about his grandmother, “My parents had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine. Grandma, who had been invited to the inauguration ceremony, was even more excited. She had been heating water with firewood and hand-washing laundry her whole life.”

This physician, academic and statistician unfortunately died in the year 2017, not living to see his work in print. However, his exemplary work is being carried out by his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Ronnlund. There is every reason to believe that they will take things up from where exactly Mr. Rosling left them.

Finite and Infinite Games – James Carse

Finite and Infinite Games - Kindle edition by Carse, James ...

The world-famous Sociologist and Economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “invidious” consumption to refer to the ostentatious consumption of goods that is meant to provoke the envy of other people. James Carse’s incredibly abstract and extraordinarily complex book “Finite and Infinite Games” falls squarely within the ambit of such consumption. I am willing to bet that this book would have adorned many a bookshelf with the owner having read nary a chapter or having valiantly accomplishing the feat of trudging through the book, left scratching her head or even tearing her hair out. To the latter accomplishment may be added yet another human being!

Atheist and Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at New York University, Mr. Carse begins his book with these innocuous lines, “There are at least two kinds of games. Once could be finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” So far so good. The Professor expounds on the necessity and prevalence of spatial boundaries, numerical constraints and the approbation of a consenting audience as some of the vital pre-requisites for effecting a finite play. To have such boundaries means that the date, place, and membership of each finite game are externally defined. When we say of a particular contest that it began on September 1, 1939, we are speaking from the perspective of world time; that is, from the perspective of what happened before the beginning of the conflict and what would happen after its conclusion. So also, with place and membership. A game is played in that place, with those persons. The world is elaborately marked by boundaries of contest, its people finely classified as to their eligibilities.”

But an infinite game is neither invested by the rules that bind its finite counterpart, nor is hemmed in by the constraints of time or space. The protagonists in an infinite play are rendered by an inability to even identify the commencement of the game, and they do not care a fig either! There is no label of eligibility or qualification attached to a player participating in the infinite game, and the sole objective of an infinite play is to keep playing, in perpetuity. Unlike in a finite game, where the opposing factions are always on the lookout for executing a terminal move that would kill the game, infinite games are antithetical to terminal moves since they are self-perpetuating in nature with no end. Thus, while finite players play within boundaries, infinite players play with boundaries.

The rules characterising an infinite game are in perennial flux, always changing, evolving and metamorphizing. “The rules are changed when the players of an infinite game agree that the play is imperiled by a finite outcome—that is, by the victory of some players and the defeat of others. The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play. If the rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which the players can agree who has won, the rules of an infinite game are the contractual terms by which the players agree to continue playing.” Thus, there can be no boundaries that can be attached to intangible attributes such as the sacred bond of marriage or the ties of friendship.

However, things begin to take a metaphysically challenging turn when Mr. Carse begins his analysis on relationships between seemingly incongruous and unrelated objects such as Machines and Gardens. Yes, you read that right. Machines according to Mr. Carse are the epitome of predictability. Gardens however are not shackled by the phenomenon of cause-and-effect but are synonyms of growth and spontaneity. ”The question is not one of restricting machines from the garden but asking whether a machine serves the interest of the garden, or the garden the interest of the machine.” While a machine is driven by external force, a garden is grown by an energy within itself. A garden is not something we have over which we stand as gods. It’s a poiesis, a receptivity to variety, a vision of differences that leads always to a making of differences. The poet joyously suffers the unlike, reduces nothing, explains nothing, possesses nothing.

Similarly, Mr. Carse also makes a distinction between a society and culture. The narrow concept of a society in informed by the dictates of territorial limits, whereas a culture is defined only by its horizon. While a boundary constitutes a phenomenon of opposition, a horizon in sharp contrast represents a phenomenon of vision. In a Chapter titled “I Am the Genius of Myself”, Mr. Carse quotes Hamlet, “I am the genius of myself, the poietes who composes the sentences I speak and the actions I take. It is I, not the mind, that thinks. It is I, not the will, that acts. It is I, not the nervous system, that feels.” But in the same way a dog taught to shake hands does not shake your hand, or a robot programmed to say words, does not say them to you, Hamlet was not reading when he said he was reading words. This cryptic word play induces a spontaneous spell of explainable giddiness into the reader.

Here’s Mr. Carse explaining the difference between art and artist: “Art has no scripted roles for its performers. It is precisely because it has none that it is art. Artistry can be found anywhere; indeed, it can only be found anywhere. One must be surprised by it. It cannot be looked for. We do not watch artists to see what they do, but watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it. Artists cannot be trained. One does not become an artist by acquiring certain skills or techniques, though one can use any number of skills and techniques in artistic activity. The creative is found in anyone who is prepared for surprise. Such a person cannot go to school to be an artist but can only go to school as an artist.”

Mr. Carse also elucidates on what he terms represents a “theatricalization of society.” “The more effective policy for a society is to find ways of persuading its thieves to abandon their role as competitors for property for the sake of becoming audience to the theater of wealth. It is for this reason that societies fall back on the skill of those poietai who can theatricalize the property relations, and indeed, all the inner structures of each society. Societal theorists of any subtlety whatever know that such theatricalization must be taken with great seriousness.”

There is yet another Chapter that dwells with jaw dropping intricacy on the subject of human sexuality. I won’t take a stab at even a rudimentary explanation of the same since the entire Chapter left me looking and feeling like an intellectual pygmy!

The best-selling author Simon Sinek confesses that he derived his inspiration for the best seller “Infinite Games” from a reading of Mr. Carse’s work. I intend to read the book next, and the very prospect has induced a daunting element of trepidation in me.

A Thousand Small Sanities – Adam Gopnik

Amazon.com: A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of ...

We seem to be living in an age of ‘cancellations.’ If the rabid Coronavirus is not busy cancelling our well laid out plans, we seem to be busier cancelling out each other. The Left brigade unsatisfied in its pursuit of cancelling the Right, is now steadfast in going after its own creed. What’s Left over after not being the target of the Left is derisively labelled as “Woke” and is in spectacular irony hunted down by the “Wokes” themselves! What an era of paradox mankind seems to be inhabiting. In the words of the irreverent and inimitable Matt Taibbi, “On the other side of the political aisle, among self-described liberals, we’re watching an intellectual revolution. It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.”

Liberty, and its natural concomitant liberalism, however, is not a zeitgeist that loses its temporal worth once it has outlived its utility. Passé! Instead it is the very gestalt upon which humanity bases both its credence and claims. Immutable yet inevitable; intangible yet indispensable. It is to this gestalt that acclaimed New York Times journalist, Adam Gopnik pays unashamed homage in his stirring work, “A Thousand Small Sanities.” Evoking the benevolent John Stuart Mill & the irreverent David Hume, Mr. Gopnik a la Ta Nehisi Coates pens a letter to his daughter waxing eloquent about liberalism. Mr. Gopnik begins his defense of liberalism with a paean to the immortal couple, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. Mr. Gopnik does not however defend liberalism with a vigour bordering on the biased or with a frenzy that is a synonym for the irrational. He evaluates the arguments posited by the anti-liberals both on the Left as well as the Right before refuting them methodically and yet being mellow all the while. Brooding on why ‘The Right Hates Liberalism’, Gopnik abridges the conservative lament. He posits that those ‘treating millennia-old beliefs as though they were as disposable as Kleenex’ need to talk to, or at least read, some actual liberals. Quoting Mill in On Liberty: ‘It would be absurd to pretend that people ought to live as if nothing whatever had been known in the world before they came into it; as if experience had as yet done nothing towards showing that one mode of existence, or of conduct, is preferable to another.’

Similarly, Mr. Gopnik takes the Left head on in their objections to the liberalism’s ‘fallible’ nature. One of left wing’s favourite gripe against liberalism stems from a perception where liberalism is viewed as a dogma that enriches and embellishes the privileges of old white men. Britain’s colonial conquests that left more than half of the world reeling under the catastrophes of induced famine and internecine civil strife being a classic case in point. However, the Left is caught off guard when Mr. Gopnik points out the futile bent of the left towards ‘intersectionalism.’ ‘Intersectionalism in a sense does not go far enough,’ Gopnik writes. ‘There are countless nodes on the network of social categories. We call each one a person.’ This is also the very reason why  Bayard Rustin leaves a memorable imprint in Mr. Gopnik’s book as an indomitable protagonist standing up for the ideals of liberalism. As Mr. Gopnik himself reveals in an interview, “Rustin now looks like a fount of common sense. You know, he’s a totally, in the proper sense, radical figure. He organizes the March on Washington. He goes to prison 24 times. In no imaginable sense is he a centrist. But when black nationalism becomes the dominant strain, he says, “This makes no sense for us as a people. To be isolated outside a broader coalition of progressives.” And he was excommunicated, again, from the movement for saying that and he remains a staunch member of the Democratic Party and, not least, vehemently anti-communist throughout his entire career”

An arresting feature of the book is the employ by Mr. Gopnik of some stellar albeit eclectic figures who have unassumingly, but powerfully stood up for liberalism. The philosophy espoused by the likes of Frederick Douglass, Bayard Rustin, John Stuart Mill, Robert D. Putnam, Michael de Montaigne, Benjamin Disraeli, Philip Roth, George Eliot, Harriet Taylor, G.H. Lewes, and Jürgen Habermas, illustrates in a striking manner how liberalism transcends from something that is a mere lip service for free markets, and distinguishes itself as an inclusive, embracing tenant that keeps bigotry at bay.

The very fact that discourses are being held across the world at the time of this writing over matters that were hitherto considered sacrilegious – such as the rights of and privileges for LGBTQ, the case for and against abortions, discrimination against people based on caste, creed and colour – bear monument to the distance liberalism has traversed in its attempt to instantiate an element of inclusiveness even among warring factions. This concept is illustrated by the painstakingly elaborate and telling definition of liberalism itself:

“Liberalism is a fact-first philosophy with a feelings-first history. Liberal humanism is a whole, in which the humanism always precedes the liberalism. Powerful new feelings about a compassionate connection to other people, about community, have always been informally shared before they are crystallized into law. Social contacts precede the social contract. Understanding the emotional underpinnings of liberalism is essential to understanding its political project.”

The objective of liberalism according to Mr. Gopnik is to achieve by gradual and non-violent means, “(imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference.” Thus, for the author, For Gopnik, liberalism is neither a complex and esoteric doctrine, a set of abstract principles, nor a group of fixed political institutions, but it is the very way of life.

We tend to concur!

 (A Thousand Small Sanities – Adam Gopnik is published by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc and will be released on the 14th of July 2020.)

BlackBerry Town: How high tech success has played out for Canada’s Kitchener-Waterloo – Chuck Howitt

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In this compelling book, author, freelance writer, and retired journalist at Waterloo Region Record, Chuck Howitt chronicles how a powerful amalgam of academics, altruism and acuity can spawn an arresting ecosystem that fosters a virtuous cycle. “Blackberry Town” is a homage to the zeal and vision of one man that transformed an ordinary and uneventful region into a teeming microcosm of technology and entrepreneurial bent. As readers would have easily guessed from one look at the title, the man is question is none other than Mike Lazaridis, the former founder and brain behind the company formerly known as Research In Motion (RIM), and famous for the manufacture of the once eponymous and ubiquitous mobile phone, Blackberry.

While the primary focus of Mr. Howitt’s book revolves around Laziridis and the Blackberry, the quintessential theme animating his work is a seamless public-private partnership that worked overtime to put a region at the forefront of the global telecommunications and information technology map. Mr. Howitt’s fascinating story incubates (no pun intended) within the much-vaunted portals of the University of Waterloo (UW). A pesky, innately curious and zestful undergraduate takes it upon himself to seize most of an engineering Professor’s in-class and post-class time peppering the latter with questions on wireless communications. Laziridis the student and Professor Mohamed Elmasry were both acutely aware of the fact that the subject of wireless communications was not even part of the curriculum! This enthusiasm transformed into a full-fledged obsession when Lazaridis and nine other students piled into a van and drove all the way to Ottawa one weekend to listen to David Bohm, a legend among physicists, who had worked with Albert Einstein at Princeton University and was considered one of the most significant theorists in the field during the twentieth century.

The University of Waterloo turned out to be the perfect laboratory to fuel the aspirations of a young Laziridis. Boasting a phalanx of legendary computer engineers and physicists, by 1980, only two decades and a bit after its first intake of students, Waterloo had become a computer science “juggernaut in Canada and the world.” This stellar repute was the tireless efforts of the indefatigable James Wesley “Wes” Graham, popularly known as the “father of computing at UW. However, as Mr. Howitt illustrates, Graham was not the only superstar making the rounds at UW. The unassuming William Tutte with a PhD from Cambridge University immigrated to Canada in 1948 to accept a teaching position at the University. Recruited to UW by Ralph Stanton, head of math and the same unsung hero who brought Graham to the university, Tutte was a world-renowned expert in combinatorics, an obscure but important branch of math dealing with subjects such as optimization, graph theory and cryptography. “But Tutte was hiding a much greater secret than any of the calculations underlying his math theorems. During the Second World War, he had worked at the legendary British code-breaking office at Bletchley Park. Tutte and his team cracked the code behind one of the most important wireless machines used by the Germans to send top-secret messages. And they did it without having a working prototype of the device, known as the Lorenz machine. Unlike his more famous colleague Alan Turing, who used a prototype passed on by the Poles to crack the codes behind the Enigma machine, Tutte and his crew had only intercepted messages to work with. Sifting through those messages over four grueling months, Tutte slowly pieced together how the Lorenz machine was structured, then created an algorithm used to build an electronic computer called the Colossus. The computer, among the first in the world, was used to break Nazi codes for the rest of the war. Tutte and crew’s breakthrough was described as “the greatest intellectual feat” of the Second World War, but in a cruel twist of fate, no one heard about their heroics. After the war, the British government destroyed or classified all records from Bletchley Park and forbade any of its employees to share their secrets.”

It was no surprise then that the mercurial Laziridis was all worked up with inspiration with such a hallowed group surrounding him. Post tinkering with cathode ray tubes and computers to come up with a system to display text on a TV screen, Laziridis was convinced that it would be a cool way for companies to advertise their products. Summoning his childhood buddy Doug Fregin from Windsor, the pair launched their new enterprise in the spring of 1984. “Searching for a name for their startup, Lazaridis was idly watching TV one day when he saw a story about football players trying to improve their balance by taking ballet lessons. Printed across the bottom of the screen were the words “poetry in motion.” He had an epiphany and the name Research In Motion was born.”

A lucrative contract with Sutherland-Schultz, in addition to bolstering the revenues for RIM also brought into its fold an aggressive, ebullient man who along with Laziridis would shape the future contours of RIM – Jim Balsillie. “In 1992, Sutherland-Schultz was being sold and the new owners made it clear there would be no place for Balsillie. At this point, the ambitious Harvard grad was tired of playing second banana. He wanted to run his own operation and had a severance deal from Sutherland Schultz to help make it happen. It wasn’t quite big enough to purchase all of RIM, but Balsillie at least wanted a majority stake in the company. Lazaridis wasn’t willing to give up control of his baby but by this point had decided he couldn’t live without Balsillie on his team.”

The duo got to work on making RIM a force to reckon with. The start though was more than just a bit tepid. The Inter@ctive Pager introduced in the fall of 1996 received mixed reviews. “Corporate User magazine called it the top wireless product of the year, but Wireless Internet and Mobile Computer Newsletter, a widely respected publication, was not impressed. The pager is a good one, but “it’s a bit too heavy, bulky and expensive ($675 per unit) to attract many mobile professionals,” said Allan A. Reiter.” However, history would be made with the next product offering, the 950. However, Laziridis and Balsillie almost missed their date with destiny by a whisker. As Mr. Howitt illustrates, “although prototypes of the 950 weren’t ready, Lazaridis planned to use two industrial-foam mockups of the device as part of his presentation. But when he and Balsillie arrived for the crucial meeting, they realized that the mockups had been left in the taxi they had taken from the airport. Awkward moments ensued while the embarrassed RIM founder asked that someone call the cab company to retrieve the precious Leapfrogs. In the meantime, he stalled for time by laying out the business plan for the mobile email market and the fact BellSouth had first-mover advantage over its competitors. He described what the 950 would look like and how it would work. Thirty anxious minutes crawled by. The BellSouth executives seemed bored and unconvinced. All seemed lost when a BellSouth employee suddenly walked in with the missing mockups. Their arrival seemed to jolt everyone awake. As Lazaridis extolled the powers of the device, BellSouth executives passed them around. With tangible evidence of the 950 now in their hands, something they could feel and touch and look at, skepticism in the room gradually melted. Lazaridis’s confidence was infectious. The telecom bosses were enthralled. Lazaridis “had those guys thinking he would walk on water,” said Jim Hobbs, vice-president of BellSouth’s mobile data group.” Three cheers to the Atlanta taxi driver!

There was no looking back. In early 1999 RIM announced a new name for its sizzling wireless device. The BlackBerry. The name had come from a California firm specializing in corporate branding. “RIM evangelists, as salespeople came to be known, whipped out their BlackBerrys in airports and trade shows. Curious onlookers were soon enthralled by a device that could send and receive messages of up to 2,600 words in seconds instead of minutes, all on a battery that lasted up to three weeks. The BlackBerry was truly a data powerhouse.” This jump start of RIM kick started an economic boom in the hitherto quiet and calm region of Kitchener-Waterloo. With a workforce of more than 900, a market cap of $9.5 billion, double-digit revenue increases each quarter and ownership of seven buildings locally, RIM was on the road to becoming the most successful company ever to emerge from Kitchener-Waterloo. The real estate market attained stratospheric heights as at one point in time, RIM occupied more than twenty-five buildings in Waterloo Region, an equivalent of nearly 3 million square feet.

Laziridis demonstrated his bent for the furtherance of scientific curiosity by digging in $170 million of his personal wealth to establish the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, while his perpetrator in crime, Balsillie invested $100 million into the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Offering graduate programs in global governance, the School, was a three-way partnership among CIGI, UW and WLU. “A new building costing nearly $8 million would rise up beside CIGI on land leased from the city for $1 per year. The school would be financed with a $33-million donation from Balsillie and $25 million each from the two universities. CIGI would get more money as well, a $17-million endowment from Balsillie and $17 million in matching funds from the province.”And Doug Fregin and Balsillie topped up Lazaridis’s gifts to Perimeter Institute with significant contributions of their own. “The Institute for Quantum Computing took root at the University of Waterloo thanks to another whopping donation from Lazaridis and his wife Ophelia — this time $101 million — with Fregin chipping in $35 million of his own cash. And Wilfrid Laurier University decided to name its business school after Lazaridis when he gave $20 million to the institution for a new school focusing on high-tech entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, Michael Barnstijn, employee number three at RIM, and his wife, Louise MacCallum, also on the company payroll, sprinkled a total of $30 million around the area for a variety of causes including the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation, a museum in downtown Kitchener and a nature preserve in Cambridge.”

The success of RIM also birthed a raft of cutting-edge information technology companies whose presence gave Kitchener-Waterloo the status of Silicon Valley of the North. Open Text Corp, MKS, Descartes Systems Group, Com Dev, Dalsa Corp and Certicom all distinguished themselves in various specialized fields. Giving company to this “Waterloo Six” was Sandvine, a spin off from Pixstream, an entity that was acquired by Cisco when the former was at its prime only to be dumped a few months into the merger. Sandvine would grow into the largest global producer of hardware and software to help carriers manage their Internet networks, boasting annual revenues of $120 million US in 2016 and a workforce topping 700. Around this time, a group of entrepreneurs founded “Communitech.” The objective was to help one another build successful companies to help ensure the future prosperity of Canada. The organization was envisaged to support the entire “Community of Tech”. It’s enterprising President Iain Klugman, “moved the Communitech office to UW’s research park to partner with a tech incubator launched by the university called the Accelerator Centre. Hackathons, pitch competitions and workshops were held throughout the year, and tech celebrities and thought leaders were brought in from Silicon Valley and other tech hubs to inspire the troops during the annual Entrepreneur Week. The seven-day extravaganza also featured a film fest with documentaries and movies about the dot-com craze and tech luminaries such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.”

However, the euphoria at RIM would not last forever. Becoming more than a bit complacent and oblivious to the competition heating up around it, the Blackberry faced its first real challenge when Steve Jobs unveiled the sleek and spectacular iPhone. At the same time, the rollout of the Blackberry Pearl was facing some unique challenges. “The Pearl simply wasn’t easy to use without a corporate IT person walking you through the process. But these were former cellphone users. There was no IT person to show them how the device worked. “People going from a traditional cellphone had no idea what all the icons were, how to make a call, how to email, text because it was a huge leap,” Gibson [Lindsay Gibson, the woman driving sales within the company.] said. The engineers designing the hardware and software on the BlackBerry were not in touch with consumer needs and how they went about using a mobile device, Gibson said. In one case, participants were asked to set up the Bluetooth wireless connection on the device. One woman kept confusing the Bluetooth key with the menu key. Others had trouble getting the music player to work. Apple had not run into the same problem with the iPod. When it launched, consumers found it simple to use.”

When the supposed answer to the threat of the iPhone, The Blackberry Storm failed to garner the required and anticipated reception and reaction, the end was near for both Laziridis and RIM. Adding to the woes was a debacle involving the back dating of stock options and an investigation by the Securities Exchange Commission. RIM was forced to take an additional $30 million US charge against earnings, on top of the $220 million US for variable accounting violations. To atone for these errors, executives agreed to return any benefit from exercised options and re-price unexercised options granted at below market value. Balsillie agreed to step down as board chair, Kavelman was moved to chief operating officer and Balsillie and Lazaridis donated up to $5 million each to cover the costs of the review.” In January 2012, Laziridis and Balsillie stepped down from their positions and were replaced by Thorsten Heins, a former executive of Siemens in Germany. Eventually the name of the company was changed to Blackberry.

While Laziridis pursues his obsession with Quantum Computing, Balsillie has taken on the avatar of a policy maven. Acting as a government lobbyist , Balsillie is striving to pave the way for Canadian tech companies to scale into large enterprises and compete on the world stage. The rich ecosystem which these two giants created still throbs with excitement at Kitchener-Waterloo. Ample testimony to this fact is brought out by the presence of innovative companies and startups such as Vidyard, North, Clearpath Robotics, Aeryon Labs, Kik, Miovision, Magnet Forensics, Auvik Networks, Axonify, Ssimwave, and eSentire. Meanwhile Open Text has gone on to become one of Canada’s most formidable companies. “At one point one point, it bought seven companies in fourteen months. The largest was the enterprise content management division of Dell Computers for $1.6 billion US in 2016. The buying spree prompted the Globe to call Open Text “Canada’s tech acquisition machine.””

With 20,400 tech workers, constituting 8.2 per cent of the total labour force, Waterloo boasts the third-highest concentration of tech workers in the country and the highest concentration among mid-market cities. Waterloo Region also employed 22,300 people in the tech sector in non-tech occupations such as sales, administrative support and finance. “Nick Waddell, editor of Cantech Letter, an online magazine focusing on Canadian technology, considers Waterloo “the crown jewel of a Greater Toronto tech corridor that could rival the world’s greatest tech hubs.”” However as, Mr. Howitt reminds us in his concluding words, there is no other company that is to attain the superstardom of RIM at its zenith.

“At the same time, no tech superstar on the order of RIM has emerged. Iain Klugman, CEO of Communitech, may prefer a forest of small to medium-sized trees to one Douglas Fir towering over the rest, but as the 2018 CBRE study notes it never hurts to have one or two outstanding companies to attract entrepreneurs and investment to the area. And yet opportunities like the one RIM capitalized on to build a global business only seem to come along once in a generation. Apart from taxi-hailing and tourist-accommodation apps, Silicon Valley has not produced anything significant since the Google search engine and the iPhone. The San Francisco area also benefits from attracting large tech companies built elsewhere such as Facebook, whereas Waterloo does not. Most of its successful companies were and are home-grown. Perhaps in the end, Waterloo and the Canadian tech industry are better off with firms like Open Text — steady, reliable, not-too-flashy, the anti-BlackBerry, but something built to last.”

We concur!