Chocolate and Gold Coins

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Accord Metropolitan in Chennai

I have to hand it too my wife, her business acumen is very sharp. We needed to find a hotel to stay at and we wanted a nice place. Well, hotels in India of the quality of the ones my wife and son enjoy are about as expensive as the one in the Washington D.C. area. We really had not planned to spend that kind of money (but we could afford it).

She had a driver take us around to check out some hotels. We really liked the Accord Metropolitan in Chennai (35,36,37 G.N. Chetty Road, T. Nagar, Chennai 600017 Tel (91 44) 2816 1000). The hotel room was about as many sq. ft as my wife's parents' house. It was recently built and they spared no expense. Marble is everywhere.

What my wife figured out immediately was that the hotel was nearly empty. They had troubles marketing themselves (no web page is a clue) and the price was too high for the demand the marketing had produced. So she sensed (correctly) that they would cut her a deal. She got them to reduce the tariff from $400 down to $260! At that price, it was merely expensive, but well worth it.

My son just loves the new hotel.

My son has been so good. He did not complain on the long flight. During dinner, he was so jet-lagged that he fell asleep in his chair. When I'm that tired, I am really a bear, but he hasn't acted up at all.

The restaurant at the Accord has the dumbest name I have ever seen or heard for an Indian restaurant: Indiana. If you are going to name yourself after a U.S. state, at least choose one someone might want to visit, (my apologies to any readers from that fine state but my impression from driving though it many times that it was simply a place you needed to drive through to get to someplace you wanted to go).

The restaurant was nice and inexpensive and the service was very attentive. However, I remember Madhu Menon (the famous Shiok restauranteur) writing once that Americans prefer if the service is prompt but more invisible - and he's right, I don't like people spooning food on my plate. Really, there is no value-added to having someone spoon food on your plate.

One thing that has struck me as very odd (or atleast very different) is that I cannot leave a tip on the bill. I'm sure the wait staff expects a tip after serving us but when I got the bill, there was only a space for my room number. I expected that I could add a tip onto the bill and leave it that way. Perhaps that isn't the way it's done in India. I didn't have a chance to convert any dollars into rupees, so I have no cash to tip anyone. I feel bad about this. I will figure out something tomorrow.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

That's a Great Idea

"That's a great idea! Don't breath a word about this to anyone."

"This is your best idea ever. I can see real possibilities here. I didn't like your other ideas too much but this one is really good." She had the look of someone just hearing "can't miss" business idea.

What had I just told my wife? Something like this.

Why is it that she never found that post but she did find this one (I should have heeded @mit's advice) from a week before a whole month after I posted both of them? Or is that a dumb question?

Culture Shock

It was 2:00 A.M and we had just reached my wife's parents house in Chennai after a long journey. We were trying to put my son to sleep in a bed upstairs. He was crying.

"What's wrong?"

"I didn't think it would be like this."

"Like what, dear?"

"I thought it would be nice, like our home in the U.S."

The flight was long and uncomfortable. The Chennai airport was unimpressive and crowded with people. The city itself was recently flooded and is actually in good shape considering that but by U.S. standards it is very definely "underdeveloped". And my wife's parents house has seen better days.

I somewhat feared that this would be his reaction. Actually, my wife felt it too. We have been living the good life and it has spoiled us somewhat. We live in a very nice single family home about two miles from Tyson's Corners, at the heart of Fairfax County, America's wealthiest county (by far) of one million residents or more. My son has never seen run down homes in his life. All he knows is the life of the upper middle class in the U.S. And then he comes to my wife's parents home at 2:00 in the morning. He cried all night.

My wife's parent's house was decently nice in 1995 when we last visited but maintenance has been neglected a bit. The recent flood did not help things, and now the home has a kind of malodor about it. My wife's parents have not purchased any new appliances or other goods in a long time so the home looks a bit like a time capsule of 1980's India. And the home is only 1/4 the square feet of our home in Virginia. All of this was bound to hit my son very hard.

Anyway, a burst pipe forced us to relocate to a hotel a quarter mile away. It is very posh and my son is ecstatic. But it is troubling to think that my son will never be happy in life if he doesn't have the posh life. It isn't guaranteed.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Trip to India

I will be visiting this lodge with my family.

Here is a picture of a guide inspecting tiger dung. Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to see something as exciting as that.

No blogging for three weeks.

So if you want to read something, you can read my archives. In particular:
  1. May (for the week ending 12/17)

  2. June (for the week ending 12/24)

  3. July (for the week ending 12/31)

would be good choices, IMHO.

I will come back and host the Carnival of Capitalists. That should be fun.

Contests and Idea Spam

Recently, I submitted several ideas to this contest. They received more than 22,000 entries for a total cash prize of $200,000 so that works out to $9 per entry. Obviously, most of these entries are just bad ideas but since entry is free and there is an infinitely better chance of winning with a bad idea than with no entry at all, there were lots of entries.

The organizers of the SSB contest have a huge task to select 21 finalists from 22,000 entries. A knockout system similar to the one I described in this post might be workable here. Of course, it would be ten times easier if there were one-tenth the entries.

There is an interesting thing here. Good ideas are a pure public good. Once someone thinks it up and shares it with others, it has the potential to spread around the world and help others. But most ideas really aren’t that good. If a good idea is like a long e-mail from a good friend, a bad idea is like spam. Only it’s like spam that looks just like a real e-mail from a good friend that turns out to be something else only when you get into the middle of it.

I like the idea of having contests to generate good ideas in general. You could have contests for new business ideas or for new public goods or other things. But if you give a large prize for the winner and keep entry free, you will inevitably get a lot of idea spam.

Charging a fee to enter the contest would cut down on the idea spam, but it would raise a lot of legal and ethical issues. It would turn the contest into a lottery. And it would bring forth a multitude of lawsuit possibilities from disgruntled losers.

Another possibility along the same lines is to insist that each entry is matched by a sizable charitable donation. This might avoid a lot of the legal and ethical issues since the charity and not the contest organizers would be getting the money. It might be an excellent way to help a good charity.

But I have had a complete different idea. I’ve been thinking that good ideas really aren’t any good until someone really begins seriously advocating them. I am saying that essentially 100% of the value added of any idea is in the marketing of it. Good ideas need to be sold.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Why Do We Vote for Bad People?

I thought about this question in reading a couple of posts about Laloo of Bihar by Greatbong here and here. But it isn’t just Laloo. Some constituency elected Prakash Karat as well. Who would vote for a communist? Who would vote for Mayawati or Jayalalita or Karunanidhi? Or in the US, who would vote for Jesse Helms or for Huey Long or Richard Nixon?

If no one had voted for Hitler and his Nazis, then he would have been unable to seize power in Germany. The same is true for Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Chavez in Venezuela.

We vote for bad people by default. Good people opt out of politics, calling it a “dirty game” which, of course, it is. But why is it so dirty? Why? because honest people choose not to play it.

Another reason we vote for bad people is that we get sucked into their logical trap. They always turn a group of blues into dark blues and light blues. They will tell the dark blues, “I’m one of you. Either you vote for me or one of THEM.”

I had this idea once. Suppose everyone, by law, had to run for office. Suppose the election were run like a gigantic knockout tournament – like Wimbledon with 30 rounds. We could not all vote in every election but maybe 50 could vote in each of the first round elections and then 60 in the second and so on until you got to the last few round and then everyone votes. You would have to vote in maybe 80 elections, but it would be possible.

Who would get elected? If Laloo came up against your mom, I doubt he would stand a chance.

When He Grows Up: Royal Class

My son is excited by the upcoming trip to India.

He asked my wife, “Are there beds on the plane?”

“No, there are no beds in economy class. We will just sleep in our seats. We would have to travel by business class to have a bed.”

“No beds? Why can’t we travel by business class?”

“It’s very expensive. People have to pay a lot to fly business class, but it’s nicer.”

“Is there something nicer than business class?”

“There’s first class.”

“Oh, boy, I want to travel ‘royal class’”

“There’s no royal class. Royals have their own airplanes.”

“That’s what I want!”

I wonder if children in India naturally want to travel by ‘royal class’ or if that is an American thing. Anyway, it is reassuring that his preferences seem to be strictly monotone.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Queues and the Government

In the previous post, I talked about the long queue for a visa. But it isn’t just the Indian Consulate that makes people wait in a long queue. Basically queues are a common feature of many government agencies that serve customers. But in the private sector, there is seldom any queue. It is curious that there is a completely different perspective of what constitutes an efficient queue in government and in the private sector, and this explains why your trip to a government agency can often be an ordeal.

Actually the worst queue I have been in over the last couple of years (I cannot really remember before that) is the one at the Department of Motor Vehicles here in Virginia. The wait time can easily stretch for three hours.

In the private sector, companies have to compete so they figure out something very quickly: customer wait time costs you a customer. If customers have a choice, they will not wait, or they will pay quite a bit to avoid a wait. So if the wages of the server are less than the value of time for customers, it doesn’t pay to make customers ever wait. If servers occasionally wait for customers, this is acceptable; you can have them do something in the meantime. Even if the value of wait time for a customer is about the same as the server’s wages, it makes little sense to allow the queue to extend beyond a few minutes because then you can hire another server and guarantee he will keep busy.

You might see a long queue at a few private businesses, but only when it makes a little sense. For example, the queue for the roller coaster is always long but I believe that it helps build anticipation plus if the unfortunate father had to ride the roller coaster ten times in an hour, he would never ever come back to the amusement park. And parks are getting smarter about avoiding queues and allowing customers to wait in ways that allow them to shop around and do other fun activities.

The government thinks about a queue in a different way. They don’t worry about losing customers. They do worry about explicit costs like the wages of employees. If the government accountants see that the cost per customer served goes up, that agency will get dinged. So the government learns that to be “efficient” and to keep costs down, they need to make certain all of their servers are perpetually busy. This means that the customer always waits.

Obviously, the government is forgetting something here: the opportunity cost of customer wait time. Most customers, if given a choice, would gladly pay to avoid a long wait. I would have paid at least $50, maybe $100 to avoid the long queue at the Indian Consulate. This cost never enters into the government accountants’ calculations. It could easily double or triple the cost of a government service, (actually the visa was not cheap, it was $180 for the three of us, but the high cost doesn’t pay for service).

I think that government could greatly improve their operations by offering more options. There should always be a “no wait – expedite” option. Even if it costs more, some people would prefer this to waiting.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Visa Office

If you want to see an inefficient bureaucracy in action, just visit the Indian Consulate on Massachusetts Ave in D.C. There in the basement is a small room where you get your visa. What a madhouse that place is!

Before I visited the consulate, I called to see if they would be open the Friday after Thanksgiving. I dialed the phone three times. Each time the phone rang for 100 rings (Yes 100!) and then went to a voice mail that said, “Sorry, you cannot leave a message, the voice mailbox is full.” I have an idea: Indian call center!

So we took our chances by visiting the consulate. We had to park a few blocks away and walk there (actually, the consulate is located in a very posh neighborhood). I saw a sign for visas. I went to the basement and knew instantly I was at the right place: it was standing room only!

I took a ticket. I was number 66 and they were on 15. It would be more than an hour to get to our number. That wouldn’t be so bad if we could sit somewhere but there few only 40 seats for 120 people. Luckily, my son got a seat.

There were only two clerks to take care of so many people. It was just ridiculous. And if that wasn’t bad enough, people who had questions were always bothering them. These were people who:
1. Didn’t understand the concept of taking a ticket and waiting for their number to be called,
2. Had specific difficult questions that should have been answered by someone on the phone if there had been such a person,
3. Had specific difficult problems that should have been dealt in another office if there had been one.

Luckily, I had read the web page carefully and came completely prepared with the proper cash amount and the forms filled out. If everyone was like that, they could have processed 200 applications an hour. As it was they only processed 30 applications an hour.

The day before yesterday, I took my ticket back to the consulate to pick up the passports with the visas. Again, it was standing room only. This time, there were no tickets, just a long queue the snaked about the entire room in a completely haphazard manner. All we were doing was picking up our passports and leaving but it was going very slowly. There were people who were panicking because they didn’t get their visa and their flight left the next day. There was only one lady to take care of everybody and she was completely overwhelmed.

I guess I cannot complain too much about my experience – at least we got our visas! But I cannot help thinking about the family that needed their visas and their flight left the next day. The overwhelmed clerk just sighed and said, “There is nothing we can do.” We could have been that family just as easily.

We will be leaving in one week. After we leave, there will be no blogging for the rest of December. (Well, I’ll try to sneak in a post somehow).