India travel advice!

After two awesome trips to India, here’s some advice on what to expect while travelling there. This is from a westerner perspective, although it should be useful and entertaining to all. =)


Yes, the Taj Mahal is amazing!

1. There are a lot of people there!

This sounds like an obvious statement, and it is – but you just don’t get it until you’re there. There are people (lots of people) everywhere, at all times. Every business may have nine times the people it would have in the U.S.  Basically, every hour feels like “rush hour”. Not a place to go if you get anxiety from being in crowds. The upside is that the country feels very much alive!

2. It is a big country!

This is another obvious statement that just doesn’t sink in until you’re there. The sheer geographical size is one part of it, but the differences in weather, culture, religion and people are what I’m really talking about. (See next two points.)

3. India is very diverse.

In fact, I almost don’t know what “Indian” is. It’s like calling something “European”. There are some threads in common, but there are a lot of differences too. In part because it’s a big country, in part because it’s populous and in part because it was invaded by pretty much every other civilization out there, India is a beautiful mix of different people and cultures. The best part of it, aside from numerous world heritage sites to visit, is the food! Awesome, delicious, flavorful, Indian food.

4. Eat awesome delicious local food. All of it.

You think you’ve had Indian food before? No you haven’t. At best you’ve tried some… like a small tiny fraction of it. Tikka Masala and curry are two lines on a 100 page menu.

You can’t wait to get you curry on? Well, there is a lot more than curry… in fact, most meals we ate had nothing to do with curry. I could explain what we ate, I could show you pictures, but it won’t do it justice.  You have to taste it. You have to smell it. You have to feel it. And you have to let it keep your belly warm. =)

Awesome wedding food! (Eat with right hand =)

5. You will eat with your hands.

It will happen. Don’t ask. Don’t fight it, just go with the flow. It’s part of the experience. It’s part of actually feeling the food texture in your hands. It’s the full experience you traveled thousands of miles for.

6. Don’t eat non-Indian food. Just don’t. You will be disappointed.

After a week in India, we were tempted to have an Italian meal. Nice, fancy Italian meal at a top hotel in Mumbai, with an actual Italian Chef. (Yes, I talked to him). Still, it was a waste of time and a meal, when so many delicious local options are waiting outside. One exception is fast food (see below) – which is a fun “fill-in” meal.

7. Try the U.S. fast food.

If you’re there for a week or longer, give it a try. You will be amazed, but fast food is actually good in India (and generally in most of Asia).  I used to scoff at people eating McDonalds and KFC abroad before (see # 4 & 6 above), but it’s actually worth a try. At home in California, I eat fast food about once a year, mostly on road trips with limited food choices. Aside from In’n Out, which has some of the best burgers out there, my visits to McDonalds, KFC or Carlitos are mostly motivated by the prospect of clean restrooms – definitely not the food. However, in Asia, it’s a different story. Cheese (as in all paneer and no beef) burger at Mickey D’s is pretty good, their masala chicken was yummy and the chicken sandwich at KFC was pure goodness!  Oh, and the plain McDonalds fries come with curry powder on to! Awesome!


8. You will get ripped off / scammed a bit. Call it a white (foreigner) premium.

The cab drivers will suggest some “cheap” souvenir stores with amazing “deals” (tourist traps). Every tour will include a recommended stop at a restaurant, souvenir shop or “historical site” where someone happens to sell stuff. Don’t buy it, they’re all traps. Do your research beforehand, and be assertive about what you want, or not want. Or, like I did, turn the game on them. Need a bathroom and a break in an area with AC (see next point), sure – I would love to check out your tourist trap. =)

9. You will sweat. Continuously.

This may depend on the time of the year you go there, but it’s hot and humid in most of the country – pretty much year around. December / January is probably the best time to visit (my first trip there), but it’s still balmy, especially in the south. On my second trip, we were there in June, and it was a nice toasty sauna all around the country. I highly recommend dry-fit clothing.

10. You will walk barefoot.

You have to take off your shoes to visit temples, and a few other places. Some folks are cool with that, some find it gross/strange.  Either way, respect the local customs, and bring extra socks if you want to keep your feet clean. (I saved up a bunch of the free disposable socks you get on the planes and used them.)

11. They speak English, but don’t be fooled. Their English is not the same as yours.

Most folks you interact with will speak English – as in folks working in tourism industry or with an education. However, communication may still be a challenge. Just chill, relax and take it easy – stuff will get figured out. After a while, you’ll develop an ear for the local English variations. Or you may not. Whatever, just relax and focus on delicious food and amazing sites. Oh, and they love puns! I thought it was pretty awesome and entertaining.

12. Customer service is amazing!

You will get lazy. Even at average hotels and restaurants they will treat you like royalty. We had kebobs at a Sikh place in Mumbai which was nothing more than a street stand, yet we got better service than at most restaurants around the world. Take it as an upside of point # 1, but at most businesses there are people everywhere trying to help you. Need someone to carry your bag? Done. Need directions with a smile? Got it. Need service in your room 30 seconds after hitting the butler button? Yup, they’re already knocking at the door (true story. I didn’t even know butler buttons existed…)

And last, but not the least, you will be confused by the Indian head-shakes. Here’s a link to an instructional video that tries to shed light on it.

Invest your savings!

This post was prompted by a recent exchange with some friends – and judging by articles I’ve read, it’s a pretty common situation. Many folks are simply keeping their savings as cash in their bank accounts or paying off their student loans with it. Maybe the recession made them more cautious or maybe they just never thought about investing.

I feel folks are missing out here, so here are my thoughts:

  1. Don’t pay off your low-interest debt early. There’s no point in paying low interest debt early, especially if you have student loans in the <3% APR range – unless you plan to keep your cash under the mattress, which leads me to my second point;
  2. Don’t keep your cash under the mattress. I mean it both figuratively and literally. Let your money work for you.
  3. Figure out the risk level you’re comfortable with. That means both the “liquidity” that you want at hand, and risk tolerance (i.e. willingness to risk losing your money). You can then devise an investment strategy to manage for those constraints. For example, if your only concern is to have at least 50% of your savings on hand in case of need – you can still put ALL your cash into a stock and be 100% certain you’ll have cash if needed.
  4. Figure out how active / involved you want to be. Do you want to do your own research on companies to invest in, are you going to track your investments regularly, or just want to put your money into an account, and then check up on it a year later.
  5. Invest. Make a strategy that fits your needs, and let your money work for you.

Now, let me explain:

The richest people in this country make $$$ by borrowing money at a lower rate, and then investing it for higher returns – keeping the difference. A lot of people (especially from certain cultures) hate the idea of debt, and like to pay-off loans just to feel better – but the reality is that if you can manage your money, and put it to a good use, debt is no different than a wrench – it’s just a tool to get the job done.

Keeping money in a no interest bank account does nothing for you – in fact it just deflates. (It does help the bank do what I mentioned above – get free money from you, and lend it to others at a premium.) Considering the returns on bonds, CDs and such, I would highly recommend investing in stocks, especially if you’re in it for the long run. Commodities and such are an option too, but I would advise against that as your first step into investing. Low load Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are probably your best bet, unless you have a set of companies that you really believe in or just want to hand-pick your stocks. Either way, stocks (or equity based investment funds) are a better option than bonds in the long run – over any 10-year historical period, stocks have outperformed bonds. That is, if you buy at the market high, right before a crash – you’re still ahead 10-years later.

Stocks and ETFs are very liquid, so if you need the money out, you can close out any position(s) and have the funds in your checking account within a few days. So if liquidity is your only concern, this shouldn’t stop you from investing 100% of your savings in the market. I’m not necessarily recommending that, but it’s what I’ve been doing for a few years now. Last year’s 40% gains were surely a nice reward for that view. The main question however is whether you expect a forced sale event: e.g. what if you get laid off at the same time your investments take a (temporary) dive? If you buy high and sell low, you’re not winning. In my case, I just assume that between unemployment benefits and credit cards, I’d have some slack to manage through the thick of such a double-whammy.  As Warren Buffett said, the risks of being out of the market are higher than risks of being in it. =)

Speaking of buying high and selling low – you may hear folks say that right now is not a good time to move into the market because it’s had such a good run, and it’s due for a downward “correction”. Well, whoever can accurately predict that, will most certainly make tons of cash. For us mere mortals however, I would not worry about market timing (in fact, most commoners get it wrong).  You can start moving money into stocks in tranches – for example you could invest $50,000 by buying $5,000 of stocks per week for 10 weeks. You’ll buy some high, buy some low, and hopefully get the benefits of “dollar cost averaging”. The downside of not moving in at once is that you’re further delaying your investment, and missing out on earnings.

So now, the question is where to put your money? Certain stocks have done well for me lately: AMC, BAC (Bank of America), MSFT (Microsoft), QCOM (Qualcomm), AAPL (Apple) and even F (Ford). I am happy to make my picks… and enjoy (or suffer) the resulting volatility and performance. The implied statement there is that I know how to pick stocks that will outperform the market, which may or may not be true. (And by definition, half the people are bound to get below average earnings.) So, if you think you can pick well – go for it! Maybe it’s a tech firm you think has potential, or an old stalwart that’s weathered many storms… or a smart pick from a professional newsletter. You can go for growth stocks, dividend yielding ones, etc.

You could also invest in actively managed mutual funds – betting that the fund manager can beat the market. If you read “A random walk down Wall Street”, you’d be persuaded otherwise… but there are plenty of pros making the big bucks for their clients. Again, the key is in picking which one to put your money in. This is a bit like picking stocks to invest in, but you’re likely to reduce your volatility.

The more humble approach is to get into an ETF (say like an S&P 500 one) and just ride the market. You will be making the market returns (historically ~10%), minus a small fee. Chances are you’ll do better with an ETF than with options above, especially if you don’t want to micromanage your investment. You also have a certain level of security, if history is any indicator of future performance. Let me explain that by showing the S&P 500 best and worst five years:

Five Best One Year Performances (in %)

1954       +45.02%

1958       +38.06%

1995       +34.11%

1975       +31.55%

1997       +31.01%

Five Worst One Year Performances (in %)

2008       -38.49%

1974       -29.72%

2002       -23.37%

1973       -17.37%

1957       -14.31%

You can see two points above: shocks up are bigger than shocks down (on a yearly basis) and it would have to be the worst year ever for you to lose 40% of your cash. I am making this second point as people are often too conservative with their investments – even if you’re retired and living off your savings, you should still have a portion of your money in stocks.

Hope this helps!

Great KickStarter Project!

I just backed this project on KickStarter – I really hope it gets fully funded.

It’s the next chapter of the PhD Movie, from the same guys that created the PhD comics (which helped many of us get through grad school). I just remember how relieving and encouraging it was to find that other grad students are going through the same challenges, struggles and joys. Plus, it’s just plain funny. =)

I hope you like it and decide to contribute to it!

How to turn off Amber alerts on your iPhone

I was just startled when my iPhone started blaring at me.. the sound was a mix between a bombing raid siren and a fire alarm.. not pleasant.

Turns out that an Amber alert was issued in California (mind you.. far far away from me), and it’s a “feature” in the phone to let you know. While I certainly do hope that the missing children are found, and I can see only the best intentions in passing this alert on.. I assume many folks would like to turns this off.

Here’s a quick guide:

1) Go to the “Settings” option in your iPhone Home Screen

2) Go to the “Notifications” section

3) Scroll all the way down

4) Under “Government Alerts” you can toggle on/off the Amber and Emergency alerts.

I have left the emergency alerts on.. who knows maybe it will save me one day if I’m in a flood zone, and don’t realize it’s raining.. or if there’s a tsunami coming…

iPhone Notifications screen shot

iPhone Notifications screen shot

Hard Drives on a Diet!

Recently I bought a new Hard Disk Drive (HDD) to replace my old one, which had started making suspicious noises. I have always followed a simple rule – if you hear funky noises, replace it as it may be a sign of impending failure. Luckily, I don’t have personal experience with this, but I hear that recovering data from a failed drive is not a great pastime.

I have to say that I’m impressed by the improvements in HDD technology in the few years that have passed. My old one was a Western Digital (WD) Black 1.0 TB SATA drive with 32 MB cache, with manufacturing date of 11/21/2009. The new one is a WD Green 1.0 TB SATA drive with 64 MB cache, made on 3/26/2013. The fact that it was made in Thailand and then sitting on my desk two weeks later was amazing.

Before comparing the two, I have to mention that the Caviar Black series is supposed to be more on the “performance” side, while the “Caviar Green” series is more on the quiet and energy efficient side – so not exactly apples to apples.  Nevertheless, the new Green drive is performing just as well if not better, while maintaining low, almost non-audible, noise levels. I couldn’t be happier with it.

The part that really hit me was the drastic difference in weight! While they have the same storage capacity, the new drive is almost half the weight! The old drive weighs 1lb 9oz (0.71kg), while the new one is only 1lb 0.2oz (0.46kg) – that’s about a third less!

This is great on many levels. First, as a consumer, you have a lighter product, which is nice even for a desktop. As a manufacturer, there are savings in prime materials used as well as shipping and handling costs. This results in the society as a whole benefiting as fewer resources (including fuel) are used, reducing pollution and overall environmental impact.

Good work WD!

HDD Comparison

Littering or Service?

Recently I received a little present at my doorstep: a brand-spankin’-new copy of the yellow pages.


Now, 15 years ago, this would have been rather useful. I would have been happy to receive the latest copy with all the updated contact info for the local business. However, in year 2013, I really don’t know what do with these pounds of paper. Maybe use it as a doorstop? Or keep around for next bonfire on the beach? I could also just ignore it and leave it there for a few weeks like some of my neighbors did..

I went for the “environmental” choice, and just dropped it into a recycle bin. What a waste of paper, and labor & energy to make it and distribute it.

Anyway, this got me thinking – could I report this as an instance of littering? Going by the book (or Wikipedia to be exact), “Litter consists of waste products that have been disposed improperly, without consent, in an inappropriate location.” Maybe I’m stretching the definition here.. but to me that pile of paper was no different than someone dumping a bag of garbage at my door..  In fact, the delivery man rang me, asking to be let into the apartment complex.. and I politely declined, stating that I do not need a phone book.

Anyway, I just wish marketers and the like stopped wasting paper on advertising (which the phone book really is) that just ends up in a trash can.

Chevy Volt Review – That was fun!

This past weekend I got to test-drive a Chevy Volt, and I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. While I still have some concerns about the price, and whether the upfront capital expense is worth the gas savings down the line, I would actually enjoy owning one.

First, let’s address the battery range. If you’re fortunate enough where you can charge both at work and at home, you can probably go for a year on a single tank of gas. After a full charge, the dashboard claimed that I could go 30 to 35 miles, but I easily got 40+. Sure, this depends on your driving, and I was fairly gentle on the gas and the break paddle – keeping the green ball happy! (See the picture of the dashboard). I’ve also found a fair number of public charging stations, with quite a few offering free juice! Thanks Santa Monica!

Side note about charging: while some charging stations are free to use, others do require a payment. One of them was $2/hour, or $1.50/hour with membership. This really made no sense to me. It takes about 4 hours for a full charge, so even at the reduced rate this would be $6 for a “full tank” or about 40 miles in electric only mode. Considering that gas is $4.50/gallon, and that the Volt will easily get over 40 mpg in hybrid mode, it makes no economic sense to pay for charging more than a $1/hour. In fact, charging at home is about a $1 for a full charge, depending on your electricity rates, which is a nice saving.

The car is quite comfortable, even for a taller guy. While it’s sure no Escalade, four adults can comfortably fit in. The trunk space is decent, although a bit shallow. It’s one of those funny things where some folks may complain “What if I need to move something giant… like say my brand new 60” TV?” Well, no, you won’t be able to fit it in, but you also won’t need to do that very often. In fact, most people rarely need more space than a Fiat 500, yet we’ll buy an 18-wheeler “just in case”. But I digress. (The book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely explains this tendency to overvalue optionality very well.) My point is that there is enough space for four adults and the usual amount of junk in the trunk.

The technology part of it is done well. The interfaces are generally easy to use and intuitive. Some of the displays can be a bit distracting when driving, but I’m guessing that’s just the new car effect that would wear off after a week or so. The part that may require some getting used to is the regenerative breaking, and figuring out when it happens. For example, letting go of the accelerator can result in it. Generally, I would say not to worry about it, and just focus on the road first and on that green display ball second. If the ball is green and centered, you’re efficient. If you hit the gas or break hard, you’re not.

Overall, the car was a fun commuting experience. I put 122 miles on it while using just 0.1 gallons of gas and 3 free charges. That makes for a fuel cost of $0.003 per mile, which can’t be beat.

Chevy Volt Dashboard

Taxed vs. Withheld Income – What’s the Difference?

This is an area of common confusion, and not just among the “laymen” and employees at a company, but even among the HR professionals. I have heard many folks complain how their bonus is taxed at a higher rate, and it’s barely worth anything. I have seen numerous HR e-mails about supplemental payments, such as bonuses, vacation cash-outs and similar, being taxed at a higher (40%) rate. This is simply incorrect.

What many people are confusing is the withholding rate versus the tax rate, which are quite different. Withholding is just that – an amount withheld by the employer and paid to the government, until the tax bill is settled. The tax rate is the amount we actually pay, based on the full picture, including total income, deductions and other tax considerations.

While withholding aims to match the tax rate, it is simply an advance payment toward our year-end tax liability.  For employment income, it’s a rough calculation dependent on the projected yearly income and filing status (single or married, number of exemptions) as reported on the W-4 form.  This simplification is why virtually everyone either owes taxes or gets a refund at the end of the year.

For supplemental payments, which are currently withheld at the higher rate of 40%, many people think that they are actually paying a higher tax rate. The reality is that IRS doesn’t really know if you got $50,000 in salary and $20,000 in bonuses or $69,000 in salary and $1,000 in bonuses. All they see on the W-2 form is that you received a total of $70,000 from your employer. You will pay the same tax on it, whatever the distribution between the base pay and supplemental payments is. Therefore, the tax rate on supplemental payments is the same as on the rest of your employment income.

One thing to note is that as your income goes up, your tax rate will increase too (all else held equal) – so effectively a bonus or a pay rise does have somewhat diminishing returns. The exact impact of course depends on your specific tax situation.

Cheese Powered Car

I just saw an article about this, and it sounds like a pretty awesome idea. In a nutshell: the researchers used cheese manufacturing waste, fed it to some hungry yeast, and voila – you have bio-diesel.

Of course, it’s not that simple, and I wonder what the total process costs and efficiency are, but it sure sounds like a great idea. They are taking waste that’s already there, and turning it into something useful. I also wonder on the net greenhouse gas impact of this – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s positive. It all depends on how would this waste otherwise be disposed of.

The team also had some fun with it! Not only they made the fuel and tested it, but they also aimed at setting the new ground speed record for a bio-fueled vehicle!

Read more on their site if you’re curious.They have some neat pictures too.

How to Get Time Back!

I was reading an older issue of the Harvard Business Review and found this article titled “Stop Wasting Valuable Time”.

It had a great list of things we can do to be more efficient at work and make better use of the most limiting resource we have: time. I spend a lot of time in meetings, managing a fair amount of them, and I thought this was a good refresher on things to keep in mind:

  1. Deal with operations separately from strategy
  2. Focus on decisions, not on discussions
  3. Measure the real value of every item on the agenda
  4. Get issues off the agenda as quickly as possible
  5. Put real choices on the table
  6. Adopt common decision-making processes and standards
  7. Make decisions stick

This list addresses a common issue with meetings, where agenda setting is unfocused and undisciplined, often being a hodge-podge of items that different participants wanted to bring up. When we stop and think about it, I think we can all realize that meeting agendas need to be thought though, and prioritized accordingly. Some items simply don’t need the full team’s attention, while others may be urgent.

This leads me to the next point – urgency often seems to set the agenda, which may be good for an operations focused meeting, but this may come at a cost to planning and strategic decision making. If we are always focused on the hot potatoe, we may not leave enough meeting time to preventing the future issues from occuring. Allocating time among these is key.

Another issue I’ve noticed has to do with making sure everyone in the room agrees on what was agreed on. At times, this may be due to the team simply going off-course in the discussion, and never formally giving thumbs-up or down to a proposal, even though everybody agrees on what the decision oughta be. At other times, no decision was ever actually made. Or, as I’ve often seen, as the meeting time expires and people start getting up to leave, somebody we’ll make a statement “ok, so we have decided that.. “.

While it may not be always easy to manage a meeting room, it’s important to leave enough time on the agenda for the actual decision making, and ensure the final decisions are clear and documented. I believe that managing the meeting time effectively, can both reduce the time we spend in conference rooms, and improve a company’s information sharing and decision making processes.