Useless LinkedIn

I’m not a big fan of LinkedIn. I mean, I use it, and fairly regularly at that (check it at least once a day), and I think conceptually it’s quite useful. However, in practice, I think there are a number of sticking points about the service, which makes it quite useless.

For starters its apps (iPad and Android) are quite lousy, and offer nowhere close to the kind of experience that the web interface offers. Things are extremely unintuitive (down to the tabbing order – you compose message, hit tab and enter, and you don’t send the message. It takes you to the profile of the person you’re messaging instead) on the website. Sometimes the apps show notifications even after you’ve checked them on the web, and so on.

In other words it’s an extremely poorly engineered product, but which is surviving (and thriving) thanks to network effects!

I might have commented on this in the past but there is this thing on endorsements. This was something that coincided with the time when LinkedIn went public (if I’m not wrong), and you could endorse people for their “skills” on LinkedIn. For a while I played along with the game. But then I completely lost it when a distant uncle who I’m sure has never traded derivatives endorsed me for “derivatives”. I quickly deleted my skills.

Then there are the LinkedIn recommendations, which has inherent selection bias and hence adds no value. And then you have the “say goncrats” feature, where LinkedIn prompts you to “say congrats” on people changing jobs or hitting job anniversaries. I’ve found this mildly useful (dropping a note when someone switches jobs is a good way to stay in touch), but there are the bugs in terms ofjob downgrades and people getting fired.

And of late, there has been serious spam in terms of people’s status updates. I don’t know when it became popular to post silly puzzles on professional networking sites, yet I find several of them popping up on my timeline every day, and the number of people who have shared each is not funny. Then you have these cartoons (Dilbert and the copycats), and “guru quotes” that appear in the form of images that further spam your timelines! The only way I can think of these being useful is that they act as a negative indicator when you’re checking out the profile of someone you are looking to hire or do business with!

To summarise, LinkedIn seems to be an extremely badly engineered product on several counts, but thanks to network effects (so many people are already on it that entry barriers for competitors are really high) the site still manages to do well! I wonder what it will take to disrupt it. Facebook for business is not the answer for sure – the potential havoc caused by a breach in chinese walls there will scare people enough to not sign up.

What do you think? Here is their stock price movement for reference:

 

 

Borrowing chip and pin credit cards

Just before she left for school on Friday, the wife told me that her debit card was in a certain drawer in her cupboard, and I should use it in case I wanted to go out. She told me the PIN and said that I could wish to draw money from the ATM downstairs if necessary, or simply swipe the card wherever I go.

I’ve always been queasy about borrowing or lending credit/debit cards. I’ve always thought that it’s illegal to use someone else’s card, even with their consent. The traditional way a credit/debit card works, your signature on the charge slip is supposed to be compared to the signature on the back of the card, and the merchant can refuse you service if the two don’t match (this is seldom implemented in India, but that’s the theory). For that reason, if i were to use the wife’s credit card and the waiter sees that the signature on the charge slip doesn’t match that on the card (obviously!), it might lead to an embarrassing situation.

For this reason I ended up withdrawing a significant amount from the ATM and using the cash thus withdrawn for my expenses. Looking at credit/debit card swipes in action later on, however, I was wondering if it was actually necessary to do so.

In Europe, like in India (Europe is the leader, India followed; US has no plans to follow it seems), all credit and debit cards are chip-and-PIN based cards. The credit card is not swiped in the terminal, but instead is inserted in a way that the terminal can read an embedded chip (more secure than the magnetic stripe). To this, you enter a four-digit PIN, which acts as the validation after which the charge gets approved. Typically, after you’ve approved a transaction with your PIN, a signature is not required, though in India they insist on it (despite the charge slip saying “PIN verified; signature not required”).

And that is what I’ve noticed here in Spain ever since I withdrew money from the ATM that day – there is no requirement for signature in any transaction. The waiter (let’s say we’re at a restaurant) brings the swiping machine, you enter the card, the waiter enters the amount and you enter your PIN, and out comes the slip and the waiter hands back the card to you and walks away. No signature! And this is standard practice across all debit and credit card terminals!

A possibly unintended advantage of this is that it’s now possible to borrow (with permission) someone else’s credit or debit card and actually use it!

Amending the snooze function in alarm clocks

This is an idea that appeared to me in my dreams. Really. I’m not joking. Or maybe I thought of it as soon as I woke up this morning – in the cusp of dreams and reality, and then presently fell back asleep. Either ways, it doesn’t matter. The idea is surely mine, and not knowing how to profit from it I’m making it public.

The basic idea is that the inter-snooze interval between consecutive alarms should decrease geometrically. Currently, alarm clock apps on mobile phones have a fixed snooze duration. For example, my Moto G has a fixed snooze duration of 6 minutes (which I think i can change through settings, but will remain fixed at the new level then). The wife’s iPhone has a fixed snooze duration of 5 minutes (again customisable I believe).

However, I believe that this is illogical and makes you wake up over a longer time interval than necessary. The reasoning is that the degree of wakefulness at each alarm ring is different. When you wake up at the second ring (after you’ve snoozed it once), you’re more wakeful than you were when the alarm rang for the first time. After you’ve snoozed for the second time, you are unlikely to go into as deep sleep as you did when you snoozed it for the first time, in which case you are unlikely to go into the kind of deep sleep you were in before the first ring of the alarm clock.

By keeping the inter-snooze duration constant, what the alarm clock is doing is to give you an opportunity to go back in into the same kind of deep sleep (the longer you sleep between alarm rings, the greater the possibility that you will go back into deep sleep), which further impedes your complete waking up.

What is ideal is that the first time you get woken up from deep sleep, you struggle, snuggle and snooze, and go back to sleep. The next time you should be woken up before you’ve hit the deep sleep phase. You wake up again, struggle, snuggle and snooze, and go into shallower sleep. The next alarm ring should catch you at this shallower stage, and rouse you up. And so on.

So what I’m proposing is that the inter-snooze interval in alarm clocks should decrease geometrically. So if the first inter-snooze interval lasted five minutes, the next one should last less than that, and the one after that even less than that. Each time this interval should come down by a pre-defined fraction (let’s say half, without loss of generality). That way, even if you snooze multiple times, it ensures that you finally wake up in a time-bound fashion (beyond a point, the snooze duration becomes so small that it rings continuously until you switch off and wake up, and by then you have attained full consciousness).

So the way I want my alarm clock designed is that I define how much time I want to wake up in (let’s say default is 20 minutes), and a (harder to change) multiplicative factor by which inter-snooze times come down (default is half), and the inter-snooze interval decreases accordingly geometrically so that you wake up in exactly the time that you’ve initially specified!

So with the defaults of 20 and 1/2, the inter-snooze periods will be 10 mins, 5 mins, 2 min 30 secs, 1 min 15 secs, 37.5 secs, 18.75 secs, … by which time you should be annoyed enough to have woken up but yet wakeful enough having drifted back only just enough!

I think this is a world-changing idea, but I mention again that I don’t know how to commercialise it so putting it out in the open. If you think this works for you, thank me!

And perhaps this is a good assignment to start my career in programming mobile phone apps. Should I start with iOS or Android? (I have an android phone and an iPad).

Gossip Propagation Models

More than ten years ago, back when I was at IIT Madras, I considered myself to be a clearinghouse of gossip. Every evening after dinner I would walk across to Sri Gurunath Patisserie, and plonk myself at one of the tables there with a Rs. 5 Nescafe instant coffee. And there I would meet people. Sometimes we would discuss ideas (while these discussions were rare, they were most fulfilling). Other times we would discuss events. Most of the time, and in conversations that would be entertaining if not fulfilling, we discussed people.

Constant participation in such discussions made sure that any gossip generated anywhere on campus would reach me, and to fill time in subsequent similar conversations I would propagate them. I soon got to know about random details of random people on campus who I hardly cared about. Such information was important purely because someone else might find it interesting. Apart from the joy of learning such gossip, however, I didn’t get remunerated for my services as clearinghouse.

I was thinking about this topic earlier today while reading this studmax post that the wife has written about gossip distribution models. In it she writes:

This confirmed my earlier hypothesis that gossip follows a power law distribution – very few people hold all the enormous hoards of information while the large majority of people have almost negligible information. Gossip primarily follows a hub and spoke model (eg. when someone shares inappropriate pictures of others on a whatsapp group) and in some rare cases especially in private circles (best friends, etc.), it’s point to point.

 

For starters, if you plot the amount of gossip that is propagated by different people (if a particular quantum of gossip is propagated to two different people, we will count it twice), it is very well possible that it follows a power law distribution. This well follows from the now well-known result that degree distribution in real-world social networks follows a power law distribution. On top of this if you assume that some people are much more likely to propagate quantums of gossip they know to other people, and that such propensity for propagation is usually correlated with the person’s “degree” (number of connections), the above result is not hard to show.

The next question is on the way gossip actually propagates. The wife looks at the possibilities through two discrete models – hub-and-spoke and peer-to-peer. In the hub-and-spoke models, gossip is likely to spread along the spokes. Let us assume that the high-degree people are the hubs (intuitive), and according to this model, these people collect gossip from spokes (low degree people) and transmit it to others. In this model, gossip seldom propagates directly between two low-degree people.

At the other end is the peer-to-peer model where the likelihood of gossip spreading along an edge (connection between two people) is independent of the nature of the nodes at the end of the edge. In this kind of a model, gossip is equally likely to flow across any edge. However, if you overlay the (scale free/ power law) network structure over this model, then it will start appearing to be like a hub and spoke model!

In reality, neither of these models is strictly true since we also need to consider each person’s propensity to propagate gossip. There are some people who are extremely “sadhu” and politically correct, who think it is morally wrong to propagate unsubstantiated stories. They are sinks as far as any gossip is concerned. The amount of gossip that reaches them is also lower because their friends know that they’re not interested in either knowing or propagating it. On the other hand you have people (like I used to be) who have a higher propensity of propagating gossip. This also results in their receiving more gossip, and they end up propagating more.

So does gossip propagation follow the hub-and-spoke model or peer-to-peer model? The answer is “somewhere in between”, and a function of the correlation between the likelihood of a node propagating gossip and the degree of the node. If the two are uncorrelated (not unreasonable), then the flow will be closer to peer-to-peer (though degree distribution being a power law makes it appear as if it is hub-and-spoke). If there is very high positive correlation between likelihood of propagation and node degree, the model is very close to hub-and-spoke, since the likelihood of gossip flowing between low degree nodes in such a case is very very low, and thus most of the gossip flow happens through one of the hubs. And if the correlation between likelihood of propagation and node degree is low (negative), then it is likely to lead to a flow that is definitely peer-to-peer.

I plan to set up some simulations to actually study the above possibilities and further model how gossip flows!

Travelling on a budget

It is not hard to travel on a budget. There is exactly one thing you need to do – leave your credit and debit cards behind. And that’s what I did (almost) during my recently 3-day trip to Florence. I must admit first up that I cheated – that I had in my wallet my India debit card (fairly well funded). However, thanks to currency change charges and all that, I had resolved that I would use the card only in the case of emergencies. And that I would otherwise fund my trip on the cash I was carrying on me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Travelling on a budget doesn’t necessarily mean travelling cheap. All it means is that you define how much you are willing to spend during the trip, and then optimising the decisions during the trip so that your expenses are within that limit.

The way I went about my budget was some kind of a “bang bang control”. For the first two days of the trip, I simply ignored my budget and spent on merit. So each time I had to spend money I would evaluate the expense based on a general understanding of whether it was worth it. So four Euros for a gelato (in one of the touristy places) was deemed unreasonable. Three Euros for a larger gelato across the river was deemed okay and I spent. And so on.

In hindsight this is not a very valid strategy. The value of the money you have is a function of its scarcity, and the fact that I was travelling on a budget (carrying limited cash) meant that money on my was scarce (irrespective of the quantum of money that I had). From that perspective, the rational strategy to have followed was to do an initial budget of how much I would spend on what, and then evaluate each spending decision based on the opportunity cost vis-a-vis this particular budget.

So for example, I would have prepared an estimate of how I would spend each cent that I had initially carried. And then every time an expense came up (say three euros for a gelato) I would evaluate what I would have to give up on on my initial budget in order to eat the gelato. And then I would spend accordingly (FWIW, this is how airlines price cargo, at least if they follow the algo I did back when I was working in that sector in 2007). The problem there, however, is that calculations can be complex and you don’t want to be burdening yourself with that when you’re a tourist. Nevertheless, my strategy on the first couple of days (of spending on merit) was clearly wrong.

On the last day of the trip, I suddenly panicked since I now realised I probably didn’t have enough money to last the trip (I had set up “the game” such that if I had to use my debit card I would have “lost”). So I had to change strategy. First of all, I set aside money for the bus ride to the Florence airport and the taxi ride home from Barcelona airport (when there’s a wife waiting for you, you simply take the quickest means of transport available!).

Next, I looked at other mandatory expenses (I had decided to do a day trip to Siena that day so the bus far to go there was one of them; then I had to eat), and set aside money for those. And finally I was left with what I termed as “discretionary spend”, which is what I had to spend on things I had not already budgeted for.

And in order to make sure that I played within these rules, I “locked in” the moneys for the mandatory spends. I put aside thirty Euros in a separate compartment of my wallet (for the taxi fare home). I bought all the bus tickets for the day in the morning itself (Florence-Siena; Siena-Florence; Florence-Airport). And then I was left with twenty odd Euros, and this became my “discretionary spend” (my meals had to be funded from this one).

And so each expense was evaluated based on what I had in this discretionary expense budget. There were two pricing options at the Siena Cathedral (aka Duomo) – four Euros to see inside, and fifteen Euros to both see inside and climb the dome. My budgetary constraints made it a no-brainer (and I’m glad I saw the inside of the cathedral. The sheer diversity of art that hits you from all sides made it a brilliant experience). There were some chocolate shops all over the main square in Siena. Budget meant that I didn’t indulge in any of them.

Budget dictated where I ate (I was glad to bump into this really nice looking l’Aquila Trattoria and Pizzeria, and had excellent ravioli there) and drank (two Euros house wine, and not anything else). And a little left over allowed me to indulge on a second canoli for the day back when I was in Florence!

Overall it was an interesting experience. How would you do it if you were to travel on a budget?

And the trip ended with a scare. I had EUR 32.40 in my pocket when I got into the taxi at Barcelona airport. My three earlier taxi rides on that route had cost EUR 32, 31 and 27, so I couldn’t be entirely confident that I would manage it with what I had. I decided to get off early if the fare went beyond my budget, but that would be embarrassing. So I asked the wife to come down with some money, in case I needed a bailout.

As it transpired, I didn’t need the bailout. The fare was EUR 29.75.

NRIs and the double narrative bias

By definition journalism suffers from the narrative bias. In other words, in most conditions, only the spectacular is newsworthy. To take a popular example, “dog bites man” will never make news because of its sheer predictability – it simply doesn’t add any information content.

As a consequence, journalism “suffers” from what I call the “spectacular bias”. A spectacular event is much more likely to be reported compared to an unspectacular one. This has several implications.
Firstly it leads to distorted and suboptimal choices. For example, following the two fires in Volvo buses in 2013-14 people stopped traveling by buses of that particular make. This was irrational because even after those accidents Volvo buses continued to be safer than buses of any other make. Yet, the fact that Volvo buses had been involved in the accidents were. Ade the focus of reports and that led to irrational responses. Related to this, I usually ask in lectures I take if anyone has seen a headline that says “Ashok Leyland bus catches fire,people die” and if not, if it means that Ashok Leyland buses never catch fire.
Now that it is established that journalism suffers from the narrative bias and spectacular bias, let’s take it one level further – what about people who get their news exclusively from social media? Let us assume that news that is shared widely on social media is a subset of news that is reported in the mainstream media (it is a reasonable assumption that anything that trends on social media will get immediately picked up and reported by the mainstream media).
What kind of news will these people (who get news exclusively from mainstream media) consume? If a news item makes it big in the social media then it implies that the news item has something about it that is spectacular, and something that is spectacular relative to anything else that is reported. Now considering that news itself is a collection of spectacular stories, what this implies is that what gets shared on social media is spectacular when compared to other spectacular stories, or these stories are doubly spectacular!
Considering that news itself can cause significant irrational decisions among people, imagine the kind of impact that consumption of news solely via social media can have! Without going into merits of the news, we can safely argue that it leads to irrational decisions and opinions.
Now let us consider one such class of people who mostly consume news via social media (we are making a leap of faith here). Temporarily going into anecdata territory, let me quote examples of possibly irrational behaviour by NRIs here. First there is this relative who left India about a decade back. About a year or so back he started this Facebook community called “Bangalore – Water Issues and Solutions” . None of his actions or statements from earlier had indicated that he has any interest in this topic.
Then there is my wife who has been living abroad for the last seven months. Glancing at political status messages on her Facebook feed you see the Uber rape case, Leslie Udwin’s documentary “India’s daughter” and the case of the death of IAS officer DK Ravi. Clearly spectacular among the spectacular. Or take my own case – I’ve been out of India for more than a week now, and lacking good traditional sources of getting news from back home (websites are too cumbersome, I’m relying on social media too).
The consequent “double narrative bias” (since what you consume from social media undergoes two levels of narrative bias) means that NRIs, lacking good sources of news from back home, are likely to have a warped view of the happenings in India. This implies that their idea of India is likely to be largely shaped by this bias and unlikely to be representative of what’s actually happening (I’m by no means giving a clean chit to resident Indians here, since several of those too suffer from this double narrative bias. But proportions are smaller than that for NRIs).
From this point of view the decision by the current government to extend online voting rights to NRIs needs to be called to question – since there is good reason to believe that their idea of India suffers from two levels of narrative bias (NRIs are currently not barred from voting but they need to travel to India to cast their votes. A change in this rule has been proposed).
This concept also helps us understand why political views of NRIs is likely to be much more polarised than that of the general Indian population (as exhibits note both the campaign to deny current Prime Minister Narendra Modi a visa to visit the U.S., and the reception he received when he ultimately went there). Their view is shaped by double narrative bias which leads to suboptimal opinions.
This double narrative bias also presents a good business opportunity – for media houses to target the diaspora. While most Indian publications have websites these are just repositories of news, and only news that has been widely shared gets mileage. This ends up reinforcing the double narrative bias.
What we need instead is a daily quick bite of news that can be consumed easily. This might lead to several NRIs to subscribe, so that they can get a quick understanding of what’s happening back home. (The economists espresso is a good template to follow for this one). And can serve to eliminate at least one level of narrative bias!

Karnataka’s bizarre liquor license policy

Karnataka has a rather weird liquor license policy. Some twenty years ago, back when S Bangarappa was the chief minister (if I’m not wrong) the state decided to freeze the number of bars. “Growing alcoholism” was the ostensible reason. Since then, if someone has to open a bar, the license has to be purchased from an existing bar owner who will then shut down his bar. Thus, the number of bars in the state (whose population has increased manifold since) has remained constant.

This is not the only funny aspect of liquor regulation in Karnataka.  Till recently, there was also the rather bizarre requirement that each bar sell a minimum “quota” of liquor each month. If the bar failed to do so, it had to pay “short lifting” fines. While this regulation (minimum “lifting” by bars) went much before the time when number of licenses was capped, the two can be seen to be related. When the number of licenses is capped, the state needs to ensure that it gets a certain fixed revenue out of excise licenses and sales. Fixing a minimum sale quantity ensures that licenses are not “wasted” by bars with low sales, and in case they are, the government doesn’t lose out on such sales.

A possible reason that this rather bizarre regulation on minimum sales was lifted is due to it becoming moot thanks to competition. When the number of liquor licenses is limited, the price increases, and thus bars which are selling lower amounts of liquor find it more profitable to cash out on their licenses than continue their business. Thus, bars that continue to have their licenses are those that continue to sell significant quantities, which makes the quotas moot.

Nevertheless, the cap on the number of bars means that the liquor scene in Karnataka is rather bizarre, the point being that there are no “middle class bars”. Here in Barcelona, where I’m currently on holiday, pretty much every restaurant and cafe has an alcohol license (at least beer and wine), and it is possible to have a drink in an “ordinary setting” at a reasonable price. A glass of beer at any of these establishments, for example (small quiet places which are seldom crowded), costs about EUR 1.80 (~Rs. 120 by today’s exchange rate).

In Karnataka, on the other hand, thanks to the limited licensing regime, a bar needs to do a certain minimum amount of business before it is viable. This has led to bars in Karnataka adopt one of two opposing routes. Some play the volume route, setting up an atmosphere where there is quick turnaround of customers (it can be argued that atmosphere is set up to ensure customers don’t stay too long) each of who consumes in significant volumes so that the bar can make significant amount of money despite charging only a small premium on the liqour.

At the other end you have the rather fancy “value players”, who make their margins on rather large markups on the liquor they sell. These are typically fine dining restaurants where people’s primary purpose is eating (rather than drinking) and which have rather low table turnover. A combination of the above two means that volumes are low, but such restaurants more than make up by means of significant markups. These markups are extended to non alcohol items also (these restaurants can afford to charge a premium since all other similar restaurants serving alcohol also charge the same premium, and presence of alcohol is a hygiene factor for such restaurants). Here is an old blog post where I argue why liquor regulations imply high.

So the question is if the government can do away with the bizarre regulations on minimum sales, why can’t they increase the number of liquor licenses? The problem is that it is a classic case of baptists and bootleggers. The baptist case is that by issuing more liquor licenses, it makes things easier for people to drink alcohol and that’s not a good thing for society. And the bootleggers are existing licenseholders, whose licenses will get devalued if their supply increases. I just realised I’ve already done another blog post addressing this topic.