Some initial thoughts about Vigyapanti

It’s great in theory but soon law of diminishing marginal utility will hit, so the model is not scalable

There are two kinds of content – content that people want to consume and content that people are forced to consume if they want to consume something else. Such content can come in various forms – text, photos, videos, audio or whatever. For example, this post is an example of the former kind of content – you’ll read it only if you want to. It doesn’t come bundled with other content you want to consume.

I don’t make money directly from this blog, but if I wanted to, I’d do so by inserting advertisements. For example, I might put a popup when you reached this page so that you couldn’t read this post unless you read that popup and dismissed it. The popup would then pay me everytime you read it, and you are paying me for reading this with your attention. That’s the traditional model of advertising.

The buzz in the advertising world nowadays is all about “native” advertising. In such advertising, you can’t easily distinguish between content you want to consume and content you’re getting paid (directly or indirectly) to consume. Like I might plug a product in this blog post, for example, for which I get paid.

The reason Vigyapanti, the new venture by comedy group All India Bakchod, is making waves is that it fits right in into native advertising. Their first output, shown below, has been commissioned by dating site TrulyMadly.

In an earlier era, this would have been presented slightly differently. There would have been a song or a sketch or whatever by AIB, and before you watched that, you would be forced to watch a TrulyMadly commercial for 30 seconds or so. In the process you may not have paid the commercial sufficient attention, and so whatever TrulyMadly would have paid AIB (via Youtube) might not have had its necessary impact. So that’s the good thing about native advertising, which has got everyone quite excited about this format.

The problem, in my opinion, is that it is going to be hard to scale. A friend I met yesterday talked about talent to produce such content being hard to scale. That is not at all a concern for me. My concern is that this one works currently mainly because of its novelty value. Once you have plenty of such content around, the impact without the novelty value will be questionable.

As a parallel, think of celebrity endorsements. Back when they started, a celebrity endorsing a product meant a credible message that he/she actually used it, and since people look up to celebrities, this would drive sales. Over time, however, as celebrity endorsements increased, this link got broken, even in the viewer’s minds.

Now the chief value of celebrity endorsement, in my opinion, is that it makes the commercials more watchable. No one believes that celebrities who endorse a particular product are loyal to it. For example, it is fairly common for celebrities to tweet their endorsement for a particular phone brand using a phone made by a competitor!

I think the same thing will happen to these “native comedy advertisements”. After a while, this Creep song will start being recognised as “that TrulyMadly ad” – which I’m not sure is a good thing as far as TrulyMadly is concerned. Then, when AIB do more such ads, the law of diminishing marginal utility will hit. They might control supply and strike exclusive deals, but nothing prevents competition from moving fast to make similar ads.

In conclusion, this is an innovative format, but don’t expect it to scale too much!

The many spectacles of Jurgen Klopp

I haven’t been a big fan of my last  two pairs of spectacles. The last one, especially, was chosen carefully after a rather long search across several stores. Yet, within a week or two of purchase, I knew it wasn’t a great choice. Somehow it didn’t look as good on me as I imagined it would. And it’s been hardly four months since I bought it, but I’m already looking for a new pair.

While there are several people whose spectacle frames I’ve much admired, no one comes close to new Liverpool F.C. manager Jurgen Klopp. Not realising that he has several pairs of spectacles, I’ve tweeted on many occasions that I want “Jurgen Klopp spectacle frames”. And then somehow forgotten it when at the optician’s.

With Klopp scheduled to be unveiled as the new Liverpool F.C. manager today (he signed his contract yesterday), the Guardian has put out a nice graphic called “the many faces of Jurgen Klopp”. As far as I’m concerned, though, I don’t care about the faces at all. All I care about are the spectacles! Each one better than the other.

So I present to you, “the many spectacles of Jurgen Klopp”. Watch off!

And while at it, tell me where I can procure such spectacle frames – most stores in Bangalore don’t stock good big matte-finished frames. And don’t tell me LensKart or some such online seller – buying a pair of spectacles is like buying a pair of shoes – you need to feel them, try them on and feel comfortable in them before buying.

Super-specialisation in cricket

Cricket has always been a reasonably specialised sport. You are either a batsman or a bowler or a wicketkeeper or an all-rounder. If you’re a bowler, you’re classified based on your bowling arm and the speed at which you bowl and the spin you impart the ball (last two are not independent). If you’re a batsman you’re classified based on your batting stance and whether you’re an opener or a middle-order batsman.

In Test cricket, there’s further specialisation if you’re a middle-order batsman. You have specialist Number Threes, like Rahul Dravid or Ricky Ponting. You have specialist Number Fours, like Sachin Tendulkar or Younis Khan. Five and six are fungible, but a required ability for both these positions is the ability to bat with the tail.

In One Day cricket, too, there’s some degree of specialisation within the middle order but it’s not to the same extent as in Test Cricket. In One Day cricket, batting orders are more flexible and situation-based. You do have specialist threes (Dravid and Ponting again come to mind) and sixes (usually hitters) but the super-specialisation is not as much as in Test Cricket.

A logical extension of this would be that in T20 cricket, which is played over an even shorter duration and where batting orders are even more flexible, you don’t need even as much of specialisation as in ODIs. However, Siddharth Monga argues in this piece that this lack of specialisation is why India isn’t doing as well as it could in T20s (having just lost the home series to South Africa).

In other words, what Monga is arguing is that Kohli, Raina and Sharma are all similar batsmen and effectively Number Threes for their IPL franchises, and when they are arranged 2-4 or 3-5 in the Indian national team, two of them are effectively batting out of position.

It would be interesting if Monga is indeed right and that T20s require a higher degree of specialisation than ODIs. It is also interesting that India’s number 6, MS Dhoni, bats like a typical number 5 in T20s, accumulating for a while before going bonkers. Maybe T20 will end up as a much more specialised sport than Tests? That would be interesting to watch.

The problem with Twitter

Starting from the mid-2000s, the dominant method to consume content was to follow individual blogs through RSS Feed readers such as Bloglines or Google Reader. You followed specific blogs, most of which (unlike this one) had content on specific topics.

So when I wanted to learn up on economics, I started following Marginal Revolution and Econlog. When I wanted to follow the global financial crisis, I added Felix Salmon and a couple of other blogs (which I don’t remember now). All I needed to do to read on specific topics was to follow specific people.

And then Google Reader Shared Items happened. Now, you didn’t really need to follow specific blogs, for there was a social network where people would share interesting stuff that they read. Now you could outsource following blogs to friends who became curators. So there was this one friend who would share pretty much every interesting post on Mashable. Another shared every interesting post from this blog called The Frontal Cortex. I didn’t need to follow these blogs. My “curator friends” shared the best pieces with me (and I know people relied on me for Econlog etc.).

Then around the turn of the decade, Twitter replaced Google Reader Shared Items as the primary content discovery platform. A couple of years later, Google would decommission Reader. The thing with Twitter was that the movement from following specific ideas and sites to following “curators” was complete.

While twitter also functions as a “normal” social network, a major function is the sharing of ideas, and so everyone on twitter is essentially a curator, sharing with her followers what she wants them to read. There is also scope for adding comments here, and adding one’s opinion to the content. This adds a sort of richness to the content, and people can filter stuff accordingly, without consuming everything one’s friend has shared.

The downside, however, is that you are forced to consume the opinions and links shared by everyone you follow. There might be someone who I might be following for his curation of technology links, but it might happen that he might also tweet heavily on politics, which I’m hardly interested in. There is an option to turn off retweets (which I’ve used liberally) but even so, there is a lot of “unwanted content” you have to consume from people. And since it is “opinion first” (and link later), you are forced to consume people’s opinion even if you’re just browsing their timeline.

What we need in Twitter is a way to curate people’s opinions on topics. For example, I might be interested in Person A’s opinion on politics but not anything else. Person B might offer good opinions on economics but might be lousy on other things. Person C might be good for technology and sports. And so forth.

Of course, you can’t charge people with classifying their own tweets – that will add too much friction to the process. What you need is an intelligent process or app that can help classify people’s tweets and show you only what you want to know.

I can think of a couple of designs for the app – one could be where you could tell it not to show any more tweets from someone on a particular topic (or block a topic itself). Another is for you to upvote and downvote tweets, so that the app learns your preferences and shows you what you want.

Yet, I’m not confident that such an app will be built. The problem is that twitter has been notorious in terms of cutting off access to its API to apps built on it, or cutting permissions of what apps can see (Facebook is as guilty here). So it’s a massive challenge to get people to actually invest in building twitter apps.

Twitter as it exists currently doesn’t work for me, though. I repeatedly find the problem that there is way too much outrage on my timeline, and despite mercilessly cutting the number of people I follow, I find that it’s a slippery slope and otherwise interesting people continue to tweet about stuff that I don’t want to read about. And so my engagement is dipping.

I don’t need twitter itself to do anything about it. All they should do is to send out credible signals that they’ll not pull the rug under the feet of developers, so that APIs can be developed, which can make the platform a much more pleasant experience for users.

What did Brendan in? Priors? The schedule? Or the cups?

So Brendan Rodgers has been sacked as Liverpool manager, after what seems like an indifferent start to the season. The club is in tenth position with 12 points after 8 games, with commentators noting that “at the same stage last season” the club had 13 points from 8 games.

Yet, the notion of “same stage last season” is wrong, as I’d explained in this post I’d written two years back (during Liverpool’s last title chase), since the fixture list changes year on year. As I’ve explained in that post, a better way to compare a club’s performance is to compare its performance this season to corresponding fixtures from last season.

Looking at this season from such a lens (and ignoring games against promoted teams Bournemouth and Norwich), this is what Liverpool’s season so far looks like:

Fixture This season Last season Difference
Stoke away Win Loss +3
Arsenal away Draw Loss +1
West Ham home Loss Win -3
Manchester United Away Loss Loss 0
Aston Villa home Win Loss +3
Everton away Draw Draw 0

In other words, compared to similar fixtures last season, Liverpool is on a +4 (winning two games and drawing one among last season’s losses, and losing one of last season’s wins). In fact, if we look at the fixture schedule, apart from the games against promoted sides (which Liverpool didn’t do wonderfully in, scraping through with an offside goal against Bournemouth and drawing with Norwich), Liverpool have had a pretty tough start to the season in terms of fixtures.

So the question is what led to Brendan Rodgers’ dismissal last night? Surely it can’t be the draw at Everton, for that has become a “standard result” of late? Maybe the fact that Liverpool didn’t win allowed the management to make the announcement last evening, but surely the decision had been made earlier?

The first possibility is that the priors had been stacked against Rodgers. Considering the indifferent performance last season in both the league (except for one brilliant spell) and the cups, and the sacking of Rodgers’ assistants, it’s likely that the benefit of the doubt before the season began was against Rodgers, and only a spectacular performance could have turned it around.

The other possibility is indifferent performances in the cups, with 1-1 home draws against FC Sion and Carlisle United being the absolute low points, in fixtures that one would have expected Liverpool to win easily (albeit with weakened sides). While Liverpool is yet to exit any cup, indifferent performances so far meant that there hasn’t been much improvement in the squad since last season.

Leaving aside a “bad prior” at the beginning of the season and cup performances (no pun intended), there’s no other reason to sack Rodgers. As my analysis above shows, his performance in the league hasn’t been particularly bad in terms of results, with only the defeat to West Ham and possibly the draw to Norwich being bad. If Fenway Sports Group (the owners of Liverpool FC) have indeed sacked Rodgers on his league performance, it simply means that they don’t fully get the “Moneyball” philosophy that they supposedly follow, and could do with some quant consulting.

And if they’re reading this, they should know who to approach for such consulting services!

Bring on the Blook

I’m normally not one to notice such stuff, but I was randomly browsing my site stats the other day and found that I had published 1997 posts till then (not including the three that I’d published and subsequently withdrew for various reasons). I’ve written two more posts after that which makes this one the 2000th post on this blog (including its predecessor). It’s taken a bit more than 11 years (I started blogging in August 2004) to reach this milestone.

A couple of years back, I’d considered writing a “blook”. “Blook“, for the uninitiated, is a book that is based on a blog. So you don’t really write a blook. You simply compile posts from your own blog, fix them in a logical order, write a foreword, and there it is! Back when I had considered the blook, I thought I didn’t have enough good posts on this blog. And then set myself a target of “another 200 blog posts”. I forget when I set this target. It doesn’t matter.

If I’ve written 2000 blog posts so far, I’m sure at least a 100 (5%) of them are pretty good, and good enough to share with a wider world than my readers? So this time, I’m seriously considering publishing a blook.

I’m looking for an editor to assist me in this exercise. The job of the editor is to go through my 2000 blog posts, and identify a 100 or so “good posts” (which are in a sense “timeless”) and figure out a way to compile and curate and put them together under  themes, perhaps, in order to compile a blook. I could possibly do it myself, but I might be biased, and attached in unhealthy ways to certain posts, so I’d prefer a trusted third party to take this up.

So if you think you can edit my blog into a blook, or know someone who can do that, please do let me know. I’m really serious about it this time. We can figure out a “structure” to compensate your efforts. And you will get editing credits for the blook.

A little celebratory speech before that: when I started writing in 2004, little did I know that I would hit 2000 blog posts one day. I thank all my readers, loyal and disloyal. I thank people who have cared to comment on this blog over the years (excluding the spambots), for it’s they who’ve kept me going. I thank people who’ve  brought up subjects from this blog for discussion in social gatherings. And last but not the least, I thank my wife, who I met through this blog (it’s predecessor to be precise), and who constantly berates me for not writing enough about her!

Oh, and don’t forget the blook!

On 2ab, Communal Harmony and Economic Growth

I’ve used the concept of “2ab” once before, a day after the Prime Minister used the term in a much lampooned remark, to explain why we need Net Neutrality. I turn to the same concept again to explain why communal harmony is necessary for economic growth.

Some 4-5 days back, a mob entered the house of one Muslim guy who was allegedly cooking beef, and lynched him to death. In response, rather than booking the mob, the police sent meat sample from the victim’s house to “test if he was actually cooking beef” – as if its confirmation as beef would justify the murder.

I’ve mostly been off social media (and hence not fully following the story) since then, but RSS leader Tarun Vijay hasmade some remarks about “lynching on suspicion being wrong“, and star Indian Express columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta has laid the blame at the Prime Minister’s feet. Mehta writes (HT: V Anantha Nageswaran):

The blame for this has to fall entirely on Modi. Those who spread this poison enjoy his patronage. This government has set a tone that is threatening, mean-spirited and inimical to freedom. Modi should have no doubt that he bears responsibility for the poison that is being spread by the likes of Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma and Vijay — whether through powerlessness or design is irrelevant. But we can be grateful to Vijay for reminding us that the threat to India’s soul emanates from the centre of power, almost nowhere else. It is for that centre, and Modi in particular, to persuade us otherwise.

Now there were two kinds of people Modi appealed to when he came to power in a resounding victory last year – bigots and aspirers. The former hoped that Modi would “teach a lesson to the Muslims”. The latter hoped that Modi would help accelerate economic growth, after a mostly useless and scam-ridden UPA2 government. And Modi might have thought that these two goals are compatible (else it would make no sense to court these two constituencies). Even in theory they are not.

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP), whose growth rate is seen as a bellwether of the economy’s performance, is a measure of the amount of trade. Trade can be external (let’s set that aside for now) and internal. There are many factors that determine the extent of internal trade (trade between the people of the country), but at the margin, it is proportional to the number of possible pairs of people who can trade with each other.

In other words, trade is another of those quantities that follows Metcalfe’s Law, and depends on strong network effects. If the number of people in a place (region or country or state or city) is N, and if everyone can trade with one another, the number of possible trading relationships is N^2.

Despite the development of the rule of law and Contract Acts and court-brokered dispute settlements, people typically trade with other people they can trust. In the past, this meant that certain families or communities had a monopoly over trade. Over time, with the development of laws and contracts and courts, this has expanded. Yet, people still hesitate to trade with people they don’t trust.

So what happens when there is communal or caste disharmony? Then you will not trust someone who belongs to another caste or community or religion because of the person’s community (and notwithstanding the person’s personal characteristics). And if you don’t trust them, you don’t trade with them. And what does this mean for the total volume of trade?

It’s time to bring out our (a+b)^2 expansion. If you have two communities of sizes a and b, in the absence of trust between the communities, the total trade in the community is ceteris paribus proportional to a^2 + b^2. If the two communities live harmoniously and have enough mutual trust that communal differences have no bearing on trade, the total trade in the community is ceteris paribus proportional to (a+b)^2. The difference between the two? 2ab of course!

Communal distrust and the lack of communal harmony ends up restricting the number of possible trading partners for each person, and thus we lose out in terms of the correlation term. In other words, bigotry costs us in terms of GDP growth.

Lastly, even if the government of the day is concerned more about the welfare of one particular community over another, communal harmony makes sense. For by creating distrust, people belonging to the government’s favourite community are denied trade with people of the less favoured community. And this adversely impacts the more favoured community!