So much for Nandan Nilekani’s big data campaign

I got a call a couple of hours back on my landline. The wife picked and was asked to transfer the call to me. When she mentioned that I was busy she was asked about what we think of Nandan Nilekani and whether we are considering voting for him. She told them that we are registered to vote in Bangalore North and hence our opinion of Nilekani doesn’t matter.

I don’t know how the Nilekani campaign team got hold of our phone number. Even if they got from some database I don’t know how they assumed we are registered to vote in Bangalore South. For ours is a bsnl landline and bsnl landlines in Bangalore have a definite pattern that most people in Bangalore are aware of.

Back before 2002 or so when landline numbers in Bangalore got their eighth digit (a leading two) the leading digit of a Bangalore number gave away the broad area.

Numbers in South Bangalore started with 6. A leading 2 meant the number was from the government office dominated areas. A leading 5 was for mg road and the north and east of the city (he cantonment area, indiranagar, koramangala etc) and a leading 3 meant it was a northwest bangalore (malleswaram to vijayanagar) number. 8 was reserved for the outskirts.

Now while Bangalore has expanded significantly these patterns are broadly in place. All you need to do to know where a number is located is to look at the second digit – a 3 there still refers to the north and west sides of the city.

Among the areas of Bangalore that make up Nilekani’s constituency the only one that has a second digit of 3 is vijayanagar (and surrounding areas including the govindrajnagar constituency). From that perspective the likelihood of a number with second digit 2 being in Nilekani’s constituency is really low. Clearly their supposed big data algorithm hasn’t picked that!!

Forget just the second digit – look further down the number. It is public information that 2352 is one of the codes of the Rajajinagar telephone exchange, and all numbers covered by that exchange lie in either bangalore north or Central!!

I wasn’t particularly convinced about Nilekani’s use of big data in the first place – it seemed like the usual media hype – now I think that while his campaign team does use data their use of it is not particularly good. The case that the team in charge of the data analysis for Nilekani lacks any domain knowledge of the city.

Warming the house

Midway through my housewarming function on Sunday, I had a “Lawrence of Arabia” moment. In the movie, Lawrence, a reluctant soldier has to execute a guy named Gasim in the Arab army he is leading. Lawrence shoots Gasim, and then finds that he actually enjoys killing people. This is probably one of the pivotal moments in the story.

My day had begun badly, as the priests who were supposed to turn up by 5, did not make their appearance until a full hour later. What was interesting was that the photographer, who had been asked to turn up at 630 came in a full hour earlier. With the priests not coming in till it was close to 6, I was going bonkers, and declaring war on the priest community, and regretting that I had agreed for a religious ceremony at all.

They arrived soon, however, and off I went to change into a silk panche (not a great idea for summer). And I heard clapping and shouting outside. Three eunuchs had invaded the house and were refusing to leave until they had been paid Rs. 1100. I must mention this was the first time I had been so harassed. And these people were refusing to negotiate or bow to threats. Finally the demanded sum was paid and off they went. This transaction has been recorded in my housewarming ceremony income and expenses statement.

My official family priest, who was unable to make it thanks to an earlier booking, had mentioned that the complexities of handling a housewarming meant that we had to employ four priests. Any doubts of any value that multiple priests added were dispelled in the first few minutes of the ceremony beginning. One priest with a good voice chanting mantras can occasionally be pleasing to hear. But four priests singing in tandem, not all of them at the perfect pitch – which created a nice effect – and not all of them singing simultaneously, was phenomenal. Their chants reverberated off the walls of the empty house (not too many people want to turn up for a ceremony at 7 am on a Sunday, so we had spared most guests the moral agony and had invited them only for lunch), and when it was accompanied by the ringing of bells, as it was occasionally, it was absolutely mindblowing.

It was around this time that I had the Lawrence of Arabia moment. After all my protestations against religious ceremonies and suchlike, I discovered that I was actually enjoying the process. The sound was fantastic. With significant hand-holding from the priest what I had to do was also enjoyable – throw flowers into one area at irregular intervals. I could construct my own little games (not unlike Pee-ball) and it was a lot of fun.

After a short break for coffee and a longer one for breakfast (technically you are supposed to fast during such events but such rules have become flexible nowadays), it was time for the “homa” or throwing things into the ritual fire as an offering to the fire god Agni and his wife Swaha. I didn’t start the fire. It was initially lit using burning camphor by two aunts. It was fueled mostly by the priests (another time when multiple priests came in handy – two chanted the mantras while the other two kindled the fire).

My role here was to occasionally pour in ghee using the small wooden ladle, and then later put in “modaks” (fried momos filled with coconut and sugar) into the fire. Again I invented my own little games. How do you throw the modak such that it immediately catches fire? How do you ensure the modak doesn’t bounce outside of the fire pot? Can you create patterns with the burning modaks?

Midway through this ritual I started imagining doing a barbecue on this ritual fire (this thought was fueled by a particular modak, which on partial burning, started looking like a piece of grilled chicken). A couple of days earlier I had imagined what would happen if illegal weeds were to be procured and added to the ritual fire. The wife and I had then thought that the original intended purpose of such rituals was communal bakery.

We had planned to finish the ceremonies by 9:30, so that we could prepare to receive guests who would arrive around 11. The problem is that if you are the only person(s) who know certain guests, they can get lost and bored if you are stuck in rituals. Hence we had planned the rituals such that we could be ready to receive guests by the time they arrived. We had built in an hour an a half of slack (9:30 to 11), and it came of good use as the rituals ceased at 10:30 (the hour’s delay being a function of the delay in priests’ arrival).

Guests came, saw, ate and went. Around 5 in the evening the wife started cleaning the house. By 8, there were no traces of a ceremony having happened there. And we went out.

Tradition demands you spend a night in the new house even if you don’t intend to move in immediately. We went to bed at 12, after having opened the presents. Initially sleep was good. Then we got woken up at 430 by a pack of dogs that were prowling the streets and fighting. Then we tried to get back to sleep, but were again woken up by the nearby mosque’s azaan. I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come once we move.

 

Dictatorships and primaries

In their excellent book “the dictator’s handbook” Bruno bueno de Mesquita and Alastair smith talk about why dictatorships usually put on a garb of democracy and hold (mostly) sham elections.

According to bueno de Mesquita and smith the reason is not to appear good in front of the international community, as the general discourse goes. Dictators are extremely rational actors, they say, and reputation in the international community didn’t usually give enough benefit to compensate for the cost of the garb of democracy and elections.

Instead, bueno de Mesquita and smith say that the real purpose of the elections is to keep followers in check. If a member of the dictator’s team “misbehaves” for example, getting rid of him is normally a difficult process. Essentially sacking is a hard job for anyone, even for hard nosed dictators. In the context of dictatorships sackings can get controversial and often bloody and is not a particularly pleasant process.

By putting in a garb of democracy, however, there is an easy way to sack an official. Assuming that in a dictatorship most citizens vote according to the fancies of the dictator, all a dictator needs to do to sack an official is to instruct the electorate to vote against the official the next time he is up for reelection. The sacking having been effected by “popular mandate”, the process is easier and likely to be less bloody and troublesome for the dictator.

Now, the question is if we can use this framework to understand the new US-style primary elections that the Indian national congress has been using for candidate selection in some constituencies in the forthcoming elections.

Normally in the congress, like in most other parties in India, candidates for elections are determined top-down, by the party “high command”. The risk with this however is that candidates who did not get a ticket to contest the elections know that for whatever reason the party high command is not in favour of them contesting. This can lead to disillusionment and can lead to defections to rival parties.

In this context a primary election acts as a facade through which the party high command can get its choice of candidates without pissing off those applicants who did not get the ticket. Now the purported message to these unsuccessful applicants is that the next time they should work of getting the support of the party rank and file in their constituency.

In reality however, with the party being high command driven, the rank and file has voted as per the instructions of the high command! The high command thus gets its choice of candidates without losing the support of the unsuccessful candidates.

So why is it that primaries work in the US? For the same reasons that elections work in democracies! In the US parties are truly democratic and organised bottom up. There is no high command there to (credibly) dictate the choices for the rank and file. So the results of the primaries are truly reflective of the opinion of the party rank and file.

In conclusion, given the high command based structure of political parties in India, primaries will not work. Instead they will only end up as instruments in the hands of the party high commands, just like the sham elections on dictatorships.

The Greatest Day Of My Consulting Career So Far

Close to three years back, when I first decided that I should get into this business of helping people understand, appreciate and use data for business decision-making, I had this picture in my head of how I would work. I imagined myself taking a client’s data set, and twisting and turning and slicing and dicing it, and presenting it back in a way that generated insight.

I had then imagined this scene where I would present one such interesting visualization. And the clients would go bonkers. They would see what they had never realized before. Some would be euphoric (that they had located the source of the problem, perhaps). Others worried (that there was, after all, a problem, perhaps). Others would fight amongst themselves. And I would sit there, and watch, and revel, and then move on with my presentation. In other words, that my work would help these guys look at the data in a completely new way, which would help them make superior decisions.

Little had I imagined then, when I first imagined the scene, before I got into the business, that this “dream” would happen within my first year of business. It is exactly a year since this happened. And it all happened as per plan, except that I couldn’t see the faces of my clients, and that was probably a good thing.

I had taken their data and sliced and diced and twisted and turned it, and presented an interesting set of graphs. I was making a presentation to the senior management. I was, however, not in the conference room – I had dialed in from the comfort of my home.

Most of the presentation went unspectacularly. I would show stuff, explain, and hear nothing back (that is one of the downsides of presenting on call. The silences can sometimes kill you, and leave you unsure of whether the client is actually listening). And then this happened. There was this slide I put up (for client confidentiality reasons I can’t say much about the slide itself). The next few minutes were a dream.

There was a long-standing debate about this issue, and my slide had presented the data in a way that settled the debate in a definitive manner. One side was clearly happy, the other side clearly not. They started arguing. Normally, if it’s your presentation and people you are presenting to start arguing, you consider it your moral duty to step in and moderate the discussion. Here, though, I was on call, several hundred kilometres away. There was no moral obligation to step in.

I listened, and I reveled. The “dream scene” I had imagined before I had gotten into this business, had come true within my first year of operation. It was fun as various parties on the client side dissected different parts of the graph I had put up, to make their point vis-a-vis the longstanding debate. And I could listen to it, without having to step in.

After a while I intervened, made my point, and moved on. The rest of the presentation was relatively unspectacular, but I couldn’t care less. I don’t know how many people in how many “jobs” can see their “dream sequence” being enacted within their first year in that job.

Available only on flipkart

This mornings mint has a full page advertisement on the front page announcing the launch of the moto x phone in India. The ad mentions that the phone is available in India exclusively on flipkart the online retailer. The question is if this is a good idea.

While it is true that online retail offers the best costs and prices – thanks largely in part to the massive savings on real estate and inventory costs, I’m not sure if we are still thee at a stage where retail can be online only. In fact people like to touch and feel the stuff that they’re buying. Especially when it comes to big ticket purchases such as a phone. Without giving people the opportunity to do so – shops won’t carry the dummy model unless they’re also selling it, at a good margin – I’m not sure how many will want to make the jump and buy.

On a related note I saw a report last week, again in mint, talking about pushback from offline retailers and malls to the online retail phenomenon. This brings into focus how retail will evolve going forward since people now have a low cost (low inventory, zero real estate) option for making their purchases. We’re already seeing some “progress” in that direction where people go to malls and high streets to browse and get a touch and feel and then buy online where the prices are lower.

This points to one direction in which retail might evolve – soon stores in malls and high streets might be set up with the primary purpose of building the brand and letting customers get a touch and feel. Any sales from these stores for the brands will only be a bonus – the primary purpose being to let people know what is out there and to let them touch and feel and experience it.

If this were tO happen we can expect malls and high streets to move to more brand stores and less multi brand stores – unless the latter can somehow either match the cost and price structure of online or get paid for purely providing the experience to the customers.

Either ways we can expect the overall demand for retail real estate space to come down in the next few years. If there are any malls or retail real estate firms which are listed its time to short them. Or by hedging against them by going long on online retail.

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Getting monkeys off your back

I’m mortally scared every time I make pulav. Now, I’m reputed to be a pretty good pulav maker – at least the wife and the mother-in-law will vouch for this, and it is this reputation that puts pressure on me every time I stand throwing spices into the pressure cooker. “The law of averages will soon catch up with me”, I think, and hope that this is not the time it will catch up.

Normally, if you make pulav seven times, and each time make it better than the previous time, you begin to think you’re becoming an expert in that and you can do no wrong thenceforth. I don’t feel that way. Knowing myself fairly well, I know it’s nigh impossible for me to hit 100% accuracy in pretty much anything that I do – at best I can hit a 90%. That I got a “hit” seven times in a row means that the coin fell on the 90% side seven times, and even assuming a Markovian process (success or failure of this batch of pulav is unrelated to previous performances), it gives me a 10% chance of failure each time I make it!

The thing with making pulav in a pressure cooker is that when it comes out well, it comes out great, but it can go spectacularly wrong. I don’t use formal measures for the amount of rice and water I use – it is all based on rules of thumb (literally – sometimes I stick my thumb into the mixture in the pressure cooker to feel if the amount of water is right). And I know that if I put too much water, it can end up being a soggy mess. At the other end, it can end up not cooking at all, or worse, burning.

So when a couple of months back my pulav went marginally wrong (slightly watery, but not inedible) – it made me feel happy. It made me feel happy that the law of averages had caught up with me, and that it didn’t result in a spectacular failure! Sometimes when you know that you are due for a failure, it can be self-reinforcing and result in spectacular failures. So it helps to take a mild fall once in a while that gives you the assurance that you’re human after all, and doesn’t put undue pressure on you the next time.

So what do you think about your continued successes, in the kitchen, at the workplace, and elsewhere? Does that make you feel better or worse? Does it lead to a sense of hubris, or greater self-doubt? Do leave a comment here and let me know.

Levels of polymorphism

Different languages have different levels of polymorphism, and it is a function of the environment in which the language developed. I discovered this last night when someone wrote on twitter that there is no word in Tamil for snow:

That got me thinking as to whether Kannada has a word for snow. Thinking of words for all the super-rain things in Kannada, I figured that “hima” is the word for fog, and “manju” means mist. But there is no word for snow in Kannada!

I put up the question on twitter, and the answers again were variations of the list I’ve put up earlier – some suggested “hima”, others “hani” (means “drops”, as in “raindrops”). One suggested “tushaara” for snow, but it’s not a commonly used word, so while it might be valid, I was looking for more commonly used words.

It then dawned on me that like the Tamil country, “solid rain” (apart from hailstones – which has its own Kannada word Anekal – translates to “elephant stone”) is not all that common in the Kannada country too. Yes, the Kannada country is cooler than Tamil country, and “solid rain” does happen, but it doesn’t happen on a regular enough basis for each type to have a word of its own. So, while I might think that “hima” is fog (since that’s the context in which it’s used in Bangalore), it also stands for “snow”! It’s all solid rain, and since it’s not all that common, you can have one word that describes it all! Interestingly, I can’t think of a Kannada word for “ice” also (again I haven’t learnt Kannada formally, though I speak the language at home. So what i know is the everyday spoken language)!

On a different note, in Japanese, the same word “Ao” is used to describe both blue and green! I’m again not sure if this because Japanese people are blue-green colour-blind, but the level of polymorphism in colour is interesting. At the other end of the scale, Italian has at least three words to describe different shades of blue (my knowledge of Italy, and Italian, I must mention, is mostly from football).

First, you have “celesti” or sky blue, as in the Biancocelesti of Lazio:

Then you have the blue of the sea or “azzure”, as in Inter Milan’s Nerazzuri

And finally, the word “Blu” is used for dark blue, as in Genoa’s Rossoblu. 

As if all this was not enough, they have Viola for purple!

It is interesting how different languages use different levels of polymorphism for different things!

Countercyclical business

I realize being a freelance management consultant is countercyclical business. For two years in succession, I’ve had a light March – both years I’ve ended up finishing projects in Jan/Feb. With March being the end of the Indian financial year, most companies are loathe to commit additional spending in March, and it is a bad time to start new projects!

This is counter-cyclical because most other businesses end up having a bumper March, since they have end-of-year targets, and with a short sales cycle, they push their salespersons hard to achieve this target in March!

Getting depressed over trivial issues..

When Jonathan Trott returned home midway through the Ashes citing depression, a number of commentators heckled him saying he was returning because he was having nighitmares about facing up to Mitchell Johnson. While it might be true that he did have nightmares of facing Johnson, it is unlikely to have been the cause of his exit.

When you talk to people about depression, they say it is an overblown problem and you get replies such as “but everyone is depressed at some time or the other” or “80% of the world is depressed, and they  get on with their lives, so what makes you special?” What I want to highlight here is the difference between getting depressed and suffering from depression – the two are different things, and it is unfortunate polymorphism that leads to people believing otherwise.

You are likely to get depressed if you flunk an exam. You are very likely to get depressed if your dog dies. You are extremely likely to get depressed and get worried about the thought of facing Mitchell Johnson the next morning. And all this is intuitive – 9 out of 10 people (number pulled out of thin air, but I suspect that is about the ballpark) are likely to get depressed for the above reasons. Then, something else happens, you come to terms with the situation, you figure out how to move on, and you move on, and you are not depressed any more. Sometimes you are likely to be depressed for longer than usual, but you eventually recover.

When you suffer from depression (the disease, not the symptom, to help with the polymorphism), though, you not only get depressed for the big issues (like flunking an exam or losing your dog), but also for tiny issues that should not be normally bothering you.

You get depressed that someone didn’t pick up your call – and if you also suffer from anxiety, you can worry endlessly on whether they are pissed off with you that they didn’t pick your call. You get depressed that the masala dosa you ate this morning didn’t taste perfect. That you could not find the right sentence to complete this paragraph bothers you endlessly.

Coming back to Trott, he didn’t go home because he had nightmares about Johnson – you don’t need to be depressed to have those nightmares. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if even the mentally strongest of English batsmen didn’t have nightmares about facing Johnson.

Trott went home because things that are seemingly trivial and generally not worth getting depressed about were bothering him. Would he get his favourite seat the next day on the team bus? Would the hotel make his omelette to the right consistency? What route would the bus take to get to the ground?

My understanding (you should read Marcus Trescothick’s Coming back to me, about his battles with depression, to understand what really can affect you) is that Trott left the tour because he was getting bothered about seemingly trivial issues. When seemingly trivial issues start bothering you, it is a problem, since there are usually a lot of seemingly trivial issues in everyone’s daily lives, and if you get bothered by everything, you have no mind space left to do your job – which in Trott’s case is to go out and get runs against Johnson and Co. And so you go home.

To summarize, you are (clinically) depressed if and only if you get depressed and fret over things that should not normally depress you.

Narendra Modi should short the Nifty

The common discourse is that businesses like Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, and that India’s economic growth would get back on track if he were to become PM following the elections this summer. For example, this view was articulated well by my Takshashila colleague V Anantha Nageswaran in an Op-Ed he wrote for Mint last Tuesday, where he spoke of a “binary outlook for India” – either economic growth under Modi or further populism and stagnation under a Third Front.

Based on this view being the consensus, one can expect that the Indian stock market would go up significantly in case of a Narendra Modi victory, and would tank in case the Modi (and/or his party BJP) ends up doing badly. So what should Modi do?

He should short the stock markets, and fast. He needs money to run his campaigns, and he might be taking funds from friends and well-wishers, who expect some kind of payback in kind if/when Modi becomes PM. The question, however, is how he will pay them back in case he fails to become PM!

He will not have the power to pay back in kind. There is only so much he will be able to do as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. And given that he has got a lot of fair weather friends over the last couple of years, some of them might be disappointed that he didn’t become PM, and will ask for immediate payment. So how does Modi service these debts?

A part of his campaign budget should go into shorting the Nifty – perhaps by means of buying puts (with a May expiry – not sure they’re traded yet). This way, in case of his victory, he will end up losing his premium, but he will be able to pay back his creditors in kind, since he will be PM. In case he loses? The markets will tank anyway, and he will end up making a packet on these puts, which can then be used to pay back his current well=wishers!

Easy, no?