London’s 7D

In classes 11 and 12 i had to travel every day from Jayanagar to indiranagar to get to school. There was a direct bus that took me from just behind my house to Just behind my school. This was 7D. But despite my mother’s insistence that I take that, I seldom did. For it took such a circuitous route that it would take ages.

I’m sure that someone has done a survey of bangalores most convoluted bus routes, and if so, 7D would fall close to the top there (the only bus that I imagine could beat 7D is 201).

So rather than take 7D I’d take one of the many buses bound to Shivajinagar and get off at Richmond circle, from where I’d get 138 to take me right behind school (or the double decker 131 to take me 10 mins walk away in the other direction). The changeover at Richmond circle was rather simple (no walking involved) and this process would help me save at least 15 minutes each way every day.

Now I’ve figured that the London Underground has its own 7D, except for the fact that the route is not circuitous – it’s simply slow. I live in Ealing and my office is near Victoria so the most direct way for me to travel is to take the district line. It takes 35 minutes and runs once every 10 minutes (the line splits in two places to frequency to Ealing is low).

On most days I don’t travel directly from home to work since I drop Berry to her Nursery on the way. So taking the district line straight from Home to work is never an option.

Yesterday I was ill and so my wife took Berry to her Nursery. So I travelled directly to work. And for the first time ever since I joined this office I took the district line on the way to Office.

I reached Ealing broadway at 8:02 and Just about caught the 8:03 train. The train rolled into Victoria at 8:40 and I was in Office at 8:45.

Today once again I was traveling directly from home to work, and reached Ealing broadway station a few seconds later than yesterday, just missing the train I’d caught yesterday. I had the option to wait 10 minutes for the next district line train or using what seemed like a convoluted route. I chose the latter.

I took a great western railway train to Paddington, where I walked for about 5-7 minutes to the bakerloo line and got it. I got off the bakerloo five stops later at oxford circus where I changed to the Victoria line, and got off two stops later at Victoria. The time was 8:35!

In other words I’d left later than I had yesterday, changed trains twice (one involving a long walk) and still reached five minutes earlier. And all the time traveling in trains far less crowded than an early morning district line train headed to the city!

I hereby christen the district line as London’s 7D. Except that the route isn’t anywhere circuitous!

Thaler and Uber and surge pricing

I’m writing about Uber after a really long time on this blog. Basically I’d gotten tired of writing about the company and its ideas, and once I wrote a chapter about dynamic pricing in cabs in my book, there was simply nothing more to say.

Now, the Nobel Prize to Richard Thaler and his comments sometime back about Uber’s surge pricing has given me reason to revisit this topic, though I’ll keep it short.

Basically Thaler makes the point that when businesses are greedy and seen to be gouging customers in times of high demand, they might lose future demand from the same customers. In his 2015 book Misbehaving (which I borrowed from the local library a few months ago but never got down to reading), he talks specifically about Uber, and about how price gouging isn’t a great idea.

This has been reported across both mainstream and social media over the last couple of days as if Thaler is completely against the concept of surge pricing itself. For example, in this piece about Thaler, Pramit Bhattacharya of Mint introduces the concept of surge pricing and says:

Thaler was an early critic of this model. In his 2015 book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, Thaler argues that temporary spikes in demand, “from blizzards to rock star deaths, are an especially bad time for any business to appear greedy”. He argues that to build long-term relationships with customers, firms must be seen as “fair” and not just efficient, and that this often involves giving up on short-term profits even if customers may be willing to pay more at that point to avail themselves of its product or service.

At first sight, it is puzzling that an economist would be against the principle of dynamic pricing, since it helps the marketplace allocate resources more effectively and more importantly, use price as an information mechanism to massively improve liquidity in the system. But Thaler’s views on the topic are more nuanced. To continue to quote from Pramit’s piece:

“I love Uber as a service,” writes Thaler. “But if I were their consultant, or a shareholder, I would suggest that they simply cap surges to something like a multiple of three times the usual fare. You might wonder where the number three came from. That is my vague impression of the range of prices that one normally sees for products such as hotel rooms and plane tickets that have prices dependent on supply and demand. Furthermore, these services sell out at the most popular times, meaning that the owners are intentionally setting the prices too low during the peak season.

Thaler is NOT suggesting that Uber not use dynamic pricing – the information and liquidity effects of that are too massive to compensate for occasionally pissing off passengers. What he suggests, however, is that the surge be CAPPED, perhaps at a multiple of three.

There is a point after which dynamic pricing ceases to serve any value in terms of information and liquidity, and its sole purpose is to ensure efficient allocation of resources at that particular instant in time. At such levels, though, the cost of pissing off customers is also rather high. And Thaler suggests that 3 is the multiple at which the benefits of allocation start getting weighed down by the costs of pissing off passengers.

This is exactly what I’ve been proposing in terms of cab regulation for a couple of years now, though I don’t think I’ve put it down in writing anywhere. That rather than banning these services from not using dynamic pricing at all, a second best solution for a regulator who wants to prevent “price gouging” is to have a fare cap, and to set the cap high enough that there is enough room for the marketplaces to manoeuvre and use price as a mechanism to exchange information and boost liquidity.

Also, the price cap should be set in a way that marketplaces have flexibility in how they will arrive at the final price as long as it is within the cap – regulators might say that the total fare may not exceed a certain multiple of the distance and time or whatever, but they should not dictate how the marketplace precisely arrives at the price – since calculation of transaction cost in taxi pricing has historically been a hard problem and one of the main ways in which marketplaces such as Uber bring efficiency is in solving this problem in an innovative manner using technology.

For more on this topic, listen to my podcast with Amit Varma about how taxi marketplaces such as Uber use surge pricing to improve liquidity.

For even more on the topic, read my book Between the buyer and the seller which has a long chapter dedicated to the topic,

JEE coaching and high school learning

One reason I’m not as good at machine learning as I can possibly be is because I suck at linear algebra. I totally completely suck at it. Seven years of usage of R has meant that at least I no longer get spooked out by the very sight of vectors or matrices, and I understand the concept of matrix multiplication (an operator rotating a vector), but I just don’t get linear algebra.

For example, when I see terms such as “singular value decomposition” I almost faint. Multiple repeated attempts at learning the concept have utterly failed. Don’t even get me started on the more complicated stuff – and machine learning is full of them.

My inability to understand linear algebra runs deep, and it’s mainly due to a complete inability to imagine vectors and matrices and matrix operations. As far back as I remember, I have hated matrices and have tried to run away from it.

For a long time, I had placed the blame for this on IIT Madras, whose mathematics department in its infinite wisdom had decided to get its brilliant Graph Theory expert to teach us matrices. Thinking back, though, I remember going in to MA102 (Vectors, Matrices and Differential Equations) already spooked. The rot had set in even earlier – in school.

The problem with class 11 in my school (a fairly high-profile school which was full of studmax characters) was that most people harboured ambitions of going to IIT, and had consequently enrolled themselves in formal coaching “factories”. As a result, these worthies always came to maths, physics and chemistry classes “ahead” of people like me who didn’t go for such classes (I’d decided to chill for a year after a rather hectic class 10 when I’d been under immense pressure to get my school a “centum”).

Because a large majority of the class already knew what was to be taught, teachers had an incentive to slack. Also the fact that most students were studmax had meant that people preferred to mug on their own rather than display their ignorance in class. And so jai happened.

I remember the class when vectors and matrices were introduced (it was in class 11). While I don’t remember too many details, I do remember that a vocal majority already knew about “dot product” and “cross product”. It was similar a few days later when the vocal majority knew matrix multiplication.

And so these concepts were glossed over, and lacking a grounding in fundamentals, I somehow never “got” the concept.

In my year (2000), CBSE decided to change format for its maths examination – everyone had to attempt “Part A” (worth 70 marks) and then had a choice between “Part B” (vectors, matrices, etc.) and “Part C” (introductory statistics). Most science students were expected to opt for Part B (Part C had been introduced for the benefit of commerce students studying maths since they had little to gain from reading about vectors). For me and one other guy from my class, though, it was a rather obvious choice to do Part C.

I remember the invigilator (who was from another school) being positively surprised during my board exam when I mentioned that I was going to attempt Part C instead of Part B. He muttered something to the extent of “isn’t that for commerce students?” but to his credit permitted us to do the paper in whatever way we wanted (I fail to remember why I had to mention to him I was doing Part C – maybe I needed log tables to do that).

Seventeen odd years down the line, I continue to suck at linear algebra and be stud at statistics. And it is all down to the way the two subjects were introduced to me in school (JEE statistics wasn’t up to the same standard as Part C so the school teachers did a great job of teaching that).

Pudina family

Sometimes they say that opposites attract.

But more practically, I think it’s impossible to louvvu someone unless you have lots of similar interests, and that also means lots of similar ambitions. And in that sense my wife and I have shared quite a few ambitions.

First we wanted to become celebrity bloggers. Then (ok the order gets messed up here) there was the MBA. And before all this there is Ganeshana Maduve (which we re-watched perhaps for the 50th time this weekend).

And adding to all this, there’s the desire to write in newspapers. I remember that over a decade ago I wanted to regularly write in newspapers, and about “policy issues”. I didn’t follow up on that ambition, of course, but through lots of twists and turns and happy coincidences meant that I started writing for Mint in 2013, and some of the stuff I’ve written there are about “policy issues”.

And the wife has had similar ambitions as well, though her methods have been vastly different, and much more focussed. She’s always wanted to write a column on relationships. Rather, she first wanted to be a relationship blogger, and then a relationship columnist, and she’s gone about the process with single-minded ambition.

So, first there was the MarriageBrokerAuntie blog (now hosted here). Then it turned into a Facebook page. It even led to a business that she ran during her maternity and post-childbirth periods (imagine running a business while nursing a tiny baby). And now she’s in the papers. Yay!

It so happens that it’s the same paper that I write for. And it also happens that the edition of the paper where it was published (Mint on Sunday) also happened to carry an excerpt from my book two-three weeks back. And that also happened to be about relationships.

So a long long time ago, a couple of days after we’d first met, she had written about “Arranged Louvvu“. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first piece she’s written for Mint is about “Love, and other arrangements“.  It’s about dating apps, and how what they lead to is not “real love” and it’s no different from “other arrangements”. That people think arranged marriage is uncool, but dating apps lead to basically arranged relationships. And so on.

Read the whole thing, it’s damn well written. Oh, and it features 1-6-1 calls, Panchatantra and George Akerlof’s “market for lemons”, among other stud fundaes.

Now the only thing left is for Berry to start writing for Mint. They don’t have a children’s issue (where they feature drawings, poems, etc. written by kids) so I guess she’ll have to wait a while. But I’m damn hopeful!

In any case, for now massive pride is happening on account of the wife!

Teaching and research

My mind goes back to a debate organised by the Civil Engineering department at IIT Madras back in the early 2000s. A bunch of students argued that IIT Madras was “not a world class institution”. A bunch of professors argued otherwise.

I don’t remember too much of the debate but I remember one line that one of the students said. “How does one become a professor at IIT Madras? By writing a hundred papers. Whether one can teach is immaterial”.

The issue of an academic’s responsibilities has been a long-standing one. One accusation against the IITs (ironical in the context of the bit of debate I’ve quoted above) is that they’re too focussed on undergraduate teaching and not enough on research – despite only hiring PhDs as faculty. From time to time the Indian government issues diktats on minimum hours that a professor must teach, and each time it is met with disapproval from the professors.

The reason this debate on an academic’s ability to teach came to my mind is because I’ve been trying to read some books and papers recently (such as this one), and they’re mostly unreadable.

They start with some basic introductory statements and before you know it you are caught up in a slew of jargon and symbols and greeks. Basically for anyone who’s not an insider in the field, this represents a near-insurmountable barrier to learning.

And this is where undergraduate teaching comes in. By definition, undergrads are non-specialists and not insiders in any particular specialisation. Even if they were to partly specialise (such as in a branch of engineering), the degree of specialisation is far less than that of a professor.

Thus, in order to communicate effectively with the undergrad, the professor needs to change the way he communicates. Get rid of the jargon and the sudden introduction of greeks and introduce subjects in a more gentle manner. Of course plenty of professors simply fail to do that, but if the university has a good feedback mechanism in place this won’t last.

And once the professor is used to communicating to undergrads, communicating with the wider world becomes a breeze, since the same formula works. And that vastly improves the impact of their work, since so many more people can now follow it.

The skill in making coffee

Perhaps for the first time ever in life, I’m working in an office without a coffee machine. I don’t mind that so much for two reasons – firstly, having to go down 27 floors and then pay explicitly for a coffee means that my coffee consumption has come down drastically. Secondly, there is a rather liquid market of coffee shops around my office.

As you might expected, there is one particular coffee shop close to my office that has become my favourite. And while walking back with my flat white on Wednesday afternoon, I noticed that the coffee tasted different to the flat white I’d had at the same place the same morning.

Assuming that even artisanal coffee shops like that one are unlikely to change beans midway through the day, I’m guessing that the difference in taste came down to the way the coffee was prepared. Flat white involves some effort on behalf of the barista – milk needs to be steamed and frothed and poured in a particular manner. And this can vary by barista.

So this got me thinking about whether making coffee is a skilled task. And this might explain the quality of coffee at various establishments in Bangalore.

When the coffee bar is equipped with an espresso machine, the job of making an espresso involves less of a skill since all that the barista needs to do is to weigh out the appropriate quantity of beans, press it down to the right extent and then pop it into the espresso maker (I know these tasks themselves involve some skill, but it’s less compared to using a South Indian style filter, for example).

When you want milk coffee, though, there is a dramatic increase in skill requirement. Even in South Indian coffee, the way you boil and froth the milk makes a huge difference in the taste of the coffee. In Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Shankarpuram, Bangalore, for example, the barista explicitly adds a measure of milk foam to the top of the coffee lending it a special taste.

And when it comes to “European” coffee, with its multiple variants involving milk, the skill required to make good milk coffee is massive. How much milk do you add.. How hot do you steam it.. Whether you add foam or not.. These are all important decisions that the barista needs to make, and there is a lot of value a good barista can add to a cup of coffee.

One of my biggest cribs about chain coffee shops in India is that the taste of the coffee isn’t particularly good, with hot milk coffees being especially bad. Based on my analysis so far, I think this could be largely a result of unskilled (or semi-skilled) and inexperienced baristas – something these chains have had to employ in order to scale rapidly.

The cold coffees in these places are relatively much better since the process of making them can be “fighterised” – for each unit, add X shots of espresso to Y ml of milk, Z ice cubes and W spoons of sugar and blend. The only skill involved there is in getting the proportions right, and that can be easily taught, or looked up from a table.

The problem with hot coffees is that this process cannot be fighterised – the precise way in which you pour the milk so that there is a heart shape on top of the cappuccino foam, for example, is a skill that comes only with significant practice. Even the way in which the milk is to be foamed is not an easily teachable task.

And that is the problem with chain coffee shops in India – lack of skilled labour combined with the need to scale rapidly has meant that people have tried to use processes to compensate for skills, and in most parts of coffee making, that’s not necessarily a good way to go.

The “war” on terror

In light of the terrorist attack in London this morning, when 29 people were hospitalised following an explosion in a peak hour District Line train on a massively crowded route, I nearly re-wrote this old blogpost of mine. I even thought of the very same examples before I figured I should once check.

Recently, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared “victory over Islamic State“, and announced that the organisation had been defeated. In this statement, Al-Abadi conveyed his ignorance of the kind of conflict his government was involved in, for Islamic State is not a “normal country” and the so-called “war” the Iraq and others are fighting it is not a war – since it will never end the way normal wars do.

As I’d mentioned in the other post on wars, wars end in a political decision – a surrender, usually. Sometimes, it takes extreme measures to induce surrender, as it happened with Japan in World War 2. At other times, a slight advantage to one side might lead the other to concede, and strike a treaty. Either ways, in a conventional war, few sides are likely to fight on until last man standing.

The so-called “war on terror” (especially aimed at the Islamic State) is not a war for several reasons. Firstly, Islamic State is not a conventional organisation – it has transcended that to become a concept, to unite radical Islamists worldwide. Irrespective of how many layers of the top management of the Islamic State are eliminated (either by killing or by incarceration), the remainder of the organisation will regroup and continue to thrive. And the organisation continues to grow – with ordinary members constantly seeking to enroll new members.

This feature of the Islamic State not being a conventional organisation also means that there is no central leadership that has the power to concede defeat and declare the war to an end. Even if a nominal leader of the organisation were to take such a decision, the fact that the organisation is an extremist on might imply that this decision might be decried as “selling out” by the more extreme factions of the organisation, who will fight on.

Then, the Islamic State is a distributed organisation – even in terms of geography. The use of the internet for recruitment has meant that they have operatives in most countries, and after some initial training, these operatives operate independently. So even if a nominal “top management” of the organisation were to be eliminated, these independent operatives will continue to thrive. And they need to be taken down – to the last man.

In that sense, the “war” against Islamic State is hardly a war. There is no political objective since the Islamic State lacks a political leadership capable of taking decisions. The organisation is rather distributed and even killing the “main organisation” will not eliminate the branches (reminds me of this demon in Hindu myth who had the property that each drop of his blood that would touch the ground would result in a clone of the demon).

The fight is going to be a long one, and we’ll need measures both conventional and unconventional to defeat the organisation. Declaring victory, like the Iraqi PM did, can only prove counterproductive.