Platform as a platform

This afternoon, as I was getting off the tube, I looked at the railway platform, and wondered how it compared to “platforms” as we now know in the context of “platform economics“. For those of you under a rock, platform economics talks about the economics of “platforms” that bring together two sides of a market to interact.

In that sense, Uber is a platform connecting drivers to passengers. Ebay is a platform connecting buyers and sellers of used goods. Paypal is a platform connecting people who want to pay and those who want to receive payment. And so forth (these are all textbook examples nowadays).

So is the railway platform a platform? And if not, is it correct that we refer to entities that run two-sided markets as platforms (arguably, the most intuitive meaning of the word “platform” in the last hundred or so years has been in the railway context)? These were some of the questions I grappled with as I walked along the length of the platform at Ealing Broadway.

For those of you who’re not in the know, I’ve written a book on market design. The Takshashila Institution is publishing it, and the book should be out fairly soon (manuscript is complete, but there’s still plenty to do). In that book, I have a chapter on taxi marketplaces such as Uber/Lyft/Ola, and how they’ve transformed the efficiency of the taxi market. Before I introduce these characters, though, I draw the history of the taxi market.

In that, I talk about taxi stands. Taxi stands work in the way of Thomas Schelling’s focal points. Passengers go there because they know empty taxis will go there. Taxi drivers looking for passengers go there because they know passengers looking for taxis will go there. This way, rather than waiting at a random place looking for either a passenger or a ride, going to the taxi stand is rational. And in that sense, taxi stands are a platforms.

In a way, railway platforms are platform in the same sense. Think of a train that wants to pick up passengers, and passengers who want to travel on a train. If there were no designated pick up points, trains would stop at random places, which passengers would have to guess. While engine drivers could see passengers waiting by the side, stopping at random places might have meant that the train would have had to go empty.

From this perspective, railway platforms act as platforms – they are focal points where trains and passengers come together. Passengers wait there because they know trains stop there, and vice versa. And helpfully, there is an actual physical platform that elevates passengers to the height of the train door so they can get on and off easily!

Isn’t this a wonderful way to have complicated a rather simple concept?

Introverts and extroverts

I find the classification of people into introverts and extroverts to be rather simplistic. While it is bad enough that people are commonly classified into one of these, you also have metrics such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) that formalise this classification, with top consulting firms actively using such classifications in their day-to-day work.

What makes introvert-extrovert thing complex is that it is not even a spectrum between introversion and extroversion – you can’t say, for example, that you’re “20% introvert and 80% extrovert”. So you can’t even convert the binary classification into a scale.

The thing is that introversion and extroversion is context sensitive. For example, I like to socialise by talking to people (I HATE “catching up” in cinema halls or loud bars, since they don’t allow conversation). In terms of work, though, I largely prefer to be left alone. Even within that, I sometimes like to talk to people when I’m ideating but wholly want to be left alone when I’m executing on something.

And with each person, there might be different contexts in which they might derive energy from people around them, and contexts where they might want to be left alone. And within each context, whether they want to be with or without people is probabilistic, without a good classifier telling when they want to be how.

So introversion or extroversion is a rather large and complex set of personality traits that people have tried to force-fit not only on one axis, but also into binary classifications. And with it being part of management theory as practiced by top strategy consulting firms, it’s simply sad.

Not-working events – IIMB alumni edition

So yet another event that was supposedly for networking purposes turned out to be so badly designed that little networking was possible. The culprit in this case was the IIM Bangalore Alumni Association which organised the London edition of Anusmaran, the annual meet-up of IIMB Alumni which is held in different cities across the world.

Now, I must mention that I had been warned. Several friends from IIMB who have lived in London for a while told me that they had stopped going to this event since the events were generally badly organised. I myself hadn’t gone to one of these events since 2006 (when I’d just graduated, and found a lot of just-graduated classmates at the Mumbai edition).

So while I didn’t have particularly high expectations, I went with the hope that it “couldn’t be that bad”, and that I might get to meet some interesting people there. At the end of the event, I wasn’t sure if anyone interesting attended, because the format didn’t allow me to discover the other attendees.

Soon after I entered, and chatted briefly with the two professors there, and one guy from the batch before mine, one of the organisers requested everyone present to “form a huddle”. And then the talks started.

For some reason, the IIMB Alumni Association seems to have suddenly started to take itself too seriously in the last few years. The last few editions of the Bangalore edition of Anusmaran, for example, have featured panel discussions, and that has been a major reason for my not attending. The idea of an alumni event, after all, is to meet other alumni, and when most of you are forced to turn in one direction and listen to a small number of people, little networking can happen.

And that is exactly what happened at the London event today – the talks started, unannounced (there had been no prior communication that such talks would be there – I’d assumed it would be like the 2005 event in London that I’d helped organise where people just got together and talked). Some two or three alumni spoke, mostly to promote their businesses. And they were long talks, full of the kind of gyaan and globe that people with long careers in management can be expected to give.

So it went on, for an hour and half, with people speaking one after other and everyone else being expected to listen to the person speaking, rather than talk to one another. The class participation reminded me of the worst of the class participation from my business school days – people trying to sound self-important and noble rather than asking “real” questions.

When the organiser asked everyone to introduce themselves in a “few seconds each” (name, graduating batch, company), most people elected to give speeches. I exited soon after.

Based on the last data point (of people giving long speeches while introducing themselves), it is possible that even if I had the opportunity to network I may not have met too many interesting people. Yet, the format of the event, with lots of speeches by people mainly trying to promote themselves, was rather jarring.

This is not the first time I’ve attended a networking event where little networking is possible. I remember this “get together” organised by a distant relative a few years back where everyone was expected to listen to the music they’d arranged for rather than talking. There was this public policy conference some years ago which got together plenty of interesting people, but gave such short tea breaks that people could hardly meet each other (and organisers ushering people who overstayed their tea breaks into the sessions didn’t help matters).

Sometimes it might be necessary to have an anchor, to give people a reason apart from networking to attend the event. But when the anchor ends up being the entirety of the event, the event is unlikely to serve its purpose.

I’d written about Anusmaran once before. Thankfully the organisers of today’s event had got the pricing bit right – the event was at a pub, and you had to get your own drinks from the bar, and pay for them.

I’d also written about the importance of giving an opportunity for networking at random events.


How power(law)ful is your job?

A long time back I’d written about how different jobs are sigmoidal to different extents – the most fighter jobs, I’d argued, have linear curves – the amount you achieve is proportional to the amount of effort you put in. 

And similarly I’d argued that the studdest jobs have a near vertical line in the middle of the sigmoid – indicating the point when insight happens. 

However what I’d ignored while building that model was that different people can have different working styles – some work like Sri Lanka in 1996 – get off to a blazing start and finish most of the work in the first few days. 

Others work like Pakistan in 1992 – put ned for most of the time and then suddenly finish the job at the last minute. Assuming a sigmoid does injustice to both these strategies since both these curves cannot easily be described using a sigmoidal function. 

So I revise my definition, and in order to do so, I use a concept from the 1992 World Cup – highest scoring overs. Basically take the amount of work you’ve done in each period of time (period can be an hour or day or week or whatever) and sort it in descending order. Take the cumulative sum. 

Now make a plot with an index on the X axis and the cumulative sum on the Y axis. The curve will look like that if a Pareto (80-20) distribution. Now you can estimate the power law exponent, and curves that are steeper in the beginning (greater amount of work done in fewer days) will have a lower power law exponent. 

And this power law exponent can tell you how stud or fighter the job is – the lower the exponent the more stud the job!! 

Explaining the lack of dishwashers in India

For the last four weeks, after landing in Britain, we’ve been using the dishwasher fairly regularly. On an average, we run it once a day, and the vessels come out of it nice and shiny – to an extent that is nearly impossible when you wash them by hand. Last year when we were in Spain, too, we used the dishwasher fairly often.

Considering the convenience (all your dishes done in one go, and coming out nice and shiny), I’ve been wondering why the dishwasher hasn’t taken off in India. The requirement for water and electricity doesn’t explain it – the near-ubiquity of the washing machine in upper middle class households suggests that is not that much of a problem. It’s not a function of our using steel plates, either – if that were the only constraint, people would have switched plates to get the benefit of this convenience.

The real answer lies in the archaic concept of the enjil (saliva; known as jooTa in Hindi), and theories on how saliva can get transmitted and contaminate stuff. To be fair, it’s a useful concept in a way that it doesn’t allow anyone’s germ-bearing saliva to contaminate things around them, except for roads and sidewalks that is! Specifically, the enjil concept ensures that food doesn’t get remotely contaminated by someone’s saliva. But it takes things a bit too far.

For example, sharing plates, even when you’re using separate spoons (let’s saw when sharing dessert at a restaurant), is taboo. When you double-dip your spoon into the plate, germs from your saliva get transmitted there, and can potentially contaminate people you are sharing your food with. Or so the theory goes. The exceptions are in childhood, where a child is allowed to share plates with the mother, and after marriage, when couples are allowed to share plates! Go figure how that works.

Similarly, traditional Indians eschew the dining table, and the concept of keeping serving bowls on the same surface as plates. Again, the concept is that saliva can somehow “transmit” from the plates to the serving bowls and contaminate everyone’s food.

Next, there is an elaborate protocol to deal with used plates. They are not supposed to be washed in the same sink as other vessels. Yes, you read that right. When I was growing up, the protocol for used plates was to first rinse them in the bathroom (after throwing leftover food in the dustbin) before dropping them in the sink. It didn’t matter how well you rinsed the plate in the bathroom – that water had fallen on it after your usage would indicate that it was now purified, and fit to sit with all the other unwashed vessels.

Now consider the dishwasher. To achieve economies of scale at the household level, and to ensure vessels don’t pile up, you put all kinds of vessels in it at the same time – plates, spoons, forks, serving bowls and  cooking vessels! In other words, “saliva-bearing” dishes are put into the same contraption at the same time as “saliva-free” cooking dishes, and the “same water” is used to wash all of them together.

And that clearly violates all prudent practices of saliva management and contamination avoidance that we have all grown up with! And trust me, it takes time to get over such instinctive practices one has grown up with. And so I predict that it will at least be another generation (20 years or so) when there are sufficient households with adults who grew up without a strong concept of enjil, and who might be willing to give the dishwasher a try!

Mata Amrita Index needs a new dimension

Some of the hugs look too flimsy for a 10-year reunion

As anyone here who has tried to construct an index will know, any index, however well constructed, will end up being way too simplistic, and abstract away way too much information. This is especially true of indices that are constructed as weighted averages of different quantities, but even indices with more “fundamental” formulae are not immune to this effect.

Some eight years ago, I constructed an index called the “Mata Amrita Index“, which my good friend Sangeet describes as the “best ever probabilistic measure” he’s come across. It’s exactly that – a probabilistic measure.

Quoting from the blog post where I introduced the concept:

The Mata Amrita Index for a person is defined as the likelihood of him or her hugging the next random person he/she meets.

Actually over time I’ve come to prefer what I’d called the “bilateral MAI”, which is the probability that a given pair of people will hug each other the next time they meet. The metric has proved more useful than I had initially imagined, and has in a way helped me track how some friendships are going. So far so good.

But it has a major shortcoming – it utterly fails to capture quality. There are some people, for example, who I don’t hug every time I meet them, but on the random occasions when we do hug, it turns out to be incredibly affectionate and warm. And there are some other people, with whom my bilateral MAI tends to 1, but where the hug is more of a ritual than a genuine expression of affection. We hug every time, but the impact of the hug on how I feel is negligible.

In fact, I’d written about this a couple years back, that when the MAI becomes too high, the quality and the impact of the hug inevitably suffers. Apart from the ritualness of the hug robbing it of the warmth, a high MAI also results in lack of information flow – you know you hug as a rule, so the hug conveys no information.

So, now I want to extend the MAI (all good index builders do this – try to extend it when they realise its inadequacies) to incorporate quality as well. And like any index extension, the problem is to be able to achieve this without making the index too unwieldy. Right now, the index is a probabilistic measure, but not that hard to understand. It’s also easy to adjust your bilateral MAI with someone every time you meet.

How do you think I can suitably modify the MAI to bring in the quality aspect? One measure I can think of is “what proportion of the time when you meet do you hug, and it makes you feel real good?”. As you can see it’s already complicated, but this brings in the quality component. The ritual hug with the high MAI counterparty makes no impact on you, so your modified MAI with that person will be low.

The problem with this Modified MAI (MMAI) is that it is automatically capped by the MAI, given the “AND” condition in its definition. So a person you hug infrequently, but feel incredibly good after each such hug, will have a low MMAI with you – it’s more to do with the low frequency of hugging than the quality.

If you can think of a more elegant measure, do let me know! Whoever said building an index is a simple process!

Slavedriver sandwich

Something that happened at home earlier today reminded me of my very first full-time job, which I had ended up literally running away from barely two months after I’d started. I like to call this the “slavedriver sandwich”.

The basic problem is this – you need to get someone you normally have no influence over to do something for you, and this something is contrary to what this person needs to do. You somehow need to convince this person to do this – effectively, you need to “slave-drive” her so that what you want done is done.

The problem is that you aren’t even sure that you want this thing to be done. The only reason you are slavedriving the person you’re slavedriving is because someone else (let’s call this person “the boss”) is slavedriving you, and trying to make you get this person to do this.

The boss is very clear on what she wants done, and how she wants it done, but for reasons of her own choosing, doesn’t want to get it done directly. She wants you to do it. And you aren’t convinced that what she needs to be done is the right thing to be done – you agree with the basic principles but think there’s a better way to do it than slavedriving the person you normally have no control over.

Like I remember this time from 2006 when the then boss wanted some data, and I had to convince this client to give us the data. It seemed tractable that the data would be available in a day, and in CSV format. But the boss wanted it the same day, and in Excel format (yeah, I worked for people who considered conversion from CSV to Excel nontrivial). And so I was slavedriven, so that I could slave drive this client, and get the data to the boss in time (never mind that it was I who would ultimately use the data, and I actually preferred CSV!).

In other words, then and now, I was stuck in a “slavedriver sandwich”. Someone slavedriving you to slavedrive someone, and you are wondering what role you have to do in the whole business in the first place. And then you decide that you have nothing to do there, and you should just eliminate the middleman, which is yourself.

In that sense, the problem of 2006 was easy – eliminating the middleman simply meant resigning my job. The current circumstances (which I can’t particularly describe here) doesn’t allow for so elegant a solution! So it goes.