When Jesus fails to cross

Ever since I watched Spain in the 2010 Football World Cup, I’ve been fascinated by what I’ve since called the “Jesus Navas model“. In game theoretic terms, it can be described as a “mixed strategy”.

In that tournament, when the normal tiki-taka strategy failed to break down opposition, Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque would send on (then) Sevilla winger Jesus Navas. Navas would hug the right touchline and fling in crosses. So the opposition defence which would have otherwise been massed in the middle of the pitch to counter the tiki-taka now had to deal with this new threat.

Based on Spain’s success in that tournament (despite them winning most of their games by only a single goal), the strategy can be termed to be a success. The strategy is also similar to how Kabaddi is typically played (at RSS shakhas at least), where six defenders form a chain to encircle the attacker, but the seventh stays away from them to lure the attacker further inside.

I revisited this Kabaddi-Jesus Navas model some 2-3 years back, during the last days of the UPA government, when senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh made a series of comments that ran afoul of the party’s stated strategy.

I’d described Digvijaya as “Congress’s official lunatic”, who had been authorised by the party’s high command to take stances contrary to the main party line. The advantage with this strategy, I had reasoned, was that there was one “official looney form of dissent”, which the party rank and file who wanted to dissent could follow.

At that time, I had pointed out that the then-opposition BJP had lacked such an “official lunatic”, because of which there were too many “fringe elements” associated with the party which ended up damaging the party’s prospects.

I don’t know if anyone in the BJP had read that post of mine, but they presently recruited Subramanian Swamy, who, in 1999, had been responsible for bringing down the BJP-led government. While the induction of Swamy into the party didn’t make intuitive sense, it was clear that he was being brought in to be the party’s official lunatic.

From all measures, he seems to have done rather well. The BJP’s looney fringe has rallied around him, and instead of having different fringes representing different ideas, the fringe has now been united. Swamy’s policies are crazy enough to attract the craziest of the fringe, and for those who find him too crazy, there’s always the mainstream party to back.

The problem for the BJP, however, has been that the “official lunatic” has now become too powerful. When Spain put on Navas, it was one guy who represented the alternate strategy – the rest were all committed to tiki-taka. In the BJP’s case, the official lunatic has got much more weight in the party.

And as Raghuram Rajan’s exit, and the attacks on leading finance ministry officials show, Swamy has actually started getting his way, with the rather large looney fringe cheering him onwards. The question is how the BJP should deal with this.

The obvious solution is to appoint a new official lunatic, one who is lunatic enough to attract the fringe, but no so popular as Swamy to have a following that rivals the mainstream party. A Digvijaya Singh equivalent would do well, but such “moderate lunatics” are hard to find. And even if one is found, the question is how the party can move the looney fringe to backing the new official lunatic.

Even worse, if a new official lunatic is appointed, the party will have to (at least temporarily) deal with two internal official lunatics, not an enviable task by any means. And if they decide to expel the incumbent official lunatic, there is the risk of alienating his (now rather large) support base!

It seems like there is no way out of this mess for the BJP! Sometimes copying policies from political rivals may not work out that well!

Commenting on social media

While I’m more off than on in terms of my consumption of social media nowadays, I find myself commenting less and less nowadays.

I’ve stopped commenting on blogs because I primarily consume them using an RSS reader (Feedly) on my iPad, and need to click through and use my iPad keyboard to leave comments, a hard exercise. And comments on this blog make me believe that it’s okay to not comment on blogs any more.

On Facebook, I leave the odd comment but find that most comments add zero value. “Oh, looking so nice” and “nice couple” and things like that which might flatter some people, but which make absolutely no sense once you start seeing through the flattery.

So the problem on Facebook is “congestion”, where a large number of non-value-adding comments may crowd out the odd comment that actually adds value, so you as a value-adding-commentor decide to not comment at all.

The problem on LinkedIn is that people use it mostly as a medium to show off (that might be true of all social media, but LinkedIn is even more so), and when you leave a comment there, you’re likely to attract a large number of show-offers who you are least interested in talking to. Again, there’s the Facebook problem here in terms of congestion. There is also the problem that if you leave a comment on LinkedIn, people might think you’re showing off.

Twitter, in that sense, is good in that you can comment and selectively engage with people who reply to your comment (on Facebook, when all replies are in one place, such selective engagement is hard, and you can offend people by ignoring them). You can occasionally attract trolls, but with a judicious combination of ignoring, muting and blocking, those can be handled.

However, in my effort to avoid outrage (I like to consume news but don’t care about random people’s comments on it), I’ve significantly pruned my following list. Very few “friends”. A few “twitter celebrities”. Topic-specific studs. The problem there is that you can leave comments, but when you see that nobody is replying to them, you lose interest!

So it’s Jai all over the place.

No comments.

Cafe Coffee Day doesn’t serve Espresso!

Yeah, you read that right!

A weird thing happened this evening. I was at the Cafe Coffee Day outlet on Richmond Road this evening meeting someone, and asked for an espresso. The lady at the counter said that espresso wasn’t available, and if I could have Americano instead.

Now, while the coffee at CCD is generally not of the highest quality (it’s basically a meeting space for rent, and the coffee is incidental), I like to have coffee that is of at least somewhat reasonable quality, and on that count their espresso generally does well. When they have it of course.

When the lady told me that espresso wasn’t available, it was hard to believe, and I pressed to find out why that was the case. They could serve Americano (which is Espresso with hot water), or Cappuccino (Espresso with steamed and foamed milk), but not Espresso.

How were they able to make Americano or Cappuccino without the ability to make Espresso. It turned out that the coffee machine was working fine, and they could turn out an Espresso, except that the cup in which Espresso is served was out of stock.

A short argument later (they agreed to make a “cappuccino without milk” but they’d charge the cappuccino price for that), I demanded to see the manager. And then I decided to take down the name of the person at the counter on my phone. At which point an even more bizarre thing happened.

She suddenly fled to take cover behind the counter! She just wouldn’t let me see her name tag, and she wouldn’t come out from behind the counter. And that also effectively meant that the cafe was refusing to serve us, since nobody was willing to take our order – thus forcing us to deny them of their business!

The person I was meeting presently mentioned that there was a Barista not far from there, and a quick walk later, I was sitting down with a cup of double shot espresso there (it’s one of the very few Baristas still operational in Bangalore).

The funny thing is that Barista served me the espresso in a mug that is not normally used to serve Espresso! Maybe there’s really a shortage of Espresso cups in Richmond town!

If anybody from the company is seeing this, this happened today (15th June 2016) at around 5:30 in the evening at the Richmond Road outlet (opposite HDFC Bank). It seems like it’s the result of some messed up incentive structure for employees. 

I have experience in designing salesperson compensation structures, and would be happy to structure a better incentive scheme for the company (for a fee of course)! 

Movie plots and low probability events

First of all I don’t watch too many movies. And nowadays, watching movies has become even harder as I try to double-guess the plot.

Fundamentally, commercial movies like to tell stories that are spectacular, which means they should consist of low-probability events. Think of defusing bombs when there is 1 second left on the timer, for example, or the heroine’s flight getting delayed just so that the hero can catch her at the airport.

Now, the entire plot of the movie cannot consist of such low-probability events, for that will make the movie extremely incredulous, and people won’t like it. Moreover, a few minutes into such a movie, the happenings won’t be low probability any more.

So the key is to intersperse high-probability events with low-probability events so that the viewer’s attention is maintained. There are many ways to do this, but as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote (in his masters thesis, no less), there are a few basic shapes that stories take. These shapes are popular methods in which high and low-probability events get interspersed so that the movie will be interesting.

 

Kurt Vonnegut’s Masters Thesis on the shapes of stories

So once you understand that there are certain “shapes” that stories take, you can try and guess how a movie’s plot will unfold. You make a mental note of the possible low-probability events that could happen, and with some practice, you will know how the movie will play out.

In an action movie, for example, there is a good chance that one (or more) of the “good guys” dies at the end. Usually (but not always), it is not the hero. Analysing the other characters in his entourage, it shouldn’t be normally hard to guess who will bite the dust. And when the event inevitably happens, it’s not surprising to you any more!

Similarly, in a romantic movie, unless you know that the movie belongs to a particular “type”, you know that the guy will get the girl at the end of the movie. And once you can guess that, it is not hard to guess what improbable events the movie will comprise of.

Finally, based on some of the action movies I’ve watched recently (not many, mind you, so there is a clear small samples bias here), most of their plots can be explained by one simple concept. Rather than spelling it in words, I’ll let you watch this scene from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Why Uber/Ola is Nehruvian

According to Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi, the ostensible reason for India adopting a statist/socialist/planned approach was the scarcity of capital.

With capital being scarce in the newly independent country, Jawaharlal Nehru had reasoned that in order for the country to develop, whatever capital existed had to be deployed in the most productive manner possible. A free market for capital would end up deploying capital where it wasn’t required the most, denying more critical sectors of capital. A planned economy, on the other hand, would result in more efficient usage of capital.

While India has developed significantly in the 70 years since independence, it is still not completely out of the woods. Poverty remains high and India’s per capita income is at the lower end of the spectrum. Thus, while capital may not be as scarce a resource as it was in 1950, effective deployment of capital is still necessary to ensure India’s continued economic growth.

From this perspective, think of the car. When at rest, it is adding no economic value apart from making itself available to its owner (and its owner alone) at a point of time when the latter needs it. From this perspective, the economic value that the parked car adds is almost entirely in terms of “option value”.

A parked car also consumes valuable economic resources, with the most important being the real estate it stands on. This particular resource is so important that it forms an important form of urban regulation in most markets (a building or a business needs to have a certain minimum number of parking spaces and so on).

Moreover, the two common axes on which the value of a car is evaluated are age and distance travelled. Considering that the car adds economic value only in terms of the latter – when it helps transport someone, depreciation of the car in terms of age is entirely uncompensated. On this account, too, a parked car is a dead weight loss.

It is not hard to see, thus, that a parked car is an enormous waste of capital; capital that an emerging economy such as India could very well utilise elsewhere. Yet, the large number of cars in the country that are standing still at any point in time show that despite being an overall inefficient use of capital, a large number of people value the inbuilt option value.

Back in the time when Nehru had his way, he had solved the problem in his own unique way – by limiting the number of cars that could be manufactured and sold in the country, which automatically put a limit on the number of parked cars. In this technologically advanced day and age, however, we don’t need such drastic measures.

All we need is a restructuring of economic incentives such that the option value of a parked car goes down. And what better incentive than to provide the option to summon a car on demand? While this summoned car might have a higher marginal cost per trip than an owned car, taken in aggregate it leads to a significantly lower cost.

Thus, the Nehruvian answer to the inefficient capital wasted in parked cars would be to encourage services that allow you to summon a car on demand. In other words, services such as Uber and Ola fulfil a Nehruvian objective by freeing up capital that was being earlier wasted in parked cars. There is data to show that such services have resulted in a decline in growth of car ownership.

Given that Uber and Ola follow the Nehruvian ideal of reducing wasteful capital, it is baffling that the government in Karnataka, which belongs to the Congress party which is based on Nehruvian ideals, or the government in Delhi, headed by the Nehruvian Arvind Kejriwal, were to campaign to clamp down on such Nehruvian services.

There might be some tremors under Shanti Van.

Blogging about my wife

I might have mentioned multiple times on this blog that my wife thinks I don’t blog enough about her. She has told me that after reading my blog, she had assumed that I’d be writing tomes to her like I did to some of the women I was hitting on earlier in life, and that on this count I’ve severely disappointed her.

In my defence, I’ve said that I don’t write about her because there is “no angst“. On other occasions, I’ve looked at the blogposts I wrote in the early days after I first met her, and found that most of my posts around the time were about her. And despite her protests that I don’t write about her, she gets intermittent mentions on this blog.

So as is my usual habit, I was going through some old blogposts today, and the discovery of the day is that I’d actually blogged about my wife on the day we first saw each other. And this was long long before we had met!

In the early days of our meeting, I remember Priyanka telling me that she had first seen me at the Bangalore Landmark Quiz in 2007, which was incidentally a couple of months before we chatted (on Yahoo! Messenger) for the first time. I’d always maintained that I hadn’t noticed her at that quiz. Until I saw this blogpost today.

Based on some details mentioned in this blogpost, I realise that I had actually seen the-person-who-is-my-wife on that day, and that I had actually found her cute. I had compared her to another cute chick I’d seen at the same quiz two years earlier, however, and this anchor meant I downplayed her on my blog.

From my blogpost:

Both times, there was A cute chick I saw just before the quiz… Both times, the cute chick i’d seen before quiz sat at the same place. Fourth or fifth row from front. Towards the right of the audience. Ideal position for me to put eye contact during the finals…

This time I’m not writing any letter to the chick-of-the-day. i didn’t find her as impressive as the one i’d seen two years back. Or maybe the novelty factor of seeing a chick at a quiz has worn off… But I’m unlikely to put blade…

I realise this doesn’t sound terribly charitable to the person who is now my wife, but it is documentary evidence that I did write about her the first time I saw her! So this deserves further documentation!

And apart from providing such documentation, that blogpost is of extremely poor quality, and I’m not proud of it at all. Seems more like a rant than an honest blog-post.

Writing and depression

It is now a well-documented fact (that I’m too lazy to google and provide links) that there exists a relationship between mental illness and creative professions such as writing.

Most pieces that talk about this relationship draw the causality in one way – that the mental illness helped the writer (or painter or filmmaker or whoever) focus and channel emotions into the product.

Having taken treatment for depression in the past, and having just finished a manuscript of a book, I might tend to agree that there exists a relationship between creativity and depression. However, I wonder if the causality runs the other way.

I’ve mentioned here a couple of months back that writing a book is hard because you are working months together with little tangible feedback, and there’s a real possibility that it might flop miserably. Soncequently, you put fight to make the product as good as you can.

In the absence of feedback, you are your greatest critic, and you read, and re-read what you’ve written; you edit, and re-edit your passages until you’re convinced that they’re as good as they can be.

You get obsessed with your product. You start thinking that if it’s not perfect it is all doomed. You downplay the (rather large) random component that might affect the success of the product, and instead focus on making it as perfect as you can.

And this obsession can drive you mad. There are days when you sit with your manuscript and feel useless. There are times when you want to chuck months’ effort down the drain. And that depresses you. And affects other parts of your life, mostly negatively!

Again it’s rather early that I’m writing this blog post now – at a time when I’m yet to start marketing my book to publishers. However, it’s important that I document this relationship and causality now – before either spectacular success or massive failure take me over!