How social media affects your life

My first attempt at writing of any kind was in 2004, when I edited the daily newsletter at Saarang, IIT Madras’s cultural festival. It was a fun experience (I remember digging out my newsletters sometime back, but cant seem to find them now), and I think RAP and I did a pretty good job.

Given that events would go on late into every night and we’d to bring out an edition every morning, some “preprocessing” was key, and I decided to solve the problem through some “online writing” (at the same time I was doing my B.Tech. project in online algorithms, but I digress). As and when I would make a pertinent observation (I borrowed the name for that newsletter, too), I would try and think about how I would describe it in the next day’s newsletter, and immediately jot it down in a notepad I carried.

This way, by the time RAP and I met every evening to compile the newsletter, most of the material would be in place and all we would have to do was to compile, edit and typeset it, and the newsletter would be ready. One time, when we knew that a quiz would go on till dawn (as per tradition), we wrote up the article even before it had happened based on how previous editions had gone. The winner’s name was inserted in the morning just before printing.

The reason I’m telling this story (which I might have told before) is that it inculcated in me the habit of trying to instantly describe in written word anything I saw. Going forward, it became a habit, though it didn’t have much outlet. Later in 2004 I started this blog, and when I would remember the thoughts I’d thought to describe things I saw, I would put it down on this blog.

Twitter changed all that. Now, as soon as I could describe something I saw in a meaningful (and short) fashion, there was an outlet for instant output. Facebook made it even better, allowing me to tell stories with photos and without a word limit (Facebook did photos long before Twitter did). Instagram did the same.

So seven or eight years on social media (I joined Facebook in late 2007 and Twitter in mid 2008) meant that my skill of quick written pertinent observations about just about anything I saw got a lot of encouragement (though, most times no one would react, and at times I would get trolled).

A month after going off social media, I realise that this habit has gotten completely ingrained into me, and irrespective of what I’m doing I’m thinking more about how I’d describe it in a few words (and maybe a picture), rather than enjoying the sight or sound or conversation or whatever! And knowing that I’ve denied myself this mode of output (social media) temporarily, it feels a bit odd when I mentally make one such observation, knowing there’s no way to put it out!

The thing is while I used to already do this before I got access to instant social media, the extent to which I’ve started reacting this way has changed significantly over the years! And I don’t know if that is a good thing.

Anyway, here’s an old style pertinent observation, being made much delayed, and put on this blog (rather than on any other media). I found this place called “ze fork on the water” on the Lake Geneva shoreline yesterday!

zefork

Seasons

This day eleven years back I travelled to London to intern at an investment bank, in the middle of my MBA. The internship was an academic requirement and popularly referred to as “summer internship” at our school. The term confused people in London, though, with the common reaction being “it isn’t summer now”. Over time I learnt to respond to that with “but it’s summer in Bangalore”.

Back when I was a kid I dutifully learnt from textbooks that there were four seasons – “summer, winter, autumn and spring”. Despite efforts of multiple teachers to explain, I could never understand what autumn (there is no mass shedding of leaves in Bangalore) meant. Some Indian books we had substituted “monsoon” for “autumn” and I started assuming that “autumn” referred to the rainy season.

Over time I have understood that the monsoons are a uniquely India-and-around phenomenon, and they don’t exist elsewhere in the world. What’s taken longer for me to understand, however, is how that has affected my understanding of seasons.

Coming from Bangalore, where April is the hottest month, I’ve always assumed “summer” as lasting from March to May. “Mango showers” start coming in in the beginning of May, cooling down things a bit, and by the time we are in June, the monsoon is in full flow and you might even need a light sweater along with your umbrella.

Things heat up mildly again in October, after the South West monsoon has gone, but the sporadic cyclones of the North-East monsoon aren’t too far away, and there’s a graceful transition to winter. And February is the sole month of “spring” before things quickly heat up again.

It’s April already and things are still cold in Barcelona. It’s not as cold on average as a month earlier – I can occasionally dispense with my scarf, and pavement cafes are more full than before. I still need both a sweater and an overcoat, though, and the winds from the Mediterranean mean that the temperature you feel is much lower than what the thermometer suggests.

While I know that things will heat up in Barcelona in the next month (by which time I’ll be preparing to move back to Bangalore), the fact that things are so cold in April, the month I consider to be the peak of summer, is something that makes me terribly uncomfortable. I also find it quite funny that Barcelona was rather warm in October 2014 (when I first visited, and could walk around in shorts) and is so cold now.

This goes to show how much the monsoons affect the seasons in India, and in South India in particular. In fact, the definition of “summer” (as defined by school holidays) is itself different in different parts of India – South India breaks in April and May, and the North (where the monsoon hits much later) in May and June.

And yet, we continue to teach schoolkids that the “four seasons” are “summer, winter, autumn and spring”

PS: I find it hard to reconcile with the six seasons according to the Hindu calendar as well – maybe those have a North Indian bias

Cheap motivation

I’m reading this (so far – I’m blogging in the middle of reading) excellent piece by Charles Assisi in Mint On Sunday about motivation for careers. At the point where I’ve stopped reading his piece and started writing, I’m looking at this graph he has put on the source of motivation:

This reminds me of this conversation I had with a few classmates from business school a few months back. One of them is a successful brand manager for a large packaged goods company, and he was telling us that what gives him the thrills in his job is to see his product replace his rival companies’ products on store shelves.

It is a rather logical motivation – to see the share of the brand you manage improving. However, what was interesting was the way he put it (I’ve surely paraphrased here) – that the thrill came out of his brand doing well at the expense of a rival brand, and of watching the rival brand sink.

It got me thinking about what motivates us, and if motivations are as profound as we like to mention in either a statement of purpose or in an interview. When writing a cover letter for a job, for example, it is likely that you chart out your career path so far detailing motivations for each career move, and what motivates you to take up this job you are applying for.

With a few honourable exceptions, it is likely that it is all a lie, and that you have invented these motivations to retrofit your career progression thus far. Sometimes the real motivation could be as simple as money – you took up a certain job because it paid you well, but for whatever reason it isn’t politically correct to put this on a cover letter (it can work the other way also. I once interviewed for a proprietary trading position and the interviewer was surprised that money wasn’t my number one motivation).

For the most part, however, I argue that the real motivation for most things is something rather trivial – so trivial that nobody will trust you it can actually be a motivation. Like you join a hobby class because that allows you to stay out late. Or go for some other activity because it is near the house of someone you have taken a fancy for. Or you participate in an event because it allows you to travel to a particular city. I had once gone for a recruiting event because it was being held in a five star hotel and the agenda included lunch.

A trivial motivation need not always lead to results – the sheer triviality of the motivation means that you are less likely to generate good results from such processes. However, what trivial motivations allow is to expand the range of activities and opportunities you take part in, and the sheer volume of such expansion can take you to places you had never imagined you would get to. In other words, while at some point in time, you do use serious motivations, it is likely that the seed for such activities or pursuits had been set in more trivial settings.

So when you want to do something purely for the cheap thrills it gives you, go ahead – it might help you learn something about yourself that you’d not known before. And might motivate you to an extent well beyond what motivation you can get from profound sources.

The Geo-Politics of Multiculturalism

My wife Priyanka‘s business school takes much pride in its multiculturalism, with students from some 60 different countries in her class of nearly 300. And on one year every day, they choose to celebrate this multiculturalism, and what better way to celebrate multiculturalism (or anything  else for that matter) than to get drunk together?

And so we had this party, not very creatively called “Multi Culti”, last evening where people from 34 countries/groups of countries had set up stalls to showcase the food and drink of their respective countries/groups. This binge eating/drinking session sandwiched a “cultural program” where a lesser number of countries/groups sang and danced, again in an attempts to showcase their cultures.

Most of the food was excellent, and most of the drink was, too. The quality of drinks on offer is borne out by the fact that despite having at least a dozen drinks of a dozen varieties last night, I was up and about without a hangover by 7 this morning – that can’t happen unless the liquor is of high quality (oh, I skipped the Old Monk on offer at the Indian stall)!

While being in business school together means you leave behind national differences (and find other axes on which you RG each other), there were some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) instances of geopolitics on display at last night’s event. I must mention that this blogpost was constructed while I was watching the “cultural program” that was sandwiched by the eating and drinking.

The most obvious display of geopolitical tension was by the Catalans, who allegedly wanted a stall for themselves, but weren’t allowed to have one by the Spaniards. So they set up this “pirate ship” (perhaps as a nod to Barcelona being Spain’s main trading port during the middle ages) which was a cart that was pulled around the area. Other secessionist movements didn’t display much creativity, though – Quebecians were happy to be part of the Canadian stall, and I’m not sure if there are any Scots in the program.

And then there was the setup of the stalls (note that these are my personal pertinent observations, and I might be drawing spurious correlations here). Mostly neighbouring countries were near each other. Japan was next to Korea. Germany next to Austria (I’m assuming it was Austria given the stack of Red Bulls). Brazil and Argentina facing each other. France next to Italy.

But some pairs, it seemed evident, were being deliberately kept away. Republic of China’s (there’s a surprisingly large contingent from there in the MBA program) stall, for example, was kept as far as possible from the People’s Republic of China’s stall. Food in the two stalls looked similar, and it’s possible I didn’t take anything from PRC since I’d eaten similar looking stuff at RoC’s stall. The shots on offer at RoC were legendary, though. Some rice wine with 38% alcohol content. Did at least 3 shots there.

The other geographical separation, possibly due to possible tensions, was a pity though. I love eating falafel wrapped in hummus and pita bread. The layout and choices by teams, however, meant they were far away from each other.

On one side of the venue was the Israeli stall, with pita bread and hummus and some incredibly delicious Israeli spice (forgot what it was called). The Israelis didn’t have falafel, though (they instead had sausages – possibly a nod to the Ashkenazi heritage). For that you’d to go to the other side where the Arab stall was located! The Arabs also had Baklava, and if I’m not wrong, also offered liquor (I kept grabbing Baklava whenever I went near that stall, and didn’t bother about anything else).

Which brings us to country groupings. 300 people from 60 countries means some countries don’t have enough of a quorum to put up a show, so you had them banding into groups to put up a collective show. The Arabs were one such collective (I’m not sure of the countries that went into that collective, but it was funny to see a guy with a red-and-white checked headscarf dance next to a guy in a Fez during their “cultural performance”). The entire continent of Africa was another (they had this little quiz where you’d to identify a randomly chosen country on the map of Africa, for which you’d get a “dessert shot”, which was bloody delicious).

Finally, a note about the “cultural program”. Most countries stuck to national stereotypes, which I think is a good thing in such context. Most of the crowd is pissed drunk anyway, and what they want is a high energy program they can connect with.

So the Indians did well with three Punjabi acts (couldn’t recognise any of the songs). Spaniards danced to Macarena. Germans danced wearing Angela Merkel masks. An Argentine wore a Maradona mask (a lot of Argentines were in Albiceleste jerseys. One wore a Boca Juniors jersey) while doing the tango. PRC and RoC put up contrasting shows. RoC did a high energy generic dance routine. PRC had an inflatable dragon and did a more “traditional” dance.

My personal favourite was the British performance, though. They chose three well-known songs by three well-known bands (Britain’s contribution to music is an immense source of soft power for them). Four of them dressed up like Queen (fake moustaches and all) to enact a part of Bohemian Rhapsody. Five guys in drag (this was most hilarious and impressive) danced to If you wanna be my lover by the Spice Girls. And the whole crowd sang along and swayed as four guys in Beatles masks performed to Hey Jude (with masks being such a thing at the festival, I’m really really annoyed that there were no Modi masks. All the Indian contingent had was Kejriwal-style Gandhi caps. Most anti-national, I must tell you :P).

 

Investment banks, scientific research and cows

I’ve commented earlier on this blog about how investment banks indirectly fund scientific research – by offering careers to people with PhDs in pure sciences such as maths and physics.

The problem with a large number of disciplines is that the only career opportunity available to someone with a PhD is a career in academia. Given that faculty positions are hard to come by, this can result in a drop in number of people who want to do a PhD in that subject, which has the further effect of diminishing research in that subject.

Investment banks, by hiring people with pure science PhDs, have offered a safety net for people who haven’t been able to get a job in academia, as a consequence of which more people are willing to do PhDs in these subjects. This increases competition and overall improves the quality of research in these topics.

Beef is like investment banks to the dairy industry. I recall an article (can’t recall the source and link to it, though) which talked about V Kurien of Amul going to a meeting called by the Union government on banning cow slaughter. Kurien talked about his mandate from his cooperative being that everything was okay as long as cow slaughter wasn’t banned – for that would kill the dairy industry.

Prima facie (use of latin phrase on this block – check)  this might sound like a far-fetched analogy (research to cows). However, cow slaughter has an important (positive) role to play in encouraging the dairy industry.

When you buy a cow, you aren’t sure how good it is in providing milk, until you’ve put it through a few cycles of childbirth and milking. If after purchase it turns out that the cow is incapable of producing as much milk as you were promised, it turns out to be a dud investment – like getting a PhD in a field with few non-academic opportunities and not being able to get a faculty position.

When cow slaughter is permitted, however, you can at least sell the cow for its meat (when it is still healthy and fat) and hope to recover at least a part of the (rather hefty) investment on it. This provides some kind of a “safety net” for dairy farmers and encourages them to invest in more cows, and that results in increasing milk production and a healthier dairy industry.

This is not all. Legal slaughter means that there is a positive “terminal value” that can be extracted from cows at the end of their milking lives. Money can also be made off the male calves (cruel humans have made the dairy industry one-to-many. Semen from stud bulls is used to impregnate lots of cows, and most bulls never get to fuck) which would otherwise have negative value.

A ban on killing cows implies a removal of these safety nets. Investing in cows becomes a much more risky business. And lesser farmers will invest in that. To the detriment of the dairy industry.

There are already reports that following the ban on cow slaughter in Maharashtra last year, demand for cows is going down as farmers are turning to the more politically pliable buffaloes.

Similarly, with the investment banking industry seeing a downturn and the demand for “quants” going down, it is likely that the quality of input to graduate programs in pure science might go down – though it may be reasonable to expect Silicon Valley to offer a bailout in this case. Cows have no such luck, though.

Information gain from relationship attempts

Every failed relationship (or attempt at a relationship) has plenty to teach you – in terms of things you got right, or wrong. Things that would make you cringe later on, and others that would make you wonder why the relationship failed. Each failed relationship (or attempt) helps you recalibrate yourself as a person – in terms of what kind of people to go after, and what kind of strategies to adopt during the process. Thus, a relationship is important not only from the direct joy it provides you, but also in terms of learnings for future relationships.

The standard model about “finding your level” in terms of determining your expectations from a potential partners involves trial and error. You “sample” by hitting on someone who you think might be a good fit. If it goes well, story ends. Else, you “learn” from this experience and hit on someone else.

How good a learner you are determines how many attempts you’ll take to find someone “your level” who is a “good fit” and end up in a great relationship. Yet, the kind of attempts you make puts a natural cap on the amount of information you extract from the attempt.

For example, there might be a potential counterparty with whom you have an extremely low (close to nothing) chance of getting into a relationship. Conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t attempt hitting on her (to avoid pronoun confusion, let’s assuming that everyone you can hit on is feminine. Adjust accordingly if your preferences vary), for the odds are stacked against.

While this is good enough reason not to attempt that relationship (though sometimes the downside might be low enough for you to take a punt), the other problem is that you don’t learn anything from it. The extremely low prior probability of succeeding would mean that there is no information from this that can help tune your system. So you’re wasting your time in more than one way.

It works the other way also. Let’s say there’s someone who really looks up to you and wants to be in a relationship with you. You know that all it takes for you to get into a relationship with her is to express interest. If you know the relationship will add value to you, go ahead. However, it is absolutely useless in terms of your “find your level” – the extremely high prior probability means it won’t add sufficient value to the process.

So while they say that someone who’s been through failed relationships (or attempts at relationships) is experienced and has a more refined set of expectations, the sheer number matters less than the quality. It is the amount of information you’ve been able to extract from each such relationship (or attempt). A one-sided (where one of you is clearly “out of the league” of the other, doesn’t matter who is who) relationship doesn’t add much value.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Counter staffing and service levels

I’m writing this from the international section of the Bangalore International Airport, as I wait to board my flight to Barcelona. It was a plan I’d made in October 2014 to “hibernate” for a few months in Barcelona during my wife’s last term of classes there, and this is the execution of the same plan.

There was a fairly long line at the passport control counters this morning, and it took me perhaps twenty minutes to cross it. When I joined the line, there were about 10 passport officers to say goodbye to Indian passport, so the line moved fairly quickly.

Presently, officers started getting up one by one, and going to one side to drink tea. I initially thought it was a tea break, but the officers drinking tea soon disappeared, leaving just four counters in operation, implying that the line moved much slowly thereafter. Some people were pissed off, but I soon got out.

It is not an uncommon occurrence to suddenly see a section of “servers” being closed. For example, you might go to the supermarket on a weekday afternoon to expect quick checkouts, but you might notice that only a fraction of the checkout counters are operational, leading to lines as long as on a weekend evening.

From the system of servers’ point of view, this is quite rational. While some customers might expect some kind of a moral obligation from the system of servers to keep all servers operational, the system of servers has no obligation to do so. All they have an obligation towards is in maintaining a certain service level.

So coming back to passport control at the Bangalore airport, maybe they have a service level of “an average of 30 minutes of waiting time for passengers”, and knowing that the number of international flights in late morning is lower than early morning, they know that the new demand can be met with a smaller number of servers.

The problem here is with the way that this gets implemented, which might piss off people – when half the servers summarily disappear, and waiting period suddenly goes up, people are bound to get pissed off. A superior strategy would be to do it in phases – giving a reasonable gap between each server going off. That smoothens the supply and waiting time, and people are far less likely to notice.

As the old Mirinda Lime advertisement went (#youremember), zor ka jhatka dheere se lage.