Giving up your seat

So the wife has done a kind of sociological analysis of who offers seats to baby-carrying people on the London Metro. Based on the data points she’s collected over the last three months we’ve been in London, she concludes that people who are most willing to give up their seats are those who have been beneficiaries of similar actions in the past – basically a social capital kind of argument.

I don’t have such an overarching thesis on who gives up seats, but one major observation based on my collection of data points. Most of my train rides with Berry have been between Ealing Broadway, the station closest to where we live, and St. Paul’s in Central London, close to Berry’s nursery and Pinky’s office.

The Central Line, which I take for this journey, is typically crowded in both directions, since most of my trips are during peak office commute hours. However, my experience in terms of people offering me a seat (I’ve never asked for it) has been very different in terms of where I’ve boarded.

What I’ve found is that people have been far more willing to give up their seats when I’ve boarded at St. Paul’s (or anywhere else in the city), than at Ealing. In fact, in about 30-40 train rides originating in Ealing when I’ve been carrying Berry, I only recall one occasion when someone has offered me their seat. On the other hand, it’s rare for me to board at St Paul’s and NOT have someone offer me their seat.

I have one major hypothesis on why it happens – on what goes into getting a seat, and a sense of entitlement. Essentially, Ealing Broadway is a terminus for the tube, and thus an originating station for journeys into town. And I’ve seen people work hard in order to get a seat.

So you have people who leave multiple trains in order to find one where they can find a seat. They get to the station well in advance of a train leaving so that they can get a place to sit. And having invested so much effort in occupying the seat, they feel entitled to the seat, and don’t want to give it up so easily.

On the other hand, St. Paul’s is right in the middle of the Central Line, and people who have seats when the train arrives there are typically those who got them somewhere along the way. Now, while there exist strategies to figure out where a seat might fall empty, and grabbing it, finding a seat in a non-empty train after you’ve boarded is more a matter of luck.

So if you think you got your seat by sheer luck, you feel less entitled to it, and are more than happy to give it up for someone who might have need it more!

Feel free to draw your own analogies!

How children change your lives

Over the years I’ve developed this fairly elaborate process of eating curd rice. First I serve myself the rice, and then allow it to cool. Then I pour over curds, and then mix it with the rice. I then serve myself pickles, which should be served on TOP of the curd-rice mixture, and then mix it in. Then I serve myself a fried snack (such as spiced groundnuts or bhujia or a mixture) on the side, and vary the quantity of it I take with each spoon.

So I’m at home with Berry today and decided to have curd rice for lunch. I’d just served myself the rice and curd and mixed it when she decided to wake up from her late-morning nap. Realising she was hungry I decided to feed her first, and first fed her rice mixed with a dal I’d made for her. The normal course of action would have been to then feed her curd rice, and then get on with my meal.

But then I was hungry and feeding her curd rice before I ate it would have made me impatient. In any case, I figured that since we were both going to eat the same thing, I might as well feed her off my plate (I’m quite used to sharing utensils with her, though I haven’t been able to ask her what she thinks of it – she doesn’t speak yet). The only problem was that I could mix in the pickle, since that would have made the mixture too spicy for Berry.

So for the first time in I don’t know how long, I mixed my curd and rice and moved it to one side of the plate. At the other end (our rice plates are elliptical), I served myself a little pickle on one side and mixture on the other. As soon as I started eating, Berry made her way to my knees, and we started eating alternate spoons – I’d add pickle and mixture separately to each spoon of mine, and feed her the curd-rice mixture alone when it was her turn.

She ate well enough for me to get myself a second helping! The only downside of this process (feeding her off my plate) was that I couldn’t measure how much she ate, but I’m not too obsessed with that.

When they tell you that you never know the ways in which kids can change you, I’m not sure people were talking about the way they eat curd-rice!

8/13: Dabba

Back when I was single and looking, one of the criteria I had with respect to the potential partner was that she should be willing to indulge in what I would call as “arbit conversations”. Arbit conversations can be about any subject, and the only rule is that it need not make sense.

So you can reply to anything with anything. Digress like crazy. Crack stupid, and potentially offensive jokes. Talk nonsense. Complete nonsense all the time doesn’t add value, of course, but some amount of nonsense can make the parties laugh, and keep things happy.

My love for arbit conversations started with my favourite hobby from the time I started working. It initially began on Orkut where I’d occasionally leave nonsense scraps on friends’ walls, and they’d reply with more nonsense. Prior to that, of course there was the “.:Arbit:.” discussion group in IIMB, which was created with the explicit purpose of talking nonsense.

And then sometime in 2006-7, Google decided to add all Orkut friends to your GTalk list, and soon Orkut started getting spammed by “franship seekers”, and my favourite hobby became opening a number of conversation windows on GTalk and simply talk to people, irrespective of whether the conversations made sense.

When I told some friends that I was looking for someone “who can make arbit conversation”, I’d already started talking to Priyanka, and she was of course one of the people with whom I’d indulge in such conversations. So when I declared her as a “super common minimum program“, I already knew that she was capable of arbit conversations (in hindsight, I realise why she was a “super CMP”. I used to talk to her so much that I’d anchored my expectations of a potential wife based on what she was like. In that context, it’s obvious that she’d ace it).

What I didn’t know, and was delighted to find out later on that she can also be “Dabba”. Now, this doesn’t have a good synonym in English, so I continue to use the Kannada word. It’s hard to even describe what being Dabba entails, but both of us are Dabba and we love each other for it.

Being Dabba means you don’t take everything too seriously, and are willing to see the lighter side of things. Being Dabba means finding some random stuff funny, and laughing endlessly about it. Dabbaness can sometimes mean talking in a strange accent, or pronouncing words wrongly, on puropse.

Being Dabba also means that you are willing to tolerate some amount of shit, and not get disgusted by it (if we don’t train her properly, Berry might grow up being disgusted with our Dabbaness). Being Dabba also means occasionally acting far less polished than we’re capable of, just for a few laughts. And so forth – hope you’re getting the drift.

If you’re a Dabba person yourself, it’s hard to reconcile with someone who’s not as Dabba, since you might get disgusted and feel let down at times. In that sense, I feel incredibly lucky to be married to someone who I think is at least as Dabba as I am. There are random things that Pinky finds funny. We have many inside jokes, especially related to 1990s Kannada popular culture, that makes us burst out laughing at times. There are words we pronounce in a particular way, to the extent that we pronounce them that way even when we don’t intend to.

Both of us being Dabba allows Pinky and me to connect better to each other. There are so many subliminal things we “get” about each other that we wonder if we’ll be able to get along at all with someone else. And of course, another thing that we should keep in mind is that we’ve been training each other for the last 7-8 years, effectively merging our respective brands of Dabbaness!

That’s possibly a great way to describe a relationship – where you train each other on your respective Dabbaness, and over time become so similarly Dabba that you’d find it hard pressed to be Dabba-compatible with others!

1/13: Leaving home

2/13: Motherhood statements

3/13: Stockings

4/13: HM

5/13: Cookers

6/13: Fashion

7/13: Dashing

Programming back to the 1970s

I learnt to write computer code circa 1998, at a time when resources were plenty. I had a computer of my own – an assembled desktop with a 386 processor and RAM that was measured in MBs. It wasn’t particularly powerful, but it was more than adequate to handle the programs I was trying to write.

I wasn’t trying to process large amounts of data. Even when the algorithms were complex, they weren’t that complex. Most code ran in a matter of minutes, which meant that I didn’t need to bother about getting the code right the first time round – apart from for examination purposes. I could iterate and slowly get things right.

This was markedly different from how people programmed back in the 1970s, when computing resource was scarce and people had to mostly write code on paper. Time had to be booked at computer terminals, when the code would be copied onto the computers, and then run. The amount of time it took for the code to run meant that you had to get it right the first time round. Any mistake meant standing in line at the terminal again, and further time to run  the code.

The problem was particularly dire in the USSR, where the planned economy meant that the shortages of computer resources were shorter. This has been cited as a reason as to why Russian programmers who migrated to the US were prized – they had practice in writing code that worked for the first time.

Anyway, the point of this post is that coding became progressively easier through the second half of the 20th century, when Moore’s Law was in operation, and computers became faster, smaller and significantly more abundant.

This process continues – computers continue to become better and more abundant – smartphones are nothing but computers. On the other side, however, as storage has gotten cheap and data capture has gotten easier, data sources are significantly larger now than they were a decade or two back.

So if you are trying to write code that uses a large amount of data, it means that each run can take a significant amount of time. When the data size reaches big data proportions (when it all can’t be processed on a single computer), the problem is more complex.

And in that sense, every time you want to run a piece of code, however simple it is, execution takes a long time. This has made bugs much more expensive again – the amount of time programs take to run means that you lose a lot of time in debugging and rewriting your code.

It’s like being in the 1970s all over again!

Asking people out and saving for retirement

As early readers on this blog might be aware of, I had several unsuccessful attempts at getting into a relationship before I eventually met the person who is now my wife. Each of those early episodes had this unfailing pattern – I’d somehow decide one day that I loved someone, get obsessed with her within a short period of time, and see dreams for living together happily ever after.

All this would happen without my having made the least effort on figuring out how to communicate my feelings for the person in question, and that was something I was lousy at. On a couple of occasions I took a high risk strategy, simply approaching the person in question (either in person or online), and expressing my desire to possibly get into a long-term gene-propagating relationship with her.

Most times, though, I’d go full conservative. Try to make conversation. Talk about banal things. Talk about things so banal that the person would soon find me uninteresting and not want to talk to me any more; and which would mean that I had no chance of getting into a relationship – never mind “long-term” and “gene-propagating”.

So recently Pinky the ladywife (who, you might remember, is a Marriage Broker Auntie) and I were talking about strategies to chat up people you were interested in (I must mention here we used to talk about such random stuff in our early conversations as well – Pinky’s ability to indulge in “arbit conversations” were key in my wanting to get into a long-term gene-propagating relationship with her).

As it happens with such conversations, I was telling stories of how I’d approach this back in the day. And we were talking about the experiences of some other people we know who are on the lookout for long-term gene-propagating relationships.

Pinky, in one of her gyaan-spouting moods, was explaining why it’s important that you DON’T have banal conversations in your early days of hitting on someone. She said it is important that you try to make the conversation interesting, and that meant talking about potentially contentious stuff. Sometimes, this would throw off the counterparty and result in failure. But if the counterparty liked the potentially contentious stuff, there was a real chance things might go forward.

I might be paraphrasing here, but what Pinky essentially said is that in the early days, you should take a high-risk strategy, but as you progress in your relationship, you should eschew risk, and become more conservative. This way, she said, you maximise the chances of getting into and staying in a relationship.

While I broadly agree with this strategy (when she first told me this I made a mental note of why I’d never been able to properly hit on anyone in the first place), what I was struck by is how similar it is to save for your retirement. 

There are many common formulae that financial advisors and planners use when they help clients save for retirement. While the mechanics might vary, there is a simple principle – invest in riskier securities when you are young, and progressively decrease the risk profile of your portfolio as you grow older. This way, you get to maximise the expected portfolio value at the time of retirement. Some of these investment strategies are popularly known as “glide path” strategies.

Apart from gene propagation, one of the purposes of getting into a long-term relationship is that there will be “someone who’ll need you, someone who’ll feed you when you’re sixty four”. Sixty four is also the time when you’re possibly planning to retire, and want to have built up a significant retirement kitty. Isn’t it incredible that the strategies for achieving both are rather similar?

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.