Category Archives: arbit

Warming the house

Midway through my housewarming function on Sunday, I had a “Lawrence of Arabia” moment. In the movie, Lawrence, a reluctant soldier has to execute a guy named Gasim in the Arab army he is leading. Lawrence shoots Gasim, and then finds that he actually enjoys killing people. This is probably one of the pivotal moments in the story.

My day had begun badly, as the priests who were supposed to turn up by 5, did not make their appearance until a full hour later. What was interesting was that the photographer, who had been asked to turn up at 630 came in a full hour earlier. With the priests not coming in till it was close to 6, I was going bonkers, and declaring war on the priest community, and regretting that I had agreed for a religious ceremony at all.

They arrived soon, however, and off I went to change into a silk panche (not a great idea for summer). And I heard clapping and shouting outside. Three eunuchs had invaded the house and were refusing to leave until they had been paid Rs. 1100. I must mention this was the first time I had been so harassed. And these people were refusing to negotiate or bow to threats. Finally the demanded sum was paid and off they went. This transaction has been recorded in my housewarming ceremony income and expenses statement.

My official family priest, who was unable to make it thanks to an earlier booking, had mentioned that the complexities of handling a housewarming meant that we had to employ four priests. Any doubts of any value that multiple priests added were dispelled in the first few minutes of the ceremony beginning. One priest with a good voice chanting mantras can occasionally be pleasing to hear. But four priests singing in tandem, not all of them at the perfect pitch – which created a nice effect – and not all of them singing simultaneously, was phenomenal. Their chants reverberated off the walls of the empty house (not too many people want to turn up for a ceremony at 7 am on a Sunday, so we had spared most guests the moral agony and had invited them only for lunch), and when it was accompanied by the ringing of bells, as it was occasionally, it was absolutely mindblowing.

It was around this time that I had the Lawrence of Arabia moment. After all my protestations against religious ceremonies and suchlike, I discovered that I was actually enjoying the process. The sound was fantastic. With significant hand-holding from the priest what I had to do was also enjoyable – throw flowers into one area at irregular intervals. I could construct my own little games (not unlike Pee-ball) and it was a lot of fun.

After a short break for coffee and a longer one for breakfast (technically you are supposed to fast during such events but such rules have become flexible nowadays), it was time for the “homa” or throwing things into the ritual fire as an offering to the fire god Agni and his wife Swaha. I didn’t start the fire. It was initially lit using burning camphor by two aunts. It was fueled mostly by the priests (another time when multiple priests came in handy – two chanted the mantras while the other two kindled the fire).

My role here was to occasionally pour in ghee using the small wooden ladle, and then later put in “modaks” (fried momos filled with coconut and sugar) into the fire. Again I invented my own little games. How do you throw the modak such that it immediately catches fire? How do you ensure the modak doesn’t bounce outside of the fire pot? Can you create patterns with the burning modaks?

Midway through this ritual I started imagining doing a barbecue on this ritual fire (this thought was fueled by a particular modak, which on partial burning, started looking like a piece of grilled chicken). A couple of days earlier I had imagined what would happen if illegal weeds were to be procured and added to the ritual fire. The wife and I had then thought that the original intended purpose of such rituals was communal bakery.

We had planned to finish the ceremonies by 9:30, so that we could prepare to receive guests who would arrive around 11. The problem is that if you are the only person(s) who know certain guests, they can get lost and bored if you are stuck in rituals. Hence we had planned the rituals such that we could be ready to receive guests by the time they arrived. We had built in an hour an a half of slack (9:30 to 11), and it came of good use as the rituals ceased at 10:30 (the hour’s delay being a function of the delay in priests’ arrival).

Guests came, saw, ate and went. Around 5 in the evening the wife started cleaning the house. By 8, there were no traces of a ceremony having happened there. And we went out.

Tradition demands you spend a night in the new house even if you don’t intend to move in immediately. We went to bed at 12, after having opened the presents. Initially sleep was good. Then we got woken up at 430 by a pack of dogs that were prowling the streets and fighting. Then we tried to get back to sleep, but were again woken up by the nearby mosque’s azaan. I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come once we move.

 

Getting monkeys off your back

I’m mortally scared every time I make pulav. Now, I’m reputed to be a pretty good pulav maker – at least the wife and the mother-in-law will vouch for this, and it is this reputation that puts pressure on me every time I stand throwing spices into the pressure cooker. “The law of averages will soon catch up with me”, I think, and hope that this is not the time it will catch up.

Normally, if you make pulav seven times, and each time make it better than the previous time, you begin to think you’re becoming an expert in that and you can do no wrong thenceforth. I don’t feel that way. Knowing myself fairly well, I know it’s nigh impossible for me to hit 100% accuracy in pretty much anything that I do – at best I can hit a 90%. That I got a “hit” seven times in a row means that the coin fell on the 90% side seven times, and even assuming a Markovian process (success or failure of this batch of pulav is unrelated to previous performances), it gives me a 10% chance of failure each time I make it!

The thing with making pulav in a pressure cooker is that when it comes out well, it comes out great, but it can go spectacularly wrong. I don’t use formal measures for the amount of rice and water I use – it is all based on rules of thumb (literally – sometimes I stick my thumb into the mixture in the pressure cooker to feel if the amount of water is right). And I know that if I put too much water, it can end up being a soggy mess. At the other end, it can end up not cooking at all, or worse, burning.

So when a couple of months back my pulav went marginally wrong (slightly watery, but not inedible) – it made me feel happy. It made me feel happy that the law of averages had caught up with me, and that it didn’t result in a spectacular failure! Sometimes when you know that you are due for a failure, it can be self-reinforcing and result in spectacular failures. So it helps to take a mild fall once in a while that gives you the assurance that you’re human after all, and doesn’t put undue pressure on you the next time.

So what do you think about your continued successes, in the kitchen, at the workplace, and elsewhere? Does that make you feel better or worse? Does it lead to a sense of hubris, or greater self-doubt? Do leave a comment here and let me know.

Levels of polymorphism

Different languages have different levels of polymorphism, and it is a function of the environment in which the language developed. I discovered this last night when someone wrote on twitter that there is no word in Tamil for snow:

That got me thinking as to whether Kannada has a word for snow. Thinking of words for all the super-rain things in Kannada, I figured that “hima” is the word for fog, and “manju” means mist. But there is no word for snow in Kannada!

I put up the question on twitter, and the answers again were variations of the list I’ve put up earlier – some suggested “hima”, others “hani” (means “drops”, as in “raindrops”). One suggested “tushaara” for snow, but it’s not a commonly used word, so while it might be valid, I was looking for more commonly used words.

It then dawned on me that like the Tamil country, “solid rain” (apart from hailstones – which has its own Kannada word Anekal – translates to “elephant stone”) is not all that common in the Kannada country too. Yes, the Kannada country is cooler than Tamil country, and “solid rain” does happen, but it doesn’t happen on a regular enough basis for each type to have a word of its own. So, while I might think that “hima” is fog (since that’s the context in which it’s used in Bangalore), it also stands for “snow”! It’s all solid rain, and since it’s not all that common, you can have one word that describes it all! Interestingly, I can’t think of a Kannada word for “ice” also (again I haven’t learnt Kannada formally, though I speak the language at home. So what i know is the everyday spoken language)!

On a different note, in Japanese, the same word “Ao” is used to describe both blue and green! I’m again not sure if this because Japanese people are blue-green colour-blind, but the level of polymorphism in colour is interesting. At the other end of the scale, Italian has at least three words to describe different shades of blue (my knowledge of Italy, and Italian, I must mention, is mostly from football).

First, you have “celesti” or sky blue, as in the Biancocelesti of Lazio:

Then you have the blue of the sea or “azzure”, as in Inter Milan’s Nerazzuri

And finally, the word “Blu” is used for dark blue, as in Genoa’s Rossoblu. 

As if all this was not enough, they have Viola for purple!

It is interesting how different languages use different levels of polymorphism for different things!

Countercyclical business

I realize being a freelance management consultant is countercyclical business. For two years in succession, I’ve had a light March – both years I’ve ended up finishing projects in Jan/Feb. With March being the end of the Indian financial year, most companies are loathe to commit additional spending in March, and it is a bad time to start new projects!

This is counter-cyclical because most other businesses end up having a bumper March, since they have end-of-year targets, and with a short sales cycle, they push their salespersons hard to achieve this target in March!

Getting depressed over trivial issues..

When Jonathan Trott returned home midway through the Ashes citing depression, a number of commentators heckled him saying he was returning because he was having nighitmares about facing up to Mitchell Johnson. While it might be true that he did have nightmares of facing Johnson, it is unlikely to have been the cause of his exit.

When you talk to people about depression, they say it is an overblown problem and you get replies such as “but everyone is depressed at some time or the other” or “80% of the world is depressed, and they  get on with their lives, so what makes you special?” What I want to highlight here is the difference between getting depressed and suffering from depression – the two are different things, and it is unfortunate polymorphism that leads to people believing otherwise.

You are likely to get depressed if you flunk an exam. You are very likely to get depressed if your dog dies. You are extremely likely to get depressed and get worried about the thought of facing Mitchell Johnson the next morning. And all this is intuitive – 9 out of 10 people (number pulled out of thin air, but I suspect that is about the ballpark) are likely to get depressed for the above reasons. Then, something else happens, you come to terms with the situation, you figure out how to move on, and you move on, and you are not depressed any more. Sometimes you are likely to be depressed for longer than usual, but you eventually recover.

When you suffer from depression (the disease, not the symptom, to help with the polymorphism), though, you not only get depressed for the big issues (like flunking an exam or losing your dog), but also for tiny issues that should not be normally bothering you.

You get depressed that someone didn’t pick up your call – and if you also suffer from anxiety, you can worry endlessly on whether they are pissed off with you that they didn’t pick your call. You get depressed that the masala dosa you ate this morning didn’t taste perfect. That you could not find the right sentence to complete this paragraph bothers you endlessly.

Coming back to Trott, he didn’t go home because he had nightmares about Johnson – you don’t need to be depressed to have those nightmares. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if even the mentally strongest of English batsmen didn’t have nightmares about facing Johnson.

Trott went home because things that are seemingly trivial and generally not worth getting depressed about were bothering him. Would he get his favourite seat the next day on the team bus? Would the hotel make his omelette to the right consistency? What route would the bus take to get to the ground?

My understanding (you should read Marcus Trescothick’s Coming back to me, about his battles with depression, to understand what really can affect you) is that Trott left the tour because he was getting bothered about seemingly trivial issues. When seemingly trivial issues start bothering you, it is a problem, since there are usually a lot of seemingly trivial issues in everyone’s daily lives, and if you get bothered by everything, you have no mind space left to do your job – which in Trott’s case is to go out and get runs against Johnson and Co. And so you go home.

To summarize, you are (clinically) depressed if and only if you get depressed and fret over things that should not normally depress you.

Narendra Modi should short the Nifty

The common discourse is that businesses like Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, and that India’s economic growth would get back on track if he were to become PM following the elections this summer. For example, this view was articulated well by my Takshashila colleague V Anantha Nageswaran in an Op-Ed he wrote for Mint last Tuesday, where he spoke of a “binary outlook for India” – either economic growth under Modi or further populism and stagnation under a Third Front.

Based on this view being the consensus, one can expect that the Indian stock market would go up significantly in case of a Narendra Modi victory, and would tank in case the Modi (and/or his party BJP) ends up doing badly. So what should Modi do?

He should short the stock markets, and fast. He needs money to run his campaigns, and he might be taking funds from friends and well-wishers, who expect some kind of payback in kind if/when Modi becomes PM. The question, however, is how he will pay them back in case he fails to become PM!

He will not have the power to pay back in kind. There is only so much he will be able to do as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. And given that he has got a lot of fair weather friends over the last couple of years, some of them might be disappointed that he didn’t become PM, and will ask for immediate payment. So how does Modi service these debts?

A part of his campaign budget should go into shorting the Nifty – perhaps by means of buying puts (with a May expiry – not sure they’re traded yet). This way, in case of his victory, he will end up losing his premium, but he will be able to pay back his creditors in kind, since he will be PM. In case he loses? The markets will tank anyway, and he will end up making a packet on these puts, which can then be used to pay back his current well=wishers!

Easy, no?

Depression and playing out the overs

There are two ways to bat – you can either seek to score runs or you can seek to play out the overs. Some puritan fans of Test cricket argue that the latter is the more important skill – that you are not a good Test player unless you can play out the overs when required. However, cricket matches are won only when you score more runs than the other team, and so while playing out the overs is important at certain times in the match, the value of run-scoring ability should not be ignored.

Sometimes, however, especially say when you are chasing a big fourth innings target on a nebulous wicket, you could decide to eschew any thoughts on run scoring and instead focus on hanging in there. You decide to devote all your energies to just “staying alive”, and just playing out the overs. In that sense, yes, playing out the overs without necessarily scoring runs can sometimes be a valid strategy.

However, you should notice that it remains a valid strategy only until the end of that particular Test match! Once the stumps are drawn at the end of the fifth day, with you hopefully still unbeaten and your team escaping with a draw, things are reset to zero! The next Test match is a whole new game, and you start off from zero, and you cannot afford to start that Test match batting the same way you did while you were trying to save the earlier match! You need to realize that you should include some run-scoring in your objective function, too!

Sometimes in life, when you are going through a tough phase for whatever reason, you might make a decision to “simply hang in there”. At these points in time, you don’t care whether you really achieve something in that time period – all you seek to do is to prevent further damage to yourself – this is similar to trying to play out the overs in a Test match.

I argue that this can be a viable strategy if and only if you decide to “play out the overs” until a fixed point in time! The difference between game and life is that game has a specified end-point. At four thirty on the final day, if you are still batting, the game is a draw, irrespective of whether you were one down or nine down! The next Test starts on a clean slate. This, however, doesn’t apply to life.

Life doesn’t have clear breakpoints like cricket does. And sometimes when you get yourself “nine down and far behind in terms of runs”, you find that you begin the “next Test match” (if you can divide life into discrete units called Test matches) at a disadvantage, and soon find yourself far behind and unable to cope.

Given that life doesn’t play out the same way as a game of cricket, you should use the strategy of “playing out the overs” only sparingly, and only when you see a clear “gamechanger moment” after which your equation is reset to zero! If you choose to overplay this strategy, however, not much good is going to come out of it.

So, what does depression have to do with all this? I’ve found depression to be a state of mind where you want to play out the overs even in situations where it is not the right thing to do (think, for example, of India’s third Test against the West Indies in Dominica in 2011). And soon you get into the state of mind of just playing out the overs that you lose all ambitions and hopes and desires for run-scoring. And soon you find yourself in a rut. And you decide to “play out” the rut by continuing to dig in. And that makes you sink deeper. It becomes harder to “play out” but now you know no other strategy, and soon get into a bad downward spiral.

If you find yourself “playing out the overs” way too often, it is an indication of trouble. It means that you are possibly exposing yourself to a downward spiral. And it is possible that you need help. The next time you get the desire of wanting to “play out the overs”, check if there is going to be an end to it, and implement the strategy if and only if you see a clear end.

Does facebook think my wife is my ex?

The “lookback” video feature that Facebook has launched on account of its tenth anniversary is nice. It flags up all the statuses and photos that you’ve uploaded that have been popular, and shows you how your life on facebook has been through the years.

My “lookback” video is weird, though, in that it contains content exclusively from my “past life”. There is absolutely no mention of the wife, despite us having been married for over three years now! And it is not like we’ve hidden our marriage from Facebook – we have a large number of photos and statuses in the recent past in which both of us have been mentioned.

Now, the danger with an exercise such as the lookback is that it can dig up unwanted things from one’s past. Let’s say you were seeing someone, the two of you together were all over Facebook and then you broke up. And then when you tried to clean up Facebook and get rid of the remnants of your past life, you miss cleaning up some stuff. And Facebook picks that up and puts that in you lookback video, making it rather unpleasant.

I’m sure the engineers at Facebook would have been aware of this problem, and hence would have come up with an algorithm to prevent such unpleasantness. Some bright engineer there would have come up with a filter such that ex-es are filtered out.

Now, back in January 2010, the (now) wife and I announced that we were in a relationship. Our respective profiles showed the names of the other person, and we proudly showed we were in a relationship. Then in August of the same year, the status changed to “Engaged’, and in November to “Married”. Through this time we we mentioned on each other’s profiles as each other’s significant others.

Then, a year or two back -I’m not sure when, exactly – the wife for some reason decided to remove the fact that she is married from facebook. I don’t think she changed her relationship status, but didn’t make the fact that she’s married public. As a consequence, my relationship status automatically changed from “Married to Priyanka Bharadwaj” to just “Married”.

So, I think facebook has this filter that if someone has once been your significant other, and is not that (according to your Facebook relationship status) anymore, he/she is an ex. And anyone who is your ex shall not appear in your lookback video – it doesn’t matter if you share status updates and photos after your “break up”.

Since Priyanka decided to hide the fact that she’s married from Facebook, facebook possibly thinks that we’ve broken up. The algorithm that created the lookback video would have ignored that we still upload pictures in which both of us are there – probably that algorithm thinks we’ve broken up but are still friends!

So – you have my lookback video which is almost exclusively about my past life (interestingly, most people who appear in the video are IIMB batchmates, and I joined Facebook two years after graduation), and contains nothing of my present!

Algorithms can be weird!

The Congress Party is a bubble

I think the congress party is a bubble. From what I’ve observed of the party in the last 10-15 years, they have no real ideology other than “loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family”. In other words, they have grown and flourished significantly without having any strong fundamentals. Which means they are in a bubble.

Let’s say you are a congressman and for whatever reason you were pissed off with Rahul Gandhi following his interview with Arnab Goswami on Monday. Now, because the uniting ideology in the party is “devotion to the family”, you cannot come out in criticism of the family or one of its members. If you do, you get hounded by other Congressmen, whose loyalty to the party is chiefly due to loyalty to the family.

Now, imagine a large number of congressmen think thus. If they had a way to communicate to each other about their displeasure with the family, they would come together and raise a no confidence motion against the party leadership. However, the problem is that no Congressman wants to let it be known in the party that he doesn’t like the family, for he can be accused of betrayal and removed from the party. Hence he keeps his thoughts to himself. That he keeps his thoughts to himself means that other congressmen who feel the same way also keep their similar thoughts to themselves, and the general discourse is that all congressmen are loyal to the family.

So why is “the family” is so powerful in the Congress? The answer is that the family is powerful because Congressmen think the family is powerful. A congressman thinks that his career in the party will be furthered if he is seen as being loyal to the family. So irrespective of his opinion, he puts up a facade of being loyal, and that increases the value of being loyal to the family!

A commodity is said to be in a bubble if its price is being driven up solely because other players in the market think that its price is going to be driven up, without the fundamentals being in favour of an increase in prices. You can think of “the family” of the Congress as one such commodity. Congressmen like to praise the family (i.e. go long the commodity) because they think everyone else in the Congress is doing the same, and thus the “price” is going to increase.  You can see the cycle of positive reinforcement that is at play here.

Like all bubbles, the Congress Party bubble is also bound to burst. And like other burst bubbles, this one is likely to end badly for the party – a split in the party cannot be ruled out in the period immediately after the bubble is burst.

The problem with bubbles, however, is that you don’t know when it will burst – anyone who can predict when a bubble can burst would be an extremely rich person. And you don’t want to be shorting a stock thinking the bubble might burst, only for the bubble to continue. And so you continue to dance, for the music is still playing.

Long mails

As you might have noticed from my blog posts over the years, I like writing long essays. By long, I mean blog post long. Somewhere of the length of 800-1000 words. I can’t write longer than that, because of which my attempts to write a book have come to nought.

Now, thanks to regular blogging for over nine years, I think I’ve become better at writing rather than speaking when I have to explain a complicated concept. Writing allows me to structure my thoughts better, whereas while speaking I sometimes tend to think ahead of what I’m talking, and end up making a mess of it (I had a major stammer when I was in school, by the way).

Given that I like explaining concepts in writing rather than in speech, I write long mails even when it comes to work. Writing long emails is like writing blog posts – you have the time and space to structure your thought well and present it to your readers. This especially helps if the thoughts you are to communicate are complex.

The problem, however, is that most people are not used to reading long emails in a work contexts. People prefer to do meetings instead. Or they just call you up. For whatever reason, the art of long emails has never really taken off in the corporate sphere, Maybe people just want to talk too much.

This, of course, has never deterred me from using my favourite means of communication. It didn’t stop me when I was an employee and the people I wrote to were colleagues. It still doesn’t stop me now, when I’m a consultant, writing to people who are paying me for a piece of work. If they are paying me, I should communicate things to them in a form they are most comfortable with, you might argue. If they are paying me, I should communicate things as well as I can, I argue back, and my best means of communication is writing long emails.

The problem with long emails, however, is that, like long-form articles you send to a Pocket or an Instapaper, you tend to bookmark these long mails for later, intending to read and digest them when you have the time. So, when you send a long email, you are unlikely to get a quick response (note that you can sometimes use it to your advantage). This means that when you write long mails, you might have to follow it up with an SMS or a phone call to the effect of “read and digest and let me know if you have any questions”.

In my last organization, I worked with a number of technical people, some of whom had PhDs. It was interesting to contrast the way they communicated with my long emails. They too would put complex thoughts in writing, except that they would use Latex and make a PDF out of it. It would be littered with equations and greek symbols, in a way that is extremely intuitive for an academic to read.

And here I was, eschewing all that Greek, preferring to write in plain text in the body of emails. No wonder some of my colleagues started terming my emails “blogposts”.