Mata Amrita Index needs a new dimension

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

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.

Why Brits talk so much about the weather

One stereotype about British people is that they are always talking about the weather. In the absence of any other topic to talk about, they get back down to talking about the weather.

Having lived here for a day after a half after moving here yesterday, I can offer one explanation about why Brits talk so much about the weather – the high information content. In the last day and half, the weather here has been so volatile that the information content in statements about the weather can be rather high.

Most places in the world have rather predictable weather. Delhi has hot summers and cold winters. It almost always rains in the tropical rain forests. It almost always rains in Mumbai during the monsoon. And so on. And when the weather is predictable, the information content in describing it is rather low.

For example, if there is a 90% chance that it will rain in Mumbai one monsoon day, a statement on the presence or absence of rain contains only 0.47 bits of information/entropy (-0.9 log 0.9 – 0.1 log 0.1). If the probability that a summer day in Delhi will be sunny is 99%, then the information content in talking about the weather is just 0.08 bits.

The thing with London weather, based on my day and half of observation, is that it is wildly volatile. This afternoon, for example, there was a hailstorm. And only a couple of minutes later there was bright sunshine. And then there was another hailstorm. I can see heavy rain from my window as I write this now.

Crow and fox getting married in London

A post shared by Karthik S (@skthewimp) on

So given how crazy and volatile the weather in London is, the information content in talking about the weather is rather high. As I write, there’s sunshine streaming through my window, and heavy rain outside. And I’m chatting with a friend who lives not very far from here, and whatever I tell her about the weather here is “information” to her, since it’s not the same there.

It’s this craziness and high volatility in weather in Britain that makes it worth talking about. The information content in a statement about the weather is always high. And this is not the case elsewhere in the world. And so people elsewhere get annoyed by Brits talking about the weather.

PS: What does it tell you that I’m blogging about the weather a day and half after landing in Britain?

BrEntry

So we moved to London yesterday. The wife has got a job here, and Berry and I have tagged along as “dependants”. My dependant visa allows me to work here, though it has been mentioned rather complicated as “Restricted no doctor/dentist training no sport”. Basically I can do everything else. The five-month old’s visa stamp simply says “work permitted”! Go figure.

This is not the first time I’m living in London. I’d very briefly (for the length of a mid-MBA internship) lived here twelve years ago, and as luck would have it, our cab from the airport to the temporary apartment passed under that office on the way (that employer has moved offices since, I’ve been told).

London welcomed us with some fabulous weather yesterday – I actually considered getting my sunglasses out! Wasn’t too cold (one jacket was enough) and mostly didn’t rain, so despite being sleepless and tired from our journey, we ended up setting out to put beats and meet some friends. While we were waiting at the bus stop, though, it did drizzle a bit, making me reconsider whether we should really go out. Then, my wife reminded me that we weren’t in Bangalore any more, and poor weather is no excuse to put NED.

We took Berry in her stroller yesterday. Walking around with it was peaceful – for the large part, footpaths exist, and though not as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks, there are no problems at all with taking the stroller around. It’s not a problem on buses either, but the tube is a real bitch. Most stations don’t have elevators, and you need to carry the strollers up or down stairs. And we haven’t yet figured how to hold it while climbing down escalators, which left little Berry rather scared as she got on for her first tube ride. Henceforth, when a tube ride is involved, we’ll most likely put her in her baby carrier rather than the stroller!

Keeping her warm is a challenge, though. As a good South Indian kid, she refuses to wear any warm clothes and we need to endure significant screaming when we make her wear a warm jacket. We also need to figure out a strategy for the rain. We’ve got this plastic cover for her stroller, but a different strategy is required when carrying her in her carrier (the carrier is also hard to wear when wearing a coat of any kind).

Finally, a note about coffee. Firstly, it isn’t that expensive – a typical coffee at Costa is around £2.25 (I’m still conditioned to thinking GBP/EUR = 1, though I realise I need to add 15% to convert pound prices to Euros, which I’m used to). But the coffee at Costa itself was disappointing.

They promised a Cortado, which is a Spanish concept where very little milk is added to a shot of espresso, giving a rather strong coffee. Costa advertised at their door that they served some three kinds of Cortado (a travesty in itself). And the cortado itself had way too much milk for it to be called a Cortado!

I hope to continue to make pertinent observations, unless I join an employer where continued blogging might seem too dangerous (I’ve worked for those kinds of employers in the past but don’t want to take chances again)! And you might remember that this blog “took off” in terms of the number of posts the first time I was in Britain!

Yet another failed attempt at curbing wedding reception queues

For a long time now I’ve been obsessed about queues at Indian wedding receptions. The process at a reception is simple – you get to the hall, and immediately line up. Once you hit the head of the queue, you get to greet the newly wed couple, give them gifts and get photographed with them. Then you’re shown the way to the dining hall where you have dinner and put exit.

When I started my research into reception queues, my aim had been to save the guests at my own wedding the trouble of lining up for too long. As it happened, I’d failed to spot the bottleneck in time, and hence failed spectacularly. Over a few more weddings that I attended, I cracked the mystery, though – the main bottleneck was in the wedding video.

As I wrote a few months back:

… Then you hear the click of the photographer’s shutter, and start moving, and the videographer instructs you to stay. For he is taking a “panning shot” across the width of the stage. Some 30 seconds later, the videographer instructs you to move, and the bride and groom ask you to have dinner and show you the way off stage.

The embarrassing bit for the guests, in my opinion, is that having struck a photogenic pose for the photo, they are forced to hold this pose for the duration that the videographer pans. Considering that photogenic poses are seldom comfortable, this is an unpleasant process….

So when my sister-in-law got married a couple of days back, I thought it was time to finally put my research to good use, and save her guests the trouble of standing in line for too long. A couple of hours before the reception on Thursday, I went and had a quiet word with the videographer. I told him about how the panning shot held up queues, and so he should make it quick. After a little discussion, he agreed to use a wider angle for the shot, and cut down the time by half.

Around 8 pm, half an hour after the reception started, the queue wasn’t too long. I was secretly happy that my method was working, but there was the possibility that the short queue was down to low arrival rate rather than high process rate. Fifteen minutes later, the queue had built up through the length of the hall, and would remain so for another half hour. My efforts had come down to nought.

It was when I went up on stage to introduce some of my relatives to the bride (I was the cut-vertex in the network between the married couple and these guests, so my presence was required) that I realised what the problem was. The videographer I’d spoken to had been doing his job, panning quickly, but he wasn’t the only one.

There is always a level of mistrust between the families of the couple at any Indian wedding, and this is mainly down to them not knowing each other well. So there is redundancy built in. Usually, each side brings its own priest. The two halves of the couple collect their gifts separately. And most annoyingly for me, each side arranges for its own photographer and videographer.

So the problem was that while our videographer had been panning quickly as instructed, the videographer engaged by my now brother-in-law-in-law was in no such hurry, and was taking his own time to plan. And since I hadn’t engaged him, it wasn’t possible for me to tell him to hurry up.

And so some guests had to endure a long wait in the queue. If you were one of those, my apologies to you – for I didn’t anticipate the double-videographer problem which would hold up the queue. And my apologies once again to those who had to wait in queue at my wedding as well!

Getting candid at coffee day

I have a reputation for occasionally saying outrageous things, and things that I shouldn’t be saying. I frequently make people uncomfortable by saying what I say, including what I sometimes write on my blog. I’ve been long wondering, though, if it is more rational to say shocking stuff to people you know well, or to those you don’t.

I remember this party from ages back where I had just been introduced to this couple, and within ten minutes I’d started expounding the inner beauties of the Goalkeeper Theory (which states that it is okay to hit on someone already in a relationship). I remember the female half of that couple visibly shudder and cling on to her boyfriend within minutes of my exposition.

Some people might recommend higher discretion when you are introduced to someone new, since you don’t want to create a bad first impression. The other way of looking at it is that people you are meeting for the first time, at a cafe or a party or something, are also people you are unlikely to ever encounter once again in life. Consequently, the downside of saying something outrageous is limited. On the other hand, there is a chance that they might be genuinely impressed with your fundaes and you might end up in a stronger relationship (at whatever level) than if you never said the outrageous thing.

On the other hand, while you might be comfortable with people you know well, the danger with saying outrageous or uncomfortable things is that there is a lot at stake. You have already invested significantly in the relationship, which gives you the comfort to say what you want. But if the person genuinely gets offended, you’ve lost a friendship or relationship or more!

So from a risk point of view, if you are the types that likes to make “bold” conversation, and potentially outrage or upset the counterparty, do so when you are still building the relationship. After all, it makes sense to invest in high volatility instruments when the downside is limited!

PS: Don’t try this at a job interview.

More on focal points at reunions

On Friday, just before the IIMB reunion started, I had written about reunions being focal points that help a large number of alumni to coordinate and meet each other at a particular date and venue. What I’d not written about there was the problems that could potentially be caused with the said venue being large.

In this case, the venue was the IIMB campus itself. While all official events, meals and accommodation for outstation attendees had been arranged in a single building (called MDC), the fact that people would explore the campus through the event made the task of coordination rather difficult.

The whole point of a reunion is to meet other people who are attending the event, and so it is important that people are able to find one another easily. And when the venue is a large area without clear lines of sight, finding one another becomes a coordination game.

This is where, once again, Thomas Schelling’s concept of Focal Points comes in. The game is one of coordination – to land up at locations in the venue which maximise the chances of meeting other people. While our class WhatsApp group enabled communication, the fact that people wouldn’t be checking their phones that often during the reunion meant we could assume there was no communication. So when you arrived at the venue, you had to guess where to go to be able to meet people.

Schelling’s theory suggested that we look for the “natural, special or relevant” places, which would be guessed by a large number of people as the place where everyone else would coordinate. In other words, we had to guess what others were thinking, and what others thought other others were thinking. Even within the reunion, focal points had become important! The solution was to search at those specific points that had been special to us back in the day when we were students.

On Saturday morning, I took about ten minutes after entering campus to find batchmates – I had made poor guesses on where people were likely to be. And once I found those two batchmates at that first point, we took a further twenty minutes before we met others – after making a better guess of the focal point. Given that the reunion lasted a bit more than a day, this was a significant amount of time spent in just finding people!

 

 

A simpler solution would have been to start with a scheduled event that everyone would attend – the venue and starting time of the event would have defined a very obvious focal point for people to find each other.

And the original schedule had accommodated for this – with a talk by the Director of IIMB scheduled for Saturday morning 10 am. It seemed like a rather natural time for everyone to arrive, find each other and go about the reunion business.

As it happened, revelry on the previous night had continued well into the morning, because of which the talk got postponed. The new starting point was to “meet for lunch around noon”. With people who were staying off-campus, and those arriving only on Saturday arriving as per the original schedule, search costs went up significantly!

PS: This takes nothing away from what was finally an absolutely fantastic reunion. Had a pretty awesome time through the duration of it, and I’m grateful to classmates who came from far away despite their large transaction costs.