Category Archives: arbit

Twisting and shouting

Ten years ago to the day, there was tragedy. Around this time I was home. That day I remember my father’s usual Ambassador (his office car) wasn’t available, so he had come in a blue WagonR which looked like anything but a government car. Not that I could see too well, though.

Back in 2004, spectacle lenses made of plastic weren’t yet popular, and even if they were available they were quite expensive. I remember having a shell frame back then (like I do now, except that that one was an ugly-ish brown). The lens was made of glass – the kind that could shatter on impact and enter your eyes.

And shatter and enter it did. I had instinctively closed my eyes, so not much had gone in, though. My first reaction at that point in time was to remember the phone number of my usual opthalmologist (yes I still remember things like that). I even remember calling that guy’s office (yeah, back on those Nokia phones you could type without looking). Friends, however, were of the opinion that I should go to the nearest eye clinic. And Shekar Netralaya (JP Nagar 3rd Phase) was where we ended up.

It was among the freaker of freak accidents. I was playing badminton. <lj user=”amitng”> and I were on one side, two others on the other. We were both close to the baseline when the opponents sent the shuttle high. Both of us went for it, <lj user=”amitng”> slightly ahead and slightly to the left of me. Both of us drew our rackets back with a slight backswing. And that was it.

His racket caught me flush on the left spectacle lens. The lens duly cracked, and parts of it entered my eye. I remember that the game immediately stopped. I remember that one other guy’s car was right there outside the court, so we could go quickly to the hospital. And back in those days there wasn’t even a signal at the Delmia junction, so the U-turn was taken fast so that I could go to hospital.

I don’t remember what they did at the hospital. I think they cleaned up my eye, but one or two pieces remained particularly troublesome. I remember going for a follow-up test two days later. And I remember that one day after the accident I went all the way back to IIMB (after the accident I went home, in my father’s temporary blue WagonR) so that I wouldn’t miss accounting class (yes I was in my first semester so such youthful enthusiasm can be expected). And went back again the following day to write a test which I nearly aced.

And then there was the back story. 2004 was the first time that the IIMs decided to make public the CAT percentile. They had used an algorithm to allocate percentiles, and allocated it up to two decimal places. So if your “percentile” (with decimal places the term doesn’t make sense) was greater than 99.995 (i.e. you were in the top 0.005% of the 130,000 odd people who wrote the exam), your percentile would get rounded up to give a weird-sounding “100.00 percentile”. Top 0.005% of 130,000 means about six or seven people. Two of those were at IIMB. I was one of them. <lj user=”amitng”> was the other.

During our inauguration the certificates for the “directors merit list” of the senior batch were handed out. It was possibly meant to tell us how important being in the top 10 of the batch was, and I’m sure it did inspire a lot of people. And having been the top performers in the entrance test, people perhaps considered <lj user=”amitng”> and I top seeds (neither of us ended up getting it, though he got considerably closer than I did).

And so when I got injured before our first ever unit test and he was in some ways culpable for it (though in fairness it was on the field of play), there was scope for conspiracy theory. And when you have a bunch of creative youngsters and scope for a conspiracy theory, you can well expect someone to stand up and do the honours. And @realslimcody rose to the occasion. And Twisted Shout was born.

The name of the organization has its own story. @realslimcody is a Beatles fan, and he suggested that he name the yellow journalist enterprise as “twist and shout”. Madness heard it as “Twisted Shout” and the name stuck. A couple of episodes later I duly joined Twisted Shout. And we did a lot of twisting and shouting and yellow journalism. If you were our contemporary and not slandered by Twisted Shout you might consider your stint at IIMB of not being worthy enough!

Of course in a place like IIMB, you don’t do something just for the heck of it. Everything has to result in a “bullet point” in your CV (back in 2005 I’d planned to write a book called “In Search of a Bullet Point” about IIMB, but that again didn’t take off. I put NED, I guess). I think I wrote in my final resume that I was a “co-editor in the campus informal journal Twisted Shout”. I think the placement committee (which whetter all CVs) let that one remain (bless them). And as with all such campus endeavours TS quickly died after we graduated (though I tried to resurrect it in a separate blog on this site, it didn’t take off).

It’s ten years since that landmark incident that sparked the birth of Twist and Shout. I must mention my eye is fine – fine enough for me to wear contact lenses as I type this. There’s a scar inside my eye, though, and that’s something I’ll carry all my life. But it doesn’t affect life one bit, and life goes on!

Oh, I wasn’t right on that one – after the injury the doctor had told me that I shouldn’t let sweat enter my eyes. Two months after the injury I managed to get myself a red bandana (with skull and crossbones on it), and I ended up wearing it at all “sweatable opportunities” – when I played or partied. The bandana got legendary in its own way, and its story shall be told another day (or perhaps it’s already been told somewhere on this blog).

 

Correlated judgment

When you judge people about something, you do not normally judge them on that thing alone. You also judge them on “correlated traits”. For example, there is this popular adage (that was popular when I was in IIT) that goes “beauty times brains equals constant”. This implies that anyone who is above average in terms of looks is likely to be below average in terms of mental capabilities. Whether such a correlation exists is not known, but by instinct if we someone beautiful, we assume that the person is not great in terms of mental ability (in my later years at IIT, we recognized this limitation of the model and proposed “beauty times brains times availability equals constant”, acknowledging that beautiful intelligent people exist, but are most likely taken).

There is no end to such correlations, which usually make rounds around college campuses. For example, there is the “he is the partying types, so is unlikely to be a good worker”. Now, while it is true that the amount of time available to most people is constant, and that heavy partying can come at the cost of working, such an adage discounts the fact that some people could simply be better time managers, or don’t care much for some axis apart from partying and working (sleeping, for example!), which allows them to be good at two things that people are normally not good at!

It is common for people to judge people. However, thanks to implicit correlations of traits that are built into people’s minds, when you get judged on one thing, that is not the only thing you are judged on – you are also judged on the things that are correlated with that!

Time for more examples. Once my parents saw a friend of mine very evidently flirting with a girl. They immediately judged him as being “a flirt” and branded him thus. While judgmental, there is no mistake in that judgment – he was indeed a flirt, and would gladly admit to it. But then my parents, using their inbuilt correlation filters, went one step ahead. “He is such a flirt”, they told me, “We don’t think he is a good person. You should not hang out with him any more”!!

Back in 2005, in IIMB, I had stood for elections to the Academic Council. At a party a week before the elections I happened to get wasted, and ended up talking to people inappropriately. The next morning, as I’m trying to get over my hangover, I heard “dude, how could you get wasted if you are standing for elections?” I have no clue how getting wasted at one party would make me a bad Academic Councillor! I must mention I lost the elections.

It was at a discussion yesterday with Bharati and my wife Priyanka that this topic of correlated judgment came up, when we were discussing how life in a business school can be unforgiving. A few minutes later, Priyanka popped up “that baby was so cute, I expected him to be dumb!”

 

Beer numbers

I’ve always wondered why the craft beer at Arbor, a popular microbrewery in Bangalore, is so potent. While I was losing it on one such last night, I made a small calculation (rather simple) which gave me the answer.

The standard serving size at Arbor is 500 ml. The strength of the beers varies from 5.5% alcohol content to 8% alcohol content. While making this calculation last night, I was sipping the one with 8%. 8% of 500 ml is 40 ml, which means that I had 40ml of unadulterated ethanol (combined with 460 ml of other stuff).

Most standard whiskies and hard liquor have 40% alcohol content. So if I were drinking whisky rather than beer (i usually drink whisky and not beer), that one glass of beer was “worth” 100 ml of whisky!

And what about the “regular” beer that I have, which is a 330ml bottle of Kingfisher Premium? That has 6% alcohol content, or 20 ml of alcohol in a beer, which equates to 50 ml of whisky, which is less than one large peg of whisky! To put it another way, one standard unit of beer at Arbor contains about twice the amount of ethanol as one standard unit of bottled beer!

And then it is manufactured right there – because it is a “microbrewery” it is unlikely for each batch to have the precise amount of alcohol. There will be a margin of error. And I’ve been told (verbally, through the grapevine, so this is not official information) that they err on the side of more alcohol – so when the stated alcohol content in something is 8%, they prepare their setup so that the chances of alcohol content being lower than 8% is extremely low. Put that together with the above calculation and you’ll understand why you get so drunk at Arbor!

Tailpiece

Indian Pale Ale is the “beer of beers”. Beer itself is famously an “acquired taste” – I remember being so disgusted when I had my first beer back in 2004 that I didn’t have another beer for another year. Now I’m quite used to the taste of Kingfisher.

But then the taste of IPA is even more “acquired” than that of bottled beer. I had some trouble finishing the IPA I ordered yesterday – what helped me finish it was perhaps the alcohol content which was already working! On a previous occasion I’ve ordered an IPA and only half-finished it. But then fans of IPA swear by it and go all the way to Arbor specifically for its IPA! So it is the “beer of beer”, or perhaps “beerendra beer” (Bikram Shah Dev).

Tailpiece 2

I was there as a part of a really large gathering (some 25 people), with people entering and exiting at random times, so they instituted a good measure to ensure we paid fairly. Every time someone ordered something, the drink would come along with the bill, which the orderer would clear right there.

This way there was no scope for messy calculations on who owed whom how much and all that, and no need for any bill-splitting algorithms!

 

Upside and downside of bankruptcy

I sometimes think of my mobile phone going out of charge as being similar to filing bankruptcy – if the phone is at 1% battery, the loss is “linear” – all I need to do is to plug it back in and once it’s charged again it’ll function as it used to. There is no “non-linear” loss.

Phone going from 1% to 0% changes that, though. Now, even if you were to plug in the phone as soon as it has gone to 0%, you cannot switch it on till it gets back to some level of battery (that’s the case with my current and earlier androids. Not sure about other phones). Thus, you have a non-linear extra cost because you let the phone hit 0%.

It is similar to bankruptcy in that once you file for bankruptcy you are suddenly piled on with additional paperwork and costs and even if you were to “get charged up”, there will be additional costs that you will have to bear that you wouldn’t have to had you managed to find a plug (funding) when you were close to blackout (bankruptcy) but not yet there! This is the downside of bankruptcy – it imposes non linear costs.

But then there is an upside also – maybe this is a different kind of bankruptcy, but this is one that has upside. Maybe the bankruptcy that I’m going to talk about now is what is called as “Chapter 11″ in the US while what I described earlier is like “Chapter 7″ (do you know that US bankruptcy law is inspired by the Mahabharata? In the great Mahabharata war, the two sides had 7 and 11 regiments respectively. And since it was a disastrous war, the numbers 7 and 11 were picked up by the US bankruptcy lawmakers to name their different kinds of bankruptcy).

So there are times when I have a lot of things to do. I would have bitten off more than I could chew. And I find that I have so many things to do that just thinking about all the things I have to do in that limited time mess up my mind and not allow me to do any of them. It is at such points in time that I sometimes “declare bankruptcy” – declare that I’m not going to do any of the things that I’m supposed to do.

Now, the pressure is off. Since I’ve decided I don’t want to do anything, whatever I do after that is a bonus. Now I can take up these tasks one by one and do more than what I would have had I not decided to declare bankruptcy. There is some downside of course – some tasks might remain incomplete, but importantly more gets done than if I’d declared bankruptcy!

This is the good side of bankruptcy!

Graphing social networks

When I’m meeting a random bunch of people I like to graph out social networks in terms of who knew whom before the meeting happened. For example, I was meeting some friends yesterday – B was in town, and wanted to meet people. He called A and C, who got along D (also known to B). After this meeting B was supposed to meet E, but E landed up anyhow. Based on who knew whom before the meeting this is how the network topology went. People are represented by vertices and if there’s an edge between them that means they know each other.

socialnetwork1So it started with A and B meeting, with C supposed to land up in a while. Now, C knows A and B through two different “affiliation groups”, but knows both quite well. So C lands up, but now the question is what do you talk about. The basic structure of the group – where A-B, B-C and C-A know each other through three separate affiliation groups means you can’t talk about people (thankfully!).

Anyway conversation goes on, and then D lands up. When B asked C if they could meet, he said “I’m not in touch with anyone else here in Bangalore. But if you think there’s someone else from our affiliation group who’s here and wants to meet, bring them along”. Thus, C invites D (whom he hasn’t met for ages) and D lands up.

Now, for the first time,  the group is not a clique – since A and D don’t know each other. It’s up to B and C now to control the conversation in a way that A or D don’t get bored. People talk about work, careers and all that – where anyone can give gyaan.

After a while, E lands up. Now, E doesn’t know anyone else in the group (apart from B). So now, B becomes a cut-vertex. B starts talking to E. With B and E taken out, in the A-C-D network, C is now a cut-vertex! So it’s up to C to manage the conversation with A and D! C isn’t particularly good at that!

Soon A leaves. Now, the group effectively splits, while sitting at the same table. B talks to E (no one else knows E), and C talks to D. All is well.

The problem with the group was that none of the “connectors” (B, C) were particularly good at connecting people, and keeping one conversation. This, though, wasn’t the case at a drinks session I attended on Monday evening. There, the social network at the beginning of the conversation looked like this (variables here all mean different people, only I was common to both meetings):

socialnetwork2

The thin lines here indicate that B-F and E-F had met before, but didn’t know each other well enough. As you can see, A is now the cut-vertex here. The difference, though, is that A is a master networker, and has a self-professed interest in “collecting interesting people”. The group for the meeting was also fully curated by A – no one “brought along” anyone else.

So A ensured that the conversation flowed. He made sure people connected, and there was great conversation. At the end of the day the network was a clique!

I’ve never been good at making these connections. I dread gathering where I’m the cut-vertex – forever afraid that someone might be left out. Connecting and collecting people is surely a skill I need to develop!

PS: At a coffee shop in Mumbai eight summers ago, I was at one end of the social network which looked like this. Don’t ask me how it came about!

socialnetwork3

Hacking life

One of those terms that periodically bubbles up to the top of people’s imagination is “life hacking”. The phrase by itself may or may not make sense – actually looked at the right way, it might. However, the problem with such catchphrases is that they tend to get much abused and people start using them in contexts where they’re not appropriate (think, for example, “big data”. Similarly, I loathe to call myself an “analytics consultant” since that’s much abused. I instead use some variation of “quant management consultant” which is not yet abused).

Coming back to life hacks, the problem with life hacks is that a lot of what goes under the name of life hacking isn’t actually hacks. For example, recently the Mint newspaper (who I write for) published a series on life hacking by this guy called Charles Assisi. The three part series was extremely underwhelming and meh.

Take the first part, for example. It includes supposed “hacks” such as “find yourself” and “get things done”. While I agree that these might be useful principles to live life by, they simply don’t qualify as being hacks.

The basic definition of hacking is to rig up something on the fly. Check out the “hack” page on urban dictionary, for example. Sample some of the (more charitable) definitions of hacking:

A temporary, jury-rigged solution, especially in the fields of computer programming and engineering: the technical equivalent of chewing gum and duct tape. Compare to kludge.

or

 A computerized bartender that automatically mixes your drinks and debits your account? Now THAT’S a hack.

You get the drift right? A hack is something like the Indian “jugaad” – something that’s put together because a mainstream solution doesn’t work. If I buy curtains for my window it’s not a hack. If I cover it up with a bedsheet instead (like I’ve currently done in one of the rooms in my house), it’s a hack!

Coming back to the point, the problem with a lot of “life hacking” discourse is that what it speaks about cannot be classified as hacking (Assisi’s pieces are Exhibits A, B and C of this). The problem, however, is that hacking of any form doesn’t lend itself to newspaper articles, for hacking is always context sensitive.

The reason I’ve used a bedsheet as a curtain is that i have a non-standard sized window and I’m too lazy to go get custom-made curtains – notice that this is a problem unique to me, and hence I’ve hacked together a solution. This, now, cannot be translated to a newspaper piece that says “Home hacks: Use bedsheets as curtains”.

Life hacking, in its traditional form, is rather useful, but doesn’t “travel”. For example, one of the “hacks” that Assisi writes about is “choose focus”. Now, intuitively, there’s nothing “rocket science” about this. For most people, focusing on a task at times can be rather trivial, and thus doesn’t need a “hack”.

But what about people with ADHD like me, who cannot focus? I know that focusing is a wonderful thing, but I can just never get myself to focus. This is where a “hack” (to get myself to focus despite being inherently bad at it) might prove useful – and if the hack proves successful I can “productionize” it. But then, that’s my specific context, and there is no way a newspaper article can address that!

So life hacking exists. Yes, it’s a thing. But it’s a context sensitive thing. A hack that can work for you will not work for me – unless our contexts are extremely similar! Keep that in mind before you profess or import hacks!

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!