Category Archives: fundaes

So much for Nandan Nilekani’s big data campaign

I got a call a couple of hours back on my landline. The wife picked and was asked to transfer the call to me. When she mentioned that I was busy she was asked about what we think of Nandan Nilekani and whether we are considering voting for him. She told them that we are registered to vote in Bangalore North and hence our opinion of Nilekani doesn’t matter.

I don’t know how the Nilekani campaign team got hold of our phone number. Even if they got from some database I don’t know how they assumed we are registered to vote in Bangalore South. For ours is a bsnl landline and bsnl landlines in Bangalore have a definite pattern that most people in Bangalore are aware of.

Back before 2002 or so when landline numbers in Bangalore got their eighth digit (a leading two) the leading digit of a Bangalore number gave away the broad area.

Numbers in South Bangalore started with 6. A leading 2 meant the number was from the government office dominated areas. A leading 5 was for mg road and the north and east of the city (he cantonment area, indiranagar, koramangala etc) and a leading 3 meant it was a northwest bangalore (malleswaram to vijayanagar) number. 8 was reserved for the outskirts.

Now while Bangalore has expanded significantly these patterns are broadly in place. All you need to do to know where a number is located is to look at the second digit – a 3 there still refers to the north and west sides of the city.

Among the areas of Bangalore that make up Nilekani’s constituency the only one that has a second digit of 3 is vijayanagar (and surrounding areas including the govindrajnagar constituency). From that perspective the likelihood of a number with second digit 2 being in Nilekani’s constituency is really low. Clearly their supposed big data algorithm hasn’t picked that!!

Forget just the second digit – look further down the number. It is public information that 2352 is one of the codes of the Rajajinagar telephone exchange, and all numbers covered by that exchange lie in either bangalore north or Central!!

I wasn’t particularly convinced about Nilekani’s use of big data in the first place – it seemed like the usual media hype – now I think that while his campaign team does use data their use of it is not particularly good. The case that the team in charge of the data analysis for Nilekani lacks any domain knowledge of the city.

Dictatorships and primaries

In their excellent book “the dictator’s handbook” Bruno bueno de Mesquita and Alastair smith talk about why dictatorships usually put on a garb of democracy and hold (mostly) sham elections.

According to bueno de Mesquita and smith the reason is not to appear good in front of the international community, as the general discourse goes. Dictators are extremely rational actors, they say, and reputation in the international community didn’t usually give enough benefit to compensate for the cost of the garb of democracy and elections.

Instead, bueno de Mesquita and smith say that the real purpose of the elections is to keep followers in check. If a member of the dictator’s team “misbehaves” for example, getting rid of him is normally a difficult process. Essentially sacking is a hard job for anyone, even for hard nosed dictators. In the context of dictatorships sackings can get controversial and often bloody and is not a particularly pleasant process.

By putting in a garb of democracy, however, there is an easy way to sack an official. Assuming that in a dictatorship most citizens vote according to the fancies of the dictator, all a dictator needs to do to sack an official is to instruct the electorate to vote against the official the next time he is up for reelection. The sacking having been effected by “popular mandate”, the process is easier and likely to be less bloody and troublesome for the dictator.

Now, the question is if we can use this framework to understand the new US-style primary elections that the Indian national congress has been using for candidate selection in some constituencies in the forthcoming elections.

Normally in the congress, like in most other parties in India, candidates for elections are determined top-down, by the party “high command”. The risk with this however is that candidates who did not get a ticket to contest the elections know that for whatever reason the party high command is not in favour of them contesting. This can lead to disillusionment and can lead to defections to rival parties.

In this context a primary election acts as a facade through which the party high command can get its choice of candidates without pissing off those applicants who did not get the ticket. Now the purported message to these unsuccessful applicants is that the next time they should work of getting the support of the party rank and file in their constituency.

In reality however, with the party being high command driven, the rank and file has voted as per the instructions of the high command! The high command thus gets its choice of candidates without losing the support of the unsuccessful candidates.

So why is it that primaries work in the US? For the same reasons that elections work in democracies! In the US parties are truly democratic and organised bottom up. There is no high command there to (credibly) dictate the choices for the rank and file. So the results of the primaries are truly reflective of the opinion of the party rank and file.

In conclusion, given the high command based structure of political parties in India, primaries will not work. Instead they will only end up as instruments in the hands of the party high commands, just like the sham elections on dictatorships.

Available only on flipkart

This mornings mint has a full page advertisement on the front page announcing the launch of the moto x phone in India. The ad mentions that the phone is available in India exclusively on flipkart the online retailer. The question is if this is a good idea.

While it is true that online retail offers the best costs and prices – thanks largely in part to the massive savings on real estate and inventory costs, I’m not sure if we are still thee at a stage where retail can be online only. In fact people like to touch and feel the stuff that they’re buying. Especially when it comes to big ticket purchases such as a phone. Without giving people the opportunity to do so – shops won’t carry the dummy model unless they’re also selling it, at a good margin – I’m not sure how many will want to make the jump and buy.

On a related note I saw a report last week, again in mint, talking about pushback from offline retailers and malls to the online retail phenomenon. This brings into focus how retail will evolve going forward since people now have a low cost (low inventory, zero real estate) option for making their purchases. We’re already seeing some “progress” in that direction where people go to malls and high streets to browse and get a touch and feel and then buy online where the prices are lower.

This points to one direction in which retail might evolve – soon stores in malls and high streets might be set up with the primary purpose of building the brand and letting customers get a touch and feel. Any sales from these stores for the brands will only be a bonus – the primary purpose being to let people know what is out there and to let them touch and feel and experience it.

If this were tO happen we can expect malls and high streets to move to more brand stores and less multi brand stores – unless the latter can somehow either match the cost and price structure of online or get paid for purely providing the experience to the customers.

Either ways we can expect the overall demand for retail real estate space to come down in the next few years. If there are any malls or retail real estate firms which are listed its time to short them. Or by hedging against them by going long on online retail.


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.

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.

Leaving twitter

It has been over three weeks since I signed off twitter. On January 1st, I had left this message on the social network:


After that I logged off twitter on all my computers, deleted tweetdeck from chrome and deleted the twitter app from my phone and iPad. I haven’t changed my twitter password, though, so every time I write a blog post wordpress will send an automatic notification tweet (it is likely that some of you are reading this via the automatic wordpress twitter notification).

The reason I logged off twitter was that I was getting addicted. Every time I had a minute or two of free time I would go check tweets. I was constantly on twitter all my waking hours. I would wake up in the morning to the alarm on my phone, and the first thing I would do was to check twitter. It is not unfair to say that twitter had consumed me.

Hence the effort to log off and delete the apps. So far I haven’t faced any withdrawal symptoms. There are times when I pull out my phone and instinctively go for the twitter app. And then I realize it’s not there, and curb my instincts. While working if I need a break I look for tweetdeck in my Chrome, but then realize it is not there.

So far, Facebook has been a good substitute. The advantage of facebook over twitter is that the former has a much more slow-moving news feed. If you check facebook after an hour or two, there will be two or three status updates on your timeline. Essentially when you instinctively click on facebook, it doesn’t become as much of a time sink as twitter used to.

One of  the reasons I would check twitter was for interesting links and articles. In the last 2-3 years some of the best stuff I’ve read online has been recommended to me by people on twitter. However, I have a way of accessing that without accessing twitter itself – I use this app called Flipboard (on both Android and iPad) and that curates articles that have been recommended by several of my followees and shows them to me. I check Flipboard approximately once a day, read some articles and bookmark some others. Thanks to that, I only get the article content on twitter without all the inane commentary and the PJs.

In my last month on twitter, I had logged off for a day on two-three separate occasions. The problem with twitter of late is that it is turning into yet another TV news channel. When there is an event of some interest, all the diversity on your timeline disappears, and everyone starts talking about the same thing. For a while it is good, for you get different perspectives. And then there is more and more of the sameness and can absolutely drive you nuts.

There is one reason I miss twitter though – for sharing articles. For a long time now I’ve liked to share interesting pieces that I’ve read. Back when Google Reader existed and had the “shared items” feature enabled, a number of people requested to be my GTalk friends just so that they could look at my curated “Google Reader Shared Items” content. Since that feature was taken off, though, I’ve resorted to twitter for sharing interesting articles. Now that I’m off twitter (technically Flipboard and Feedly (my RSS feed reader) allow me to share things on Twitter without logging on, but I don’t want to do that) I need another way.

Facebook doesn’t work, since most facebook friends are of a personal kind and won’t particularly be interested in articles on financial hedging (for example) or football formations. I’m not on any of these link sharing systems such as digg or delicious (assuming I’ve understood correctly how those two work), and I dn’t want to add another social network which can be yet another source of distraction. Hence, I’ve come up with an ingenious solution.

Back when Google took off the sharing feature from Reader, their recommendation was that we use Google Plus instead for sharing links. And that is exactly what I use that social network for. I never log on to that, but every time I read something interesting, it goes there. People say Google Plus is like shouting into an empty room. I don’t know (and don’t care) who reads the links I put there. I don’t share links for popularity. I share it because I think someone might find them interesting.

When I first got off twitter, people told me my resolution won’t last. It’s been three weeks already and i’m happy the way things are. I’m much less distracted, and can work better. I have a lot more time to myself. Time that would earlier be spent saying inane things on twitter is now spent in deep thought – and that is a good thing. I used to be a big fan of long lonely walks. Constant interaction on twitter means I don’t do those any more. But now I get more time for myself. On an auto rickshaw ride to meet some friends last evening for example, I just looked around and thought. It was wonderful!

I don’t rule out ever getting  back to twitter but  I don’t see myself doing so in the near future unless there is a very strong reason, and unless I know I won’t get addicted again. Till both these events happen, I remain away from that social network.

Understanding different kinds of art

There are some kinds of art that I intuitively understand – like an elegant mathematical proof, or a beautiful combination in a game of chess; a Sachin Tendulkar straight drive, or a long-distance beautifully threaded pass by Xabi Alonso. I can easily appreciate a well-done-up home when I see it. Some music makes me go delirious, and there have been times when I’ve actually started rolling on the floor in ecstasy after listening to certain songs.

But there is art that I simply don’t get. Poetry – for example – I’ve never got what is the big deal with that. To me it just looks like a bunch of sentences broken up in random ways, which is supposed to make it sound nice. In fact, I’ve argued earlier that poetry is a vestige of the pre-writing era.

It is the same with “literature”. Some people read books or articles because they are just “written beautifully”.  I absolutely fail to appreciate that phrase. As long as something is explained simply and intuitively, it is enough for me. In fact, when a writer tries to get too cute and makes a conscious effort to “write beautifully” it puts me off, for it makes the reading less intuitive. As a consequence, there’s hardly any fiction I’ve read in the last 5-6 years.

I was thinking of this last evening when I went to watch this dance show called “Prayog 4″ here in Bangalore. I think it was good – the three performances looked extremely well choreographed and well-coordinated, and the dancers seemed to have put in considerable effort into the production. They were all supremely fit and were literally doing gymnastics during the course of the performance. But my appreciation of the performance ended there.

After one of the performances, the wife exclaimed “you know, this dance so represents your and my lives!”. I just couldn’t understand what she was hinting at. All I could see was this one guy dancing round and round in circles, and doing gymnastics on a rope! As I mentioned earlier, his movements were extremely graceful and aesthetically pleasing but I just couldn’t get anything more out of it.

Later last night, my wife asked me what I understood from the first performance (yesterday’s show essentially had three separate performances). “A bunch of chicks doing extremely graceful gymnastics on a bunch of parallel bars”, I replied. “Didn’t you notice how beautifully they represented different emotions during the course of the dance”, she asked. I admitted to recognizing nothing of the sort. Instead, I was sitting there, wondering what the big deal was, and trying to construct this blog post in my head.

“Art” is not unidimensional, and “appreciating art” is too broad a statement. After my experience yesterday I don’t know if there are people who can appreciate all kinds of art. For a moment I thought I was a philistine for I couldn’t appreciate yesterday’s performance, but then I remembered the pieces of art I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post that I truly appreciate. So, no – I’m not a philistine. It’s just that there are certain art forms I get and ones I don’t.

Have you felt similarly sometimes? Are there some art forms you “get” easily, and others that you absolutely fail to get? Or do you consider yourself to be the types that gets all kinds of art, and you argue that the ones you don’t get is simply not art? Or do you fail to get any art at all? Do leave a comment.

Who else are you in touch with?

Thing with catching up with old friends/acquaintances is that you sometimes don’t know if you still connect with them. It might be a while since you last met, and having moved on in different directions, there is a very good chance that you don’t connect with each other at all. Yes, there is the environment you shared several years back that connects you, but when that becomes the only source of connection, it can get rather boring and you might be itching for the conversation to be over.

In order to determine whether you still connect with an old friend/acquaintance, I have a simple test. I must warn you that this test has no predictive power – it won’t tell you before you meet your friend if you connect with him/her or not. It, however, analyzes post the event how well you connected. And can help you make a decision if you have an opportunity to meet them again.

Invariably, I’ve found that when you catch up with old friends, sooner or later, one of you will ask the other, “so who else are you in touch with?”. Between any two people, there are always these “filler lines”, what you say when you realize you have nothing to talk about. With old friends/acquaintances, it is this. Remember that your only connection is the environment you shared a while back, and the other people that inhabited that environment. So, in the absence of anything else to talk about, you end up talking about this.

The metric (I know I’ve been meandering) is this: from the time you meet your old friend/acquaintance, measure how much time it takes before the conversation goes to “so who else are you in touch with”. This gives you an indication of how well you connect with this person. The longer the time gap between you people meeting and this question coming up, the better you connect – it simply means you have so many other things to talk about, so this doesn’t come up.

This afternoon I met  a friend from school and in the hour and quarter we spoke, this question never came up. This indicates that I still connect with him pretty well. At the other extreme there have been people with whom the question has been popped within five minutes of meeting – showing how far we’ve drifted and there’s absolutely nothing to connect us any more.

There are times I’ve been surprised, either way. Once I met a senior from school not knowing if I had much to talk to him. The question was popped only forty five minutes into the conversation. We’ve subsequently met a couple of times. Other people I’ve gone to meet thinking of a dozen things to talk to only for them to start the conversation with “who have you been in touch with?”

I’d once visited Bishop Cotton’s Boys’ School in Bangalore (for a chess tournament) and noticed this board somewhere in the school. It said (paraphrasing):

Great minds discuss ideas,
Middling minds discuss events,
Small minds discuss people.


Mental Health: Update

It’s been over six months since I got off my medication for depression (venlafaxine) and ADHD (methylphenidate), so I thought I should just provide an update. The immediate trigger for this post is that I’m reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, in which among other things he rants against excess medication, and explicitly picks on medication for depression and ADHD.

Overall, I must mention that I’ve managed pretty well these last six months. Yes, there are depressive bouts. Yes, there are times when I can’t concentrate and I get increasingly restless. Sometimes it is perhaps as bad as it used to be before I started seeing a psychiatrist. But it’s ok. The most important outcome of going to a psychiatrist for a year has been that I’ve gotten diagnosed.

You might have heard this in several places – that ninety percent (or maybe more, or less) of treatment of a disease is diagnosis. And in case of my mental health I find that to be absolutely true. Yes, I took medication for a year. Yes, it helped back then. Yes, as I’ve written before, having those medicines provided me the necessary stimulus to get myself out of the depths I’d gotten into over the last few years. However, I’m certain that I don’t need them any more. But the diagnosis helps.

Two years back my biggest concern was that I wasn’t able to explain my life. There was no story. I had done a lot of things that were seemingly disparate and there were a lot of things that I’d done which I would later regret. So I had a lot of regrets, and I would expend a lot of my idle processor time (in my head) dwelling on these regrets, and wondering why I did certain things the way I did, or why I took the decisions I took. Every time I tried to come up with an explanation for something, I would get the “but everyone deals with that, why can’t you” response.

The biggest advantage of having diagnosed is that it now all fits in. I now know why after getting into IIT with such a good rank I drifted away and completely lost interest. I now know why so many of my initial crushes didn’t work out (ADHD among other things makes you impulsive and blurt out things you aren’t supposed to). I now know why I chose to literally run away from my first job (that’s a long story in itself. Will save it for another day). And I precisely know why I went in and out of three more jobs in the five years after that.

Yes, I might be overfitting in some things (you can see that I’m doing that in the previous paragraph to explain why no relationships worked out). Nevertheless, after a long and ardous search for that one variable or set of variables that would explain a large part of who I am or what I did, when I all I found was noise, I think I’ve found the signal. Till I was close to thirty, I led my life without having fully understood myself. And trying to blame myself for being inferior to other people in certain ways, and constantly regretting my decisions. The diagnosis changed all that. Yes, after a discussion on a mailing list on ADHD some three years back I’d posited that I might have it. Yet, a formal diagnosis from a qualified psychiatrist helped.

So you may ask why I discontinued medication if I know that I have some problems. Two different reasons for the two medicines I was taking. As for Venlafaxine (which I used to take for anxiety and depression), I had a harrowing time in November of last year when I ran out of supplies of the drug and couldn’t find it in any store near my house for a couple of weeks. During this time I would feel weak, have a fever and feel extremely numb in the limbs, but had no clue why that was happening. Later, the psychiatrist told me that these were withdrawal symptoms for failing to take my drugs regularly. I panicked. i didn’t want to get addicted to mind-altering substances. More importantly, around this time I got the feeling that the drug wasn’t doing much help. I would still have the same old bouts of depression. The psychiatrist agreed that I had plateaued in response to the drug. So she recommended a rather slow taper off from the drug (to prevent withdrawal symptoms), which I followed and got off it.

Methylphenidate was useful, and wasn’t addictive (some literature has likened it to wearing spectacles. It affects you only when you’re taking it). Yet, I found that it changed me. Yes, I know that I’m attention deficit and possibly hyperactive, but I  refuse to believe now that it’s a ‘disorder’. The problem with the drug was that it was changing my mind. Yes, it made me concentrate so much better. Long strings of meetings when I would visit the client’s office were a breeze thanks to the drug. My concentration levels shot up. Yet,  I found that it had impaired my creative thinking. I’m extremely proud of my ability to connect disparate things, but I felt that this drug was impairing my ability to do so. I just wasn’t being myself. And I had found that on days when I would forget to take the drug  I would be more capable of creative non-linear thinking. And I figured that with the drug I wasn’t being myself.

So yes, I’ve been off the drugs for a while now and have adjusted to life with it. Yes there are days when I’m constantly fidgety and can’t concentrate to get work done. Yes, nowadays  work that takes long bouts of intense concentration gets delayed. But I’m back to being myself. And I’m back to being good at what I thought I was always good at – big picture thinking and making disparate connections.

Yes, one important factor that has helped me to deal with my condition (no, it’s NOT a disorder) is my work. As a freelance management consultant who mostly works from home (and visits client once every couple of weeks)  I can set my own pace. If i’m feeling particularly fidgety some day, I can take a break till I’m doing better. I don’t have daily or sub-daily deadlines to bother me (this was my biggest issue with most of my jobs). More importantly there’s no one looking over my shoulder to see what I’m doing, so I can freely switch between my work screen and twitter. And trust me, this helps. Immensely.

Since I visit my clients once in 2-3 weeks I end up having lots of meetings during these visits. But I simply draw up on my energy reserves during those times and buckle down and concentrate. Yes, last two or three times after I’ve visited the client I haven’t got much work done for the following three or four days – since I’d be recuperating from that intense expense of mental energy – but again I’m okay with that.

I plan to write on this again in the near future after I finish reading antifragile. I find this to be a rather important concept for me given that I’m prone to making errors (I’ve now accepted that). I think I’ve already started designing my life along antifragile principles. But more on that in another post.

Meanwhile, some other posts I’d written earlier about my mental condition.
1. How ADHD is like being perennially doped
2. On the importance of admitting mental illness and going to a specialist
3. On anti-depressants being like an economic stimulus
4. On mental illness in elite colleges in India
5. On anxiety being like a computer virus
6. On how ADHD can sometimes be advantageous

Duckworth Lewis and Sprinting a Marathon

How would you like it if you were running a marathon and someone were to set you targets for every 100 meters? “Run the first 100m in 25 seconds. The second in 24 seconds” and so on? It is very likely that you would hate the idea. You would argue that the idea of the marathon would be to finish the 42-odd km within the target time you have set for yourself and you don’t care about any internal targets. You are also likely to argue that different runners have different running patterns and imposing targets for small distances is unfair to just about everyone.

Yet, this is exactly what cricketers are asked to do in games that likely to be affected by rain. The Duckworth Lewis method, which has been in use to adjust targets in rain affected matches since 1999 assumes an average “scoring curve”. The formula assumes a certain “curve” according to which a team scores runs during its innings. It’s basically an extension of the old thumb-rule that a team is likely to score as many runs in the last 20 overs as it does in the first 30 – but D/L also takes into accounts wickets lost (this is the major innovation of D/L. Earlier rain-rules such as run-rate or highest-scoring-overs didn’t take into consideration wickets lost).

The basic innovation of D/L is that it is based on “resources”. With 50 overs to go and 10 wickets in hand, a team has 100% of its resource. As a team utilizes overs and loses wickets, the resources are correspondingly depleted. D/L extrapolates based on the resources left at the end of the innings. Suppose, for example, that a team scores 100 in 20 overs for the loss of 1 wicket, and the match has to be curtailed right then. What would the team have scored at the end of 50 overs? According to the 2002 version of the D/L table (the first that came up when I googled), after 20 overs and the loss of 1 wicket, a team still has 71.8% of resources left. Essentially the team has scored 100 runs using 28.2% (100 – 71.8) % of its resources. So at the end of the innings the team would be expected to score 100 * 100 / 28.2 = 354.

How have D/L arrived at these values for resource depletion? By simple regression, based on historical games. To simplify, they look at all historical games where the team had lost 1 wicket at the end of 20 overs, and look at the ratio of the final score to the 20 over score in those games, and use that to arrive at the “resource score”.

To understand why this is inherently unfair, let us take into consideration the champions of the first two World Cups that I watched. In 1992, Pakistan followed the principle of laying a solid foundation and then exploding in the latter part of the innings. A score of 100 in 30 overs was considered acceptable, as long as the team hadn’t lost too many wickets. And with hard hitters such as Inzamam-ul-haq and Imran Khan in the lower order they would have more than doubled that score by the end of the innings. In fact, most teams followed a similar strategy in that World Cup (New Zealand was a notable exception, using Mark Greatbatch as a pinch-hitter. India also tried that approach in two games – sending Kapil Dev to open).

Four years later in the subcontinent the story was entirely different. Again, while there were teams that followed the approach of a slow build up and late acceleration, but the winners Sri Lanka turned around that formula on its head. Test opener Roshan Mahanama batted at seven, with the equally dour Hashan Tillekeratne preceding him. At the top were the explosive pair of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana. The idea was to exploit the field restrictions of the first 15 overs, and then bat on at a steady pace. It wasn’t unlikely in that setup that more runs would be scored in the first 25 overs than the last 25.

Duckworth-Lewis treats both strategies alike. The D/L regression contains matches from both the 1992 and 1996 world cups. They have matches where pinch hitters have dominated, and matches with a slow build up and a late slog. And the “average scoring curve” that they have arrived at probably doesn’t represent either – since it is an average based on all games played. 100/2 after 30 overs would have been an excellent score for Pakistan in 1992, but for Sri Lanka in 1996 the same score would have represented a spectacular failure. D/L, however, treats them equally.

So now you have the situation that if you know that a match is likely to be affected by rain, you (the team) have to abandon your natural game and instead play according to the curve. D/L expects you to score 5 runs in the first over? Okay, send in batsmen who are capable of doing that. You find it tough to score off Sunil Narine, and want to simply play him out? Can’t do, for you need to score at least 4 in each of his overs to keep up with the D/L target.

The much-touted strength of the D/L is that it allows you to account for multiple rain interruptions and mid-innings breaks. At a more philosophical level, though, this is also its downfall. Because now you have a formula that micromanages and tells you what you should be ideally doing on every ball (as Kieron Pollard and the West Indies found out recently, simply going by over-by-over targets will not do), you are now bound to play by the formula rather than how you want to play the game.

There are a few other shortcomings with D/L, which is a result of it being a product of regression. It doesn’t take into account who has bowled, or who has batted. Suppose you are the fielding captain and you know given the conditions and forecasts that there is likely to be a long rain delay after 25 overs of batting – after which the match is likely to be curtailed. You have three excellent seam bowlers who can take good advantage of the overcast conditions. Their backup is not so strong. So you now play for the rain break and choose to bowl out your best bowlers before that! Similarly, D/L doesn’t take into account the impact of power play overs. So if you are the batting captain, you want to take the batting powerplay ASAP, before the rain comes down!

The D/L is a good system no doubt, else it would have not survived for 14 years. However, it creates a game that is unfair to both teams, and forces them to play according to a formula. We can think of alternatives that overcome some of the shortcomings (for example, I’ve developed a Monte Carlo simulation based system which can take into account power plays and bowling out strongest bowlers). Nevertheless, as long as we have a system that can extrapolate after every ball, we will always have an unfair game, where teams have to play according to a curve. D/L encourages short-termism, at the cost of planning for the full quota of overs. This cannot be good for the game. It is like setting 100m targets for a marathon runner.

PS: The same arguments I’ve made here against the D/L apply to its competitor the VJD Method (pioneered by V Jayadevan of Thrissur) also.