NED Talks – First Edition

Back in 2009, the TED conference was held in Mysore. If there can exist TED Talks, I reasoned, there is no reason why we cannot have NED talks. And as is my wont, I had shot off a blog post in April 2009, announcing that the first NED Talks would happen in October 2009. Some of the points I had made in that blog post are interesting – I had said that it would be a day long (or even weekend long event), speakers would be “mango people”, and that talks would be uploaded on Youtube. I had no clue what would happen at the NED Talks.

Much happened though between April 2009, when I wrote that blog post, and October 2009, when the first edition of the talks were to happened. I moved jobs. I moved cities. My mother died. Life changed way too much for me to be bothered about NED Talks any more. And so I did what came naturally to me – put NED!

On several occasions in the last five years I’ve thought of “finally organising” the NED Talks, but they never came to fruition for a multitude of reasons, the most important of them being NED itself! I would think I would organise it, start thinking about how I would organise it, and then get confused, and then get into doubt, and thus, postpone! I went through several cycles of this until last month.

It was a day before the wife was to return to Bangalore for her winter holidays, and she suggested that we do the talks while she is in town. She was in luck that I was prepared to listen to her that day. And the idea took root. A guest list was quickly prepared. One guest was quickly signed up and with his help we froze what seemed like a convenient date. And by the end of the day, the first set of invites had been sent out!

The inaugural edition of the NED Talks took place last night, at our residence in Bangalore. There were a total of thirteen speakers, each of whom spoke for five minutes each. Both from our pertinent observations, and from the feedback we received from attendees, I think the event was a grand success. Like they say in Page 3 party reports, “everybody had a good time”.

The format was designed so as to be conducive to NED. One of the big barriers to hosting an event is to arrange for a venue. So we decided to do it in our own home. We didn’t want audience to put NED during the talks, so each speaker was allotted five minutes (though by my accounts most exceeded that limit). Getting professional video was NED-inducing, so we set up a DSLR on a tripod. Food came from the nearby Upahara Darshini and Gayathri Stores. Wine from Venus Wine Stores, also very nearby. The whole thing was set up such that there was no way for us to put NED.

And no one put NED. The talks were all excellent, and thought-provoking. Though none of them were “ideas that can change the world” as TED promises, they were all interesting. So we had a demonstration on different kind of knives, and an exposition on the enduring appeal of late 80s-early 90s Bollywood music – whose musical qualities leave much to be desired. Someone spoke about the importance of being shallow, and someone else on what makes someone interesting. There was a demonstration on the engineering behind consumption of certain herbal products! Thirteen speeches. All very well received.

This being the first edition there were the usual glitches. I had taken upon myself the quadruple role of emcee, DJ, photographer and videographer, which meant that the latter three didn’t receive much attention. So soft background music which was supposed to be played during talks were never played. Some talks were not captured on video at all, while others were only partially recorded (so we will only be putting up a montage of the talks on youtube rather than individual videos). The same camera was being used for taking both photos and videos, which meant not many photos were taken!

Post the event one NED-inducing activity is to make a montage of the videos. We’ve put enthu and done the first part which is cutting up interesting sections from different videos. Now we have the job of stitching them together. Hopefully we’ll upload pretty soon!

Nevertheless the wife and I are extremely kicked that we managed to pull this off. That the much-awaited NED talks finally happened. And now that they’ve happened, we hope to have them on a regular basis. Given that they’ll continue to happen in our drawing room, they’ll remain invite-only events, though.

Jai to NED!

Queueing dynamics at Ranga Shankara

Last night we went to Ranga Shankara in JP Nagar to watch a play.  Thanks to unusually heavy traffic on 11th Main Road Jayanagar, we reached there only at 7 pm (the play was due to start at 7:30), and there was already a long line at the foot of the stairs waiting to be let in.

For the uninitiated, Ranga Shankara follows “free seating” also known as “Air Deccan seating”. There are no seat numbers – in fact the seats are themselves not clearly demarcated – there are long tiered rows of cushioned benches on which you sit. So the seats are essentially filled on a first come first served basis. This enables Ranga Shankara to to fill up the benches in good time once people are let in, and the show can begin on time. Also, unlike Air Deccan, Ranga Shankara sees high social capital so people don’t jostle and fight for seats.

As we walked in and picked up our tickets (after showing our e-tickets), the wife said that there was no point joining the queue as we would be so far behind that there was no chance of us getting good seats. So we might as well eat before the play started, she reasoned. So off we went to the adjoining Ranga Shankara Cafe and thulped Sabudana Vada and coffee. The pricing was premium but the food and coffee were very good.

As we were gulping down our coffee, preparing to possibly join the queue, the wife spotted the renowned actor Mukhyamantri Chandru near the entrance of the theatre. We presently saw him posing for selfies with some people, and we have to do the same, we reasoned.

Chandru turned out to be an incredibly warm and nice person and enthusiastically talked to us for ten minutes. We told him that we’re major fans of his Ramanamurthy role in Ganeshana Madhuve. He asked us to come for the performance of Mukhyamantri (which gave him his name) today, but we told him that we’ve already seen the play.

mchandru

We got talking about theatre and cinema and how acting is different in the two. Chandru told us that in a play an actor has to constantly play a dual role – one role is the role that he is playing in the play, and the second is that of a manager. It is inevitable that some slips happen during the course of the play, he mentioned, and what makes acting in a theatre tough is that you need to course correct on the fly without giving away to the audience that you’ve slipped up.

By the time we were done talking to Chandru, the line had cleared and the bell rang indicating that there were 10 minutes to go for the play. “You better hurry”, he told us, “else you’ll have to sit in the last row”. We didn’t bother particularly hurrying and it was the last row where we sat (there were seats available at the peripheries of forward rows but we wanted to watch the play from a central position to chose to sit in the last row instead).

Now I might have watched about 10 plays in Ranga Shankara, and sat in different positions to watch each one of them. There have been plays where I’ve sat right in the middle of one of the forward rows (the best seats in the house), and ones like yesterday where I’ve either sat right at the back or at one of the peripheries of the baseball-diamond shaped theatre. And what I realised is that the experience from each of these positions is near-identical!

In other words, the design of Ranga Shankara is so good that you are likely to have a great experience irrespective of where in the hall you sit! Or that the experience from the last row is not much inferior to that from one of the best seats in the house!

Yet, every play I’ve gone to I’ve seen a long line build up at the foot of the stairs before the play begins. It is as if people don’t believe that experience in the inferior seats is not very inferior to that of the experience in the best seats in the house, and are thus willing to pay a high price (time spent waiting in queue) to get the marginally better seats!

I don’t know if I’ve miscalculated on the relative merits of different seats in the house, or if the “market” (the rest of the people who stand in line) has got the pricing wrong! I’ll probably experiment a few more times at Ranga Shankara by not bothering to stand in line!

Segmenting leisure hotels

The original idea for this pertinent observation comes from the wife. However, since she’s on an extended vacation and hence unlikely to blog this soon, I’m blogging it.

Hotels are traditionally classified into “business” and “leisure” hotels. As the names suggest, the former mostly cater to business travellers and the latter to vacationers. The lines can be a little blur, though, since business and leisure travels have complementary seasonality, thanks to which hotels practice “revenue management” by using their capacity for both business and leisure.

However, as we discovered during our vacation last week, leisure hotels can be further segmented into “couple hotels” and “family hotels”. Let me explain using the example of Vythiri Village Spa Resort where we spent most of last week. Based on our reading of the hotel, it was initially built to be a “couple hotel” but perhaps based on the kind of clientele they were getting, they turned it into a “family hotel”.

Now, the difference between couple hotels and family hotels essentially has to do with how child-friendly the place is. Vythiri, for example, had a “kids play area”, the balconies had been shuttered up with windows (creating greenhouses inside the balconies which made them horrible to hang out it, but making them safer for kids),  had a pantry area (the balcony had been converted into a pantry – so people wiht babies could bring their electric cookers and cook!) and activities such as “guided nature walks” and “artificial waterfalls”. Even at its deepest the swimming pool was not more than three feet deep (no I didn’t test it).

The reason I say that the hotel was built for couples is to do with the large bathroom which also included the walk-in closet. Given that you might want to multiplex between one person showering and another dressing at the same time, this design made it obvious that it only works for couples, but not for people with kids – most parents are shy about letting their kids see them in various stages of undress.

Then this resort advertised itself as a “spa resort”, and a massage was included in our package. This is again a “couple thing” for people with kids are unlikely to be able to take time off from their kids to visit the spa! So everything about this resort told you that it had been designed for couples, but then changed its positioning to become a “family resort”!

I guess you get the drift. And so whenever the manager would accost us and ask if things were good, the wife would quickly nod him a “yes”, and then privately tell me that we were the wrong target segment for the hotel, and so our feedback didn’t really matter to him!

And so we stayed there, for three nights and a bit, looking at screaming kids every time we hit the restaurant (the buffet spreads were nice, so we didn’t order room service); looking in bemusement at people “going on nature walks”, ignoring the “entertainment” at the “gala Christmas dinner” and so forth.

We had a good time, though, eating, sleeping, talking, hanging about – mostly within the confines of the room. The service was great, the staff extremely friendly and pleasant. Only that we were the wrong target segment for the hotel, and we didn’t realise that while booking!

PS: I tried looking for a “marketing” category to put this post under but realised that none such exists. Goes to show what I’ve not been blogging about!

Idea types and person-event types

Last night GP, the wife and I were drinking at Brewsky, a nice microbrewery in JP Nagar, Bangalore. We were seated at the bar, and were checking out some other people who were seated elsewhere at the bar. The wife pointed to two of them and independently asked GP and me to assess which of them was potentially more interesting (the independence was achieved thanks to a timely bio break I took). Most of GP and my assessment of these people tallied, but then GP popped up with this really interesting funda that I have to blog about!

So GP said “the woman sitting across from us looks more of the ‘ideas type’ while the woman seated to the right looks more of the ‘events and people type’ “. And in that one stroke, he had introduced this rather profound method of classifying people. He had created one other dimension of putting people into two categories (and in that instant doubling the number of two by twos along which people can be plotted!). And he had brought back to memory something I had seen in Bishop Cotton’s Boys’ School back in 1996.

The board near the administrative building at Cotton’s said “great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people”. Profound in itself but a three-way classification. Now, three way classifications are not as intuitive as two-way classifications. People generally prefer the latter. And in one shot last evening, GP had reduced this cumbersome three-way classification into a rather interesting two-way classification! To use the Cotton’s framework, he had clubbed the average and small minds!

In the past I’ve blogged about the concept of “who else have you been in touch with“. This is a phrase that pops up, I’ve argued, when you have met after a long time and have nothing else to talk about. A related concept is perhaps “what movie did you see recently?” (though that can occasionally lead to fairly profound discussion on ideas). Now, analysing life from GP’s framework, you will notice that when one of the persons involved in the conversation is an events-people types, it is but obvious that the conversation will quickly devolve to discussing people or events, and the best anchor for devolving into such is to seek stories of common acquaintances!

So are you an “ideas types” or an “events-person types”? Would you think such a classification is context-sensitive (depending on who you are talking to) or context free? Would you get offended if someone were to classify you as a “events-persons types”? What happens when an I-types meets and EP-types – what do they talk about? Is is even possible to talk ideas with EP-types? And what are the odds that a largish group can sustain I-types conversation?

I’ll end this post with an anecdote. Not so long ago I met a few old friends. It was a largish group, and the entire contents of the two-hours-or-so conversation can be classified into two types – discussions on mutual friends and acquaintances and “who else you are in touch with” (standard EP-type stuff), and discussion of concepts discussed on one of my blogs! Maybe I should take credit for pulling conversation in that group to I-type stuff!

 

Guarantees in meetings

There are some events/meetings which involve strong network effects. People want to attend such events if and only if a certain number of other people are going to attend it. But then they don’t know before hand as to who else is coming, and hence are not sure whether to accept the invitation. These are events such as school reunions, for example, where if only a few people come, there isn’t much value. And it’s hard to coordinate.

In such events it’s always useful to provide a guarantee. For example, a friend from (B) school was in town last week and expressed an interest in meeting other batchmates in Bangalore. A mail thread was promptly started but until the morning of the event, people remained mostly noncommittal. Not many of us knew this guy particularly well, though he is generally well-liked. So none of us really wanted to land up and be among only one or two people along with this guy.

And then there was a guarantee. One other guy sent a mail saying he’d booked a table at a bar, and this sent a strong signal that this guy was going to be there too. Then there were a couple of other very positive replies and the guarantee having been set, some seven or eight people turned up and the meeting can be called a “success”.

Sometimes when you’re trying to organise an event, it makes sense to get unconditional attendance guarantees from a couple of people before you send out the invite to the wider world. So you tell people that “X and Y” (the early guarantors) are definitely coming, and that will pull in more people, and that can be the trigger in making the event a success! In certain circles, X and Y need to be celebrities. In smaller circles, they can be common men (or women), but people whose guarantees of attendance are generally trusted (i.e. people who don’t have a history of standing up people)!

Another small reunion of my B-school batch happened last month and in the run-up to that I realised another thing about RSVPs – yeses should be public and noes private. One guy took initiative and mailed a bunch of us proposing we meet. I hit reply all on purpose to say that it was a great idea and confirm my attendance. Soon there was another public reply confirming attendance and this snowballed to give us a successful event. There were a few invitees we didn’t hear from, who didn’t attend, and I assume they had replied privately to the invite in the negative.

The problem with events on Facebook is that your RSVP is public irrespective of your reply – so even if you say no, everyone knows you’ve said “no”. And so you think it’s rude to say “no”, and say “yes” just out of politeness, even though you have no intentions of attending.

I’ve attended a few events where the hosts estimated attendance based on a Facebook invite and grossly overestimated attendance – too many people had hit “yes” out of sheer politeness.

So the ideal protocol should be “public yes, private no”. Facebook should consider giving this as an option to event creators so that people reveal their true preferences in the RSVP rather than saying “yes” out of sheer politeness.

In that sense it’s like a Vickery auction whose basic design principle is that people reveal their true willingness to pay and not underbid to avoid the winner’s curse!

Getting along with popular people

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now but it all came together a while back. The basic funda is that I find it extremely hard to hang out with people who are generally popular and who everyone wants to hang out with. On the other hand, I find it significantly easier to hang out with other people who generally most people consider as being “arrogant” and hard to hang out with.

I wonder if it is connected with what Christian Rudder writes in Dataclysm on people who have been rated a few 5s and a few 1s being more likely to find a partner than one who is rated a consistent 3 (holding average rating constant). Basically if there is someone who is generally popular, they are something like a consistent 5, and they are perhaps generally popular because they exhibit the kind of behaviour or attributes that most people like. Effectively they cater to what I can uncharitably call the lowest common denominator of popularity among people, and that generally means they spend most of their effort catering to that (being “generally nice” and all such) that there is very little idiosyncrasy that they can offer which makes them interesting!

And with time the fact that they are popular affects them, and they expect that everyone like them to the same (high) extent as everyone else! And when you start asking yourself what the big deal about them is, and start wondering why they’re so popular, there is a “respect mismatch” – the respect you are willing to offer them doesn’t match up to the respect they expect (thanks to being generally popular), and you can’t hang out for long.

With people who are generally not particularly popular and branded as “arrogant” by most people, firstly there is no expectation of respect as they generally know that they are not particularly popular. Secondly, the fact that makes them arrogant also makes them interesting to people who are interested along that axis. The fact that they are not generally popular means that there is an idiosyncrasy about them, and if you happen to like that you can get along very well with them!

Of course, I admit to selection bias here. There definitely exist people who are generally classified as “arrogant” who I also find arrogant and don’t hang out with. But there exist a lot of people who are generally classified as “arrogant” who I get along quite well with!

Going back to Rudder’s ratings, I’m likely to rate people who are generally considered “arrogant” either a 1 or a 5 – the idiosyncrasy sends them to either extreme. Thus there are a few of them who I love hanging out with irrespective of what the world has to say about them. As for the popular guys, I’m very likely to rate them a 3 – basically unspectacular, and going by Rudder’s theory, “meh”. And since they expect the general counterparty to rate them higher than that, there’s a mismatch when I meet them and things fall apart.

Makes sense? What has your experience been of people in relation to how other people rate them?

Languages as memes

A while back on this blog I had compared religious and cultural practices to memes (in the original Richard Dawkins sense of the word). Back then I had written:

So if you were to look at it in terms of responsibility to society, you need to propagate only those cultural traits that you deem to be relevant and important. “So what if everyone stops celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi?” you may ask. If that would happen that would simply mean a vote of no confidence for the festival and an indication that the festival needs to be phased out. If everyone were to propagate only those cultural traits they find useful, traits that a significant proportion of society finds significant will continue to survive and thrive. For Ganesh Chaturthi to exist 30 years hence, it isn’t necessary for ALL families that have inherited it to celebrate it now. As long as a critical mass of families celebrate it, the festival will survive. If not, it probably doesn’t need to exist.

 

Now, thinking about it, you can consider language to also be a meme. When a bunch of you find that there is a concept for which the language you speak in has no word, you invent a word and add it to the language (this is like a genetic mutation). If enough people like this mutation (i.e. if it is “fit”) it will propagate, and soon become part of the language.

If there is a word in the language that is archaic and not useful for describing any of the phenomena that you are likely to encounter, you stop using it. When people stop using such words, they become “archaic” (ok I see circular reasoning in this paragraph) and effectively drop out of the language. Thus, a living language is always dynamic, receptive to new words (to describe concepts that earlier didn’t need description) and receptive to discarding words that are not useful any more. Thus, the feature that defines a living language is dynamism and change.

This has several policy implications.

1. The concept of “purity” of language is wrong. Some people want to speak in the “pure form” of a language. As long as it is a language that has been truly alive (and not kept alive mostly by ancient literature) there exists no “pure form”, for the definition of a successful language involves frequent “mutations”. So if you ask me to talk in “pure Kannada” it is nonsense. Pure Sanskrit, on the other hand, has some meaning, for the language has been so little used that it’s stopped evolving and mutating.

2. People like to appoint themselves guardians of culture and dictate top-down what words should be part of a particular language. For example, there exists a body under the Government of Karnataka (if I’m not wrong) which dictates what “Kannada words” must be used for different new concepts. This is wrong, and a recipe for such words not being used.

Instead, “memetics” must be respected and evolution must be bottom up. People find the need to describe phenomena around themselves and if they don’t find a word in their language that describes it, they will either invent or borrow one such word. Some such new words become widely used, at which point of time they can be introduced into the language dictionary. Usage should precede presence in the dictionary, not the other way round.

3. “Slang” is a part of language, and a leading indicator of how the language is going to evolve. It should be encouraged and not denounced. For it exists because the language as it stands now cannot effectively enough describe certain concepts.

I’m currently reading this book called The Information by James Gleick, which has a chapter or two dedicated to languages and dictionaries. It was while reading it that I realised how languages are memes.