NRIs and the double narrative bias

By definition journalism suffers from the narrative bias. In other words, in most conditions, only the spectacular is newsworthy. To take a popular example, “dog bites man” will never make news because of its sheer predictability – it simply doesn’t add any information content.

As a consequence, journalism “suffers” from what I call the “spectacular bias”. A spectacular event is much more likely to be reported compared to an unspectacular one. This has several implications.
Firstly it leads to distorted and suboptimal choices. For example, following the two fires in Volvo buses in 2013-14 people stopped traveling by buses of that particular make. This was irrational because even after those accidents Volvo buses continued to be safer than buses of any other make. Yet, the fact that Volvo buses had been involved in the accidents were. Ade the focus of reports and that led to irrational responses. Related to this, I usually ask in lectures I take if anyone has seen a headline that says “Ashok Leyland bus catches fire,people die” and if not, if it means that Ashok Leyland buses never catch fire.
Now that it is established that journalism suffers from the narrative bias and spectacular bias, let’s take it one level further – what about people who get their news exclusively from social media? Let us assume that news that is shared widely on social media is a subset of news that is reported in the mainstream media (it is a reasonable assumption that anything that trends on social media will get immediately picked up and reported by the mainstream media).
What kind of news will these people (who get news exclusively from mainstream media) consume? If a news item makes it big in the social media then it implies that the news item has something about it that is spectacular, and something that is spectacular relative to anything else that is reported. Now considering that news itself is a collection of spectacular stories, what this implies is that what gets shared on social media is spectacular when compared to other spectacular stories, or these stories are doubly spectacular!
Considering that news itself can cause significant irrational decisions among people, imagine the kind of impact that consumption of news solely via social media can have! Without going into merits of the news, we can safely argue that it leads to irrational decisions and opinions.
Now let us consider one such class of people who mostly consume news via social media (we are making a leap of faith here). Temporarily going into anecdata territory, let me quote examples of possibly irrational behaviour by NRIs here. First there is this relative who left India about a decade back. About a year or so back he started this Facebook community called “Bangalore – Water Issues and Solutions” . None of his actions or statements from earlier had indicated that he has any interest in this topic.
Then there is my wife who has been living abroad for the last seven months. Glancing at political status messages on her Facebook feed you see the Uber rape case, Leslie Udwin’s documentary “India’s daughter” and the case of the death of IAS officer DK Ravi. Clearly spectacular among the spectacular. Or take my own case – I’ve been out of India for more than a week now, and lacking good traditional sources of getting news from back home (websites are too cumbersome, I’m relying on social media too).
The consequent “double narrative bias” (since what you consume from social media undergoes two levels of narrative bias) means that NRIs, lacking good sources of news from back home, are likely to have a warped view of the happenings in India. This implies that their idea of India is likely to be largely shaped by this bias and unlikely to be representative of what’s actually happening (I’m by no means giving a clean chit to resident Indians here, since several of those too suffer from this double narrative bias. But proportions are smaller than that for NRIs).
From this point of view the decision by the current government to extend online voting rights to NRIs needs to be called to question – since there is good reason to believe that their idea of India suffers from two levels of narrative bias (NRIs are currently not barred from voting but they need to travel to India to cast their votes. A change in this rule has been proposed).
This concept also helps us understand why political views of NRIs is likely to be much more polarised than that of the general Indian population (as exhibits note both the campaign to deny current Prime Minister Narendra Modi a visa to visit the U.S., and the reception he received when he ultimately went there). Their view is shaped by double narrative bias which leads to suboptimal opinions.
This double narrative bias also presents a good business opportunity – for media houses to target the diaspora. While most Indian publications have websites these are just repositories of news, and only news that has been widely shared gets mileage. This ends up reinforcing the double narrative bias.
What we need instead is a daily quick bite of news that can be consumed easily. This might lead to several NRIs to subscribe, so that they can get a quick understanding of what’s happening back home. (The economists espresso is a good template to follow for this one). And can serve to eliminate at least one level of narrative bias!

On tea being served before a talk

Later this evening I’m planning to go for this talk on Temples of the Badami Chalukyas, being held at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Indiranagar.

The text of the invite (not present in the picture above) says that “tea will be served before the talk”. Now you might think that it’s no big deal – but in my opinion that’s one marker that sets apart what can be a high-quality fulfilling event for the audience member than one that is merely good.

There are two reasons that people go to talks like this one – one is for the talk itself. For example, the topic of today’s talk looks extremely promising and exciting, and inherent interest in the topic itself is likely to spur audience participation. The other reason people like to go for such talks is that they are good places to meet with other like-minded people, and that is where the tea before the talk comes into the picture.

At the Pratap Bhanu Mehta lecture at IISc two weekends back, there was no tea being served prior to the talk. As a consequence, everyone who arrived walked straight into the hall and took their seats. When I arrived there there seemed to be no conversation whatsoever taking place, and so I went and quietly took my seat. Looking around, however, I noticed a number of acquaintances, and people I wanted to get to connect to (people who could connect me to these people were also in the audience). However, there was no chance of going up and talking to them and indulging in what some people uncharitably call as “networking”. And after the event was over everyone was in a hurry to get home and there was no chance to talk!

This is where tea before the talk comes into the picture. When tea is being served, people usually stand around the service area (not to be confused with Cervezaria) and mill around talking. It’s a great occasion to catch up with old acquaintances who happen to be there, make new acquaintances (that both of you have come for the same (usually esoteric) lecture indicates that you have some common interests) and generally talk to people. And meeting interesting people (new or old) at an event is always a good thing and attendees go home much more satisfied than they would had they only consumed the lecture!

Hence it is of paramount importance that tea (or coffee or milk or water or beer) be served before the talk, for it gives an opportunity for people to talk to each other, to network and to get more out of other attendees than they would from the talk itself. And if you are the antisocial type who doesn’t want to meet other attendees, you can quietly go take your seat while others are having tea – they won’t even notice you!

Market-making in on-demand markets

I’ve written a post on LinkedIn about the need for market-making in on-demand markets. I argue that for a market to be on-demand for one side, you require the other side to be able to provide liquidity. This liquidity comes at a cost and the side needs to get compensated for it. Driver incentive schemes at Ola/Uber and two-part electricity tariffs are examples of such incentives.

An excerpt:

In a platform business (or “two sided market”, or a market where the owner of the marketplace is not a participant), however, the owner of the market cannot provide liquidity himself since he is not a participant. Thus, in order to maintain it “on demand”, he should be able to incentivise a set of participants who are willing to provide liquidity in the market. And in return for such liquidity provided, these providers need to be paid a fee in exchange for the liquidity thus provided.

Read the whole thing! :)

What sets Uber apart from other marketplaces

While at the gym this evening I was thinking of marketplaces.  To give some context, the reason I went there was that there were too many thoughts running around my head, so I needed to focus on something mindless or something that required so much concentration that I could only hold one other thought in my mind at that point in time. In fact, when you go “under the bar” (do a back squat),  even that one thought will vanish – you need all your physical and mental energy to complete the squat.

Anyway so I was thinking of marketplaces, and marvelling at the kind of impact companies like Uber and Ola have had. They have been an absolute gamechanger in their business in that it has completely changed the way that people and cabs get matched to each other. This was a matching that had been extremely inefficient in the past, but with these apps, they have become better by an order of magnitude. And it is this order of magnitude that sets apart Uber/Ola from other marketplace businesses.

And as I was moving between weights, I had another thought – the trick with Uber/Ola as a marketplace is that it is near impossible to do “side deals”. The ultimate nightmare for a platform/marketplace provider is to let the two sides “discover each other” and conduct further deals “offline”. This can be the bane of services such as dating services, where once you go on your first date (as recommended by OkCupid or Tinder), the dating service need not know anything about your relationship after that! They’ve “lost” you. In fact, talking to someone from the industry recently, I learnt that they do dating rather than marriage since in the former there is the hope of “repeat happy customers”.

It is similar with a service such as Airbnb, where once you’ve located a B&B you like, you can cut airbnb out of the deal from the next time on. Of course availability and stuff matter, but given how much in advance you book, a quick call to check availability is a small cost vis-a-vis the benefit of cutting out the middle man.

The beauty of Uber/Ola, however, is that it is impossible to do deals offline. Yes, after a ride, the driver and the passenger have each other’s numbers. But the next time the passenger wants a ride, the probability that the same driver is in the vicinity and free to give a ride is infinitesimal. So the passenger has to go to the app again. Moreover, it is the app that takes care of the pricing (using GPS, etc.) – something that is impossible to estimate if you try to cut out the app.

So when people say that they are building the “Uber for <some other service>”, in most cases it is not exactly the case – not all marketplace transactions are like Uber. For to be like Uber, you need to be an instant matching mechanism that changes the way the industry fundamentally operates; and you need a mechanism that keeps deals “online” by force.

Chew on it!

On using slides for a lecture

Last evening I attended Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s New India Foundation lecture on the role of religion in politics in Modern India. It was a rather complex topic, with a lot of philosophical underpinnings, and as it happened, I soon lost track, and consequently interest, and so I ended up writing this blogpost as I sat in the audience.

Later, I was wondering what PBM could have done to communicate better and make his lecture more easily understood. Let’s assume here that PBM is an academic and so the last thing he would want to do is to “dumb down” the lecture (also my hypothesis is that he perhaps upped the academic quotient since the venue for the lecture was IISc but that’s just speculation and we’ll keep it aside). There is a certain way he is comfortable speaking in, weaving academic arguments, and let us assume that he is best talking that way, and it is not ideal to change that.

Imposing the above and any other reasonable constraints on what PBM would not change about the lecture, the question remains as to how he could have made it easier for the audience to follow him. And thinking about it in hindsight, the answer is rather obvious – visual aids such as slides (or even a blackboard).

The problem with the lecture was that given its complexity there were several threads of thought that the audience member had to keep track of as PBM built his argument. The flipside of this is that if you happened to miss a line of what PBM said, one important thread in the web would get lost, after which it would be extremely difficult to follow the rest of the lecture (This is perhaps what happened to me because of which I started blogging). To put it another way, the lecture as it happened required a high degree of concentration as well as maintenance of a reasonably sized cache in the minds of each audience member, which meant that the mental energy required to follow was really high.

In an unrelated conversation after the lecture, someone was talking about how the ancient Greeks reacted to the invention of writing with horror, saying that the human mind was perfectly capable of storing and transmitting information, and that writing would lead to a diminishing of human mental powers. As it turned out, writing helped free up memory space in human minds and that allowed for more complex thinking and a lot of subsequent scientific development. Of course cultures such as India’s which continued to insist on learning the scriptures by rote lost out a bit because considerable mental capacity continued to be used as a means of storage rather than for processing power.

So the idea is that when you have a complex talk that involves a complex web of thought, considerable mental energies of the audience goes into just maintaining a cache of all that you’ve said, and the arguments that you’ve constructed. And on top of that they need to continue to listen to you with concentration as you continue to weave the web. The rate of dropoff can be rather high. So the least you can do to help the audience ingest your lecture better is to help free up their cache, and putting out all the arguments spoken thus far on a screen, which means that their mental power can go into ingesting and digesting your new information rather than simply maintaining the cache. And that will improve your throughput!

So to generalise, use of visual aids (slides are preferable to blackboards since you don’t waste time writing, but if there isn’t much to be written blackboards will do, too, since slides might constrain) is a necessary condition to ensure high throughput when your talk involves a rather complex web of argument. It simply makes it easier for the audience to follow you and you can communicate better!

Of course if you are of the persuasion that there is a certain way you communicate which you’re unwilling to change and it is the audience which needs to make an effort to catch your pearls of wisdom, none of the above applies to you.

ADHD and appreciating art

So a week back I finished reading my third fiction book in four months – “the Rosie project”, a book about a professor of genetics who has Asperger’s syndrome and his effort to find a wife. I got this recommendation via Twitter and procured the kindle sample, and having really liked it went on to read and like the book.

This is not a book review. Essentially in this post I try to analyse why I don’t really read too much fiction. About why in the last ten years I read not more than two or three books of fiction before finally starting on and finishing Neal Stephenson’s cryptonomicon. And then read the same authors 3000 page eight part baroque cycle.

So I’m not a great fan of movies. There are many movies which look interesting thanks to which I DVR them and start watching them but am just unable to sustain interest in them thanks which I end up not watching them. And these movies end up unwatched.

On the other hand there at movies that generate such deep interest that I can’t take my eyes off them and I finish seeing them in one sitting. Thinking  about them these movies have really taut plots, without any fluff, and this allows me to sustain my interest and watch them.

Three years back I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This so-called disorder means that it’s really hard for me to hold my interest on anything that I’m doing. That it means that I’m perennially distracted. That I’m not able to be in the present and am always daydreaming. Because of which I under perform and am occasionally not able to function etc.

Now thinking about it, thanks to my ADHD I’m a great judge of movies and books and lectures and any other media that need to hold your attention to succeed. Because I’m forever distracted it’s very difficult to hold my interest in anything. So my interest can be held iff the “plot” (this applies to movies books articles lectures and all such) is tight and without too much extra fittings. When the plot is not taut there is a higher chance that I get distracted, and since I have ADHD I stop making an effort to concentrate and focus and capture essence and it’s all lost.

Its interesting to note that movies that I like instinctively are those that are generally highly rated. The converse is also true – movies that fail  to hold my attention by not having a taut enough plot are those that are generally not highly rated. Of course you could argue that I’m a sucker for public approval but the correlation is remarkable.

So my ADHD means that I’m unable to enjoy a movie or a book or a lecture or an article unless it’s really well written/ Spoken/performed. In that sense my lack of tolerance for something that’s not up to par – by having redundancies and inanities and thus having too many “extra fittings” – means that I’m unable to consume any content that is even marginally under par. Or that I have very high standards for grabbing my attention towards anything which means that I consume little but whatever i consume is of high quality!

So the reason I gave up on fiction itself is a function of reading a lot of bad fiction. Stuff that was badly written but what I forced myself to read because of the “I’ve started so I’ve finished” principle. And the trouble it’s caused my has meant that I’ve decided not to read fiction at all!

In terms of non fiction I’ve been much more discerning in the first place in terms of stuff I’ve started reading. And the generous peppering of “fundaes” in most non fiction books means that my interest has been sustained and I’ve managed to read a fair bit!

I’ve written this blog post sitting at a lecture written by a rather popular academic. It’s a promising lecture but the first few minutes were not crisp or competing enough – which means that my interest hasn’t been sustained and so I’ve switched off!

The lecturer’s reputation precedes him so my opinion may not match popular opinion about the lecture ( expressed publicly) this time. But I believe that my ADHD has made be a great judge of whether something has been communicated well!

Apartments and mixed zoning

So, as Udupa put it, I went to Barcelona “on a study trip like a corporator”, came back and wrote one piece on urban planning in Barcelona and what India can learn about it. The piece is in Pragati. An excerpt:

That said, there are important lessons to be learnt for India from E’ixample. Most current models for urban development take after the sprawl-heavy automobile-intensive US model. What is important to make the new “smart cities” effective is to move away from this model to a more dense public transport focussed “European model”. And from this perspective, the new cities could do worse than looking to Barcelona’s E’ixample for inspiration.

Read the whole thing. Anyway, so I talk about two features of E’ixample (the district in Barcelona where the wife lives, and hence where I spent most time during my trip last October) in the Pragati piece, and mention that they’re useful concepts that India should adapt for its “smart cities” program – mixed zoning and apartments.

The former, I argue, ensures that there are “eyes on the street” at different points in time. This helps keep the crime rate low (deserted streets and lack of pedestrian movement usually make it more conducive for criminals), and provides a safe atmosphere. The latter ensures good efficient land use and allows for provision for large roads and open spaces without compromising on total density. And as I realised this evening, the two concepts (apartments and mixed zoning) are not independent.

One of the reasons that people offer for strict zoning (keeping residential and business areas disjoint) is that they don’t want random people hanging out in front of their residences. Random people hanging out in front of your house makes you feel unsafe, and a bit weird, and if there is a shop or a restaurant next door, the chances of this happening are rather high. For example, recently the Bangalore Mirror wrote about a “controversy” regarding the opening of a cafe in a residential area in Koramangala. Neighbours don’t like such cafes as it will lead to people hanging out in front of their homes, and that gives a sense of violation of space.

So what makes apartments and mixed zoning go together? When you live “high up” in a mid or high-rise building which you share with many other people, your sense of ownership of the space in front of your house is lower. If someone is “loitering” in front of your house, you are less concerned because 1. you are farther away from the “action” and 2. you don’t feel a sense of violation of your space. Thus, being in an apartment makes it more palatable for you that there are shops and restaurants and offices close to your house.

Now, everyone likes shops and restaurants close to home, but in case of single-unit homes, people are likely to adopt a “NIMFY” (not in my front yard) attitude towards these – for they might violate your space. Apartments help address this conflict!

Hence apartments and mixed zoning go hand in hand, and both need to be encouraged. Note, however, that I’m not proposing Brigade Gateway as the ideal model for urban development!