More on focal points at reunions

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

The purpose of reunions

So later today and tomorrow, the class of 2006 at IIMB is going to have a reunion. Reactions to this have been mostly mixed. Some people have been excited about it for months together. Some have been dismissive, loathing the idea of meeting some people they used to know. Most have gone along with the flow, quietly registering and promising to turn up.

As I’ve dealt with people showing all these reactions, I was thinking of why reunions make sense. I had even tweeted this last year:

As the reunion has come closer, though, my views have become more nuanced. Yes, I’ve kept in touch with all those batchmates I’ve wanted to keep in touch with. However, transaction costs (have I told you I’m writing a book on that topic? Just wrapped up third draft) mean that it’s not been possible to meet many of them.

It is not feasible, for example, to schedule a trip all the way to London because a handful of people you want to meet live there. Nor is it possible that even if you visit Mumbai, regularly, you are able to put “gencu” with everyone you have intended to put gencu with.

And so it remains, that you keep putting off meeting those people you want to meet until a time when transaction costs are low enough for you to be able to meet.

There are transaction costs that operate in other ways as well – a scheduled bilateral meeting is a commitment to exclusively talk to each other for at least close to an hour. And sometimes when you want to meet someone for the purpose of catching up, you aren’t sure if you can spend an hour with them without either of you getting bored. And so you put off that gencu.

The beauty of a scheduled reunion is that it takes into account both these costs. Firstly, by ensuring a large number of people congregate at one place at one time, it amortises (among all the counterparties you meet) the cost of having travelled to the meeting. Secondly, given that there are so many people around there, you don’t have an obligation to talk to anyone beyond the time when it’s pleasant for both of you (sadly, IIMB has outlawed alcohol on campus during the last decade so “i’ll go get a refill” trick of walking away won’t work).

The other great thing about a scheduled reunion (organised by the Alma Mater’s alumni office) is that it acts as what Thomas Schelling termed as “focal points“. Focal points are basically solutions to coordination games where each player plays in a natural or obvious way, expecting others to play the same way as well, so that they coordinate.

Now let’s say that the IIMB Class of 2006 decided to all meet sometime during the course of the year. Coordinating on a date would have been impossible, with any arbitrarily chosen date attracting too few people for network effects to take effect.

With the alumni office proposing a date and venue, it now becomes an “obvious solution” to everyone coming together and going through a process on that date (anchoring is also involved). People are willing to make the investment to meet on that date because they expect others to be there as well. So I’ve registered for this weekend’s event with the expectation that a large number of my batchmates would have done so as well, and each of them would have in turn registered for a similar reason.

Over the next couple of days I expect to spend a lot of time with people I’ve anyway been in touch with over the last 10 years. I might also spend a small amount of time with people I don’t really want to meet. But there is a large number of people I want to keep in touch with, but can’t due to transaction costs, and that is where I expect the reunion to add most value!

Damming the Nile and diapers

One of the greatest engineering problems in the last century was to determine the patterns in the flow of the Nile. It had been clear for at least a couple of millennia that the flow of the river was not regular, and the annual flow did not follow something like a normal distribution.

The matter gained importance in the late 1800s when the British colonial government decided to dam the Nile. Understanding accurately the pattern of flows of the river was important to determine the capacity of the reservoir being built, so that both floods and droughts could be contained.

The problem was solved by Harold Edwin Hurst, a British hydrologist who was posted in Egypt for over 60 years in the 20th Century. Hurst defined his model as one of “long-range dependence”, and managed to accurately predict the variation in the flow of the river. In recognition of his services, Egyptians gave him the moniker “Abu Nil” (father of the Nile). Later on, Benoit Mandelbrot named a quantity that determines the long-range dependence of a time series after Hurst.

I’ve written about Hurst once before, in the context of financial markets, but I invoke him here with respect to a problem closer to me – the pattern of my daughter’s poop.

It is rather well known that poop, even among babies, is not a continuous process. If someone were to poop 100ml of poop a day (easier to use volume rather than weight in the context of babies), it doesn’t mean they poop 4ml every hour. Poop happens in discrete bursts, and the number of such bursts per day depends upon age, decreasing over time into adulthood.

One might think that a reasonable way to model poop is to assume that the amount of poop in each burst follows a normal distribution, and each burst is independent of the ones around it. However, based on a little over two months’ experience of changing my daughter’s diapers, I declare this kind of a model to be wholly inaccurate.

For, what I’ve determined is that far from being normal, pooping patterns follow long-range dependence. There are long time periods (spanning a few diaper changes) when there is no, or very little, poop. Then there are times when it flows at such a high rate that we need to change diapers at a far higher frequency than normal. And such periods are usually followed by other high-poop periods. And so on.

In other words, the amount of poop has positive serial correlation. And to use the index that Mandelbrot lovingly constructed and named in honour of Hurst, the Hurst exponent of my daughter’s (and other babies’) poop is much higher than 0.5.

This makes me wonder if diaper manufacturers have taken this long-range dependence into account while determining diaper capacity. Or I wonder if, instead, they simply assume that parents will take care of this by adjusting the inter-diaper-change time period.

As Mandelbrot describes towards the end of his excellent Misbehaviour of markets , you can  use so-called “multifractal models” which combine normal price increments with irregular time increments to get an accurate (fractal) representation of the movement of stock prices.

PS: Apologies to those who got disgusted by the post. Until a massive burst a few minutes ago I’d never imagined I’d be comparing the flows of poop and the Nile!

When is a war a war?

War is an inherently political instrument used to achieve a political objective, so a credible political adversary is necessary for war to be war.

As the US Presidential election race hots up (or gets more one-sided, depending upon your interpretation), people continue to refer to former President George W Bush leading the US into two “wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thinking about it, I’m not sure the two can actually be classified as wars.

To use a chess analogy, real wars seldom end in checkmate – they most often end in resignation, or an agreed draw. War is an instrument that is used to achieve a political objective, to get the other party to do what you want them to do.

And so war ends when one side has established such an utter dominance over the other that the counterparty decides that to resign, or “surrender” is superior to continuing fighting the war.

For this to happen, however, the counterparty needs to have a political leadership that is able and willing to take a decision, following which the war actually stops. In the absence of such a political leadership, the war will continue indefinitely until “checkmate”, and assuming that the losing side’s force “decays exponentially”, it can take a really long time for it to actually get over.

So based on this definition that war is a political instrument used to achieve a political objective, I’m not sure what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan can actually be classified as “war”.

The “government” of the day in Afghanistan (Taliban), for example, would have never come to the negotiating table with the US, so short of complete annihilation, there was no other “objective” that the US could achieve there.

Iraq, on the other hand, possessed credible political leadership (Saddam Hussein) when the US invaded, but by actually killing him, the US denied themselves the chance of a “real victory” in terms of a negotiated settlement. A game of chess might end when the king is mated (remember that the king never “dies”, only trapped), but in a situation such as Iraq, the battle will rage until each member of the opposing force is taken out.

And so fighting continues to this day, over a decade since it started, with no hope of it ending in the near future. Real wars never go on indefinitely.

Half life of pain

Last evening, the obstetrician came over to check on the wife, following the afternoon’s Caesarean section operation. Upon being asked how she was, the wife replied that she’s feeling good, except that she was still in a lot of pain. “In how many days can I expect this pain to subside?”, she asked.

The doctor replied that it was a really hard question to answer, since there was no definite time frame. “All I can tell you is that the pain will go down gradually, so it’s hard to say whether it lasts 5 days or 10 days. Think of this – if you hurt your foot and there’s a blood clot, isn’t the recovery gradual? It’s the same in this case”.

While she was saying this, I was reminded of exponential decay, and started wondering whether post-operative pain (irrespective of the kind of surgery) follows exponential decay, decreasing by a certain percentage each day; and when someone says pain “disappears” after a certain number of days, it means that pain goes below a particular  threshold in that time period – and this particular threshold can vary from person to person.

So in that sense, rather than simply telling my wife that the pain will “decrease gradually”, the obstetrician could have been more helpful by saying “the pain will decrease gradually, and will reduce to half in about N days”, and then based on the value of N, my wife could determine, based on her threshold, when her pain would “go”.

Nevertheless, the doctor’s logic (that pain never “disappears discretely”) had me impressed, and I’ve mentioned before on this blog about how I get really impressed with doctors who are logically aware.

Oh, and I must mention that the same obstetrician who operated on my wife yesterday impressed me with her logical reasoning a week ago. My then unborn daughter wasn’t moving too well that day, because of which we were in hospital. My wife was given steroidal injections, and the baby started moving an hour later.

So when we mentioned to the obstetrician that “after you gave the steroids the baby started moving”, she curtly replied “the baby moving has nothing to do with the steroidal injections. The baby moves because the baby moves. It is just a coincidence that it happened after I gave the steroids”.

Wedding videos and optimising reception queue lengths

In the past I’ve dissed wedding videos, claiming that they don’t add any value (as no one ever watches them) and only serve to slow down the queues during receptions. While I maintain that the way they are currently shot still hold up reception queues, I’ve revised my opinion about their general usefulness.

So my in-laws are preparing for the wedding of their second daughter (my sister-in-law), and in order to “revise” what needs to be done, my wife suggested we watch our wedding video. So since last night we’ve been watching our wedding videos, and I must say it’s been quite useful.

For not only are wedding videos inherently entertaining, they also capture nuances of the wedding that still photographs cannot capture. It was pertinent, for example, to observe the order in which my relatives were garlanded as we were being welcomed into the wedding ceremony.

We also got to observe how bad the crowd was immediately after the wedding when people rushed to wish us and hand over their gifts (bad but not that bad). And rather embarrassingly for me, the video showed my failed attempt at cutting the ceremonial ribbon to enter the wedding hall (I have astigmatism which my contact lenses don’t correct, which affects my perception of depth). The video also allowed me to note that the scissor to cut the ribbon was handed to me by a bureaucrat aunt, someone who I guess is well used to handing over scissors in that fashion!

Having watched the reception part of the video, though, I continue to maintain that video recordings hold up the reception procedure, and result in inordinately long queues. Moreover, the way videos are currently shot cause severe embarrassment and discomfort for the guests.

For those that are unfamiliar with south indian wedding receptions, this is what happens – you join a (typically long and wide) queue, and when you get to the head of the queue, walk on stage to greet the couple and hand over your gift. Then you all line up for the photo. So far so good.

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

The embarrassing bit for the guests, in my opinion, is that having struck a photogenic pose for the photo, they are forced to hold this pose for the duration that the videographer pans. Considering that photogenic poses are seldom comfortable, this is an unpleasant process. Moreover, guests aren’t aware when exactly the videographer is covering them, so there’s a chance they might be caught on camera making awkward body movements (possibly due to the discomfort).

Thus, I propose that rather than having the video camera straight on (next to the principal photographer) and getting a panning shot taken, the videographer should position himself on one side of the stage (the opposite side from which the guests are entering), and take a profile view of the guests wishing the bride.

This way, they capture on camera guests in more natural gestures, and the “best” front view would have anyway been captured by the still photographer. The guests can then be asked to move on as soon as the photographer’s shutter clicks (a more natural exit moment), and the time spent by each group of guests on stage could come down by more than 50% (thanks to panning time saved). And this can result in a drastic reduction in expected waiting time for a guest!

While I’d like to implement this procedure at my sister-in-law’s wedding (so what if I thoroughly failed to keep the queue length under control at my own wedding? At least I should use my learnings elsewhere!), the problem would be in finding videographers who are willing to reposition themselves.

In some sense, the videographer standing straight on, and guests waiting for a long time is a kind of a Nash equilibrium, and videographers won’t move to side on unless there’s sufficient demand from hosts to cut queue lengths at their weddings! And since moving videographers to side on is not an intuitive solution, the demand for this move from hosts will also be small.

So I guess unless we can find a videographer who is willing to experiment (not too easy), we will be stuck with front-on videos, uncomfortable guests in front of the camera, and impatient guests in the line!

Betting by other means

In India, officially, sports betting is illegal. Of course, there are lots of “underground” betting networks which we will not go into here. This post, instead, is about a different kind of “betting” on sports.

I’ve long maintained that Mahendra Singh Dhoni is grossly overrated as a cricket captain. While he did win that ICC World T20 in 2007 (back then his captaincy was pretty good), since then he’s shown himself to be too conservative as a captain. In that sense, I’m glad he retired from Tests (thus relinquishing captaincy as well) in 2014, paving the way for the more aggressive Virat Kohli to lead.

Even in limited overs games, I’ve maintained that while in the past he’s been instrumental in orchestrating chases, that ability is now on the wane, with last night’s choke being the latest example of him botching a chase. Earlier this year as well, he choked a chase in Zimbabwe. There are more such examples from the IPL as well.

Given last night’s fuck-up, I think it’s a great time to replace him as captain for limited overs games. I’m not hopeful of this happening, though, and this is in part due to the “betting at another level” that happens in elite sport.

Back in 2011 or 2012, a hashtag called #SachinRetire started making the rounds on Twitter. The context was that with the 2011 world cup having been won, it was a great opportunity for Sachin Tendulkar to retire on a high note. He continued playing on, though, in the hope of hitting “100 100s in international cricket”, the result of which was mostly mediocre cricket on his part.

Tendulkar’s 100th 100 finally came a year after his 99th, in an Asia Cup match against Bangladesh. He scored at a strike rate of 78, in a match India lost. A lot of the blame for the loss can be put on his slow rate of scoring, and consequently, on the 100th 100 hype.

It was another good opportunity to retire, but he continued playing, until a special Test series was organised in 2013 so that he could retire “at home”.

The dope in sports circles in those days was that while Tendulkar himself was keen to go, there were plenty of endorsements he was involved in, and those sponsors would have had to take a loss if he retired. Thus, the grapevine went, he had to take his sponsors into confidence and “prepare them” in order to choose an opportune time to retire.

Endorsements and sponsorships are the “other kind of betting” I mentioned earlier in the post. As soon as a sportsperson “makes it”, there is a clutch of brands who wants to cash in on his popularity by asking him to endorse them. The money involved makes it a good deal for the sportsperson as well.

By choosing to sponsor a sportsperson and getting him to endorse their brand, sponsors are effectively taking a bet on the player’s career – the better the player’s career goes, the greater the benefit for the brand from the sponsorship deal. In case the player’s career stalls, or he is caught in a scandal, the brand also suffers by association (think Tiger Woods or Maria Sharapova).

The concern with betting on sports in India is that bettors might try to influence the results of matches they’ve bet on, by possibly fixing them. This, along with “protecting the poor punter” are reasons why betting on sports is banned in India.

The problem, however, is that with this “other kind of betting” (sponsorships), the size and influence of the bettors (sponsors) means that there is a greater chance of the bettors seeking to influence the results of their investments.

A sponsor, for example, will not be happy if their “sponsee” is left out of his team, for whatever reason. Any negative impact on the sponsee’s career, from being dropped, to being demoted from captaincy to being sold to a “lesser club” negatively affects the brand value of the sponsor (by association).

And so, in cases where it’s possible (I can’t imagine a sponsor trying to influence Jose Mourinho’s decision, for example), the sponsor will try to influence selection decisions where it might benefit them. So Tendulkar’s sponsors will lobby with selectors to keep him in the team. Dhoni’s sponsors will lobby to keep him as captain. And so forth.

I’m not advocating that some kind of regulation be brought in to curb sponsors’ influence – any such regulation can only be counterproductive. All I’m saying is that betting already exists in Indian cricket, except that rather than betting on matches, bettors are betting on players! And so there is no real argument to ban “real” sports betting in India.

At least in that case, sponsors will be able to hedge their investments in the market rather than seeking to influence the powers behind the sport!