Category Archives: personal

Chatting and messengers

So the wife has just moved abroad and I haven’t even bothered getting international calling enabled on my mobile phone. It’s not that I’m not concerned about keeping in touch with her – it’s more to do with the plethora of options to keep in touch with her than a normal phone call.

Firstly there’s whatsapp, which I’ve used for the last two years (the trigger to join whatsapp was the limit in the number of text messages one could send per day which was introduced in 2012 as a “rumour prevention mechanism”). A large number of people on my contacts list use WhatsApp, which means that it is extremely rare that i use normal text messaging to connect to them.

And earlier today, while she was waiting for a connection at Frankfurt airport, the wife asked me to install Viber, saying it allows us to talk without any international dialing cost. I just had a brief conversation with her and the quality was extraordinary (especially given i’m on a weak BSNL broadband here and she was in a car there). Then I looked at my contacts who are on viber, and the number of my contacts who are using Viber is insanely high! Almost makes me seem foolish for not joining in so far.

And then earlier today I spoke to someone in Singapore using Skype. Call quality wasn’t that great – we dropped a couple of times – but it was still pretty good. And then there is google hangouts. And then there is apple’s facetime (perhaps the main reason the iPad fell my side when we were dividing our assets prior to the wife’s move is that I could have an Apple device with me so that we can FaceTime!).

The number of options for messaging is so large that I wonder how long the whole calling and messaging model will continue. I had shown in a recent blog post (on my public policy blog) that the number of SMSs sent per user in India peaked three years ago and has then been on a secular decline. And now there is news that the telecoms regulator in India is thinking of instituting a fee on providers such as WhatsApp and Viber because of the revenue losses they are causing to the mobile phone service providers in India (like Airtel, Vodafone, etc.).

The question therefore is what the future of telecom will look like given the large number of internet based reliable communication providers who are springing up. My prediction is that the phone call is not going to die – what sets apart a phone call from a Voice over IP connection (such as Skype or Viber) is that it is “online” (i forget the technical term for it – ok got it it’s “network switching” as opposed to “packet switching” which is how the internet works).

To explain that in English, when I talk to you over the phone (normal phone call) there is a dedicated line that goes out from me to you. Basically your telecom provider and mine and the network interchange come together so that a virtual line is drawn from me to you, and this is exclusive for us as we talk (call dropping on mobile phones happens when we try to move from one “cell” to another and get lost in between).

The internet doesn’t work that way. When I send you a “voice message” over the internet, it goes one hop at a time. There is no dedicated line from me to you. The reason we are now able to voice chat online reliably is that the bandwidth available is so much that packets usually get connected quickly enough (think of a bus network so dense that you can change buses instantly to get to your destination – it virtually simulates a “direct bus”). When the network is busy or the bandwidth clogged, however, there might be some delays (while a phone call once connected remains connected).

Given this distinction the phone call offers a level of reliability that packet switching based voice messengers can never reach. And there will always be a market for extremely high reliability. Hence the phone call is not going anywhere.

The SMS, on the other hand, is again packet switched, and a mechanism in which carriers could extract large amounts of money. The SMS will soon die a natural death – kept alive only by means of government mandated services such as two factor authentication of credit card transactions.

While the fees on carriers such as Viber might become a reality in a place like India they are unlikely to sustain as international norms become uniform. What we are likely to see instead is mobile carriers coming to terms with existence of such providers, and some interesting internet pricing plans.

Currently, to use Viber for a fair bit you need a fairly high FUP (fair usage policy) limit on your phone (carrying voice digitally takes a lot of bandwidth). Carriers might introduce some kind of a graded payment structure such that they can partly recover (through higher internet charges) the lost revenues thanks to lost call charges.

If any mobile phone operator is reading this and needs help on devising such pricing mechanisms, feel free to use my consulting services. Among other things in the past I’ve done revenue management for airline ticketing and cargo (the holy grail of revenue management) while working for Sabre – the pioneer in revenue management.

Bachelor notes: day zero

I’m writing this having just dropped the wife at the airport. I’m taking the bus back home. While it helps that this bus goes 200m from my house and i saw it leave just when I was ready to leave the airport, I realize that with the wife not at home there’s no incentive for me to get home asap. A little delay doesn’t hurt!

And to think that the last time I took the airport bus home was one week shy of five years ago, which was a month before I first met the lady who is now the wife!!

While I’m at it I’m suddenly reminded of the time eleven years ago, when I was at IIT and decided I wanted to “slow down the pace of life”! And my way of achieving that was by selling my cycle!

Something tells me I’ve written about this recently on the blog but I’m on the mobile and hence too lazy to check right now!!

Back to bachelorhood

Starting tonight I’ll be a bachelor once again. For the next nineteen months or so. No it’s not that I’m returning my post graduate diploma and hence getting this downgrade (it’s been a while since I cracked a bad joke here so I’m entitled). It’s that the wife is going away. To get herself an MBA (yes I know that after this she will be better qualified than me since she’ll be getting a proper MBA while i have a post graduate diploma only. Maybe I can retire soon? ).

She’ll be going off to Barcelona tonight. The original plan had me moving there too. But then classic old NED happened and I ended up not looking for a job or assignment there and since it’s not an inexpensive place to stay I’m staying back. Plan to visit her every once in a while. And even though tickets to Europe are prohibitively expensive I now have a place to go to in case I need a break.

But for that I need to first get myself a visa. I guess one of my chief tasks in the next few days will be to get this bit of business done. But then I have my own business.

Regulars on this blog might be aware that I haven’t had formal employment for close to three years now. I freelance as a quAnt consultant – helping companies figure out how to make use of the volumes of data they collect in improving their business decision making. It’s been doing quite okay but my plan is to use the next few months when I don’t have any domestic commitments to see if I can take it to the next level.

It might also be pertinent to mention here that the first bit if business I got for this particular venture was through this blog – the last time I put out a post like this one a long time reader who was looking for quant assistance left a comment here and that led to a rather fruitful assignment. Perhaps mentioning this here might result in a repeat?

Now that I’m blogging more than I used to in the recent past I’ll also be using these pages to keep you updated on the long distanceness. I’ve also noticed that since I last put the update on leaving twitter and Facebook that there’s some more activity here. Keep that flowing and I hope for some good conversations on the comment pages here.

Slowing down

Back in 2003, when I was in my third year at IIT,  I thought that “life was going too fast”. That too many things were happening all the time and I had no time for anything. I decided to respond to that by purposely slowing down my life. I gave away my bicycle (which was the primary means of transport at IIT) and started walking. This meant I had to leave ten minutes earlier for class each morning, but given I would wake up early this wasn’t an issue. What this ensured was that I had time to think, to introspect, and to do things at my own pace rather than let other things drive my life.

In January this year I went off Twitter. Twitter was being too much of a time sink, and was taking too much mindspace so i decided to get off. the abstention lasted a month. I sought to make a ‘limited comeback’ in February so that I could plug my pieces in Mint, among other things. However, that soon turned into a full-scale comeback and in the last month or two I’ve been looking at twitter while trying to put myself to sleep, and again as soon as I wake up.

So I’ve decided once again to slow things down. I’m off twitter and facebook. I hope this one will last longer than my last attempt. The reason this time is a combination of the time sink that these networks were proving to be and the overall negativity that was being transmitted through these networks – facebook has stopped being a place where people share photos and quirky messages – it’s all outrage and flame wars there. Twitter has always been that way. I realized these were affecting me negatively to a significant extent, and so I’m off.

So far there have been no withdrawal symptoms, but I’m formulating a policy for that. If there’s something I want to say, there are two ways I’m going to say it in – I’ll either expand and elaborate and write a blog post ( you are likely to see more action on this blog and on my other two blogs in the next few months), or I’ll decide which specific person I want to tell what I wanted to tell, and tell that person! Broadcast is simply a waste of time.

My policy as of yesterday afternoon:

  • No twitter
  • No facebook
  • More email
  • More google hangouts
  • More whatsapp
  • More phone calls
  • More reading books
  • More writing blogs

And hopefully I can even resume on that book of which I’ve only written the preface.

I returned last night from a walk, and instinctively reached for my phone to check twitter and facebook. And then realized those two apps have been uninstalled. I wanted to switch on my PC and just “generally be online”. But then realized that most of my “generally being online” was to be online on twitter and facebook. With those two out, there was no use of “being online”.

And then I saw my kindle, and spent the next four hours continuing a book I’d left midway a month back. I woke up this morning and switched on the computer, and have been “generally online” but reading emails and writing blogs. I like this already, and hope this can sustain.

Last week someone told me that I’m a “natural blogger”. The meaning of this term wasn’t clear to me until he said “I assume you can write a blog post in like 45 minutes?” 45 minutes is the upper end of the time i take to write a blog post. I normally do one in 20. Maybe it’s a sign and I should get back to doing more of this.

PS: This also means that the only way I can talk to you, the reader, is through the comments section of this blog. I promise to be more responsive here and engage in a conversation.

Twisting and shouting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Graphing social networks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

socialnetwork2

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

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

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

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

socialnetwork3

Warming the house

Midway through my housewarming function on Sunday, I had a “Lawrence of Arabia” moment. In the movie, Lawrence, a reluctant soldier has to execute a guy named Gasim in the Arab army he is leading. Lawrence shoots Gasim, and then finds that he actually enjoys killing people. This is probably one of the pivotal moments in the story.

My day had begun badly, as the priests who were supposed to turn up by 5, did not make their appearance until a full hour later. What was interesting was that the photographer, who had been asked to turn up at 630 came in a full hour earlier. With the priests not coming in till it was close to 6, I was going bonkers, and declaring war on the priest community, and regretting that I had agreed for a religious ceremony at all.

They arrived soon, however, and off I went to change into a silk panche (not a great idea for summer). And I heard clapping and shouting outside. Three eunuchs had invaded the house and were refusing to leave until they had been paid Rs. 1100. I must mention this was the first time I had been so harassed. And these people were refusing to negotiate or bow to threats. Finally the demanded sum was paid and off they went. This transaction has been recorded in my housewarming ceremony income and expenses statement.

My official family priest, who was unable to make it thanks to an earlier booking, had mentioned that the complexities of handling a housewarming meant that we had to employ four priests. Any doubts of any value that multiple priests added were dispelled in the first few minutes of the ceremony beginning. One priest with a good voice chanting mantras can occasionally be pleasing to hear. But four priests singing in tandem, not all of them at the perfect pitch – which created a nice effect – and not all of them singing simultaneously, was phenomenal. Their chants reverberated off the walls of the empty house (not too many people want to turn up for a ceremony at 7 am on a Sunday, so we had spared most guests the moral agony and had invited them only for lunch), and when it was accompanied by the ringing of bells, as it was occasionally, it was absolutely mindblowing.

It was around this time that I had the Lawrence of Arabia moment. After all my protestations against religious ceremonies and suchlike, I discovered that I was actually enjoying the process. The sound was fantastic. With significant hand-holding from the priest what I had to do was also enjoyable – throw flowers into one area at irregular intervals. I could construct my own little games (not unlike Pee-ball) and it was a lot of fun.

After a short break for coffee and a longer one for breakfast (technically you are supposed to fast during such events but such rules have become flexible nowadays), it was time for the “homa” or throwing things into the ritual fire as an offering to the fire god Agni and his wife Swaha. I didn’t start the fire. It was initially lit using burning camphor by two aunts. It was fueled mostly by the priests (another time when multiple priests came in handy – two chanted the mantras while the other two kindled the fire).

My role here was to occasionally pour in ghee using the small wooden ladle, and then later put in “modaks” (fried momos filled with coconut and sugar) into the fire. Again I invented my own little games. How do you throw the modak such that it immediately catches fire? How do you ensure the modak doesn’t bounce outside of the fire pot? Can you create patterns with the burning modaks?

Midway through this ritual I started imagining doing a barbecue on this ritual fire (this thought was fueled by a particular modak, which on partial burning, started looking like a piece of grilled chicken). A couple of days earlier I had imagined what would happen if illegal weeds were to be procured and added to the ritual fire. The wife and I had then thought that the original intended purpose of such rituals was communal bakery.

We had planned to finish the ceremonies by 9:30, so that we could prepare to receive guests who would arrive around 11. The problem is that if you are the only person(s) who know certain guests, they can get lost and bored if you are stuck in rituals. Hence we had planned the rituals such that we could be ready to receive guests by the time they arrived. We had built in an hour an a half of slack (9:30 to 11), and it came of good use as the rituals ceased at 10:30 (the hour’s delay being a function of the delay in priests’ arrival).

Guests came, saw, ate and went. Around 5 in the evening the wife started cleaning the house. By 8, there were no traces of a ceremony having happened there. And we went out.

Tradition demands you spend a night in the new house even if you don’t intend to move in immediately. We went to bed at 12, after having opened the presents. Initially sleep was good. Then we got woken up at 430 by a pack of dogs that were prowling the streets and fighting. Then we tried to get back to sleep, but were again woken up by the nearby mosque’s azaan. I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come once we move.

 

The Greatest Day Of My Consulting Career So Far

Close to three years back, when I first decided that I should get into this business of helping people understand, appreciate and use data for business decision-making, I had this picture in my head of how I would work. I imagined myself taking a client’s data set, and twisting and turning and slicing and dicing it, and presenting it back in a way that generated insight.

I had then imagined this scene where I would present one such interesting visualization. And the clients would go bonkers. They would see what they had never realized before. Some would be euphoric (that they had located the source of the problem, perhaps). Others worried (that there was, after all, a problem, perhaps). Others would fight amongst themselves. And I would sit there, and watch, and revel, and then move on with my presentation. In other words, that my work would help these guys look at the data in a completely new way, which would help them make superior decisions.

Little had I imagined then, when I first imagined the scene, before I got into the business, that this “dream” would happen within my first year of business. It is exactly a year since this happened. And it all happened as per plan, except that I couldn’t see the faces of my clients, and that was probably a good thing.

I had taken their data and sliced and diced and twisted and turned it, and presented an interesting set of graphs. I was making a presentation to the senior management. I was, however, not in the conference room – I had dialed in from the comfort of my home.

Most of the presentation went unspectacularly. I would show stuff, explain, and hear nothing back (that is one of the downsides of presenting on call. The silences can sometimes kill you, and leave you unsure of whether the client is actually listening). And then this happened. There was this slide I put up (for client confidentiality reasons I can’t say much about the slide itself). The next few minutes were a dream.

There was a long-standing debate about this issue, and my slide had presented the data in a way that settled the debate in a definitive manner. One side was clearly happy, the other side clearly not. They started arguing. Normally, if it’s your presentation and people you are presenting to start arguing, you consider it your moral duty to step in and moderate the discussion. Here, though, I was on call, several hundred kilometres away. There was no moral obligation to step in.

I listened, and I reveled. The “dream scene” I had imagined before I had gotten into this business, had come true within my first year of operation. It was fun as various parties on the client side dissected different parts of the graph I had put up, to make their point vis-a-vis the longstanding debate. And I could listen to it, without having to step in.

After a while I intervened, made my point, and moved on. The rest of the presentation was relatively unspectacular, but I couldn’t care less. I don’t know how many people in how many “jobs” can see their “dream sequence” being enacted within their first year in that job.

Getting monkeys off your back

I’m mortally scared every time I make pulav. Now, I’m reputed to be a pretty good pulav maker – at least the wife and the mother-in-law will vouch for this, and it is this reputation that puts pressure on me every time I stand throwing spices into the pressure cooker. “The law of averages will soon catch up with me”, I think, and hope that this is not the time it will catch up.

Normally, if you make pulav seven times, and each time make it better than the previous time, you begin to think you’re becoming an expert in that and you can do no wrong thenceforth. I don’t feel that way. Knowing myself fairly well, I know it’s nigh impossible for me to hit 100% accuracy in pretty much anything that I do – at best I can hit a 90%. That I got a “hit” seven times in a row means that the coin fell on the 90% side seven times, and even assuming a Markovian process (success or failure of this batch of pulav is unrelated to previous performances), it gives me a 10% chance of failure each time I make it!

The thing with making pulav in a pressure cooker is that when it comes out well, it comes out great, but it can go spectacularly wrong. I don’t use formal measures for the amount of rice and water I use – it is all based on rules of thumb (literally – sometimes I stick my thumb into the mixture in the pressure cooker to feel if the amount of water is right). And I know that if I put too much water, it can end up being a soggy mess. At the other end, it can end up not cooking at all, or worse, burning.

So when a couple of months back my pulav went marginally wrong (slightly watery, but not inedible) – it made me feel happy. It made me feel happy that the law of averages had caught up with me, and that it didn’t result in a spectacular failure! Sometimes when you know that you are due for a failure, it can be self-reinforcing and result in spectacular failures. So it helps to take a mild fall once in a while that gives you the assurance that you’re human after all, and doesn’t put undue pressure on you the next time.

So what do you think about your continued successes, in the kitchen, at the workplace, and elsewhere? Does that make you feel better or worse? Does it lead to a sense of hubris, or greater self-doubt? Do leave a comment here and let me know.

Countercyclical business

I realize being a freelance management consultant is countercyclical business. For two years in succession, I’ve had a light March – both years I’ve ended up finishing projects in Jan/Feb. With March being the end of the Indian financial year, most companies are loathe to commit additional spending in March, and it is a bad time to start new projects!

This is counter-cyclical because most other businesses end up having a bumper March, since they have end-of-year targets, and with a short sales cycle, they push their salespersons hard to achieve this target in March!