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.

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.

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):


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!


Job upgrades and downgrades, and LinkedIn

I think I’ve ranted about LinkedIn here before. I’ve talked about the pointlessness of LinkedIn recommendations (due to selection bias), the further pointlessness of skill endorsement (a desperate attempt by now-public LinkedIn to get users to interact more with each other) and the seemingly ungrammatical “say congrats” (some of these rants might have been on twitter, so not bothering to pull up links).

This post is again about the “say congrats” feature on LinkedIn. When you change your job (or, change your job title on LinkedIn), your contacts see the change on their timeline, with a helpful “say congrats on the new job” hint.

Now, the problem is that not all job changes are upgrades! Sometimes, you might get fired and change your headline from “XXX at YYY” to “ZZZ industry professional”, and LinkedIn asks your contacts to “say congrats”. Another time, you might get tired of your old job, and boldly state on your LinkedIn headline that you are looking for new opportunities (eg. “Software Engineer at XXX, looking for new opportunities”), and LinkedIn again jumps the gun and asks your friends to “say congrats”. At other times, you might make a job switch which looks eminently like a downgrade (especially for people who understand both your old and new jobs). And LinkedIn rubs it in and asks your contacts to “say congrats”.

It seems like LinkedIn needs better data scientists. And people who can make better sense of how to get their users to talk to each other and create value out of a network that is well past its fast growth phase.

The Goa Project

The last three days I was in Goa, attending the second edition of the Goa Project. Considering how stressed out I was with work last week, it was a good three-day break, and I had a good time meeting new ! people, getting to know them, generally hanging out and drinking (though I must admit I got sick of beer).

The Goa Project is an interesting concept. The basic idea, as one of the organizers put it, is to get a bunch of interesting people together and put them in one place for two days and let the network effect take over. There is no particular objective in terms of immediate outcomes from the workshop – it is simply about connecting people! Talks are scheduled through the days and at any point of time one typically has three sessions to choose from, but like in any good conference, most of the “useful stuff” happens outside the lecture halls – where participants meet each other and just “hang out”.

I took an overnight bus to Goa (first time I used VRL – was pretty good), and so reached the venue only at 11:30 am. The first pair of keynote lectures (those that don’t have any “competitors” and thus don’t give you a choice to not attend) had just got over and people were moving around. The first set of “real sessions” were starting, and I realized there were few people I knew. But then, the point of an event such as this is lost if you end up knowing a lot of people there, and don’t make any effort to expand your network.

In ten minutes I was in and out of all three simultaneous sessions – all of which I found rather uninteresting. Then began my quest for what I called the “white noise space”. The problem was that the microphones at all three venues had been turned up, and it was impossible to have a conversation without any of those lectures disturbing you. Finally I reached what is possibly the “weighted centroid” of all the loudspeakers, where sounds from each of the three lectures could be heard equally loudly, so that they cancelled one another out, allowing us to have a conversation.

Two or three weekends back, I was reading this book on networking called “Never Eat Alone” (on Gandhi’s recommendation), which for a “management book” was a really good read and rather insightful. It was while I was in the middle of that book that I got an invite to speak at the Goa Project. So it can be said that my visit to the Project was an attempt to put what I read in that book to practice.

During the course of the two days of the workshop I don’t think I talked to more than twenty people (there were over two hundred there). My wife had made twenty five or so new business cards for me to give out at the workshop, and I gave out less than ten. I collected three of four business cards. There was this small group of people (some of whom I knew earlier, but not too well, and most of whom I had never met earlier) that I met, and this group expanded during the course of the Project. So while I didn’t expand my network wide, I did manage to get to know a few people well.

The irrepressible Krish Ashok (with whom I hung out for a large part of Day One) gave an absolutely kickass talk on day one about mixing and making music. Fittingly, it was heavily attended, despite it eating into lunch time (inevitably, I must say, there were delays and the schedule got badly mangled). There were only two other sessions on day one that I sat through till the end, though, with most of the others being rather underwhelming.

When we got married, my wife and I had decided that we would not have live music for the reception, for if you keep it too soft, the artists will get offended, and if you keep it too loud, it can interfere with conversation. The live music at the end of day one had the second of these effects, and with some people who I’d hung out with that day, I went to a far corner of the venue (where the music was actually enjoyable) to eat my dinner.

I was talking about the economics of auto rickshaws – perhaps a part two of the talk on Chennai auto rickshaws I’d delivered in Chennai in 2011. I got slotted into a track called “society”, where interestingly I was perhaps the only speaker who was not an activist. In some senses that made me a bit of a misfit with the rest of the track speakers. Sample this interaction during my talk:

Audience member: Given that the auto driver is under privileged ..
Me (cutting her short): Policies should not be framed based on who is under privileged and who is over privileged. They should be based on sound economic reasoning.

The audience member was a bit stunned and took a while to recover to continue the question I had cut short.

Anyway, the lady who was managing my track had sent an email asking us to rehearse our talks and also sent Amanda Palmer’s TED talk to tell us how we should structure our sessions. She had asked us to script our talks, and rehearse it a few times. While my experience on day one indicated that few other speakers had bothered to actually rehearse, early on Day Two, I thought I should rehearse at least once before the talk.

And talking in front of the mirror as I made coffee and dressed myself, I over-exerted myself and promptly lost my voice.

The rest of the morning, before my talk, I decided to “conserve my voice”, and thus not being able to speak, I decided to attend some talks. I sat in the front row when Lucia director Pawan Kumar talked about how he crowd-funded and made the movie. I listened to this guy (who I know via a “secret society” but had never met before) talk about his experience of being a cop in London. In between, I walked about, talking in a low voice, with people I had met the earlier day.

Mangled schedules meant that my 12:40 talk started only around 1:50, when lunch was underway. It didn’t help matters that it was scheduled in the arena farthest from the cafeteria. Calling it “economics of local for-hire public transport” also didn’t help. But that there were less than twenty people in the audience meant that I could settle down on the stage and deliver my talk.

And so I delivered. Mic in hand, low voice didn’t matter. Small crowd meant I could take questions through my talk. Hanging out with a few people through the length of the workshop meant they helped enhance my audience (a favour I returned). And a lunch-time talk meant that when I started getting too many questions, the track manager declared “lunch break” and I slipped away.

I was wearing a white shirt with sleeves rolled up, over khaki cargo shorts. Sitting on stage cross-legged (which meant that the fact that my shirt was untucked or that the shorts were cargo didn’t show), with a microphone in my left hand and waving a pointed right forefinger, I think the only thing that separated me from an RSS pramukh was a black cap on my head!


The rest of the day went well. I attended some excellent talks through the afternoon and evening, though not too many others did, for the schedule had played havoc again. Dinner time saw a nice band playing, though I stopped drinking since I got sick of beer. I met a few more people, gave out a few more cards, “watched” Liverpool massacre Arsenal via Guardian minute-by-minute commentary, and returned to my hotel a happy man.

The Goa Project continued into its unofficial third day today, as I met a few of the other attendees for breakfast (we were all at the same hotel), a few others for lunch, and some more at the waiting area of the impossibly tiny and congested Dabolim airport as I waited to fly back to Bangalore.

I’ll be back next year.


Does facebook think my wife is my ex?

The “lookback” video feature that Facebook has launched on account of its tenth anniversary is nice. It flags up all the statuses and photos that you’ve uploaded that have been popular, and shows you how your life on facebook has been through the years.

My “lookback” video is weird, though, in that it contains content exclusively from my “past life”. There is absolutely no mention of the wife, despite us having been married for over three years now! And it is not like we’ve hidden our marriage from Facebook – we have a large number of photos and statuses in the recent past in which both of us have been mentioned.

Now, the danger with an exercise such as the lookback is that it can dig up unwanted things from one’s past. Let’s say you were seeing someone, the two of you together were all over Facebook and then you broke up. And then when you tried to clean up Facebook and get rid of the remnants of your past life, you miss cleaning up some stuff. And Facebook picks that up and puts that in you lookback video, making it rather unpleasant.

I’m sure the engineers at Facebook would have been aware of this problem, and hence would have come up with an algorithm to prevent such unpleasantness. Some bright engineer there would have come up with a filter such that ex-es are filtered out.

Now, back in January 2010, the (now) wife and I announced that we were in a relationship. Our respective profiles showed the names of the other person, and we proudly showed we were in a relationship. Then in August of the same year, the status changed to “Engaged’, and in November to “Married”. Through this time we we mentioned on each other’s profiles as each other’s significant others.

Then, a year or two back -I’m not sure when, exactly – the wife for some reason decided to remove the fact that she is married from facebook. I don’t think she changed her relationship status, but didn’t make the fact that she’s married public. As a consequence, my relationship status automatically changed from “Married to Priyanka Bharadwaj” to just “Married”.

So, I think facebook has this filter that if someone has once been your significant other, and is not that (according to your Facebook relationship status) anymore, he/she is an ex. And anyone who is your ex shall not appear in your lookback video – it doesn’t matter if you share status updates and photos after your “break up”.

Since Priyanka decided to hide the fact that she’s married from Facebook, facebook possibly thinks that we’ve broken up. The algorithm that created the lookback video would have ignored that we still upload pictures in which both of us are there – probably that algorithm thinks we’ve broken up but are still friends!

So – you have my lookback video which is almost exclusively about my past life (interestingly, most people who appear in the video are IIMB batchmates, and I joined Facebook two years after graduation), and contains nothing of my present!

Algorithms can be weird!