Priorities are a zero sum game

This came out of a WhatsApp group flame war, but it’s true – priorities are a zero sum game. Whenever you prioritise something, it comes at the cost of something that you have deprioritised.

If you say that “A is a priority in addition to B”, you are being dishonest, for in your book you can either prioritise A, or you can prioritise B. If you want to increase the priority of B, it necessarily comes at the cost of A.

It doesn’t matter what you are talking about here. It could be national economic policy. It could be your company’s vision statement. It could be about how you choose to spend your time. It could be how a computer operating system works. Priorities are necessarily an ordered list, and there is always something that is of the highest priority.

This, however, doesn’t mean that priorities cannot change. A good system is one in which priorities are dynamic, and change according to the needs of the situation. A good example of changing priorities is the “shortest remaining time job first” paradigm that operating systems use.

Wimpy

This was posted by the dean of Alumni Affairs on LinkedIn.

The comments so far have been boilerplate – some just listing out some nicknames, and others saying a lot of them are not for public consumption.

In any case, for me, my nickname is a source of identity. I think there are a few criteria that it satisfies that make it so.

  • My “real name”, as I write it in most places (“Karthik S”), is incredibly common. So identifying myself as “Karthik” or “Karthik S” or “S Karthik” is hard. Not that many people (especially those I mostly interacted with more than 10 years back) easily identify me by my “full name”
  • My nickname is not obscene (I’ve found that names such as “cock”, “dildo”, “condom”, which are rather common in places like IITM don’t stick after graduation)
  • My nickname is rather unique. I don’t know anyone else (at all – either at IITM or otherwise) named Wimpy (apart from the Popeye character). So among people who know that Wimpy is one of my names, identifying myself thus means they can instantly recognise me

Guests at a party over the weekend included a couple of guys from IITM. My wife primarily know them by their nicknames (since that’s how I’ve always referred to them), and proceeded to introduce them as such to her friends (it helps again that both of them have rather unique nicknames, and common first names) using their nicknames.

So “seniors” at elite institutions – when you go through the rituals of giving “freshies” their names – keep in mind that if you make your choice well, the names you endow will continue to be used for decades. So eschew the lunds and the condoms and the dildos, and get creative. And a nice back story for the name helps as well!

Dreamers and Dignity

If I’d picked up Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers before I had read Chris Arnade’s Dignity, I might have liked it better. As it happened, having read Dignity, I found Dreamers to be unnecessarily judgmental and prescriptive, and was unable to read it beyond the first two chapters. It is now there on my goodreads page, as a book that I “finished” and gave one star.

Dignity is a book I highly recommend. Chris Arnade, a former investment banker with a PhD in astrophysics wanders around and hangs around in what he calls as “back row America”, and chronicles people’s lives there. The entire book is simply a set of chronicles, garnished with beautiful photos he has taken of his interviewees.

While Arnade makes no secrets of his own political leaning, he doesn’t let that affect his book. Rather, he keeps his own politics to the minimum and lets his interviews do the talking, literally. There are no policy prescriptions in the book, and the reader is simply presented a set of lives and asked to draw her own conclusions. And that means that even if you don’t agree with the politics of the author (I certainly don’t), the book is an incredibly compelling read.

I picked up Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers about a month or so after I’d finished Dignity. The premise is sort of similar – except that given that India has recently had far higher growth than the US, the “back row Indians” can be classified as “dreamers” who are seeking a better life. And in this book, Poonam chronicles the stories of some of these dreamers, and what they are doing to get themselves a better life.

Poonam is clear about her politics as well (“my family has always voted for the Congress Party”), but what makes her book different from Arnade’s is that she lets her politics take over her narrative. While telling the story of Moin Khan, who runs a spoken English class in Ranchi, she doesn’t hesitate to make snide remarks about either the teacher or any of his students.

Rather than letting her characters talk, Poonam talks on their behalf and overlays her politics to pretty much everything she is talking about. “This is how you are expected to get ahead in Modi’s India” is a refrain through the book.

And even leaving the politics aside, what made me uncomfortable with Dreamers is that the author seems to talk down to the interviewees. The tone throughout the parts of the book that I read is one of moral superiority and smugness of being part of “front row India”.

Maybe if I had read Dreamers before I read Dignity, I would have appreciated it for what it is, and for the stories that it told. I might have discarded the politics and the tone and just enjoyed the stories (I see the book has got 4 stars on Goodreads from a lot of my friends).

Having read Dignity, however, I perhaps had this image in my head of how these stories can be told well. And that meant that I was simply unable to look beyond the overt politics and smug tone in Dreamers. And that meant I abandoned it midway, and gave it a low rating.

Java and IIT Madras

At the end of my B.Tech. in Computer Science and Engineering from IIT Madras, I was very clear about one thing – I didn’t want to be an engineer. I didn’t want to pursue a career in Computer Science, either. This was after entering IIT with a reputation of being a “stud programmer”, and being cocky and telling people that my hobby was “programming”.

I must have written about this enough times on this blog that I can’t be bothered about finding links, but my Computer Science degree at IIT Madras made me hate programming. I didn’t mind (some of) the maths, but it was the actual coding bit that I actively came to hate. And when an internship told me that research wasn’t something I was going to be good at, fleeing the field was an obvious decision and I quickly went to business school.

Thinking back about it, I think my problem is that I give up when faced with steep learning curves. I like systems that are easy and intuitive to use, and have a great user experience. The “geeky” products that are difficult to use and geeks take pride in, I have no patience for. I remember learning to code macros in Microsoft Excel in my first post B-school job in 2006 being the time when I started falling in love with Computer Science once again.

The big problem with CSE in IIT Madras was that they made you code. A lot. Which you might think is totally normal for a program in computer science. Except that all the professors there were perhaps like me, and wanted systems that were easy to use, which means that just about anything we needed to build, we needed to build a user interface for. And in 2002, that meant coding in Java, and producing those ugly applets which were interactive but anything but easy to use.

The amount of Java coding I did in those four years is not funny. And Java is a difficult language to code – it’s incredibly verbose and complicated (especially compared to something like Python, for example), and impossible to code without a book or a dictionary of APIs handy. And because it’s so verbose, it’s buggy. And you find it difficult to make things work. And even when you make it work, the UI that it produces is incredibly ugly.

So it amused me to come across this piece of news that my old department has “developed a new framework that could make the programs written in JAVA language more efficient“. I don’t know who uses Java any more (I thought the language of choice among computer scientists nowadays is Python. While it’s infinitely easier than Java, it again produces really ugly graphics), but it’s interesting that people in my old department are still at it. And even going about making things more efficient!

Also, you might find the article itself (this is on the IIT alumni website) amusing. Go ahead and give it a read.

To solve this problem, V Krishna and Manas Thakur tweaked the two compilation procedures. In the first compilation step, more elaborate and time-consuming analysis is performed and wherever the conversion stalls due to unavailability of the library from the computer, a partial result is created. Now, during the second stage of compilation, the just in-time compilers, with available libraries from the computer, work to resolve the partial values to generate final values and finally a more precise result. As the time taken during the first exhaustive compilation does not get included in execution time, the whole procedure still remains time-saving, while leading to highly efficient codes

Housing

The Bank of England’s Bank Underground blog has two excellent posts on house prices (first this one, then this one). The basic idea is that houses are assets, not goods, since the “goods” consumed is “living”, which is basically a point in time thing.

As the first of these posts points out:

You can’t buy flowers when they are cheap and store them for months until Valentine’s day. Similarly, you can’t store housing services by, say, renting two flats this year and saving one’s rental services for next year. So the price of rents is determined “on the spot” by the current balance of demand and supply of places to live. Add a load of extra people and/or make them richer and the higher demand pushes up rents. Boost supply and rents fall.

Combined with this comes the news that a friend’s parents have moved to Mysore (from Bangalore) for their retirement.

Taking these blogposts, and this piece of news, together, I’m beginning to reconsider my views on housing.

About 7-8 years back, I got “personal finance advice” that one needs to start “saving for retirement” at age 30, and one of the best ways of doing that is to buy a house. I was about to turn 30 around then, and I took this advice seriously enough to invest in an apartment in 2014. Looking at it five years on, I’m not sure buying a house for retirement in your thirties is the best idea.

For starters, India is (still) a fast-growing and fast-changing nation, so I have no clue what are going to be good places to live 10 years down the line (forget 30 or 40, at which point I’ll retire).

Secondly, my needs from a house now are very different from what they will be 30 or 40 years down the line. For example, right now, my daughter’s school is a “fixed point” (assuming I don’t want to change that), and I need a house that isn’t too far from there. As she grows up and grows out of school, this will cease to be a factor.

Similarly, the work that I do demands a certain pattern of travel in the city, and that again guides my choice of place to live. This is likely to change as the years go by as well.

Then, what I need from my house and my surroundings are likely to change as well. For example, I might want peace and quiet right now, and might be willing to take my car everywhere. At some other point in time, I might place a higher premium on shops in a walkable distance. Similarly, my preferences on entertainment activities might change as well.

Taking all this into account, making a housing decision now on where I want to live 15-20 years down the line is futile. There are simply too many variables and any decision I take now will only lock me in to something that is possibly not optimal.

From that point of view I need to look at my needs over the next 10-15 years (when things will change, but maybe not by that much) to make my current investing decisions. This includes rent/buy/sell decisions, taking into account whatever I’m optimising for now, and will in the next few years. And if I’m setting aside money to “buy a house for retirement” now, I should simply just focus on saving and growing that money so that I can make an informed decision at a time when it matters, and matters are more clear.

Gap in giveaways and disposal

There is a gap in the market between second hand sales and garbage disposal, and I’m not sure what’s a good way to address it.

These are things that you own that might be useful for someone, but you don’t know who it might be useful for. If one such person is located, you are willing to give the stuff away for free, but you don’t want to make any effort or spend anything to dispose it.

The part of London I used to live in had evolved a simple way of achieving this – people would simply leave stuff out in their front yards very close to the footpath (the compounds didn’t have gates). People walking past were free to pick up whatever they wanted, and after things had been left out for a sufficient period of time, the council would be called and they would pick it up as “garbage”.

Unfortunately when I moved out of London earlier this year, the house we were living in was on the main road (right next to Ealing Broadway station), and this method of disposal of unwanted things wasn’t available to us. And we had to incur significant cost to dispose of some of our stuff.

The wife put up some of them on the UK equivalent of OLX, and managed to sell off a lot of our stuff for not very high amounts (though I think we got more for our mixie than what we’d paid for it 10 years ago). We made money, yes, but it possibly wasn’t significant enough to cover the cost of my wife’s time.

And then there were the books – there were no second hand bookshops available that would pay anything reasonable for the books. So I had to actually cart all the books to the local Oxfam centre to be given away to charity (apart from stuff friends picked up).

Clothes, similarly, had to be dropped off at a charity centre (there was a Cancer Research UK shop right across the road from our house, so that helped). Again, I don’t know if everything we left there was used, but that was the lowest cost way for us to dispose of them.

Coming back, this gap in the market exists in India as well. The market is a bit better here because you have house cleaners and cooks and drivers you interact with on a regular basis, who are happy to take your unwanted stuff off you and dispose it. The problem is that they are picky on what they take and dispose – they have transaction costs, just like us, and don’t want to take on stuff that they will find it hard to move on.

And what makes matters worse is that even putting it in the trash is not a proper solution here – the municipal trash collectors ask for a bribe to take these things off you!

In some sense, this is a classic market design problem – where the transaction cost of the sale overwhelms the value of items being bought and sold. The things we want to dispose of have value to someone, for which they might be willing to pay, but the costs of finding these people are so high that you end up paying to dispose them.

Basically what we need is a service where someone comes and picks up all your “semi-trash”, sorts through it to find stuff that might be useful for someone else and then transfer it to markets where it can reach people who want it. And things that aren’t useful to anyone will go into garbage.

The problem with this service is that there is a natural upper bound on what people will be willing to pay for this service – zero. And when you factor in the market for lemons here (people might use this to dispose of absolute garbage rather than semi-trash that might be useful for someone), you know why “solution doesn’t exist”.

Margaret Atwood doesn’t escape my fate

My book released exactly two years ago (if you haven’t read it yet, you can buy it here). Rather, it was supposed to release two years ago, on 6th of September 2017. As it happened, people who had pre-ordered the book got deliveries a few days early. Amazon had messed up with the release date.

I remember getting in touch with Amazon Customer Care. They didn’t seem to care. I spoke to friends and relatives who worked there, and they suggested a “Jeff B escalation” (an email sent to Jeff Bezos – apparently he reads them). There was no response to that either. And so my book came out in a trickle, being sent to people as they ordered them, rather than with a bang.

I’m possibly feeling a sense of schadenfreude that it’s not just first-time authors like me who got screwed over like this by Amazon in terms of early release of the book. I am in illustrious company – Canadian author Margaret Atwood suffered the same fate this week.

Amazon, the biggest book vendor in the United States, recently started shipping preorders of Margaret Atwood’s book Testaments. The problem, notably, is that Atwood’s book is not supposed to launch until Tuesday, September 10. Amazon is violating the embargo that all sellers of the book have agreed to. And its indie bookselling rivals are pissed.

In my case, Amazon had exclusive sales on the book – thanks to using a small first-time publisher, we didn’t have the network to go wider and get the book into more stores. In that sense, apart from me, there was possibly nobody pissed off at the early release of the book.

Then again, this early release of pre-ordered books was an endemic problem to Amazon, and a high-profile leak such as this one was bound to happen some time or the other. Hopefully this will lead to the retailer to put enough measures in place to prevent this kind of thing from happening again (mainstream publishers have strong relationships with bookshops, so they are likely to put pressure on Amazon).

In any case, I’m glad to have such good company!

PS: If you haven’t listened to Atwood’s conversation with Tyler Cowen, you should do so soon. It’s fantastic (and I say this as someone who hasn’t read any of her works)

Time out of nowhere

I was supposed to be in Mumbai today for a meeting. Heavy rains and a “red alert” meant that the meeting got cancelled and I’m in Bangalore. This was a “high transaction cost” meeting – I was supposed to spend the entire day in Mumbai to be able to do the meeting comfortably. Now the whole day is “free”.

The meeting will be rescheduled for another day, and that day, which as it stands would have been spent in Bangalore, will have to be spent in Mumbai. In that sense the meeting has just been postponed rather than being cancelled.

Yet I feel that “time has been created” thanks to the cancellation. I hadn’t budgeted for any work to be done today outside of that meeting, and now suddenly I have lots of time.

And it has already started – with some Parkinson Principle. I was supposed to finish my presentation for today’s meeting last night. Postponement has meant I’ve been approaching it rather slowly, and still ploughing through it. I expect to finish it by tonight.

OK I just got a call now and it seems the meeting has been rescheduled to tomorrow. So I’m off to Bombay tomorrow morning, and with the meeting being so close, there is no “time gain”, for time gained today is lost tomorrow. Even with a steep discount rate, there’s no benefit here.

However, if the meeting had been postponed to next week, or sometime later, then I would’ve celebrated, and continued to have a gala time today!

Social Media Addiction

Two months back I completely went off social media. I deleted the instagram app from my phone and logged out of Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook on my computer. I needed a detox. And I found myself far more focussed and happier after I did that. And I started writing more here.

My first month off social media was strict. No social media under any circumstance. This was necessary to get rid of the addiction. Then, since I came back from the Maldives trip, I’ve been logging into various social media accounts on and off (about once a day on average) just to see if there are any messages and to browse a bit.

I only do it from my computer, and at a time when I’m not fully working. And as soon as the session is over I make sure I log out immediately. So the instinctive adrenaline-seeking opening of social media tabs is met by a login screen, which is friction, and I close the tab. So far so good.

In my infrequent returns to social media I’ve found that the most “harmless” are LinkedIn and Facebook (it might help that I don’t follow anyone on the latter, and if I want to check out what’s happening in someone’s life I need to explicitly go to their profile rather than them appearing on my timeline). LinkedIn is inane. Two or three posts will tell you it’s a waste of time, and I quickly log out. Facebook is again nothing spectacular.

Twitter is occasionally interesting, and I end up scrolling for a fair bit. For the most part I’m looking for interesting articles rather than look at twitter arguments and fights. I’m convinced  that twitter statements and arguments don’t add much value – they’re most likely ill thought out. Instead a link to a longer form piece leads me to better fleshed out arguments, whether I like it or not.

Mostly after a little bit of twitter scrolling, I find enough pieces of outrage, or news/political stuff that I get tired and log out. It’s only when I really need an adrenaline rush and don’t mind people cribbing that I stay on twitter for a bit of a long time (over five minutes).

Instagram, on the other hand, is like smoking cigarettes. When I smoked my first cigarette in 2004 I felt weak in the knees and a sort of high. It was in my final year of college, so I’d had enough friends tell me that cigarette smoking is addictive. And my first cigarette told my why exactly it was addictive.

So I made a policy decision at that moment that I’d limit myself to a total of one cigarette a year. I’ve probably averaged half a cigarette a year since then. My last one was in 2016.

Instagram is really addictive. It’s full of pictures, and if you avoid the really whiny accounts there is little negativity or politics. People make an effort to look nice, and take nice pictures, for instagram. So there is a lot of beauty in there. And if I choose to, especially when I’m logging in after a long time, I can keep at it for hours.

Instead I need to be conscious that it’s addictive (like my one cigarette a year rule), and pull myself away and force myself to log out. This also means that while I open twitter about once a day, Instagram is less than once a week.

I wonder what this means about the sustainability of social networks!