Trip To Indiranagar

The first time I recall going to Indiranagar was in 1992, when we purchased a used car from someone who used to live there. While walking from the nearest bus stop to the house of the previous owner of our car, we had taken a longish route, as my parents admired all the “beautiful houses” in the area.

Six years later I went to school in that part of town. The “beautiful houses” were still there, and I used to walk past them on my way to school from the bus stop every morning. While I found the culture of the place to be quite different from that of Jayanagar (where I lived), I found the part of town to be nice, and liked going there (though not necessarily for school).

And it was another 6-year gap after school before I resumed my visits to Indiranagar. This time round, it wasn’t as regular as going to school, and most of the time the agenda was eating. Indiranagar by the mid 2000s had a lot of wonderful restaurants serving a nice variety of cuisines. Some of these restaurants were also rather fancy, and so when I met up with college friends living in Bangalore from time to time, it was usually in one place of another in Indiranagar. I continued to find the place nice.

Marriage and child and change in profession have all meant that visits to Indiranagar have become less frequent, and most of them nowadays are work-related. I spend time in coffee shops there. I take the metro to go there. I occasionally walk around a bit from meeting to meeting, but don’t notice the surroundings around. Some eateries there continue to be nice, though there are a lot more of them nowadays than before.

Something snapped today when we went there for lunch.

Lunch was at “Burma Burma” which the wife had rather hyped up over the years, and where it is reportedly incredibly hard to find a table. The drive to there was smooth, the car was handed over to the valet, and off we went inside to our table. The service was excellent, but the food was so-so. I’ve never eaten burmese food in my life so I don’t know if Burmese food is supposed to taste that way, but it tasted extremely Indian. Moreover the food was “low density” – I ate until my stomach was full but still didn’t feel like I’d gotten sufficient energy.

It was after the meal that I realised how much Indiranagar has changed, and not for the better. Immediately after we got out of the restaurant, I ran after the valet to tell him to leave my car where it was (on a side road) since I had “other business on the road”.

I wanted to check out the newly opened Blue Tokai Coffee Shop, also on 12th main. The walk to get there was horrendous. It was only 200 metres from Burma Burma (made a bit longer by our walking for a bit in the wrong direction), but it was impossible to walk anywhere but in the middle of the road. Footpaths were fully occupied by trees, dug up drains and parked vehicles. And there was a continuous line of parked vehicles right next to the footpath.

It was as if the 12th Main (the same road on which I would walk to school) area has been redesigned such that you drive from shop to shop, giving your car to valets who will then proceed to park it in some side road.

Oh, and Blue Tokai is a non-starter. It’s a small space on the first floor with acoustics so bad that one loud group in the place can render the whole place unbearable. It didn’t help that they took forever to take our order, and we decided to decamp to the (tried and trusted, for me) Third Wave Coffee Roasters on CMH Road.

And that meant another walk, though we eschewed 12th main this time, and then a short drive. Both of us noticed that the roads of Indiranagar seemed narrower than what we remembered – maybe the multitude of restaurants there means valets keep parking all through the inside roads, and double parked roads can be narrow indeed. And the area around CMH where Third Wave is located isn’t particularly nice either.

It seems to me that Indiranagar is not posh any more. In a way it was so posh at one point in time that everyone sought to set up shop there, and all the shops meant that the area has lost its character. The “beautiful houses” are being torn down one by one, replaced by commercial buildings full of restaurants, cars parked by whose valets will flood more and more of the inner roads, and make the entire area unwalkable.

I’m pretty sure most of the posh people in the area have left, having sold their houses into the real estate boom. I just wonder where they have moved to!

PS: The coffee at Third Wave was incredibly bad as well. It’s not usually so – I keep saying that they’re the best coffee shop in Bangalore. The milk today was scalding hot, and the barista poured so much of it in our cups, and without any of the finesse you associate with flat white, that it was completely tasteless.

 

 

Data, football and astrology

Jonathan Wilson has an amusing article on data and football, and how many data-oriented managers in football have also been incredibly superstitious.

This is in response to BT Sport’s (one of the UK broadcasters of the Premier League) announcement of it’s “Unscripted” promotion where “some of the world’s foremost experts in both sports and artificial intelligence to produce a groundbreaking prophecy of the forthcoming season”.

Wilson writes:

I was reminded also of the 1982 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel Murder is Easy in which a computer scientist played by Bill Bixby enters the details of the case into a programme he has coded to give the name of the murderer. As it turns out, the programmer knows this is nonsense and is merely trying to gauge the reaction of the heroine, played by Lesley-Anne Down, when her name flashes on the screen.

But this, of course, is not what data-based analysis is for. Its predictive element deals in probability not prophecy. It is not possessed of some oracular genius. (That said, it is an intriguing metaphysical question: what if you had all the data, not just ability and fitness, but every detail of players’ diet, relationships and mental state, the angle of blades of grass on the pitch, an assessment of how the breathing of fans affected air flow in the stadium … would the game’s course then be inevitable?)

This reminded me of my own piece that I wrote last year about how data science “is simply the new astrology“.

The Indian Second Wave

Most obituaries will describe the just-deceased VG Siddhartha as a businessman, a “coffee tycoon” and as the son-in-law of a prominent politician. However, the way I see it, he was no less than a cultural icon, and with one business, dramatically changed Indian culture in two ways.

In 1996, Siddhartha started India’s first cyber cafe, which was one of the few cyber cafes that was actually a cafe. A coffee wholesale exporter, he got into the retail business with the first outlet of Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) on Bangalore’s busy Brigade Road. For fees, you could sit there to browse the internet while sipping on espresso and cappuccino, drinks hitherto unknown to Bangalore’s (already established) coffee culture.

Soon enough he was to exit the cyber side of the business, as his retail chain’s expansion focussed on coffee, and dedicated “cyber cafes” (they were still called that) that enabled people to browse the internet for a fee mushroomed across the country. Nevertheless, we should give him credit for giving birth to an idea that enabled the first generation of Indians to truly access the internet before broadband became a thing.

The first time I interacted with his business was in 1998, when I visited the aforementioned Brigade Road CCD. For a conservative 15-year-old from South Bangalore, it was a bit of a sticker shock, with espresso priced at Rs. 10 and cappuccino at Rs. 20. There were iced drinks on the menu as well, but they were more expensive.

I don’t think I quite liked the espresso (we all ordered that that day, given the prices), but it was a new experience of consuming coffee. As I grew up and came into more money I would patronise CCD much more often.

There was an outlet on the IIMB campus, and that became the default location for any campus “treats”. I clearly remember the cold drinks – tropical iceberg and cold sparkle – being priced at Rs. 32 back in 2004. Prices went up over time but these drinks remain my favourite cold drinks at CCD to this day.

Over the last 10 years, CCD has mostly served as a meeting room for me. When I moved into my current house 5 years ago, I used a CCD that was 300 metres away to entertain any visitors (this outlet closed recently, but a flyer in today’s newspaper informs me that an “experience centre” is coming up closer by).

Whenever I have had to meet someone and we’ve had to find a place to meet, by default we have looked for CCD outlets. And we continue to do so – while Starbucks and the artisanal “Aussie-style” coffee shops (such as Third Wave or Blue Tokai) might be preferable, CCD’s sheer density has meant that it is India’s default meeting room.

Sometimes we under-appreciate the impact that CCD has had in Indian culture. It was perhaps the first large chain of “neutral venues”, where people could meet and hang out for a long time without being pestered by the waiters. I mentioned that I have been using the chain as a meeting room for a few years now. While that might be its primary use, you also find college kids who have saved up a bit on their pocket money hanging out there. My first date with my wife also took place partly at a CCD.

And then there are the loos. CCD has also completely altered the face of highways in India by offering clean loos at its outlets, making it far easier for women to travel.

The chain may not be doing that well – it seems like its financial troubles led to Siddhartha killing himself. However, given that it is a publicly traded company, we can trust the market to resolve its issues so that it continues.

And even if it fails and has to shut shop in due course, what CCD has done is to show that there is a viable market in India for a coffee shop that sells decent (but not great) coffee, where people can sit around and linger and do their business, whatever that may be.

In that way, Siddhartha’s legacy will endure.

 

Gaming and social media

Now that I’m off social media I’m wondering if it’s a good idea to replace it with gaming.

Basically I need a fix. I have this need to be distracted/”accelerated” all the time. And I need something that I can go to, get distracted for a little bit and then come back to work.

Sometimes a text message conversation in the middle of work does the trick, but not all conversations are good for this (some people are just too quick in replying and end up stressing me). Also there’s the issue of finding someone to talk to when you need to.

Over the last decade or so I’ve turned to social media. Twitter with its stream of tweets provides good stimulation. The problem with that is that it results in a lot of mental bandwidth going wasted due to massive context switching that happens. Yes it provides distraction but is also tiring.

So I’m wondering if I should try out gaming. I know it is addictive, which is both good and bad (addictions are good when you are trying to take your mind off something). And gaming sure provides the “kick” though I’m not sure if it will be as taxing on the mind as social media. The key, however, is to find a game that can be played in short bursts whenever I need that “kick”.

What do you think? Is there a game that I can use for my distractions, or do you think starting gaming might unleash a different beast that might be hard to tame?

Super Deluxe

In my four years in Madras (2000-4), I learnt just about enough Tamil to watch a Tamil movie with subtitles. Without subtitles is still a bit of a stretch for me, but the fact that streaming sites offer all movies with subtitles means I can watch Tamil movies now.

At the end, I didn’t like Super Deluxe. I thought it was an incredibly weird movie. The last half an hour was beyond bizarre. Rather, the entire movie is weird (which is good in a way we’ll come to in a bit), but there is a point where there is a step-change in the weirdness.

The wife had watched the movie some 2-3 weeks back, and I was watching it on Friday night. Around the time when she finished the movie she was watching and was going to bed, she peered into my laptop and said “it’s going to get super weird now”. “As if it isn’t weird enough already”, I replied. In hindsight, she was right. She had peered into my laptop right at the moment when the weirdness goes to yet another level.

It’s not often that I watch movies, since most movies simply fail to hold my attention. The problem is that most plots are rather predictable, and it is rather easy to second-guess what happens in each scene. It is the information theoretic concept of “surprise”.

Surprise is maximised when the least probable thing happens at every point in time. And when the least probable thing doesn’t happen, there isn’t a story, so filmmakers overindex on surprises and making sure the less probable thing will happen. So if you indulge in a small bit of second order thinking, the surprises aren’t surprising any more, and the movie becomes boring.

Super Deluxe establishes pretty early on that the plot is going to be rather weird. And when you think the scene has been set with sufficient weirdness in each story (there are four intertwined stories in the movie, as per modern fashion), the next time the movie comes back to the story, the story is shown to get weirder. And so you begin to expect weirdness. And this, in a way, makes the movie less predictable.

The reason a weird movie is less predictable is that at each scene it is simply impossible for the view to even think of the possibilities. And in a movie that gets progressively weirder like this one, every time you think you have listed out the possibilities and predicted what happens, what follows is something from outside your “consideration set”. And that keeps you engaged, and wanting to see what happens.

The problem with a progressively weird movie is that at some point it needs to end. And it needs to end in a coherent way. Well, it is possible sometimes to leave the viewer hanging, but some filmmakers see the need to provide a coherent ending.

And so what usually happens is that at some point in time the plot gets so remarkably simplified that everything suddenly falls in place (though nowhere as beautifully as things fall in place at the end of a Wodehouse novel). Another thing that can happen is that weirdness it taken up a notch, so that things fall in place at a “meta level”, at which point the movie can end.

The thing with Super Deluxe is that both these things happen! On one side the weirdness is taken up several notches. And on the other the plots get so oversimplified that things just fall in place. And that makes you finish the movie with a rather bitter taste in the mouth, feeling thoroughly unsatisfied.

That the “ending” of the movie (where things get really weird AND really simplified) lasts half an hour doesn’t help matters.

Context switches and mental energy

Back in college, whenever I felt that my life needed to be “resurrected”, I used to start by cleaning up my room. Nowadays, like most other things in the world, this has moved to the virtual world as well. Since I can rely on the wife (:P) to keep my room “Pinky clean” all the time, resurrection of life nowadays begins with going off social media.

My latest resurrection started on Monday afternoon, when I logged off twitter and facebook and linkedin from all devices, and deleted the instagram app off my phone. My mind continues to wander, but one policy decision I’ve made is to both consume and contribute content only in the medium or long form.

Regular readers of this blog might notice that there’s consequently been a massive uptick of activity here – not spitting out little thoughts from time to time on twitter means that I consolidate them into more meaningful chunks and putting them here. What is interesting is that consumption of larger chunks of thought has also resulted in greater mindspace.

It’s simple – when you consume content in small chunks – tweets or instagram photos, for example, you need to switch contexts very often. One thought begins and ends with one tweet, and the next tweet is something completely different, necessitating a complete mental context switch. And, in hindsight, I think that is “expensive”.

While the constant stream of diverse thoughts is especially stimulating (and that is useful for someone like me who’s been diagnosed with ADHD), it comes with a huge mental cost of context switch. And that means less energy to do other things. It’s that simple, and I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it so long!

I still continue to have my distractions (my ADHD mind won’t allow me to live without some). But they all happen to be longish content. There are a few blog posts (written by others) open in my browser window. My RSS feed reader is open on my browser for the first time since possibly my last twitter break. When in need of distraction, I read chunks of one of the articles that’s open (I read one article fully until I’ve finished it before moving on to the next). And then go back to my work.

While this provides me the necessary distraction, it also provides the distraction in one big chunk which doesn’t take away as much mental energy as reading twitter for the same amount of time would.

I’m thinking (though it may not be easy to implement) that once I finish this social media break, I’ll install apps on the iPad rather than having them on my phone or computer. Let’s see.

Television and interior design

One of the most under-rated developments in the world of architecture and interior design has been the rise of the flat-screen television. Its earlier avatar, the Cathode Ray Tube version, was big and bulky, and needed special arrangements to keep. One solution was to keep it in corners. Another was to have purpose-built deep “TV cabinets” into which these big screens would go.

In the house that I grew up in, there was a purpose-built corner to keep our televisions. Later on in life, we got a television cabinet to put in that place, that housed the television, music system, VCR and a host of other things.

For the last decade, which has largely coincided with the time when flat-screen LCD/LED TVs have replaced their CRT variations, I’ve seen various tenants struggle to find a good spot for the TVs. For the corner is too inelegant for the flat screen television – it needs to be placed flat against the middle of a large wall.

When the flat screen TV replaced the CRT TV, out went the bulky “TV cabinets” and in came the “console” – a short table on which you kept the TV, and below which you kept the accompanying accessories such as the “set top box” and DVD player. We had even got a purpose-built TV console with a drawer to store DVDs in.

Four years later, we’d dispensed with our DVD player (at a time when my wife’s job involved selling DVDs and CDs, we had no device at home that could play any of these storage devices!). And now we have “cut the cord”. After we returned to India earlier this year, we decided to not get cable TV, relying on streaming through our Fire stick instead.

And this heralds the next phase in which television drives interior design.

In the early days of flat screen TVs, it became common for people to “wall mount” them. This was usually a space-saving device, though people still needed a sort of console to store input devices such as set top boxes and DVD players.

Now, with the cable having been cut and DVD player not that common, wall mounting doesn’t make sense at all. For with WiFi-based streaming devices, the TV is now truly mobile.

In the last couple of months, the TV has nominally resided in our living room, but we’ve frequently taken it to whichever room we wanted to watch it in. All that we need to move the TV is a table to keep it on, and a pair of plug points to plug in the TV and the fire stick.

In our latest home reorganisation we’ve even dispensed with a permanent home for the TV in the living room, thus radically altering its design and creating more space (the default location of the TV now is in the study). The TV console doesn’t make any sense, and has been temporarily converted into a shoe rack. And the TV moves from room to room (it’s not that heavy, either), depending on where we want to watch it.

When the CRT TV gave way to the flat screen, architects responded by creating spaces where TVs could be put in the middle of a long wall, either mounted on the wall or kept on a console. That the TV’s position in the house changed meant that the overall architecture of houses changed as well.

Now it will be interesting to see what large-scale architectural changes get driven by cord-cutting and the realisation that the TV is essentially a mobile device.

Coordinated and uncoordinated potlucks

Some potluck meals are coordinated. One or more coordinators assume leadership and instruct each attending member what precisely to bring. It’s somewhat like central planning in that sense – the coordinators make assumptions on what each person wants and how much they will eat and what goes well with what, and make plans accordingly.

Uncoordinated potlucks can be more interesting. Here, people don’t talk about what to bring, and simply bring what they think the group might be interested. This can result in widely varying outcomes – some great meals, occasionally a lot of wasted food, and some weird mixes of starters, main courses and desserts.

We had one such uncoordinated potluck at my daughter’s school picnic last week. All children were accompanied by their parents and were asked to bring “snacks”. Nothing was specified apart from the fact that we should bring it in steel containers, and that we should get homemade stuff.

Now, for a bit of background. For slightly older kids (my daughter doesn’t qualify yet) the school has a rotating roster for lunch, where each kid brings in lunch for the entire class on each day. So parents are used to sending lunch for all the children, and children are used to eating a variety of foods. A friend who sent his daughter to the same school tells me that it can become a bit too competitive sometimes, with families seeking to outdo one another with the fanciness of the foods they send.

In that sense, I guess the families of these older kids had some information on what normally came for lunch and what got eaten and so on – a piece of information we didn’t have. The big difference between this picnic potluck and school lunch (though I’m not sure if other parents knew of this distinction) was that this was “anonymous”.

All of us kept our steel boxes and vessels on a large table set up for the purpose, so when people served themselves there was little clue of which food had come from whose house. In that sense there was no point showing off (though we tried, taking hummus with carrot and cucumber sticks). And it resulted in what I thought was a fascinating set of food, though I guess some of it couldn’t really be classified as “snack”.

The fastest to disappear was a boxful of chitranna (lemon rice). I thought it went rather well with roasted and salted peanuts that someone else had bought. There were some takers for our hummus as well, though our cut apples didn’t “do that well”. I saw a boxful of un-taken idlis towards the end of the snack session. Someone had brought boiled sweet corn on the cob. And there were many varieties of cakes that families had (presumably baked and) brought.

What I found interesting was that despite their being zero coordination between the families, they had together served up what was a pretty fascinating snack, with lots of variety. “Starters”, “Mains”, “Desserts” and “Sides” were all well represented, even if the balance wasn’t precisely right.

The number of families involved here (upwards of 30) meant that perfect coordination would’ve been nigh impossible, and I’m not sure if a command-and-control style coordinated potluck would have worked in any case (that would have also run the risk of a family bunking the picnic last moment, and an important piece of the puzzle missing).

The uncoordinated potluck meant that there were no such imbalances, and families, left to themselves and without any feedback, had managed to serve themselves a pretty good “snack”!

More power to decentralised systems!

Gamification and finite and infinite games

Ok here I’m integrating a few concepts that I learnt via Venkatesh Guru Rao. The first is that of Finite and Infinite games, a classic if hard to read book written by philosopher James Carse (which I initially discovered thanks to his Breaking Smart Season 1 compilation). The second is of “playflow”, which again I discovered through a recent edition of his newsletter.

A lot of companies try to “gamify” the experiences for their employees in order to make work more fun, and to possibly make them more efficient.

For example, sales organisations offer complicated incentives (one of my historically favourite work assignments has been to help a large client optimise these incentives). These incentives are offered at multiple “slabs”, and used to drive multiple objectives (customer acquisition, retention, cross-sell, etc.). And by offering employees incentives for achieving some combination of these objectives, the experience is being “gamified”. It’s like the employee is gaining points by achieving each of these objectives, and the points together lead to some “reward”.

This is just one example. There are several other ways in which organisations try to gamify the experience for their employees. All of them involve some sort of award of “points” for things that people do, and then a combination of points leading to some “reward”.

The problem with gamification is that the games organisations design are usually finite games. “Sell 10 more widgets in the next month”. “Limit your emails to a maximum of 200 words in the next fifteen days”. “Visit at least one client each day”. And so on.

Running an organisation, however, is an infinite game. At the basic level, the objective of an organisation is to remain a going concern, and keep on running. Growth and dividends and shareholder returns are secondary to that – if the organisation is not a going concern, none of that matters.

And there is the contradiction – the organisation is fundamentally playing an infinite game. The employees, thanks to the gamified experience, are playing finite games. And they aren’t always compatible.

Of course, there are situations where finite games can be designed in a way that their objectives align with the objectives of the overarching infinite game. This, however, is not always possible. Hence, gamification is not always a good strategy for organisations.

Organisations have figured out the solution to this, of course. There is a simple way to make employees play the same infinite game as the organisation – by offering employees equity in the company. Except that employees have the option of converting that to a finite game by selling the said equity.

Whoever said incentive alignment is an easy task..

 

Marginalised communities and success

Yesterday I was listening to this podcast where Tyler Cowen interviews Neal Stephenson, who is perhaps the only Science Fiction author whose books I’ve read. Cowen talks about the characters in Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, a masterful 3000-page work which I polished off in a month in 2014.

The key part of the conversation for me is this:

COWEN: Given your focus on the Puritans and the Baroque Cycle, do you think Christianity was a fundamental driver of the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Revolution, and that’s why it occurred in northwestern Europe? Or not?

STEPHENSON: One of the things that comes up in the books you’re talking about is the existence of a certain kind of out-communities that were weirdly overrepresented among people who created new economic systems, opened up new trade routes, and so on.

I’m talking about Huguenots, who were the Protestants in France who suffered a lot of oppression. I’m talking about the Puritans in England, who were not part of the established church and so also came in for a lot of oppression. Armenians, Jews, Parsis, various other minority communities that, precisely because of their outsider minority status, were forced to form long-range networks and go about things in an unconventional, innovative way.

So when we think about communities such as Jews or Parsis, and think about their outsized contribution to business or culture, it is this point that Stephenson makes that we should keep in mind. Because Jews and Parsis and Armenians were outsiders, they were “forced to form long-range networks”.

In most cases, for most people of these communities, these long-range networks and unconventional way of doing things didn’t pay off, and they ended up being worse off compared to comparable people from the majority communities in wherever they lived.

However, in the few cases where these long-range networks and innovative ways of doing things succeeded, they succeeded spectacularly. And these incidents are cases that we have in mind when we think about the spectacular success or outsized contributions of these communities.

Another way to think of this is – denied “normal life”, people from marginalised communities were forced to take on much more risk in life. The expected value of this risk might have been negative, but this higher risk meant that these communities had a much better “upper tail” than the majority communities that suppressed and oppressed them.

Given that in terms of long-term contributions and impact and public visibility it is only the tails of the distribution that matter (mediocrity doesn’t make news), we think of these communities as having been extraordinary, and wonder if they have “better genes” and so on.

It’s a simple case of risk, and oppression. This, of course, is no justification for oppressing swathes of people and forcing them to take more risks than necessary. People need to decide on their own risk preferences.