Tag Archives: favour

Favours and slavedriving

The question is if you are allowed to slavedrive someone who is doing you a favour. Let’s say you want me to do something for you. I agree to do it, but slack in doing so – either I don’t want to do it and grudgingly agreed, or I genuinely want to help you and am caught up in other stuff, or if I forgot.

The question is if you are allowed to slavedrive me in terms of getting me to do what I promised, and if so, to what extent you are allowed to do that.

If you don’t do enough, then possibly it’s not enough of a prod for me to get things done in a way that works for you. If you prod too much, it can mess up our relationship, and I might refuse to do you any more favours for a long time!

Where and how do you draw the fine line here? Let’s assume we are acquaintances and don’t know each other’s working styles so there is some information asymmetry. How do we solve this problem?

If you have figured out, please leave a comment below. Any help on this one would be much appreciated!

Time for bragging

So the Karnataka polls are done and dusted. The Congress will form the next government here and hopefully they won’t mess up. This post, however, is not about that. This is to stake claim on some personal bragging rights.

1. Back in March, after the results of the Urban Local Body polls came out, I had predicted a victory for the Congress in the assembly elections.

2. Then, a couple of weeks back, I used the logic that people like to vote for the winner, and this winner-chasing will result in a self-fulfilling prophecy that will lead to a comfortable Congress victory.

These two predictions were on the “Resident Quant” blog that I run for the Takshashila Institution. It was a classic prediction strategy – put out your predictions in a slightly obscure place, so that you can quickly bury it in case it doesn’t turn out to be right, but showcase it in case you are indeed correct! After that, however, things went slightly wrong (or right?). Looking at my election coverage Mint asked me to start writing for them.

As it happened I didn’t venture to make further predictions till the elections, apart from building a DIY model where people could input swings in favour of or against parties, and get a seat projection. Watching the exit polls on Sunday, however, compelled me to plug in the exit poll numbers into my DIY model, and come up with my own prediction. I quickly wrote up a short piece.

3. As it happened, Mint decided to publish my predictions on its front page, and now I had nowhere to hide. I had taken a more extreme position compared to most other pollsters. While they had taken care to include some numbers that didn’t mean an absolute majority in the range the predicted for the Congress (so as to shield themselves in that eventuality), I found my model compelling enough to predict an outright victory for the Congress. “A comfortable majority of at least 125 seats”, I wrote.

I had a fairly stressful day today, as the counting took place. Initial times were good, as the early leads went according to my predictions. Even when the BJP had more leads than the Congress, I knew those were in seats that I had anyway tipped them to win, so I felt smug. Things started going bad, however, when the wins of the independents started coming out. The model I had used was unable to take care of them, so I had completely left them out of my analysis. And now I was staring at the possibility that the Congress may not even hit the magic figure of 113 (for an absolute majority), let alone reach my prediction of 125. I prepared myself to eat the humble pie.

Things started turning then, however. It turned out that counting had begun late in the hyderabad karnataka seats – a region that the Congress virtually swept. As I left my seat to get myself some lunch, the Congress number tipped past 113. And soon it was at 119. And then five minutes again back at 113. And so it continued to see-saw for a while, as I sat at the edge of my office chair which I had transplanted to in front of my television.

And then it ticked up again, and stayed at 119 for a while. And soon it was ticking past 120. All results have now been declared, with the Congress clocking up 121 seats. It falls short of the majority I had predicted, but it is a comfortable majority nevertheless. I know I got the BJP number horribly wrong, but so did most other pollsters, for nobody expected them to get only 20% of the popular vote. I also admit to have missed the surge in Independents and “Others”.

Nevertheless, I think I’ve consistently got the results of the elections broadly right, and so I can stake claim to some bragging rights. Do you think I’m being unreasonable?

Penny wise pound foolish at PSUs

A couple of months back, an uncle who works for a PSU in a reasonably senior engineering role, had to go to Calcutta on work. Thanks to his late arrival from Calcutta, we had to postpone a party that had been planned for a weekend. When I asked about his late arrival, I was told that his train had been delayed. It was then that it struck me – that a lot of PSU officers still do business trips by train!

The logic completely defies me. An airconditioned train ticket (at my uncle’s grade, I don’t think they would send him by cattle class) from Bangalore to Calcutta costs around Rs. 2000, and it takes about thirty six hours. A flight, on the other hand, costs not more than Rs. 7000 (assuming you’re not booking at the last minute), and takes about three hours. What amazes me is that the PSU that employs my uncle values his time at less than (7000-2000)/(36-3)  ~= Rs. 150 per hour! Ok even if you assume that the train journey had two nights when he would have been unproductive (and assuming that he’s a superman and so doesn’t need to rest and recover from a long journey), his employer values his one full day of work at Rs. 5000!

While this valuation might be consistent with my uncle’s salary (I’m only guessing given his experience and position; I haven’t asked), I think it’s still a stupid choice to make on behalf of the PSU. I was reading an op-ed by Mihir S Sharma in this morning’s Business Standard, where he talks about our warped sense of “austerity”, and was wondering if this decision to send my uncle to Calcutta by train was a measure in a similar direction!

Austerity means cutting down or limiting wasteful expenditure. It does NOT mean cutting down tangible expenditure in favour of the intangible (my uncle’s lost working time is an intangible, since he gets paid monthly; so is his reduced efficiency on the day immediately after his journey). Unfortunately some of the PSUs have not recognized this and still stick to some age-old “policies” regarding travel and expenditures.

My wife, who works for Toyota, informs me that a certain number of cars produced every day are “specially made for the government”. When I ask her what is so special about a sarkari car (apart from that rhino-horn like thing on the bonnet) she tells me that they are not supposed to have air conditioning! Given that air conditioning is a default in most cars nowadays, this “no air conditioning” is a special request that the government has to make to the manufacturers, so I don’t think it makes any tangible difference in the cost of the car. From my experience with my Zen, driving with and without air conditioning (I live in Bangalore, so I don’t need it at all times), I know that air conditioning hardly makes much of a difference to the mileage of the car. So overall in terms of cost, there is little the government saves by not having air conditioning in the car.

Now think of the babu in Delhi, where summer temperatures go well into the forties, and which is so dusty at all times of the year. Think of the possible increase in his efficiency if he were to travel in an air conditioned car. That is an intangible and the government will have none of it. It is all about austerity, you know. Penny wise, pound foolish.

PS: The recent focus on corruption has done more harm than good. Afraid of “being pulled up” by the CAG or any similar authority, a number of PSUs have gone into policy paralysis, and are simply not taking decisions, lest they are accused of being corrupt. The economic loss (again intangible) is humongous compared to the amounts these people might have possible swindled had they made the decisions! We never learn.

What the hell was Vettori thinking?

I’m writing this post in anger. In disgust. At the sheer lack of strategic vision shown by Royal Challengers Bangalore captain Daniel Vettori. What the hell was he thinking when he threw the ball to Virat Kohli for the 19th over, with 43 required off two overs? Yes, there had been a miscalculation earlier which meant that one of the last five overs had to be bowled either by part-timer Kohli, or by Raju Bhatkal who had been torn apart in his earlier two overs. While it is hard to pardon miscalculation in a twenty over game, it is nothing compared to the strategic error of the 19th over.

When overs sixteen to eighteen were bowled by Zaheer, Vinay and Zaheer respectively, I thought it was a tactical masterstroke by Vettori to keep the one extra over to the end. Given the skyrocketing required run rate, I thought it was a great idea that he was trying to put the match beyond Chennai Super Kings by the 19th over itself. And it worked well. From 75 needed off 5 overs, the equation was brought down to 43 off the last two overs (now, it is reasonable to expect Zaheer and Vinay to go at around 10 an over in the slog overs). And then what happened?

You have two overs left, 43 runs to win. You have a reasonably experienced medium pacer who is generally good at bowling at death, but is also prone to buckling under pressure. And you know you can’t trust whoever the other bowler is going to be. What you want is to have your good bowler bowl without any pressure on him. Without any pressure, you can expect him to go for about 10-15 in the 19th, leaving the batsmen to score nearly 30 off the last over – which would tilt the odds significantly in favour of the part timer who would bowl that over, since the pressure would be on the batsmen.

Instead, what do you do? Give the part timer the 19th over. He has no answers for Morkel’s slogging and edging, and goes for 28, leaving Vinay to defend 15. Now, it is Vinay (who is vulnerable under pressure) who has to bowl under pressure, and the batsmen know that. It is a miracle that the match went down to the last ball.

Of course you might say that I wouldn’t have reacted so angrily had either RCB won or Kohli had gone for less in his over. That’s not true. The match was in RCB’s pocket, to be won. The probability of victory reduced significantly the moment the ball was thrown to Kohli (for the 19th over). The ultimate result doesn’t matter. I would have blasted Vettori even if we had won.

Now, there is another uncharitable explanation that comes to mind, and I’m not very proud that this comes to mind. Was it mere incompetence or some sense of malice on the part of Vettori to give the 19th over to Kohli? I’m not talking about bookmakers here, I respect him too much for that. But think about it. Just yesterday, both Mint and Cricinfo ran articles talking about IPL 5’s poor TV ratings so far. The BCCI Chairman N Srinivasan (who not so coincidentally owns CSK) said that the answer to increasing TRPs was to play on batting-friendly high-scoring pitches, and to have close games.

The first wish was answered, when RCB set a target of 206. I wonder if there were some kind of instructions from “big brother” instructing that the game go into the last over, as a means to increase flagging TRPs. If Vinay had bowled the 19th and gone for 10 (say), that would have left a near-impossible 33 off Kohli/Bhatkal’s over. Match over by over 19. One more match that is not “close”, which will do nothing to boost TRPs. But keep the contest alive till the last over, TRPs would be boosted?

As an RCB fan, I hereby call for the immediate sacking of Daniel Vettori as captain and his replacement at the helm by one of Kohli or AB De Villiers  (maybe even Vinay Kumar or Zaheer Khan). Maybe I should create an online signature campaign for this purpose, and use my contacts to get the results through to Anil Kumble and other powers-that-are at RCB.

 

Keeping Old Jeans

After my drastic and dramatic weight loss in late 2009, my trouser size came down a notch, thus necessitating a massive shopping spree. The amount of shopping required then was marginally lowered because I’d retained some of my old pants, which were of the lower size. Now, the same question arose – whether I needed to still keep my Size 36 clothes. Back then, I’d taken the honorable decision to postpone the decision. But space constraints at home and the arrival of some charity workers at the door asking for old clothes has made me revisit this topic.

So, should I keep my old Size 36 trousers, when my waist size has stabilized at a comfortable 34 for over two years now? The argument in favour is that given my eating habits and inconsistent fitness regimen, there might come a time sooner or later when I might actually need those 36 size clothes, and I’ll be spared of a shopping spree then. The counter (this is what the wife advocates) is that by giving away my Size 36 clothes now, I’ll make it that much costlier for myself (leave aside the health concerns of becoming fat) to become fat, and that will keep me more interested in remaining thin.

I took an intermediate decision today. I held on to a couple of large trousers which I used to really like, and gave away the rest. So that has partly eased the space constraints in my wardrobe, while still retaining a small number of “big” clothes. But given the frequency with which we undertake clean-up drives at home, I never know when the next time will be when I’ll have to make the decision about holding on to these loose pants. So what do you suggest?

Corruption and Communism

In an article arguing why Kolkata is best placed to be India’s “best city” in another 20 years, Aakar Patel (I’ve started looking forward to his columns in Mint Lounge) mentions that there isn’t much corruption in the governments in Bengal (at both the center and city level). I don’t know the reasoning for this, but I wonder if this is primarily responsible for the long run that the Communists had at the helm in that  state.

I had argued in a not-so-recent piece in Pragati that big governments tend to be bad governments . I had argued that big government means more ways in which government employees can seek rents, and hence one way of reducing corruption is by reducing the size of the government. Now, assume that for some magical reason, a certain section of the population is sincere and incorruptible. In that case, big government need not be bad government. In other words, people don’t really resent the presence of government everywhere since they don’t see any rent seeking by the government officers. And since they are not unhappy with the size of the government, they don’t mind voting in every time the communists, who will keep the big government!

So I wonder if it is the incorruptibility of the Bengali (for whatever reason; I’m drawing this inference from Patel’s article) that has led to the long communist rule there. Incidentally, the one time the government was seen to be corrupt (in discretionary land allotments in favour of the Tatas, Salim Group, etc.) it wasn’t voted back to power!

Why I can never be a great lone wolf quizzer

I admit that of late one of the unifying themes of this blog has been “correlation”. So what does that have to do with quizzing? Thing is that while I absolutely enjoy qualitative logical reasoning (which is why I still quiz actively), there is very little in common in terms of areas of interest between me and a lot of other quizzers. Specifically, unlike most other good quizzers, I have absolutely no patience for reading fiction (or “literature”), watching movies or indulging in generic American “pop culture”.

Now, it is known that a quizmaster tends to be biased in favour of the topics that he himself is good at. For example, I’ve personally found that the questions I set have more than a “fair share” of questions with a background in Economics or European Football, and nothing related to fiction, or movies. So, given that most good quizzers are good at the topics I mentioned earlier (literature, movies, pop culture), it’s likely that most quizzes will have a healthy dose of these topics. And since I know little about them, and don’t have the required levels of interest to know more about them, it’s unlikely I’ll do well in an individual quiz. Essentially, I’m at so much of a disadvantage in these heavily represented topics that it’s very tough to make up the deficit in the remainder of the quiz.

On a related note, I wonder if fashionable-ness of topics is static or dymanic. I wonder, if twenty years down the line, we’ll still find quizzes being as heavily dominated by the subjects that are in fashion today, or if there will be a new set of subjects that will be in fashion. It’s hard to say because there is positive reinforcement that is at play here. If, for example, a certain set of subjects constitutes a large portions of questions today, today’s “good quizzers” will necessarily be those that are good at these subjects. And given that the pool of quizmasters is usually drawn out of the pool of “good quizzers”, you will have more quizzes that have a large proportion of these fashionable topics. And so forth.

Again, I’m assuming here that a lot of people (unlike certain Chennai quizzers) don’t prepare for quizzes, and that they don’t try to develop interest in certain topics for the sole purpose of being good at quizzes.

Something’s Itching

  • Recently I read this joke, not sure where, which said that the American and Indian middle classes are feeling sad that they cannot take part in a revolution, unlike their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and other similar place. Instead, they can only vote
  • There needs to be some sort of an antitrust law for political parties. There is currently little to distinguish between the policies of various political parties. For example, all parties favour a greater role for the government (more govt => more opportunity to make money on the side => more corruption, etc.) .
  • Given the homogeneity in the political spectrum, there is little incentive to vote. This scoundrel may be only marginally better than that scoundrel, so why bother voting. So we have this large middle class which essentially removes itself from the political process (confession: I’m 28, and I’ve never voted. When my name’s in the list I’ve not been in town, and vice versa.)
  • Now this Anna Hazare tamasha has suddenly woken up people who never bothered to vote, and who are pained with excessive corruption. So they’re all jumping behind him, knowing that this gives them the opportunity to “do something” – something other than something as bland and simple as voting.
  • Supporters of Hazare care little about the implications of what they’re asking for. “Extra constitutional bodies”? “Eminent citizens”? Magsaysay award winners? Have you heard of the National Advisory Council? You seriously think you want more such institutions?
  • The Lok Ayukta isn’t as useless an institution as some critics have pointed out. But then again, this is highly personality-dependent. So you have a good person as a “lok pal”, you can get good results. But what if the government decides to appoint a compliant scoundrel there? Have the protesters considered that?
  • Basically when you design institutions, especially government institutions, you need to take care to build it in such a way that it’s not personality-dependent. Remember that you can have at TN Seshan as Election Commissioner, but you can also have a Navin Chawla.
  • So when you go out in droves and protest, you need to be careful what you ask for. Just make sure you understand that.

Useful links:

http://acorn.nationalinterest.in/2008/02/23/grammar-of-anarchy/

http://openthemagazine.com/article/voices/the-anna-hazare-show

http://calamur.org/gargi/2011/04/06/my-issues-with-the-proposed-jan-lok-pal-bill/

http://realitycheck.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/jan-lok-pal-caveat-emptor/

http://www.indianexpress.com/story-print/772773/

http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/the-hazare-hazard-/431045/

 

Making BRTS work

(yet another post that is a few days late, but what the hell)

In the recently delivered Karnataka State Budget, the government has budgeted funds for developing a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) in Bangalore, in order to supplement the Metro and help ease the city’s traffic woes. The problem is that it’s a small amount that’s been released and the budget states “for providing BRTS between Hebbal and Silk Board”.

Commentators (including some traffic experts like MN Sreehari (not able to find the Deccan Herald link on this topic) ) have criticized the move, claiming it is going to once again choke the outer ring roads which have now been set free because of the efforts to make it signal-free. So the commentators have used this as an argument against the BRTS.

On the contrary, I argue that we need more, and not less, BRTS. The whole purpose of an integrated urban rapid-transport system is to encourage people to leave their cars at home and instead use public transport. And for that to happen, really good quality public transport has to be available in all areas (with autorickshaws providing last-mile service). Else there is no real incentive for people to abandon their cars.

The problem with initiatives like the Metro is that it takes way too long to construct. The cost involved in terms of intermediate inconvenience and lead time are enormous. Which is a major point in favour of systems such as the BRTS. So what needs to be done is that the BRTS needs to be introduced on several routes simultaneously, thus bringing a larger area of the city under the integrated public transport system.

The network effects here are huge, and the more the portion of the city that is served by high-quality public transport, the more the incentive for people to not use their cars. On the contrary, introduction of BRTS along one or two lines benefits few and causes inconvenience to a really large portion of the population (all users of the BRTSed routes).

We have already seen in Delhi the impact of a badly-implemented BRT scheme (along one road in South Delhi, if I’m not wrong; deeply unpopular and resented). I’m surprised the guys in Bangalore haven’t learnt from that.

Fixed Price

The problem with a lot of touristy places is that there are no fixed prices. While this means that vendors can practice effective revenue management, it also means that it is easier for them to cartelize and take the tourists for a collective ride.

I realized this during my recent trip to Sri Lanka where you need to find someone you trust to get “access” to some place. But then it is most likely that any possible intermediary is more loyal to the service provider (due to regular contact etc) than to the tourist. So the tourist ends up being screwed no matter what.

Later that night we were to figure that even the bargained prices that we paid at the wood factory were heavily inflated, and things were available for a fourth of that price (!!) at the souvenir shop attached to our hotel in Nuwara Eliya. Where else in the world do you see prices in hotel souvenir shops being significantly lower than close to the source?

So this agent business continued through the trip. We wanted to go river rafting, so we (once again) trusted our driver to find us a nice service provider. The following day we wanted to go on a boat ride up the Bentota river, and we had the (unenviable) choice of our hotel and the driver (yet again) to serve as intermediary.

What makes matters worse is that if you go without an intermediary prices are likely to be even higher. It’s as illiquid a market as you can find. But whichever intermediary you choose you are likely to end up paying much above market values. It’s not often that you find (supposedly) altruistic intermediaries such as the Gift Shop at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya.

So I wonder what drives a market from this kind of state to one where prices are fixed, and there are menus (interestingly in Sri Lanka you don’t find menus in many places. you are charged an arbitrary sum). It is unlikely to be regulation, since smart players are always a step ahead of the regulators. It has to be some market characteristic that tips the market in favour of transparency and efficiency. I’m trying to figure out what it is.

(this suddenly reminds me of a recent attempt by an investment bank to try create a private market for shares in a private technology company. Clearly the market in shares has “tipped” in favour of transparency, for the attempt hasn’t been as successful as initially imagined)