Tag Archives: few days

Yet another startup idea

This time it’s an i-phone/android app. The motivation for this is the heavy advertising in the last few days for Mapmyindia GPS, on hoardings all over Bangalore. Again, I don’t know if this has been implemented before.

So this will be built on top of Mapmyindia or any other similar GPS. When you hunt for the shortest route between point A and point B, you can give two possible choices – shortest by distance and shortest by time. The former is the default choice that all GPSs currently use. This one is an app to provide the latter.

Now, each city will be mapped out as a network of intersections. And then, for each “edge” on this graph, we use data that we’ve gathered from other users of the app in order to predict the amount of time taken to travel. Of course, the prediction model is not going to be simple, and I’m willing to partner you (via my forthcoming quant consultancy firm) in developing it. It’s going to be a fairly complex model based on time-of-day, recency of data, outlier detection (what if someone stops off for lunch in the middle of an “edge”?) and all such.

So, now you have the city mapped out (for a particular instant) both in terms of distance and in terms of time, and in cases of any traffic jams or such, my system will help you find the quickest route to your destination. Should be useful, right?

Of course, the success of this app (like a lot of other apps, I guess) depends heavily on “network effect”. The more the users of this app, the better the model I’ll have in predicting time between intersections, and save you the headache of mentally trying to optimize the route to your destination each time you set out (like I do).

I’m pretty serious about this. If you think this hasn’t been done before, we can work together to get this up!

Romantic Comedies in Hollywood and Bollywood

Assumption: The median age for marriage in urban India is much lower than the median age of marriage in urban United States of America

Hence, romantic comedies in hollywood, usually end up having characters who are older than corresponding comedies made by Bollywood. Thus, Hollywood romantic comedies can be made to be more mature than corresponding Bollywood romantic comedies.

Data point: Serendipity was remade as “Milenge Milenge”. I was watching the latter movie a few days back (couldn’t sit through more than five minutes of it, as I kept comparing each scene to the corresponding scene in the original). In Serendipity the protagonists are around 35, and thus show a maturity that corresponds to that age. You can see that in the way they behave, go about things, etc. And here, in Milenge Milenge you have Shahid Kapur and Kareena Kapoor singing and prancing around like Jackasses. You can’t watch too much of that, can you?

Tailpiece: My all time favourite romantic comedy (across languages) remains Ganeshana Maduve, starring Anant Nag and Vinaya Prasad. I’ll talk about the virtues of the movie in another post but I can’t think of any other movie that even comes close to this one. Meanwhile, if you haven’t watched this movie, get hold of a subtitled copy of it and watch it. Now.

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.

When will people come?

So I was trying to estimate how many of my invitees will attend my wedding ceremony and how many will attend the reception (the former is at noon and the latter the same evening). While a large number of people have kindly RSVPd, not too many have really mentioned which event they’ll turn up for. So it’s my responsibility to somehow try and figure out how many will come when, so that the information can be appropriately relayed to the cooks.

Personally, if I’m attending the wedding of someone I don’t know too well, or a wedding I’m attending more out of obligation than out of the desire to be there, I prefer to go to the reception. It’s so much quicker – queue up, gift, wish, thulp, collect coconut, leave. The wedding leads to too much waiting, insufficient networking opportunity, having to wait for a seat in a “batch” for lunch, and the works.

Again, I hope that most people who are coming for my wedding are coming more because they want to attend rather than looking at it as an obligation. Actually I was thinking of a wedding invite as being an option – it gives you the option to attend the wedding, but you pay for it with the “cost” of the obligation to attend. In fact, over the last few days, I’ve felt extremely guilty while inviting people whose weddings I bunked (for one reason or another).

That digression aside, what upsets estimates for my wedding is that it’s on a Sunday, when more people will be inclined to come in the morning rather than at night. For one, they have the day off. Secondly, usually people like to spend Sunday evening at home, ironing clothes and the like, preparing for the grueling work week ahead.

And the fact that the venue is on the northern side of Bangalore, while most of my invitees live in the south (the fiancee and most of her invitees are in the north) makes me want to increase my “lunch” estimate and decrease the dinner estimate. And then the fact that I’m getting married on a seemingly “auspicious” day, when there are lots of functions all around, makes me wonder if I should discount the total attendance also.

After the wedding is over, I’m willing to anonymize and share the spreadsheet I’ve used for my estimates. Ok you might think I’m a geek but what I’ve done is to put an “attendance” probability for each event for each attendee, and then taken expected value to get my estimates. As I write this, I think I should take standard deviation also, and assume the law of large numbers (yes I’ve invited a large number of potential guests) in order to provide my in-laws (who are organizing the whole event) 95% confidence intervals for number of guests..

Anyways, I just hope that my (and my in-laws’) estimates are right and we won’t end up erring in either direction (shortage of food, or wastage) by too much in either direction. And the costs of the two (localized costs – as hosts, our costs of food shortage (in terms of reputation, etc.) is much higher than cost of wastage; though from global sustainability perspective it’s probably the other way round) have led our solution of the Newsboy Problem to be conservative in estimate.

And yesterday I was suggesting to my in-laws that after the wedding lunch, we can revise the estimates for dinner to M – X where M is the total number of guests we expect (counting double for people who we expect to attend both lunch and dinner) and X is the number of people who had lunch. It’s important, I think, to use as much information as possible in making decisions.

Gift List

So over the last few days there have been several people who have met or called me and asked what gift Pinky and I want for our wedding. Hari the kid, one such caller, even suggested that we need to make a wedding wish list and put it up on our wedding website or something.

Now the thing is that gifting is a hard business. Economic research shows that the average value to the gifted is much less than the average cost to the gifter, and thus gifts create a dead weight economic loss. This, however, is compensated by the good will that the gifter earns from the gifted (if it is a good gift, that is).

When the potential gifter asks the gifted what he/she wants, the intangible value (value of a pleasant surprise minus value of unpleasant surprise, appropriately weighted by respective probabilities) is substituted by the tangible value of greater value for the gifted per rupee spent by the gifter. Also, the fact that the gifter cared to ask what the gifted wanted goes some way in compensating for the intangible value.

Anyway the question is if we should put up a gift wish list on our website. Now, one problem with that is that people might perceive us to be arrogant. After all, in this era of “no gifts/bouquets please ” (we haven’t put that on our invite cards) people might get offended at our audacity of not just asking for gifts, but also telling people what to give us. Thus there is reputational risk involved, but we can explain on the same page the collective economic benefits of the wish list, so this might be taken care of.

The bigger problem is that if we were to put up a gift list the onus is on us to come up with a list of things that we want. We need to come up with a range of things such that it fits people’s varying budgets. There should be something in the list for someone who is willing to spend a hundred rupees on our gift, and also something for someone who is willing to spend ten thousand.  So in the middle of all the other wedding work for us, we also need to decide on what we want, what we don’t want, what kind of stuff we want, and so on.

Then there is quality control. We could well put up on the wish list that we want a LCD TV, but it would sure sound too audacious to be much more specific than that. And if the gifters were to get us some LCD TV that we would ultimately end up not liking, the dead weight economic loss to all of us is huge. So we need to be specific without being arrogant, which is even more work for us.

But I think we will end up making all the effort and put up a wish list, and hopefully that will improve the collective economic condition of us and our gifters.

Independence and contribution at work

This is based on a discussion I had at work a few days ago. We were talking about people being able to do things out of their own initiative, come up with their own new ideas, inventing their own problems to work on (which would be useful for the firm on the whole) and stuff.

Now if you consider people’s abilities as a multi-dimensional vector (the number of dimensions will be large, since one’s abilities, capabilities, etc. can be along several dimensions), what we realized is that if someone just takes orders from other people and not work on their own ideas and intuition, then their contribution to their role is just the component of their vector along the vector of the person whose orders they are following.

And considering that the probability of their vector and the vector of the person who they’re taking orders from lying in exactly the same direction is close to zero, what this means is that by simply following someone else’s orders they are contributing an amount that is less than what they are capable of contributing (since the component of their ability orthogonal to the vector of the person whose orders they are taking isn’t on display at all).

Hence, it is important to have people in the team who are capable of independent thinking and intuition since that is the only way in which their full possible contribution can be harnessed. On a related note, in order to bring the best out of its employees, and to allow them to contribute to their full capacity, firms should allow the employee to take initiative and come up with their own ideas rather than simply taking orders, since in the latter case only the component of the abilities along the orders is contributed.

Division of Labour

Some six of us have planned for a vacation for next month. And so far, the “labour” of planning the vacation has been divided unevenly. So far, it has been three of us who have been doing a lot of the work – talking with tour operators, drawing up schedules, planning transport and accommodation, booking tickets, etc.

Now with a large part of the work having been done, the three of us who have been doing the work have decided to put NED and have left it to the other three “freeriders” to complete the rest of the work. As you might expect, the other three continue putting NED and in the last few days not much work has been done.

The question is this – what is the optimal strategy for the three of us who have been so far doing work? We think we’ve done more than enough of our share and so the others should take over now. On the other hand, the more we leave it to the other three, the more procrastination that will happen which might come back to hit all of us in terms of higher rates, etc.

It is dilemmas like this that allow freeriders to freeride – they know that by freeriding, they are not the only ones who are losing out, and that there are people who are more driven than them who will also end up losing out if these guys freeride. And the freeriders know that the driven guys won’t let things drift and will positively do something about it, and that encourages them to freeride further. And so forth.

Is there a solution to this problem? When there is a common objective, how should incentives be structured in order to make the freeriders work, while also not making it obvious that these are artificially tailored incentives?

The Swarovski Earrings

On Friday evening I tweeted:

Louis philippe best white shirt – rs X1
Swarovski crystal earrings – rs X2
Dinner at taj west end – rs X3
Proposal accepted – priceless

Now I must confess that there was a lie. Which I tried to mask by using variables for the various values. Of course, at the time of tweeting this, I didn’t know the value of X3; though I figured it out an hour later. The value of X1 is well known. The lie was in the X2 bit. The thing is I don’t know. Because the Swarovski crystal earrings weren’t bought; they were won.

Back in 2000 when I entered IIT Madras, I started doing extremely bad in quizzes there. It took me a long while to get adjusted to the format there (long questions, all-night quizzes… ) and a lot of stuff that got asked there was about stuff that I didn’t care much about so I didn’t really bother doing well. There’s this old joke that every IITM quiz should start and end with a Lord of the Rings (LOTR) question with two more LOTR questions in the middle, and all this is only in one half of the quiz.

In my first year there, there was also the additional problem of finding good people to quiz with. You invariably ended up going with someone either from your hostel or your class who might have attended their school trials for the Bournvita Quiz Contest, or sometimes quizzers you know from Bangalore. Still, the lack of a settled team meant that there was a cap on how well one could do. All through first year, I didn’t qualify in a single quiz, neither in Madras nor when I came home to Bangalore.

Second year was marginally different. There was still no settled team but the format wasn’t strange any more. And quizzes had started to get a little more general and less esoteric. I had started to qualify, or just miss qualification, in some quizzes. And around this time, while struggling with VLSI circuits and being accused by the Prof of being potential WTC Bombers (this was a few days after 9/11) I heard God and Ranga talk about some Dakshinachitra where they had qualified for the finals.

So Dakshinachitra is this heritage center on East Coast Road and they had been conducting an India Quiz. It was a strange format – three rounds of prelims with two teams (of two people) qualifying from each round. God and Ranga had gone for the first round of prelims and had sailed through. They had told me the competition hadn’t been too tough and so the following week Droopy and I headed out, taking some random local bus to the place.

We too made it peacefully to the finals and then found that it had turned out to be an all-IIT finals. However, they refused to shift the venue of the finals to the IIT campus and so all of us had to brave the Saturday afternoonMadras sun and head out again to the place. Thankfully this time they’d organized a bus from somewhere close to IIT.

I don’t remember too much of the finals apart from the fact that there was a buzzer round with extremely high stakes, in which Droopy and I did rather well. I remember one question in the buzzer round being cancelled because an audience member shouted out the answer. I remember there was this fraud-max specialist round where we were quizzed on a topic we’d picked beforehand. Thankfully the stakes there weren’t too high. It wasn’t a great quiz by general quizzing standards but what mattered was we won, marginally ahead of God and Ranga in a close finish.

The next morning Droopy and I appeard in the supplement pages of the New Indian Express, holding this huge winner’s certificate with Air India’s name on it (they took back that certificate as soon as the photo was taken). We were promised one return ticket each by Air India to any destination in some really limited list, but somehow they frauded on it and we could never fly. God and Ranga got a holiday each in some resort, and I don’t think they took that, too.

There were a lot of random things as prizes. There were some random old music CDs. Maybe some movie CDs too. I remember God and Ranga getting saris (god (not God, maybe God also) knows what they did with it). Droopy and I got coupons from VLCC. I put NED to encash them. Droopy went and was given a free haircut. And then there were these earrings.

Not knowing what to do with them, I just gave them to my mother. She, however, refused to wear them saying that since I’d won them, it was only appropriate that they go to my wife. So she put them away in the locker in my Jayanagar house and told me to take them out only when I had decided who I wanted to marry. And I, then a geeky 18-year old IITian, had decided to use these earrings while proposing marriage.

So early in the evening on Friday I went to the Jayanagar house and took the earrings out of the locker. What followed can be seen in the tweet. Oh, and now you might want to start following this blog.

PS: apologies for the extra-long post, but given the nature of the subject I suppose you can’t blame me for getting carried away

A View From the Other Side

For the first time ever, a few days bck, I was involved in looking at resumes for campus recruitment, and helping people in coming up with a shortlist. These were resumes from IIMB and we were looking to recruit for the summer internship. Feeling slightly jobless, I ended up taking more than my fair share of CVs to evaluate. Some pertinent observations

  • There was simply way too much information on peoples’ CVs. I found it stressful trying to hunt down pieces of information that would be relevant for the job that I was recruiting for. IIMB restricts CVs to one page, but even that, I felt, was too much. Considering I was doing some 30 CVs at a page a minute, I suppose you know how tough things can be!
  • The CVs were too boring. The standard format certainly didn’t help. And the same order that people followed -undergrad scores followed by workex followed by “positions of responsibility” etc. Gave me a headache!
  • People simply didn’t put in enough effort to make things stand out. IIMB people overdo the bolding thing (I’m also guilty of that), thus devaluing it. And these guys used no other methods to make things stand out. Even if they’d done something outstanding in their lives, one had to dig through the CV to find it..
  • There was way too much irrelevant info. In their effort to fill a page and fill some standard columns, people ended up writing really lame stuff. Like how they had led their wing football team in the intra-hostel tournament. Immense wtfness. Most times this ended up devaluing the CV
  • Most CVs were “standard”. It was clear that people didn’t make an effort to apply to us! Most people had sent us their “finance CV” but would you send the same CV for an accounting job as you will for a quant job? Ok yeah I understand this is summers, but if I see a CV with priorities elsewhere, I won’t shortlist them!
  • By putting in several rounds of resume checking and resume workshops, IIMB is doing a major disservice to recruiters. What we see are some average potential corporate whores, not the idiosyncracies of the candidates. Recruiting was so much more fun when I’d gone to IITM three years back. Such free-spirited CVs and all that! This one is too sanitised for comfort. Give me naughtyboy123@yahoo.com any day
  • People should realize that campus recruitment is different from applying laterally. In the latter, yours is one of the few CVs that the recruiter is looking at and can hence devote much more time going through the details. Unfortunately this luxury is not there when one has to shortlist 20 out of 180 or so, so you need to tailor your CVs better. You need to be more crisp and to the point, and really highlight your best stuff. And if possible, to try and break out of standard formatI admit my CV doesn’t look drastically different from the time it did when I was in campus (apart from half a page of workex that got added), but I think even there I would make sure I put a couple of strongly differentiating points right on top, and hopefully save the recruiter the trouble of going through the whole thing.
  • I think I’m repeating myself on this but people need to realize that recruiters don’t care at all about your extra-currics unless you’ve done something absolutely spectacular, or if there is some really strong thread running  through that section. So you don’t need to write about all the certificates that you have in your file

The bottom line is that recruitment is a hard job, especially when you have to bring down a list of 200 to 20 in very quick time. So do what you can to make the recruiter’s job easy. Else he’ll just end up putting NED and pack you.

The impact of Rs. 2/kg rice

In the supplement of yesterday’s The New Indian Express (one of the six articles is here: http://epaper.expressbuzz.com/NE/NE/2009/07/12/ArticleHtmls/12_07_2009_412_002.shtml?Mode=1), it was argued about how the combination of NREGS and cheap rice (most states provide or promise to provide 25 kg of rice per month per poor family at Rs. 2 per kg) is destroying the rural economy.

One day of work under the NREGS gives a person Rs. 100. Half of that will go into buying rice for his family for the ENTIRE MONTH. Extending this argument, twelve days of work under the NREGS will feed his family for the whole year. Given that the staple is taken care of,, there is little incentive for the villager to work to earn more. And so there is a severe shortage of farm labourers, other rural workers, etc.

When the NREGS  came about, some people applauded it saying that it would ensure that minimum wage laws would now be met. Given that people were now assured of a certain sum (say Rs. 100 per day) for doing meaningless stuff like digging and filling holes, they would go to do other harder and more meaningful work only if they were paid more (and you need to take into account that “real work” takes more discipline, hard work, etc. than it takes to wrok for a welfare program – so the NREGS actually pushed up the minimum wage for farm labour to much higher than Rs. 100).

Now, with various states coming up with cheap rice schemes, the whole thing has gone topsy turvy. Given the subsidized rice, it is now possible for the worker to earn enough for his staple food by just doing a few days of work under the NREGS! The only need for him to work elsewhere, and possibly harder, is to pay for his “luxuries” (considering the price of subsidized rice, requirements and NREGS pay, it can be shown that 100 days of NREGS work can pay for all the essentials).

Given that the essentials are taken care of by the combination of NREGS and cheap rice, the only reason that the worker will need to do actual (i.e. non-NREGS) is to help him save, or for “luxuries”. Yes, some workers will have special needs for money at different points of time because of which they will take on the extra work, but if you aggregate the supply of work, you will realize that the ‘hurdle daily rate’ for the worker to accept “real work” becomes really high.

Since the worker doesn’t absolutely need the money, he can now become the price-setter in the job market rather than being a price-taker. So what this effectively does is to push the “minimum non-NREGS wage” really high indeed (I can’t intuitively put a number on it, but it could be as much as Rs. 200). My bet is that a lot of rural-economy-produced goods will turn out to be really expensive next year since a lot of producers might choose not to produce them given the high cost of labour.

Quite a few commentators have said that the NREGS is a noble scheme for empowering the poor, and given that most of the ‘work’ done is meaningless, it can be replaced by simple cash transfers. The problem is that if that is combined with yet another welfare measure such as cheap rice, it can create severe distortions in the market.

The moral of the story is that if you want to help the poor, please go ahead and do so. What you shouldn’t do is to help them twice over – that can result in severe market distortions like the one that the express article talks about. What is needed is greater coordination between the centre and the states in the welfare measures.