Car Ownership

People, especially in the US, make a big deal about home ownership. In fact a large part of the current economic meltdown has its roots in the American craze for home ownership. Fannie and Freddie were created to help home loans become cheaper, then there was the CDO wave. Then came subprime. NINJA (no income no job amortized). All that. Boom. Bust. Jai.

A related concept that no one seems to talk about is car ownership. They say that the safety of a neighbourhood goes up if the proportion of owner-occupied homes goes up. And this is the underlying theory behind most of the home ownership craze.

|||ly, road safety is directly proportional to the proportion of owner-driven vehicles on the road. Take Bangalore for example. Till the late 90s, the traffic there was excellent and well-behaved. Some roads were already clogged, yes. But drivers were in general very well behaved. And the reason behind that was that most people owned their bikes and cars. They had a greater incentive to make sure that there was no damage done to their vehicles nad drove more carefully.

Yes, personal safety also plays an impact and is independent of whose vehicle the driver is driving, but I think in the progression of severity of accidents, vehicle safety gets compromised before personal safety. In other words, there is a one-way implication here – if you drive keeping in mind the aim of not damaging your vehicle, it is more likely that you are not going to get injured. The reverse doesn’t necessarily hold. And that is why car ownership is so important.

So what happened in Bangalore in the early 2000s when traffic suddenly became horrible? This thing called BPO happened, which brought with it the mostly chauffeur-driven taxis. Now, on one hand, these guys had perverse incentives as their efficiency was measured on the speed from which they got from point A to point B. Apart from this, most of them were not driving their own vehicles (this was a departure from the earlier wave of taxis and autos, most of which were owner-driven) and so they didn’t care so much about damaging their vehicles, which led them to drive more rashly.

Similar is the case with Delhi, which is known to have always had horrible traffic. Being the political capital, Delhi has always had a reasonably high proportion of chauffeur-driven cars. Which is why, for a long time, its roads have been known to be rasher than roads in other cities. And things still haven’t improved.

The thing with car ownership is that it forms a positive-feedback loop. Suppose the number of chauffeur-driven cars goes up. Then, the traffic in general becomes more rasher. And driving becomes more of a headache for you. Which increases your incentive to employ someone to drive your car. Which further pushes up the proportion of chauffeur-driven cars. This is what has happened in Delhi over the last 50 years. This is what has happened in Bangalore over the last 10 years.

In order to make our streets safer, we need to incentivize people to drive their own cars and bikes (one clarification – by own, I mean either your own or something that belongs to close family or friends; in both cases, incentive to keep vehicle safe is high). If I’m not wrong, people can claim tax exemption against the salaries they pay their driver. This needs to go first. Next, insurance companies need to have different levels of payout for self-driven and driver-driven accidents (I know this is going to be hard to be implement).

Yes, this might increase unemployment since driving other people’s vehicles is a major occupation nowadays. But is greater unemployment too high a price in order to ensure greater safety? (ok I can quickly think of one counterargument for this – if people become unemployed, the chances they’ll become goons rises, which makes society in general less safe)

Sit down behind the wheel, and be counted. Say no to drivers. Drive your own car. It is in your own, your car’s , other people’s and other people’s cars’ interest. You don’t need to be driven. You need to be in the driver’s seat.

Search Phrases – February 2009

I don’t plan to make this a monthly feature, but will write this whenever I find enough funny search phrases to make a post on  them worth it. Googlers and google seem to have had a field day this month,

The top search phrase that has led to my blog is of course “noenthuda“. In second place is the fairly boring “blog.noenthuda.com” .  Third place is extremely interesting – top reasons marriage engagements break in pakistan. And I’ve got over 50 people who have searched for this phrase in the last month and then landed up at my blog! Now it makes me wonder what the top reasons are for marriage engagements breaking in pakistan.

Here are a few other gems from the month gone by.

  • gay in iimb (17 hits)
  • 3-letter word for pertinent
  • aunties in chickballapur (chickballapur is my father’s native place, for the record; it is famous for its extremely spicy chillies)
  • best english speaking course in north india
  • can we put the shoes and chappals near the entrance of the house
  • cricketers animal names
  • funny message for my cousin who wants to move back to bangalore
  • i am working in singapore what do i need to do to buy a car in delhi
  • i don’t know how to speak english but i know hindi can i work in delhi
  • iimb course to be on your own
  • job interview edition on savitabhabhi.com
  • karwar muslims
  • matha amritha, things she does
  • number of north indians settled in south india
  • societal influence on a bastard child
  • the true story of a man who learnt fluent spoken english
  • which indian breakfast item can be made with bread?

Ok that has been a very long list indeed. Much longer than I intended it to be. But it only reflects the brilliance of googlers and google in the last one month.

Process

A couple of days back, I was debugging some code. And yes, for those of you who didn’t know, coding is a part of my job. I used to have this theory that whatever job you take, there is some part of it that is going to be boring. Or to put it in the immortal words of a brilliant co-intern at JP Morgan “chootiya kaam”. And in my job, the chootiya part of the kaam is coding. That doesn’t mean that I’m not enjoying it, though. In fact, for the first time in nine years (note that this takes me to a time before I’d started my BTech in Computer Science) I’m enjoying coding.

Coming back, I was debugging my code yesterday. It was one of those impossible bugs. One of those cases where you had no clue why things were going wrong. So I started off by looking at the log files. All clean, and no bugs located. While I was going through them, I got this idea that the strategy sheet might offer some clue as to why things aren’t doing well. Half the problem got diagnosed when I was looking at the strategy sheet. Some problem with cash management.

And when I thought looking at the trades might help. The bug was presently discovered. And then it hit me – that I’d unwittingly followed what seems like a “process”. Everything that I did had been guided by insight and instinct. Yet, the steps that I followed – 1. look at the logs; 2. look at the strategy sheet ; 3. look at the trades – seemed so much a preset process. It seemed to be like one of those things that I’d just ended up reading in some manual and following.

I realize that most “standard processes” that are followed by  various people in various places are stuff that were initially not meant to be processes. They were just an imprint of somone’s train of insights. It was as if someone had a series of insights that led to a solution to whta might have been a difficult problem. And then, he realized that this kind of a process could be followed to deal with all such similar problems. And so he wrote down the process in a book and taught a set of people to implement them. The field thus got “fighterized“.

The argument I’m trying to make here is that a large number of so-called “standard processes” are just an imprint of someone’s insight. They just happened to get into place because the inventor noticed this pattern in a bunch of things that he was doing. They need not be the best way of doing what is supposed to be done. Maybe there isn’t even a single best way of doing it that might work every time.

People who are likely to have worked on processes later in their life cycle are likely to have been people who are process-oriented themselves, and given how these kind of people work, it would have been likely that they would have resisted changes that could make the process worse in the short term. They are more likely to have been incremental in their approach. With a succession of such people working on improving the process, the process of refining the process would’ve ended up taking a hill-climbing algorithm and is likely to have ended up in a local maximum.

Once again, the large changes to the process would’ve happened when someone who was willing to take a large step backward worked on them, and it is again likely that such a person would be driven more by insight rather than by process.

My hypothesis is that most processes are likely to have been largely defined by people who are themselves not very process-oriented, and who thus will expect a certain level of insight and discretion on the part of the person implementing the process. And one needs to keep this in mind while following processes. That it would be good if one were to take a critical view of every process being used, and not be afraid to take a backward step or two in process development in order to achieve large-scale improvements.

Fighterization

The story begins with this slightly old blog-post written by Ritesh Banglani, a guest faculty at IIMB. Banglani writes:

In the first class of my course at IIM, I asked students a simple question: What is strategy?. The most interesting response came from a rather cynical student: “Start with common sense, then add some jargon. What you get is strategy”.

I didn’t say so at the time, but that is precisely what strategy is not. If anything, strategy is uncommon sense – making choices that may not appear intuitive at the time.

The cynical student in question mentioned this during a conversation earlier today, and I thought the discussion that followed merited a blog post. I thank the cynical student for his contribution to this thought.

Innovation happens when someone gets an insight, which, by definition, is a stud process. The person innovating, naturally, is a stud. For a few years after the innovation, the idea is still in development, and it is still very tough for other people to do what the pioneer stud has done. The first wave of people to do what the pioneer has done will also naturally be studs.

However, after the idea has been established, the market for it grows. The pool of studs that are then involved in the idea won’t be able to service the entire market. Also, being studs, they are prone to get bored easily with whatever they are doing, and will want to move on. The increased size of the market as well as the gaps left by the leaving studs will attract fighters to this idea.

Now, fighters are not natural when it comes to generating insight. However, they are excellent at following processes. And once an idea has been developed beyond the initial stage, it makes itself amenable to processes. And thus, a set of processes get established. Soon enough, thanks to the processes, the fighters are able to do a much better job of implementing this idea as compared to the pioneering studs, and studs get driven out of the industry.

This generalized process that I have just described applies to all fields, or “domains” if you would like to call it that. Let us now leave the generalization and come to one specific profession – strategy consulting. Strategy consulting started off as an insight-driven process, a stud process. Industrialists would go to consultants in order to get insights, and out of the box ideas, in order to take forward their business. Soon, the business became profitable, and the consultants, like any good capitalists wanted to expand.

There was one problem, however – talent. It wasn’t easy for them to attract similarly insightful wannabe consultants to work for them. Similarly insightful people would either not want to work in strategy consulting, or they would start their own consulting shops. Thus, there was a need to bring in the fighters into the mix.

It was to facilitate the entry of the fighters that the various consulting models and frameworks came into being. A large set of processes were drafted, and all that the fighter consultants had to do was to identify the appropriate processes for the situation and then implement them along with the client. Insight and out-of-the-box thinking were thrown out of the window. Hourly billing became the industry standard.

Strategy consulting has come a full circle now. It has been “fighterized”. Clients nowadays don’t expect insight. They expect processes. They expect to be led down the “correct” path, and they want to make sure they don’t make obvious mistakes. And thus, the “strategy” that the consulting firms offer are mostly common sense which has been appropriately packaged. And this has percolated down to business schools. And so the cynical student’s cynicism is valid.

Year Ending Post

Last december 31, I wrote a this day that year post. Two years back, I had published a short story. The year before, I had written about the events of the day, and one year prior I was mugging for what was going to be a disastrous marketing exam. As I am writing this, I’m playing scrabble on facebook, and bridge with my computer. I’m listening to music, and am planning to hit the sack soon.

This afternoon I received a mail from my boss, which he said is a standard format mail he sends to friends and colleagues. It was full of pictures of him and his wife and his kids, and stories about what they did this year. About the changes and special events in each of their lives. About how the year has been from different perspectives. And so forth. I think I have received a couple of other similar mails (from US based people – this might be some american funda; my boss also lived in America till early this year) from other acquaintances (though, without pics) which I haven’t bothered to read. Since I’m clueless about what to write, I think I’ll just do a standard year-end roundup.

The most significant thing for me was my move to Gurgaon, and to this new job. That had been preceded by four months of joblessness, and more than two years of acute NED (in fact, I think it was during this period of extended NED that I actually invented the term NED).

The concept of NED also seemed to advance by leaps and bounds this year. I have heard of people who are at least three degrees away from me use it. The message of this concept seems to be spreading. I am sure that one day it will be famous, but then I’m not sure if I, as its inventor/discoverer, will get due credit.

Another significant event of the year has been the movement of this blog from livejournal to its present location. I must mention that this website has been like “glad bangles” for me. A week after I inaugurated this, I had a nice job offer, ending over a year of NED. There were a few other changes also in my life around that time, which I don’t remember now. What I do remember was classifying this website as “glad bangles”. and I like this better than Mad Angles.

On the louvvu front, it was a very quiet year, apart from one quick episode. Maybe one of the least productive years – comparable, maybe, to my years back in IIT.

Ok I think NED is happening. i just resigned my scrabble game. I had resigned my bridge game ages back, and I’d closed the program. I’m feeling sleepy now. So I’ll close it here. Happy new year. And I think this is the worst year-ending post that I’ve written in a long time. This website maybe deserved a much better new year post in the year end but it’s ok.

On Being a Geek

I’ve always been a “topper types”. I started topping class when I was in first standard (and no, they didn’t announce ranks before that), and as if that wasn’t enough, my parents made sure that all relatives, and all teachers in school knew about my superhuman arithmetic skills. And as if even this wasn’t enough, I became the first guy in my class to wear spectacles. In a few years’ time, I went on to represent my school in supposedly intellectual pursuits such as quizzing and chess. I had been consigned to living life as a geek.

There were several occasions when I wasn’t really the topper; wasn’t even close to being a topper. However, something or the other ensured that I managed to maintain that geeky aura. In school, and at IIMB, I was supposed to be really good at math, and that made me geeky. Things were differnet at IIT – since a number of my classmates who trumped me in acads were also better than me at other geeky things. However, I think the fact that I was studying CompSci made me feel geeky, and I never lost any opportunity to show off my geekiness.

In this context, the last two years were quire awkward, as I was in a couple of non-geeky jobs. For the first time in almost twenty years, I had to go out of my way to demonstrate my geekiness, and given that those jobs didn’t need me to be a geek, things didn’t go quite well. I used to try and shove in lines into my conversation such as “we used to play chess in the classroom at IIT. since we couldn’t carry in chessboards, we used to imagine a board and play on that”.

It was very awkward. Thinking back, maybe that was one of the major contributing reasons to my not being too happy in the jobs. I wasn’t able to play my natural game. I had to invent a new me that would go to work daily. And it wasn’t just about the geekiness factor, but this was one of the important reasons, I believe.

Now, working as a strategy guy in a quant hedge fund, I feel I have every right to be geeky, and am well and truly back in form. I lose no opportunity to crack geeky jokes. I try to bring in analogies from various geeky fields I’ve been acquainted with – math, computer science, finance, and even physics. And I don’t mind making things complicated just so that I can slip in that geeky analogy that I think is “beautiful” and “elegant”.

Two days back, i was talking to Baada on the phone, and I smelt an opportunity to crack a geeky joke. We were discussing football while watching Liverpool play Chelski. And then suddenly I asked him if he knew the concept of inversion in geometry. When he replied in the negative, I spetn the next ten minutes explaining the concept to him, all so that I could slip in that one little geeky joke.

Beware of me, I would say.