Letters to my wife

As I turned Thirty Three yesterday, my wife dug up some letters (emails to be precise) I’d written to her over the years and compiled them for me, urging me to create at “Project Thirty Four” (on the lines of my Project Thirty). What is pleasantly surprising is that I’ve actually managed to make a life plan for myself, and execute it (surprising considering I don’t consider myself to be too good a planner in general).

In February 2011, after having returned from a rather strenuous work trip to New York, this is what I had to say (emphasis added later, typos as in original):

For me steady state is when I’ll be doing lots of part-time jobs, consulting gigs, where I’m mostly owrking from home, getting out only to meet people, getting to meet a lot of people (somethign taht doesn’t happen in this job), having fun in the evenings and all that

I wrote this six months before I exited my last job, and it is interesting that it almost perfectly reflects my life nowadays (except for the “have fun in the evenings” bit, but that can be put down to being long distance).

I’ve just started a part time job. I have a couple of consulting gigs going. I write for a newspaper (and get paid for it). I mostly work from home. I’ve had one “general catch up” a day on an average (this data is from this Quantified Life sheet my wife set up for me).

A week later I had already started planning what I wanted to do next. Some excerpts from a letter I wrote in March 2011:

Ok so I plan to start a business. I don’t know when I’ll start, but I’m targeting sometime mid 2012.

I want to offer data consultancy services.

Basically companies will have shitloads of data that they can’t make sense of. They need someone who is well-versed in working with and looking at data, who can help them make sense of all that they’ve got. And I’m going to be that person.

Too many people think of data analysis as a science and just through at data all the analytical and statistical weapons that they’ve got. I believe that is the wrong approach and leads to spurious results that can be harmful for the client’s business.

However, I think it is an art. Making sense of data is like taming a pet dog. There is a way you communicate with it. There is a way you make it do tricks (give you the required information). And one needs to proceed slowly and cautiously in order to get the desired results.

I think of myself as a “semi-quant”. While I am well-versed in all the quantitative techniques in data analysis and financial modeling, I’m also deeply aware that using quantitative tools indiscriminately can lead to mismanagement of risks, which can be harmful to the client. I believe in limited and “sustainable” use of quantitative tools, so that it can lead without misleading.

 

My past experience with working with data is that data analysis can be disruptive. I don’t promise results that will be of particular liking for the client – but I promise that what I diagnose is good for the client’s business. When you dig through mountains of data, you are bound to get some bitter pills. I expect my clients to handle the bad news professionally and not shoot the messenger.

I don’t promise to find a “signal” in every data set that I’m given. There are chances that what I’m working with is pure noise, and in case I find that, I’ll make efforts to prove that to the client (I think that is also valuable information).

And these paragraphs, written a full year before I started out doing what I’m doing now, pretty much encapsulate what I’m doing now. Very little has changed over nearly five years! I feel rather proud of myself!

And a thousand thanks to my wife for picking out these emails I had sent her and showing me that I can work to a plan.

Now on to making Project Thirty Four, which I hope to publish by the end of today, and hope to execute by the end of next year.

Large sites and universally accessible blocks

Currently reading this paper by Brelsford, Martin, Hand and Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute (did I tell you I just got my first MOOC certificate from this institute last week?) on the topology of cities. I have only a rudimentary understanding of topology (thanks to an excellent session with Dr. V Vinay), but considering that I know Graph Theory fairly well, I’ve been able to follow the paper so far.

The paper talks about “universally accessible blocks” in cities, which is basically about blocks where each unit can be accessed directly by road without going through other units. Developed cities, the paper argues, has mostly universally accessible blocks, while non-universally accessible blocks are artefacts of non-developed countries and old cities.

The problem with non-univerally accessible blocks is that the “inner units” in such blocks (which are not directly accessible by road) are mostly deprived of public and emergency services and this affects the ¬†quality of life in such blocks. The paper, for example, talks about mostly slums having such architecture, and that newly developed cities usually try to have universally accessible blocks.

When Bangalore was developed in a planned fashion starting in the 1950s (led by the “City Improvement Trust Board” which later morphed into the “Bangalore Development Authority”), a number of new areas were designed for large houses. Large sites were allotted, and regulations framed such that buildings on such sites be sparse (they were called “bungalow sites”). The part of Bangalore I live in, Jayanagar, for example, has a large concentration of such bungalow sites.

While in theory such sites make sense, the fact is that not too many people were enthused about sparse buildings on such sites. So they took advantage of loopholes in regulation (even best designed policies have loopholes) to build multiple buildings on the site. Later on, these sites got partitioned into smaller sites, with at least one building on each smaller site. As a result of partitioning, a large number of units thus created were not “accessible”.

Allotting big sites and getting people to build big houses on them in order to “lead development” into a new area might have been a great idea in theory, but the fact that most people could not afford to build such big houses and loopholes in regulation resulted in non-accessible units! Of course it results in lower infrastructure costs (since the road network is sparser than is necessary), but it comes at a price since not everyone has equal access to infrastructure.

As a wise man once said, #thatzwhy we need strong regulation.

Finite and infinite stories

Stories in books or movies are “finite” in that there is a defined end-point. Real life, on the other hand, has to go on.

Recently I started reading a book called “Finite and Infinite Games”. I’m barely through the Kindle sample, so can’t comment much on the book, but I want to talk about a related concept – finite and infinite stories.

An important feature of the story is that it is “finite”, and has a fixed ending. For example, if you take Lord Of The Rings, the story is primarily concerned with whether Frodo can destroy the ring by taking it to wherever it came from before Sauron can get his hands on it. Once either the ring is destroyed or Sauron gets his hands on it, the story is essentially over, and doesn’t concern about any subsequent events.

Thus, as you plough through either the books or the movies, you condition yourself to the story “ending” at one of these two finalities. And in this particular story, considering that both of these are epochal events, all characters have a horizon no longer than the time required for one of these two events to happen. In other words, most books and movies are “finite stories”, and efforts in those stories are optimised for such finiteness.

Real life, however, is different, in that it is “continuous”. Whatever happens, in most cases, life simply goes on, and hence you need to optimise for the long term. Let’s say, for example, that you are going through a tough time at work and want your current assignment to end. And while you are at it, you look upon your life as a story, where the success or failure of your current assignment is an epochal event. Consequently, you will use a strategy that optimises your performance until this epochal event.

And then this event happens. Let’s say the assignment is a success. Then, life has to move on and another assignment gets thrown at you. Except that you’ve thrown all you had at the previous assignment, and now have no energy left to deal with this one.

In that sense, real life is like an “infinite story” (though death adds a degree of finiteness to this). However epochal certain events seem, unless they are life-threatening, one ought to think for the long term and plan for beyond the event. For unlike in the books or the movies, the story never ends.

Bangalore airport has become horrible

image

Flying domestic after a really long time. The last time I did was back in august. And the Bangalore airport seems to have become horrible in the meantime.

Check out the picture. Gates so close together and hardly any seats for passengers to wait on. Now it’s well known that most domestic flights have 150-180 seats. How hard is it to design waiting areas to seat so many people per flight?

And the Bangalore airport has just been expanded and it’s so congested. Talk about continuing to underestimate growth!

The only hope is that this is a temporary arrangement and once the expansion is complete we’ll have better waiting space.

Planning and drawing

Fifteen years ago I had a chemistry teacher called Jayanthi Swaminathan. By all accounts, she was an excellent teachers, and easily one of the best teachers in the school where she taught me. Unfortunately I don’t remember much of what she taught me, the only thing I remember being her constant refrain to “plan and draw” while drawing orbital diagrams (I’ve forgotten what orbital diagrams look like).

Now, I remember wondering why it was that big a deal that she kept mentioning “plan and draw” while drawing or asking us to draw such diagrams. This question answered itself a few days later at my JEE factory, where the chemistry teacher started drawing an orbital diagram which soon threatened to go outside the blackboard. A friend who was sitting next to me, who was also from my school, quipped “this guy clearly didn’t plan and draw”.

The reason I’m mentioning this anecdote here is to talk about how, when faced with a deadline, we start running without realising what we are doing. I can think of a large number of disastrous projects from my academic and professional life (till a couple of years back my academic and professional life was rather disastrous), and looking back, the problem with each of them was that we didn’t “plan and draw”.

I especially remember this rather notorious “application exercise” as part of my marketing course at IIMB (btw, since the wife is doing her MBA now I keep getting reminded of IIMB quite frequently). We had a problem statement. We had a deadline. And we knew that the professor demanded lots of work. And off we went. There was absolutely no coherence to our process. There was a lot of work, a lot of research, but in hindsight, we didn’t know what we were doing! Marketing was my first C at IIMB (and the only C in a “non-fraud” course, the other being in a rather random course called Tracking Creative Boundaries).

Then I remember this project in my second job. “Forecast”, I was told, and asked to code in java, and forecasting I started, in java, without even looking at the data or trying to understand how my forecasts would solve any problem. Six months down, and forecasting going nowhere, I started coding on Excel, looked at the data for the first time, and then realised how hard the forecasting was, and how pointless (in context of the larger problem we were trying to solve).

There are several other instances – see problem, see target, start running – like the proverbial headless chicken (as made famous by former Indian ambassador to the US Ronen Sen). And then realise you are going nowhere, and it is too late to do a fresh start so you put together some shit.

That piece of advice I received in chemistry class 15 years back still resonates today – plan and draw (pun intended if you are in a duel). Its is okay to take a little time up front, knowing that you will progress well-at-a-faster-rate once you get started off. You need to understand that most projects follow the sigmoid curve. That progress in the initial days is slow, and that you should exploit that slowness to plan properly.

Sigmoid Curve

I will end this post with this beautiful video. Ilya Smyrin versus Vishwanathan Anand. Semi-finals of the PCA candidates tournament in 1994 – the tournament that Anand won to face off with Garry Kasparov at the WTC. Anand, playing black, gets only five minutes to play the whole game. Watch how he spends almost a minute on one move early on, but has planned enough to beat Smyrin (Anand only required a draw to progress, given the rules).