Landmark mismanagement

Yesterday’s Landmark Quiz in Bangalore was a major waste of time. No, I’m not talking about the quality the quiz here – the prelims was among the better Landmark Quiz prelims I’ve sat through, and given that we just missed out on qualification for the finals (AJMd, as we say here in Bangalore) I didn’t sit through the finals though I was told the questions there too were pretty good.

I’m talking about the transaction costs of attending the quiz. The overall management of the event left much to be desired. First of all, we had to show up at the venue at 11:45 for a quiz that was supposed to start at 1:45 pm. Teams with confirmed seats were let in at around 12:30 and only around 1 o’clock were us “waitlisted” teams let in. There too, the organizers did a major show of letting in waitlisted teams, calling them in order and taking over half an hour to let everyone in.

The point is that even after all the waitlisted teams had been let in, there was plenty of room in the auditorium. This makes me wonder about the wisdom of waitlisting so many teams, and then making such a big show of letting people in. Given that the total turnout was much smaller than the hall capacity, things would have been much simpler if people had been simply left in, with volunteers only ensuring that the seating was efficient (without leaving gaps).

Before the quiz yesterday i started writing a blog post on how the quiz registration process was itself flawed, and gave incentive to people to register zombie teams because the option of registering a team came free. So while the hall had been theoretically filled up many days ago, most of these registrations were zombie registrations thus leading to a long wait list and thus calling people early. Given that the quiz doesn’t have an entry fee, I can’t currently think of a good way to price this option.

But reaching the venue early was not the only waste of time. The written prelims of the quiz finished around 3 pm, including calling out the correct answers. The results, however, weren’t announced till close to 6 o’clock. In the interim time period there was the finals for school students, but that still doesn’t explain why they had to wait until 6 o’clock to announce the results of the senior quiz.

The way I see it, it was sheer disrespect on the part of the organizers of the time of the participants. Yes, Landmark might be a much sought after quiz, rated among the best in the country. Yes, most people come there for the questions and not just to win – and so stay on to watch the finals even when they haven’t qualified (it is indeed commendable that Landmark quizzes have managed to be great spectator events while not dropping quality). Yes, many participants have traveled from other cities and so having traveled the cost of their time might be “cheap” – in that they have little else to do in the rest of the day.

Even taking into account all these, the wastage of 5 hours of each quizzer’s time (2 hours for early reporting; 3 hours gap between prelims and results announcement; 4 if you consider that watching the Junior finals wasn’t a waste of time) is not a done thing. Given the quiz’s unparalleled reputation it is unlikely that market forces are going to tell the organizers that they are wasting people’s time, but the message has to go through.

Sponsorship Cannibalism

Back in 2004 Shamanth, Bofi, Anshumani and I started the IIT Madras Open Quiz. In some ways it was a response to critics of IITM quizzing, who blamed our quizzes for being too long, too esoteric, too disorganized and the likes. It was also an effort to take IITM quizzing to a wider audience, for till then most quizzes that IITM hosted were limited to college participants only. An open quiz hosted by the institute, and organized professionally would go a long way in boosting the institute’s reputation in quizzing, we reasoned.

Shamanth had a way with the institute authorities and it wasn’t very difficult to convince them regarding the concept. We hit a roadblock, however, when we realized that organizing a “professionally organized” quiz was a big deal, and would cost a lot of money, which means we had to raise sponsorship. And this is where our troubles started.

The first bunch of people we approached to help with sponsorship were the Saarang (IITM Fest) sponsorship coordinators, who had so successfully raised tens of lakhs for the just-concluded Saarang. Raising the one lakh or so that we needed would be child’s play for them, we reasoned. However, it was not to be. While the coordinators themselves were quite polite and promised to help, we noticed that there was no effort in that direction. Later it transpired that the cultural secretaries and the core group (let’s call them the Cultural Committee for the purpose of this post) ┬áhad forbidden them from helping us out. Raising sponsorship for an additional event would cannibalize Saarang sponsorship, we were told.

When we needed volunteers to run the show, again we found that the Saarang “GA Coordinators” (GA = General Arrangements; these guys were brilliant at procuring and arranging for just about anything) had been forbidden from working with us. The Cultural Committee wanted to send out a strong signal that they did not encourage the institute holding any external “cultural” events that were outside of its domain. It was after much hostel-level bullying that we got one “GA guy” to do the arrangements for the quiz. As for the sponsorship, we tapped some institute budget, and the dean helped us out by tapping his contacts at TCS (for the next few years it was called the TCS IITM Open Quiz).

One reason the quiz flourished was that in the following couple of years, the organizers of the quiz had close links with the cultural committee – one of the quizmasters of the second and third editions of the quiz himself being a member of the said committee. This helped the quiz to get a “lucrative” date (October 2nd – national holidays are big days for quizzing in Chennai), and despite being organized by students, it became a much sought after event in South Indian quizzing circles. Trouble started again, however, after the link between the quizmasters and the cultural committee were broken.

The Cultural Committee once again started viewing this quiz as a threat to Saarang, and did their best to scuttle it. The quiz was moved around the calendar – thus losing its much-coveted October 2nd spot, and soon discontinued altogether. Despite significant protests from the external quizzing community and alumni, there was no sign of the quiz re-starting. Finally when the cultural committee accepted, it was under the condition that the quiz be a part of Saarang itself. After significant struggle, finally a bunch of enterprising volunteers organized the quiz this year after a long hiatus. It is not known how much support they received from the cultural people.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you have one lucrative product (in this case Saarang), it is in your interest to kill all products which could potentially be a competitor to this product, which explains the behaviour of the IITM Cultural Committee towards the Open Quiz. And it is the same point that explains why Test cricket in India is languishing, with bad scheduling (Tests against the West Indies started on Mondays), bad grounds, expensive tickets and the likes. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) now has one marquee “product”, the Indian Premier League (IPL). The IPL is the biggest cash cow for the BCCI, and the board puts most of its efforts in generating sponsorship for that event. And as a side effect, it does its best to ensure that most of the premium sponsorship comes to the IPL, and thus the stepmotherly treatment of other “properties” including domestic cricket.

Last evening, I was wondering what it would take for the BCCI to make a big deal of the Ranji trophy, with national team members present, good television coverage and the kind of glamour we associate with the IPL. And then I realized this was wishful thinking, for the BCCI would never want to dilute the IPL brand. Have you heard of a tournament called the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy? It is the domestic inter-state T20 competition. A potential moneyspinner, you would think, if all national team members are available. But do you know that last year the final stages of this competition coincided with the World Cup? I’m not joking here.

I’m sure you can think of several other similar examples (Bennett Coleman and Company’s purchase and subsequent discontinuation of “Vijay Times” also comes to mind). And the one thing it implies is that it’s bad news for niches. For they will begin to be seen as competition for the “popular” brand which is probably owned by the same owners, and they will be discouraged.

 

Indoctrination methods

I’m suddenly reminded of some “competitions” I took part in back when I was in school, which in hindsight seem like indoctrination methods. The basic structure of the competition is this. An organization announces an inter-school competition – either a quiz or an essay writing contest, or even a debate. These weren’t “normal” quiz/debate/essay competitions, though. All of these had a pre-requisite, and that was reading a certain book that was prescribed and marketed by these organizations. I don’t know if one had to pay for these books – if I remember right, they were given away “free” once you paid the nominal fee to register for these competitions.

It was an easy way to indoctrinate over-enthusiastic kids, or kids of over-enthusiastic parents, who wanted to win every competition in town, and gather as many “bullet points” as one could (though this was far before anyone really thought of careers and the like). All you had to do was to announce a competition, with the promise of a certificate and nominal prize, and thousands of kids would sign up, and do anything in their capacity to win the contest.

I remember two such competitions well. One was organized by the Ramana Maharshi Ashram, where we had to mug a book about him, and then had to write an essay. I remember the topics well. It was something of the kind of “my thoughts after reading about the life of Bhagavan (sic) Ramana”. I don’t remember reading the book too well (I’d forgotten to collect it, I now remember) and wrote some random stuff. I didn’t come close to winning that.

The other was by ISKCON, and this included both a quiz and an essay, if I remember right. Again we had to mug a standard-issue ISKCON book. I remember less of this than I did of the Ramana Maharshi thing (I don’t know why), and again I didn’t do too well, and that hurt my pride as that was around the time when I used to be pretty good at quizzing (and still didn’t know to distinguish between a good and bad quiz, and not worry much about my performance in the latter).

Organizations like ISKCON or the Ramana Maharshi Ashram are incentivized to get more “followers”, and one way of gaining followers is to feed impressionable young minds of material that shows the organization in positive light. And then make them undertake activities that hammer in that message. In that sense, events such as these that tap in on students competitive spirits are a big win for these organization. It’s an easy way to reach a large unsuspecting audience, and even a “small” conversion rate is enough to drive “membership” signficantly.

On a similar note, I remember Gaurav Sabnis writing about debates that the VHP used to organize in Pune in a similar sort of effort. The only difference there was that there you didn’t need to mug any boooks.

Antakshari

So while we were walking back from dinner tonight my wife and I decided to play Antakshari. And each time she started singing, I would instinctively stop listening and fast-forward the song in my head, trying to double guess where she would stop, and what letter that would imply, and search my mental database for songs starting with that letter.

Back when I was in 8th standard, I had challenged four of my female cousins at Antakshari, and had beaten them fairly soundly. Back then, Antakshari was considered to be a women’s game, so I was quite proud of my achievement (of course, I should admit that these cousins were younger to me) .

When I was in college, I would get into inter-hostel Antakshari teams even though my knowledge of Hindi film songs was quite limited compared to what some of the other guys knew. That was because the first written round of most intra-college and inter-college competitions was effectively a Bollywood quiz, and so I’d get taken for my relative expertise in that.

And then I remember this train journey in rural England (someplace in Kent to London Waterloo). Us three hardcore South Indian boys (Sathya, Gandhi and I; Gandhi despite being Gujju qualifies as South Indian having grown up in Bangalore) had thulped hollow hardcore North Indian girls (for the record – Bansal, Sikka and Shuchi). Playing Hindi film Antakshari! Must say I felt quite proud that day.

Thinking back, I wonder how much of an impact playing antakshari had on my Hindi vocabulary, though I would guess that hte answer is not much considering I never really got any of the lyrics. The problem persists. I still don’t “get” any lyrics, irrespective of language of the song.

CTR

Ok this is a post that has been delayed by about a couple of weeks. One of those things that has been in my head now for a while so writing it. So some two or three Sundays back (more likely to be two) I went to the famous CTR in Malleswaram for breakfast. For the first time ever. Yeah I now it’s supposed to be a classic place and all that but it’s only now that I’m getting acquainted with north/west parts of Bangalore so had completely missed out on this so far.

So as per what several people had told me at various points of time in life, the Masala Dosa at CTR was brilliant. Unparalleled. The difference between CTR and Vidyarthi Bhavan is that the former makes masala dosa just the way that other restaurants do, but only much better and tastier. The dosa at Vidyarthi Bhavan is a different animal altogether and am told the has very different composition to what is made in other restaurants.

There is another important difference between CTR and Vidyarthi Bhavan and thats in terms of service and crowd management. Vidyarthi Bhavan does an excellent job in this regard, striving to “rotate table covers” as quickly as possible. Within moments of you taking your seat, your order gets taken, the dosa arrives, as does the bill and a look from the waiter asking you what the fuck you are doing there considering you have finished your tiffin. Extremely efficient from the point of view of the restaurant (in terms of maximizing capacity) and for customers looking for a quick dosa, but not so from the point of view of people who want to linger for a while and chat.

Unfortunately the one time I’ve been to CTR (2 sundays back) I was in a bit of a hurry since I had to go attend a quiz. Maybe the intention of the restaurant is to allow customers to sit for a while and chat up, but I don’t know if you can actually do that since at any given point of time (reports might be biased since this was a Sunday morning, 9am) there are four people waiting for you to leave so that they can grab your seat. This large crowd that is in waiting is also I think a result of slow service at the restaurant (simple queuing theory – for a given arrival rate, the slower the service rate, the more the average queue length).

There were some simple tasks in which CTR didn’t do so well. For example, making a customer wait for ten minutes before you take his order is not only ten minutes wasted for him, it is also ten minutes of absolutely unproductive “table time” – something that a fast food place like this can’t really afford. And then the ordered items also took a long time to arrive (again, most people at CTR have the same order – one “masaal” so I do hope the make dosas “to stock”) – but then their kitchen capacity may not match up to the capacity of the seating area (which isn’t too much). You pay bill at the table itself rather than at the counter which means you sit there for even longer. And so forth.

This post is supposed to be a part of this series that I was writing some four years back examining the Supply Chain practices and delivery models at various fast food restaurants in Bangalore. I have only one observation with respect to CTR and based on that I don’t give it very high marks in terms of supply chain and delivery efficiency. However, the dosa there is so awesome that I’m sure that I’ll brave the crowds and go there more often and might be able to make better observations about the process.

NED Open

Happened today in three places. Chennai went in the morning, Bombay early in the afternoon and here in Bangalore in the evening. As part of the introduction to the finls we had written “if you are satisfied with the questions kindly let us know. If not, write to us in civil language and we will look into it”. I would encourage you to use the comments thread on this post to do the same.

Some personal comments at the end of it:

  • It’s insanely tiring for a single quizmaster to do a quiz this long (72 questions + LVC in finals). I can hardly talk right now and was shouting myself hoarse towards the end of the quiz (and as if it wasn’t bad enough, there was a tiebreaker to be conducted)
  • 72 questions plus a LVC is way to long for finals. True to the nomenclature of the quiz, I noticed several teams and part of the audience put NED towards the end. That it was late in the evening did matter i think. But again thinking about it, isn’t it fair that people put NED at the NED quiz?
  • One art I need to become better at is in terms of dividing points between teams in cases of partial answers. But then the problem there is however you do it, some team is bound to crib
  • Given it was such a long quiz, I was quite low on energy towards the end so probably did a worse job of point distribution, funda explanation etc. than I could have done
  • One needs to recognize that the concept of the LVC has been designed with an intention to irritate, and so some teams are bound to get pissed with it. As long as the audience enjoys you are good
  • One mistake I did (and I did this several times) was to continue wiht a question even after one team had given a “good enough” answer, and then finally give points tothe team that had originally given the “good enough” answer. This both wasted time as well as pissed people off
  • At the end of the quiz i was feeling so damn tired that all I wanted to do wsa to go to Dewar’s wine shop on St Marks Road and buy myself a bottle of Amrut Fusion and finish it off. But then, NED happened.

When I got Varmalanched

So one of India’s 50 most powerful people has released his book My Friend Sancho. People who have already read it tell me that it is a great book. I’ve read bits of the first chapter which he had put up online a few months back, and despite the fact that I dont’ normally read fiction, this had me fairly interested. However, my unread pile at home is still quite tall, so I don’t plan to buy this for a while at least. And the Delhi launch of the book is on a weekday, so I can’t attend that either.

So a while back I was going through Aadisht’s archives. I was looking for one specific post which he had written sometime in our 5th term at IIMB, and I managed to find all other posts he had written at that time, except the one I was looking for. And one of those posts had a linked to one of my posts, which was the only time when my blog got Varmalanched.

Instapundit is a famous blog aggregator and legend has it that whenever instapundit links to a blog, it goes down due to the sudden spike in trafffic. This is called an instalanche. Similarly when desipundit was good (in its early days), a link from there would lead to a small disaster (especially for people working with limited hosting space and bandwidth) which gave rise to desilanche. So when India’s most powerful blogger links you, you get Varmalanched.

The occasion was a post that I had written in search of lost love. I had seen a fairly cute girl at the Bangalore Landmark Quiz 2005, and had blogged asking for her whereabouts. First Aadisht linked me. Then I got desilanched (there were a few desipundit regulars who would read my blog back then). And then the ultimate thing happened. Varmalanche.It was like all the interwebs were trying to help me out in my search for love. If it had succeeded, it would’ve been truly filmi.

I was hosted on Liverjournal back then so my site didn’t actually go down. But this was the first time that a post that I had written had gotten more than 50 comments. I have linked to the livejournal post here (rather than the noenthuda.com page) so that you can read the comments. Do read the comments, they are extremely insightful and funny (ok now I seem to be pitching that blog post like Ravi Shastri pitches that 2020 magazine).

Commenting on that post, Gaurav Sabnis had advised me to shift to Pune saying that that was the only way I could improve my social skills. I interpreted his advice differently. A month later, I was hitting on a girl who was then living in Pune. That story had ended in disaster, though. A year back I met up with Salil the Younger for the first time and teamed up with him for a couple of quizzes. The first thing he mentioned to me was this particular post of mine and his comment on it. It is in the same thread as Gaurav’s comment.

Then there was Shamanth who was trying to convince all my readers that I would never get the girl because he had already bagged her (by giving her chocolate during the quiz). Do read his comments on the post, and the replies to them. Insightful again. And there was Gayathri, a girl who was then unknown to me who had taken to commenting on each of my blog posts. Her comments, and her conversations with Shamanth, are also insightful.

I have attended two landmark Bangalore quizzes after that. On each occasion, I’ve looked through the entire crowd trying to find this girl, without much success. On several occasions I’ve tried to describe this girl to fellow-quizzers and asked me to help me identify her. No luck there either. I’ve had a long history of stillborn relationships – things that were over before they could take off. I suppose I should accept the hard facts and add this one also to that already long list.