The other side of the long tail

There are several people who talk about how the advent and the popularity of the internet has resulted in markets in many a long tail. Without loss of generality, let us just take the market for writing here. Several niches which were earlier not served since there wasn’t enough of a dedicated audience in a particular geographical area for a certain set of articles and so no one bothered to write and disseminate them.

For example, it is unlikely that there was enough of a “market” for a series of posts on the Studs and Fighters Theory in the days before the internet – a market big enough for a newspaper or a magazine or a journal to bother publishing. Now, the internet not only allows me to publish it without effort or cost, but also lets me know that there is enough of a market for this kind of a series for me to bother publishing it rather than just explain it to a few friends in a smoky bar or cafe.

Now, the funda is that sometimes the long tail can exist in geographically coherent markets and not online! For example, all of yesterday, while at work i was frantically searching for sources to follow the BBMP election results. Everyone led me to this TV9 video streaming but it didn’t open on my office network and I couldn’t find any other live sources that were constantly updating the results. I had had similar problems following the results of the Karnataka Assembly elections two years back.

It was then I realized that the “traditional market” can itself be the long tail! For example, the amount of information I found about the elections in this morning’s papers was really impressive – in fact, the much ridiculed ToI had pretty good coverage of the polls, as did the Deccan Herald or the New Indian Express. Earlier in the morning, yesterday, too there were the Kannada channels which focused exclusively on the election results.

What I’m saying here may be fairly obvious, but just wanted to point out that long tail need not refer exclusively to the new media, or new channels. When you look at it in certain ways, several of the traditional media are also catering esssentially to a long tail, though when there was only the traditional media, no one really used the term.

Talking of BBMP elections, take a look at this graphic that was presented in the Deccan Herald today. Don’t you see a pattern in this?

Bangalore Map

Return to corporate whoredom

Waking up early in the morning
Formal shirt and trousers, neatly pressed
An hour’s commute each way

Conversations by the water cooler
Team lunches; Expense accounts
Hourly coffee breaks

Meetings. Conference calls. Presentations
Studs. Fighters. Free-riders.
Reviews. Deadlines. Status reports.

Salary credit!

On Religion

Last Thursday there  was a function at home, of the religious type. An aunt and an uncle had come home and sang a large number of hymns. I was told that the hymns were part of a series, called the narayaneeyam, and all in praise of Lord Krishna. There were a few activities also planned along with the chanting of hymns, and occasionally people in the audience (a few other relatives) were asked to do a “namaskaara” to the deity. I mostly put ‘well left’ to these additional stuff, and watched the proceedings dispassionately, sunk into my bean bag with my laptop on my lap.

One of the guests at that function was a two-year old cousin, and he seemed to be full of enthu. He is of the religious sorts – his mom is hyper-religious, I’m told. And he did all the namaskaaras and other activities with full enthu. Later on, my mother was to admonish me saying how even the two year old would respect religion, while I just looked on. She complained about how I’ve been spoilt, and fallen under the wrong influences. I muttered something about the cousin being too innocent to know what was going on around him because of which he sincerely obeyed.

When I read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion about six months back, I didn’t feel anything special. I’m told that the book has a lasting impact on its readers – one way or another – and that a lot of people consider it to be life-changing. I felt nothing of the sort. I just read it from start to finish, agreeing with most of its contents, and using some of its sub-plots to enhance the Studs and Fighters Theory. The only ‘impact’ it had on me was about not being a quiet atheist, and to get into arguments about existence of god, etc.

I have an interesting background in these matters. My mother and her immediate family are all ultra-religious, and I happened to grow up mostly in my maternal grandfather’s place (since both parents worked). My late father, on the other hand, was a rationalist, though he stopped short of calling himself an atheist and would passively approve of my mom’s various religious indulgences. He would quietly drive my mother and my family to the Sai Baba ashram in Whitefield, and then wait patiently outside while the rest of the people went in for their “darshan”. I would usually go in and make noises about exposing the Baba.

I don’t know how, but till recently (when I read Dawkins’s book), I would never realize when people were talking about religious stuff. For example, whenever my mom said “it’s due to god’s grace that you escaped the accident unhurt”, I’d just think that she was being rhetorical. At least, that (and swearing) are the only cases in which I take god’s name. It’s only recently, and after reading Dawkins’s book, that I realize that my mother wasn’t being rhetorical after all, and that she actually believes that it was the strength of her daily prayers that ensured I escaped those accidents unhurt.

It is also intersting to note the selection bias. My mother, and her ultra-religious sisters, and their ultra-religious relatives, selectively pick on favourable events and attribute them to god’s grace. Earlier, before reading Dawkins’s book, I would shut up, but now I’m a bit more vocal about these things, and ask them why their prayers didn’t prevent the unfavourable events from occurring. Then, they start looking for the silver lining in the cloud and attribute that to their prayers. Never mind the cloud.

So what about my religion? Some people find it contradictory that my political views are right-leaning (socially) even though I don’t believe in God. I say that I’m ‘culturally hindu’, and that Hinduism/Hindutva is not a religion but a way of life. And if you scrap away all the rituals and other beliefs, what remains in hinduism is the religion that I follow. I like to describe myself as “athiest but culturally hindu”.

I believe that poojas are just an excuse to throw feasts. I believe in rituals such as marriage ceremonies as no-questions-asked-processes which “have to be done” but I don’t believe that they are a necessary condition for any benefit, or against something bad.

Two years back, when my father died, I found the post-death ceremonies quite depressing and decided I’m not going to do them. So an uncle came up to me and asked me why I didn’t want to do the rituals. I told him I didn’t believe in them. He replied saying there was no question of belief but it was my duty to do the rituals. I told him that I didn’t believe that it was my duty to do them.

Problem with defeating elders in logical arguments is that they tend to take it personally, and then decide to attack you rather than attacking your argument. I finally ended up doing all those rituals. But I happened to fight with the shastris during each and every ceremony.

In hindsight, I realized that my fighting with the shastris, though ugly, had managed to send a “don’t mess with me” message to my relatives.

Don’t use stud processes for fighter jobs and fighter processes for stud jobs

When people crib to other people that their job is not too exciting and that it’s too process-oriented and that there’s not muc scope for independend thinking, the usual response is that no job is inherently process-oriented or thinking-oriented, and that what matters is the way in which one perceives his job. People usually say that it doesn’t matter if a job is stud or fighter, and you can choose to do it the way you want to. This is wrong.

So there are two kinds of jobs – stud (i.e. insight-oriented) and fighter (i.e. process oriented). And you can do the job in either a stud manner (trying to “solve a problem” and looking for insights) or in a fighter manner (logically breaking down the problem, structuring it according to known formula and then applying known processes to each sub-problem). So this gives scope for a 2 by 2. I don’t want this to look like a BCG paper so I’m not actually drawing a 2 by 2.

Two of the four quadrants are “normal” and productive – doing stud jobs in a stud manner, and fighter jobs in a fighter manner. There is usually an expectancy match here in terms of the person doing the job and the “client” (client is defined loosely here as the person for whom this job is being done. in most cases it’s the boss). Both parties have a good idea about the time it will tak e  for the job to be done, the quality of the solution, and so on. If you are in either of these two quadrants you are good.

You can’t do a stud job (something that inherently requires insight) using a fighter process. A fighter process, by definition, looks out for known kind of solutions. When the nature of the solution is completely unknown, or if the problem is completely unstructured, the fighter behaves like a headless chicken. It is only in very rare and lucky conditions that the fighter will be able to do the stud job. As for “fighterization”, about which I’ve been talking so much on this blog, the problem definition is usually tweaked slightly in order to convert the stud problem to a fighter problem. So in effect, you should not try to solve a “stud problem” using a fighter process. Also, as an employer, it is unfair to expect a mostly fighter employee to come up with a good solution for a stud problem.

The fourth quadrant is what I started off this blog post with – studs doing fighter jobs. The point here is that there is no real harm in doing a fighter job in a stud manner, and the stud should be able to come up wiht a pretty good solution. The problem is wiht expectations, and with efficiency. Doing a fighter job in a stud manner creates inefficiency, since a large part of the “solution” involves reinventing the wheel. Yes, the stud might be able to come up with enhanced solutions – maybe solve the problem for a general case, or make the solution more scalable or sustainable, but unless the “client” understands that the problem was a stud problem, he is unlikely to care for these enhancements (unless he asked for them of course), and is likely to get pained because of lack of efficiency.

Before doing something it is important to figure out if the client expects a stud solution or a fighter solution. And tailor your working style according to that. Else there could be serious expectation mismatch which can lead to some level of dissatisfaction.

And when you are distributing work to subordinates, it might also help to classify them using stud nad fighter scales and give them jobs that take advantage of their stronger suits. I know you can’t do this completely – since transaction costs of having more than one person working on a small piece of work can be high – but if you do this to the extent possible it is likely that you will get superior results out of everyone.

Taleb’s Recipe

No, unlike the previous post, this has nothing to do about food. It is about Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s recent op-ed in the Financial Times where he gives his “recipe” for saving the global financial system. Two of my favourite bloggers Arnold Kling and Felix Salmon have responded to it, but I didn’t like either so I thought I should post my response as well.

I borrowed The Black Swan from Aadisht sometime in late 2007. I tried starting to read it several times but never got past Taleb’s childhood stories of his hometown Amioun. I took a couple of months to get past the first 50 pages, I think. And then it was easy reading. I loved the sub-plots. I broadly bought into the main plot. By the time I had finished reading the book, I wanted to ask Taleb to accept me as his sisya. I  bought and read Fooled By Randomness, and liked that too. And then decided to read The Black Swan yet again. It was only a couple of months back that I finally returned the latter book to Aadisht (in the meantime he had bought two other copies of it, and read it).

Till very recently, I would read up any article of Taleb’s that I could find. I wrote to him a couple of times with my CP, and he even responded. I infact wrote to him about “Positive Black Swans and the World of Romance” and he responded with a “Thanks Karthik, Ciao, Nassim”. I had become a worshipper.

However, now I think he’s kinda lost it. I don’t think he intends to write another book and so he has nicely settled down to peddling his last theory (black swan). In response to a recent post on studs and fighters, Kunal had said, “He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.”. The same disease affects Taleb I think, as he goes around the world trying to force-fit his black swan model to every conceivable problem.

And then I have a problem with people like Taleb and Satyajit Das, and actually with all those ibankers who are asking for bailouts. These guys made full use of capitalism, and made heaps of money, when things were good. And now that their money has been made, they call for government intervention, and socialism. Taleb and Das are different from the other wall streeters because they are calling for full-scale government intervention, unless the other bankers who are only calling for a bailout!

Now that the elaborate intro is done, let us get to the point. Taleb’s essay consists of ten points. The headings are italicized and there’s a detailed explanation. For purpose of brevity I’m putting only the headings here, and writing my comments after each of them. Go to the FT site to read the full points that Taleb has written.

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small.

I agree with this. And my take is that competitors need to keep each other in check. For example, if this round of bailouts were not to happen and the biggies were let to fall, no one would grow so big in the future, and even if they did, they would make sure that they were insulated enough from one another. This round of bailouts will make the next crisis (whenever it will happen) worse.

2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains.

Agree with this.

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.

Taleb has clearly not learnt his own lessons (fooled by randomness). I might have crashed the school bus once, but it may not be my mistake. the one data point of one bus crash should not be used to decide my career as a driver. One should look at how the driver drove before the crash to determine whether he gets a second chance. Blanket banning of people involved will not help.

4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.

It’s all about structuring. Taleb was a trader and he forgets about structuring. As long as incentives of the employee and the employer are reasonably well aligned, there is no problem with an incentive bonus. The problem in ibanking was that too much emphasis was placed on short-term performance of employees. It’s tragic that the fall of the financial system has brought to an end what was an excellent compensation system (in principle, mind you; not the way it was practised) – where each person was paid fairly based on his/her contribution.

5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity.

I think the simplest way would be to leave things to the market. Government intervention would lead to a new form of complexity, and in the overall scheme of things increase complexity rather than decrease it. None of the stuff that Taleb has mentioned is easily implementable.

6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning .

Again Taleb prescribes mai-baap sarkaar. Does he realize that if governments had always had tight control over the markets, the markets wouldn’t have crashed on October 19 1987, and he wouldn’t have made any money? (Taleb has reportedly made 97% of his life’s earnings out of this one event). What is “complex derivatives”? And how can you ban it? If you ban it, it’ll go to the black market. You are better off collecting hefty security transaction tax.

7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”.

I agree

8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.

Agree once again. We need to structurally change things to get to saner leverage than what was practised 1-2 years back. Regulations should be simple and principles-based, minimizing chance for regulatory arbitrage. Remember that the purpose of creation of most “complex derivatives” in the last 25 years is regulatory arbitrage.

9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement.

Bullshit. The point on markets not containing information, that is.

10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs.

None of this makes any kind of practical sense. It’s just an old man ranting. Thanks, guru (pun intended).

Fighterization of food

One of the topics that I’d introduced on my blog not so long ago was “fighterization“. The funda was basically about how professions that are inherently stud are “fighterzied” so that a larger number of people can participate in it, and a larger number of people can be served. In the original post, I had written about how strategy consulting has completely changed based on fighterization.

After that, I pointed out about how processes are set – my hypothesis being that the “process” is something that some stud would have followed, and which some people liked because of which it became a process. And more recently, I wrote about the fighterization of Carnatic music, which is an exception to the general rule. Classical music has not been fighterized so as to enable more people to participate, or to serve a larger market. It has naturally evolved this way.

And even more recently, I had talked about how “stud instructions” (which are looser, and more ‘principles based’) are inherently different from “fighter instructions” (which are basically a set of rules). Ravi, in a comment on Mohit‘s google reader shared items, said it’s like rule-based versus principles-based regulation.

Today I was reading this Vir Sanghvi piece on Lucknowi cuisine, which among other things talks about the fact that it is pulao that is made in Lucknow, and now biryani; and about the general declining standards at the Taj Lucknow. However, the part that caught my eye, which has resulted in this post with an ultra-long introduction was this statement:

The secret of good Lucknowi cooking, he said, is not the recipe. It is the hand. A chef has to know when to add what and depending on the water, the quality of the meat etc, it’s never exactly the same process. A great chef will have the confidence to improvise and to extract the maximum flavour from the ingredients.

This basically states that high-end cooking is basically a stud process. That the top chefs are studs, and can adapt their cooking and methods and styles to the ingredients and the atmosphere in order to churn out the best possible product.You might notice that most good cooks are this way. There is some bit of randomness or flexibility in the process that allows them to give out a superior product. And a possible reason why they may not be willing to give out their recipes even if they are not worried about their copyright is that the process of cooking is a stud process, and is hence not easily explained.

Publishing recipes is the attempt at fighterization of cooking. Each step is laid down in stone. Each ingredient needs to be exactly measured (apart from salt which is usually “to taste”). Each part of the process needs to be followed properly in the correct order. And if you do everything perfectly,  you will get the perfect standardized product.

Confession time. I’ve been in Gurgaon for 8 months and have yet to go to Old Delhi to eat (maybe I should make amends this saturday. if you want to join me, or in fact lead me, leave a comment). The only choley-bhature that I’ve had has been at Haldiram’s. And however well they attempt to make it, all they can churn out is the standardized “perfect” product. The “magic” that is supposed to be there in the food of Old Delhi is nowhere to be seen.

Taking an example close to home, my mother’s cooking can be broadly classified into two. One is the stuff that she has learnt from watching her mother and sisters cook. And she is great at making all of these – Bisibelebhath and masala dosa being her trademark dishes (most guests usually ask her to make one of these whenever we invite them home for a meal). She has learnt to make these things by watching. By trying and erring. And putting her personal touch to it. And she makes them really well.

On the other hand, there are these things that she makes by looking at recipes published in Women’s Era. Usually she messes them up. When she doesn’t, it’s standardized fare. She has learnt to cook them by a fighter process. Though I must mention that the closer the “special dish” is to traditional Kannadiga cooking (which she specializes in), the better it turns out.

Another example close to home. My own cooking. Certain things I’ve learnt to make by watching my mother cook. Certain other things I’ve learnt from this cookbook that my parents wrote for me before I went to England four years ago. And the quality of the stuff that I make, the taste in either case, etc. is markedly different.

So much about food. Coming to work, my day job involves fighterization too. Stock trading is supposed to be a stud process. And by trying to implement algorithmic trading, my company is trying to fighterize it. The company is not willing to take any half-measures in fighterization, so it is recruiting the ultimate fighter of ’em all – the computer – and teaching it to trade.

Preliminary reading on studs and fighters theory:

Studs and Fighters

Extending the studs and fighters theory

Bangalore trip update

The recent inactivity on this blog was mainly due to my inability to log on to wordpress from my phone and write a post.  I had gone home to Bangalore for an extended weekend (taking Friday and Monday off) and the only source of net access there was my phone, and for some reason I wasn’t able to log on to NED from that. During the trip I had several brilliant insights and brilliant ideas and wanted to blog them and finally such NED happened that I didn’t even twitter them. Deathmax.

The main reason I went to Bangalore was to attend Pradeep (Paddy)’s reception. I think this is an appropriate time to share the funda of his nickname with the world. Before he joined our school in 9th standard, there was this guy two years senior called Pradeep, and for some reason not known to me he was nicknamed Paddy. I vaguely knew him since I used to play basketball with him, and after he graduated there were no more Paddys in school. So when this new guy came from the Gelf, it presented a good opportunity to get back a Paddy into school. It turned out to be such a sticky nickname that not even IIT could change it.

Friday was Ugadi – yet another reason to be home in Bangalore – and was mostly spent visiting relatives. When they heard about my impending market entry, all of them brought up stories of not-so-successful marriages of people they knew well, and put fundaes to me about avoiding certain pitfalls. These fundaes were liberally peppered with stories. Mostly sad ones. Mostly of people who have chosen to continue in their marriages despite them clearly failing. It is amazing about the kind of stuff people I know have gone through, and yet they choose to not run away.

Saturday morning was rexerved for my first ever “market visit”. I was taken to this bureau in Malleswaram and asked to inspect profiles. “There are profiles of hundreds of girls there”, my uncle had told me “so let us go there before ten o’clock so that you have enough time”. The profiles were mostly homogeneous. The number of engineering seats available in Karnataka amazes me. Every single profile I checked out over there had studied a BE, and was working in some IT company. Things were so homogeneous that (I hate to admit this) the only differentiator was looks. Unfortunately I ended up shortlisting none of them.

One of the guys I met during my Bangalore trip is a sales guy who lives in a small temple town without any access to good cinema. So he forced me to accompany him to watch Slumdog (in PVR Gold Class – such an irony) and Dev D. I agree that Slumdog shows India in poor light, but filter that out and it’s a really nice movie. We need to keep in mind that it was a story and not a documentary, and even if it were the latter, I think documentaries are allowed to have narratives and need not be objective. Dev D was simply mindblowing, apart from the end which is a little bit messed up. Somehow I thought that Kashyap wanted to do a little dedic to his unreleased Paanch.

There is this meet-up at Benjarong which is likely to contribute enough material to last six arranged scissors posts. I’ll probably elaborate about the discussions in forthcoming posts but I must mention here that several arranged marriage frameworks were discussed during the dinner. The discussions and frameworks were enough to make both Monkee and I, who are in the market process, and Kodhi who will enter the market shortly to completely give up in life.

One takeaway from Paddy’s reception is that if you can help it, try not to have a “split wedding” (and try not to have a split webbing also) – where different events are held at diferent venues, on disjoint dates. In that case you won’t have people lingering around, and you will lose out on the opportunity to interact with people. Note that there is zero scope for interation during the ceremonies, and the only time you get to talk to people is before, and after, and during. And it is important that there is enough before or after or during time to allow these interactions. In split weddings guests are likely to arrive and leave in the middle of an event and so you’ll hardly get to talk to them.

One policy decision I took was to not have breakfast at home during the length of my stay. I broke this on my last day there since I wouldn’t be having any other meal at home that day, but before that visited Adigas (ashoka pillar), SN (JP nagar) and UD (3rd block). The middle one was fantastic, the first reasonably good except for bad chutney and the last not good at all. Going back from Gurgaon it was amazing that I could have a full breakfast (2 idlis-vada-masala dosa-coffee) for less than 50 bucks. Delhi sorely lacks those kind of “middle class” places – you either eat on the roadside or in fine dining here.

Regular service on this blog should resume soon. My mom has stayed back in Bangalore for the summer so I’m alone here  and so have additoinal responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning. However, I think I should be having more time so might be writing more. I can’t promise anything since blog posts are generated by spur-of-the-moment thoughts and I never know when they occur. Speaking of which I should mention that I put elaborate fundaes on studs and fighters theory in my self-appraisal review form last week.