Podcast: All Reals

I had spoken here a few times about starting a new “data podcast, right? The first episode is out today, and in this I speak to S Anand, cofounder and CEO of Gramener, about the interface of business with data science.

It’s a long freewheeling conversation, where we talk about data science in general, about Excel, about data visualisations, pie charts, Tufte and all that.

Do listen – it should be available on all podcast platforms, and let me know what you think. Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast. New episodes will be out every Tuesday morning.

And if you think you want to be on the podcast, or know someone who wants to be a guest on the podcast, you can reach out. datachatterpodcast AT gmail.

More on status and wealth

Playing zero-sum status games is down to our animal instinct. We have evolved to play those. But the way we can be more human is to seek wealth.

Last week, an old friend from high school sent me this podcast, based on all that I’ve been writing here of late on status-seeking, wealth-seeking, and zero and positive sum games.

I haven’t listened to the full conversation, but only a small snippet (the bit that my friend asked me to listen to, from minutes 20 to 30).

Then, on Sunday night, I started re-reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life. I’m in the middle of the first chapter now (one of my favourites from the first reading, and which I’ve read multiple times). This is the one about depression and serotonin. And that triggered further thoughts on status and wealth and all that.

So some pertinent observations based on these:

  • Mating is a status game. Across species, creatures desire to mate with the highest status members of the opposite sex. And you maximise your chances of that by increasing your own status.

    A high status individual (of whatever species) will have greater access to mates, and greater access to high-quality mates, and thus greater chance of propagating their genes.

    Thus, we have evolved to seek status, not wealth

  • You may argue that in human society, wealth is also an avenue for getting superior mates. However, the problem with this is that we are simply using wealth to buy status in this case. The fundamental reason your mate wants to mate with you is your status, which, in this case, you have got on account of your wealth.
  • Status seeking is zero sum, as Naval Ravikant says in that viral podcast. As the above linked podcast (which is about Rene Girard and mimetic desire) says, when we seek status, we seek to imitate people with higher status than us.

    There are two problems with this kind of approach. Firstly, by doing things that higher status people have done, we don’t necessarily get that kind of status. Especially when the things we do are things that involve power-law payoffs.

    Secondly, if everyone imitates the same kind of high status individuals, everyone ends up seeking the same thing. If you and I are seeking the same thing, we don’t trade with each other. And thus we don’t make each other better off.

    If we are seeking wealth (an unnatural thing, as explained above), rather than status, we go about it in our own ways, and that makes it easy for us to trade and all get ahead towards our respective goals.

  • The podcast talks about how people with conditions such as Asperger’s (or anything on the spectrum, or anything that reduces empathy) have inferior empathy, and that means they see less need to conform, or to imitate. And this can lead to them achieving superior outcomes since they do things their own way (I add that this can also lead to them achieving inferior outcomes – basically “vol goes up”).

    Sounds good to me 😛

  • When we imitate others too much, they become rivals to us. Whether you consciously think of them that way or not. And this can lead to misery to all parties (unless you are high-status, or wealthy, enough to not care)
  • At the beginning of Pink Floyd’s Keep Talking (Division Bell), Stephen Hawking comes on and says “for millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learnt to talk”.

    And when we learnt to talk, one of the powers of our imagination that got unleashed was the ability to trade. We figured out that by trading, we can build wealth. And by building wealth, we have an easy means of cooperation. And the ability to play positive sum games. And not having to futilely play status games all the time.

In some sense, trade, commerce and wealth are the fundamentals of what makes us human. It just happens that we’ve evolved to seek status instead, and so we keep pulling each other down.

 

Covid-19 recoveries in Bangalore

Something seems off in terms of the Covid-19 statistics for Bangalore. The number of “active cases” just don’t seem to be going down in line with the drop in the number of new cases. It seems like we’re not counting “recoveries” like we used to.

Active covid-19 cases in Bangalore in the second wave

In terms of active cases, covid-19 cases in Bangalore peaked in the middle of May. And then active cases started dropping rapidly. It seemed (when I ran this analysis towards the end of June) that active cases would drop well below 50,000 in the middle of June. However, as the graph shows, that hasn’t happened. The reduction in active cases has come down to a trickle.

Now it might well be that the way down is more gradual than the way up, but the thing is that the drop in active cases doesn’t square at all with the number of daily cases.

One metric we can look at is – how many days back do we have to go (in terms of newly infected cases) to get the current number of active cases? This is not correct – it assumes that infection is “first in first out” – but a good enough assumption for our analysis.

I’m writing this on 20th of June. As of today, there are 71000 odd active cases in Bangalore. And we have to go back 26 days to total up 71000 NEW INFECTIONS (assuming none of these people have died). This means that the average recovery period is far more than 26 days.

It wasn’t like this. I graphed this (I’m apologising for using a weird metric here. I thought of dividing active cases by new cases but thought that’s less accurate than this).

At the beginning of June, the number of active cases was equal to the number of new cases in the preceding 18 days. And notice that through June that number has gone up steadily. For whatever reason, the number of days after which a patient is considered “recovered” has been going up. It seems like we’re not counting the recoveries like we used to earlier.

I don’t know why we are doing this.

For the record, if the number of active cases has continued to be in the range of the number of new cases in the preceding 18 days, then we would have about 35,000 active cases in Bangalore right now. That is half the official number of active cases right now.

Again – I’m indulging in curve-fitting of some kind. Just that the data doesn’t tally.

PS: All data in this post from the brilliant covid19india.org .

Accelerated Cookie Licking

For a few months now, I’ve been reading Hardcore Software, a “sub stack book” that’s being written by Steven Sinofsky, about his time at Microsoft. In one of the “episodes” (the book is literally being written in public chapter by chapter, the same way I would go if I were to write another book), he introduces this spectacular concept called “cookie licking“:

Microsoft developed a vocabulary that to this day dominates discussions between alumni. Cookie licking is when one group would lay claim to innovate in an area by simply pre-emptively announcing (via slides in some deck at some meeting) ownership of an initiative.

Cookie licking is one of those concepts where once you’ve seen it you “can’t unsee”. Now that I’m aware of the concept, I keep finding it all over the place. And thinking about it, it is literally all over the place.

And it can happen in many ways. One way is how it happened at Microsoft – where multiple teams might have “been eligible” to work on a particular project, and one team tries to grab the project by “licking the cookie”. It is a pretty common corporate tactic. “Oh, why do you want to work on it when the XXXX team is already working on it?”.

Then, I also see it happening in the startup space. You go to a potential customer or mentor or investor with a certain idea. And then they tell you “why do you want to work on it when XXXX is already doing it?” (usually XXXX is a larger or better known company, but not always). And many a time you fall for the bait, assume that the cookie has been “jooThaafied”, and try to do something else. In a large number of cases, though, the licker of the cookie would have done nothing to consume it apart from the act of licking itself.

I don’t know how exactly to describe cookie licking from a game theoretic perspective, but I can imagine concepts such as “cheap talk”, “game of chicken”, “option value” and “bluffing” coming into play there. The question is if you will fold or call (yay, I made a poker analogy) when you are shown this licked cookie.

And while I was talking about this wonderful concept with someone earlier this evening, I realised that there also exists this concept that I will call “accelerated cookie licking”. Here, you not only lick the proverbial cookie, but also get paid for doing so.

For this, you need to have an independently built reputation (either a successful corporate career, or an exit from an earlier startup, or having been a VC, or some such). And thanks to this reputation built elsewhere, all you need to do is to say that you are licking the cookie, and people will come forward to pay you to do so.

And once you have licked the cookie and raised money for your company, you have an automatic moat – anyone else who wants to eat the same cookie will be told by any potential investors “why do you want to get into this when <this hifunda person with an independently built reputation> is already doing it, and is so well capitalised? Do you really want to take him on?”.

Thinking about it, in poker terms, this is equivalent to bluffing with a really large raise. Even if the opponent knows you are bluffing, it takes a lot for them to be able to call your bluff. And so it is with “accelerated cookie licking”.

Launching: Data Chatter

A few weeks back I had mentioned here that I’m starting a podcast. And it is now ready for release. Listen to the trailer here:

It is a series of conversations about all things data. First episode will be out on Tuesday, and then weekly after that. I’ve already built up an inventory of seven episodes. So far I’ve recorded episodes about big data, business intelligence, visualisations, a lot of “domain-specific” analytics, and the history of analytics in India. And many more are to come.

Subscribe to the podcast to be able to listen to it whenever it comes out. It is available on all podcasting platforms. For some reason, Apple is not listed on the anchor site, but if you search for “Data Chatter” on Apple Podcasts, you should find it (I did).

And of course, feedback is welcome (you can just comment on this post). And please share this podcast with whoever else you think might like it.

Reliving my first ever cricket match

Earlier this week, I came cross the recent Sky Sports documentary “spin wash” – about England’s 3-0 Test series defeat in India in 1993. That’s a rather memorable series for me, since it was the first time that I actually saw India win, and win comfortably (I had started watching cricket on my ninth birthday, with the 126-126 tie at Perth).

Prior to the series I remember chatting with an “uncle” at the local circulating library, and he asked me what I thought would happen to the series. I had confidently told him that England would win comfortably. I was  very wrong.

Anyway, one video led to another. I finished the series, and then remembered that it was during the same tour that I had gone for my first ever cricket match. It was an ODI in Bangalore, either the 3rd or the 4th of the series (depending on whether you count the first ODI in Ahmedabad that got cancelled). This came just after the “spin wash” and the expectations from the Indian team were high.

A granduncle who was a member at the KSCA had got us tickets, and my father and I went to see the game. I remember waking up early, and first going to my father’s office on his scooter. I remember him taking a few printouts in his office (a year earlier he had got a big promotion, and so had both a computer and a printer in his private office), and then leaving me there as he went upstairs to drop it off in his manager’s (the finance director) office.

Then we drove to the ground in his scooter. I don’t remember where we parked. I only know there was a massive line to get in, and we somehow managed to get in before the game began. I also remember taking lots of food and snacks and drinks to eat during the game. While entering the group, I remember someone handing over large “4” placards, and cardboard caps (the types which only shaded the eyes and were held at the back by a string).

Anyway, back to present. I searched for the game on YouTube, and duly found it. And having taken the day off work on account of my wife’s birthday, I decided to watch the highlights in full. This was the first time I was watching highlights of this game, apart from the game itself that I watched from the B stand.

Some pertinent observations about the video, in no particular order:

  • The outfield was terrible. You see LOTS of brown patches all over the place. When you see Paul Jarvis come in to bowl, you see a very reddish brown all over his trousers – you don’t really see that colour in (even red ball) cricket now
  • There was a LOT of rubbish on the outfield. Random paper and other things being thrown around. Remember that this was prior to the infamous 1999 game against Pakistan in Bangalore where the crowd threw lots of things on to the pitch, so I’m not sure there was anything to prevent things from being thrown on the pitch
  • The India shirt was sponsored by some “Lord and Master”. I don’t remember at all what that is. Never seen its ads on TV (and I watched a lot of TV in the 1990s).
  • There was a hoarding by the Indian Telephone Industries (state owned telephone manufacturing monopoly that collapsed once the monopoly was broken) that said “allrounders in communications”. I found it funny.
  • There were lots of hoardings by the local business Murudeshwar Ceramics / Naveen Diamontile. The business still exists, but it’s interesting that a local player got hoarding space – I guess TV wasn’t yet a big deal then
  • There was a hoarding by “Kuber finance”. I found that interesting since we’ve almost come a full circle with “Coinswitch Kuber” ads during the 2021 IPL.
  • The Bangalore crowd looked MASSIVE on TV. and the Sky Sports commentators kept referring to how big a crowd it was. Coming soon after Test matches in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, this is “interesting”.
  • Every time the camera panned towards the B stand in the highlights reel, I tried to look for myself (I was 10 years old at the time of the game!). No success of course. But I do remember stuff like Srinath getting his 5-41 bowling from “our end” (BEML End, going away from where I was sitting). And Sidhu fielding right in front of us at third man when India was bowling from the pavilion end
  • I remember leaving the ground early after India collapsed (from 61-1 to 115-7). I remember my father saying that there would be riots once the match finished and we should get out before that. One of my school classmates who also went to the game said he watched till the very end and I was jealous of him.
  • The highlights showed Mexican waves. I clearly remember enthusiastically participating in those
  • This was 3.5 years before the famous Kumble-Srinath partnership in Bangalore against Australia but from the highlights I see that Kumble and Kapil Dev had started one such partnership in this game. Again I remember none of it since I had left the ground by then.
  • I’ll end with a poem. I had written it on the day of the game, on the back of the “4” placard I had been given while entering the ground, and waving it every time it seemed the camera was facing my section of the crowd.

Graeme Hick
You’ll get a kick
From a mighty stick
And you’ll fall sick

He ended up top scoring in the game.

Quizzing for toddlers

One thing we have found about our daughter is that she likes to “know things”. She is curious. Having gone beyond her “baby books” (the highly illustrated 16 page stories), she is not reading larger story books, but devouring “non-fiction” (like a book on “simple experiments”, another “big book of everything” and so on).

And so we thought she might be interested in quizzing. And a couple of months back, my wife, the more enterprising parent,  found this weekly online quiz conducted by this company called “QShala“.

These quizzes are literally above our daughter’s grade, but nobody seems to do quizzes for 4-year-olds, so my wife decided to take our daughter along for the Grade 1-3 quizzes conducted by QShala.

These would happen every Sunday afternoon at 3pm (they still do, I think), and it would be a tremendously stressful experience for everyone in the house.

  • My wife would get stressed that me, the “quizzing parent”, did nothing to encourage our daughter’s inherent interest in knowing things and building her knowledge.
  • I would get stressed that I couldn’t spend my Sunday afternoons in peace, and that my wife would expect me to take our daughter to this quiz, which I never did.
  • Our daughter would get stressed that despite getting some of the answers in the quiz and typing them out, she would never get a chance to give out the answers verbally (the QShala guys would pick out one kid at random, I think, among those that gave out the correct answers).

And despite the all-round stress, we (excluding me) kept going for these quizzes. And getting stressed out. And then my wife had a brainwave, “if you are so opposed to send her to these competitive quizzes, why don’t you start doing a quiz for her every week?”. That sounded like a good idea.

It’s been four weeks now, and it is an incredible experience. I love setting the quizzes. The big challenge for me is to set questions that are “just within/out of reach” for my daughter. Now, since she is my daughter, I have a good idea on what she knows / doesn’t know. So if you find that some of the questions here may be out of reach for a 4-year-old, it is because they have been set for MY four-year-old.

This is the first quiz I did for her, on 16th of May.

She did rather well. With some hints, she got four of the five questions. And so the following week, I went a bit tougher.

And she only got one of the five questions correct (she guessed the football jersey by correlating with the flag).

So for the third week, I went a bit easier, including some straightforward questions (rather than only “workoutable” questions).

She smashed it, getting four out of five. Rather incredibly, the only one she didn’t get in this quiz was the one involving the nursery rhyme (she seemed to have forgotten the rhymes), and then she spent the rest of that Sunday with an old Nursery Rhymes book, revising all of them. And also incredibly, she got the band right, but by recognising the “wrong” band member (Ozzy).

Of course, for the fourth quiz, I didn’t set any nursery rhymes questions (though I included a lullaby).

Again she did rather well, getting four (including one with hints). The negative surprise for me is that while she normally indexes countries on the map with objects (“UAE looks like a ‘horse bicycle'” or “Cameroon looks like a kangaroo”), she really struggled with the map question and only got it after she had seen the map.

I think the horse part we can see. I don’t know where the “bicycle” comes from

I’ve been massively enjoying the process. I will continue to set these quizzes every Sunday, and then post them to my Slideshare. You can follow me there. If I get more enthu, I might include those slides in this blogpost as well.

It both looks and “sounds” like Kangaroo

 

Slip fielding meetings

It’s been nearly six months since I returned to corporate life. As you might imagine, I have participated in lots of meetings in this period. Some of them are 1-on-1s. Some are in slightly larger groups. Some meetings have big groups.

Meetings in big groups are of two types – ones where you do a lot of the talking, and what I have come to call as “slip fielder meetings”.

Basically, participating in these meetings is like fielding at slip in a cricket match. For most of the day, you just stand there doing nothing, but occasionally once in a while a ball will come towards you and you are expected to catch it. That means you need to be alert all the time.

These meetings are the same. For most of the discussion you are not necessarily required, but once in a while there might be some matter that comes up where your opinion is required, and you need to be prepared for that.

I can think of at least two occasions in the last six months where I was rudely awoken from my daydreams (no I wasn’t literally napping) with someone saying “Karthik, what do you think we should do about this?”.

And since then I’ve learnt to anticipate. Anticipate when my presence might be required. Figure out from the broad contours of the conversation on when I might be called upon. And remain alert when called upon (though on one occasion early on in the company my internet decided to give way just when I had started talking in a 20 person meeting).

Yesterday, a colleague gave me a good idea on how to stay alert through these “slip fielder meetings”. “Just turn on the automated captions on Google Meet”, he said. “Occasionally it can be super funny. Like one day ‘inbound docks’ was shown as ‘inborn dogs'”.

I think this is a great idea. By continuously looking at the captions, I can remain sufficiently stimulated and entertained, and also know what exactly is happening in the meeting. I’m going to use this today onwards.

I now wonder what real slip fielders do to stay alert. I’m not sure chatting with the wicketkeeper is entertaining enough.

Social Skills Decelerator

This post is a consequence of a conversation I had with my wife this morning.

I was telling her about how a friend, who also went to IIT Madras with me, recently said something like “I’m surprised XXXXX (another mutual friend) has so much confidence in himself even though he went to <local college>. A lot of my self-confidence comes from IIT”.

“It is precisely because XXXXX went to <local college> that he has so much confidence”, my wife countered (she studied in an engineering college that is very similar to the aforementioned <local college>). And then we started talking about respective lives, and experiences, and all that.

The big insight (I’m writing about this because I think my wife is too lazy to blog about this – though it’s her idea) is that in different schools, you build reputation based on different things. In 11th and 12th standards in schools where people are mugging for JEE, for example, the primary currency for reputation is academics (both my wife and I went to such schools – different branches of the same school, to be precise).

In other schools, it’s due to extracurricular achievement. Some schools place a premium on sport. Others on gadgets and shoes. Yet others simply on good looks. And some on who you know. It’s not a finite list, except that each school has its own “portfolio” of things that help build its students’ reputations.

Coming back to my wife’s big insight, it’s that in IIT, at the prime ages of 17/18 to 21-22, the primary currency to build reputation still remains academics, and that is not the case in other colleges. And in some sense, in terms of building social skills and generally increasing one’s confidence in life, these are the prime years.

And the other thing is that academics is a zero-sum status game – there might be infinitely many “nine pointers” but there can only be one class topper. And if reputation is based on academics, it is likely to be based on relative grading. So at the prime years of your life, when you are looking to build social skills (social skills are positive sum), you are playing a zero-sum academic game for marks. You are not only not building your social skills at an age when you should, but you are actively destroying them by indulging in too many zero-sum status games.

The other corollary, of course, is that by indulging in status games where there can only be one winner, we are all (most of us at least) effectively turning ourselves into losers.  By being in an environment where reputation is built only on one (zero sum) dimension, our confidence is shattered.

Some of us come back from this shattered confidence, and at some point in life (albeit belatedly) start building social skills. Others, unfortunately, never recover.

My wife is right – people are not “confident despite not going to IIT”. They are “confident BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T GO TO IIT”!

 

Communicating Numbers

Earlier this week I read this masterful blogpost on Andrew Gelman’s blog (though the post itself is not written by Andrew Gelman – it’s written by Phil Price) about communicating numbers.

Basically the way you communicate a number can give a lot more information “between the lines”. Take the example at the top of the article:

“At the New York Marathon, three of the five fastest runners were wearing our shoes.” I’m sure I’m not the first or last person to have realized that there’s more information there than it seems at first. For one thing, you can be sure that one of those three runners finished fifth: otherwise the ad would have said “three of the four fastest.” Also, it seems almost certain that the two fastest runners were not wearing the shoes, and indeed it probably wasn’t 1-3 or 2-3 either: “The two fastest” and “two of the three fastest” both seem better than “three of the top five.” The principle here is that if you’re trying to make the result sound as impressive as possible, an unintended consequence is that you’re revealing the upper limit.

Incredible. So 3 in 5 means one of them is likely to be 5th. And likely one is fourth as well. Similarly, if you see a company that calls itself a “Fortune 500 company”, it is likely closer to 500 than to 100.

The other, slightly unrelated, example quoted in the article is about Covid-19 spread in outdoor conditions. There is another article that says that “less than 10% of covid-19 transmission that happens indoors”. This is misleading because if you say “less than 10%”, people will assume it’s 9%! The number, apparently, is closer to 0.1%.

There are many more such examples that we encounter in real life. If you write on LinkedIn that you went to a “top 10 ranked B-school”, it means you DID NOT go to a “top 5 ranked B-school”.

Loosely related to this, I’ve got a bit irritated over the last year and a bit in terms of imprecise numerical reporting by the media (related to covid-19). I won’t provide links or quotes here, since what I can remember are mostly by one person and I don’t want to implicate her here (and it’s a systemic problem, not unique to her).

You see reports saying “20000 new cases in Karnataka. A majority of them are from Bangalore”. I’ve seen this kind of a report even when 90% of the cases have been from Bangalore, and that is misleading – when you say “majority”, you instinctively think of “50% + 1”. Another report said “as many as 10000 cases”. Now, the “as many as” phrasing makes it sound like a very large number, but put in context, this 10000 wasn’t really very high.

Communication of numbers is an art that is not very well spread. Nowadays we see lots of courses on “telling stories with data”, “data visualisation”, graphics, etc. but none in terms of communication of sheer numbers itself.

Maybe I should record an episode about this in my forthcoming podcast. If you know who might be a good guest for it, AND can make an introduction, let me know.