The Ramanamurthy Spectrum

The basic point of the protests ongoing throughout India opposing the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act is that it doesn’t follow the “Ramanamurthy Principle“. Let me explain.

The Kannada classic Ganeshana Maduve (1989) is set in a cluster of houses owned by one Ramanamurthy, where all houses apart from his own has been let out to tenants. His battles with his tenants is one of the running themes of this comedy.

One notable conflict has to do with whitewashing. Ramanamurthy decides to get his house whitewashed, but his tenants demand that their houses be whitewashed as well. After a long protracted hilarious battle (starring a dog, also named Ramanamurthy), the tenants come to an agreement with Ramanamurthy – that if he gets his own house painted, he has to get the entire cluster painted.

In other words, the conflict between Ramanamurthy and his clients had only two permissible solutions – all houses are painted or no houses are painted. All solutions in the middle were infeasible. This gives us what we can call the “Ramanamurthy spectrum”.

Here it is visually.

 

 

The protests against India’s citizenship amendment act can be summarised by the fact that the act fails to follow the Ramanamurthy Spectrum. The act, as it has been passed by parliament, uses an arbitrary criterion (religion) to determine which incoming refugees will be given Indian citizenship.

And the protests against that come from both ends of the Ramanamurthy spectrum. In Assam and the rest of the North East, areas that will be most adversely affected by the act, they want the solution that Ramanamurthy finally adopted in the movie – “I won’t get my house whitewashed as well”. They don’t want any of the incoming people to be given citizenship.

Elsewhere in the country (now I must admit I haven’t been able to follow this crisis as closely as I would like to, since it is very difficult here to separate news from “reaction to news“), the protests seem to be at the other end of the Ramanamurthy spectrum – that everyone should be let in.

In any case, the incumbent government has utterly failed in recognising this important principle of politics, and going ahead with a regulation that is neither here nor there in terms of the Ramanamurthy spectrum.

No wonder that the whole country is rioting!

Gults and Grammar

Back in IIT, it was common to make fun of people from Andhra Pradesh for their poor command over the English language. It was a consequence of the fact that JEE coaching is far more institutionalised in that (undivided) state, because of which people come to IIT from less privileged backgrounds (on average) than their counterparts in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra.

Now, in hindsight, making fun of people’s English doesn’t sound particularly nice, but sometimes stories come up that make it incredibly hard to resist.

This one is from Matt Levine’s newsletter. And it is about an insider trading ring. This is a quote that Levine has quoted in his newsletter (pay attention to the names):

According to the SEC’s complaint, Janardhan Nellore, a former IT administrator then at Palo Alto Networks Inc., was at the center of the trading ring, using his IT credentials and work contacts to obtain highly confidential information about his employer’s quarterly earnings and financial performance. As alleged in the complaint, until he was terminated earlier this year, Nellore traded Palo Alto Networks securities based on the confidential information or tipped his friends, Sivannarayana Barama, Ganapathi Kunadharaju, Saber Hussain, and Prasad Malempati, who also traded.

The SEC’s complaint alleges that the defendants sought to evade detection, with Nellore insisting that the ring use the code word “baby” in texts and emails to refer to his employer’s stock, and advising they “exit baby,” or “enter few baby.” The complaint also alleges that certain traders kicked back trading profits to Nellore in small cash transactions intended to avoid bank scrutiny and reporting requirements. After the FBI interviewed Nellore about the trading in May, he purchased one-way tickets to India for himself and his family and was arrested at the airport.

You can look at Levine’s newsletter to understand his take on the story (it’s towards the bottom), but what catches my eye is the grammar. I think it is all fine to refer to the insider-traded stock as a “baby”, but at least be grammatically correct about it!

“Enter few baby” is so obviously grammatically incorrect (it’s hard to even be a typo) that when intercepted by someone like the SEC, it would immediately send alarm bells ringing. Which is what I suppose possibly happened.

So my take on this case is – don’t insider  trade, but even if you do, be grammatical about your signals. If you’re so obviously grammatically wrong, it is easy for whoever intercepts your chats to know you’re up to something fishy.

But then if you’re gult..

Fancy stuff leads to more usage

A couple of months back, I decided to splurge a bit and treat myself to a pair of AirPods. Not the Pro version, which hadn’t yet been released, but this was the last generation. For someone who had hardly ever bought earphones in life (mostly using the ones that came bundled with phones), and for someone who would incessantly research before buying electronics, this counted as an impulse purchase.

A few months back a friend had told me that he had researched all the earphones in the market, and concluded that the best one for making calls is the AirPods. As it happens, he has an Android phone, and so decided it’s not worth it in the absence of an iPhone. And when he told me this, I figured that with an all-Apple lineup of devices, this is something I should seriously consider.

In the past I’d never been that much of a earphone user, mostly using them to listen to music when seated with my laptop outdoors. I hardly ever used them with my phone (a cable jutting out of the pocket was cumbersome). Based on that rationale, when I was in the market for a pair last year, I ended up buying a random cheap pair.

What my AirPods have shown me is that having a good device makes you use it so much more.

The UX on the AirPods is excellent and intuitive. Right now, for example, they’re connected to my laptop as I listen to music while writing this. If I were to get a call right now, I can very quickly switch them to pair with my phone, and talk on. And then after the call it’s two clicks to get them back to pair with the laptop.

This kind of experience is something that cannot be quantified, and because you cannot quantify and compare this across competing devices, in deep research you can miss out on this. This is one of those points that Rory Sutherland makes in Alchemy, which I read last month. And you fail to appreciate things like experience until you have really experienced it.

The amazing UX on the AirPods, not to talk about the great sound, means that I’ve, in a month, used them far more than I’d use other earphones in a year. Even when alone at home, I don’t blast music on my computer now – it’s always through the AirPods. I sometimes wear them while going on walks (though long walks are reserved for introspection with nothing streaming through my ears).

I was in Mumbai on Tuesday, and on the flight on both ways, I listened to podcasts using the AirPods. I’m surprised I had never thought of the idea before – it’s incredibly neat since you can close your eyes and listen, and sleep at your leisure. On commutes between meetings in Mumbai, I listened to podcasts in taxis. And so on.

So this is a learning for the next time – when I’m researching for a product that I think I may not use frequently, I need to keep in mind that if I like it I will use it far more than whatever it replaces. And if that is going to make my life better, the premium I would have paid for it will be really really worth it.

Oh, and coming back to AirPods, one question I keep getting is if they’re easy to lose. Based on the evidence so far, the biggest risk on that count is the daughter running off with one or both of them and misplacing them somewhere!

Uber in Mumbai

I’m writing this from the Terminal 2 Lounge of Mumbai International Airport. I was in the city for a day of meetings today, and I’m glad I stuck to my policy of booking outgoing flights only from Terminal 2. I just can’t imagine spending an hour and a half (the length of my flight delay) waiting in the bus stand that is Terminal 1.

It was one of those visits where I’d bunched together several different meetings with several agendas (or should it be agendae?), which meant that I took a lot of cabs. All my cab rides here were through Uber. Some pertinent observations.

  • Whoever decided that the WagonR is a good car to be a taxi? It may be a great own-drive vehicle, but the back seat is significantly inferior to the kind of back seats you’re generally used to in cabs.
  • Except for the first and last trips of the day, I was forced to take the aforementioned WagonRs. in Bangalore, I instinctively book Uber Premium, and am usually rewarded with sedans (Etios or Swift DZire) driven by drivers with high ratings. In fact, in Bangalore, Uber sedans are so liquid that you sometimes get them even when you book an UberGo.

    Not the case in Mumbai. Liquidity of sedans is far far inferior to WagonRs. Once today, the sedan waiting time was 15 minutes (and only one was nearby) while hatchbacks were plentiful around, and one materialised in two minutes. The other occasions I checked and simply booked WagonRs.

  • On the one occasion when I waited for a long time for a sedan to appear, and then cancelled and booked a WagonR, I was thankful I did so since the route involved some impossibly narrow roads (this was after Uber had failed to recognise a one way road)
  • In general, all the drivers I encountered today (I did five trips in total) were rather professional. Arrived and drove quietly. Air-conditioners always switched on. No calls either to me or anyone else. Occasional polite conversation. This was very different from my experience with Ubers in Mumbai on my earlier visits this year, when I encountered paan-stained cars, nonstop chattering on mobile phones and a driver who gave me a virus.
  • Both in Bangalore (on the way to the airport this morning) and in Mumbai (on the sea link), the taxi drivers hadn’t installed FASTAG. The former resulted in significant delays, and my reaching the gate just in time to board my flight.

 

The Yegnanarayana Problem

Bayya Yegnanarayana (“Yeggi”) was a professor of Computer Science at IIT Madras. Among other things, he taught a course on Speech Technology that I happened to take in 2003. He taught us well, and I learnt a lot in that course, but there is one thing that I remember from it.

We developed the technology to recognise speech (artificial neural networks and a precursor to deep learning, I realise in hindsight) all those years ago, said Yeggi, but people told us then that our computers are not fast enough to recognise speech. It has been so many years since then, and computers are an order of magnitude faster than they were when this technology was developed, but we are no closer to getting computers to recognise speech, he went on. He also added that leave alone recognising speech, we can’t even get computers to convert text to speech.

A year later, I graduated. A year after that, Yeggi retired from IITM and moved to IIIT Hyderabad. Computers continued to become faster. And then less than five years later, computers became fast enough that deep learning became a thing. Now deep learning is everywhere, and speech recognition is so commonplace that leave alone computers, most smartphones can support it.

I don’t know what Yeggi tells his students at IIIT nowadays.

Now, I don’t intend to pick on Yeggi. He was a wonderful teacher, and I learnt a lot in that speech technology course. However, I want to associate his name to the kind of lament that comes just before something hits a point of inflexion, where there has been slow and steady progress for a long time, but without bearing fruit (yet), and then suddenly progress happens.

This is not limited to technology alone. It happens everywhere. You want to get somewhere and you come up with a process to get there. You diligently follow the process but nothing happens, for a while. And then sometimes, rather than keeping at it, you give up, and then you see progress would have happened.

Inflexion points are everywhere. The problem is that you don’t know when they will occur. The best you can do is to get together as a group and follow the process.

Arzoos

Founders, once they have a successful exit, tend to treat themselves as Gods.

Investors bow to them, and possibly recruit them into their investment teams. Startups flock to them, in the hope that they might use their recently gained wealth to invest in these companies. Having produced one successful exit, people assume that these people have “cracked the startup game”.

And so even if they have started humbly after their exit, all this adulation, and the perceived to potentially make or break a company by pulling out their chequebooks, goes to their head and the successful exit founders start treating themselves as Gods. And they believe that their one successful exit, which might have come for whatever reason (including a healthy dose of luck), makes them an authority to speak on pretty much any topic under the sun.

Now, I’m not grudging their money. There would have been something in the companies that they built, including timing or luck, even, that makes these people deserving of all the money they’ve made. What irritates me is their attitude of “knowing the mantra to be successful”, which allows them to comment on pretty much any issue or company, thinking people will take them seriously.

Recently I’ve come up with a word to represent all these one-time-successful founders who then flounder while dispensing advice – “Arzoos”.

The name of course alludes to Arzoo.com, which Sabeer Bhatia started after selling Hotmail to Microsoft. He had made a massive exit, and was one of the poster children of the dotcom boom (before the bust), especially in his native India. Except that the next company he started (Arzoo) sank without a trace to the extent that nobody even knows (or remembers) what the company did.

There is a huge dose of luck involved in making a small company successful, and that someone had a good exit doesn’t necessarily mean that they are great businessmen. As a corollary, that someone’s startup failed doesn’t make them bad businessmen.

Then again, it is part of human nature that we attribute all our successes to skill, and all our failures to bad luck!

 

iPhone

For a long time I eschewed iPhones. The form factor didn’t appeal to me. They were too fat for their size. And so I went with a series of Androids that started slowing down insanely after one OS update. And then the iPhone 6 changed that.

This had a remarkably different form factor to its predecessors. It was thin. It was big (not even the Max version). I saw some relatives using it at a family function and knew that it was the right time to try an iPhone. I bought an iPhone 6S, and still continue to use it, and have no problems with it at all.

My wife had bought an iPhone 6S at the same time as me, and that was doing well as well, until a freak accident a couple of months back. That meant she needed a new phone, and having never used an Android (she jumped “directly” from a cheap Nokia to iPhone 4), decided to get an iPhone.

The iPhone 11 arrived on Friday, brought to us by the sister-in-law. It’s big. Much bigger than my 6S. It has many cameras, and very evidently there is a significant amount of software processing that goes into shooting each photo.

And the photos are brilliant. Through the long weekend (Friday was a state holiday) we were at a wedding, and I kept borrowing this phone from my wife to take pictures (even the sister-in-law, who uses its predecessor XR, kept borrowing the 11 to take pictures)  – often enough to annoy the wife.

But I don’t know what it is with this iPhone, but it seems to “look like an Android”. Maybe it’s the case that we got in a hurry (cheapest on on Amazon). Maybe it’s that we haven’t yet removed the film covering the front. Maybe it’s the size. Maybe it’s the Wi-Fi indicator on the top right rather than top left. But for now I’m yet to “accept” it as an iPhone.

As things stand now, I intend to continue with my 6S for as long as it goes. Hopefully this won’t have a freak accident like my wife’s 6S.

PS: I also treated myself to a pair of AirPods. So far they’re decent, but I find them less effective in shutting off outside noise than some random earphones I used earlier. Maybe they aren’t optimised for my ear?

But I love the technology, though! And the product design.

Ganesha Workflow

I have a problem with productivity. It’s because I follow what I call the “Ganesha Workflow”.

Basically there are times when I “get into flow”, and at those times I ideally want to just keep going, working ad infinitum, until I get really tired and lose focus. The problem, however, is that it is not so easy to “get into flow”. And this makes it really hard for me to plan life and schedule my day.

So where does Ganesha come into this? I realise that my workflow is similar to the story of how Ganesha wrote the Mahabharata.

As the story goes, Vyasa was looking for a scribe to write down the Mahabharata, which he knew was going to be a super-long epic. And he came across Ganesha, who agreed to write it all down under one condition – that if Vyasa ever stopped dictating, Ganesha would put his pen down and the rest of the epic would remain unwritten.

So Ganesha Workflow is basically the workflow where as long as you are going, you go strong, but the moment you have an interruption, it is really hard to pick up again. Putting it another way, when you are in Ganesha Workflow, context switches are really expensive.

This means the standard corporate process of drawing up a calendar and earmarking times of day for certain tasks doesn’t really work. One workaround I have made to accommodate my Ganesha Workflow is that I have “meeting days” – days that are filled with meetings and when I don’t do any other work. On other days I actively avoid meetings so that my workflow is not disturbed.

While this works a fair bit, I’m still not satisfied with how well I’m able to organise my work life. For one, having a small child means that the earlier process of hitting “Ganesha mode” at home doesn’t work any more – it’s impossible to prevent context switches on the child’s account. The other thing is that there is a lot more to coordinate with the wife in terms of daily household activities, which means things on the calendar every day. And those will provide an interruption whether I like it or not.

I’m wondering what else I can do to accommodate my “Ganesha working style” into “normal work and family life”. If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

Dunzo and Urbanclap

I realise that Dunzo and Urbanclap (and many other apps) grew in a particular way. Initially they weren’t sure of the exact problem that they were solving, and instead focussed on a particular “problem class”.

And then over time, based on pattern recognition and segmentation/cluster analysis of the kind of problems that people were using these apps to solve, they started providing more targeted solutions that made better business sense.

Dunzo started off as a “we’ll do anything for you” app. People making fun of the company would talk about a Dunzo executive who would come home, collect your bean bag, get the beans refilled and bring it back to you, and only charge for the beans.

I’m pretty sure that there were many other such weird use cases in which people sort of abused Dunzo in its early days. However, most of the users of the app, I’m guessing, used it for sending packages across town, and to fetch stuff for them from shops and restaurants. And now, four years down the line, Dunzo highlights these specific streamlined use cases in the app, and has figured out a good way of charging for each of them.

It’s similar with Urbanclap. While I didn’t use them in the early days, I used their competitor HouseJoy. I used the app to request for “a plumber”. A plumber duly arrived and did all sorts of odd jobs in our apartment building, some of which were dangerous. And then at the end we paid him in cash, and he told us that “if someone from the app calls, tell them you paid me only 200 rupees” (we had paid him 2000).

Soon, after being a marketplace for all sorts of odd jobs, Urbanclap and its ilk noticed patterns and started specific services. So last week we got someone from Urbanclap to “repair our water heater” (this had a fixed fee on the app). It is another set of such specific services that UrbanClap offers.

I may not have said much new in this post, but it’s basically a crystallisation of some of my thoughts of late – sometimes it’s okay to not have a particularly precise business plan as long as you know what problem class you’re tackling. If you manage to get funded and are willing to burn money, you can learn the best set of problems from the market (within your identified class).

It’s an expensive process for sure, since until you figure this out you’ll be spending a lot of time and money doing random shit, but if you and your investors are willing to bear this kind of expense, it might be worth it.

The worst thing that can happen to you, though, is that after you’ve burnt your company’s money in learning about the market’s precise problem statement, another well-capitalised firm moves faster than you to address this specific market. The question is how well you can put to use your learnings from the early period for later on.

RSVP

I’m reminded of this anecdote from class 11. A girl in my class had invited me to her birthday party. Knowing that there was a clash, I had immediately responded to her saying that I was sorry but I wouldn’t be able to make it. She immediately got offended – that I had told her directly that I wouldn’t come. She would possibly have been less offended had I told her I would come and then not showed up.

A lot of people in India don’t get the concept of how to reply to invitations. Like my old friend, these people think it’s a sort of insult to tell someone that they can’t make it for an event or a function. And so they end up giving false responses or non-responses which doesn’t leave the host any wiser. That leads to massively messed up planning, and possible wastage of food and gifts.

I must say I’ve been guilty of this in the past as well – maybe affected by that 11th standard incident, I have started giving non-committal responses to events that I know I won’t go to. And messed up my hosts’ planning. Having been on the other side multiple times in the last one month, however, I hereby undertake that I will give accurate responses to any invite I get, as far as things are under my control.

Over the last ten days, the wife had kept a massive doll display at home on the occasion of Dasara. We had made an elaborate plan of calling people from different “sides” on different days – in the interest of not mixing groups, which can have a massive negative effect on conversation.

And then some people threatened to destroy these carefully made plans by asking if they could come at a time when they were not invited! Some people were nice enough to tell us that the time when we had invited them was not convenient for them, and requested us right there to give them an alternate slot which we did. Others, however, responded in the affirmative, failed to show up and then wanted to come on a day when we weren’t prepared to receive guests (or worse, on days when were expected other guests from other “sides”).

The other side is also a bit painful here – when people give you an open invitation and tell you to “come any time”. While this gives you greater optionality than a specific slot, this also creates greater pressure on you to accept the invitation. And I’m guilty of responding vaguely to some of these invitations as well. Next time someone gives me an open invite, I will either say no, or try to tell them as soon as possible a specific date and time when I’ll be there.

PS: Of late I’ve started becoming actively (but subconsciously) rude to people who show up at my door unannounced. It throws me off massively. Sometimes my wife wonders why I bothered coming back from England at all!