## Writing and monetisation

I started writing this blog, or its predecessor, in 2004. For nine years I made zero money off it. In fact, in 2008, after I moved to this website, I started paying money to run this blog, in terms of an annual domain name and hosting fee.

And then in 2013, I became part of a “big bundle”, as Mint offered me the opportunity to write for them. I had a contract to write at least three pieces a month around a particular topic, in return for which I would be paid a reasonable sum of money.

That sum of money was “reasonable” enough that it sort of provided me “tenure” until 2017, when I moved to London (I continued to write for Mint, and get paid, but the money wasn’t enough for “tenure” in London where expenses were higher). The Mint editor changed in early 2018, and the tenure ended in late 2018. I briefly got another tenure with the same editor at his new digs in 2019, but I decided to end that after a few months.

(By tenure, I mean steady stable income out of work that doesn’t take too much of my time. So I never had to struggle for basic expenses and every business deal was a bonus. Wonderful times)

In other words, I built my reputation as a writer by myself, writing this blog (and its predecessor), and then monetised it by joining a large bundle.

Recent trends in the media seem to be reversing the process. Recently, for example, Andrew Sullivan, a journalist with the New York magazine, quit his job and started his own newsletter. And this seems to be the part of a larger trend.

Columnist Matt Taibbi left Rolling Stone in April to write on Substack full time. Andrew Sullivan did the same last week, leaving New York Magazine to resurrect his blog the Dish. Joan Niesen, a Sports Illustrated staff writer who was laid off in October, shortly after the magazine’s sale, started a free Substack newsletter last week.

Essentially, journalists who made their names as being part of big bundles, are leaving these bundles and instead trying to monetise on their own platforms. This is exactly the opposite of the route that I, and many other bloggers of the 2000s wave, took – build reputation independently and monetise as part of a bundle.

At the outset, I’m sceptical about lifelong bundlers leaving their bundles. Essentially, once you’ve gotten used to working as part of a large professional setup, you would have started taking a large number of things for granted, and replicating those things are not going to be easy once you go indie.

As a writer, for example, who will edit your copy? Who will make and design your graphics? Who will write your headlines? Who will tell you lots to write about? While you might have experience as a journalist and be very good at your core job, being part of an institution means that you will find it very difficult to do everything by yourself (I THINK I’ve written something on these lines for non-journalism jobs as well, but I can’t be bothered to find that post now. I actually searched for it and found that like an idiot I’d written it on LinkedIn, and now I can‘t find it).

Moreover, people will face “subscription fatigue”, and won’t want to subscribe to too many individual writers. A case can be made for bundling again (get a bunch of writers who write about sort of complementary stuff, and then bundle their newsletters for an integrated subscription). (after all, all disruption is about either bundling or unbundling).

## Breaking up sentences in the absence of punctuation

From time to time, a joke goes around that makes the value of punctuation clear. Check out this picture, for example.

Recently, I saw this on my twitter timeline (though here it’s an issue of spacing apart from punctuation).

Someone actually wrote an entire book about the value of punctuation.

In any case, I have a pretty bad track record in terms of reading sentences that don’t have punctuation. I can think of two examples right away.

Firstly, my school diary was filled with quotes from Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother“. By turns, we would have to say “thought for the day” in the school assembly. And we had a reliable way of finding such thoughts – just look in the diary and spout out the nuggets.

One of those went:

Always do what you know to be the best even if it the most difficult thing to do.

Yes, I remember that. Because I had spouted this not once but twice. Now, this is a long sentence without any punctuation. How would you read it?

For the longest time I read it like this.

Always do what you know, to be the best, even if it is the most difficult thing to do.

So if there are many things that you can do, and you know one of the things, you do that thing even if it is harder than everything else that you might do (but don’t know how to do).

Clearly that doesn’t make that much sense. It was only when I was about to graduate that I figured that it was actually:

Always do what you know to be the best even if it is the most difficult thing to do.

So there are many things you can do. You know one of them is the “best thing to do”. So even if it is the most difficult thing to do, you do it because you know it is “the best” (not because you “know it the best”).

Another example is from this store near my house. I don’t think the store existed for too long, but it had an interesting and quirky name (in Kannada).

ellAdEvarakrupe stores“, it said. For the longest time I read it as “ellAdEvara  krupe”, or “grace of all gods”. And I thought it was a fascinating name in terms of recognising all religions. And I’ve quoted it many times.

When I was quoting this on Twitter earlier today, I realised that I had got the name of the store all wrong. It’s “ellA dEvarakrupe”, meaning “everything is god’s grace”. It says nothing about which gods are included or excluded, or how many gods there are.

What are your favourite examples of sentences that you’ve misread thanks to the lack of punctuation or other visible sentence markers?

## Conductors and CAPM

Recently I watched this video that YouTube recommended to me about why orchestras have conductors.

The basic idea is that an orchestra  needs a whole lot of coordination, in terms of when to begin and end, when to slow down or speed up, when to move to the next line and so on. And in case there is no conductor, the members of the orchestra need to coordinate among themselves.

This is easy enough when there is a small number of members, so you don’t see bands (for example) needing conductors. However, notice that if the orchestra has to coordinate among themselves, coordination is an $O(n^2)$ problem. By appointing an external conductor whose only job is to conduct and not play, this $O(n^2)$ problem is reduced to an $O(n)$ problem.

When I saw this, this took me back to my Investments course in IIMB, where the professor one day introduced what he called the “Sharpe single index model“, which is sort of similar to the CAPM.

Just before learning the Sharpe Single Index Model, we had been learning about Markowitz’s portfolio theory. And then, as he introduced the Sharpe Single Index Model, Vaidya said something to the effect that “instead of knowing so many correlation terms” (which is an $O(n^2)$ problem), “we only need to know the correlation of each stock to the market index” (makes it an $O(n)$ problem).

As someone who has studied computer science formally, converting $O(n^2)$ problems to $O(n)$ problems is a massive fascination. It is interesting how I connected two such reductions from completely different fields.

In other words, conductors are the “market of the orchestra”.

## Too cheap to cancel

One of the great philosophical battles of our times is the “cancel culture“. This culture dictates that if you have ever done something reprehensible in the past (I’m sure in my case you can find lots of incriminating blogposts and tweets), then you deserve to be “cancelled”.

This is how it works, according to Vox:

A celebrity or other public figure does or says something offensive. A public backlash, often fueled by politically progressive social media, ensues. Then come the calls to cancel the person — that is, to effectively end their career or revoke their cultural cachet, whether through boycotts of their work or disciplinary action from an employer.

In 2019 alone, the list of people who’ve faced being canceled included alleged sexual predators like R. Kelly; entertainers like Kanye West, Scarlett Johansson, and Gina Rodriguez, who all had offensive foot-in-mouth moments; and comedians like Kevin Hartand Shane Gillis, who each faced public backlash after social media users unearthed homophobic and racist jokes they’d made in the past.

In any case, recently the New York Post found that some ancestors of their great city rivals New York Times were slaveholders and supported the confederacy.

While it is pretty certain that any white American who had an ancestor who lived in the US in the early 1800s is likely to be the descendent of slaveholders, maybe this is good reason enough to “cancel the New York Times”?

Anyway the point of this post can be seen in the replies to the tweet, and you can think of the sole purpose of this post being to save that idea for posterity.

Essentially, New York Times is a subscription-based newspaper, and a more conventional meaning of “cancel” applies to it – you can simply cancel your subscription. I’m a subscriber, having taken advantage of a ?25 per week offer they ran a few months back (this is less than half of what I pay for a print edition of the Times of India; that is how zero marginal cost products work).

Now, through my twitter timeline I’ve been seeing several people make a case that the NYT is not what it used to be, and that it is a partisan rag now, and that it is not worth subscribing to, and hence deserves to be (in the conventional sense) cancelled.

Every time I come across such an argument I briefly consider cancelling my NYT subscription and then I think “what the hell, it’s just ?25 per week. The option value of a few good articles here and there is worth more than that”, and I move on.

I have mentally set myself to cancel my subscription in March next year, when my cheap offer ends, but until then, as far as I’m concerned the “NYT is too cheap to be cancelled”.

So that led to this thought – you can only be cancelled if you are not “cheap”. As long as you are cheap enough, people will see no benefit in cancelling you.

Now I’m reminded of the time when at the New Year’s Eve celebrations, I got the “cheap guy of the year” award for 2004 at IIM Bangalore. I suppose that’s insurance enough against getting cancelled?

## WhatsApp Export Chat

There was a tiny controversy on one WhatsApp group I’m part of. This is a “sparse” WhatsApp group, which means there aren’t too many messages sent. Only around 1000 in nearly 5 years (you’ll soon know how I got that number).

And this morning I wake up to find 42 messages (many members of the group are in the US). Some of them I understood and some I didn’t. So the gossip-monger I am (hey, remember that Yuval Noah Harari thinks gossip is the basis of human civilisation?), I opened up half a dozen backchannel chats.

Like the six blind men of Indostan, these chats helped me construct a picture of what had happened. My domain knowledge had gotten enhanced. However, there was one message that had made a deep impression on me – that claimed that some people were monopolising whatever little conversation there was on that group.

I HAD to test that hypothesis.

The jobless guy that I am, I figured out how to export a chat from WhatsApp. With iOS, it’s rather easy. Go to the info page of a chat or a group, and near “delete chat/group”, you see “export chat/group”. If you say you don’t want media (like I did), you get a text file (I airdropped mine immediately into my Mac).

The formatting of the WhatsApp export file is rather clean, making it easy to parse. The date is in square brackets. The sender’s name (or number, if they’re not in your contact list) is before a colon after the square brackets. A couple of “separate” functions later you are good to go (there are a couple of other nuances. If you can read R code, check mine here).

```chat <- read_lines('~/Downloads/_chat.txt')
tibble(txt=chat) %>%
separate(txt, c("Date", "Content"), '\\] ') %>%
separate(Content, c("Sender", "Content"), ': ') %>%
mutate(
Content=coalesce(Content, Date),
Date=str_trim(str_replace_all(Date, '\\[', '')),
Date2=as.POSIXct(Date, format='%d/%m/%y, %H:%M:%S %p')
) %>%
fill(Date2, .direction = 'updown') %>%
fill(Sender, .direction = 'downup') %>%
filter(!str_detect(Sender, "changed their phone number to a new number") ) %>%
filter(!str_detect(Sender, ' added ') & !str_detect(Sender, ' left')) %>%
filter(!str_detect(Sender, " joined using this group's invite link"))->
mychat```

That’s it. You are good to go. You have a nice data frame with sender’s name, message content and date/time of sending. And as one of the teachers at my JEE coaching factory used to say, you can now do “gymnastics”.

And so for the last hour or so I’ve been wasting my time doing such gymnastics. Number of posts sent on each day. Testing the hypothesis that some people talk a lot on the group (I turned out to be far more prolific than I’d imagined). People who start conversations. Whether there are any long bilateral conversations on the group. And so on and so forth (this is how I know there are ~1000 messages on this group).

Now I want to subject all my conversations to such analysis. For bilaterals it won’t be that much fun – but in case there is some romantic or business interest involved you might find it useful to know who initiates more and who closes more conversations.

You can subject the conversations to natural language processing (with what objective, I don’t know). The possibilities are endless.

And the time wastage can be endless as well. So I’ll stop here.

## Unbundling Higher Education

In July 2004, I went to Madras, wore fancy clothes and collected a laminated piece of paper. The piece of paper, formally called “Bachelor of Technology”, certified three things.

First, it said that I had (very likely) got a very good rank in IIT JEE, which enabled me to enrol in the Computer Science B.Tech. program at IIT Madras.  Then, it certified that I had attended a certain number of lectures and laboratories (equivalent to “180 credits”) at IIT Madras. Finally, it certified that I had completed assignments and passed tests administered by IIT Madras to a sufficient degree that qualified me to get the piece of paper.

Note that all these three were necessary conditions to my getting my degree from IIT Madras. Not passing IIT JEE with a fancy enough rank would have precluded me from the other two steps in the first place. Either not attending lectures and labs, or not doing the assignments and exams, would  have meant that my “coursework would be incomplete”, leaving me ineligible to get the degree.

In other words, my higher education was bundled. There is no reason that should be so.

There is no reason that a single entity should have been responsible for entry testing (which is what IIT-JEE essentially is), teaching and exit testing. Each of these three could have been done by an independent entity.

For example, you could have “credentialing entities” or “entry testing entities”, whose job is to test you on things that admissions departments of colleges might test you on. This could include subject tests such as IIT-JEE, or aptitude tests such as GRE, or even evaluations of extra-curricular activities, recommendation letters and essays as practiced in American universities.

Then, you could have “teaching entities”. This is like the MOOCs we already have. The job of these teaching entities is to teach a subject or set of subjects, and make sure you understood your stuff. Testing whether you had learnt the stuff, however, is not the job of the teaching entities. It is also likely that unless there are superstar teachers, the value of these teaching entities comes down, on account of marginal cost pricing, close to zero.

To test whether you learnt your stuff, you have the testing entities. Their job is to test whether your level of knowledge is sufficient to certify that you have learnt a particular subject.  It is well possible that some testing entities might demand that you cleared a particular cutoff on entry tests before you are eligible to get their exit test certificates, but many others may not.

The only downside of this unbundling is that independent evaluation becomes difficult. What do you make of a person who has cleared entry tests  mandated by a certain set of institutions, and exit tests traditionally associated with a completely different set of institutions? Is the entry test certificate (and associated rank or percentile) enough to give you a particular credential or should it be associated with an exit test as well?

These complications are possibly why higher education hasn’t experimented with any such unbundling so far (though MOOCs have taken the teaching bit outside the traditional classroom).

However, there is an opportunity now. Covid-19 means that several universities have decided to have online-only classes in 2019-20. Without the peer learning aspect, people are wondering if it is worth paying the traditional amount for these schools. People are also calling for top universities to expand their programs since the marginal cost is slipping further, with the backlash being that this will “dilute” the degrees.

This is where unbundling comes into play. Essentially anyone should be able to attend the Harvard lectures, and maybe even do the Harvard exams (if this can be done with a sufficiently low marginal cost). However, you get a Harvard degree if and only if you have cleared the traditional Harvard admission criteria (maybe the rest get a diploma or something?).

Some other people might decide upon clearing the traditional Harvard admission criteria that this credential itself is sufficient for them and not bother getting the full degree. The possibilities are endless.

Old-time readers of this blog might remember that I had almost experimented with something like this. Highly disillusioned during my first year at IIT, I had considered dropping out, reasoning that my JEE rank was credential enough. Finally, I turned out to be too much of a chicken to do that.

## Known stories and trading time

One of the most fascinating concepts I’ve ever come across is that of “trading time”. I first came across it in Benoit Mandelbrot’s The (Mis)Behaviour of Markets, which is possibly the only non-textbook and non-children’s book that I’ve read at least four times.

The concept of “trading time” is simple – if you look at activity on a market, it is not distributed evenly over time. There are times when nothing happens, and then there are times when “everything happens”. For example, 2020 has been an incredibly eventful year when it comes to world events. Not every year is eventful like this.

A year or so after I first read this book, I took a job where I had to look at intra-day trading in American equities markets. And I saw “trading time” happening in person – the volume of trade in the market was massive in the first and last hour, and the middle part of the day, unless there was some event happening, was rather quiet.

Trading time applies in a lot of other contexts as well. In some movies, a lot of action happens in certain times of the movie where nothing happens in other times. When I work, I end up doing a lot of work in some small windows, and nothing most of the time. Children have “growth spurts”, both physical and mental.

However, the book is so good that I have resolved to read the original (how much ever time it takes) before the end of this year.

It is a sort of retelling of the Mahabharata, but it doesn’t tell the whole story in a linear manner. The book is structured largely around a set of monologues, largely set around journeys. So there is Bhima going into the forest to seek out his son Ghatotkacha to help him in the great war. Around the same time, Arjuna goes to Dwaraka. Just before the war begins, Bhishma goes out in search of Vyasa. Each of these journeys associated with extra long flashbacks, and philosophical musings.

In other words, what Bhyrappa does is to seek out tiny stories within the great epic, and then drill down massively into those stories. Some of these journey-monologues run into nearly a hundred pages (in translation). The rest of the story is largely glossed over or given only a passing mention to.

Bhyrappa basically gives “trading time treatment” to the Mahabharata. It helps that the overall story is rather well known, so readers can be expected to easily fill in any gaps. While the epic itself is great, there are parts where “a lot happens”, and parts where “nothing happens”. What is interesting about Parva is that Bhyrappa picks out unintuitive parts to explore in massive depth, and he simply glosses over the parts which most other retellings give a lot of footage to.

And this is what makes the story rather fascinating.

I can now think of retellings of books, or remakes of movies, where the story remains the same, but “trading time is inverted”. Activities that were originally given a lot of footage get glossed over, but those that were originally ignored get explored in depth.

## Scrabble

I’ve forgotten which stage of lockdown or “unlock” e-commerce for “non-essential goods” reopened, but among the first things we ordered was a Scrabble board. It was an impulse decision. We were on Amazon ordering puzzles for the daughter, and she had just about started putting together “sounds” to make words, so we thought “scrabble tiles might be useful for her to make words with”.

The thing duly arrived two or three days later. The wife had never played Scrabble before, so on the day it arrived I taught her the rules of the game. We play with the Sowpods dictionary open, so we can check words that hte opponent challenges. Our “scrabble vocabulary” has surely improved since the time we started playing (“Qi” is a lifesaver, btw).

I had insisted on ordering the “official Scrabble board” sold by Mattel. The board is excellent. The tiles are excellent. The bag in which the tiles are stored is also excellent. The only problem is that there was no “scoreboard” that arrived in the set.

On the first day we played (when I taught the wife the rules, and she ended up beating me – I’m so horrible at the game), we used a piece of paper to maintain scores. The next day, we decided to score using an Excel sheet. Since then, we’ve continued to use Excel. The scoring format looks somewhat like this.

So each worksheet contains a single day’s play. Initially after we got the board, we played pretty much every day. Sometimes multiple times a day (you might notice that we played 4 games on 3rd June). So far, we’ve played 31 games. I’ve won 19, Priyanka has won 11 and one ended in a tie.

In any case, scoring on Excel has provided an additional advantage – analytics!! I have an R script that I run after every game, that parses the Excel sheet and does some basic analytics on how we play.

For example, on each turn, I make an average of 16.8 points, while Priyanka makes 14.6. Our score distribution makes for interesting viewing. Basically, she follows a “long tail strategy”. Most of the time, she is content with making simple words, but occasionally she produces a blockbuster.

I won’t put a graph here – it’s not clear enough. This table shows how many times we’ve each made more than a particular threshold (in a single turn). The figures are cumulative

Threshold
Karthik
Priyanka
30 50 44
40 12 17
50 5 10
60 3 5
70 2 2
80 0 1
90 0 1
100 0 1

Notice that while I’ve made many more 30+ scores than her, she’s made many more 40+ scores than me. Beyond that, she has crossed every threshold at least as many times as me.

Another piece of analysis is the “score multiple”. This is a measure of “how well we use our letters”. For example, if I start place the word “tiger” on a double word score (and no double or triple letter score), I get 12 points. The points total on the tiles is 6, giving me a multiple of 2.

Over the games I have found that I have a multiple of 1.75, while she has a multiple of 1.70. So I “utilise” the tiles that I have (and the ones on the board) a wee bit “better” than her, though she often accuses me of “over optimising”.

It’s been fun so far. There was a period of time when we were addicted to the game, and we still turn to it when one of us is in a “work rut”. And thanks to maintaining scores on Excel, the analytics after is also fun.

I’m pretty sure you’re spending the lockdown playing some board game as well. I strongly urge you to use Excel (or equivalent) to maintain scores. The analytics provides a very strong collateral benefit.

## Half-watching movies, and why I hate tweetstorms

It has to do with “bit rate”

I don’t like tweetstorm. Up to six tweets is fine, but beyond that I find it incredibly difficult to hold my attention for. I actually find it stressful. So of late, I’ve been making a conscious effort to stop reading tweetstorms when they start stressing me out. The stress isn’t worth any value that the tweetstorms may have.

I remember making the claim on twitter that I refuse to read any more tweetstorms of more than six tweets henceforth. I’m not able to find that tweet now.

Anyways…

Why do I hate tweetstorms? It is for the same reason that I like to “half-watch” movies, something that endlessly irritates my wife. I has to do with “bit rates“.

I use the phrase “bit rate” to refer to the rate of flow of information (remember that bit is a measure of information).

The thing with movies is that some of them have very low bit rate. More importantly, movies have vastly varying bit rates through their lengths. There are some parts in a movie where pretty much nothing happens, and a lot of it is rather predictable. There are other parts where lots happens.

This means that in the course of a movie you find yourself engrossed in some periods and bored in others, and that can be rather irritating. And boredom in the parts where nothing is happening sometimes leads me to want to turn off the movie.

So I deal with this by “half watching”, essentially multi tasking while watching. Usually this means reading, or being on twitter, while watching a movie. This usually works beautifully. When the bit rate from the movie is high, I focus. When it is low, I take my mind off and indulge in the other thing that I’m doing.

It is not just movies that I “half-watch” – a lot of sport also gets the same treatment. Like right now I’m “watching” Watford-Southampton as I’m writing this.

A few years back, my wife expressed disapproval of my half-watching. By also keeping a book or computer, I wasn’t “involved enough” in the movie, she started saying, and that half-watching meant we “weren’t really watching the movie together”. And she started demanding full attention from me when we watched movies together.

The main consequence of this is that I started watching fewer movies. Given that I can rather easily second-guess movie plots, I started finding watching highly predictable stuff rather boring. In any case, I’ve recently received permission to half-watch again, and have watched two movies in the last 24 hours (neither of which I would have been able to sit through had I paid full attention – they had low bit rates).

So what’s the problem with tweetstorms? The problem is that their bit rate is rather high. With “normal paragraph writing” we have come to expect a certain degree of redundancy. This allows us to skim through stuff while getting information from them at the same time. The redundancy means that as long as we get some key words or phrases, we can fill in the rest of the stuff, and reading is rather pleasant.

The thing with a tweetstorm is that each sentence (tweet, basically) has a lot of information packed into it. So skimming is not an option. And the information hitting your head at the rate that tweetstorms generally convey can result in a lot of stress.

The other thing with tweetstorms, of course, is that each tweet is disjoint from the one before and after it. So there is no flow to the reading, and the mind has to expend extra energy to process what’s happening. Combine this with a rather high bit rate, and you know why I can’t stand them.

Nowadays, I keep apples in the fridge. Apart from remaining fresh longer, I like eating cold apples as well.

It wasn’t always this way. And I would frequently encounter what I call the “bad apples” problem.

You have a bunch of apples at home. They get a little overripe. You don’t want to eat them. You go to the market and see fresh apples there, but you know that you have apples at home. Because you have apples at home, you don’t want to buy new ones. But you don’t want to eat the apples at home, because they are too ripe.

And so they just sit there, getting progressively worse by a wee bit every day. Seeing them everyday makes you feel bad about having not finished them, but also reminds you to not buy new apples. And so you go days together without eating any apples, until one day you gather the courage to throw them in the bin and buy new apples.

I’ve become conscious of this problem for a lot of foodstuff. Apples, as I told you, I now keep in the fridge, so they last longer. The problem doesn’t fully go since you can have months-old wrinkly apples sitting in your fridge that you don’t want to eat, and which prevent you from buying new ones in the market. However, it is far better than seeing apples rot on the shelf.

Bananas and oranges offer the benefit that as soon as they are overripe, they make for excellent smoothies and juices respectively. I’ve become particular about finishing them off that way. Mangoes can be juiced/milkshaked as well. And I’ve developed processes around a lot of foodstuff now so that this “bad apples” problem doesn’t happen.

However, there is no preventing this problem from occurring elsewhere. Books is a prominent example. From this excellent interview of venture capitalist Marc Andreessen that I’m reading:

The problem of having to finish every book is you’re not only spending time on books you shouldn’t be but it also causes you to stall out on reading in general. If I can’t start the next book until I finish this one, but I don’t want to read this one, I might as well go watch TV. Before you know it, you’ve stopped reading for a month and you’re asking “what have I done?!”

It happens with work. There might be a half-written blogpost that you’re loathe to finish, but which prevent you from starting a new blogpost (I’ve gotten pretty ruthless at deleting drafts. I prefer to write posts “at one shot”, so this isn’t that much of a pain).

The good thing, though, is that once you start recognising the bad apples problem in some fields (such as apples), you start seeing them elsewhere as well. And you will develop policies on dealing with them.

Now I’m cursing myself for setting myself an annual target of “number of books to read” (on Goodreads). It’s leading to this:

the sunk cost fallacy means that I try harder to finish so that I can add to my annual count. Sometimes I literally flip through the pages of the book looking for interesting things, in an attempt to finish it one way or the other

Bad apples aren’t that easy to get rid of!