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”!


Sergei Bubka and Academia

There is this famous story that says that the Soviet government promised pole vaulter Sergei Bubka some huge sum of money “every time he broke the world record”. Being rather smart, Bubka would break the world record each time by one centimeter (the least count for pole vault measurement), utilizing the fact that the nature of the event (where you set the bar and try to clear it, where success in each attempt is binary) to his advantage.

The thing with academia is that ‘paper count’ matters. And it appears that the quality of papers cannot be objectively measured and so the quality of the journals in which they are published are taken as proxy. And I hear that for decisions like getting a PhD, getting tenure, reputation in the community, etc. there is some sort of informal “paper count” that one needs to clear. You don’t progress until you’ve published a certain “number of papers”.

What this does is to incentivize academics to publish more. The degree of “delta improvement” shown in a particular paper over it’s predecessor (assuming each paper can be seen as an improvement over one particular previously known result) doesn’t matter as much as the number of improvements thus shown. Hence, every time the academic notices a small epsilon improvement, he finds it significant – it gets him a paper! The actual practical utility of this improvement be damned.

This is all fine in academia where one doesn’t need to bother about lowly trivialties such as “practical utility”. But it does start to matter when the academic migrates to industry, and there is no shortage of people doing this movement. Now, suddenly, what he needs to think about it practical utility. But that doesn’t come naturally to him. The academic strives for delta improvements. And each time there is a delta improvement he finds it significant – after all, that is what he has been trained to do during his long stint writing papers.

I must confirm I’m not saying here that ex-academics strive only for delta improvements, but just that they find each delta improvement significant, irrespective of the magnitude of the delta. In that way, they are different from Bubka.

But take that out and there is no difference. Both are incentivized by the number of delta improvements they make, rather than their magnitude. In the first case the Soviet Government ended up transferring more than what was perhaps necessary to Bubka. Similar flawed incentives can lead to corporations losing a lot of money.

PS: I must admit I’m generalizing. Of course there exist studmax creatures like Cat, who refuse to publish unless they have something really significant (he told me of one case where he refused to add his name to a paper since he “didn’t want to be known for that work” or something like that). But the vast majority gets its doctorates and tenures by delta publishing, so I guess I’m allowed to generalize.

Budget Analysis

So I finally finished going through today’s Mint and noticed that most of it was filled with analysis of the budget. I tried reading most of them, and didn’t manage to finish any of them (save Anil Padmanabhan’s I think). Most of them were full of globe, each had an idea that could have been expressed in a few tweets, rather than a full column.

Thinking about it, I guess I was expecting too much. After all, if you are calling captains of the industry and sundry bankers and consultants to write about the budget, I don’t think you can expect them to come out with much honest analysis. Think about their incentives.

As for corporate guys, you will expect them to make the usual noises and perhaps be partisan in their judgment. You can expect them to crib about those parts of the budget that shortchanged their company or industry or sector or whatever. But you don’t need them in an op-ed to tell you that – it is obvious to you if you read the highlights, or some rudimentary analysis that the paper anyway provides.

However, these guys won’t want to rub the ruling party the wrong way, so they fill up the rest of their essays with some globe about how it is a “progressive” budget or a “pro-poor” budget or some such shyte. So far so good.

The think tank guys are probably better. At least they don’t have any constituency to pander to, and they can give a good critical analysis. However, as academics (and most likely, not being bloggers) what they write is usually not very easy to read, and so what they say (which might actually contain something useful) can be lost to the reader.

The worst of all are the fat-cat consultants and bankers. The reason they write is primarily to gain visibility for themselves and for their firm, and given how lucrative government business is for these guys (look at the ridiculously low fees these guys charge for government IPOs, and you’ll know) they have absolutely no incentive to tell something useful, or honest. Again these guys aren’t used to writing for a general audience. So you can expect more globe.

All that I needed to learn about the budget I learnt by way of a brief unopinionated summary sent in an internal email at work yesterday (it took me 2 mins to read it on my blackberry). And also Anil Padmanabhan’s cover page article in today’s Mint.


I must mention I wrote this post after I’d read the main segment of today’s Mint. Starting to read the “opinion” supplement now, and it looks more promising


I’m not sure if I’d prepared this as an answer to a potential interview question but if I were asked if there was one part of my life which I’d’ve chosen to live differently, I’d probably pick my four years at IIT Madras. In many respects, it represents some kind of a void in my life. Nothing much of note happened during that. It was during that time that I learnt to put NED. There wasn’t much value added to my life in those four years, either in terms of actual value or even in terms of bullet points. There was not much “growth” in those years.

I did nothing of note in terms of academics (I ended up as class median) and apart from a bit of quizing not much in the lit scene either. I didn’t go out on too many trips, nor did I go out too much. You might be surprised to know that I’ve never in my life watched a movie at a movie hall in Chennai! I went to Besant Nagar beach thrice during my four year stay, and to the Marina Beach once. I played only a peripheral role in organizing Saarang and Shaastra, and that too only in the latter half of my stay there.

On several occasions I’ve asked myself what kept me going through those four years that I consider to be my “dark days”, and the only reasonable answer that I get is “pat”. Pat. Sri Gurunath Patisserie. The coffee shop of IIT. The life and blood of my life at IIT. Perhaps the only thing I really missed about IIT when I moved to IIMB. The venue for much discussion, and fun, and bitchery, and long nights. Open air. Bad chairs. Broken tables. Non-existtent umbrellas. Breeze. Cheap and horrible nescafe. 5 Rupis lemonade. Etecetera.

When bitching about my life at IIT, I usually lay most of the blame on the fact that I was put in a mostly PG hostel. However, one advantage of being in Marnad was that it was right opposite Patisserie, and so it took little effort to go park there. I suppose it was no coincidence that the most prolific Pat-ers (Bhaand, Shamnath and I) were all Narmadites.

It was really simple. All that one had to do when bored was to walk across and go buy yourself a cup of Nescafe for 5 rupis. And park. If you found an interesting gumbal, you would park with them. If not you would park alone, and an interesting enough gumbal would build up around you as time went by. People kept coming and people kept going but the conversation would go on for a while. And some time in the middle, Satcho would materialize and molest Mani, the dog that had been much fattened on the Patisserie leftovers.

It was at the Patisserie that the editors of The Fourth Estate would meet the correspondents and collect ideas for bitchy stories. It was at the Patisserie that plots were hatched to bring down The Fourth Estate and start the rival (shortlived) Total Perspective Vortex. It was at the Patisserie that campus couples announced themselves (though after a while action in this regard moved to “spot” near the girls’ hostel). It was at Patisserie that cheap treats were given and cheap bets were settled.

It was at the Patisserie that I first started making Pertinent Observations, and telling them to people around me. When I didn’t have access to Patisserie any more, I started this blog.

Earlier, when people told me about the crazy things they’d done in their undergrad and all the fun they had, I’d feel bad. I’d feel bad that I’d missed out on something. Now I just ask myself if I’d’ve traded my sessions at the Patisserie for the “fun” things that they’d done. And the answer, usually, is no.