Linear Separation of Children and Adults

The other day, we took our daughter to her classmate’s birthday party. Since she is still relatively new in the school, and we don’t yet know too many of the other parents, both of us went, with the intention that we could talk to and get to know some of her classmates’ parents.

Not much of that happened, and based on our experience at two other recent children’s parties, it had to do with the physical structuring of children and adults at the party.

As Matt Levine frequently likes to say, everything is in seating charts.

Not easily finding too many other parents to talk to, the wife and I decided to have a mutual intellectual conversation on what makes for a “successful” kids’ birthday party. Based on four recent data points, the answer was clear – linear separation.

At our daughter’s little party at our home four months back, we had set up the balcony and the part of the living room closest to it with all sorts of sundry toys, and all the children occupied that space. The adults all occupied the other (more “inner”) part of the living room, and spoke among each other. Maybe our Graph Theory helped, but to the best of the knowledge, most adults spoke to one another, though I can’t tell if someone was secretly bored.

At the other party where we managed to network a fair bit with daughter’s classmate’s parents, there was simply one bouncy castle at one end of the venue. All the children were safely inside that castle. Parents had the other side of the venue all to themselves, and it was easy to talk to one another (most people were standing, and there were soft drinks on offer, which made it easy to walk around between groups and talk to a wide variety of people).

In the recent party where we concocted this theory, the children were in the middle of the venue, and around that, chairs had been set up. This radial separation was bad for two reasons – firstly, you were restricted to talking  to people in your own quadrant since it was impractical to keep walking all the way around since most of the central space was taken up by the kids. Secondly, chairs meant that a lot of the parents simply put NED and sat down.

It is harder to approach someone who is seated and strike up a conversation, than doing so to someone who is standing. Standing makes you linear, and open (ok I’m spouting some fake gyaan I’d been given during my CAT interview time), and makes you more approachable. Seating also means you get stuck, and you can’t go around and network.

So parents and event managers, when you are planning the next children’s party, ensure that the children and adults are linearly separable. And unless the number of adults is small (like in the party we hosted – which happened before we knew any of the daughter’s friends from school), make them stand. That will make them talk to each other rather than get bored.

 

Ganesha, wine and vodka

I know the wife has been intending to blog about this for a while now, but in this big bad blogosphere, intent counts for nothing, and given that she hasn’t written so far, I should go ahead and write this blog post. The basic funda is that Ganesha idols in “traditional” Indian culture, wine in European culture and smirnoff plain vodka in “modren” (sic) Indian culture are all similar.

So two days back I got invited to a “bring your own liquor” party. Now, there were other attendees who mentioned they were bringing stuff that I knew I was interested in drinking, like Desmondji Agave and Amrut Two Indies Rum. From that perspective, I knew that I wouldn’t be drinking whatever I carried. Yet, not carrying anything would make me look like a cheap guy, and this is one circle where I want to preserve my reputation. So what did I do? I picked up a bottle of Smirnoff plain vodka, simply because it is the most “fungible” drink. I’ll explain later.

Similarly, when you go for a function in India and don’t know what to gift, and are “too traditional” to gift gift cards, and think it’s not appropriate to give cash, you give a Ganesha idol. So for example after our wedding we had tonnes of Ganesha idols at home (similarly after our housewarming last year). Why did people gift Ganeshas? Because it is the most “fungible”. Again I’ll expect later.

And the wife reliably informs me that in Spain, when you have to go for a party but don’t know what to take, you take a bottle of wine. I don’t know about the fungibility of wine, but the fact that it is universally drunk, can be shared widely and is seen as a classy symbol makes it a popular choice of gift. So what connects these three?

So what connects? Fungibility of course. Economists have long argued that the best gift is cash, for the recipient can utilise that cash to buy the item that gives her maximum utility. Any non-cash gift decreases utility from the maximum that can be achieved by giving cash. This is a different discussion and I’ll not touch upon that now.

When you are going to a party, you can’t take along cash, so since the top choice is not available you take the “second best” option. What is the “second best” option in this case? Something that is close to cash, or something whose general utility is so high that the recipient values it as much as she would value the equivalent amount of cash. Of course you don’t assume that the recipient will sell your gift for cash, so you gift something that is a “safe option”, that you think they will have the least chance of rejecting.

So why did I take vodka? It is a universally popular, colourless odourless tasteless liquid, and I estimated that there was a good probability that the demand for that is going to be high. So even if I don’t drink what I carried, I posited, someone else will, and that will help me deliver maximal utility to the party.

With wine in Spain, you know everyone drinks and appreciates it, and there is a chance that it might be opened at the party itself. Even if it isn’t, wine in a sealed bottle doesn’t “depreciate”, and the host can then pass on some of the unused bottles at a party  that she attends! And soon there will be the virtuous wine circle. So essentially wine doesn’t disappoint, and is put to good use.

And it is exactly the same story with Ganesha idols. Like wine, it has intrinsic value. Who doesn’t like idols of a cute elephant-headed God? Maybe people who already have too many such idols? But then Ganesha idols don’t depreciate either, so all you need to do is to keep it in a safe place and pull it out the next time you’re going to a function! And thus the virtuous circle of Ganeshas will continue!

As it happened, at the end of Tuesday’s party, the bottles of Desmondji and Amrut Two Indies were empty. The Smirnoff I took remained unopened, as did another similar bottle which was possibly brought by another safe player. But I’m not concerned. I’m sure the hosts will consume it in due course, and even if they don’t, it will come of good use when they go to a party next!

What makes for a successful networking event?

So the second edition of the NED Talks took place last night. And no, this is not a “match report”. So the purpose of the NED Talks is to put together a bunch of interesting people who are interesting in different ways, and get them to talk. There are approximately ten talks (the first edition had thirteen, the second eight) followed by interaction, and a round of interaction before the event. So in certain ways, NED Talks are networking events.

So the question is what the ideal “network structure” of the networkers is in order to ensure a successful networking session. The idea is that the network at the beginning of the session needs to be only slightly dense – if there are too many people who know each other at the beginning of the session, there is not much of a point in the event as a networking event, for the value add in a networking event is to bring together people who hitherto didn’t know each other, and to strengthen existing weak ties.

The network being not dense enough also is also a problem, for that means that people might be lost. So if you have a lot of people who have never known each other earlier, and if some of them are introverted (as is likely to happen when you put together intelligent people), the conversation can be a bit of a non-starter. So low density is also not a good thing.

Then there is the issue of cliques – if you have a bunch of people who all know each other from earlier, then the others might feel “left out”, and not be able to get into the conversation. There are likely to be “in-jokes” and “in-stories” which everyone else finds irrelevant. I remember being  at one such gathering where I was the only person who was not thus “in”, and so I got up and announced that I was getting bored and walked out.

Anyway, so let us represent all attendees to a party or event in the form of a graph (undirected). Each vertex represents an attendee and two attendees are connected by an edge if they know each other from before. Given such a graph, can we construct an algorithm to “verify” if it is a good set of people to have for the party? Oh, and this is one of the insights from yesterday’s NED talks – computational complexity can be measured in terms of how “easy” it is to verify a given solution, rather than generate a new solution.

The first thing you can do is to find the size of the largest clique – if it exceeds a certain proportion (a third maybe? a fourth?) of the total number of attendees, it is a bad idea, for that means that this clique might dominate the conversation.

Then you can calculate the “edge density” of the graph – the total number of edges on the graph to the number of “possible edges” (given by NC2 where N is the number of attendees). For example, the edge density of the first NED Talks was 3/26 (largely due to 5 attendees who were not connected to any other nodes) . The edge density of the second NED Talks was 1/3 (might have been higher but a not-so-well-connected attendee backed out at the last moment). What range of edge density makes sense? Or should we use the variance in edge density also?

Then there is the number of “components” in the graph – if the graph is mostly disconnected, the group might split up into small cliques which might defeat the purpose of the networking event itself and lead to disconnected conversation. Note that nodes of zero degree don’t matter here – it’s components wiht at least two people.

And so forth. So can anyone help me build an algo to “verify” if a party / networking event is going to be good given a graph of who knows who from before?