Sunday, December 22, 2013

Play the game, in theory

Game theory is a pretty fascinating subject. Even though I had spent almost three years in MBA classes, I somehow managed to evade it with one or the other interesting alternatives cropping up in the form of electives. Recently I picked up a book “The art of strategy” which was lying around in my brother’s book shelf. Based on game theory, it threw some pretty good insights about how the theory can be seen in the practical world.
For starters, consider a situation wherein there are two sailors competing with each other in a race. Since sailing involves several strategic decisions that needs to be taken, what is the best way to succeed? The answer depends on whether you are leading the other person or trailing. If you are leading, then you have to just copy the strategies that the trailing person is employing, because no matter what, if those strategies speeds up his boat, then your boat would also speed up by the same amount or in case the strategy completely flops then also you are ahead of him and you are bound to win the race anyway. This effectively kills the strategy of the trailing guy. So taking lead in such a situation becomes very critical. This strategy would not work if there are multiple players in the game though. Some traces of this strategy can be seen in our telecom domain as well. Samsung and Apple are in a neck to neck race with the former slightly ahead, but they are always looking back towards Apple for guidance, be it in curved phones or smart watches. Companies like Nokia and Sony are right now far down in the horizon, so even a 41 MP sensor or a complete water proof phone doesn’t muster any notice by the leader.
Traffic is technically a collection of humans sitting in tin boxes called cars doing nothing much till the car in front moves. But in India it takes a completely different meaning, It stands for huge mass of completely disconnected individuals doing their own things in a larger setup. How many times have we faced the frustration of standing orderly in a traffic jam and a slick cab driver would come in the wrong side and nuzzle into the traffic at the front. Our frustration level increases crazily. The cab driver reaps a significant savings in time whereas all the other drivers in the traffic would suffer a minor time cut. If the drivers breaking the law increases, then the incentive for the obedient drivers to break the law also increases, so much so that going in the proper lane would generate more reward than breaking it, but this equilibrium is not a good one to have. The vehicles coming in the opposite direction would also suffer at the hands of these law breakers. What is the best way to curb this practice? Imposing severe fines or probably penalizing them on time is the best way, the level of these fines should be so heavy that more than 99.9% of the drivers should conform to the rules. Even if you get caught once, it should be enough to make you think ten times before breaking the rule again. The same thought can be applied to shortcuts as well. Shortcuts saves time, even though in terms of distance it will usually be a little longer. There will be an optimum capacity for this shortcut beyond which the incentive to take it would decrease rapidly. How to preserve the sanity of the shortcuts? Once you discover one, keep it to yourself.  In similar ways, if you have an expressway along with a alternate toll free route, it is important to price the toll for the expressway such that the traffic doesn't go beyond a point. The optimum equilibrium needs to be critically analysed.
Another interesting concept is that of mixed strategy. Here you let chance to make a decision rather than actually thinking through an outcome. Consider the case of a football player trying to take a goal kick, assuming he can kick the ball to the right, or to the left. How should you choose among these two options? If there are different payoffs associated with each of the options, then choosing the correct proportion in terms of chance is important. It would not be just feasible to select either right or left based on chance (coin flip). An optimal randomization would be needed based on the payoffs.  Say if the striker can hit the net 58% of the time when going for the right and 85% of the time when he hits left then a 50: 50 chance will give a payoff of 71.5 (average of the two). The above score is for situation when the goal keeper has dived to, say his left side. Now if the payoff for the striker is 70% for the right side kick and 55% for the left side kick when the goalie has dived to his right, then the strikers combined payoff will be 62.5%. We can clearly see that with 50:50 chance the strikers combined payoff can be kept to 62.5% by the goalie by diving to the right always. So the optimal mixture where the striker maximizes his payoff would be the percentages where the left and the right payoff are the same for him and the goalie remains indifferent to both directions. Thus optimal mixture turns out to be 72:28 for the striker to choose between right and left.
Taking a revolver with one bullet and rotating it randomly before the hero and the villain alternately put it on their head and pull the trigger is often seen in our Hindi films. This act has a name in game theory, it is called as brinkmanship. Brinkmanship exploits the increasing tension with each act in the game. The probability of failure goes on increasing with each small step the opposing parties take. Thus in a way both the players are on a slippery slope, the person who blinks first will lose everything that he is playing the game for.

Finally one of the most effective strategies that one can use practically is what I would call “cut the oxygen strategy”. Facing a difficult challenge such as reducing weight, a person would come up with umpteen excuses to eat what he/she likes.  But if you make the alternate route of not reducing weight very painful such as paying a terribly huge fine to a friend if the set target is not met is pretty effective. It will push the lazy self towards action. So if want to be an entrepreneur, before thinking of what to do just resign from your job, go down to the street and start off, your probability of success is the highest this way.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Empire of the Moghul: Book series

One man’s ambition led to a dynasty of rulers in India. Babur being a heir of a small kingdom of Ferghana which was close to Samarkand, dreamt big. All through his travails he never lost sight of his vision, a grand one at that, to gain a big empire and to establish his dynasty.  His travails were no less trivial, from losing his birth kingdom and becoming a mere bandit, to conquering the Golden city of Samarkand three times during his life time and losing it after a short rule and to surrender his sister to his sworn enemy so that he could continue to live and fight another day. The duels with Shaibhani Khan and his loss and struggle makes for an eminent read in the first book of the series, Raiders from the North. A stroke of luck in his getting hold of the gun powder based canons finally enabled him to overcome a 1:10 numerical inferiority to gain control of Hindustan. The book gives great insight into the thought process of Babur as it has based itself heavily on Baburnama which Babur had written as his diary.
The second book “Brothers at war” is about Humayun, the most able son of Babur. Humayan is usually portrayed as weak link in the whole dynasty, but after reading this book you will think otherwise. Humayun looses the hard won empire of his father by callously underestimating his enemy Sher Shah. His struggles to keep his family and hopes alive by roaming around in the deserts of Rajasthan is heart rendering. Being completely driven out, he finally gets help from the king of Persia, with his support he goes on to conquer Kabul back from the clutches of his brother Kamran. His patience with his half-brothers is simply commendable more so because later in the dynasty even full brothers don’t show any mercy to each other. Finally in the end Humayun seeing an opportune moment at the death of Sher shah, rides back to conquer Hindustan after a gap of 15 years.
The third book “Ruler of the world” is about the most famous moghul emperor Akbar. Akbar having inherited the empire at a very young age is initially chaperoned by the famous general Bairam khan. After some years of remaining in the shadows he comes out and assumes full command by abruptly retiring Bairam khan from his services. His brutal attack on the fort of Chittorgarh to establish his supremacy and his later tactics of marrying Rajput princesses is vividly written. His famous association with the Salim chishti is well brought out. Being one of the astute rulers, he didn’t fall into any major vices and caught the pulse of the nation very well. In the later stages, animosity with his son Jahangir regarding his capabilities to be a future ruler and his great love towards his grandson ShahJahan makes a good read even though the fast paced action is sorely missing during this phase. The episode of Anarkali made famous by the movie Mughal-e-azam finds a mention in this book as well.
The fourth book “The tainted throne” covers the life of Jahangir who after his father’s death inherits perhaps the most prosperous empire. His infatuation with Mehrunissa and his plot to get her husband assassinated forms for a gripping read. Marrying Mehrunisa, who later on becomes Noor Jahan, Jahangir starts slipping into his own world of opium and liquor making Noor Jahan more powerful by the day. Seeing a challenge to her authority in the rise of the young prince Shah Jahan, she tries her best to strangle his ambitions of becoming the next emperor. With the death of Jahangir, the struggle for the throne again begins.
The fifth book and the last one in the series till now is “The serpents tooth”. Shah Jahan is now reigning supreme over Hindustan. With his loving wife and family by his side he sees no reason why the Mughal Empire can’t expand into newer horizons. The building of the great Taj mahal at the death of his wife is described in sufficient detail. Finally his great attachment towards his eldest son Dara neglecting the other sons results into a crisis which makes him the first Mughal emperor to get dethroned when living. The brutal tactics employed by Aurangzeb to annihilate his own brothers one by one to eliminate all contenders to the throne shows you how much you can debase yourself for getting the big prize of Hindustan.

Overall a very captivating series. Never a dull moment and most of the books read like a thriller rather than a historic book. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Australia: Melbourne

It’s not every day that you get to make a trip to Australia. On a cold rainy night I bid farewell to my family before clambering on to the taxi. Looking back I saw my wife waving back at me. “Hmm” I thought, it was just going to be a matter of 5 days before I’m back again to my lovely home.
The Malaysian airlines flight was on time and my connecting flight was at Kuala lumpur. After almost a pretty uneventful journey I landed at Melbourne airport. It didn’t take too long to pass through the immigration, where the fat immigration officer asked what conference I was attending. Upon hearing the word Image processing he surprisingly asked “oh, the stuff needed for printers, to which I replied “No, I’m in the camera area”. Seeing that I was not dumb he stamped the passport. Coming out of the airport, it took me some time to find a taxi as people all around were jumping into the few empty cabs that were standing out in the street. Finally after some wait, an empty taxi came around. A taxi driver in India would normally lift the luggage and put it into the cars boot, so I was waiting for the guy to get down. But apparently in Australia the drivers don’t come out, it is the passengers who will have to help themselves. A thin looking lady who had a big baggage was struggling to put her bag into her taxi’s boot, as my taxi was pulling out of the Airport. Taking a taxi is a very costly affair in Melbourne as the fare for the trip from Airport to city center came to about 68 dollars. Apparently there is a bus service called as the skybus from the airport to the city center which is much cheaper (around 17 dollars).
Grand mercure hotel in which I was put up was bang in the center of the city and very close to the Flinders station. The hotel was decent enough in terms of accommodation, nothing great purely on the parameters of luxury but probably the best budget hotel considering its location. The continental breakfast was also pretty good. The pathways of the city for pedestrians are as wide as the roads so it is a joy to walk around. The initial planners of the city seem to have had great foresight in designing it. I was mostly walking from the hotel to the conference center which was at a distance of around 2 kms from each other. In the mornings and the evenings you can see a lot of people walking around in great hurry, either going to office or trying to catch a train back home. There is not much traffic on the roads, probably everyone prefers public transport. Signals for pedestrians at road crossings are strictly followed by the motorists.  A couple of times I saw motorists breaking the signal when there was no one crossing. In Europe motorists wait for the red to turn green without concerning themselves whether someone is crossing or not, at least in Australia people don’t follow the rules blindly.

The Melbourne convention center which is located at south wharf is a very huge building with good facilities. The location is very scenic with the Yarra river flowing by its side. The place was originally a ship building yard which is now converted into a convention centre. To commemorate the original purpose of the place an antique ship is placed just in front of the convention center. Side walks on both sides of the Yarra river are both very spacious and it is a pleasure to walk along the river. The lights from the city shimmer from its surface at night making for a very relaxed walk.

 The other place that I really wanted to visit even before touching the Australian soil was the cricket stadium MCG. Located only about a kilometre from the city center it can be easily reached by walk. The stadium looms around in the horizon when you reach the Yarra river from the Flinders station, so it is very hard to miss. The tennis venue for the Australian open, Rod laver arena is located bang next to the MCG. After a two hour tour of MCG I had soaked in as much of MCG cricket history as humanely possible. The old but congenial guide kept us entertained and made the 20 dollar ticket completely worth it. Beautiful bronze statues of Australian greats adorn the stadium entrances. Dennis Lillee’s statue was probably the best of the lot, it conveyed the ferocity of his bowling spells.

Skydeck, which is an 88 floor building was another tourist places that I visited along with a colleague. Fitted with super fast lifts, it takes less than 30 seconds to reach the top floor. The view from the top is both breath-taking and awe inspiring. Mighty buildings around you look like midgets, the sea could be seen at a distance along with the Yarra river which meanders through the city before reaching its destination. We stayed till sunset and had fun in locating some of the landmarks of the city including the MCG which we had visited in the morning.
There are pretty decent pure vegetarian places around the city center. Gopal’s is one of them and the other one is the Crossways both seem to be managed by devotees of Isckon. If you want to just stick to Indian food these two places are good. Restaurants ranging from Mexican to Indonesian to Chinese can be found at the city centre. I didn’t bother to check those out as I was not sure how palatable the vegetarian fare will be and stuck to the above mentioned restaurants.

Finally, there are several shops and big shopping malls sprinkled around the town center. But many of these shops are open only till 6 PM in the evening, thus doing shopping can be a problem if you are tied up with work in the day time. Overall Melbourne was a nice blend of people with different nationalities and having good tourist spots to visit. Unfortunately due to the lack of time, I couldn’t explore the city much, especially the beaches of Melbourne would have been a good place to visit. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The new seed

A new seed has gone under,
Sprouting with the touch of rain.
Shooting up with every thunder,
Swaying with the winds of vain.

Bustling with green energy,
The seedling aims high.
Rooting up itself firmly,
It wants the sky.

The tree watches down,
Glowing with pride.
On the small strides,
The seedling has tried.

The sky laughs,
Mesmerized by the adulation.
Pours its heart out,
Drenching the seedling with its devotion.

One day the seedling grows big,
Touching the skies as its wont.
Laughingly it throws down seeds,
To see the joy of life.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Time Management

Managing time is one of the most critical aspects of one’s life. To achieve goals, to progress as human beings in general this forms itself as a basic parameter. Most of the times juggling work with family commitments results in lot of friction in either of the two places. My personal experience has been that unless a clear focus is present on what needs to done for that particular day or time, the chances of wasting the time would be very high. Thus the main challenge for me has always been as to how to productively manage the time in such a way that I’m satisfied at the end of the day.
I have read many books on self-help for managing one’s time in an effective manner. Many of them refer to tools/checklists to keep oneself on track but these exercises are only effective if one applies oneself to such tools diligently. I have tried some of these and out of which a few of them have stayed on with me for years now. These techniques have helped me in setting up a self-feedback mechanism to know whether what I had set out to do at the beginning of the day has been accomplished or not and so on. I will briefly talk about some of these techniques but I would like to put a disclaimer here that following these techniques should not lead to an obsession.
The first tool is a daily plan. List of items that needs to be accomplished at the end of the day. If I have 8 hours of working day, then these tasks are allotted appropriate times within this 8 hours window.  For each of these tasks, I rate it on three metrics after the task is completed. One of the metric is timespent on the task, the second one is the outcome and the final one is based on the disturbances faced during the task. The first two metrics are rated on a scale of 1 to 30 whereas the last one is rated on a scale from 1 to 10. The first metric which is “timespent” indicates the concentration levels or attention that I have paid to the task, so for example during a task if I had been thinking about the movie that I had seen during the weekend, I will be forced to give a low score. If my attention was not at all diverted from the task then it will propel itself to a high rating. The second metric indicates whether the task is accomplished successfully, whether what you had set out to do has been accomplished or not, if not, the score will depend on how much or what percentage has been accomplished. Finally in an office environment a lot of disturbances will be usually present, be it talking to your colleagues about the weekend or your manager asking for some inputs and so on. This is captured in the disturbance section, a high score would indicate a low disturbance.  You can clearly see that the first two metrics are pretty subjective and the second metric has some objective elements to it if it is known that what needs to be achieved. An example table for a work day will look something like this

So at the end of the day averaging the scores for 8 hours, you will get a score. The higher the score, the more productive the day has been.
One of the most important aspects about mastery in any field be it writing, music, studies etc is to follow a process. A disciplined way of doing the tasks on a daily basis even if you are actually unwilling to do it, helps in keeping you aligned to your goals. For me some important goals that I wish to pursue on a daily basis has been constant exercise, meditation, reading, writing and positive thinking. Now at times exercise would really seem as a very cumbersome thing to do or for that matter some of the other tasks as well. To keep oneself motivated to follow the process I came across this technique in one of the blogs. Maintain a record of all the activities that you wish to perform on a daily basis. The record will just contain whether you have performed the task or not, the task needs to be performed for a minimum of 10 minutes and it doesn’t matter how well the task has been accomplished. What is more important is that whether the task was done or not. Also maintain the continuous set of days or the maximum run of days in which the task was accomplished. So ideally the goal would be to beat the maximum run that you had accomplished previously with the current run. The incentive to break the current run would continuously go down as the count continues to accumulate. This method has proved to be pretty effective for me. One important thing is you need to have the motivation to take out a couple of minutes to update the records on a daily basis.
Finally, the techniques mentioned above requires a larger goal. Setting yourself a target will in turn subconsciously define the way in which you will set your daily goals for work and set of activities that you want to achieve personally.  Let me know if any of you have been using techniques which you have found really helpful.

Friday, August 9, 2013


In the fading sunlight, having put on all of my warm clothes I was still shivering. The snow flakes were leisurely coming down from the skies as if they were tired from the long and boring journey from the top. With thin ice getting formed on the foot paths it was essentially a land mine to walk on them. It was April but the year had been particularly cold, so all the snow and ice, which should have packed its bags and should have had left was still lurking around. Temperatures were hovering in the lower single digits making my task of venturing out in the evenings that much more difficult.  Tampere, a laid back industrial town of Finland was beautiful in its shimmering white cloak of snow. Considered to be one of the wealthiest and happiest nations in the world and being home of Nokia, It felt good to be here. Being close to the north of the globe, Finland is known for its long and cold winters with temperatures hitting -35 degrees. I have to give it to the resilience of the Finnish people to flourish under such harsh weather conditions. 

Having come to a foreign land and it being a weekend, sight seeing was the most obvious thing to do and the trip advisor provided us the details. It was decided to walk to the Pynikki park and observation centre, situated on the banks of the Pynikki lake which was still frozen thick. Having a quick breakfast comprising of MTR packets we set out to the park. Passing by rectangular shaped wooden row houses, which had a dense crop of snow on their heads, we headed towards a forested area. Comprising of mainly pine trees, this park looked like the scenic spots usually seen in Bollywood movies. The lake next to the park was a vast expanse of white. We spotted some skiers also on the lake surface. Even though the lake looked solid ice, I just walked a couple of meters on the surface and headed back to safety. After the lake, the next point of visit was the observation tower which was on a hillock at the center of the park.  The top of the observation tower provided some excellent views of the lakes surrounding Tampere city, there was also a cafĂ© at the bottom of the tower which sold excellent doughnuts.  It looked to be a very popular place as many people had braved the chilly morning to come here to get a coffee and doughnut. 

The other outing that we had was to Finlayson factory and the spy museum which was present inside it. Considered to be the starting point of the city, the factories outer structure has been well preserved, whereas from the inside it is a complete mall. Searching for the spy museum inside the mall was probably the most exciting part of the excursion as there was nothing particularly interesting inside it. 
Food requirements were usually taken care of by MTR packets, but a couple of times I had gone out for dinner to the highly recommended Pizzeria Napoli which was very close to the Tampere station and also to my rented apartment. Nandadevi was another place that I had heard a lot about, but unfortunately the day I paid a visit, it was their weekly off. 

On the last day of my stay in Tampere, pumping my lungs to get in more oxygen, I trudged on because the task I had in my hand was that important. Joining a friend who was on a similar mission as that of mine, I entered a shopping mall called Sokos. With six floors, I think this was the biggest supermarket I had seen till now. From food, clothing to electronic goods everything was available. After a couple of hours of scampering around I finally managed to get my hands on what was supposed to be my visa back home which was a bright red ladies hand bag.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bubbles of peace

The beautiful garden city has now turned into a dust bowl. With flyovers and the metro being constructed at every turn and corner, life has become akin to staying in some third world town. Sand piles, stones and liberal quantities of mud are strewn around in the footpaths. Honking vehicles clog the street, sucking out life from the lonely city beaten trees that have survived from the axe of the city builders. Apartments with no plan nor design keep springing up in small plots and jute out on to the roads. Some of the beautiful lakes are fast being filled up with overzealous builders who find it difficult to get land through proper channels. Today’s lakes are turned into tomorrow’s apartments. Garbage is dumped at every possible corner of this once green city and possibly new tools would have to be invented to navigate through most of the mess that would get dumped. Development has taken a sleazy turn and to be a developed nation if we are following this route then woe betide us as to what we have to endure to turn all these wrongs into rights.
In such a situation it is not easy to commute from one place to another in Bangalore. Only god can save you if the distance to office is inversely proportional to the amount of patience that you possess. Bleary eyed and shoulders slumped you reach home to be again pounded by near and dear ones to visit some far flung malls for entertainment. Tempers starts to strain on the edge of the mental cliff and barely manage to keep themselves from skipping of the ledge. Peace of mind is ultimately the royal goal of any human being and that is something Bangaloreans are desperately seeking for when they are out of their homes.
One of the best things that has happened to me was the introduction of the Volvo buses. A serene island of peace and calm navigating through the endless sea of insanity. In the cool confines of the bus I’m free to dream, sleep and read. Pictures of life, survival and struggle keep passing through its window and you just keep looking out as if you are seeing some gangster movie. Slumber slowly reeks into you, if the driver handles the bus like a baby, but you also witness some hair raising rides akin to those of a roller coaster if the driver is too zealous to be on time.
Conductors keep running up and down the bus asking for tickets which is a process similar to what is called as randomly beating around the bush. It would be hard for him to find a guy ready to buy tickets as most of them have the monthly passes with them. Scores of people inside the bus and the AC is turned up bringing a smile in the hot summer months and a spine chilling shiver during the winter.
Smell of different dosas and rice baths wafts through the bus in the morning when pangs of the stomach would have forced some commuter to open his tiffin boxes.  The melodious bhajans add their own flavour to the ambience which sometimes get abruptly distorted when the driver realises that the crowd is too young for the music to be appreciated. Meticulous conductors who force the drivers to wait at bus stops to meet the days target sometimes break the simple monotony of the bus journey as people start grumbling about the loss of time, but nothing can change the beautiful ride these buses provide.
Days have passed into years and I’m still riding on these bubbles of peace. Hope they have a long life.