Pipe jobs

Sangeet Paul Choudary, my friend from business school, became a global business guru essentially based on one idea – that businesses can either be “platforms” or “pipes”, and that a business that is a platform can add far more value than a business that is just a pipe.

If I think about it, I currently work for a company that can be best described as a pipe (rather than a platform) and I think it’s doing quite well. From that perspective, though a platform business can be more successful it’s possible to build a good pipe business as well.

All that aside – one random thought I’ve got in recent days is that – pipes and platforms don’t apply to businesses alone. Even people can be “pipes”. Rather certain peoples jobs make them pipes. In other words they are pipe jobs.

What are pipe jobs? These are jobs where the persons responsibility is to act as a pipe between two other people. The pair of people they connect can vary over time – but this is the essence of the job. Essentially the job is about acting as a bridge between two people.

The classic pipe job is the translator or interpreter – whose job is to literally ensure that two people who might otherwise find it hard to communicate can communicate.

However there are more such jobs. For example you must have come across people in your company who – irrespective of what you as them, ask someone else for the answer. And then convey that answer to you. In other words – they are a pipe through which the question and answer flows.

That said, they need not ask the same person for the answer each time. Instead they might decide based on the question who the right person to ask might be. In fact that is a classic way in which they add value – by determining which two ends to connect themselves to.

Spokespersons and envoys, of course, are again classic pipes. They lack independent authority but represent their masters/mistresses, and act as a pipe between them and the rest of the world. Unlike the corporate pipes mentioned above, theee people usually don’t add the additional value of figuring out which ends to connect.

So in a corporate context, how do you go from being a pipe to a platform ? A risk averse way is to be a connector – to determine which two ends to connect each time you are asked something. I thjnk there are several titles for this kind of role – seen a lot in software companies.

A more risky but much more rewarding way to get out of pipedom is to develop an opinion – you might still connect and represent people but over a period of time you learn and develop an opinion. So not every question needs to be forwarded to the other end of the pipe. However your years as a pipe would have helped you build credibility among the ends of the pipe. And so you can be a better pipe.

I think this theory is genetic enough – most of you who work for companies should be able to think of several roles whose jobs essentially involve being a pipe!

What have I missed out on here ?

ADHD and the Bhagavad Gita

A couple of weeks back, I stumbled upon an article I had written for Huffington Post India a few years back about what it is like to live with ADHD.  Until HuffPost India shut down, if you googled my name, one of the first links that you would find was this article. Now, the public version of the article is lost for posterity.

In any case, the draft lives on in my email outbox, and I have since forwarded it to a few people. This is how I begin that article:

There is a self-referential episode in the Mahabharata where sage Vyasa tries to get Ganesha to scribe the Mahabharata. Ganesha accepts the task, but imposes the condition that if Vyasa stopped dictating, he will stop writing and the epic will remain unfinished for ever.

If you have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), you would ideally want to work like Ganesha writing the Mahabharata – in long bursts where you are so constantly stimulated that there is no room for distraction. ADHD makes you a bad finisher, and makes you liable to abandon projects. You could be so distracted that it takes incredible effort to get back to the task. Once you are distracted, you might even forget that you were doing this task, and thus leave it unfinished. Moreover, ADHD makes it incredibly hard to do grunt-work, which is essential in finishing tasks or projects.

And earlier today, during on of my random distractions at work, I started thinking that this is not the only instance in the Mahabharata where ADHD makes an appearance. If you look at the Mahabharata in its fullest form, which includes the Bhagavad Gita (which, it appears, is a retrospective addition), ADHD makes yet another appearance.

If you distill the Bhagavad Gita to its bare essentials, the “principal component” will be this shloka:

??????????????????? ?? ????? ??????
?? ?????????????????? ?? ?????????????????? ?-??

In Roman scripts—

Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani

Googling threw up this translation (same site as the above quote):

The meaning of the verse is—

You have the right to work only but never to its fruits.
Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.

And I was thinking about it in the context of some work recently – for those of us with ADHD, this is a truism. Because unless we hyper focus on something (and the essence of ADHD is that you can’t choose what you want to hyper focus on), we have no attachments. It is like that “Zen email”.

Assume that there is a gap between the completion of the work and the observation of the “fruits” (results) of the work. By the time the fruits of the work are known, it is highly likely that you have completely forgotten about the work itself and moved on to hyper focus on something else.

In this case, whatever is the result of the work, that you have moved on means that you have become disattached from the work that you did, and so don’t really care about the result. And that makes it easier for you to appreciate the result in a cold, rational and logical manner – if you happen to care about it at all, that is.

The only exception is if you had continued to hyperfocus on the work even after it was completed. In this kind of a situation, you become excessively attached to the work that you have done (and to an unhealthy level). And in this case you care about the flowers, fruits, seeds and subsequent plants of your work. Not a good state to be in, of course, but it doesn’t happen very often so it’s fine.

The other thing about ADHD and “moving on” is that you don’t get possessive of your past work, and you are more willing to tear down something you had built in the past (which doesn’t make sense any more) and start rebuilding it. Again, this can both be a negative (reinventing your own wheel / wasting time) and a positive (ability to improve).

Random line I just came up with – on average, people with ADHD are exactly the same as people without ADHD. Just that their distributions are different.

Chaupat Raja Cooking

While cooking my dinner this evening, I had a realisation, and not a pleasant one. I realised that the way I cook can sometimes be described as “chaupat raja” model of cooking.

The story goes that there was a town called “andher nagari” (dark town), which was ruled by a “chaupat raja”. The raja had fixed the price of all commodities at “1 taka” (not sure if it’s the same as the Bangladeshi currency).

So if you bought onions, you would pay 1 taka per onion, irrespective of the size or quality of it. If you buy a piece of rope, you would again pay 1 taka, irrespective of its length. The story, as told in my 8th Standard Hindi textbook, has a bunch of hilarious examples of the absurdities caused by this regulation.

A wall has fallen and killed a man. The chain of investigation reveals that someone sold a very large bucket for 1 taka, and the latter used that bucket as a measure for water, and thus ends up building a wall that is highly prone to collapsing.

Another story is that someone needs to be hanged, and the hangman can only prepare a loose noose because for 1 taka he ended up getting a long piece of rope that day. And so on.

Anyway, one of my wife’s criticisms about my cooking is that I sometimes “lack proportion”. Now, it doesn’t extend to everything – for my coffee, for example, I have a gram scale in the kitchen which I use to carefully measure out both the quantity of the powder and the amount of water (next in line is to buy a food thermometer so I can use water of the exact same temperature each time).

However, when cooking certain things, I use rough measures. “Throw in all the carrots in the fridge”, for example. Or “use two carrots”, not bothering about the size of the said carrots. I use “number of eggs” as measure without thinking about the size of the eggs (which varies considerably in the shops around where I live).

And that leads to chaupat raja kind of outcomes. One day, my omelette had too much onion because the onion I decided to cut that day was large. Another day, a vegetable stew I’d made turned out too sweet because there were three carrots left in the fridge and I put in all of them, though normally I would’ve only put two.

My habit of throwing in everything without measuring means that my wife has banned me from cooking several dishes for her.

In any case, what I’m trying to illustrate is that using measures in the kitchen based on numbers of something can lead to massively uncertain outcomes, and is an example of “chaupat raja economics”. What we need is better precision (even using something like “1 cup of diced carrots” is inaccurate because the amount of diced carrots a cup can hold can change based on the size of each dice. never mind “cup” is in any case an inexact measure).

Now that I’ve recognised that my style of cooking is like chaupat raja, I’ve decided I need to cooking. There is no reason that coffee is the only thing for which I should pay attention to bring in precision.

Or maybe it will just take too much effort, and the average chaupat raja outcome in the kitchen isn’t bad (the ultimate outcome for the chaupat raja was banned. The story goes that someone needs to be hanged, but it turns out that the noose is too loose (for 1 taka, the hangman got a long piece of rope that day), so the king decides to find someone whose neck fits the  noose. After much searching, someone suggests that the king’s neck is the right size for the noose and he hangs himself.

 

The Fragile Charioteer

A few days back, I was thinking of an interesting counterfactual in the Mahabharata. As most people know, the story goes that Arjuna went to battle with his charioteer Krishna, and got jitters looking at all his relatives and elders on the other side, and almost lost the will to fight.

And then Krishna recited to him the Bhagavad Gita, which inspired Arjuna to get back to battle, and with Krishna’s expert charioteering (and occasional advice), Arjuna led the Pandavas to (an ultimately pyrrhic) victory in the war.

A long time back I had introduced my blog readers to the “army of monkeys” framework. In that I had contrasted the war in Ramayana (a seemingly straightforward war fought against a foreign king who had kidnapped the hero’s wife) to the war in the Mahabharata (a more complex war fought between cousins).

Given that the Ramayana war was largely straightforward, with the only trickery being in the form of special weapons, going to war with an army of monkeys was a logical choice. Generals on both sides apart, the army of monkeys helped defeat the Lankan army, and the war (and Sita) was won.

The Mahabharata war was more complex, with lots of “mental trickery” (one of which almost led Arjuna to quit the war) and deception from both sides. While LOTS of soldiers died (the story goes that almost all the Kshatriyas in India died in the war), the war was ultimately won in the mind.

In that sense, the Pandavas’ choice of choosing a clever but non-combatant Krishna rather than his entire army (which fought on the side of the Kauravas) turned out to be prescient.

When I wrote the original post on this topic, I was a consultant, and had gotten mildly annoyed at a prospective client deciding to engage an army rather than my trickery for a problem they were facing. Now, I’m part of a company, and I’m recruiting heavily for my team, and I sometimes look at this question from the other side.

One advantage of an uncorrelated army of monkeys is that not all of them will run away together. Yes, some might run away from time to time, but you keep getting new monkeys, and on a consistent basis you have an army.

On the other hand, if you decide to go with a “clever charioteer”, you run the risk that the charioteer might choose to run away one day. And the problem with clever charioteers is that no two of them are alike, and if one runs away, he is not easy to replace (you might have to buy a new chariot to suit the new charioteer).

Maybe that’s one reason why some companies choose to hire armies of monkeys rather than charioteers?

Then again, I think it depends upon the problem at hand. If the “war” (set of business problems) to be fought is more or less straightforward, an army of monkeys is a superior choice. However, if you are defining the terrain rather than just navigating it, a clever charioteer, however short-lived he might be, might just be a superior choice.

It was this thought of fleeing charioteers that made me think of the counterfactual with which I begin this post. What do you think about this?

PS: I had thought about this post a month or two back, but it is only today that I’m actually getting down to writing it. It is strictly a coincidence that today also happens to be Sri Krishna Janmashtami.

Enjoy your chakli!

Goldilocks and Barbells

Most children learn the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks finds the bears’ home, and tries out random things there. Pretty much for everything she tries, there will be three versions (each belonging to one of the bears), with one being <too extreme>, the second being <too extreme at the other end> and the third being “just right”.

The basic message can be summarised as “extremes bad, means good”. In fact, even if you didn’t learn the story as a child (I didn’t), the message of “doing everything in moderation” gets impressed upon you from various quarters. “Don’t eat too much, don’t eat too little, eat in moderation” is possibly the most prominent example of this.

And in some way we have all internalised this messaged. That both too much and too little of everything is bad, and it’s the middle path that is the right one.

And then on the other side, a concept that has always existed but formally articulated fairly recently, is the “barbell“. First articulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb as an investment strategy, it talks about investing in a combination of extremes and eschewing the means. In Taleb’s original case, it was about an investment strategy that is a mix of low-risk bonds and high-risk (long) out-of-the-money options, that together give a low-risk winning portfolio in the long run. This ran contrary to “modern portfolio theory” that tries to get a mix of assets that maximise expected returns and minimise standard deviation (note I’m saying standard deviation and not “risk” – they’re not the same).

And this strategy applies pretty much everywhere in life. There are a lot of things where the only way you can benefit is by “being all in”. Doing things in moderation can actually be hurtful, and combinations that have a “little bit of everything” can be suboptimal to a simple superposition of extremes.

My breakfast is a barbell, for example. I either skip it completely (nearly zero calories from black coffee only), or have a big breakfast with at least two eggs. A light breakfast completely messes up my day.

My exercise is a barbell (no pun intended). I either lift heavy weights (attached to a barbell) or do nothing. Exercises with light weights make me feel miserable.

In my nearly eight month long return to corporate life, I haven’t taken many days off. My philosophy there is that if I take off, I should be able to completely take off (no “one email here”), and have done so only when it’s easy to do so.

You can think of corporate strategy and a company’s focus being a barbell.

The list goes on. The point is – life is full of barbells, or we can make the most of life by using barbell strategies. Do either this extreme or that extreme, but don’t get confused and do something in the middle.

The problem, however, is that we get brought up on goldilocks, not barbells. And think that the middle path is superior to the extremes. It isn’t always so.

Wokes and Jokes

Q: How do you know a woke is losing an argument?
A: They start talking about privilege.

No, this is not a post that seeks to make jokes about wokes. Instead, here, I seek to explore what kind of jokes wokes like, assuming there are jokes they like, that is.

A long time back, I had written here that the problem with the woke movement is that it denies people their jokes. Because jokes are inherently at the expense of someone (a person or group of people or thing), and because extreme political correctness means that making fun of a person or group of people is not polite, political correctness means a lot of jokes go out of the window.

Think of all the jokes that you enjoyed when you are in high school – it is likely that you won’t be able to put most of those jokes on social media nowadays – since it’s not kosher to make fun of the people / groups of people they make fun of.

And so, one day recently, I started thinking if wokes laugh at all – if making fun of people or groups of people is not done, how do they get their laughs? And then I realised that if you look at standup comedians, there are a bunch of them who can be broadly described as “woke” (as per today’s standards – I have NO CLUE how well this will hold up). So what gives? How can wokes have their jokes when most of our old jokes are not valid any more?

The interesting thing about the woke movement is that they largely depend on group identities. One <insert oppressed community (on whatever axis)> person gets beaten, it is seen as an act of violence against the community. Everything is spoken in group terms. The individual’s individuality doesn’t matter. Everything is analysed in group terms.

Except for the jokes.

Wokes get their jokes because they target particular people. And identification of such people is rather easy. Start with choosing a politician (or politicians) who are definitely anti-woke (Modi, Trump, Johnson, Jair, Orban – at the time of writing). And then build a social network around them, on people who hang out with them, agree with them, retweet them, get retweeted by them, and so on. All of them are worth making fun of.

If you make a joke about Modi, you are NOT making a joke about Gujaratis. If you make a joke about Trump, you are NOT making a joke about builders, or blondes. And these jokes are kosher because the target of the jokes are reviled, or are strongly associated with the reviled.

And a person’s status on whether they can be made fun of or not depends on their associations. You cross the proverbial political floor, you can suddenly gain indemnity or get exposed to being made fun of, spending upon the direction in which you’ve crossed the floor.

I’ve never really been a fan of standup comedy (I think it has a rather low “bit rate”). But this possibly explains why I find it even less tolerable nowadays – most of the jokes are political, and it gets boring after a while.

Then again, as the wokes say, everything is political.

More on status and wealth

Playing zero-sum status games is down to our animal instinct. We have evolved to play those. But the way we can be more human is to seek wealth.

Last week, an old friend from high school sent me this podcast, based on all that I’ve been writing here of late on status-seeking, wealth-seeking, and zero and positive sum games.

I haven’t listened to the full conversation, but only a small snippet (the bit that my friend asked me to listen to, from minutes 20 to 30).

Then, on Sunday night, I started re-reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life. I’m in the middle of the first chapter now (one of my favourites from the first reading, and which I’ve read multiple times). This is the one about depression and serotonin. And that triggered further thoughts on status and wealth and all that.

So some pertinent observations based on these:

  • Mating is a status game. Across species, creatures desire to mate with the highest status members of the opposite sex. And you maximise your chances of that by increasing your own status.

    A high status individual (of whatever species) will have greater access to mates, and greater access to high-quality mates, and thus greater chance of propagating their genes.

    Thus, we have evolved to seek status, not wealth

  • You may argue that in human society, wealth is also an avenue for getting superior mates. However, the problem with this is that we are simply using wealth to buy status in this case. The fundamental reason your mate wants to mate with you is your status, which, in this case, you have got on account of your wealth.
  • Status seeking is zero sum, as Naval Ravikant says in that viral podcast. As the above linked podcast (which is about Rene Girard and mimetic desire) says, when we seek status, we seek to imitate people with higher status than us.

    There are two problems with this kind of approach. Firstly, by doing things that higher status people have done, we don’t necessarily get that kind of status. Especially when the things we do are things that involve power-law payoffs.

    Secondly, if everyone imitates the same kind of high status individuals, everyone ends up seeking the same thing. If you and I are seeking the same thing, we don’t trade with each other. And thus we don’t make each other better off.

    If we are seeking wealth (an unnatural thing, as explained above), rather than status, we go about it in our own ways, and that makes it easy for us to trade and all get ahead towards our respective goals.

  • The podcast talks about how people with conditions such as Asperger’s (or anything on the spectrum, or anything that reduces empathy) have inferior empathy, and that means they see less need to conform, or to imitate. And this can lead to them achieving superior outcomes since they do things their own way (I add that this can also lead to them achieving inferior outcomes – basically “vol goes up”).

    Sounds good to me 😛

  • When we imitate others too much, they become rivals to us. Whether you consciously think of them that way or not. And this can lead to misery to all parties (unless you are high-status, or wealthy, enough to not care)
  • At the beginning of Pink Floyd’s Keep Talking (Division Bell), Stephen Hawking comes on and says “for millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learnt to talk”.

    And when we learnt to talk, one of the powers of our imagination that got unleashed was the ability to trade. We figured out that by trading, we can build wealth. And by building wealth, we have an easy means of cooperation. And the ability to play positive sum games. And not having to futilely play status games all the time.

In some sense, trade, commerce and wealth are the fundamentals of what makes us human. It just happens that we’ve evolved to seek status instead, and so we keep pulling each other down.

 

Slip fielding meetings

It’s been nearly six months since I returned to corporate life. As you might imagine, I have participated in lots of meetings in this period. Some of them are 1-on-1s. Some are in slightly larger groups. Some meetings have big groups.

Meetings in big groups are of two types – ones where you do a lot of the talking, and what I have come to call as “slip fielder meetings”.

Basically, participating in these meetings is like fielding at slip in a cricket match. For most of the day, you just stand there doing nothing, but occasionally once in a while a ball will come towards you and you are expected to catch it. That means you need to be alert all the time.

These meetings are the same. For most of the discussion you are not necessarily required, but once in a while there might be some matter that comes up where your opinion is required, and you need to be prepared for that.

I can think of at least two occasions in the last six months where I was rudely awoken from my daydreams (no I wasn’t literally napping) with someone saying “Karthik, what do you think we should do about this?”.

And since then I’ve learnt to anticipate. Anticipate when my presence might be required. Figure out from the broad contours of the conversation on when I might be called upon. And remain alert when called upon (though on one occasion early on in the company my internet decided to give way just when I had started talking in a 20 person meeting).

Yesterday, a colleague gave me a good idea on how to stay alert through these “slip fielder meetings”. “Just turn on the automated captions on Google Meet”, he said. “Occasionally it can be super funny. Like one day ‘inbound docks’ was shown as ‘inborn dogs'”.

I think this is a great idea. By continuously looking at the captions, I can remain sufficiently stimulated and entertained, and also know what exactly is happening in the meeting. I’m going to use this today onwards.

I now wonder what real slip fielders do to stay alert. I’m not sure chatting with the wicketkeeper is entertaining enough.

Uncertain Rewards

A couple of months back, I read Nir Eyal’s Hooked. I didn’t particularly get hooked to the book – it’s one of those books that should have been a blogpost (or maybe a longform article). However, as part of the “Hooked model” that forms the core of the book, the author talks about the importance of “uncertain rewards”.

The basic idea is that it is easier to get addicted to something when the rewards from it are uncertain. If the rewards are certain, then irrespective of how large they are, there is a chance that you might get bored of them. Uncertainty, on the other hand, makes you curious. It provides you “information” each time you “play the game”. And you in the quest for new information (remember that entropy is information?), you keep playing. And you get hooked.

This plays out in various ways. Alcohol and drugs, for example, sometimes offer “good trips”, and sometimes “bad trips”. The memory of the good trips is the reason why you keep at it, even if you occasionally have bad trips. The uncertain rewards hook you.

It’s the same with social media. This weekend, so far, I’ve had a largely good experience on Twitter. However, last weekend on the platform was a disaster. I’d gotten quickly depressed and stopped. So why did I get back on to twitter this weekend when last weekend was bad? Because of an earlier weekend when it had provided a set of good conversations.

Even last weekend, when I started having a “bad trip” on Twitter, I kept at it, thinking the longer I play the better the chances of having a good trip. Ultimately I just ruined my weekend.

Uncertain rewards are also why, (especially) when we are young, we tolerate abusive romantic partners. Partners who treat you well all the time are boring. And there is no excitement. Abusive partners, on the other hand, treat you like a king/queen at times, and like shit at other times. The extent of the highs and lows means that you get hooked to them. It possibly takes a certain degree of abuse for you to realise that a “steady partner who treats you well” makes for a better long term partner.

Is there a solution to this? I don’t think so. As we learn in either thermodynamics or information theory, entropy or randomness is equal to information. And because we have evolved to learn and get more information, we crave entropy. And so we crave the experiences that give us a lot of entropy, even it that means the occasional bad trip.

Finally, I realise that uncertain rewards are also the reason why religion is addictive. One conversation I used to have a lot with my late mother was when I would say, “why do you keep praying when your prayers weren’t answered the last time?”. And she would quote another time when her prayers WERE answered. It is this uncertain reward of answers to prayers (which, in my opinion, is sheer randomness) that keeps religion “interesting”. And makes it addictive.

Shankersinh Vaghela

Ever since I returned to India 2 years back, my roasted peanuts of choice have been the one by Haldiram. I used to even buy them to grind them to make peanut butter until I discovered MyFitness Peanut Butter almost exactly a year back.

Recently, though, I hadn’t been able to procure Haldiram’s peanuts. And on a random trip to a supermarket, I found a brand called “Jabsons”. I bought it on a whim, and was super impressed.

The nuts themselves are larger than Haldiram’s, and are crispier. And I notice that the brand markets that it’s from Gujarat, where a lot of peanuts are grown. So far, so good.

And then on twitter, people recommended that I try their flavoured peanuts as well. For the longest time I haven’t been a fan of flavoured peanuts, maybe because I’ve had a few bad ones. I mean, I like the local shop ones, the yellow split masala ones called “Congress” and the red roasted ones called “Communist“.

In any case, inspired by the responses to my tweet, I decided to pick some variants of the Jabsons peanuts on the next visit to the supermarket. I started “safely”, with Black Pepper.

And that was insanely brilliant. Very very awesome. Among the best flavoured roasted peanuts I’ve ever eaten. I even crafted a tweet in my head to appreciate it, but couldn’t post it then because I was on a mini twitter break. I’m writing it here.

Jabsons black pepper peanuts kicks the ass of both Congress and Communist. Given that it comes from Gujarat, I hereby christen it “BJP”. 

And my quest for other flavours of Jabsons peanuts continued. I soon picked up a “spicy masala” flavour. It was a bit spicy for my liking, but I found that it goes brilliantly with curd rice. And then I acquired a taste for it.

Thinking about it, the Jabsons spicy peanuts are somewhat like Congress, but not quite Congress. And they come from Gujarat. Sort of Congress from Gujarat, but not quite Congress. Who does that remind you of?

Well, Shankersinh Vaghela, of course.

So I hereby christen the Jabsons Spicy Peanuts Shankersinh Vaghela. Goes very very well with curd rice.