## Why social media went woke

When Elon Musk took over twitter recently, one of the “drain the swamp” things he did was to get rid of the platform’s overt bias towards political correctness and “wokeness”. Out went most of the “trust and safety” team. In came Donald Trump (though he hasn’t tweeted since) and the guy who stupidly got himself arrested in Romania.

As some people in my office have never tired of saying, Musk let go of 70% of the company, and the app still largely runs fine (apart from some weird bugs that creep in once in a while). One part of twitter that is NOT running fine, though, is advertising – you might be able to guess that from the quality of ads you are getting served on your timeline nowadays. There are two theories behind this – one is that Musk got rid of most of the ad sales team, and the other is that advertisers don’t want to advertise on twitter given it is more prone to free speech now.

The latter was a bit of a surprising theory to me, since my assumption had always been that what advertisers largely care for is audiences, and relevance of the audiences to their products; and as long as the audiences were there, the advertisers would come.

However, something I heard on a podcast this morning on my way to work made me question this assumption. Listen to this (the link is from the approximate point I want you to listen):

So in this conversation, Jeff Green talks about “brand safety” in the context of advertising. What he effectively says is that advertisers are finicky about what kind of content their ads come next to. He says “right now I would say the value of user generated content has actually gone down dramatically because of brand safety”.

Back in IIMB, there were a couple of fellows who formed a quiz team called “Mary Magdalenes: The Reformed Prostitutes”. During our annual fest Unmaad, they conducted a quiz, which (I think) was sponsored by IBM. I I remember right, the title slide of the quiz said “Unmaad Open Quiz, brought to you by Mary Magdalenes: The Reformed Prostitutes”, with the logo of IBM (or whoever the sponsor was) somewhere on the slide.

The sponsors did not take to it too kindly – I was doing a quiz the following day and the sponsorship coordinators demanded to inspect my deck so that there were no such potentially embarrassing juxtapositions.

As it happens, one, or maybe both, of Mary Magdalenes: The Reformed Prostitutes, went into a career in marketing. However, contrary to the image you get by looking at advertising “creatives”, advertisers are fundamentally boring people. They are insanely risk averse, and very very loathe to bring even the slightest hint of controversy to their brands.

So, this is why social media goes woke. They don’t care about “misinformation” and “fake news” and porn and slander for the sake of you or me – as long as we are visiting their sites and looking at the ads there, they are happy. The reason they clamp down on free speech in the name of “trust and safety” is for the sake of the (normally rather boring) advertisers, who want certainty on the sort of content next to which their ads are shown.

And so, driven by risk-averse advertisers, social media platforms censor free speech and “go woke”, much to the chagrin of people like Musk and me.

Recently I read this fantastic essay by Robin Hanson on why most people are boring. Only a very long quote will do justice, but that too partially. You should read the whole essay.

If we act interesting, passionate, and opinionated in public, we are likely to seem to claim high status for ourselves, and to touch on sacred subjects, either by word or deed. And this makes us quite vulnerable to accusations of arrogance and violating the sacred. Because: a) the sacred is full of contradictions, so that saying truths clearly does not protect you, b) observers feel free to use complex codings to attribute to you intentions that you did not literally say (or have), and c) observers are much more willing to accept unfair and unproven accusations if they are seen as “punching up” at presumed dominant or evil races, genders, ages, professions, or political factions.

The degree of this danger is made clear, I think by the reaction of the “gods” among us. The public tone of huge powerful firms and other orgs is consistently “officious”, i.e., mild boring supplication.

Mild boring supplication is all okay. Just that they impose upon you and me with their ad dollars, meaning that places where their ad dollars go also tend to mild boring supplication. And thus for us, it is death by a thousand bores.

## Discoverability and chaos

Last weekend (4-5 Feb) I visited Blossom Book House on Church Street (the “second branch” (above Cafe Matteo), to be precise). I bought a total of six books that day, of which four I was explicitly looking for (including two of Tufte’s books). So only two books were “discovered” in the hour or so I spent there.

This weekend (11-12 Feb) I walked a little further down Church Street (both times I had parked on Brigade Road), and with wife and daughter in tow, to Bookworm. The main reason for going to Bookworm this weekend is that daughter, based on a limited data points she has about both shops, declared that “Bookworm has a much better collection of Geronimo Stilton books, so I want to go there”.

This time there were no books I had intended to buy, but I still came back with half a dozen books for myself – all “discovered”. Daughter got a half dozen of Geronimos. I might have spent more time there and got more books for myself, except that the daughter had finished her binge in 10 minutes and was now desperate to go home and read; and the wife got bored after some 10-20 minutes of browsing and finding one book. “This place is too chaotic”, she said.

To be fair, I’ve been to Blossom many many more times than I’ve been to Bookworm (visits to the latter are still in single digits for me). Having been there so many times, the Blossom layout is incredibly familiar to me. I know  that I start with the section right in front of the billing counter that has the bestsellers. Then straight down to the publisher-wise shelves. And so on and so forth.

My pattern of browsing at Blossom has got so ritualised that I know that there are specific sections of the store where I can discover new books (being a big user of a Kindle, I don’t really fancy very old books now). And so if I discover something there, great, else my browsing very quickly comes to a halt.

At Bookworm, though, I haven’t yet figured out the patterns in terms of how they place their books. Yes, I agree with my wife that it is “more random”, but in terms of discoverability, this increased randomness is a feature for me, not a bug! Not knowing what books to expect where, I’m frequently pleasantly surprised. And that leads to more purchases.

That said, the chaos means that if I go to the bookstore with a list of things to buy, the likelihood of finding them will be very very low (that said, both shops have incredibly helpful shopkeepers who will find you any book that you want and which is in stock at the store).

Now I’m thinking about this in the context of e-commerce. If randomness is what drives discoverability, maybe one bug of e-commerce is that it is too organised. You search for something specific, and you get that. You search for something vague, and the cost of going through all the results to find something you like is very high.

As for my books, my first task is to finish most of the books I got these weekends. And I’ll continue to play it random, and patronise both these shops.

## Decision making and explainability

My hypothesis is – the more you need to explain your decisions to people, the worse your decision-making gets.

Basically, instinct gets thrown out of the window.

Most of you who have worked in a company would have seen a few attempts at least of the company trying to be “more data driven”. Instead of making decisions on executives’ whims and will, they decide to set up a process with objective criteria. The decision is evaluated on each of these criteria and weights drawn up (if the weights are not known and you have a large number of known past decisions, this is just logistic regression). And then a sumproduct is computed, based on which the decision is made.

Now, I might be biased by the samples of this I’ve seen in real life (both in companies I’ve worked for and where I’ve been a consultant), but this kind of decision making usually results in the most atrocious decisions. And it is not even a problem with the criteria that are chosen or the weights each is assigned (so optimising this will get you nowhere). The problem is with the process.

As much as we would like to believe that the world is objective (and we are objective), we as humans are inherently instinctive and intuitive individuals (noticed that anupraas alankaar?). If we weren’t we wouldn’t have evolved as much as we have, since a very large part of the decisions we need to make need to be made quickly (running from a lion when you see one, for example, or braking when the car in front of you also brakes suddenly).

Quick decisions can never be made based on first principles – to be good at that, you need to have internalised the domain and the heuristics sufficiently, so that you know what to do.

I have this theory on why I didn’t do well in traditional strategy consulting (it was the first career I explored, and I left my job in three months) – it demanded way too much structure, and I had faked my way in. For all the interview cases, I would intuitively come up with a solution and then retrofit a “framework”. N-1 of the companies I applied to had possibly seen through this. One didn’t and took me in, and I left very soon.

What I’m trying to say is – when you try to explain your decisions, you are trying to be analytical about something you have instinctively come to the conclusion about, and with the analysis being “a way to convince the other person that I didn’t use my intuition”.

So when a bunch of people come up with their own retrofits on how they make the decision, the “process” that you come up with is basically a bunch of junk. And when you try to follow the process the next time, you end up with a random result.

The other issue with explaining decisions is that you try to come up with explanations that sound plausible and inoffensive. For example, you might interview someone (in person) and decide you don’t want to work with them because they have bad breath (perfectly valid, in my opinion, if you need to work closely with them – no pun intended). However, if you have to document your reason for rejection, this sounds too rude. So you say something rubbish like “he is overqualified for the role”.

At other times, you clearly don’t like the person you have spoken to but are unable to put your rejection reason in a polite manner, so you just reverse your decision and fail to reject the person. If everyone else also thinks the same as you (didn’t like but couldn’t find a polite enough reason to give, so failed to reject), through the “Monte Carlo process”, this person you clearly didn’t like ends up getting hired.

Yet another time, you might decide to write an algorithm for your decision (ok I promised to not talk about AI here, but anyways). You look at all the past decisions everyone has made in this context (and the reasons for those), and based on that, you build an algorithm. But then, if all these decisions have been made intuitively and the people’s documented decisions only retrofits, you are basing your algorithm on rubbish data. And you will end up with a rubbish algorithm (or a “data driven process”).

Actually – this even applies to artificial intelligence, but that is for another day.

## The Twelfth Camel

In a way, this post should write itself. For those of you with context, the title should be self explanatory. And you need not read further.

For the rest I’ll write a rather small essay.

The story is of the old Arab who died leaving his eldest son half his wealth, the second a fourth of his wealth and the youngest one sixth. The wealth in question turned out to be 11 camels.

With 11 being a prime number, how could this will be executed without any of the camels being executed? An ingenious neighbour came in and lent his camel. Now there were twelve. The three sons respectively received 6 ($\frac{12}{2}$), , 3 ($\frac{12}{4}$) and 2 ($\frac{12}{6}$) camels respectively. One camel was left over – the neighbour’s, who took it back.

This is mathematically inaccurate, since the sons received fractions of their father’s wealth slightly different from what he had intended. However, in general in life, this parable of the twelfth camel offers a useful metaphor.

In engineering, this is rather common – you have systems such as a choke, for example, to enable systems to get started from a “cold start process”. The choke comes in only at the time of startup – once the thing has started, it plays no role.

However, it has its role in normal life and business as well. For example, after a bad breakup, you might rebound to a “stop gap partner”. You know that this is not going to be a long term relationship, but this partner helps you tide over the shock of the bad breakup, and by the time this relationship (inevitably) breaks up, it has achieved its purpose of getting you back on track. And you get on with life, finding more long term partners.

Then, when the company is in deep trouble, you have specialists who come in to take over with the explicit goal of cleaning things up and getting the company ready for new ownership. For exanple, John Ray III has recently taken over as CEO of FTX. His previous notable appointment was as CEO of Enron, soon after that scandal had broken. He will not stay for a long term – he will just clean things up and move on.

And sometimes the role of the twelfth camel is rather more specific. Apart from “generic cleaning”, the temporary presence of the twelfth camel can be used to get rid of people who had earlier been hard to get rid of.

In sum, the key thing about the twelfth camel theory is that the neighbour knew all along that he was going to get back his camel. In other words, it is a deliberate temporary measure intended to achieve a certain set of specific outcomes. And the camel itself may not know that it is being “lent”!

## More on CRM

On Friday afternoon, I got a call on my phone. It was  “+91 9818… ” number, and my first instinct was it was someone at work (my company is headquartered in Gurgaon), and I mentally prepared a “don’t you know I’m on vacation? can you call me on Monday instead” as I picked the call.

It turned out to be Baninder Singh, founder of Savorworks Coffee. I had placed an order on his website on Thursday, and I half expected him to tell me that some of the things I had ordered were out of stock.

“Karthik, for your order of the Pi?anas, you have asked for an Aeropress grind. Are you sure of this? I’m asking you because you usually order whole beans”, Baninder said. This was a remarkably pertinent observation, and an appropriate question from a seller. I confirmed to him that this was indeed deliberate (this smaller package is to take to office along with my Aeropress Go), and thanked him for asking. He went on to point out that one of the other coffees I had ordered had very limited stocks, and I should consider stocking up on it.

Some people might find this creepy (that the seller knows exactly what you order, and notices changes in your order), but from a more conventional retail perspective, this is brilliant. It is great that the seller has accurate information on your profile, and is able to detect any anomalies and alert you before something goes wrong.

Now, Savorworks is a small business (a Delhi based independent roastery), and having ordered from them at least a dozen times, I guess I’m one of their more regular customers. So it’s easy for them to keep track and take care of me.

It is similar with small “mom-and-pop” stores. Limited and high-repeat clientele means it’s easy for them to keep track of them and look after them. The challenge, though, is how do you scale it? Now, I’m by no means the only person thinking about this problem. Thousands of business people and data scientists and retailers and technology people and what not have pondered this question for over a decade now. Yet, what you find is that at scale you are simply unable to provide the sort of service you can at small scale.

In theory it should be possible for an AI to profile customers based on their purchases, adds to carts, etc. and then provide them customised experiences. I’m sure tonnes of companies are already trying to do this. However, based on my experience I don’t think anyone is doing this well.

I might sound like a broken record here, but my sense is that this is because the people who are building the algos are not the ones who are thinking of solving the business problems. The algos exist. In theory, if I look at stuff like stable diffusion or Chat GPT (both of which I’ve been playing around with extensively in the last 2 days), algorithms for stuff like customer profiling shouldn’t be THAT hard. The issue, I suspect, is that people have not been asking the right questions of the algos.

On one hand, you could have business people looking at patterns they have divined themselves and then giving precise instructions to the data scientists on how to detect them – and the detection of these patterns would have been hard coded. On the other, the data scientists would have had a free hand and would have done some unsupervised stuff without much business context. And both approaches lead to easily predictable algos that aren’t particularly intelligent.

Now I’m thinking of this as a “dollar bill on the road” kind of a problem. My instinct tells me that “solution exists”, but my other instinct tells that “if a solution existed someone would have found it given how many companies are working on this kind of thing for so long”.

The other issue with such algos it that the deeper you get in prediction the harder it is. At the cohort (of hundreds of users) level, it should not be hard to profile. However, at the personal user level (at which the results of the algos are seen by customers) it is much harder to get right. So maybe there are good solutions but we haven’t yet seen it.

Maybe at some point in the near future, I’ll take another stab at solving this kind of problem. Until then, you have human intelligence and random algos.

## Cross docking in Addis Ababa

I’m writing this from Addis Ababa bole international airport, waiting for my connection to Kilimanjaro. We arrived here some 3 hours back, on a direct flight from bangalore.

The flight was fine, and uneventful. It was possibly half empty, though – the guy in the front seat had all 3 seats to himself and had lay down across them.

Maybe the only issue with the flight was that they gave us “dinner” at the ungodly time of 3am (1230 Eastern Africa time). I know why – airlines prefer to serve as soon as they take off since food is freshest then (rather than reheating at the end of the flight). And if they serve two meals the second one is usually a cold one (sandwiches cakes etc)

The airport here is also uneventful. There are a couple of bars and a few nondescript looking coffee shops. It is linear, with all gates being laid out in a row (reminds me of KL, and very unlike “star shaped airports” such as Barcelona or Delhi).

In any case I’ve been doing the rounds since morning looking for information of my flight gate. The last time I saw it hadn’t yet been published. But there was something very interesting about the flight schedule.

Basically, this airport serves as a cross dock between Africa and the rest of the world, taking advantage of its location in one corner of the continent.

For example, all flights that have either departed in the last hour or due to depart in the next 2 hours are to various destinations in Africa (barring one flight to São Paulo and Buenos Aires).

Kinshasa. Cape Town. Douala. Antananarivo. Entebbe. Accra. Lubumbashi via Lilongwe. Mine to Kilimanjaro (and then onward to Zanzibar). Etc. etc.

No flight that goes north or east, barring one to Djibouti. And no take offs between 6am (when we landed here) till 815 (Cape Town). And until around 8, people kept streaming into the airport (and the lines at the toilets kept getting longer!)

Ethiopian’s schedule at bangalore is also strange. Flights arrive at 8am 3 days of the week and then hang in there idly till 230 am the next morning. Time wise, that’s incredibly low utilisation of a costly asset like an aircraft (that said it’s a Boeing 737Max).

After looking at the airport schedule though it makes more sense to me. Basically in the morning, flights bring in passengers from all over Asia and Europe, and connect them to various places in Africa.

In the evenings, flights stream in from all around Africa and cross dock people to destinations in Europe and Asia. Currently the cross dock is one way – out of Africa in the evenings and into Africa in the mornings.

This means that there are some destinations where, given time of travel, the only way to make this cross dock work is to keep the aircraft idle at the destination. In African destinations for example, I expect shorter turnarounds – this morning I noticed that the first set of departures were to far away locations – Cape Town, Johannesburg, Accra, Harare and then to Lusaka, etc.

I don’t expect this to last long though. In a few years (maybe already delayed by the pandemic) I expect ethiopian to double its flight capacity across all existing destinations. Then, it can operate both into Africa and out of Africa cross docks twice in a day. And won’t need to waste precious flight depreciation time at faraway airports such as bangalore.

PS: so far I haven’t seen a single flight from any other airline apart from Ethiopian at the airport here.

## Missionaries and Mercenaries

When a company gets founded, it does so by a bunch of “missionaries”. Founders seldom are in it solely for the money (though that is obviously one big reason they are there). They found companies because they are “missionary” about the purpose that the company wants to achieve (it doesn’t matter what this mission is – it varies from company to company).

As they start building the company, they look for more missionaries to help them to do it. Rather, among early employees, there is a self selection that happens – only people who are passionate about the mission (or maybe passionate about the founders) survive, and those in it for other purposes just move on.

And this way, the company gets built, and grows. However, there comes a point when this strategy becomes unsustainable. A largish company needs a whole different set of skills from what made the company large in the first place. And some of these skills are specialist enough that it is not going to be easy to attract employees who are both good at this specialisation and passionate enough about the company’s mission.

These people look at their jobs as just that – jobs. They are good at what they do and capable of taking the company forward. However, they don’t share the “mission”, and this means to attract them, you need to be able to serve their “needs”.

For starters, they demand to be paid more. Then, they need the recognition that the job is just a job for them – they need their holidays and “benefits” and “work life balance” and decent working hours and all that. These are things people who are missionary about the business don’t necessarily need – the purpose of the mission means that they are able to “adjust”.

The choice to move from a missionary organisation to a more “mercenary” organisation (not just talking of money here, but also other benefits and perks) needs to be a conscious one from the point of view of the company. At some point, the company needs to recognise that it cannot run on missionary fuel alone and make changes (in structure and function and what not) to accommodate mercenaries and let them grow the business.

The choice of this timing is something a lot of companies don’t get right. Some do it too late – they try to run on missionary fuel for way longer than it is sustainable, and then find it impossible to change culture. This leads to a revolving door of mercenaries and the company unable to leverage their talents.

Others – such as Twitter – do it way too early. One thing that seems to be clear (to me) from the recent wave of layoffs at the company, and also having broadly followed the company for a long time (I’ve had a twitter account since 2008), is that the company “went professional” too early.

There was a revolving door of founders in the initial days, until Jack Dorsey came back to run the company (apart from running Square) for a few years. This revolving door meant that the company, from its early days, was forced to rely on professional management – mercenaries in other words. Over a period of time, this resulted in massive bloat. The company struggled along until Elon Musk came in with an outlandish bid and bought it outright.

From the commentary that I see on twitter now, what Musk seems to be doing is to take the company back to “missionaries”. Take his recent letter for example. He is demanding that staff “work long hours at high intensity“. A bunch have resigned in protest (in addition to last week’s layoffs).

The objective of all these exercises – abrasive management style, laying off half the people first, and then putting onerous work conditions on the rest – is to simply weed out all the mercenaries. The only people who will agree to “work long hours at high intensity” will be “missionaries” – people who are passionate about growing the company and will do what it takes to get there.

Musk’s bet, in my opinion (and based on what I’ve read elsewhere), is that the company was massively overstaffed in the first place, and that there is a sufficient quorum of missionaries who will stay on and take the company forward. The reason he is doing all this in public (using his public twitter account to give instructions to his employees, for example) is the hope that these actions might attract potential missionaries from outside to beef up the staff.

I have no clue if this will succeed. At the heart of it, a 16 year old company wanting to run on missionaries only doesn’t make sense. However, given that the company had been listing (no pun intended), this might be necessary for a temporary reboot.

However, one thing I know is that this needs to be an “impulse” (in the physics sense of the term). A short and powerful jab to move the company forward. At an old company like this, running on missionaries can’t be sustainable. So they better fix the company soon and then move it on a more sustainable mercenary path.

## George Mallory and Metrics

It is not really known if George Mallory actually summited the Everest in 1924 – he died on that climb, and his body was only found in 1999 or so. It wasn’t his first attempt at scaling the Everest, and at 37, some people thought he was too old to do so.

There is this popular story about Mallory that after one of his earlier attempts at scaling the Everest, someone asked him why he wanted to climb the peak. “Because it’s there”, he replied.

In the sense of adventure sport, that’s a noble intention to have. That you want to do something just because it is possible to do it is awesome, and can inspire others. However, one problem with taking quotes from something like adventure sport, and then translating it to business (it’s rather common to get sportspeople to give “inspirational lectures” to business people) is that the entire context gets lost, and the concept loses relevance.

Take Mallory’s “because it’s there” for example. And think about it in the context of corporate metrics. “Because it’s there” is possibly the worst reason to have a metric in place (or should we say “because it can be measured?”). In fact, if you think about it, a lot of metrics exist simply because it is possible to measure them. And usually, unless there is some strong context to it, the metric itself is meaningless.

For example, let’s say we can measure N features of a particular entity (take N = 4, and the features as length, breadth, height and weight, for example). There will be N! was in which these metrics can be combined, and if you take all possible arithmetic operations, the number of metrics you can produce from these basic N metrics is insane. And you can keep taking differences and products and ratios ad infinitum, so with a small number of measurements, the number of metrics you can produce is infinite (both literally and figuratively). And most of them don’t make sense.

That doesn’t normally dissuade our corporate “measurer”. That something can be measured, that “it’s there”, is sometimes enough reason to measure something. And soon enough, before you know it, Goodhart’s Law would have taken over, and that metric would have become a target for some poor manager somewhere (and of course, soon ceases to be a metric itself). And circular logic starts from there.

That something can be measured, even if it can be measured highly accurately, doesn’t make it a good metric.

So what do we do about it? If you are in a job that requires you to construct or design or make metrics, how can you avoid the “George Mallory trap”?

Long back when I used to take lectures on logical fallacies, I would have this bit on not mistaking correlation for causation. “Abandon your numbers and look for logic”, I would say. “See if the pattern you are looking at makes intuitive sense”.

I guess it is the same for metrics. It is all well to describe a metric using arithmetic. However, can you simply explain it in natural language, and can the listener easily understand what you are saying? And more importantly, does that make intuitive sense?

It might be fashionable nowadays to come up with complicated metrics (I do that all the time), in the hope that it will offer incremental benefit over something simpler, but more often than not the difficulty in understanding it makes the additional benefit moot. It is like machine learning, actually, where sometimes adding features can improve the apparent accuracy of the model, while you’re making it worse by overfitting.

So, remember that lessons from adventure sport don’t translate well to business. “Because it’s there” / “because it can be measured” is absolutely NO REASON to define a metric.

## Financial ratio metrics

It’s funny how random things stick in your head a couple of decades later. I don’t even remember which class in IIMB this was. It surely wasn’t an accounting or a finance class. But it was one in which we learnt about some financial ratios.

I don’t even remember what exactly we had learnt that day (possibly return on invested capital?). I think it was three different financial metrics that can be read off a financial statement, and which then telescope very nicely together to give a fourth metric. I’ve forgotten the details, but I remember the basic concepts.

A decade ago, I used to lecture frequently on how NOT to do data analytics. I had this standard lecture that I called “smelling bullshit” that dealt with common statistical fallacies. Things like correlation-causation, or reasoning with small samples, or selection bias. Or stocks and flows.

One set of slides in that lecture was about not comparing stocks and flows. Most people don’t internalise it. It even seems like you cannot get a job as a journalist if you understand the distinction between stocks and flows. Every other week you see comparisons of someone’s net worth to some country’s GDP, for example. Journalists make a living out of this.

In any case, whenever I would come to these slides, there would always be someone in the audience with a training in finance who would ask “but what about financial ratios? Don’t we constantly divide stocks and flows there?”

And then I would go off into how we would divide a stock by a flow (typically) in finance, but we never compared a stock to a flow. For example, you can think of working capital as a ratio – you take the total receivables on the balance sheet and divide it by the sales in a given period from the income statement, to get “days of working capital”. Note that you are only dividing, not comparing the sales to the receivables. And then you take this ratio (which has dimension “days”) and then compare it across companies or across regions to do your financial analysis.

If you look at financial ratios, a lot of them have dimensions, though sometimes you don’t really notice it (I sometimes say “dimensional analysis is among the most powerful tools in data science”). Asset turnover, for example, is sales in a period divided by assets and has the dimension of inverse time. Inventory (total inventory on BS divided by sales in a period) has a dimension of time. Likewise working capital. Profit margins, however, are dimensionless.

In any case, the other day at work I was trying to come up with a ratio for something. I kept doing gymnastics with numbers on an excel sheet, but without luck. And I had given up.

Nowadays I have started taking afternoon walks at office (whenever I go there), just after I eat lunch (I carry a box of lunch which I eat at my desk, and then go for a walk). And on today’s walk (or was it Tuesday’s?) I realised the shortcomings in my attempts to come up with a metric for whatever I was trying to measure.

I was basically trying too hard to come up with a dimensionless metric and kept coming up with some nonsense or the other. Somewhere during my walk, I thought of finance, and financial metrics. Light bulb lit up.

My mistake had been that I had been trying to come up with something dimensionless. The moment I realised that this metric needs to involve both stocks and flows, I had it. To be honest, I haven’t yet come up with the perfect metric (this is for those colleagues who are reading this and wondering what new metric I’ve come up with), but I’m on my way there.

Since both a stock and a flow need to be measured, the metric is going to be a ratio of both. And it is necessarily going to have dimensions (most likely either time or inverse time).

And if I think about it (again I won’t be able to give specific examples), a lot of metrics in life will follow this pattern – where you take a stock and a flow and divide one by the other. Not just in finance, not just in logistics, not just in data science,  it is useful to think of metrics that have dimensions, and express them using those dimensions.

Some product manager (I have a lot of friends in that profession) once told me that a major job of being a product manager is to define metrics. Now I’ll say that dimensional analysis is the most fundamental tool for a product manager.