Airtel billed me for 3G at 33,000ft above sea level!

February 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Swanky new airtel.in/ir promising international roaming bliss! Sadly not up when I was leaving for my trip.

In an interesting follow-up story to my recent conference travel to Mexico, I found two diabolical entities waiting for me back home: Mom, with matrimonial matches for me (Ugh!) and a whopping Airtel bill upwards of Rs. 20,000/-. A rude shock for someone who just flew coach for 26hrs straight, with the added fun of jet lag.

Now, the timeline of my interactions with Airtel, is humor enough. From my past experience, I know that it’s always better to get them to respond on email, so that they can’t deny what was said to me. To be honest, the first part of the interactions with Airtel customer care (before my trip began) was normal  (read: good).

  • I described the itinerary (Bangalore -> Dubai -> NYC -> Cancun) to Airtel customer service on phone, since they called me back as follow-up to the email I sent asking for details about international roaming charges. I asked for a package that gave me data as well, and got an international roaming package enabled. (this is the only part of the interaction I dont have proof of).
  • As with any Airtel customer, you get an itemized bill. The bill consists of the charges, unit rates against a datetime stamp.
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See bullet point 1,2, 3? I wasnt in UAE at that time!

  • Now to get one question out of the way, I asked by email if the Airtel bills are recorded in Indian standard time? Nodal officer Kiran Thakral replied, yes.
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So, the timestamps in the itemized bill is IST

  • I do not dispute most of the charges they made to me, except for bullet points 1,2 and 3 in the itemized bill Airtel sent to me with charges in Du-UAE:
  •  So, below is my ticket, I also have with me the stamping in the passports and thankfully even the ticket stubs (my company requires that I hold on to them for reimbursement).

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  • * The flight took off on 30th Nov at 20:05 IST.
    * The flight duration is 04 hours and 15 minutes (as given in the ticket).
    * The flight landed at 00:2o the next day. 
  • So according to the itemized bill sent to me by Airtel, I was using data (loads of data, not a few KBs), in fact a total of 164 + 16 + 2636 = 2,816 pulses or 27.5 MB of data, while I was mid-air on the flight.
    Let me reiterate this point, the flight took off at 20:05 and landed 04 hours and 15 minutes later at 00:20 the next day. And according to this bill, I was using the Airtel network between 22:21 and 23:00. That is roughly half-way during the trip.
  • To put this in perspective, I went around searching for free flight tracking data, and sure enough, its offered by flightradar24.com at this link. So, if you put down the time which Airtel claims I used their international data services, ie, between 22:21-23:00 IST, which translates to between 16:30-17:30 in UTC, here is what the flight data tells you:

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  • So, I was in the middle of the journey, more than 33,000ft above sea level, at the time Airtel claims I used their services.  Before you ask, let me tell you that such technology doesn’t exist in the public domain, certainly not with Airtel and its partners.
  • What is most likely the case, is that the Airtel’s billing system can’t handle the time zone differences correctly when time bound packages are applied. A classic corner case bug.
  • As I have mentioned I did have a international roaming and data package installed, for which they charged we Rs. 999.00

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  • Now this is just the first of many, almost foolish, ways in which Airtel handled the situation. Net result was that I could not use data when I just reached Cancun and needed to book an Uber ride, I could’nt use Maps to find my hotel. So the whole thing was pretty useless and unreliable to me.

Now, here is where things stop being funny. I have, for the past month or so, exchanged over 30 emails and countless minutes of calls explaining this discrepancy to over half a dozen Airtel employees at various levels starting from the call center guy to Appellate officers. In fact, let me name all these people, so in future if anyone of them contacts you, you know that there is almost no chance of your issue being resolved or even heard.
Madhumitha, Rajeswari, Ezakiyal Chinnaiah, Vidhya, Archana R, Sheela HK, Bharani S Chandar, Soumodip Acharya, Ramya S, and Kiran Thakral
None of them were rude or unfriendly, but just not receptive to the idea that a customer may be right. Which really really really bothers me. Forget for the moment that there is overwhelming evidence and focus purely on the intent of the customer.
A customer wants to use your services while traveling abroad.
He look up your website, contact your helpdesk email and gets a package installed before leaving. Then he uses the services assuming certain billing rates.

The intent is clear.
There is no need for me to furnish evidence, just bill them accordingly, and stop harassing them with some technical intricacies. 

A similar incident happened to me with Amazon.com and also with Netflix.com. Both websites took my credit card information before providing a free 30 days account for their site. I had stopped using them after 4-5 days but forgot to cancel them and was charged for the next month. However, both websites rolled back these charges since my intent was clear. I wasn’t using those accounts, I clearly didn’t want them.

I have been an Airtel customer for over 10 years. I have paid between 3-5 times the amount an average post-paid customer pays. Airtel, could have earned this disputed amount from me within the next 6-8 months of my regular usage anyway. But they seem to be hell-bent on getting rid of me as a customer.

So Airtel, congratulations. You succeeded.

Oh baby there ain’t no mountain high enough,
Ain’t no valley low enough,
Ain’t no river wide enough, To keep me from…. billing you!

~Airtel seems to have taken thse Martin and Teller’s lyrics way too seriously!

You can’t break a Mexican heart

January 7, 2017 § 1 Comment

Hola! Buenos Dias!
Igles? India? Namaste!
Whajj do you want amigos? Taxi? honk honk, yu want to go som-wear?
Restaurant? Best in Cancun amigos, best food in cancun? No?
Party? You want to party, amigo? its a great day to party ma friend? No?
Ok no problemo, you have good day, maybe someother time, yeah? some other time?

For all their flaws, if there is one thing a Mexican amigo is good at, is having a bargaining conversation with himself. Don’t attempt any communication with him. In his eagerness, he will shortchange himself, agreeing for too little, curse, but then just takes the money, scratch and moves on, muttering under his breathe. Mercado 28, the palika bazar of Cancun, leaves you feeling like you couldn’t have gotten a better deal. Cancun is a modern Mexican city built some 70 years ago at, what was once a small and disconnected fishing village. Blessed with bluest seas and sandy beaches, one goes to Cancun to relax, rejuvenate,  to party, have fun and to spend their American dollars.

I was taken in by the city right away, having developed an appreciation for the good life in recent years. The weather was amazing, beautiful friendly faces as far as the eye can see, fresh seafood and a favourable dollar rate. I had holstered, locked and loaded if so needed, my Gracias and my Hola, also learnt to say and hum El Pardon for good measure. It is as much Spanish as you will need to get around comfortably in a touristy place like Cancun. The hotels are on a strip with one single road called the avenida Kukulkan, who happens to be the serpent sun god worshiped by the Mayans. In fact, Cancun means the serpent’s nest.

Quick history lesson!
The Maya race of people emerged in the Yucatán Peninsula (spanning modern day Mexico, Guntanama,  El Salvador, and Honduras) as early as 2000 BC. Some say, they migrated from as far as Mongolia, according to the Bering Strait land bridge theory. The civilization rose to prominence around 260 AD, with their extraordinary understanding of  agriculture, mathematics, the cosmos and language. If one ventured West towards Valladolid (the vast Spanish settlement), like we did, one could experience the majestic expanse of Chichan itza. A UNESCO world heritage site, is likely built somewhere between 600-900 AD, before falling into decline when the Mayans abandoned the site to escape the wrath of the Spanish conquistadors (famously, Hernán Cortés in 1519). It was re-discovered in the 1800s, amazing scholars who realized the superior understanding the Mayans had of the positions of heavenly bodies to which the pyramid symmetrically aligns. One can observe the shadow of pyramid forming the Kukulkan serpent on Equinox.

Mesoamerican cultures discuss the World Tree, related to the creation story of the universe. The mystical Tree, what is now seen as a depiction of the arm of the Milky way, was thought to contain the secret for eternal life and the ultimate destruction of the world. A few kilometers from the site is Balankanche. A composite laser scan image of Chichen Itza’s Cave of Balankanche, shows the main limestone column, which resonates with the World Tree imagery!

Onwards a short distance from the site, one reaches the holy Cenote, a naturally forming sink hole with sweet, freshwater that we took a dip in. The Mayans believed the water had healing properties and restored youth. I have been overly indulgent in providing my readers with information available anywhere on the interweb, but if you could indulge me once more, I would like to introduce just three interesting characters in the history of the Yucatan peninsula that may be worth knowing.

In 1511, Gerónimo de Aguilar was a Spaniard looking for work in the Panama colony, his life took a sudden turn when he was shipwrecked of the coast of the Yucatan peninsula and was promptly taken hostage along with 12 other crew members ready to be sacrificed for the Mayan gods. His attempt to escape whichever of slavery, disease, or death came first, crossed his path with that of Gonzalo Guerrero, another maritime victim of the Yucatan currents. Their attempt to escape landed them in the hands of the rival clan, under the leadership of Mayan chief Xamanzana, where they learned to speak the local language.

The year 1519 brought with it the invasion of Hernán Cortés with an eye to establish and extend the Spanish colony to the interiors of Mexico. Having heard of a bearded man who roamed the parts, Cortés summoned Aguilar, who had been a slave for the Mayans for the last eight years. He somehow escaped and made his way to the expedition, where Cortes found him to have practiced his religion, devoted to his breviary despite captivity, and also being able to tell the correct day of the week. Aguilar continued to serve the expedition, with his knowledge of the region and language. He was eventually sent back to Spain when his services were no longer required, for La Malinche had learned to speak Spanish.

Guerrero on the other hand, became a war chief for Nachan Kaan, Lord of Chektumal. This military prowess earned him extraordinary repute with the Mayans. Guerrero had by then married Nachan Can’s daughter Zazil Há and had fathered the Americas’ first mestizo children. He played a role in the disastrous Spanish defeat in the Cordoba’s expedition, which greatly embarrassed the Spanish supremacy in the region, leading to the death of conquistador Hernández Córdoba. Aguilar tried to convince him to return, to which he had replied as follows:

Brother Aguilar; I am married and have three children, and they look on me as a cacique (lord) here, and captain in time of war. My face is tattooed and my ears are pierced. What would the Spaniards say about me if they saw me like this? Go and God’s blessing be with you, for you have seen how handsome these children of mine are. Please give me some of those beads you have brought to give to them and I will tell them that my brothers have sent them from my own country.

La Malinche was born in the Aztec controlled parts of Mexico and was promptly sold by her step-family as a slave girl to the Spanish. By her late teens, her beauty and grace was widely discussed among Spanish nobility. She was promptly presented to be the mistress of Cortés. She proved to be his greatest ally in the forging of new Mexico colony. She was proficient in two local languages and later picked up Spanish. Several accounts from different sources  refer to her as Doña Marina (with the honor title Doña). Cortes would later himself admit that she was the second most important reason for his success after God. Marina is depicted in indigenous illustrations as equal to Cortes, taking her rightful place of the Nahua wife, who traditionally help their husbands in military and diplomacy. In contemporary culture too, she is depicted in many different ways: the mother of Mexico, the unfortunate victim of two cultures, the traitor, the saint. There are tales of a mysterious twin sister who chose a different life. What is undisputed, is her status as a strong female figure in the turbulent history of this land.

I dont know if many people remember the Dreamworks picture, Road to El Dorado. While the story is rated poorly, it features interpretations of these three characters and has some fantastic music by Elton John and Hans Zimmer. One particular lyric from the Elton John classic comes to mind, as I compile the stories of these three Mexican individuals:

Who’s to say who’s right or wrong
Whose course is braver run

~ Elton John, Friends never say goodbye

One day 13, I was out by myself in downtown Cancun, to get one last Sol. I looked around, it was me amid many everyday people, Enrique Iglesias blazing on in the background absolutely fascinated by the undampenable Mexican spirit. I couldn’t honestly say I had enough of Mexico. I had after all, spent way too much money and had way too much of a good time. Enough to get me quite sick when I got back to India. There is too much love in Mexico, the pure kind, the rare kind. They suffer from it. Maybe they deserve it. I don’t know if I will ever meet Carlos, Martha, Veronica, Jerry, or Antonio again. I can only wish them well from the bottom of my heart.

Vacation in Mexico: Hair gets lighter. Skin gets darker.
Water gets warmer. Drinks get colder.
Music gets louder. Nights get longer. Life gets better.

~ On some corner of some street

There and back again..

November 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

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The honking is the first thing that reminds you the trip is over‘, Bigfoot had said. It does have a ‘bring you back to reality’ effect, I thought sitting in the comfort of the majestic Kalka-Delhi Shatabdi Express enjoying chai and Marigold biscuits.

I, along with nineteen other hapless souls from across the country, subjected our bodies and minds to a test of endurance and grit. They delivered. At 15,255ft above sea level, gasping for air, we rewarded our senses to the beauty and permanence of the Himalayas.

Rupin pass is a Shepherd’s trail that takes, those who attempt the shortcut, from Udaknal straight to Sangla via the boundless and plentiful grazing meadows. This makes it a luring experience for sheep, blessed with natural sweaters and hooves, and also their closely related, AMS prone cousins: the amateur trekkers.

So armed by my own hooves that arrived by FedEx (thanks sportsIndia for a quicker than average delivery time), a borrowed jacket and a Quechua backpack, a timely off-season gift (lov’ya sis), I set off with steely determination to face my first and most fearful challenge of the trek, the New Delhi Railway station.
I won’t get into where we went, what food we ate, or how good the arrangements were, this isn’t that kind of article and I am not that good a writer. Standing there on the summit, I did write. These words just came to me as I thought of this inevitable blog post..
There I stood, looking at everything: from the meagre me to the undying abyss of permanence. I could look at every tree, leaf and stone for hours and not see it to heart’s content. My body knew where I was. These are not pixels spread on a screen to pinch, I was really there, I existed. With each frosty blast of wind I was receiving the ultimate validation: of myself, my existence in this world.
Thanks Indiahikes, I am still learning about the fascinating work, its focus on documenting the many beautiful trekking routes across India, the care for minimal environmental impact, empowerment of locals, and that this is a not for profit organisation. I felt secure and in good hands throughout the whole trek. Oximeter readings were like exam results! I agree very much with their vision statement, everyone must trek, kids especially so. I do hope this chance encounter with Indiahikes will blossom into full-blown love affair. Goecha la here I come!
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Maps, Shopping, Services and Information: Did you internet that yet?

November 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Research now shows that the human brain is adapting to store information in terms of accessibility rather than actual content. That is to say, it is now a lookup table that informs you of the source or location of the information rather than content itself. Imagine that! Our brains rewired to take advantage of our dependency on the internet.

And why not? Science fiction has long professed the existence of a singular human consciousness: a repository of all human knowledge and experience, over which individuals are merely nodes or access points, much like an ant colony. Perhaps that’s a tad too dramatic a prospect to be concerned about, given the current state of the internet: with its cat videos, wrongly attributed quotes, recycled literature, and ugly compartmentalized services with cryptic URLs. But maybe we are heading towards this or a less scary version of this inevitability.

If you have read The Last Question, Isaac Asimov.

Clearly, Googling for information you don’t have,
checking for reviews before making purchases,
summoning delivered services, and
getting directions to places
have become an inseparable part of our lives, businesses,  and culture now.

To know how far we have got, we must look to what is being done right. Let’s review a few of the things the internet has got spot on!

Maps, Navigation and Location based Services: Location, Location, Location

The level of maturity that mapping and navigation services have reached over the last few year is amazing. Credit to Google to get maps and navigation right to our phones. Some folks will remember that not long ago SATNAV was a paid for service, that could go horribly wrong! It all started with the acquisition of Where2 in 2004 and its integration with a satellite imaging company called Keyhole in 2005. Several companies had, up to that point, provided some map information to find businesses etc. Google maps however,  stands out for speed, accuracy and for its availability in a surprising number of locations. A couple of years ago, Google Maps moved to JavaScript to become really fast and responsive using deCarte’s (previously called Telcontar, which I was pleasantly surprised to find is an awesome LOTR reference) Drill Down Server (DDS) geo-spatial software platform but has since started using their own in-house version. The good people at DNews have more information on how satellite data is procured and processed, and the various stake holders that bring you, what is now Google Earth. I urge you to look at the video to understand really how much money and human capital is paid for when you allow for them to shown you a few adverts.

While companies like Where 2 (founded by the Jens and Lars Rasmussen, who later made several contributions in Google and Facebook)  reinforce my believe that pure technology companies offer that next-10x-improvement magic ingredient that just make things better, those are not always the kind of companies that make the technews. Given a fast, reliable, real-time, and ubiquitous location platform, there are plenty of interesting and fun services that can go on top of it. There is a lot going for this area and  plenty to discuss, everything from the business models to devices and delivery, apart from the back-end stuff of accuracy, reliability, privacy & security, and algorithms.

navigation: Why cant we have a display on the wind-shield yet?

The important thing to keep in mind here is that synchronized satellites that orbit our planet are able to triangulate the position of my phone on the face of the earth, and a crazy company is willing to project that location onto a map that they tediously annotate and update, and render it back in my phone, so my life is better. Yes! I think this one we got spot on.

Reviews,  Shopping and Social Media 

I like it a little bit, and you?

A lot of internet browsing is about finding interesting content on the web, sharing and discussing it with friends. Almost every sharing platform offers this service with various extensions or customizations but rarely without receiving denigration. We are content creators, moderators, consumers all at the same time. I could not imagine a time when internet wasn’t personal. Our ability to rate experiences in a scale of 1-5 is just the kind of reduction that makes the internet a handy tool to have. Amazon.com was one of the first to use item to item collaborative filtering to recommend books based on similar customer preferences. We have since come a long way, integrating reviews to our credibility, our understanding of the area etc. A rating tells a company more about you than you are saying about them.

What’s coming?

This article has been about what the internet got right. What we got right with the internet. It’s tempting to think of what we will achieve with this in the future. I don’t know. Here are some stuff that I know are around the corner. Expect a huge improvement in the way we use currency, banks and financial services. MOOCs have come a long way since the early videos of professors with projectors and videolecture.net. Still engagement numbers are low and dropouts and extremely high. Top quality education will continue to be available for consumption for all of us.

This one is a bit debatable. Maybe it’s a more personal pain point, I wish was solved sooner. It is still hard for people in remote locations to collaborate effortlessly on common projects. There are some important technologies here VOIP, repositories, versioning tools, and such. How can I reach out say, to a palaeontologist who might think my sketches based on fossils for Brontosaurus are interesting and plausible? I don’t know yet.

Another area that is close to my heart and one that will significantly improve for an end-user is the ability to consume, infer, and work with images. I am not talking about cool filters here, but an array of millions of filters (interestingly!) that will infer your likes, dislikes, your fashion sense, your ability to drive, your health, the calories in your food, maybe even whether you are too drunk to drive back home. The magic of deep-learning will be the acceleration that the camera will need to forever put to rest the sensor race on your mobile phone and stake the claim of being the king of the mobile sensors, just ahead of the GPS. If some research is to be believed, even making the fingerprint scanner an unnecessary redundancy.

I would like to see a seamless integration of this collective human knowledge into our day-to-day lives: within conversations, meetings and the ideating processes. Products and services that bridge that last mile gap between the internets of opinions to the product purchasing process are, I believe, still lacking. Perhaps stronger location-based services is one answer, but that is looking at our lives through the prism of mobility. Technologists seem to be absolutely convinced that mobility is that last mile solution that will integrate internet to our living being. There is of course a lot of evidence to back that but as people lift their heads and realize that they don’t have to be wearing the internet all the time, maybe other design choices need to be explored. Devices that are as good with person recognition as they are with location,  can allow for personalization and user-stitched experiences.

I can’t help but find an analogy to the ancient cities of the world. All built around a river, a flowing entity that every citizen took a dip in at various walks of life. So too is the internet that is flowing all about us. Connect us, and help with our lives, and our relationships.

There will come a time, that our lives will be truly one with the network. Then the phrases I hope sound less like: did you Google this, or did you see that URL I sent you via beep chat, and more like: have you livedare you awake…. isn’t this great weather.

An internet that is integrated into rather than onto our lives. Making it more meaningful, productive, and fun.
Maybe then a day, where long distance will not be too painful.

 

No size fits all: Ghayal Sentiments, Smart Cars and the No-Free-Lunch Theorem

April 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

amul

My dear sweet Deepika Padukone is under fire for a rather livid monologue on her right to choice.

The poor thing had already been having a tough couple of weeks, that with her nearly being arrested for attending the torrid comedy event and the ensuing spectacle that followed.

I came across several opinion pieces on the ‘short-film’ (the word used rather loosely), some expressing concern and criticism, others disapproval and complete dismay. Exceptions taken at the use of the words, or the tone, perhaps the sentiments they arose and so forth. Even the otherwise stately The Hindu chimed in with several articles, with click-bait titles to the envy of traffic hungry bloggers, such as myself. The contents of the video were certainly not agreeable to all. Clearly, the video hurt some sentiments.

Getting offended has become a whim in recent times, (certain) people taking things remarkably seriously. Romila Thapar wrote an eloquent editorial on our inability as a society to protect our fundamental right to expression.  By cratering to the objections of fridge groups, she argues, that our society is losing the ability to function by itself. In other words, the ability to introspect, or to self-correct by allowing ourselves to have different/conflicting viewpoints. Having diverse training samples is essential for any learning algorithm, is it not?

Well, so much for click-bait opinions! Now that I have your attention, let’s move on the more enthralling topics, how about magical chariots!?

Yes, the time has come! Yet again the human race will produce the goods when necessity mothers some amazing technological inventions. It is now, as Elon Musk had foreseen, intractable for us as human beings to continue to travel in 2 ton death traps operated by levers and gears. The age of the self-driving, modern vehicles of wonder will soon dawn!

I have written before about Musk’s Tesla spearheading the efforts towards electric cars, his focus on building sporty high end electric cars recalibrated us to think of them as a formidable force. Innovation in battery and charging technologies saw light and powerful cars. Take a moment to see the Model S auto driving demo here.

Impressive! The new Tesla Model S now comes in a standard 60kWh and the 85kWh with a ridiculous acceleration of 0-60 mph in 3.2 seconds and autopilot mode to boost. The car is equipped with radar, visual camera to recognize road signs and sonar to check proximity.  This video of people’s reactions when experiencing the insane mode went viral few months ago. Musk also showed off the duel motor all-wheel drive in fine style. He recently tweeted about another big product line to be announced end of April. There is also an April fool’s joke going around that it could be Model W, a new watch!

That gag is especially funny, given that some industry watchers believe Apple is joining Tesla, Google, Volvo and Uber in the race to build a production self-driving car.  Enter, the man who has the knack to spin burgeoning industries on their heads, Sir Jonathan Ive.

Being a purist in design and novelty is one thing, and sitting on an excess cash reserve of $178 billion is another. Buoyed by the recording breaking profits of $18 billion and increasing pressure on Time Cook to let shareholders see that excess cash, if anyone can roll out a car by 2020, it’s this duo.

One thing is for sure, manufacturing companies that have for years supplied high school jocks and the Jeremy Clarksons with their “hot wheels” have to make way for the neo-age geeks to take over the last frontier of high school social eliteness in the race to the production of cool cars.

The low cost high volume production car manufactures of old may still have important lessons to disseminate as far as productions and operations are concerned. However, when an industry sees such massive disruption many existing notions must be revisited and new ideas given an opportunity to flourish.

There is an interesting mathematical folklore, dubbed the No Free Lunch theorem, which states that no algorithm (learning and recently also extended to optimization) is necessarily better than another when their performance is averaged over all possible problems (situations). The theorem is taken very seriously, some even suggesting it as proof of intelligent design. If I can be so bold as to abstract, different human ideas or opinions when applied over enough circumstances become immaterial! .. Right??.. bit much??

No peace yet for my lovely Deepika P., as she struggles to hopelessly induce meaning to her commercially thriving acting career; by alternating every hollow crowd-puller Bollywood Masala appearance with a sobered performance in an even more pointless drama.

Just like her movies are take-it-or-leave-its, so too are most films, books, cars, technologies, algorithms, thoughts, or opinions. For surely, no one size fits all!

[Book thoughts]: M. Gladwell’s Blink, Data modeling, and Corporate Structure

December 13, 2014 § 4 Comments

I got around to reading this book from my house a couple of weeks back as I have become increasingly intrigued by the art of decision making. This is an interesting discussion on the art of snap judgement, what the author calls ‘thin slicing’. There are several interesting and well written anecdotal evidence of instances where this technique is effective, misleading and not-applicable.

On the onset, I am not a fan of the Gladwell’s writing, in fact his entire approach of presenting a theory makes me uneasy and I will briefly explain why. Most of the socio-anthropological topics/theories he writes about are, in my opinion, to be thoroughly examined by scientific approaches, with rigor and thoroughness. The evidence must be collected without bias and examined skeptically. Any insights developed from observations must done so with caution.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – Carl Sagan

Consider how Gladwell introduces John Gottman, a professor from University of  Washington working in relationship counselling and social sequence analysis, to build the case for the thin slicing theory.

John Gottman is a middle-aged man with owl-like eyes, silvery hair, and a trimmed beard. He is short and very charming, and when he talks about something that excites him his eyes light up even wider. During the Vietnam War, he was conscientious objector, and there is still something of a 60’s hippie about him, like the Mao cap he sometimes wears over his braided yarmulke.

I understand that the elaborate description of the person helps to perhaps build context, to prepare the reader for an outlandish claim that Gottman is about to make. To be fair, when reading a journal publication or before attending a technical talk, we have all scrolled down to the author’s photo and description or looked up the speaker’s homepage to get a sense of what to expect. But it belays a fear that what is about to come must not be taken too seriously either. Clearly, the author is carried away by the person’s appearance and credentials to sufficiently scrutinize what he is being presented with.

The book has, however, held my interest. This unformed style of writing has compelled me to make my own interpretations of the facts and theories presented to me. There is something Dr. House-esque about the situation, if I may say so. Thin slicing fits in with an important adage in the machine learning community, known as the Occam’s razor principle. The degraded version of the principle implies that simple works best. In this age of large data, and its unending sources of evidence to make decisions, this thumb-rule implies that plugging more information to your data model can infact be detrimental to its performance.

Imagine there are a large number of fuzzy input parameters that you could use to make a decision. In case of Gottman’s experiment, it is a video of a couple who are arguing on an issue and then go on to reconcile. If you were asked to predict if this couple would go on to have a lasting marriage, there are several things you could consider. For instance, you could endlessly profile each member, everything from who they are, what they do, likes, dislikes, attitude, personality, background, profession, interests. Then there are interactions, their behaviour towards one another, the words they used during confrontation and reconciliation. Perhaps you want to factor in what kind of day they had so far, even stress at work or health. To put it simply, your data model here can always seem incomplete, since to some extent at the least, there are always going to be factors that you are not privy to. Gottman concluded from his study however, that as little as four indicators of negative behaviour (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) that can predict divorce with an accuracy of over 90%! Now, I for one can’t think of a fifth negative behaviour myself, so anyone with four of those going on in their lives seem pretty screwed.

This ofcourse is just one example and there are other interesting instances you could look at too. For instance, the car dealer who resisted pre-judging his customers as they entered his showroom. I often wonder about this contradiction of information, where less is more. It is something you see everywhere. Corporate hierarchy too in interesting in that sense, since the person who makes the biggest decisions, is the one with the least amount of ground-reality information! And to its credit, it works!

Bosses can be helpful!

Tesla: Undoing the patent system

June 21, 2014 § 3 Comments

Last week, Elon Musk, the visceral founder and CEO announced that this company, Tesla, a pioneer in electric vehicle technology is making all their patents freely available to the world. Following the announcement, the patent wall at their headquarters was replaced with a giant banner that reads

All our patent are belong to you

Tesla patent wall: All our patent are belong to you

The sign is a reference to a historic meme from an old Japanese game with bad translations in the cut-scenes. More on that here.

Just to be absolutely clear, this is an unprecedented move in an otherwise highly secretive industry that has taken the world by surprise. Musk is offering something that is unheard of.

And I am not even talking of the swag of it.

It is one thing to open source software; Google did with the Android mobile operating system. And as commendable as that is, it is a totally different thing for a technology company with less than 1% market share in the US, to give up its innovations, its bread and butter, to its competitors. Giant automobile companies with huge infrastructure, marketing and production capabilities, that have struggled to innovate and be productive in this segment, now no longer have patent roadblocks to copy the best technology. Imagine the thrill of Chinese car manufacturers!

Musk writes that it is unfair that Tesla has such an advantage technology-wise compared to other companies. He wants electric cars to be a sizeable chuck of some 2 billion cars produced each year. It is impossible for his company to do that alone. So he welcomes some competition, and wants to give them a boost. Technology leaders are not those who sit on their patents, he says, but rather those who can attract and motivate great engineers and researchers to work for them. Perhaps a challenge to himself and his employees to constantly be ahead of the curve. He cites as his inspiration, the slowly brewing open source moment of technology companies such as Twitter and Google who are now slowly presenting a new thought process that side-steps patent obsession that has been the sad theme of the industry in the past.

Tesla is an industry leader in battery technology, particularly the super-charging that has cut the time-to-charge substantially. If the industry picks up these technology and they become accepted as  standards, there is huge potential for big companies like Toyota or Mercedes to bring electric vehicles to the foray. Last thing we need is another industry standards fiasco à la mobile charging pins.

If there is a future for us with sustainable energy consumption, I wonder if history will look back to when the ideas to develop really high-end electric vehicles first opened up.

Tesla model S

It is not just a fantastically generous gesture from Tesla and Musk though. Industry analysts say that it is in fact a sound business decision. Tesla is founded on big promises of innovation and growth. Increasingly there is consensus that it is not doing as well, financially, as investors had hoped.  With a looming $2.2 billion debt, Musk is really counting on the industry to adopt his technology and make charging stations and battery manufacturing at scale. He hopes to sell his better designed and branded cars on the back of industry laid infrastructure. In a world where people are only too eager to jump the bandwagon, this move may result in Tesla becoming the industry monopoly if they are able to hold on to key aspects of their technology others are unable to reverse engineer. In fact, creating an atmosphere where it is easier to build on existing baselines may kill other innovations trying to come through. We are seeing this happen right now, given that Android is a decent mobile operating systems, it is so much easier for the industry to comply with Google and adopt their operating system, than to build something from scratch.

What we know for certain is that the patent system is quickly becoming obsolete and Elon Musk as pulled yet another unicorn from his hat. It is a characteristic high risk, high reward move that we have become accustomed to seeing from him.  His words in the blog post are cautious suggesting that he may still use his patents as defence against potential trolls. Either way he has put his chief innovators and technology people on the spot. The world is now watching.

Overall I consider Tesla’s patent move a good news. Perhaps there is an underhanded opportunity under the guile of altruism but one thing is for certain, Tesla and Musk have yet again broken stereotype and convention. So now others have no excuses.

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