Thursday, January 16, 2014

The story of how Adam Smith created Bing

Re-posting from Quora where this got a bit of attention.
Jerrin Elanjikal's answer to: Why is Microsoft hell-bent on spending so many resources on Bing?
To save the world. Yes, really! Let me explain. 
Imagine a world with only one newspaper, only one TV news channel, only one brand of toothpaste, etc. Is that ok? 
Now imagine a world with just one search engine for all your information? No alternatives, no second opinion. Is that ok? (hint Can Google Influence an Election?)

That's not the kind of world we want to live in. That's not the kind of world Microsoft wants to live in. So Microsoft decided to do something about it. 
Sure, Microsoft is motivated by self-interest, because of something called the 'Supplier Hold-up problem' in economics.

Microsoft needs search/ML capabilities in Windows, Office, Xbox etc. If they had to buy it from Google, and there was no alternative, Google could charge whatever they liked and Microsoft would be forced to pay. (Remember the Apple-Google Maps showdown.) 
So Microsoft has no choice but to build its own search engine.

That forces Google to keep getting better, which is good for all of us consumers.

More importantly it keeps Google honest, thus saving democracy and the free world and all that.

So there you have it - the Invisible hand in action.

Saturday, February 23, 2013


1996 was one of those years that changed the way I see the world. My cousin met with a serious car accident, regained consciousness after two months in intensive care and spent another year in rehab. I spent most of my summer with him in the rehab ward. And that’s where I met Khalid (name changed). He and two others shared the room with my cousin. Khalid was in his early twenties. A car accident had left him quadriplegic. For someone who had suffered such huge loss, Khalid was incredibly composed and pragmatic. One day we talked about his accident.

He used to work as a telecom support engineer. The job involved a lot of travel on the desert highway that connects Doha to the surrounding satellite townships. His colleague doubled up as the driver. Khalid noticed that the driver would occasionally doze off at the wheel during the long drive, usually just for a few seconds. He raised the issue with his colleague, but the problem continued. Khalid chose not to escalate the issue with their manager because that would have caused his colleague to lose his job. His colleague was killed in the accident. There was no bitterness or anger in his voice as he narrated the story. Khalid’s only regret was that if only he had escalated the issue, his colleague would still be alive.

There are times when being nice is not good. When there is a gap between what we expect should happen and what actually happens, a healthy confrontation is necessary to resolve the issue. The consequences of avoiding it can be serious. Unfortunately, most of us have never had the opportunity to acquire the skills required to effectively confront such difficult situations. Often we remain silent, or react in a way that does nothing to resolve the issue. This is why I am really excited about a new training program at work called Crucial Confrontations developed by Kerry Patterson and others. Here’s a brief summary of their approach to effective confrontation.

Before entering a confrontation, you first need to work on yourself. Ask yourself WHAT is the issue. Is it a ‘Content’ issue, something to do with what the other person did (or did not do)? Is it a ‘Pattern’ issue, something that repeatedly does (or does not do)? Or is it a ‘Relationship’ issue, where the pattern of behavior has become a threat to your relationship with the other person? Think of it as three levels – if this is the first time it’s a content issue, if it is a repeat issue it’s a pattern, if the other person is not willing to address the pattern it become a relationship issue. When you have a pattern or relationship issue, focusing on the content alone, as most of us often do, will not help. Then, you also need to ‘unbundle’ the issue. Often we confuse consequences with intention. It is necessary to identify if your issue is with the intention of what the other person did or with the consequence of what was done. And then you need to prioritize. Interpersonal issues are often complex. You need to identify which issue is most important for you to address.

Now that you have a clear idea of what the issue is, you need to decide IF you actually want to go ahead and have this confrontation with the other person. We often downplay the consequences of remaining silent or exaggerate the consequence of speaking up. We may fear retaliation, or be afraid that the other person will be hurt, or that the relationship will suffer if we speak up. In such situations it helps to consider the consequences of silence. What harm would remaining silent cause me, am I setting up the other person for greater failure by not speaking up now, will somebody else be harmed if I remain silent, will the relationship go from bad to worse if I remain silent, etc. Sure there are some rare situations where avoiding confrontation may be the best option. But in most scenarios, the best outcome can be reached only through constructive confrontation. Another mistake that we often make is to assume that we are helpless, to think that there is nothing I can do to change things. Or to unfairly put the entire blame on the other side (eg: It all started when he hit me back). And finally it is necessary to choose your battles. Some things can be ignored.

After having figured out WHAT the issue is and IF it should be confronted, you need to master your STORIES. This is where the concept of ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ comes in. When we see a person do something, we tend to be biased towards believing that she is doing it because of some inherent quality in her, and discount environmental factors that may be causing the behavior. (Eg: He took two days to fix the bug because he is lazy.) As Patterson et al. put it – “The stories we tell help justify our worst behavior.” Tell the rest of the story. Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do that? (Eg: He took two days to fix the bug because he was working on another higher priority bug.) Consider alternate explanations for what happened and do not jump to conclusions.

Now you are ready to move on to the actual confrontation. Relax. Focus on the process of having a constructive confrontation, nothing personal. First you need to find an appropriate private place where you can raise the issue. It’s usually not helpful to have a confrontation in public. Start by asking permission to raise the issue (Eg: There is something that is bothering me. Can we talk about it?) Then describe the gap – what the other person did vs. what you expected. Tentatively share your story – say what you think, but make it clear that it’s just your point of view. End with an honest question. The idea is to create a feeling of safety by establishing mutual respect and mutual purpose.

Iterate over this process of sharing your respective points of view and asking honest questions till you both understand and agree on what is causing the issue and how to resolve it. Use the ‘Six Sources of Influence’ model to understand the reason for the issue and also to find a way to resolve it. Patterson et al. classify the factors that influence behavior along two axes, Motivation/Ability and Individual/Social/Structural. In analyzing the issue, use this model to keep things objective and avoid cognitive biases like the Fundamental Attribution Error. In trying to find a solution to the issue, resist the temptation to use your power or charisma (if you have any) or provide rewards as a means to motivate the desired behavior. Instead, explain the natural consequences of the behavior that is at issue and you are more likely to have a genuine buy-in for change. Examine the barriers preventing the person from doing what he should be doing and figure out how they can be removed.

Stay focused and flexible. If a new problem emerges during the confrontation, you need to recurse. Ask yourself WHAT exactly the new issue is and IF you need to confront it now. If you do need to confront the new issue now, bookmark the current issue, address the new issue, then return to where you left off. If you do not wish to confront the new issue now, acknowledge it and reassure the other person that we will address it later.

If a sense of safety is at risk use a ‘contrasting statement’ to clarify your intent. (Eg: I DON’T mean to question your decision, I DO want to understand the thought process behind it.) Anger and silence are the main indicators that the other person does not feel safe. If necessary, step out of the conversation about the issue, rebuild mutual respect and mutual purpose to create a sense of safety, and then return to the issue once the other person feels safe.

And don’t let anything the other person does affect your emotional state. (Eg: Whatever the other person says, don’t get angry.) Focus on the process. At the end of it you should both understand and agree on what is causing the issue and how to resolve it. Create a plan – ‘Who’ will do ‘What’ by ‘When’. Decide of a schedule for follow-up to review if the issue is resolved.

Knowing the consequence of Khalid’s silence has not prevented me from remaining silent on more than one occasion when I should have spoken up. Confrontation is emotionally draining and often ineffective without the right skills. The ‘Crucial Confrontations’ process gives you a tool to effectively handle confrontation and achieve a constructive outcome. It is not going to make confrontation easy or fun, but it does make possible what might otherwise seem impossible to many of us. Being effective at it requires effort and practice. And as someone once said, you can’t learn to swim by reading a book about it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Tragic Gap

After watching Inglorious Bastards the other day, it occurred to me that the movie was really about Landa. And that felt kind of disturbing. Because Landa did not hate, he didn't care much for the propaganda or the party or the race. He just did what it took to be successful in the system, to climb up the ladder, and eventually, to save his own ass. 

And then I was watching Satyamev Jayate on YouTube. Its really encouraging to see Aamir tackle issues that we as a society would rather not talk about. Because the first step to fixing our problems is to acknowledge that they exist, to break the silence. And then strive for a better alternative that we know to be possible. 

Which brings me to something I read recently, by the philosopher Parker Palmer, on what he calls the Tragic Gap:
By “the tragic gap” I mean the gap between what is and what could and should be, the gap between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it. 
When I collapse into the reality of what is, I am likely to sink into corrosive cynicism: “Community is impossible, so I’m going to focus on getting my piece of the action and let the devil take the hindmost.” 
When I collapse into pure possibility, I am likely to float off into irrelevant idealism: “Oh, how lovely it would be if….”

Corrosive cynicism and irrelevant idealism may sound as if they are poles apart, but they take us to the same place: out of the gap and out of the action, out of those places we might make a life-giving contribution if we knew how to hold the tension.
We don’t learn to hold tension in ways that open the heart by reading essays but by being around others who keep learning how to do it and invite us to try it for ourselves.
And that last part is especially important, as I've learned from some of the wonderful people I've known over the years. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Introducing Paloma Verde - the Green Dove

60ml Silver Tequila
60ml Concentrated Green Tea Infusion (steep five green tea bags in 70 ml of hot water and let cool)
120ml Unsweetened White Grapefruit Juice
120ml Club Soda
Stirred well and served in a highball glass.

Paloma  - tequila mixed with white grapefruit juice and club soda - is a more subtle cousin of the margarita. Paloma is Spanish for dove. And like Margarita, Paloma is also a female first name.

Add concentrated green tea infusion to a Paloma, and you get the 'green dove' - Paloma Verde - the world's healthiest cocktail!

And tastiest too, even I say so myself. The bitter-sweet citrus of grapefruit, astringency of green tea, the full-bodied flavor of silver (blanco) tequila, and just a subtle hint of fizz. A character that can at best be described as all-grown-up, for lack of a better word. Light, strong and deep. One really has to spend time with it her to understand.

Oh, and did I mention the looks! Translucent milky green, like absinthe with a tan. And hence the surname.

But beyond the looks, and the taste, what really matters is what's inside.

Grapefruit contains flavonoids that promote weight loss and improve insulin sensitivity.

Green tea is packed with a range of antioxidants. EGCG from green tea is shown to have numerous health benefits including weight loss. And it contains caffeine, which burns fat by increasing the metabolic rate.

As for tequila, studies have shown that moderate consumption of alcohol helps prevent type 2diabetes and heart disease.

All three key ingredients contribute to a healthy carbohydrate metabolism, which in turn translates to flat abs. She's good for you.

But a word of warning: One does find it hard to return to the old diet soda or sugary cocktail after a taste of this bitter-sweet beauty.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What's one thing you wish you had learned in school?

Takeaways from What's one thing you wish you had learned in school?, in no particular order:
  1. To think critically and independently, Philosophy.
  2. Lateral Thinking
  3. Practical experience in solving real life problems
  4. Sex Ed - biological, social, moral aspects of sexuality; McCary's book, alternate sexuality.
  5. The power of Symbol, to open the heart to wonder, compassion, and contemplation
  6. Outdoor and Survival Skills
  7. Human relations for everyday living,
  8. To deal with one’s negative feelings - fear, envy and loneliness etc.
  9. Emotional intelligence and people skills
  10. Communication
  11. Office Politics
  12. Personal finance, Accounting
  13. How to have difficult conversations. Productive conflict management.
  14. Assertiveness
  15. Influence & persuasion - Caldini
  16. The attitude for learning, attitude towards failure - value of failure, learning thru failure.
  17. Emotional robustness, resilience & coping skills , learning to fail
  18. How different disciplines are intertwined and interconnected
  19. How to cook
  20. How to evaluate research
  21. Dance, drama, music, arts
  22. Speed reading
  23. Lucid dreaming
  24. How to apply and go through university
  25. Understanding careers
  26. Sports, games, and sportsmanship
  27. Health, Fitness
  28. How to network properly
  29. Languages - Arabic, Spanish, whatever.
  30. Active listening
  31. Public speaking
  32. Respect
  33. Relaxing
  34. A truer account of history - teach the script not the cast
  35. Nonverbal and paraverbal communication
  36. Exchange program, travel, broaden perspectives.
  37. Learning to learn – effortful study.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Summary: Enchantment

Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions is the latest book form marketing guru Guy Kawasaki. The book is dedicated to his family and opens with a quote from J.S. Bryan – ‘Many men can make a fortune but few can build a family.’ Enchantment enough to get me to read the book cover to cover in one go. And I’ll highly recommend it to anyone who wants a simple readable guide to better interpersonal relationships.

My favorite part of the book is chapter 11 – ‘How to Enchant Your Boss’ – something I’m sure many of us will find interesting. Your boss has a huge impact on your work life so it’s super important to get this relationship right. Guy’s boss enchantment how-to is about as pragmatic and direct as it can get:

1. Do whatever it takes to make your boss look good. Just make sure it’s legal and moral. Everything else is secondary. We all like people who make us look good.

2. When your boss asks you to do something, drop everything else and do it immediately. I think it’s sort of like with user interface design – responsiveness is the key to being perceived as efficient & effective.

3. Underpromise, Overdeliver. This was the first piece of career advice I ever got, back when I was an intern at Motorola.

4. Prototype. Creating a quick prototype and asking for feedback ensures that you actually deliver what your boss wanted. And it makes you look proactive.

5. Show and broadcast progress. Make sure your boss and everybody else knows what you are doing. This one is particularly hard for the less extrovert amongst us and it does take some effort to cross that psycological self-promotion hurdle. And of course, don’t antagonize others by overdoing it.

6. Make friends. Friendship has network effects. The more you have the more you get. It makes you more efficient because your friends will be happy to help you. It makes you look good. It makes your boss look good.

7. Ask for mentoring. Mentors and sponsors are not optional. If your boss can also be your mentor that would be great. Asking for mentorship shows you have ambition and that you respect the person you’re asking.

8. Deliver bad news early. But don’t stop there. Come up with ideas to fix the problem or mitigate the risk. Makes you look proactive and capable.

The way I see it, it’s like you are an entrepreneur marketing yourself and your boss is your customer. Aim for customer delight. Enchantment.

PS: If anyone knows who J. S. Bryan is, pls let me know. Google didn’t turn up much.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Click-n-Drag comics and the Art of Saying No

Ever considered using comic strips to express your thoughts? That would be great, wouldn’t it? If only it wasn’t so hard. Well, it’s not hard anymore. Guess what, there’s this website called that lets you create comic strips by dragging characters and props on to a canvass, sort of like a WYSIWYG designer for comics. Cool, isn’t it! For those of us who are artistically challenged, Pixton is like getting a pair of wings. (Forgive the Red Bull analogy. I’m too lazy to think of anything better now.) It feels amazingly empowering to be able to so easily do something that, until now, was beyond ones reach.

When I first heard about Pixton from some of my friends, I was a bit skeptical. You know, if it sounds too good to be true, and all that. But none the less, it seemed so neat an idea that I had to give it a try. I did. And then I became a fan. Here’s one of my first creations. This comic strip is inspired by something I heard over dinner some time back and based on a true story. Of course, I’ve taken some artistic liberties, couldn’t help it.

Beyond just the fun factor, I think Pixton has the potential to be a great business. One can imagine all sorts of uses – from designing posters to posting an interesting status update on Facebook. It’s amazingly easy to learn to use and so much fun that it’s not hard to imagine Pixton going viral. Wonder why it hasn’t already? Perhaps it might help if Facebook integration was more seamless. And once people get hooked to it, they’ll want to use it at work, say to storyboard a user experience scenario for a product design. And that’s how Pixton makes money, by charging for the commercial version.

Give it a try at and find some interesting ways to say some interesting things. Post comic strips to Facebook. Take a printout and stick it at your desk. Make a witty greeting card. Make a point. Whatever.