The Internet and the City Advantage

Cities have been central to the human civilization. Their dense population provides a platform for the serendipitous interactions and cross-pollination of ideas from different domains, their abandoned portions provide cost-effective real estate to struggling artists and entrepreneurs, their riches provides jobs, sometimes, side-jobs for the innovators to experiment. No wonder innovation in a city grows super-linearly (~(size)4/3) with its size.

But the Internet was supposed to destroy all advantages a city has over the rural areas. The Internet was supposed to convert all of us into a global community. It did. But the cities have emerged even stronger, everywhere. One way to rationalize this is to realize that the Internet provided a platform to the cities a rent seeking ability which was extremely limited in the pre-Internet era. When a family in Kansas books an Airbnb in Thailand using Mastercard credit card, books the flight with Expedia, and uses an Uber in Thailand then these intermediaries take a cut. Similarly, when a person in Nebraska buys West Texas Intermediate from New York stock exchange, then New York stock exchange takes a cut. Now, what happens when these companies take these cuts? A big chunk of that is used for salaries, expenses,  or charity donations which usually are highly localized activities and benefit the cities where these companies are headquartered. Most of these rent-seeking activities were either non-existent or of limited leverage in the pre-Internet era.


  1. The first paragraph of this blog post is heavily inspired by “Where good ideas come from” book.
  2. The city term I am using is akin to an urban area. In the US, a suburb is seen as a separate entity, which I am treating as a city in this parlance.

Learning vs remembering

The way the human brain learns is different from how it remembers. Good practitioners know how to remember. Good teachers know how to make others learn.

90% vs 99%

Consider two systems, the first one is 90% reliable and the second one is 99%. The wrong to compare them is to compare the reliability and conclude that the second one is 9% (or 10% if you take 90% as the base) better. The right way to compare them is to compare the unreliability and conclude that the first system fails in 10% of the cases while the second one fails only in 1% and hence, is 10X more error-prone than the second. The reliability comparison is a vanity matrix while the unreliability comparison not only demonstrates the user perception (“The user saw then crashes in past one hour” vs “The user saw one crash in past one hour”) drastically but also shows the effort that goes into making the system more reliable.

Note: While I am taking reliability as an example of the metrics, the argument can be made for similar metrics.

The optimal distance

You cannot read a book kept too far or too close to your eyes. You cannot comfortably watch a movie from the first row of the multiplex and you can’t watch it from the other end of a football field either.  When you are too far, details are lost. And when details are lost, everything looks similar and boring. When you are too close, the perspective is lost. And when perspective is lost, one gets overwhelmed by the details.

When you are too far, details are lost. When you are too close, perspective is lost.

5 things airlines get wrong about leisure travelers

  1. They don’t fly on dates
    2PM and 8PM on Friday are the same dates but the former flight requires taking a leave from office, latter does not. 11PM on Friday and 1AM on the following Saturday are different dates for the airlines but it’s same for passengers. Discovery of the latter is especially poor on most booking websites.
  2. Destinations matter more than the airport
    The concept of the nearby airport based on the distance is archaic. For example, San Jose (SJC) and San Francisco (SFO) are almost identical for most leisure travelers since most individuals flying into either are going into SF bay area. A bit further one from SFO is SCK (Stockton) which sucks for the lack of ease of connectivity back into the SF bay area. A leisure traveler flying into Kona in Hawaii might gladly take a flight out of Hilo which is on the other side of the island. While I am giving the example of airports I am more familiar with, I think the idea applies to most metros with multiple airports. Airlines treat such a ticket as open-jaw and usually charge a higher price.

    The concept of the nearby airport based on the distance is archaic. Most individuals flying into SFO are going into SF bay area. So, SJC (San Jose) will work but SCK (Stockton) will suck.

    On one occasion, the flight to SFO was overbooked and the next one was 3 hours later. The airline company was looking for someone to volunteer for the later flight. I asked if I can get the flight to SJC departing in 30 minutes, the boarding agent bluntly told me that I would have to pay 200$ for the destination change. Which of course, I had no interest in. That flight to SFO actually went with three seats vacant since the family of four preferred to fly together on the flight 3 hours later.

  3. Long layovers might not be that bad
    1-hour layover is good. 4 hours is not. But 8 hours or more might be a chance to explore another city. Airlines usually only inform you about the next flight which usually is 3-4 hours later. But if the person is at an intermediate destination, they might be willing to check that one out for a long enough break. Of course, airlines might never know unless they ask the passengers.
  4. Reschedule in advance and not at the airport
    I have already returned my rental car, gone through pat downs, my bag has been investigated for the product, and an announcer has been repeatedly shouting “Looking for passenger Sukhdev Singh Chatwal” in a funny American accent. In these conditions, you are asking me to if I would take the later flight for a 200$ voucher. Never mind that the voucher comes with “conditions apply” and has an expiry. No, I am not going to volunteer my ticket.
    It is not that an hour before departure the airlines learned that the flight is overbooked, they probably knew about that many hours or probably days in advance. Then why not contact me in the morning when I was swimming in Culebra? In fact, the most likely reason for booking this earlier flight was because it was way less expensive than the more desirable flight which you are offering me now. Being at the airport, it is too late for me to make any use of that time.

    I have already returned my rental car, gone through pat downs, my bag has been investigated for the product, and an announcer has been repeatedly shouting “Looking for passenger Sukhdev Singh Chatwal” in a funny American accent. In these conditions, you are asking me to if I would take a later flight for a 200$ voucher. No thanks.

  5. Consider rescheduling earlier (“prepone“)
    Leisure travelers trade-off minor inconvenience for money. If the flight at 1AM is less expensive than one at 11PM then many are going to choose the first. Even if that comes with a tight layover. If on that day, the earlier one is going vacant then why not inform passengers of the 1AM flight in advance? Many might gladly take the offer of flying earlier.

For the big three airlines (United, Delta, and American), the primary source of revenue is customers traveling for business. These customers usually cannot reschedule earlier, they are not looking for the long layovers, and airport codes matter a lot to them since their rental car booking is most likely tied to that. But that’s exactly why leisure travelers should matter, they are flexible and are willing to adjust for a win-win situation.

Speedup vs Slow-down

Nob hill San Francisco

If you are driving at a speed 60 mph (or kmph, it won’t matter) from one city to another and return at 40 mph, then what would be your average speed?

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Front of the queue effect

You are standing in a queue waiting to buy food, order drinks, or buy tickets. The queue is long and is moving slowly. You are grumbling about the people standing in the front, why are they asking so many questions, why can’t they make choices beforehand. And then your turn comes. You are prepared. You know what you want. But it took so long to reach here. why not confirm your choices? After all, you stood for so long, at least you can spend a minute or two confirming that you are making the right choice. If you made an incorrect or an incomplete order, who would stand again in this long queue to correct it?

Longer the queue becomes, slower it ends up moving.

Learnings from IIT Global Leaders Conference (IITGLC) 2015

Day 1

  1. Great leaders are great because they handle challenges and setbacks well – John Chambers, CEO, Cisco
  2. Real education is like building a house – you set a good foundation first and then you build the house, floor by floor. Traditional education forces everyone to move at the same uniform speed and does not do justice to learning – Sal Khan, Khan Academy
  3. It is important to have a growth mindset (anything can be learned) as opposed to a fixed mindset (eg. I am good at X and Y but not A and B) – Sal Khan, Khan Academy
  4. Choice of narrative always triumphs over the choice of selection in the long run – Amit Agrawal,  Head, Amazon India
  5. Hard things like entrepreneurship should not be tried half-heartedly since anything less than a full-fledged effort is going to go nowhere – entrepreneurship panel
  6. Keeping emotional highs and lows in check is critical to success – entrepreneurship panel
  7. Good mentorship is valuable, relationships are more important than results and an idea without data backing it up is not worth talking about- Patrick Gelsinger, CEO, VMWare
  8. Both Andy Grove and Larry Ellison are amazing but ruthless people to work with  – my observation based on talks (and in-person conversations) of (with) a few people who worked with them.

Day 2

  1. You start a company not to compete with others but for a mission to make the world better – Elizabeth Holmes, CEO, Theranos.
  2. Don’t just think about what you are doing, also, consciously think about what you won’t be doing, there is always an opportunity cost of doing something.
    Most people don’t like risk, therefore, most won’t do anything interesting.
    Tech is my religion.
    Normal jobs will be gone in 50 years.
    Experience is another word for bias, systems with too much of experience are frozen, therefore, innovation happens at the edges.
    Have an internal compass, spend time following it, not reacting to what’s expected out of you.
    Steam engine challenged humans in muscle power, machine learning will challenge them in mind power.
    In face of driverless cars, rigid public transport like railroads is a bad idea.
    Spend more time doing things which can not only make a difference but makes you happy as well.   – Vinod Khosla, Khosla Ventures
  3. Lessons in Product Development from Deep Nishar, MD, SoftBank
    1. Know thy user
      User’s use LinkedIn on iPad differently (more at night) compared to LinkedIn (on the desktop), therefore, the iPad app is designed differently than desktop (focuses more on leisure content).
    2. Focus on simplicity
      An average human cannot hold more than 7 things in their head at a time.
      80% of request for new features which Microsoft gets are already in one of the 35 toolbars but users cannot find them.
    3. Embrace constraints
      How nutella was invented
    4. Data is your guide but don’t fall off the cliff while following it
    5. Innovation is not instant
      Multiple lead bullets lead to one silver bullet.
      There were productive phones, beautiful phones, easy-to-use phones before the iPhone, except iPhone combined everything into one.
    6. Adapt to changes
      Or someone else will win in changing environments.
    7. Expect success
      Believe that you will succeed and engineer systems accordingly.
  4. Work and entrepreneurship are a means to an end goal of having a more satisfied life and not end in themselves – Mallika Sarabhai

Ownership vs Control

Ownership is an innate human desire, except, we make the mistake of confusing it with control.
In the name of ownership, we end controlling things, and then we end up wasting disproportionate time reasserting our control.

How to differentiate between ownership and control?
A simple rule of thumb is that control can be taken away (or lost) much more easily than  ownership. As an example, since books can easily be lost or stolen, possessing books is a matter of control, while possessing knowledge is a matter of ownership. Possessing money is a matter of control, while possessing skills to earn money is a matter of ownership. Along the same lines, jewellery is about control while beauty is about ownership, car is about control while travel experiences are about ownership.

So, next time when there is choice to spend your limited resources namely, time and money, do wonder whether you are choosing ownership or control.

A visit to Gadar Memorial in San Francisco

Getting Inside

After getting misdirected once to 436 Hill St, San Francisco which is the old original address which does not exist anymore, I eventually reached 5 Wood St, San Francisco.
It was the time of sunset, I knew I was late, but finally, it felt good to see a nondescript apartment marked “Gadar memorial”. Least, I expected locked doors. I did not drive 40 miles to stand in front of this locked door. There must be a way to get in, I contemplated, as I noticed an Indian woman walking upstairs towards me.
“I am here to see Gadar Party’s office”, I asked as she stammered while replying in English.
“हिंदी बोलती है आप ?”, I inquired.
“जी हाँ”, she confirmed.
“मैं आशीष, south bay से आया हूँ ग़दर स्मारक देखना था । “, I said, while pointing towards the building.
“आपके पास consulate से permission है?”, she asked.
“consulate से permission?”, I inquired.
“consulate से बिना permission लिए यहाँ आना मना है । “, she confirmed.
Even for bureaucratic Indian govt, taking permission from the consulate to visit a first world war era memorial is perplexing. I believe this is the only such Indian memorial in the western hemisphere. Of course, I was not ready to yield and drive back another 40 miles before paying the homage. We both stood there motionless with an awkward silence.
Someone had to blink, thankfully, she did.
“एक बार मैं अपने husband से बात करती हूँ । “, she said.
She unlocked the door and went inside, and after some chatter, they both came out, and after some quick conversation, he allowed me in to visit the memorial. The rest of the discussion with them was pretty friendly.


The memorial consists of a single hall with locked showcases filled with books in English, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. A few posters and pictures were hanging on the wall, labeled in one or the other of the languages mentioned above. I didn’t visit the memorial expecting an audio tour but not finding English, or Hindi labels on the items were depressing. The whole space lacked maintenance. After thanking the Indian couple who seems to have been appointed by the consulate to maintain the place, I left half an hour later. The treatment of the memorial, which is the last symbol of this movement and Indian students who started it, by Indian govt is deplorable. Especially, given the fact that this is the only memorial of its kind in the USA.

Departing thoughts

The treatment met out to defenders of the nation, dead or alive, uniform wearing or revolutionary, determines its destiny. A second world war story of France vs. the UK is apt in this context. “Before World War II, it was not uncommon to see placards hanging outside some restaurants in Paris which read “Dogs, lackeys, and soldiers not allowed”. On the other hand, even pregnant women used to get up and offer seats to soldiers on London buses. When the war broke out, France capitulated in no time while Britain remained undefeated.” [source]