The Hedgehog who got fucked or the power of probability.

I have been long intrigued by the ‘Hedgehog Concept’. Basically it is your USP which lies at the intersection of three conditions:1.What you can be the best in the world at.
2.What drives your economic engine.
3.What you are deeply passionate about.

And Jim Collins(perhaps he mooted this idea), classifies companies into two categories—Foxes and Hedgehogs. Hedgehogs are the companies who apply the above principle and foxes are companies who pursue multiple endeavors and seem diffused in their strategy.

Ever heard of Intersil? It is the name of a hedgehog which got fucked by a fox. Wi-Fi Technology was developed in the mid 90s and by the end of the decade Intersil was leading producer of Wi-Fi. At that time it was the best in the world, Wi-Fi was driving its economic engine and I am sure the Intersil guys must be very passionate about it. So, it was truly a hedgehog.Then came a fox named Intel. It started selling its own Centrino brand of Wi-Fi chips at dirt cheap prices. It wasn’t better than Intersil by a long shot, but it sure was damn cheap. In fact, Intel was selling the chips at a loss. It destroyed Intersil;Intersil, to put it mildly, got fucked.

Intel derives most of its profit from laptop chipsets rather than pc chips. So, it made sense for Intel to commoditize Wi-Fi which in turn will make laptops more popular. And hence, Intel was not running at a loss by this strategy at all, if you look at the big picture. And this tactic had the added advantage of eliminating the hedgehogs,like Intersil.

Mostly, people don’t want to believe depressing news even if the facts say so. So, after giving a bad news I practise giving goodies and solutions, and that makes the party-spoiler more palatable. So, here I present solution in mathematics to come out of this quandary. Imagine you are a hedgehog with one core competency. And let us assume the probability that a bigger rival having the same business is 0.4(and hence 0.4 chances of you being killed, to simplify things). Now imagine you have 3 core competencies tied in an intimate manner which make you distinctive, instead of one which you were doing best. So, what are the chances of your rival beating you up in that game? The probability is 0.4×0.4×0.4=0.064. So, now your chances of being killed dropped from 40 in 100 to 6.4 in 100.That is a dramatic risk reduction. So, the best strategy is to tie together a few core competencies in a unique manner, which holistically work together,even if those core competencies are not the best.

[1] G.Carr,Nicholas, “Does IT Matter?Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage.”
[2]Isaiah Berlin, “The Hedgehog and the Fox .”


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Patents: Some nuanced thoughts.

I wrote something about IPP(Intellectual Property Patents), a while ago(cf:Why patents suck).This post can be taken as a continuation of that post or can be taken independently.

After mulling over the general undesirability of IPP , it is time to ask what are the various reasons why people/companies patent at all. Some of the reasons are obviously evil, and some are benign and can be classified as ‘self-defense’ . Big companies and small companies patent for different reasons.

Big Companies:

1.First, the evil reason is to kill competition and have a monopoly over pricing. It is done to create an artificial exclusivity of the the product. And this in turn slows down the pace of economic evolution.

2.A not so evil reason is to protect oneself. Even if you are a big company, you are always in a danger to be sued by other big companies(and sometimes by smaller companies). So what do you do? Well, here is a small story about what big companies do in that case. Once, there was a farmer who had a dog. He wanted to sell his dog, and priced it at a whopping 20 thousand dollars. There was another farmer who needed a dog but of course did not have that kind of money to pay. So he went to the dog seller and said that he has two cats, and he plans to sell them at 10 thousand dollars each. So how about exchanging two 10K cats with one 20K dog? The farmer happily agreed and later boasted to his neighbors that he sold his dog for 20K. Well, that is precisely what big corps do. They cross license their patents. They say that if you license me with patents A and B, we will license you with our patents C and D. You scratch my balls and I will scratch your ass. Or something like that.

Small Companies:

1.The evil reason why small companies patent their product is to singularly profit from them. They are like domain-name squatters. All they do is patent and pounce on anyone who seems to be infringing their patent conditions. The thing is that these kind of companies don’t have any products, for having a product will put them at risk to be counter sued by big companies. If they have products and sue a big corp, the big corp guy will tell them- “Well, yes we infringed your patent, but let us see; in your product you infringed this, this and that patent of mine so you will end up paying us more than we would pay you. “ So, these small companies never make any product and profit by squeezing money by having patents and hiring lawyers.

2.The not so evil reason why companies patent is the same reason why departments in a research division patent stuff. Thing is that most of the ‘score card’ in the research division is centered around publishing papers and patents. The more papers and patents you have , bigger the grant in the next year plan. The same goes for companies. The more patents they have the more funding they might get from governments and other big institutions.

Now, where does all this place us in the grander scheme of things? It leaves us at a place where patents look like necessary evils, but that ‘necessity’ is artificially manufactured. It is like arms race. Killing is not desirable, but if you do not keep a gun, others might kill you. Despite that it has to be kept in mind that killing and guns are bad in themselves, and that should not mean that even as we keep guns we should not think about the elimination of the necessity of guns altogether.

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Ideas are not land grab or why patents suck.

A chain of thoughts ensued when I read the following article about Microsoft patenting the machine classification technique(ref : am sure that if Microsoft(MS) was there in stone age, it would have patented wheels and you would have to pay MS some big ass royalty each time you drive to work. And if MS was there in prehistoric times where we were still walking on fours, it would have patented the method of walking on two legs, and each time you walk down the grocery store you would be paying even more to MS. Practically your whole life would be centered around paying Microsoft.
The fact of the matter is that patents on Intellectual Property(IP) has to do with protectionism. People who advocate IP either haven’t seriously thought about the impact of IPP(Intellectual Property Patenting) on the general health of humanity or that they don’t really believe in free market. They just believe in securing their own interests. IPP basically boils down to monopoly over pricing for big corporations. I say big corporations– or else try getting a patent if you are a lone guy working in your garage lab. In fact , time and time again it has been the case that if you are a brilliant inventor in a garage lab, you are inducted in some big corporation, and you would get 1$ for making them billions. It is only recently that garage inventors have also become entrepreneurs.The fact that we are knowledge species has to do with sharing of information, not patenting it. A truly creative thing beneficial to the whole humanity can come out only with free flowing of ideas. In fact, IPP is not something new to the history of human civilization. It has existed in one form or the other since ancient times. For example, in most ancient civilizations only people of high rank were allowed to read and write. If you are poor and do not belong to the upper gentry then you would be punished if you try to acquire knowledge and try to do something with it. Monopoly of knowledge is an old game. Progress in technology and general economy exploded in few hundred years only when society became more egalitarian in knowledge transfer. IPP flies in the face of egalitarian knowledge transfer as well as true principles of free market economy. Microsoft and its ilk are trying to reverse the clock of time and push us back to the era of darkness of knowledge.

Microsoft forgot that the knowledge capital it has, is not just because of Bill Gates, but because of the collective knowledge base of the humanity as a whole. It is trying to kick the very ladder it climbed on to this position, so that others can’t reach there. And it forgot what Newton said—” I seem brilliant because I stand on the shoulder of the giants”.

If someone else can come up independently with what you have made then it is not worth patenting. And if they can’t then you don’t need to patent it.

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The myth of average and the so called ‘keyword density’.

“Let’s take the average. ““Let’s analyze the keyword density of the page.” I hear these words often enough. The important thing is that in most of the cases- and by that I do not mean 51%, but something close to 95%- these techniques have absolutely no use.

Let us first talk about average, or mean. When we talk about taking the mean and it to be useful we usually assume(or should assume) that the data distribution is uniform. The estimation with average as a central tendency breaks apart when we are encountered with skewed data. In fact almost most of the data in the real world is skewed except for those textbooks examples. To bring home my point let me tell you a joke, about a statistician. It is said that there was a very tall statistician who was crossing a river with his family of a very short wife and 3 very small kids. He had to decide whether to cross the river or not. He being a mean guy(pun intended) he decided to take the mean or the average of the height of the whole family, and compare it with the depth of the river. He found out that the average height of his family just manage to top the depth of the river. And he decided to cross with his whole family. When he reached the other side, not surprisingly he found out that he is the only one who was able to cross the river, and the rest of the family drowned. The same happens in the real world estimation. The average or the mean is almost always a bad measure of central tendency. In fact nature works more on what is called Pareto Distribution, or 80-20 rule in layman’s parlance.

Now let us talk about word density. Let us for sometimes ignore the fact that the term does not satisfy the rigor of mathematical definition, and is more of a buzzword than actually something statistically useful. But the general idea is to match the most number of keywords pertaining to the supposed subject. Let us say you are manually looking for the page most relevant to the subject ‘apple computers’, and on your side you have a list of words pertaining to ‘apple computers’. One document you find that it contains the words– apple, steve, steve woz, steve jobs, mac,leopard etc etc etc…and it matches 90% of your word list. What is your conclusion? I would definitely say that the aforementioned document is NOT related to apple computers, but actually is a spam. So basically a simplistic keyword density spews out spam after spam and you are wondering what is wrong. It is not just that the word density technique is very easy to game, but that it also inherently is a mismatch to the real world situation. You don’t come across relevant documents with neatly placed word density. And to top it all, your list of relevant terms may not be complete and are likely to give lots of false positive.

I vote for banning these two words in the technical exchanges- average/mean and ‘word density’ so that we don’t fall into woolly thinking.

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Book Advantage

Over the years I have learnt the importance of “really good” technical books. Just as it is very hard to write an entire blog on this nugget of wisdom which might run in just one line–“though shalt realize the importance of really good technical books”, it is very difficult to write a “really good” technical book.

Let me tell you, all the university culture hoopla aside, if you want to be on par with the best universities in the world, ALL you NEED to know is to know which books they follow for their curricula(as far as technical education is concerned). Of course there are other factors, like what the Nobel prize winning professors speaks and all. But as I told you, all you NEED to know is just this- what books they follow, and THAT’S IT.

Sometimes, some of the best things may not be easy, but they are simple. Knowing which books they follow is simple, but then what you may do with it may not be easy. But, of-course it depends how you define “easy” or “difficult”. If you enjoy going over them, reading them, experimenting, then it is not even difficult. Hence, some of the best education is both- EASY and SIMPLE.

p/s: I KNOW most of you bozos will not believe me.


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Many lives as a technologist.

**WARNING**- this one is about feelings.

I wish I was a a technologist with multiple lives. Each lifetime I would devote to the following:

1. Robotics. And do things like these, which this guy Hirose does.

2. Develope open source systems, and build scores of products like mozilla.

3. Simulating life through chaos theory and other mathematical concepts, and spend a lifetime discovering the source of intelligence through computeronics.

4. Telecom and electronics.

5. Train young “minds” and gear them towards creative technology.

Well, I plan to atleast touch upon all of these in this ONE life I have got. I guess, I don’t have a lot of time. And yes, I am going to build a computer from scratch in this life time only. This has always been my childhood dream which I plan to realise.

At the end, I believe that no one deserves to do menial jobs and miss the chance of being craetive in this ONE life she has got. Hence, I want to develop technology which would raise economy and free up people from menial jobs. Only robots would do menial job. But then some might feel sympathetic towards robots and say that robots have right to be creative too. Well, I believe in human race more than robot race- so……!

Any dreams you have got that can spark mine?

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Tim Berners Lee and Web Science.

Have you heard of Tim Berners-Lee? In the past few months he has been almost ubiquitous. He is seen everywhere ,talking about Web. To begin with I thought he is just another jumping-the-wagon guy who is just capitalising on the www phenomena. You can’t blame me, otherwise why would someone hold a conference on “what is web 2.0”? I mean I am talking about another Tim- Tim O Reilly. And then the claim that the term was originally coined by him in one of the brainstorming session with MediaLive. All these claims and conferences and the hoopla surrounding it was too corny for me to fish out any genuine value from it. Don’t mistake me, I have benefitted from the books of his publication- to give the credit where it is due. But when people blow a lot of hot air, then I am quite sensitive to it to catch the whiff.

But, as I realise this Tim is way different. Tim Berners-Lee, that is. What he says, touches chords with me. He has also written a book – “Weaving the Web“- if you want you can gift it to me. He also talks about Web Sciences. Which would be different from traditional computer sciences. It would be a holistic science taking into consideration the dynamics of society in the virtual world, and the impact of internet on people, business and the challenges and opportunities. Well, actually I don’t have much idea what Tim(the good one) meant by it (you can gift me his book, remember?)- but that is what I think he must be meaning by it.

p/s: I just noticed that wordpress does have the facility to import blogs from other sites(sadly not from xanga). Now did this facility exist before MY writing about it here? I should also advertise that this idea actually came from me in one of my brainstorming session from MYSELF or what?(Just like Tim O’Really). Time to hold a conference then a media coverage and then perhaps a worldwide tour to promote the idea that actually it was me who mooted this idea. I am short of funds actually. If someone can give me the funds I would just slip in the FACT that actually it was a brainstorming session with him when I(we) came upon this idea.

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