June 20, 2009

Everyone remembers the Matrix movie where the phone is one’s connection into the grid and you can hyper-transport to anywhere you want to go. It seems great till you realize that the phone is why the grid has its tentacles into you all the time. The iPhone is the umbilical cord that has insidiously eaten away your freedom. Brothers and Sisters, Big and Small, are always watching. How horrible is that?

It gets worse. The cell phone will drive us all to distraction. Of course, driving distracted with a phone is a leading vehicular problem, but more than that, the phone disrupts your life tremendously, and not just when driving. The cell phone is the leading cause of interruption in one’s daily routine. Why do we allow it to be so? If a person interrupted you ever so often while you were reading, talking or just trying to get things done, you would consider it rude. Yet we are infinitely forgiving of this inanimate object, showering it with gratitude for making a mess of our day!

The segment of the population most impacted are teens to young adults, who have been raised by a cell phone. They spend more time interacting with it than with humans, books, or nature. Being raised on a steady diet of information driblets, much of it vacuous talk, is the most unhealthy foundation on which to grow one’s mind.

It is a parasite that is destroying young minds. It sucks away useful time and destroys concentration. My casual empiricism suggests that even if there are two five minute calls each hour, each of which lead to a further loss of five minutes each in terms of interruption of some other tasks, we lose one-third of our waking hours to this scourge. For students, in terms of study time and quality of life, this is a humungous cost. In terms of mental development, the long term costs are catastrophic.

A recent study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that excessive cell phone usage results in a 25% drop in a student’s grades. So a student with a 4.0 GPA falls off to a 3.0 GPA. Its become that easy to depreciate an A-student to a B-level one.

The study also showed that interruptions from a cell phone not only impacted the receiver’s performance, but it also distracted others and impacted them negatively too. Its become as bad as second-hand smoking! Maybe even worse, because while the number of smokers is declining, the number of young cell-phone addicts is climbing exponentially.

The parallels with smoking hardly end there. Have you noticed how funny it is that the orbital region of 20 feet from the entrance to a building is mostly populated by smokers or cell phone users? Sometimes the poor victim has succumbed to both scourges. Have you noticed that the way people walk when smoking or cell-phoning seems strangely similar? Self-absorption with a glazed-over look. Blissfully and self-importantly unaware of impending doom. The only problem is that we have not yet invented a “patch” for cell phone quitters.

Cell phones are of course lawful. There is no legal age before one can get a cell phone. I’d like to propose disallowing it for anyone below the age of 25. It would save an entire generation from academic deterioration and lay the groundwork for a better society. My advice to all you college undergrads is this: make the cell phone the xPhone.

Passing of a Co-Author

June 6, 2009

I have published papers with almost 50 different people, but yesterday, Rajeev Motwani, with whom I published a paper only two years ago, passed away tragically in a swimming pool accident at his home near Stanford University. This is my first co-author to die, and I am reminded now how deep human frailty can be.

It is so unfair that death stole Rajeev away when he was in the prime of his life. I have known Rajeev for more than a decade, and I remember the early days when he was just beginning to get his feet wet in the VC business and we sat in his office and I explained to him the basics of option pricing. After that he hardly needed to ask, he was so smart that he figured out all the Finance he needed on his own. Of course, I learnt much more from him than he did from me. His book on Randomized Algorithms taught me everything I needed to know in that field. But he also mentored so many students and taught hundreds more. Many of the famous firms in Silicon Valley were mentored by Rajeev. Things came so easy to him, he could do them in a fraction of the time it took others. So he was always relaxed and had time to talk and discuss things.

While it is really sad to see him go, it is also important for me to acknowledge that in this short life, Rajeev did more than most of us would in a lifetime. Death always reminds us that we too are growing old, and that life is uncertain. We must enjoy each and every day, and do our best with it. Who knows if there will be a tomorrow? Today is really all we have.