Covid-19 superspreaders in Karnataka

Through a combination of luck and competence, my home state of Karnataka has handled the Covid-19 crisis rather well. While the total number of cases detected in the state edged past 2000 recently, the number of locally transmitted cases detected each day has hovered in the 20-25 range.

Perhaps the low case volume means that Karnataka is able to give out data at a level that few others states in India are providing. For each case, the rationale behind why the patient was tested (which is usually the source where they caught the disease) is given. This data comes out in two daily updates through the @dhfwka twitter handle.

There was this research that came out recently that showed that the spread of covid-19 follows a classic power law, with a low value of “alpha”. Basically, most infected people don’t infect anyone else. But there are a handful of infected people who infect lots of others.

The Karnataka data, put out by @dhfwka  and meticulously collected and organised by the folks at covid19india.org (they frequently drive me mad by suddenly changing the API or moving data into a new file, but overall they’ve been doing stellar work), has sufficient information to see if this sort of power law holds.

For every patient who was tested thanks to being a contact of an already infected patient, the “notes” field of the data contains the latter patient’s ID. This way, we are able to build a sort of graph on who got the disease from whom (some people got the disease “from a containment zone”, or out of state, and they are all ignored in this analysis).

From this graph, we can approximate how many people each infected person transmitted the infection to. Here are the “top” people in Karnataka who transmitted the disease to most people.

Patient 653, a 34 year-old male from Karnataka, who got infected from patient 420, passed on the disease to 45 others. Patient 419 passed it on to 34 others. And so on.

Overall in Karnataka, based on the data from covid19india.org as of tonight, there have been 732 cases where a the source (person) of infection has been clearly identified. These 732 cases have been transmitted by 205 people. Just two of the 205 (less than 1%) are responsible for 79 people (11% of all cases where transmitter has been identified) getting infected.

The top 10 “spreaders” in Karnataka are responsible for infecting 260 people, or 36% of all cases where transmission is known. The top 20 spreaders in the state (10% of all spreaders) are responsible for 48% of all cases. The top 41 spreaders (20% of all spreaders) are responsible for 61% of all transmitted cases.

Now you might think this is not as steep as the “well-known” Pareto distribution (80-20 distribution), except that here we are only considering 20% of all “spreaders”. Our analysis ignores the 1000 odd people who were found to have the disease at least one week ago, and none of whose contacts have been found to have the disease.

I admit this graph is a little difficult to understand, but basically I’ve ordered people found for covid-19 in Karnataka by number of people they’ve passed on the infection to, and graphed how many people cumulatively they’ve infected. It is a very clear pareto curve.

The exact exponent of the power law depends on what you take as the denominator (number of people who could have infected others, having themselves been infected), but the shape of the curve is not in question.

Essentially the Karnataka validates some research that’s recently come out – most of the disease spread stems from a handful of super spreaders. A very large proportion of people who are infected don’t pass it on to any of their contacts.

Paiyas and Kodakas

Growing up, I found that a lot of my non-Kannadiga friends took great pleasure in using the words “maga” and “magane” (both mean “son”). For a long time I didn’t understand what was so pleasurable in calling someone “son”. Wasn’t it normal in other languages as well (though Tamil prefers Macha (brother-in-law) ) ?

It took two incidents, separated by six years (and the latter of the two happened ten years ago), for me to understand this. It had to do with abuses.

I remember visiting a Tamilian friend at her home sometime in 2004. There were a few other friends there, and everyone who was there except me was Tamilian (and this is a 20 year-old problem – people randomly assume I’m Tamilian and speak to me in Tamil). So the host’s mother, in the course of the conversation, would break off into Tamil, and when the discussion was about some boys, would talk about “this paiyya” or “that paiyya”.

I remember trying to suppress a chuckle every time she said “paiyya” (I’ll come to the reason in a bit), but largely managed to keep a straight face through the conversation.

Six years later I was visiting my then-girlfriend, now-wife. Pinky’s mother is Gult (technically her father is also Gult, but his ancestors came to Karnataka so long ago that for all practical purposes they’re dig). On the day I visited, Pinky’s aunt was also visiting, and Pinky’s mother and aunt were talking (in Gult) about some boys. And they kept referring to these boys as “koDaku”.

Again I had to suppress chuckles, for the same reason I had suppressed chuckles when my friend’s mother kept saying “paiyya” six years before. And at the same time I understood why my non-Kannadiga friends took such pleasure in saying “magane”. It has to do with abuses.

When you learn a new language as a teenager, it is fairly standard to start off by first learning the swearwords in that language. For some strange reason, South Indians revel in abusing one another’s mothers. And so the popular abuses in all South Indian languages follow this template.

In Kannada, you have “bOLi magane” (son of a bitch) and “sULe magane” (son of a prostitute). Tamil has “thEvaDiya paiyya” (son of a prostitute again). Telugu has “lanja koDaka” (son of a prostitute, once again) and, rather fascinatingly for the amateur anthropologist, “donganA koDaka” (son of a thief).

And in Telugu and Tamil, the word for “boy” is also used interchangeably for “son”, and it’s the same word that appears in the above swear-phrases (Kannada is a little bit different – the word for “boy” is used for “son”, but the swearwords all have the word that is exclusively used for “son”).

Now you know where this is going.

In normal teenage or college conversation it’s not common to talk about people’s sons. So if you’re a Kannadiga who’s only learnt swearwords in Telugu or Tamil, you would have heard the words “koDaka” and “paiyya” in only that context. You would have never heard these words in isolation in normal conversation, separated from the prefixes that make them the swearing qualities.

So because “thevaDiya paiyya” is a swearphrase, I had assumed that both words in it are independently swearwords. And so I got shocked that my friend’s mother kept casually saying “paiyya” in the course of normal conversation, and my (extremely paavam/sadhu) friends didn’t flinch.

It is the same with “koDaka” – having appeared in TWO swearphrases I knew, I assumed it was a swearword, and was shocked to see my would-be mother-in-law use it in a casual conversation with her sister.

I imagine it is the same with “magane” – for non-Kannadigas for whom it’s just part of a swearphrase, it is effectively a swearword. And so, when they use the word, it’s as if they are swearing. And that explains their glee in uttering the word.

Kannada has another son-based swearword. “baDDi maga”, which translates to “son of interest” (as in the interest you pay on a loan). I’ve never understood the logic behind that one.

Open and closed platforms

This is a blogpost that I had planned a very long time (4-5 weeks) ago, and I’m only getting down to write it now. So my apologies if the quality is not as good as my blogposts usually are. 

Many of you would have looked at the title of this blogpost and assumed that the trigger for this was the “acquisition” of Joe Rogan’s podcast by Spotify. For a large sum of money, Spotify is “taking his podcast private”, making it exclusive to Spotify subscribers.

However, this is only an “immediate trigger” for writing this post. I’d planned this post way back in April when I’d written one of my Covid-19 related blogposts – maybe it was this one.

I had joked the post needed to be on Medium for it to be taken seriously (a lot of covid related analysis was appearing on Medium around that time). Someone suggested I actually put it on Medium. I copied and pasted it there. Medium promptly took down my post.

I got pissed off and swore to never post on Medium again. I got reminded of the time last year when Youtube randomly pulled down one of my cricket videos when someone (an IP troll, I later learnt) wrongly claimed that I’d used copyrighted sounds in my video (the only sound in that video was my own voice).  I had lodged a complaint with Youtube, and my video was resurrected, but it was off air for a month (I think).

Medium and Youtube are both examples of closed platforms. All content posted on these platforms are “native to the platform”. These platforms provide a means of distributing (and sometimes even marketing) the content, and all content posted there essentially belongs to the platform. Yes, you get paid a cut of the ad fee (in case your Youtube channel becomes super powerful, for example), but Youtube decides whether your video deserves to be there at all, and whose homepages to put it on.

The main feature of a closed platform is that any content created on the platform needs to be consumed on the same platform. A video I’ve uploaded on Youtube is only accessible on Youtube. A medium post can only be read on medium. A tweet can only be read on twitter. A Facebook post only on Facebook.

The advantage with closed platforms is that by submitting your content to the platform, you are hoping to leverage some benefits the platform might offer, like additional marketing and distribution, and discovery.

This blog doesn’t work that way. Blogposts work through this technology called “RSS”, and to read what I’m writing here you don’t need to necessarily visit noenthuda.com. You can read it on the feed reader of your choice (Feedly is what I use). Of course there is the danger that one feed reader can have overwhelming marketshare, and the destruction of that feed reader can kill the ecosystem itself (like it happened with Google Reader in 2013). Yet, RSS being an open platform means that this blog still exists, and you can continue to receive it on the RSS reader of your choice. If Medium were to shut down tomorrow, all Medium posts might be lost.

Another example of an open platform is email – it doesn’t matter what email service or app you use, my email and yours is interoperable. India’s Universal Payment Interface (UPI) is another open platform – the sender and receiver can use apps of their choice and still transact.

And yet another open platform (which a lot of people didn’t really realise is an open platform) is podcasting. Podcasts run on the RSS protocol. So when you subscribe to a podcast using Apple Podcasts, it is similar to adding a blog to your Feedly. This thread by Ben Thompson of Stratechery (that I just stumbled upon when I started writing this post) sums it up well:

What Spotify is trying to do (with the Joe Rogan and Ringer deals) is to take these contents off open platforms and put it on its own closed platform. Some people (like Rogan) will take the bait since they’re getting paid for it. However, this comes at the cost of control – like I’m not sure if we’ll have another episode of Rogan’s podcast where host and guest light up a joint.

Following my experiences with Medium and Youtube, when my content was yanked off for no reason (or for flimsy reasons), I’m not sure I like closed platforms any more. Rather, someone needs to pay me a lot of money to take my content to a closed platform (speaking of which, do you know that all my writing for Mint (written in 2013-18) is behind their newly erected paywall now?).

In closing I must mention that platforms being “open” and platforms being “free” are orthogonal. A paid podcast or newsletter is still on an open platform (see Ben Thompson tweetstorm above), since it can be consumed on a medium independent of the one where it was produced – essentially a different feed is generated depending on what the customer has paid for.

Now that I’ve written this post, I don’t know what the point of this is. Maybe it’s just for collecting and crystallising my own thoughts, which is the point behind most of my blogposts anyway.

PS: We have RSS feeds for text and podcasts for audio. I wonder why we don’t have a popular and open protocol for video.

The World After Overbooking

Why do you think you usually have to wait so much to see a doctor, even when you have an appointment? It is because doctors routinely overbook.

You can think of a doctor’s appointment as being a free option. You call up, give your patient number, and are assigned a slot when the doctor sees you. If you choose to see the doctor at that time, you get the doctor’s services, and then pay for the service. If you choose to not turn up, the doctor’s time in that slot is essentially wasted, since there is nobody else to see then. The doctor doesn’t get compensated for this as well.

In order to not waste their time, thus, doctors routinely overbook patients. If the average patient takes fifteen minutes to see, they give appointments once every ten minutes, in the hope of building up a buffer so that their time is not wasted. This way they protect their incomes, and customers pay for this in terms of long waiting hours.

Now, in the aftermath of the covid crisis, this will need to change. People won’t want to spend long hours in a closed waiting room with scores of other sick people. In an ideal world, doctors will want to not let two of their patients even see each other, since that could mean increased disease transmission.

In the inimitable words of Ravishastri, “something’s got to give”.

One way could be for doctors to simply up their fees and give out appointments at intervals that better reflect the time taken per patient. The problem with this is that there are reputation costs to upping fee per patient, and doctors simply aren’t conditioned to unexpected breaks between patients. Moreover, lower number of slots might mean appointments not being available for several days together, and higher cancellations as well, both problems that doctors want to avoid.

As someone with a background in financial derivatives, there is one obvious thing to tackle – the free option being given to patients in terms of the appointment. What if you were to charge people for making appointments?

Now, taking credit card details at the time of booking is not efficient. However, assuming that most patients a doctor sees are “repeat patients”, just keeping track of who didn’t turn up for appointments can be used to charge them extra on the next visit (this needs to have been made clear in advance, at the time of making the appointment).

My take is that even if this appointment booking cost is trivial (say 5% of the session fee), people are bound to take the appointments more seriously. And when people take their appointments more seriously, the amount of buffer built in by doctors in their schedules can be reduced. Which means they can give out appointments at more realistic intervals. Which also means their income overall is protected, while still maintaining social distancing among patients.

I remember modelling this way back when I was working in air cargo pricing. There again, free options abound. I remember building this model that showed that charging a nominal fee for the options could result in a much lower fee for charging the actual cargo. A sort of win-win for customers and airlines alike. Needless to say, I was the only ex-derivatives guy around and it proved to be a really hard sell everywhere.

However, the concept remains. When options that have hitherto been free get monetised, it will lead to a win-win situation and significantly superior experience for all parties involved. The only caveat is that the option pricing should be implemented in a manner with as little friction as possible, else transaction costs can overwhelm the efficiency gains.

How to avoid Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia

I’ve written about Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia here a couple of times. The first time was when I discovered it in The Economist. Another time was when I likened it to the Vodnoy Paradox, where people recommend deregulation in all sectors except their own.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia for a while now because I recently bought a (cheap – ?25 a week) subscription to the New York times). And they take the level of Sominism in their India coverage (no surprise since Somini Sengupta used to be their correspondent) another launch.

In fact, when I was mulling buying a subscription, I was explicitly warned about their India coverage.

And as I’ve read them for the last month and a half, this remains true. Their coverage of India is really shitty. It’s no different for many other global “liberal” newspapers such as the Guardian, or the Washington Post, or the Atlantic. The most baffling thing is that all these worthies is that they frequently employ writers of fiction as their vehicles of choice to interpret India for their readers (recently even the FT fell for this, asking the excellent-writer-but-insanely-political Arundhati Roy to write for them about India).

In any case, I’ve been wondering why this is the case. Why is it that these newspapers do such a shoddy job of covering India (or possibly any other emerging market) (I’m not saying they do a great job of covering their home markets either, since these newspapers have all become rather political, but at least there is some good coverage)?

My hypothesis about this is that they do a shitty job of covering India because they don’t care about the Indian reader, who contributes a microscopic minority of their revenues. That they can offer their zero-marginal-cost product for half of what Indian newspapers charge Indians for print subscriptions suggests that Indian readers don’t contribute significantly to their revenues.

Instead, what they have is large numbers of paying subscribers in their home markets who are (rightly) their primary audience. And because the people who are paying them and the people they are writing about are disjoint, there is no need to be authentic in their coverage. They can simply offer their readership the sort of slant and opinions they want without ever being held accountable.

It is similar in the case of Murray Gell-Mann. The science reporting can afford to be bad because scientists who really care about the research form only a tiny part of the subscriber base of the newspaper, and they possibly couldn’t care about holding the papers to account.

Now you can argue that each and every person is a “minority of one”, and so newspaper coverage ought to be uniformly shitty about all subjects. Except that some groups of readers are more similar to each other than they are to others, and such groups are likely to be “better taken care of” by the newspapers than all the other readership.

I don’t really know how this can be solved. For each newspaper, there will always be groups of core readership who might hold them to account, but there will be nobody holding them to account on vast sections of their coverage.

The only thing I can think of is the Times of India model – apart from being mass-market advertising funded, they have the habit of “putting ordinary people in the newspaper” through their tabloid supplements such as Bangalore Times (this was stated to me by someone who used  to work with the group). When you put ordinary people in the paper, these ordinary people will be more invested, and you better not write shit about them.

Meetings from home

For the last eight years, I’ve worked from home with occasional travel to clients’ offices. How occasional this travel has been has mostly depended on how far away the client is, and how insistent they are on seeing my face. Nevertheless, I’ve always made it a point to visit them for any important meetings, and do them in person.

Now, with the Covid-19 crisis, this hybrid model has broken down. Like most other people in the world, I work entirely from home nowadays, even for important meetings.

At the face of this, this seems like a good thing – for example, nowadays, however important a meeting is, the transaction cost is low. An hour long meeting means spending an hour for it (the time taken for prep is separate and hasn’t changed), and there’s no elaborate song-and-dance about it with travel and dressing up and all that.

While this seems far more efficient use of my time, I’m not sure I’m so happy about it. Essentially, I miss the sense of occasion. Now, an important meeting feels no different from an internal meeting with partners, or some trivial update.

Travel to and from an important meeting was a good time to mentally prepare for it, and then take stock of how it was gone. Now, until ten minutes before a meeting, I’m living my life as usual, and the natural boundaries that used to help me prep are also gone.

The other problem with remotely being there in large but important meetings is that it’s really easy to switch off. If you’re not the one who is doing a majority of the talking (or even the listening), it becomes incredibly hard to focus, and incredibly easy to get distracted elsewhere in the computer (it helps if your camera is switched off).

In a “real” physical meeting, however, large the gathering is, it is naturally easy for you to focus (and naturally more difficult to be distracted), and also easier to get involved in the meeting. An online meeting sometimes feels a bit too much like a group discussion, and without visual cues involved, it becomes really hard to butt in and make a point.

So once we are allowed to travel, and to meet, I’m pretty certain that I’ll start travelling a bit for work again. I’ll start with meetings in Bangalore (inter-city travel is likely to be painful for a very long time).

It might involve transaction cost, but a lot of the transaction cost gets recovered in terms of collateral benefits.

Meet and beat

Soon after our first “date” (we didn’t know when we were going to meet that it was going to be a “date” that would ultimately lead to marriage), the person who is now my wife wrote a cute  blogpost titled “Karabath Series“.

In that she had written about “arranged louvvu”, and went on to write this:

First step is to keep your eyes open to delicious and nutritious tharkaris(potential marriage material girls/boys). Then, somehow through some network, make someone set you two up. Third, interact. with tact. Fourth, put meet. or beat. Fifth, this can go in three ways now. First, is a no. Definite no. Second, yes. Full yes. Third, Yes, but not yet. This is a lucrative possibility which gives super scope to put more meets, learn about each others funny faces, food tastes, sense of humour, patience, sense of dressing, chappliying, smells, etc

The fourth point is key, and it was amply clear to me after reading it that it was aimed at me. For a few days before this was written, we had met, and “put beat” (as they say in Bangalore parlance).

We had sort of been “google talk friends” for two years then, and “orkut friends” for three. I had been in the arranged marriage market, and I had out of the blue suggested that we meet. After a little song and dance about whether meeting would be appropriate or not, the discussion went on to where to meet.

This is when she mentioned we could “simply walk around Gandhi Bazaar together”. Things moved fast after that. We met in front of Vidyarthi Bhavan at 4 o’clock on the long weekend Monday, and then started walking. Two hours of walking around Basavanagudi later, we stopped at a Cafe Coffee Day (now closed) to sit for a bit and have coffee. Five years later I documented what we’ve now retrofitted as our “first date” here.

This is not a “personal” post. This is yet another post about how the world might change after the covid crisis. It just has a long preamble, that’s all.

One of the things that is going to suffer after the crisis is over is cafes. I’d written in my post on verandahs about how cafes have served well as good “third places” to meet people. That option is not going to be too much of an option going forward, for even after cafes reopen, people will be loathe to go there and sit in close proximity to strangers.

So how do we do “general catchups”? How do we do dates? How do we discuss business ideas with people? The solution for all this lies in what we ended up doing on our first date. I don’t claim we invented it. Well before we went on this date, journalist Shekhar Gupta had started this series on NDTV called “walk the talk”.

What do you do? You just meet at an agreed place, pick up something to munch on or drink, and start walking. You can take side roads to make sure there isn’t too much traffic. The length of the walk can vary based on how interesting you find each other, and how much time you have.

The best part of meeting someone while walking is that there are no awkward silences. Rather, since you aren’t looking at each other constantly, the silences won’t be awkward. When you run out of things to talk about, there will be some visual stimulus by something you walk by. What’s not to like?

The only issue with walking and talking is that it might be an excellent idea for Bangalore, but not so much for a lot of other cities. Delhi and Bombay, for example, are impossible to step outside in for at least the summer. Maybe in those places we’ll end up having heavily “air cooled” or heavily fanned outdoor places.

It’s not for nothing that the phrase “putting beat” (for aimlessly walking around) was invented in Bangalore.

 

 

Expertise

During the 2008 financial crisis, it was fairly common to blame experts. It was widely acknowledged that it was the “expertise” of economists, financial markets people and regulators that had gotten us into the crisis in the first place. So criticising and mocking them were part of normal discourse.

For example, most of my learning about the 2008 financial crisis came from following blogs written by journalists, such as Felix Salmon, and generalist academics such as Tyler Cowen or Alex Tabarrok or Arnold Kling, rather than blogs written by financial markets experts or practitioners. I don’t think it was very different for too many people.

Cut to 2020 and the covid-19 crisis, and the situation is very different. You have a bunch of people mocking experts (epidemiologists, primarily), but this is in the minority. The generic Twitter discourse seems to be “listen to the experts”.

For example, there was this guy called Tomas Pueyo who wrote a bunch of really nice blog posts (on Medium) about the possible growth of the disease. He got heavily attacked by people in the epidemiology and medicine professions, and (surprisingly to me)  the general twitter discourse backed this up. “We don’t need a silicon valley guy telling us epidemiology”, went the discourse. “Listen to the experts”.

That was perhaps the beginning of the “I’m not an epidemiologist but” meme (not a particularly “fit” meme in terms of propagation, but one that continues to endure). For example, when I wrote my now famous tweetstorm about Bayes’s theorem and random testing 2-3 weeks back, a friend I was discussing with it advised me to “get the thing checked with epidemiologists before publishing”.

This came a bit too late after I’d constructed the tweetstorm, and I didn’t want to abandon it, and so I told him, “but then I’m an expert on Probability and Bayes’s Theorem, and so qualified to put this” and went ahead.

In any case, I have one theory as to why “listen to the expert” has become the dominant discourse in this crisis. It has everything to do with politics.

Two events took place in 2016 that the “twitter establishment” (the average twitter user, weighted by number of followers and frequency of tweeting, if I can say) did not like – the passing of the Brexit referendum and the election of President Trump.

While these two surprising events took place either side of the Atlantic, they were both seen as populist movements that were aimed at the existing establishment. Some commentators saw them as a backlash “against the experts”. The rise of Trump and Brexit (and Boris Johnson) were seen as part of this backlash against expertise.

And the “twitter establishment” (the average twitter user, weighted by number of followers and frequency of tweeting, if I can say) doesn’t seem to like either of these two gentlemen (Trump and Johnson), and they are supposed to be in power because of a backlash against experts. Closer home, in India, the Modi government allegedly doesn’t trust experts, which critics blame for ham-handed decisions like Demonetisation and pushing through of the Citizenship Amendment Act in the face of massive protests (the twitter establishment doesn’t like Modi either).

Essentially we have a bunch of political leaders who are unpopular with the twitter establishment, and who are in place because of their mistrust of expertise, and multiplying negative with negative, you get the strange situation where the twitter establishment is in love with experts now.

And so when mathematicians or computer scientists or economists (or other “Beckerians“) opine on covid-19, they are dismissed as being “not expert enough”. Because any criticism of expertise of any kind is seen as endorsement of the kind of politics that got Trump, Johnson or Modi into power. And the twitter establishment (the average twitter user, weighted by number of followers and frequency of tweeting, if I can say) doesn’t like that.

Two ways of eating chocolate

I only very recently discovered that there are essentially two ways of eating chocolate – biting into it and letting it melt in the mouth.

Maybe it’s a result of my upbringing, but until recently I only knew of the latter. Back when i was growing up, the “standard chocolate bar” was the most popular Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bar which came with eight square pieces in the bar (competitors such as Nestle and Amul had smaller rectangular pieces, and so more pieces per bar of similar size).

My parents insisted that if I ate too much chocolate my teeth would rot. And so chocolate supply was rationed. I could only eat one square piece in a day. This meant that if I didn’t share my chocolate bar with anyone (a rare occurrence, since my parents also liked chocolate), I would eat one standard-issue Dairy Milk for eight days.

Things like eating a whole bar at a time were completely taboo. In fact, even when KitKat became a thing when I was in class 9 (1996-97), I would take one finger of it, break it into two and so eat one four-fingered bar of KitKat over eight days.

I never questioned this wisdom that I shouldn’t eat more than one small piece of chocolate a day. This also meant that whatever chocolate I ate had to last sufficiently long. That meant putting it in the mouth and letting it melt.

Around the KitKat time, it became common for kids to walk around with whole bars of chocolate in school (mostly used to attract members of the opposite sex). And I would see people eating bars together at once and wonder what was wrong with them and what their teeth would become like.

Presently I grew up. I no longer restricted myself to one piece a day. I started getting interested in different kinds of chocolate (of late it’s been mostly dark – I can’t stand milk chocolate nowadays). Many of these didn’t come with predetermined squares to tell what one piece was, so it was rather fluid.

Nevertheless old habits die hard, and so I would continue to eat chocolate by letting it melt in my mouth.

And then one day, I had one large piece and one smaller piece (of Amul Bitter Chocolate, which is my staple nowadays), and thought I’ll bite the smaller piece and eat it. The feeling was something else. I’d lived all my life eating chocolate by letting it melt in my mouth, and now suddenly I was discovering the joys of biting into it.

I think it especially works for dark chocolate. There’s something about biting into a chocolate that gives you the kind of pleasure that letting it melt in the mouth doesn’t offer.

Now, it’s been 20 years since I last had a tooth filled. I now worry if that might change soon.

Advertising

When I first joined Instagram in 2013 or 2014, the first thing that fascinated me about the platform was the quality of advertisements. At that point in time, all advertisements there looked really good, like the pictures that the platform was famous for helping sharing.

It wasn’t like the clunky ads I would see elsewhere on the internet, or even on Facebook – which mostly stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of whatever content I was consuming at that point in time. Instagram advertisements looked so good that I actually paid them considerable attention (though I hardly clicked on them back then).

Over the years, as Facebook has gotten to know me better (I hardly use Facebook itself nowadays. But I use a lot of Instagram. For now I’ll believe Facebook’s claim that my WhatsApp information is all encrypted and Facebook doesn’t learn much about me through that), and the advertisements have gotten better and more relevant.

Over the last one year or so (mostly after I returned to India) I’ve even started clicking on some of the ads (yes they’ve become that relevant), giving Facebook even more information about myself, and setting off a positive feedback loop that makes the advertisements more relevant to me.

Over the years I’ve attended talks by privacy experts about the privacy challenges of this or that platform. “They’ll get all this information about you”, they say, “and then they can use that to send you targeted advertisements. How bad is that?”. If I think about all the problems with telling too much about myself to anonymous platforms or companies, receiving better targeted advertisements is the least of my worries.

As a consumer, better targeted ads means better information to me. Go back to the fundamentals of advertising – which is to communicate to the customer about the merits of a particular product. We think advertising can be annoying, but advertising is annoying only when the advertisements are not relevant to the target customer. 

When advertisements are well targeted, the customer gets valuable information about products that enables them to make better decisions, and spend their money in a better fashion. The more the information that the advertiser has about the end customer, the better the quality (defined in terms of relevance) the advertisements that can be shown.

This is the “flywheel” (can’t imagine I would actually use this word in a non-ironic sense) that Facebook and affiliated companies operate on – every interaction with Facebook or Instagram gives the company more information about you, and this information can be used to show you better targeted advertisements, which have a higher probability of clicking. Because you are more likely to click on the advertisements, the advertiser can be charged more for showing you the advertisement.

Some advertisers have told me that they elect to not use “too much information” about the customer while targeting their advertisements on Facebook, because this results in a much higher cost per click. However, if they look at it in terms of “cost per relevant click” or “cost per relevant impression”, I’m not sure they would think about it the same way.

Any advertisement shown to someone who is not part of the intended target audience represents wastage. This is true of all forms of advertising – TV, outdoor, print, digital, everything. It is no surprise that Facebook, by helping an advertiser advertise with better (along several axes) information about the customer, and Google, by showing advertisements after a customer’s intent has been established, have pretty much monopolised the online advertising industry in the last few years.

Finally, I was thinking about advertising in the time of adblockers. Thanks to extensive use of ad-blockers (Safari is my primary browser across devices, so ad blocking is effective), most of the digital advertisements I actually see is what I see on Instagram.

Today, some publication tried to block me from reading their article because I had my ad-blocker on. They made a sort of moral pitch that advertising is what supports them, and it’s not fair if I use an ad-blocker.

I think they should turn to banner ads. Yes. You read that right.

To the best of my knowledge, ad blockers work by filtering out links that come from the most popular ad exchanges. Banner ads, which are static and don’t go through any exchange, are impossible to block by ad-blockers. The problem, however, is that they are less targeted and so can have higher wastage.

But that is precisely how advertising in the offline versions of these newspapers works!

Something is better than nothing.