The first heart attack

Gerard Houllier is no more. The man who led Liverpool to the “cup treble” in 2001 passed away following a heart operation. Supporters of the club might remember that he had had yet another heart operation when he was managing Liverpool, and the impact of that heart attack on the club was serious.

I’m reusing a graph that I’d put here a couple of years back. This shows Liverpool’s Elo Rating (as per clubelo.com) over the years, with managers’s reigns being overlaid on top.

Notice the green region towards the right – it says “Houllier”, and it has one massive up and one massive down. Actually I’m going to re-upload this graph to blow up the Premier League period.

Liverpool’s Elo Rating in the Premier League period

Now you can see that there are two separate regions marked “Gerard Houllier”, with a small gap that says “Phil Thompson”. This gap represented Houllier’s first heart operation. Notice how, before his heart operation, Liverpool had been on a massive upswing, on their way back nearly to the levels where they had started off in the Premier League (they had last won  the league in 1990; compare to the first graph here).

And then the heart attack, and heart operation happened. Houllier’s assistant Phil Thompson took over and held things (here is Thompson’s tribute to Houllier). And then Houllier came back and he and Thompson became joint managers (the “orange” region here). And Liverpool’s rally was gone. The 2001-2 season was gone.

Looking at this graph, with the full benefit of hindsight, Houllier’s sacking in 2004 (to be replaced by Rafa Benitez) seems fully justified. And then notice the club’s steep fall under Benitez after Xabi Alonso got sold in 2009.

I’ve said here before – these Elo graphs can be used to tell a lot of footballing stories.

Why I quit public policy

This is yet another of those posts that elaborates something I’ve put on twitter.

I remember getting interested in public policy sometime in 2005. I think that was around the time when I stopped solely talking about gossip (and random “life issues”) on this blog, and started commenting about random “issues” here.

That was also the time when Madman Aadisht introduced me to his blog circle that he called the “libertarian cartel”. Reading blogposts by this cartel (included the likes of Ravikiran Rao, Amit Varma, Gaurav Sabnis (who was once a libertarian), Nitin Pai, etc.), I was hooked. I too wanted in on this “libertarian cartel”.

Soon enough, I started work and did one project that involved the study of some economic reforms. I soon quit that job but wrote about this, and other issues. I started getting into the “econ blogosphere”. Between the libertarian cartel, the opinion pages of the Business Standard (back when TN Ninan was the editor) and “econ blogs” (the likes of Marginal Revolution and EconLog), I got deeply interested in “policy issues”. And I thought I wanted to do public policy.

Of course, what public policy pays is nothing comparable to what post-MBA jobs pay, so I never explored it seriously as a career. I kept moving from one highly paid job to another, though I kept writing about “policy issues” on this blog, and then on Twitter (when I opened an account there in 2008). I even wrote on the “Indian Economy Blog”. And while the libertarian cartel never admitted me as a member, when they did form a mailing list, I got invited to join it soon enough (thanks to Aadisht once again).

“Policy work”, or “policy blogging” (which might be a more accurate term), in the late noughties was enjoyable because most people (at least those I bothered to read) were issue driven. So you had the aforementioned libertarians who analysed issues through a libertarian lens. You had leftists like the Jagadguru Krish and “Jihvaa”.  You had right wingers like SandeepWeb. Each class largely evaluated each issue based on their own philosophies, and commented about them. People avoided being partisan.

And so, in 2011, when I quit full time employment and decided to lead a portfolio life, I decided that public policy should be part of my portfolio. And the Takshashila Institution was kind enough to appoint me as its “resident quant” (for the most part, there were no formal responsibilities for the role and I wasn’t paid. However, we mutually enjoyed it, I would like to think).

That was a fantastic opportunity. I didn’t have to commit that much time, but got the optionality to participate in a large number of fairly interesting discussions with fairly interesting people. I did some work here and there, doing some research and teaching and course designing and lecturing, and it was most enjoyable. More enjoyable, of course, was the set of people I met through this assignment.

Somewhere down the line, maybe in 2015 or 2016 (or maybe even earlier), things changed. Basically policy became partisan. Out went the libertarians and totalitarians and right wingers and left wingers. In came the “Congressis” and “bhakts”, and republicans and democrats.

Output of policy analysis everywhere, except in academic journals (which I can’t comment on since I don’t bother reading them), became a function of the author’s political preferences. One year, an author might be favourable to the BJP and everything he/she wrote would nicely tally with the BJP’s view of the world. And then maybe the author would change political preferences, and there was a 180 degree turn on most issues!

On twitter, on mainstream media, on blogs, even on Instagram – “policy analysis” became rather predictable. Once you knew a person’s political preferences and leanings, it became clear what their view on any topic would be – it was identical to the view of their chosen party at that point in time. This partisanship meant there was “no information content” in any of this writing.

And that is how I started getting disillusioned. And the disillusionment grew over time, until a point when I started actively avoiding policy discussions (I’ve even muted the word “policy” on twitter).

I’m happy living my life, and doing my work, and earning my money, and paying my taxes. In the spirit of 2020, I’ll “leave public policy to the experts”.

Start the schools already

Irrespective of when you open the schools, there will be a second wave at that point in time. So we might as well reopen sooner rather than later and put children (and parents of young children) out of their misery.

OK, I admit I have a personal interest in this one. Being a double income, single kid, no nanny, nuclear family, we have been incredibly badly hit by the school shutdown for the last nine months. The wife and I have been effectively working at 50% capacity since March, been incredibly stressed out, and have no time for anything.

And now that I’ve begun a “proper job”, her utilisation has dropped well below 50%. This can’t last for long.

Then again, this post is not being driven solely by personal agendas or interests. The more perceptive of you might know that on my twitter account, I publish a bunch of graphs every morning, based on the statistics put out by covid19india.org . And every day, even when I don’t log into twitter, I go and take a look at the graphs to see what’s happening in the country.

And the message is clear – the pandemic is dying down in India. It is a pretty consistent trend. The Levitt Model might not really be true (my old friend’s comment that it is “random curve fitting” when I first came across it holds true, I would think), but it gives a great picture of how the pandemic has been performing in India. This is the graph I put out today.

In most states in India, the Levitt measure is incredibly close to 1, indicating that the pandmic is all but over. However, you might notice that the decline in this metric is not monotoniuc.

However, if you look at the Delhi numbers on the top right, notice how nicely the Levitt metric shows the three “waves” of the disease in the city. And you can see here that the third wave in Delhi is all but over. And while you see the clear effect of Delhi’s third wave in the Levitt metric, you can also see that it coincided with a second wave in Haryana, and a (barely noticeable) second wave in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

This wave was due to increased pollution, primarily on the account of crop burning in Punjab and Haryana in October-November. The reason the second waves in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan (as seen in terms of the Levitt measures) were small is that they are rather large states, and the areas affected by the bad pollution was fairly small.

And along with this, consider the serosurveys in Karnataka (both the government one and the IDFC-sponsored one), which estimated that the number of actual infections in the state are higher than the official counts of infections by a factor of 40 to 100 (we had initially assumed 10-20 for this factor). In other words, an overwhelmingly large number of cases in India are “asymptomatic” (which is to say that the people are, for all practical purposes, “unaffected”).

In other words, we know cases only when someone is affected badly enough to get themselves tested, or has a family member affected badly enough to get themselves tested. And what happened in Delhi and surrounding states in October-November was that with higher pollution, everyone who got affected got affected more severely than they would have otherwise.

Some people who might have otherwise been unaffected showed symptoms and got themselves tested. Some people who might have not been affected seriously enough ended up in hospital. Pollution meant that some people who might have recovered in hospital ended up dying. And as the crops finished burning and pollution levels dropped, you can see the Levitt metric dropping as well.

And lest you argue that I’m making an argument based on a mostly discredited metric, here is the actual number of known cases in the most affected states in the country. The graph is a Loess smoothing, and the points can be seen here.

See the precipitous decline in Delhi (green line) and Karnataka (orange) and Andhra Pradesh (pink) in the last couple of months. The pandemic has pretty much burnt through in most states. We can start relaxing, and opening schools.

You might be tempted to ask, “but won’t there be a second wave when schools reopen?”. That is a very fair concern, since people who have so far been extremely conservative might relatively relax when the schools open. The counterpoint to that is, “irrespective of when you open the schools, there will be a second wave at that point in time“.

It doesn’t matter if we reopen the schools now, or in April, or in August, or in next December. There will always be a few vestigial (possibly unaffected) cases going around, and there will be a spike in known cases at that point. And by quickly dialling up and down, we can control that.

So I hereby strongly urge the state governments (especially looking at you, Government of Karnataka) to permit schools to reopen. A few vocal and overly conservative parents should not be able to hold the rest of the country (or state) to ransom.

Ending on a high

Now that I have a “proper job” I don’t get that much of an opportunity to post during the week. So I might dump “ideas gathered during the week” each weekend. Hopefully quality won’t suffer. Also, I should add that all opinions here are my own and don’t reflect that of any organisation(s) I’m associated with. 

My lifting had suffered massively during the lockdown. In the first week of March, just before the lockdown had hit, I had managed all-time personal bests in front squat, back squat and bench press. And then the gym shut for six months.

Both physical and mental health suffered. Physical because I wasn’t lifting, and so wasn’t burning as much calories as I used to, and so I lost muscle, and put on fat, and triglycerides and other things.

Mental because I wasn’t lifting, so I wasn’t sure any more what or how much I could eat. I would be anxious about every little thing I ate, or didn’t eat (after considering eating). All the mental models I had built up over time of what is good or bad for me went for a toss, meaning I had to make decisions on the fly. And that wasn’t easy at all.

So when the gym reopened in the middle of August, I was among the first to get back. Yes, the risk of catching the disease of 2020 was there, but that got counterbalanced by the prospect of vastly improved physical and mental health.

I restarted slowly, at about half the weights I had left off at in March. I had expected it to take a year to reach my previous highs. The guy who runs the gym thought it will take a couple of months. He had the better prediction – in the beginning of November I managed to deadlift twice my body weight (I had done that once before, in September 2019, but for post-lockdown, this was a massive high).

And then things went for a toss. Maybe I started going to the gym too often. Maybe I started sleeping too little. Maybe the diet I went on (after the elevated levels of triglycerides in my blood got confirmed due to a blood test) ended up reducing my strength.

The following week, I attempted 5 kg above twice my body weight. Failure. A week later (I do “normal deadlifts” once a week, and “sumo deadlifts” once a week), I tried 2X my body weight again. Failure again. And yet again. And three continuous weeks of failure was a bit too much to take. And it didn’t help that in my usual program, the deadlift is the last exercise before I wind up. Irrespective of how much I had lifted before, ending the workout with a failure wasn’t a great thing to do.

A T-shirt I bought recently

And so this week, I decided to reverse course. I still continued with the deadlift as my last lift of the day, but gave myself enough time for it (by changing my workout schedule) that there was time to “end on a high”.

So on Tuesday, I tried 2X my body weight once again. Failure. However, my schedule meant that I had time left over. I removed 5 kg, and tried again. Failure again. I wasn’t going to be done. I took off another 10kg and attempted again, and managed to complete 3 reps. I was done for the day.

It happened once again with the sumo deadlift yesterday, and with the overhead press three days back – giving myself more time meant that I had the time to scale back upon the end of my unsuccessful lift, and finish the day on a high, even if it is a lower high than what I wanted to end on before I started my workout.

Oh, and I should mention that in the last week, I’ve managed to hit all time personal bests (including pre-lockdown) in front squat, sumo deadlift and bench press. I think the “ending on a high” philosophy, combined with giving myself more time, have something to do with it.

PS: Ending on a failure, apart from ruining the rest of that day, also makes you more apprehensive the next time you want to lift, and might lead you to lift less than your potential next time.

Proper Job

For the first time in over nine years, I’m taking up one of these.

If someone, sometime, were to do a compendium of stories of people whose careers changed because of covid-19, then I might feature in it. To be very honest, my present career change had been in the works for a while now. However, a bunch of things that covid-19 forced upon me this year made it that much easier to take the plunge.

As the more perceptive of you might have observed by now, I quit full time employment to embark on a “portfolio life” in late 2011. Apart from getting control over my own time, this change allowed me to do a lot of interesting things apart from my “core work”, which I took on such that most of the work I did was things I was good at or interested in.

So over the last nine years, apart from doing a lot of very interesting consulting work around data and analytics and AI and ML and “data science” and all that, I did a lot of interesting stuff otherwise as well. I wrote a book. I wrote a column for Mint. I taught at IIMB. I did public policy work for Takshashila.

I met lots of people and had loads of interesting discussions. There were times, yes, when I went into every meeting or catchup with a “sales mindset”, trying to sell something to someone. Thankfully these times were infrequent, and short. At all other times, I enjoyed all these random catchups, without any expectation  that anything come out of it.

My network expanded like crazy during these years. For the first time in my life, I came to be known for something apart from entrance exams. I spent time living in other places. I “followed my wife” when she first went to Barcelona, and then to London. It was all smooth.

In any case, you might be wondering how the pandemic resulted in my transition to employment being easier. The main way in which it has eased this transition is by ruining my carefully constructed lifestyle of the last nine years.

I’ve loved going around and meeting people. On an average, I would meet two to three people a week, for things completely unrelated to work. That has come down to nearly zero in the last nine months.

I had grown used to having massive control of my time and schedule. The prolonged school shutdown has completely sent it for a toss, with shared childcare responsibilities. “If I don’t have control over my time any ways, I might as well take up a job”, went one line of my reasoning.

I sometimes think I have a fear of open offices (I’ve felt this even during my consulting times when some clients have asked me to do “face time” in their offices). I hate having other people looking at my screen when I’m working. Maybe it has to do with some bad bosses / colleagues I’ve had over the years. The pandemic means I start working from the comfort of my home. And by the time I go to an office I will have hopefully settled down in this job.

And speaking of offices, the pandemic has normalised remote or hybrid working to an extent that I applied to jobs without having the constraint that they necessarily need to have an office in Central Bangalore. The company I’m joining – I’m not sure I would have thought of them in a “normal job search”. As it happens, while they’re not primarily based here, they do have a small office not far from Central Bangalore, and I’ll be going there once it reopens.

Then, thanks to the pandemic, I have successfully concluded my jobhunt without stepping out of home. All interviews, with a big range of companies, happened through video conferencing. In terms of my personal experience, Zoom >> Teams >> Meet.

But yeah, the biggest impact of the pandemic has  been on my lifestyle. So many things that I craved, and took as given, have been taken away from my life, that changing lifestyle seems to have become far easier than I had imagined. It’s like the tube strike model. I got shaken out of my earlier local optimum, and that has enabled me to convince myself that this new lifestyle will work.

In any case, I hope this works out. Just before joining, I feel positive, and excited in a good way.

Oh, and I guess I need to add here, and maybe at the beginning of every subsequent post.

All opinions expressed here on this blog are mine, and only mine. They don’t reflect the thoughts or opinions or positions of any organisation(s) that I might be associated with. Also, none of what I write on this blog is to be taken as investment advice. 

 

Resorts

We spent the last three days at a resort, here in Karnataka. The first day went off very peacefully. On the second day, a rather loud group checked in. However, our meal times generally didn’t intersect with theirs and they weren’t too much of a bother.

Yesterday, a bigger and louder (and rather obnoxious – they were generally extremely rude to the resort staff) group checked in. Unfortunately their meal times overlapped with ours, and their unpleasantness had a bearing on us. Our holiday would have been far better had this group not checked in to our resort, but there was no way we could have anticipated, or controlled for that.

The moral of the story, basically, is that your experience at a resort is highly dependent on who else is checked in to the resort at the same time.

The thing with resorts is that unlike “regular hotels”, you end up spending all your time during your holiday in the resort itself, so the likelihood of bumping into or otherwise encountering others who are staying at the resort is far higher. And this means that if you don’t want to interact with some of the people there, you sometimes don’t really have a choice.

Of course, it helped that the resort we were in had private swimming pools attached to each room, and was rather large. So the only times we encountered the other groups at the resort was at meal times. However, as we found during our last day there, that itself was enough to make the experience somewhat unpleasant.

My wife and I had a long conversation last night on what we could do to mitigate this risk. We wondered if the resorts we have been going to are “not premium enough” (then again, a resort with private swimming pools in each room can be considered to be as premium as it gets). However, we quickly realised that ability to pay for a holiday is not at all correlated with pleasantness.

We wondered if resorts that are out of the way or in otherwise not so popular places are a better hedge against this. Now, with smaller or less popular resorts, the risk of having unpleasant co-guests is smaller (since the number of co-guests is lower). However, if one or more of the co-guests happens to be unpleasant, it will impact you a lot more. And that’s a bit of a risk.

Maybe the problem is with India, we thought, since one of the nice resort holidays we’ve had in the last couple of years was in Maldives. Then again, we quickly remembered the time at Taj Bentota (on our honeymoon) where the swimming pool had been taken over by a rather loud tour group, driving us nuts (and driving us away to the beach).

We thought of weekday vs weekend. Peak season vs off season. School holidays vs exam season. We were unable to draw any meaningful correlations.

There is no solution, it seemed. Then we spent time analysing why we didn’t get bugged by fellow-guests at Maldives (my wife helpfully remembered that the family at the table next to ours at one of the dinners was rather loud and obnoxious). It had to do with size. It was a massive resort. Because the resort was so massive, there would be other guests who were obnoxious. However, in the size of the resort, they would “become white noise”.

So, for now, we’ve taken a policy decision that for our further travel in India, we’ll either go to really large resorts, or we’ll do a “tourist tour” (seeing places, basically) while staying at “business hotels”. This also means that we’re unlikely to do another multi-day holiday until Covid-19 is well under control.

Postscript: Having spent a considerable amount of time in the swimming pool attached to our room, I now have a good idea on why public swimming pools haven’t yet been opened up post covid-19. Basically, I found myself blowing my nose and spitting into the pool a fair bit during the time when I was there. Since the only others using it at that time were my immediate family, it didn’t matter, but this tells you why public swimming pools may not be particularly safe.

Postscript 2: One other problem we have with Indian resorts is the late dinner. At home, we adults eat at 6pm (and our daughter before that). Pretty much every resort we’ve stayed in over the last year and half has started serving dinner only by 8, or sometimes at 9pm. And this has sort of messed with our “systems”.

Ten pertinent observations, ten years later

It’s been ten years since this happened:

So we spent the morning watching our wedding video (yes, you might think wedding videos are useless, but they do come in useful once in a while, so you better get them taken) with our daughter. Here are ten pertinent observations about our wedding after watching this video, in no particular order.

  1. The whole thing seems way too long drawn out (the official wedding itself lasted seven sessions, or three days and a half). I remember being incredibly tired and stressed out by the end of it. A lot of things we did seem rather meaningless, in hindsight, as well.

    Given a choice now, I’d do it in a registrar’s office, followed by a party.

  2. For our reception, my niece, who was then barely a teenager, was wearing a “cold shoulder” dress. I had no clue that cold shoulder tops/dresses were already a thing in India in 2010, or that it had already gotten popular with teenagers.
  3. We had invited lots of people. It was absolute chaos at our wedding, especially since it was on a Sunday morning. Guests at the wedding included aunt’s school friends, my grandfather’s cousins (some of whom I didn’t know at all), the priest at a temple near my wife’s house, the bhelpuri guy with a cart down the road from my wife’s house, parents of a friend I’d long lost touch with, the  guy who supplies coffee powder to my in-laws, etc. Now you know why Indian weddings (pre covid-19, at least) are big and fat.
  4. Some of the guests whom neither of us know well – we have over the years tagged them by the gift they gave us at the wedding. “This is my dad’s cousin who gave us that clock”, or “this is the family that gave the plate”, etc. Sometimes we think that if we don’t know the hosts well, what gifts we give doesn’t matter. Not always true.

    On the other hand, you don’t remember the gifts that people close to you gave you. Your relationship with them goes far beyond a wedding gift.

  5. The funniest part of reception photos is when groups get mixed together. Given that we had long lines (see 3 above), taking a photo with just one guest was a sort of waste of time. So in some cases, people were arbitrarily (based on their position in line) clubbed together for photos. It’s fun to see these combinations, in hindsight.
  6. The only way we know that someone attended our wedding is if they gave us a gift (they’re all tabulated in a diary), or if they came up on stage (braving the crowds) to wish us during the wedding or the reception. So if you think that your “presence is itself a present”, then you need to make sure that you clearly register your presence.

    The evening of my wedding, I saw two emails, from friends saying “I was there at your wedding. I’m not sure if you saw me”. Smartphones weren’t a thing in 2010, but if you’re going to do this now, you better attach a selfie as well.

  7. There’s a reason I’ve put a picture from our wedding, and not from our reception, as part of this post. We both look absolutely atrocious at our reception. Both heavily over-made-up. Every time we look at our reception photos, we end up laughing loudly at each other.
  8. I’ve worn my wedding suit only once in the last 10 years – for my wife’s MBA graduation. My wife hasn’t worn her reception sari even once after the wedding (I had completed my MBA before we got married). At the time we bought them, they were our costliest ever suit and costliest ever sari respectively.
  9. It’s fun to watch these photos and videos to see how some people have changed over the years. A lot of people have visibly gotten older in the last 10 years. Many others look exactly the same. And some people actually look younger now than they did at our wedding (maybe a function of fitness?).

    The funnest to look at are those who were kids at the time of our wedding, but who are adults now. And those who had hair at the time of our wedding, and don’t now.

  10. Over the years, the influence of Bollywood has meant that South Indian weddings have borrowed a lot from North Indian weddings. Like mehndi is a common thing in South Indian weddings now. Maybe shoe hiding as well. However, we’re extremely proud of the one thing we “imported”, and which not too many others have done (even ten years down the line).

    On the eve of our wedding, at the wedding hall itself, we had a dance party. Yes, really. We had a DJ. No choreography nonsense. Just a good old post-dinner dance party. Among other things, we got to see a side of some relatives that we hadn’t otherwise seen. It was great fun overall.

 

Re-gifting for rebel girls

On the occasion of her birthday a couple of months back, the daughter received a copy of “Goodnight stories for rebel girls“. As you might have guessed, this was not the first time she had received this book – we had bought it for her earlier this year.

Interestingly, barely a week or two before, some friends who were visiting had gifted her “goodnight stories for rebel girls – 2“, saying that they were pretty confident that she will have this first book already.

In any case, once you have a second copy of a book, the honourable thing to do is to gift it to someone. So the copy of goodnight stories (1) that was received for the daughter’s birthday immediately went into our “regifting cupboard”. It continues to sit there.

The question is who to regift it to. It is a fair hypothesis that most girls will already have the book. So regifting it to another girl will only send it on an endless orbit of regifting. The logical corollary is that we need to regift it to a boy.

Here is where it gets a bit complicated. We’re pretty sure that any boy being brought up by a “feminist mother” (or “feminist parents”) will already have a copy of the book. And if we were to gift the book to a boy whose parents aren’t feminist, we’ll only end up pissing off the boy’s parents.

Who said giving a gift is easy?

Number fourteen

I killed another rat this morning. The fourteenth of my life. This came six years after my thirteenth. And it was also the hardest, forcing me to take the help of “unnatural support” to trap and kill it.

Unfortunately this was the best picture we could get, since I had decided to close the sticky mat after killing the rat on it

I first noticed the rat on Monday night when I was talking to a friend. I had stepped out of the bedroom to take the call, and we were barely done with pleasantaries when I said, “shit, there is a rat in my house”. “Oops, do you need to go? Are you scared?”, he asked. “Not scared, but I need to kill it”, I said, and ran.

As it happened, I was wearing my AirPods, and I ended up running too far away from my phone, and the call got cut. I had seen the rat going under the dining table, and then into the kitchen. By the time I fetched a stick broom (the one usually used to sweep outdoors – they are excellent for killing rats – see my left hand in the picture above), the rat had disappeared.

The fundamental principle of killing rats is to isolate it in one room, that is preferably “open” (without too many nooks and corners where it can hide). Our living room in this house is especially unsuited for this purpose since it has too many orifices, and many of these orifices can’t be shut.

In any case, I saw the rat hiding inside the back of the refrigerator. The idea was to move the refrigerator and whack it as soon as it ran out. Unfortunately, with my reflexes not being what they used to be, I wasn’t able to whack it adequately and the rat ran into my daughter’s room (she doesn’t sleep there yet).

This was both a good and a bad thing. The good thing was that the rat could be isolated inside this room. The bad thing was that there are too many things in this room, making it impossible to trap a rat there. I tried anyway, with a broom and a stick, for twenty minutes before giving up and calling back my friend.

Yesterday was an attritional battle. We woke up to the sight of the rat having tried to gnaw at the room door. It was nowhere to be found, though. I went to a nearby shop and got some rat poison (in the form of “cakes”), and for good measure also got a rat sticky board.

Representative image of a rat glue trap

I left some old potato chips in the middle of this pad, and spread the poison cakes throughout the room. Every two or three hours through yesterday I kept going in to check if the rat had eaten the cakes or otherwise been trapped. There was no luck.

This morning there was evidence once again that the rat had tried to gnaw the bottom of the room door. It was time for more proactive measures. The first step was to empty out the room. The amount of stuff (toys, dolls, games, etc.) that my daughter has is insane. Having made a mental note to “Marie Kondo her stuff” later today, I went on to finding the rat.

Despite mostly emptying the room, the rat was nowhere to be found. This reminded me of computer programming. Sometimes you know there is a bug, but you just aren’t able to find it. Finally, after more than an hour of search, I found that the rat had made itself cosy in the window curtains.

In computer programming, once you’ve found a bug, fixing it is relatively easy. With physical rodents, it’s not so straightforward. The rat started giving me a hard time.

Out (of the room) came the curtains. Out (of the room) came these boxes in which my daughter stores her toys. It was to no avail, as the rat cleverly used the mattress as a shield (irrespective of how I placed the mattress – horizontal / vertical / whatever). Finally, having made sure that the rat wasn’t in the mattress, that was pushed out of the room as well.

In general, catching a rat needs two people. One person prods from one side and the other person whacks from the other. My first ever experience of killing a rat (it’s counted in the 14) came as an assistant to my father, who had handed me a cricket bat when a rat had dared to come to our bathroom.

On subsequent occasions, I’ve used my aunt, my aunt’s housekeeper, my mother-in-law and others as my assistants. Today, there was no such help coming. My wife was too scared, and she had convinced the daughter as well that rats can be scary, so I was left to my own devices.

And it was my devices – one that I had purchased yesterday, to be precise – that came of use. I had noticed that the rat kept running under a chest of drawers every time I attacked it. So I strategically left the sticky mat under the chest of drawers, and kept chasing the rat under it. And one time, it stuck.

A couple of whacks with the broom finished it off. “Fourteen”, I shouted. I admit I sort of “cheated”, by using “unnatural aids” (the sticky mat) in this process. In my defence, I didn’t have any human support so was forced to use this.

Start the game already!

69 is the answer

The IDFC-Duke-Chicago survey that concluded that 50% of Bangalore had covid-19 in late June only surveyed 69 people in the city. 

When it comes to most things in life, the answer is 42. However, if you are trying to rationalise the IDFC-Duke-Chicago survey that found that over 50% of people in Bangalore had had covid-19 by end-June, then the answer is not 42. It is 69.

For that is the sample size that the survey used in Bangalore.

Initially I had missed this as well. However, this evening I attended half of a webinar where some of the authors of the survey spoke about the survey and the paper, and there they let the penny drop. And then I found – it’s in one small table in the paper.

The IDFC-Duke-Chicago survey only surveyed 69 people in Bangalore

The above is the table in its glorious full size. It takes effort to read the numbers. Look at the second last line. In Bangalore Urban, the ELISA results (for antibodies) were available for only 69 people.

And if you look at the appendix, you find that 52.5% of respondents in Bangalore had antibodies to covid-19 (that is 36 people). So in late June, they surveyed 69 people and found that 36 had antibodies for covid-19. That’s it.

To their credit, they didn’t highlight this result (I sort of dug through their paper to find these numbers and call the survey into question). And they mentioned in tonight’s webinar as well that their objective was to get an idea of the prevalence in the state, and not just in one particular region (even if it be as important as Bangalore).

That said, two things that they said during the webinar in defence of the paper that I thought I should point out here.

First, Anu Acharya of MapMyGenome (also a co-author of the survey) said “people have said that a lot of people we approached refused consent to be surveyed. That’s a standard of all surveying”. That’s absolutely correct. In any random survey, you will always have an implicit bias because the sort of people who will refuse to get surveyed will show a pattern.

However, in this particular case, the point to note is the extremely high number of people who refused to be surveyed – over half the households in the panel refused to be surveyed, and in a further quarter of the panel households, the identified person refused to be surveyed (despite the family giving clearance).

One of the things with covid-19 in India is that in the early days of the pandemic, anyone found having the disease would be force-hospitalised. I had said back then (not sure where) that hospitalising asymptomatic people was similar to the “precogs” in Minority Report – you confine the people because they MIGHT INFECT OTHERS.

For this reason, people didn’t want to get tested for covid-19. If you accidentally tested positive, you would be institutionalised for a week or two (and be made to pay for it, if you demanded a private hospital). Rather, unless you had clear symptoms or were ill, you were afraid of being tested for covid-19 (whether RT-PCR or antibodies, a “representative sample” won’t understand).

However, if you had already got covid-19 and “served your sentence”, you would be far less likely to be “afraid of being tested”. This, in conjunction with the rather high proportion of the panel that refused to get tested, suggests that there was a clear bias in the sample. And since the numbers for Bangalore clearly don’t make sense, it lends credence to the sampling bias.

And sample size apart, there is nothing Bangalore-specific about this bias (apart from that in some parts of the state, the survey happened after people had sort of lost their fear of testing). This further suggests that overall state numbers are also an overestimate (which fits in with my conclusion in the previous blogpost).

The other thing that was mentioned in the webinar that sort of cracked me up was the reason why the sample size was so low in Bangalore – a lockdown got announced while the survey was on, and the sampling team fled. In today’s webinar, the paper authors went off on a rant about how surveying should be classified as an “essential activity”.

In any case, none of this matters. All that matters is that 69 is the answer.