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!

Join a boss or join a company?

“You don’t quit your job. You quit your boss”.

Versions of this keep popping up on my LinkedIn with amazing regularity. People have told me this in a non-ironic way in personal conversations as well, so I assume that it is true.

And now that I’m back in the job market, I’ve been thinking of a corollary to this – basically, if you apply “backward induction” to the above statement, then it essentially means that you “join a boss” rather than “join a company”?

I mean – if the boss is the reason why you quit a particular job, then shouldn’t you be thinking about this at the time when you’re joining as well? And so, while you’re interviewing and having these conversations, shouldn’t you be on the lookout for potential bad bosses as well?

In that sense, as I go through my hunt, I’ve been evaluating companies not just on the basis of what they do and what they might expect me to do, but also on the basis of what I feel about the people I talk to. In some places, I have an idea on who I could potentially report to, and in some I don’t. However, I treat pretty much everyone I talk to as people I have to potentially report to or work with at some point of time or the other, and evaluate the company based on these conversations.

Sometimes I think this might be too conservative, but at other times I think that this conservatism now is worth any potential trouble later.

What do you think about this approach?

Trump, Tamasikate, NED and ADHD

My friend Ravikiran Rao has written a blogpost about how “Trump is Tamasik“. In this, he has used the Tamasik-Rajasik-Satvik framework from ancient India, modelled how most leaders are Rajasik, and how Trump is not, and is actually a Tamasik.

One of the hypotheses in the post is that a lot of commentators make the mistake of analysing Trump through a Rajasik lens (which they are used to since most other leaders are Rajasik), and so get him wrong.

The blogpost, like a lot of Ravi’s blogposts, triggered off a lot of thoughts in my head. My first reaction after starting to read was that “hey, can we compare Tamasikate to NED (noenthuda)”? The idea of Tamasik that I have is that it is about “doing nothing”. And “no enthu da” of course vocalises that philosophy – you don’t have enthu to do anything. And so Tamasikate is like NED.

That was the first thing where I found myself describing myself as a possible Tamasik.

And then Ravi goes on.

Trump, as I was saying, is Tamasik. He is driven by his impulses, and in his case, the impulses are all negative ones. Now, to be fair, all of us struggle with our impulses and emotional drives, but becoming a functional adult involves learning to rein them in, and converting them into higher order goals. We all have sexual desires, for example. The Rajasik nature involves sublimating them into a higher order emotion called love, and pursuit of love involves choosing one person and forgoing others; not giving into the impulse of going after every woman you find sexy. Trump has not made that transition at all. A Clinton may give into his impulse; Trump is his impulse.

I was thinking about the common theories about ADHD, which I’ve been diagnosed with. One theory is that ADHD leads to a “lack of executive functioning”. If we were to describe this using the Tamasik-Rajasic-Satvik framework, we can say that all of us have a “Tamasik base”, which is about our emotions, about our impulses and all that.

And then on top of the Tamasik base is a Rajasik “executive function”. It is this function that allows us to plan, think long-term, suppress our impulses when they are suboptimal, and do all the rest of things that society expects of functioning adults. However, the thing with ADHD is that this Rajasik executive function is impaired. So you are unable to plan well. You give in to your impulses. You frequently change plans. You are impulsive.

Sometimes I think that a lot of my theories are my attempts to rationalise myself and my own decisions. For example, after I first got diagnosed with ADHD in 2012, I realised that my seminal studs and fighters framework was an attempt to rationalise that.

Now Ravi’s post about Trump’s Tamasikate makes me think – I instinctively associate Tamasikate with NED. And your Tamasikate comes out in fuller light if your Rajasik executive function is impaired, which is what they say happens to someone who has ADHD.

So through this, is NED also a symptom of ADHD?

Sugar and social media

For the last one (or is it two?) weeks, I’ve been off all social media. For the last three weeks or so, until a friend baked a wonderful brownie on Wednesday, I was off sugars as well. And I find that my mind reacts similarly to sugar and to social media.

Essentially, the more frequently I’ve been consuming them, the more receptive my mind is to them. I’ve written this in the context of twitter recently – having been largely off Twitter for the last one month or so, I started enjoying my weekly logins less and less with time. Without regular use of the platform, there was no sense of belonging. When you were missing most of the things on the platform anyway, there was no fear of missing out.

So when I logged in to twitter two weekends back, I’d logged out within ten minutes. I haven’t logged in since (though this has since been coopted into a wider social media blackout).

It is similar with sugar. I’d written something similar to this eleven years back, though not to the same effect. Back then again (in the middle of what has been my greatest ever weight loss episode) I ran a consistent calorie deficit for two months, being strictly off sugars and fatty foods. After two months, when I tasted some sweets, I found myself facing a sugar high, and then being unable to have more sugars.

While I got back to sugars soon after that (massive weight loss having been achieved), I’ve periodically gone on and off them. I’m currently in an “off” period, though I’ve periodically “cheated”. And each time I’ve cheated I’ve felt the same as I did when I logged in to twitter – wondered what the big deal with sugar is and why I bother eating it at all.

Last Sunday it was my father-in-law’s birthday, and I broke my “no sugar” rule to eat a piece of his birthday cake. I couldn’t go beyond one piece, though. It was a mixture of disgust with myself and “what’s the big deal with this?” that I felt. It was a similar story on Tuesday, when I similarly couldn’t go beyond one piece of my daughter’s birthday cake (to be fair, it was excessively sweet).

On Wednesday, though, that changed. My friend’s brownie was delicious, and I ended up bingeing on it. And having consumed that much sugar, I continued thulping sugars for the next two days. It took some enormous willpower yesterday morning to get myself off sugars once again.

With social media that is similar. Whenever I go off it, as long as my visits back are short, I fail to get excited by it. However, every time I go beyond a threshold (maybe two hours of twitter in a stretch?) I’m addicted once again.

This may not sound like two many data points, but the moral of this story that I would like to draw is that social media is like sugar. Treat your social media consumption like you treat your consumption of sugar. At least if you’re like me, they affect your mind in the same way.

Dog breeds and caste

On Sunday I took a very long walk with a very old friend. We talked about several things during the course of the two hour conversation, including dogs.

We passed by a couple of dogs that seemed rather friendly and were tugging at their leashes to come and greet this friend. Now, this guy is an animal lover and photographer, and spent the next twenty minutes educating me about dog breeds, and about why “indie” dogs are great.

Now I don’t know if it is a coincidence that at around the same time we were taking our walk, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on his radio show Mann Ki Baat extolling the virtues of Indian dog breeds.

“Their purpose is to make Indian breeds better and more useful. Next time when you think of keeping a dog then you must bring one of the Indian breed dogs home. When self-reliant India is becoming the mantra of the masses then no area should be left behind,” Modi said in his monthly Mann Ki Baat address.

In any case, the reason indie dogs are preferable to pure breeds is that the latter go through a whole load of inbreeding. You must be aware of this common “doubt” about the Old Testament – Adam and Eve had two sons Abel and Cain. Cain killed Abel. How did Cain then propagate his genes?

If you believe in evolution, this isn’t much of a joke – it can be simply assumed that Cain found a near-human species to propagate his genes with. If you don’t, there is a bit of a, er, problem.

In any case, the way dog breeds are created (over several generations) is that dogs that possess certain traits (over and above their friendliness to humans – which is what makes them dogs and not wolves) are interbred. This desirable trait gets a wee bit stronger. In the next generation, another pair of dogs that have this wee bit extra of this desirable trait get interbred. And the process continues.

Now, it’s likely that if you take a boy dog and a girl dog who both have a high degree of this desirable trait, they share a fair bit of their ancestry. So within a few generations of starting the breed, you will have a fair degree of interbreeding.

It’s a bit like the royals of the Middle Ages – thanks to their insistence on preserving their blue blood, they only wanted to marry other royals. Soon, they ran out of royals to marry, unless they married their aunts and cousins and nieces that is. And that’s precisely what they did.

And so you had emperors such as Charles II of Spain who “was so ugly he scared his own wife”.

Charles II of Spain could barely walk because his legs could not support his weight. He fell several times. Marie died in 1689 without producing an heir for Charles II. The Spanish monarch was depressed after his first wife died.

Depression was a common trait among the Habsburgs. So was gout, dropsy, and epilepsy. The lower jaw was the kicker, though, as it made Charles II seem stunted. His ministers and advisers suggested the next move in Charles II of Spain’s reign: to marry a second wife.

He was apparently the descendant of “16 generations of Habsburg inbreeding”. Now you know why pugs have spinal problems, and why ____ (forget the breed, my friend mentioned on Sunday) have heart issues. Inbreeding, apart from selecting for the desirable traits, also unwittingly selects for some undesirable traits.

In any case, dog breeds are created when dogs with some desirable traits are forcibly mated with other dogs with similar desirable traits by some “higher power” (the human master). In some ways, you can think of dog breeding as similar to arranged marriage – rather than letting street dogs bonk whoever they want, dog mates are carefully arranged in the breeding process.

Now, “being forced to mate with someone desirable by a higher power” – what does that remind you of? Isn’t it like traditional Indian arranged marriage (the sort where you don’t even see your spouse until the time of marriage)? And what do you get when a “higher power” forces arranged marriage upon you for a large number of generations? The caste system, of course.

The basic feature of the Indian caste system, you might remember, is endogamy – caste rules largely meant that Indians married within their own caste. In fact there is research that has shown that for some 2000 years or so a large number of Indians have mostly married within their own caste.

Now, you can think of this as some Lamarckian quest to create the perfect breeds for humans for each profession (remember that castes started off as job divisions). So if two blacksmiths marry, their offspring will be a better blacksmith. And by thus marrying within the blacksmith community, over a few generations, they will create the “perfect breed of blacksmith” (this applies to all other professions, of course).

Of course, given that a large part of the skill that goes in being good a profession is learned rather than inherited, this inbreeding hasn’t done much to create the perfect breed of human for any particular job. Instead, what it has done is to saddle us with lifestyle diseases.

Having written nearly 900 words, I realise that I’m not alone in comparing dog breeds to caste, or Hinduism. Aadisht Khanna, my friend from business school, had written a blogpost to the same effect a few years ago. That’s enjoyable as well. Read it.

 

Once upon a time

A few months back, someone sent me this “pixar format” of storytelling.

While it makes sense, I have deep-seated insecurities regarding this format, going back to when I was in “upper kindergarten” (about 5 years old).

Until I was 14 or so, I had a pronounced stutter. It was very rare until then that I would win any prizes in speaking events even though I was comfortably the class topper in academics – basically I couldn’t speak. The mystery got unlocked when some teacher wondered if I stuttered because I “thought faster than I could speak”. That one remark made me conscious, and helped me slow down, and I remember pretty much cleaning up the speaking events prizes in school the following year.

Anyways, ten years before that I couldn’t speak. On top of that I couldn’t remember. I mean I could remember obscure things (for a five year old) such as the capital of Angola or the inventor of the telescope, but I couldn’t remember a coherent passage of text.

And one such passage of text that I first needed to mug up (and remember) and then speak it out (double nightmare) happened to be in the above (Pixar) format. There was a storytelling session in school for which we had to mug up stories and then tell it out in class.

I don’t exactly remember the text of the story (well I couldn’t remember it in 1987-88, so what chance do I have of remembering it now?), but it went something like this.

Once upon a time, there were four cows who lived in the jungle.

Every day, they grazed together. So if a tiger attacked, they could get together and chase it away.

One day, the cows quarrelled among one another.

Because of that, they started grazing separately.

Because of that, it was now possible for the tiger to take them on one-on-one.

Until finally, one day, the tiger attacked the cows one by one and ate up all of them.

Don’t ask me how a tiger could eat four cows in a day. I remember struggling like crazy to remember this story and speak it out. I remember that my father tried to make me mug it up several times during one weekend, after which I was supposed to speak it out in school.

I don’t remember how well or badly I spoke it out. However, what lasted was that this kind of stories started giving me nightmares. From then on, I developed a fear of the phrase “once upon a time”. Any story that started with “once upon a time” were scary to me.

I remember this one day in school when one classmate was asked to narrate a story. He went up to the front of the class and started with “one day … “. That was liberating – that not every story needed to start with once upon a time was a massive relief to me.

It’s funny the kind of things we remember from childhood, and the kind of seemingly innocuous things that have a long-term impact on us.

Halls and Hallways

It is possibly only in India that the living room is also called the “hall”. In the  UK, where I briefly lived, for example, the “hall” in the home refers to the hallway, the little passage that connects together all rooms. Actually, thinking about it, it is not surprising that the living room in India is called the “hall”, since it also performs the job of the hallway.

We rearrange the furniture in our home fairly often. Recently we had people moving in downstairs after that house had been empty for over a year. The first thing we told the new neighbours was that we rearrange our furniture rather often, and we’ll try our best to do it without noise.

That said, most of our recent rearrangements have involved the bedrooms. The living room has been left alone, since we’ve been completely unable to “plan and draw”(as my chemistry teacher used to say in class 12 while teaching us orbital diagrams).

The problem, we realise, is that our living room has “too many orifices”. It is a rather large room that combines the living room and the dining room. The main entrance into the house leads into it. And one bedroom, the kitchen, one balcony and (finally) the hallway that lead the two other bedrooms and one bathroom lead from it.

This large number of orifices for our living room means that there are few “U-shaped spaces” which can be converted into nice living quarters, with a TV, and comfy sofas, and what not.

And when I think about all the other houses I’ve lived in in India, this has been true there as well – the living rooms have had too many orifices, and the houses haven’t sufficiently made use of hallways to separate out rooms. The result, everywhere, has been living rooms where you have televisions that don’t sit directly opposite sofas, living rooms where the sofas are massively misaligned, and so forth.

Earlier on in the pandemic I had lamented the death of the verandah – as a in-between space where you could meet people who you didn’t want to invite into the fullness of the home. If and when I actually build a house (rather than buying one), I’ll possibly want both a verandah and a hallway.

I’m increasingly questioning why it became fashionable at all to have the main door of your house leading straight into the living room.

The Tube Strike Model For The Pandemic

In 2002, as part of my undergrad in computer science, I took a course in “Artificial Intelligence”. It was a “restricted elective” – you had to either take that or another course called “Artificial Neural Networks”. That Neural Networks was then considered disjoint from AI will tell you how the field of computer science has changed in the 15 years since I graduated.

In any case, as part of our course on AI, we learnt heuristics. These were approximate algorithms to solve a problem – seldom did well in terms of worst case complexity but in most cases got the job done. Back then, the dominant discourse was that you had to tell a computer how to solve a problem, not just show it a large number of positive and negative examples and allow it to learn by itself (though that was the approach taken by the elective I did not elect for).

One such heuristic was Simulated Annealing. The problem with a classic “hill climbing” algorithm is that you can get caught in local optima. And the deterministic hill climbing algorithm doesn’t let you get off your local optima to search for better optima. Hence there are variants. In Simulated Annealing, in the early part of the algorithm you are allowed to take big steps down (assuming you are trying to find the peak). As the algorithm progresses, it “cools down” (hence simulated annealing) and the extent to which you are allowed to climb down is massively reduced.

It is not just in algorithms, or in the case of AI, do we get stuck in local optima. In a recent post, I had made a passing reference to a paper about the tube strikes of 2014.

It is clearly visible from the two panels that far fewer commuters were able to use their modal station during the strike, which implies that a substantial number of individuals were forced to explore alternative routes. The data also suggest that the strike brought about some lasting changes in behaviour, as the fraction of commuters that made use of their modal station seemingly drops after the strike (in the paper we substantiate this claim econometrically).

Screw the paper if you don’t want to read it. Basically the concept is that the strike of 2014 shook things up. People were forced to explore alternatives. And some alternatives stuck. In other words, a lot of people had got stuck in local maxima. And when an external event (the strike) pushed them off their local pedestals (figuratively speaking), they were able to find better maxima.

And that was only the result of a three-day strike. Now, the pandemic has gone on for 5-6 months now (depending on the part of world you are in). During this time, a lot of behaviour otherwise considered normal have been questioned by people behaving thus. My theory is that a lot of these hitherto “normal behaviours” were essentially local optima. And with the pandemic forcing people to rethink their behaviours, they will find better optima.

I can think of a few examples from my own life.

  1. I wrote about this the other day. I had gotten used to a schedule of heavy weight lifting for my workouts. I had plateaued in all my lifts, and this meant that my upper body had plateaued at a rather suboptimal level. However much I tried to improve my bench press and shoulder press (using only these movements) the bar refused to budge. And my shoulders refused to get bigger. I couldn’t do a (palms facing away) pull up.
    Thanks to the pandemic, the gym shut, and I was forced to do body weight exercises at home. There was a limit on how much I could load my legs and back, so I focussed more on my upper body, especially doing different progressions of the pushup. And back in the gym today, I discovered I could easily do pullups now.

    Similarly, the progression of body weight squats I knew forced me to learn to squat deep (hamstrings touching calves). Today for the first time ever I did deep front squats. This means in a few months I can learn to clean.

  2. I was used to eating Milky Mist set curd (the one that comes in a 1kg box). It was nice and creamy and I loved eating it. It isn’t widely available and there was one supermarket close to home from where I could get it. As soon as the lockdown happened that supermarket shut. Even when it opened it had long lines, and there were physical barricades between my house and that so I couldn’t drive to it.

    In the meantime I figured that the guy who delivers milk to my door in the morning could deliver (Nandini) curd as well. And I started buying from him. Well, it’s not as creamy as Milky Mist, but it’s good enough. And I’m not going back.

  3. This was a see-saw. For the first month of the lockdown most bakeries nearby were shut. So I started trying out bread at this supermarket close to home (not where I got Milky Mist from). I loved it. Presently, bakeries reopened and the density of cases in Bangalore meant I became wary of going to supermarkets. So now we’ve shifted back to freshly baked bread from the local bakery
  4. I’d tried intermittent fasting several times in life but had never been able to do it on a consistent basis. In the initial part of the lockdown good bread was hard to come by (since the bakeries shut and I hadn’t discovered the supermarket bread yet). There had been a bird flu scare near Bangalore so we weren’t buying eggs either. What do we do for breakfast? Just skip it. Now i have no problem not having breakfast at all

The list goes on. And I’m sure this applies to you as well. Think of all the behavioural changes that the pandemic has forced on you, and think of which all you will go back on once it has passed. There is likely to be a set of behavioural changes that won’t change back.

Like how one in 20 passengers who changed routes following the 2014 tube strikes never went back to their earlier routes. Except that this time it is a 6-month disruption.

What this means is that even when the pandemic is past us, the economy will not look like the economy that was before the pandemic hit us. There will be winners and losers. And since it will take time and effort for people doing “loser jobs” to retrain themselves (if possible) to do “winner jobs”, the economic downturn will be even longer.

I’m calling it the “tube strike mental model” for behavioural change during the pandemic.

Amazon and brand-building

Sometimes shopping on Amazon feels like shopping in Burma Bazaar or National Market or any of those (literally) underground “shopping malls” where you get cheap imported stuff of uncertain quality. This is especially true when shopping for things like children’s toys and some electronics, where you don’t have too many established brands.

The only times I feel completely comfortable shopping on Amazon is when I’m buying known brands – like last month when I bought a LG monitor or Logitech keyboard and mouse. LG and Logitech have built their brands sufficiently outside of the Amazon ecosystem that I trust their quality even while buying on Amazon.

This is not the case when it comes to other categories, though. One day I was browsing for toys on Amazon and was simply unable to decide what to buy – it all looked so “cheap”. Finally, my wife noticed one brand of which we already had a toy (that we liked), and we ended up buying that (that was a sound decision). Once again, we had used our knowledge of brands that had build their brands outside of Amazon to make our decision.

The thing with Amazon is that it is an “everything store” – one store to serve all markets. That’s not how offline markets work. In offline markets, stores fairly easily differentiate themselves based on the markets that they serve – by their locations, by their price points, by the overall “look and feel” and so on. That way, when you go to a store that you know serves your segment, you can be confident that what the store sells you is what you’re looking for.

This is not the case with Amazon. Since one store serves all, it is very difficult to know upon seeing a product whether it is “made for you”. Well, Amazon has information about your previous purchases on the platform, which should give them a good idea of the “segment” you belong to, but I guess making money from advertisers on the platform trumps making your choice easier?

From this perspective, if you are a hitherto unknown brand trying to sell on Amazon, it makes sense for you to build your brand elsewhere. Here, we run into the “double cost problem” (that I had used to describe long ago why Grofers is not a sustainable business). Essentially, building a brand is expensive and once you’ve spend your dollars on (let’s say) the Facebook ecosystem to build your brand, does it make sense to also pay Amazon to push up your product when it comes to search?

It seems like brands are now choosing one way or the other. Mass market brands (it appears) are sticking to the Amazon ecosystem. Some premium brands are using Instagram to acquire customers, and then using the Shopify-Razorpay-Delhivery ecosystem to deliver. Some other premium brands are using a combination of Instagram and Amazon, but only using the latter as a fulfilment mechanism – not spending money to advertise there.

In any case, it seems to me that building brands on Amazon is not a viable business. Now I’m reminded of my other old post where I talk about how platforms are useful only if they aggregate unreliable supply. And this is a path that Amazon seems to have firmly taken.

And the moment you focus on branding, you are trying to send out the message that you are not “unreliable supply”. And this means that getting mixed up with other unreliable suppliers is not good for your business. Which is why you find that the direct to consumer brands that advertise on Instagram (have I told you I love instagram ads?) usually stay away from Amazon.

(you might think I’m going round and round in circles in this post. This is because it’s been about a month since I thought of writing this but only got down to it today. It’s also funny that I’m writing  this less than an hour after talking to someone who builds her brand on Instagram and then sells through Amazon (and offline shops) ).

PS: I got reminded of when I initially thought of this post. I bought a yoga mat from Amazon a couple of months ago. Quality turned out to be pathetic. And there was no way for me to know that when I was buying.

Uncertainty and Anxiety

A lot of parenting books talk about the value of consistency in parenting – when you are consistent with your approach with something, the theory goes, the child knows what to expect, and so is less anxious about what will happen.

It is not just about children – when something is more deterministic, you can “take it for granted” more. And that means less anxiety about it.

From another realm, prices of options always have “positive vega” – the higher the market volatility, the more the price of the option. Thinking about it another way, the more the uncertainty, the more people are willing to pay to hedge against it. In other words, higher uncertainty means more anxiety.

However, sometimes the equation can get flipped. Let us take the case of water supply in my apartment. We have both a tap water connection and a borewell, so historically, water supply has been fairly consistent. For the longest time, we didn’t bother thinking about the pressure of water in the taps.

And then one day in the beginning of this year the water suddenly stopped. We had an inkling of it that morning as the water in the taps inexplicably slowed down, and so stored a couple of buckets until it ground to a complete halt later that day.

It turned out that our water pump, which is way deep inside the earth (near the water table) was broken, so it took a day to fix.

Following that, we have become more cognisant of the water pressure in the pipes. If the water pressure goes down for a bit, the memory of the day when the motor conked is fresh, and we start worrying that the water will suddenly stop. I’ve panicked at least a couple of times wondering if the water will stop.

However, after this happened a few times over the last few months I’m more comfortable. I now know that fluctuation of water pressure in the tap is variable. When I’m showering at the same time as my downstairs neighbour (I’m guessing), the water pressure will be lower. Sometimes the level of water in the tank is just above the level required for the pump to switch on. Then again the pressure is lower. And so forth.

In other words, observing a moderate level of uncertainty has actually made me more comfortable now and reduced my anxiety – within some limits, I know that some fluctuation is “normal”.  This uncertainty is more than what I observed earlier, so in other words, increased (perceived) uncertainty has actually reduced anxiety.

One way I think of it is in terms of hidden risks – when you see moderate fluctuations, you know that fluctuations exist and that you don’t need to get stressed around them. So your anxiety is lower. However, if you’ve gone a very long time with no fluctuation at all, then you are concerned that there are hidden risks that you have not experienced yet.

So when the water pressure in the taps has been completely consistent, then any deviation is a very strong (Bayesian) sign that something is wrong. And that increases anxiety.