Fulfilling needs

We’re already in that part of the crisis where people are making predictions on how the world is going to change after the crisis. In fact, using my personal example, we’ve been in this part of the crisis for a long time now. So here I come with more predictions.

There’s a mailing list I’m part of where we’re talking about how we’ll live our lives once the crisis is over. A large number of responses there are about how they won’t ever visit restaurants or cafes, or watch a movie in a theatre, or take public transport, or travel for business, for a very very long time.

While it’s easy to say this, the thing with each of these supposedly dispensable activities is that they each serve a particular purpose, or set of purposes. And unless people are able to fulfil these needs that these activities serve with near-equal substitutes, I don’t know if these activities will decline by as much as people are talking about.

Let’s start with restaurants and cafes. One purpose they serve is to serve food, and one easy substitute for that is to take the food away and consume it at home. However, that’s not their only purpose. For example, they also provide a location to consume the food. If you think of restaurants that mostly survive because working people have their midday lunch there, the place they offer for consuming the food is as important as the food itself.

Then, restaurants and cafes also serve as venues to meet people. In fact, more than half my eating (and drinking) out over the last few years has been on account of meeting someone. If you don’t want to go to a restaurant or cafe to meet someone (because you might catch the virus), what’s the alternative?

There’s a certain set of people we might be inclined to meet at home (or office), but there’s a large section of people you’re simply not comfortable enough with to meet at a personal location, and a “third place” surely helps (also now we’ll have a higher bar on people we’ll invite home or to offices). If restaurants and cafes are going to be taboo, what kind of safe “third places” can emerge?

Then there is the issue of the office. For six to eight months before the pandemic hit, I kept thinking about getting myself an office, perhaps a co-working space, so that I could separate out my work and personal lives. NED meant I didn’t execute on that plan. However, the need for an office remains.

Now there’s greater doubt on the kind of office space I’ll get. Coworking spaces (at least shared desks) are out of question. This also means that coffee shops doubling up as “computer classes” aren’t feasible any more. I hate open offices as well. Maybe I have to either stick to home or go for a private office someplace.

As for business travel – they’ve been a great costly signal. For example, there had been some clients who I’d been utterly unable to catch over the phone. One trip to their city, and they enthusiastically gave appointments, and one hour meetings did far more than multiple messages or emails or phone calls could have done. Essentially by indicating that I was willing to take a plane to meet them, I signalled that I was serious about getting things done, and that got things moving.

In the future, business travel will “become more costly”. While that will still serve the purpose of “extremely costly signalling”, we will need a new substitute for “moderately costly signalling”.

And so forth. What we will see in the course of the next few months is that we will discover that a lot of our activities had purposes that we hadn’t thought of. And as we discover these purposes one by one, we are likely to change our behaviours in ways that will surprise us. It is too early to say which sectors or industries will benefit from this.

Peanut Butter

You can put this down as a “typical foreign-returned crib”. The fact, however, is that since I returned to India a little over a year ago, I’ve been unable to find good quality peanut butter here.

For two years in London, I subsisted on this “whole earth” peanut butter. Available in both crunchy and creamy versions (I preferred the former, but the daughter, who was rather young then, preferred the latter), it was made only of peanuts, palm oil and salt. It was absolutely brilliant.

The thing with Indian peanut butter makers is that so far I’m yet to find a single brand that both contains salt and doesn’t contain sugar! The commercial big brands all have added sugar. Some of the smaller players don’t have salt, and in case they have salt as well, they include some other added sweet like honey or jaggery, which defeats the point of not having sugar.

I’d ranted about this on twitter a few months back:

I got a few suggestions there, tried the whole lot, and the result is still the same. Those that have salt also have sugar. The consistency in the product (especially for the smaller guys) is completely off. And a lot of the smaller “organic” players (that play up on the organic factor rather than the nutrition factor) don’t add any preservatives or stabilising agents, which mean that in Indian temperatures (30s), the oil inevitably separates from the rest of the product, leaving the rest of the thing in an intense mess.

Finally, my “sustainable solution of choice” I settled on was to buy Haldiram’s roasted and salted peanuts, and then just grind them in the mixie (making it from first principles at home just hasn’t worked out for me). Except that now during the lockdown I haven’t been able to procure Haldiram’s roasted and salted peanuts.

So during another shopping trip to a supermarket earlier this week (not that much insight to write a full blog post on that), I decided to try one of the commercial brands. It was available in a big white 1.25kg box and had a fitness (rather than “goodness”) messaging on the cover. It had added sugar, but at 10 grams per 100 grams of the product it was less than other commercial brands. On a whim, I decided to just go for it.

And so far it’s been brilliant. Yes, it’s sweeter than I would have liked, but the most important thing is thanks to the “stabilising agent”, it has a consistent texture. I don’t need to endlessly mix it in the box each time I eat it. The taste is great (apart from the sweetness), and I must say I’m having “real peanut butter” after a long time!

It’s a pity that it took a year and a period of lockdown for me to figure this out. And I’m never trying one of those “organic” peanut butters again. They’re simply not practical to use.

Then again, why can’t anyone figure out that you can add salt without necessarily adding sugar?

Diamonds and Rust

So this post is going to piss off the wife on at least two counts. Firstly, she thinks I’m “spending too much time on the computer” nowadays, and not enough with her. Secondly, this post refers to an old crush who my wife thinks I had “blogged too much about” (the implication is that I don’t blog enough about my wife).

Then again, I think I’ve been taking myself too seriously on this blog of late, and so need something to break out of this rut, and this post is something I’ve been intending to write for a long time. So I’m taking a chance here.

The song in question is Diamonds and Rust, originally performed by Joan Baez, and then covered by Judas Priest in their album Sin After Sin.

I was first introduced to this song by the Judas Priest version. It was that time back in college where I had computer, and access to a LAN full of pirated music, and was sampling all the bands that I thought might be cool (it’s another matter that I ended up liking a lot of these “cool” bands, including Judas Priest).

As was my wont then whenever I “discovered” some artist, I would listen to all their works in order, album by album. I do this nowadays as well, when I “rediscover” artists. And so I got introduced to Diamonds and Rust. I remember the song immediately making an impression on me, but not too much (the other song that that made an immediate impact was called “between the hammer and the anvil“, and I’d wondered if it was about the mechanics of the inner ear).

Anyway, in the middle of discovering Judas Priest for the first time, I met this girl. I mean I’d known her for a really long time but this was the first time we were “having a conversation”. We had met at this tiny cafe full of college kids (we were also college kids then) where she had made a big fuss about being a “low calorie person”. Music was playing. Soon a vaguely familiar sounding song played, in a voice that wasn’t familiar at all. Between bits of the conversation, all I caught from the song was that it was “_____ and _____ “. Surprisingly for me, I didn’t try to immediately figure out which song it was upon returning to my room that night.

The years went by. I probably ended up blogging this girl a bit too much for my own good later on. The person who is now my wife read some of those posts and thought she had found a guy who would write loads about her as well. I started off brightly, but in the long term I don’t think I’ve lived up to the expectation.

I don’t recall the circumstances in which I rediscovered Diamonds And Rust. It happened in London, either towards the end of 2017 or the beginning of 2018. I think the rediscovery again happened through Judas Priest – I was working through their albums one by one after a 12 year gap, and chanced upon Diamonds And Rust again. Some chord (not literally) hit. I went down a rabbit hole.

I realised this was possibly the song that had initially registered all those years ago, and that I had heard in the cafe. Googling revealed it was a cover, and the original did sound very familiar (I think this is the story. I’ve sat on this post for so long now I’ve really forgotten). I was convinced. The Joan Baez version did seem very familiar. It all started coming back to me. The next couple of days I was careful around the wife so she wouldn’t realise that I had gotten excited about something vaguely related to an old crush.

In any case, I liked the cover so much that soon I started creating a playlist of “metal covers of non-metal songs”.

I called it “Rust Covers Diamonds” (get the clever pun?). I’m listening to that playlist right now as I write this. It’s a public playlist, so feel free to listen to it. You’ll love a lot of the songs in it! Especially the first “title track”.

Update

There is one thing I don’t like about Diamonds and Rust, and I blame Joan Baez for it (Judas Priest simply copied it without checking it seems). The song is not dimensionally consistent. Check the lyrics:

And here I sit, hand on the telephone
Hearing the voice I’d known
A couple of light years ago
Heading straight for a fall

Light year is a unit of distance, not time. So “a couple of light years ago” makes absolutely no sense. I really don’t know how the editors let that pass. Then again, you don’t expect most editors to know physics!

Yet another pinnacle

During our IIMB days, Kodhi and I used to measure our lives in pinnacles. Pinnacles could come through various ways. Getting a hug from a sought-after person of the opposite gender usually qualified. Getting featured in newspapers also worked. Sometimes even a compliment from a professor would be enough of a “pinnacle”.

In any case, in college days pinnacles keep coming your way, and you can live your life from one pinnacle to another. Once you graduate, that suddenly stops. Positive feedback of any kind in your work life is rare. If you “manage to do well in social life”, it might work, but there is really nobody else to show off your pinnacle to. It is really hard to adjust to this sudden paucity of positive feedback in life, and this usually leads to what people call as “quarter life crisis”.

Shortly after I had resolved my quarter life crisis, and “done well in social life”, I decided to change track. I quit full time employment, and as you all might know, have been pursuing a sort of “portfolio life” in the last eight odd years. And this means doing several things apart from the thing that contributes to most of my income.

One upside of this kind of life (lack of steady cash flow is the big downside) is that you keep getting pinnacles. Publishing my book was a pinnacle, for example. Getting invited to write regularly for Mint was another. Becoming a bit of a social media star (nothing like yesterday) in the run up to the 2014 general elections was yet another. And there were the kicks about being invited to teach at IIMB. And all that.

It had been a while since I had one such pinnacle. Perhaps the last one was in 2018, during the Karnataka Assembly Elections, when I had my first shot at television punditry, when I appeared on News9, and waxed eloquent about sample sizes and survey techniques.

In any case, that was nothing compared to the sort of pinnacle that I’ve got following my tweetstorm from yesterday. This email came to the inbox of NED Talks (I didn’t know that email ID was public) this afternoon:

Kind Attn: Karthik Shashidhar, Founder NED TALK

Dear Sir,

Greetings from Republic TV!

I’m <redacted> , a Mumbai based News Coordinator with Republic TV. Republic TV is India’s first and only Independent News Venture headed by Mr. Arnab Goswami.

Sir,  we would like to get in touch with you for our show on Corona virus reality on Rahul Gandhi Claim that Lock down is temporary measures and not the solution to defeat virus and need more testing to be done in the country.

Sir,It will be our pleasure to have you join us on our channel at 9PM.

We, at Republic TV,  believe that your command over the issue will add depth and perspective to our discussions and help mould popular discourse.

As it happened, I was unable to accept this invitation. However, I’m documenting this here to record this absolute pinnacle of life. The next time I feel shitty about myself, or feel a sort of imposter syndrome, I can look at this invite and think that I’ve truly arrived in life.

PS: Just look at the number of times I’ve been called “Sir” in that email. That alone should constitute a pinnacle.

Beckerian Disciplines

When Gary Becker was awarded the “Nobel Prize” (or whatever its official name is) for Economics, the award didn’t cite any single work of his. Instead, as Justin Wolfers wrote in his obituary,

He was motivated by the belief that economics, taken seriously, could improve the human condition. He founded so many new fields of inquiry that the Nobel committee was forced to veer from the policy of awarding the prize for a specific piece of work, lauding him instead for “having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including nonmarket behavior.”

Or as Matthew Yglesias put it in his obituary of Becker,

Becker is known not so much for one empirical finding or theoretical conjecture, as for a broad meta-insight that he applied in several areas and that is now so broadly used that many people probably don’t realize that it was invented relatively recently.

Becker’s idea, in essence, was that the basic toolkit of economic modeling could be applied to a wide range of issues beyond the narrow realm of explicitly “economic” behavior. Though many of Becker’s specific claims remain controversial or superseded by subsequent literature, the idea of exploring everyday life through a broadly economic lens has been enormously influential in the economics profession and has altered how other social sciences approach their issues

Essentially Becker sort of pioneered the idea of using economic reasoning for fields outside traditional economics. It wasn’t always popular – for example, his use of economics methods in sociology was controversial, and “traditional sociologists” didn’t like the encroachment into their field.

However, Becker’s ideas endured. It is common nowadays for economists to explore ideas traditionally considered outside the boundaries of “standard economics”.

I think this goes well beyond economics. I think there are several other fields that are prone to “go out of syllabus” – where concepts are generic enough that they can be applied to areas traditionally outside the fields.

One obvious candidate is mathematics – most mathematical problems come from “real life”, and only the purest of mathematicians don’t include an application from “real life” (well outside of mathematics) while writing a mathematical paper. Immediately coming to mind is the famous “Hall’s Marriage Theorem” from Graph Theory.

Speaking of Graph Theory, Computer Science is another candidate (especially the area of algorithms, which I sort of specialised in during my undergrad).  I remember being thoroughly annoyed that papers and theses that would start so interestingly with a real-life problem would soon involve into inscrutable maths by the time you got to the second section. I remember my B.Tech. project (this was taken rather seriously at IIT Madras) being about what I had described as a “Party Hall Problem” (this was in Online Algorithms).

Rather surprisingly (to me), another area whose practitioners are fond of encroaching into other subjects is physics. This old XKCD sums it up

Complex Systems (do you know most complex systems scientists are physicists by training?) is another such field. There are more.

In any case, assuming no one else has done this already, I hereby christen all these fields (whose practitioners are prone to venturing into “out of syllabus matters”) as “Beckerian Disciplines” in honour of Gary Becker (OK I have a economics bias but I’m pretty sure there have been scientists well before Becker who have done this).

And then you have what I now call as “anti-Beckerian Disciplines” – areas that get pissed off that people from other fields are “invading their territory”. In Becker’s own case, the anti-Beckerian Discipline was Sociology.

When all university departments talk about “interdisciplinary research” what they really need is Beckerians. People who are able and willing to step out of the comfort zones of their own disciplines to lend a fresh pair of eyes (and a fresh perspective) to other disciplines.

The problem with this is that they can encounter an anti-Beckerian response from people trying to defend their own turf from “outside invasion”. This doesn’t help the cause of science (or research of any kind) but in general (well, a LOT of exceptions exist), academics can be a prickly and insecure bunch forever playing zero-sum status games.

With the covid-19 virus crisis, one set of anti-Beckerians who have emerged is epidemiologists. Epidemiology is a nice discipline in that it can be studied using graph theory, non-linear dynamics or (as I did earlier today) simple Bayesian maths or so many other frameworks that don’t need a degree in biology or medicine.

And epidemiologists are not happy (I’m not talking about my tweet specifically but this is a more general comment) that their turf is being invaded upon. “Listen to the experts”, they are saying, with the assumption that the experts in question here are them. People are resorting to credentialism. They’re adding “, PhD” to their names on twitter (a particularly shady credentialist practice IMHO). Questioning credentials and locus standi of people producing interesting analysis.

Enough of this rant. Since you’ve come all the way, I leave you with this particularly awesome blogpost by Tyler Cowen, who is a particularly Beckerian economist, about epidemiologists. Sample this:

Now, to close, I have a few rude questions that nobody else seems willing to ask, and I genuinely do not know the answers to these:

a. As a class of scientists, how much are epidemiologists paid?  Is good or bad news better for their salaries?

b. How smart are they?  What are their average GRE scores?

c. Are they hired into thick, liquid academic and institutional markets?  And how meritocratic are those markets?

d. What is their overall track record on predictions, whether before or during this crisis?

e. On average, what is the political orientation of epidemiologists?  And compared to other academics?  Which social welfare function do they use when they make non-trivial recommendations?

Rewarding Inefficiency

As the lockdown goes on and we have to spend tonnes of effort for things that we took for granted, there are some things I’m thankful I don’t have to spend effort for.

For example, ever since we returned to India a year ago, we’ve got milk delivered to the door every morning, and that continues. We buy our vegetables from this guy who drives a small truck in front of our road every other day (the time at which he arrives is less certain, but he maintains his thrice-a-week schedule).

For eggs, and as backup for vegetables, there is this “HOPCOMS” (a government-run fruits and vegetables shop) 100 metres from where I stay. The thing is so empty most of the time that I wonder if it would continue to exist if it had a profit motive.

It’s only for our staples, toiletries and other groceries that we have to visit organised stores, and in that too, I patronise this “independent supermarket” run by an enterprising bunch of Mallus rather than a chain. Plenty of other kinds of redundancy exists in the area where we live – there are a few family-owned grocers who don’t stock any “long tail stuff” but can supply the staples. And so forth.

This is very different from the situation in London, where I lived for two year, where for pretty much everything you go to the supermarket. If you are looking for “regular” stuff, you go to the little Tesco at the corner. If you want long tail stuff, you walk farther to the large-format Tesco. Bread, dairy, fruits and vegetables, groceries – for everything you go to Tesco. There were “unbranded” retail stores around as well (“off-licenses”, I think, they were called), but pretty much nobody ever went there.

It is the time of crisis when you start appreciating redundancy and inefficiency. All the “local supply chains” that we’ve relied upon continue to be reliable (the only exception being bread – all local bakeries are shut). It’s only for staples and toiletries that one needs to go to the supermarket.

Actually, not really, unless you are looking for long tail stuff. On my way back from the supermarket last Wednesday, I drove past one of the small family-owned groceries around here. There was a line one person long there. In other words, being a rather “inefficient” system around here, redundancy exists, and it is invaluable at crisis time.

Contrast this to a place like London, or even Gurgaon (or Gurgaon-like localities in other cities in India), where most shopping is done in branded chain stores. In that kind of scenario, at the time of crisis, there is no way out. The overoptimised and stretched (but “efficient”) supply chains mean that things come to a halt. You have no option but to regularly go to the supermarket and line up, and hope that their supply doesn’t run out.

My shopping habits apart, the larger question I’m wondering about is – once the crisis is over, how do we incentivise inefficiency? Clearly there are benefits to come out of inefficiency, in terms of slack in the system and greater resilience at the time of stress. However, these benefits are seldom seen in normal times, thanks to which businesses that push tail risks under the carpet can deliver super-normal returns and drive the more careful ones out of business.

We don’t know when the next such crisis will hit. It is highly likely that the next crisis will be nothing like this crisis, and we have no clue what it will be like. So how can we be prepared and have enough inefficiency in the system that when it comes around we are resilient?

Right now I have no answers.

The Two Overton Windows

If you want to appear intelligent when discussing something about public policy, you could do worse than uttering the phrase “Overton Window”. The Overton Window, “invented” by one Joseph Overton, suggests that there is a “range of policies acceptable to political mainstream”.

And so you frequently have political commentators talking about the Overton Window “shifting” whenever a new political idea (or person) comes to the fore. This was bandied about much when Modi became Prime Minister of India, or when Trump became President of the US, or when Jeremy Corbyn became the Labour Party leader.

While “shifting Overton window” is something you come across rather often in policy discourse, my argument is that with the rise of subscription media, the Overton window is not shifting as much as it is “splitting”. In other words, we now have not one but two Overton Windows.

Without loss of generality, let us call them the “Jamie Overton Window” and the “Craig Overton Window”. Since both the twins are right arm fast bowlers, it doesn’t matter which brother is associated with which Overton Window.

So how did we get here, and what does it mean for us?

We started with the classic Overton Window. Let’s assume that all politics can be reduced to one axis (if we do a Principal Component Analysis of political views, the principal axis is certain to account for a large share of the variance, so this is not a bad assumption). So the Overton Window can be referred to by a line which the shifts.

As long as the world was “ruled by mainstream media”, this Overton Window kept moving back and forth, expanding and contracting, but it remained united. And then with the start of subscription ad-free media (maybe a decade or decade and half ago), the Overton Window started expanding.

The “left media” (that’s a convenient term isn’t it?) started admitting stuff that was left to the then Overton Window. The “right media” started admitting stuff that was to the right of the then Overton Window. And so over time, the Overton Window started expanding. And things can’t get into the media Overton Window unless they’re part of the mainstream political Overton Window.

The thing is that as the media became subscription-heavy and hence biased, political ideas that were once on the fringe now got a voice. And so the Overton Window got larger and larger.

Until a point when it got so unwieldy that it split, giving rise to Jamie and Craig. The image on the right is an approximate illustration of what happened.

And once the Overton Window split, there was no looking back. They started moving away from each other well-at-a-faster-rate. The Jamies could not come to terms with the policies of the Craigs, and vice versa. Political analysts and commentators started getting associated with the Jamie and Craig camps.

For a while, a few commentators continued to write for both sides, but the extreme fringes, which were getting more and more extreme, started overreacting. “How can we have someone who has written 10 articles for Craigs write for us”, the Jamies asked. “Most of our commentators are Craigs, so we might as well become a Craig newspaper”, the other side reasoned.

And that’s where mainstream media is going. The Overton Window has split down the middle. Crossing this gap is considered a crime worse than crossing the floor in Parliament.

Sadly, it is not just media that is getting Jamie and Craig. Mainstream politics reflects this as well, and so across countries we get political opponents who just cannot talk to each other, since everything one says is outside the Overton Window of the other.

Maybe the only way this can end is by going across axes, or inventing a new axis even. With the current spectrum politics, there is no hope of the two Overton Windows coming to meet.

 

A trip to the supermarket

Normally even I wouldn’t write about a trip to a supermarket, but these aren’t normal times. With the shutdown scheduled to go on for another two weeks, and with some “essential commodities” emptying, I decided to go stock up.

I might just have postponed my trip by a few more days, but then I saw tweets by the top cop of Bangalore saying they’re starting to seize personal vehicles out on the road during the lockdown. I needed to get some heavy stuff (rice, lentils, oils, etc.) so decided to brave it with the car.

Having taken stock of inventory and made a longlist of things we need, I drove out using “back roads” to the very nearby Simpli Namdhari store. While I expected lines at the large-format store, I expected that it would be compensated for by the variety of stuff I could find there.

I got there at 230 only to be told the store was “closed for lunch” and it would reopen at 3. “All counters are open”, the security guard told me. I saw inside that the store was being cleaned. Since it’s a 3 minute drive away, I headed back home and reached there at 3:15.

There was a small line (10-15 people long) when I got there. I must mention I was super impressed by the store at the outset. Lines had been drawn outside to ensure queueing at a safe distance. Deeper in the queue, chairs had been placed (again at a safe distance from each other) to queue in comfort. They were letting in people about 10 at a time, waiting for an equal number to exit the store each time.

It was around 335 by the time I got in (20 minute wait). From the entrance most shelves seemed full.

The thing with Namdhari’s is that they control the supplies of a large number of things they sell (fruits, vegetables, dairy, bread, etc.), and all of them were well stocked. In times like this (I can’t believe I’m using this phrase!), some sort of vertical integration helps, since you can produce the stuff because you know the downstream demand.

(in any case, for things like vegetables and milk, where there is a large gap between “sowing” and “reaping”, production hasn’t fallen at all. It’s a massive supply chain problem and plenty of stuff is getting wasted while people don’t have enough. Stuff like bread is where vertical integration helps)

In any case I took two trips round the supermarket with my trolley, checking items off my checklist as I put items into the trolley (unusual times mean even disorganised people like me make checklists). Again the vertical integration showed.

Stuff that Namdhari’s owns upstream of, like staples and oils, were well stocked. High demand stuff for which Namdhari’s is only a reseller, like Maggi or crisps or biscuits were poorly stocked. Interestingly, “exotic stuff” (like peanut butter or cheeses, around which Namdhari’s has partly built its reputation) was reasonably well stocked, for which I was really thankful (we consume far more of these than the average Indian household).

How much to buy was a dilemma I had in my head through the shopping trip. For one, there was the instinct to hoard, since I was clear I didn’t want another shopping trip like this until the shutdown ends (milk, vegetables and eggs are reasonably easily available close to home, but I wasn’t there for that).

On the other hand, I was “mindful” of “fair usage policy”, to not take more than what I needed, since you didn’t want stockouts if you could help it.

The other thing that shortages do to you is that you buy stuff you don’t normally buy. Like the other day at another shop I’d bought rice bran oil because groundnut oil wasn’t available. While you might buy something as “backup”, you are cognisant that if you get through the lockdown without needing this backup, this backup will never get used.

So even though we’re running short of sambar powder, I ignored it since the only sambar powder on offer looked pretty sad. On the other hand, I bought Haldiram’s Mixture since no “local mixtures” are available nowadays, and mixture is something I love having with my curd rice.

I was a little more “liberal” with stuff that I know won’t go bad such as dry fruits or staples, but then again that’s standard inventory management – you are willing to hold higher inventories of  items with longer shelf life.

I might have taken a bit longer there to make sure I’d got everything on my list, but then my “mask” made out of a hanky and two rubberbands had started to hurt. So, with half my list unfulfilled, I left.

Even at the checkout line, people stood a metre away from each other. You had to bag your own groceries, which isn’t a standard thing in India, but enforced now since you don’t want too many hands touching your stuff.

Oh, and plenty of people had come by car to the store. There were cops around, but they didn’t bother anyone.

Hanging out on Hangouts

The covid-19 crisis has fundamentally changed the way we work, and I thikn some things we are not going to get back. For the foreseeable future, at least, even after official lockdowns have been lifted, people will be hesitant to meet each other.

This means that meetings that used to earlier happen in person are now going to happen on video calls. People will say that video calls can never replace the face-to-face meetings, and that they are suboptimal, especially for things like sales, account management, relationship management, etc.

The main reason why face-to-face interactions are generally superior to voice or video calls is that the latter is considered transactional. Let’s say I decide to meet you for some work-related thing. We meet in one of our offices, or a coffee  shop, or a bar, and indulge in pleasantaries. We talk about the traffic, about coffee, about food, do some random gossip, discuss common connects, and basically just hang out with each other for a while before we get down to work.

While these pleasantaries and “hanging out” can be considered to be a sort of transaction cost, it is important that we do it, since it helps in building relationships and getting more comfortable with each other. And once you’ve gotten comfortable with someone you are likely (at the margin) to do more business with them, and have a more fruitful relationship.

This kind of pleasantaries is not common on a phone call (or a video call). Usually phone calls have more well defined start and end boundaries than in-person meetings. It is rather common for people to just get started off on the topic of discussion rather than getting to know one another, cracking jokes, discussing the weather and all that.

If we need video and phone calls to become more effective in the coming months (at least as long as people aren’t stepping out), it is imperative that we learn to “hang out on hangouts”. We need to spend some time in the beginning of meetings with random discussions and gossip. We need to be less transactional. This transaction cost is small compared to the benefit of effectively replicating in-person meetings.

However, hanging out on hangouts doesn’t come easily to us – it’s not “natural”. The way to get around it is through practice.

On Sunday night, on a whim, I got onto a group video call with a bunch of college friends. Midway through the call I wondered what we were doing. Most of the discussion was pointless. But it gave us an opportunity to “hang out” with each other in a way we hadn’t for a long time (because we live in different places).

Overall, it was super fun, and since then I’ve been messaging different groups of friends saying we should do group video chats. Hopefully some of those will fructify. Along with the immediate fun to be had, they will also help me prepare better for “hanging out” at the beginning of my work meetings.

I think you should do them, too.

The Prom

The other day, the wife and I were discussing about growing up, and about school crushes, and how relationships worked in school. It was a fascinating discussion, and it has already led to an excellent newsletter episode by her. Here is the key point of our discussion, as she wrote in her newsletter:

There are rumours that some boys have a crush on a couple of girls. You think that it’s a pandemic like the COVID-19, and it’s going to get us all, except it doesn’t. This unfortunately follows a power law, only a couple of boys and girls will be affected by the “crush”, the rest of us just have to be affected by the lack of – crushes, bosoms and baritones. Now, the problem with middle/ high school is that it operates on mob mentality – everyone is only allowed to have a crush on the crushable.

And then later on in the piece, she talks about proms.

You are most likely to fall in love organically and benefit from it early on in life. So, wasting these precious years of socialising is a sin.

So, when I think about it, “prom” is a great concept. It gives everyone a shot at gaining some experience. You’re better off going to prom at 16 rather than at 26.

This got me thinking about proms. I had no clue of the concept of a “prom” while growing up, and only came to know of it through some chick flicks I watched when I was in my late teens. However, I ended up writing about proms in my book (while describing Hall’s Marriage Theorem – yes, you can find Graph Theory concepts in a book on market design), and the more I think about it, the more I think it is a great concept.

The thing with proms is that it forces a matching. One on one. One boy gets one girl and vice versa (I really don’t know how schools that don’t have a balanced sex ratio handle it). And that is very different from how the crush network operates in middle and high school.

As Pinky described in her post, crushes in middle and high school follow a power law, because there is strong mob mentality that operates in early puberty. Before “benefits” get discovered, one of the main reasons for having a boyfriend/girlfriend is the social validation that comes along with it, and such validation is positive if and only if your peer group “approves” of your partner.

So this leads to a “rich get richer” kind of situation. Everyone wants to hit on the hottest boys and girls, with the result that a small minority are overwhelmed with attention, while the large majority remains partnerless. And they continue to be partnerless this way, friendzoning large sets of their classmates at an age that is possibly most suited for finding a long-term gene-propagating partner. 

In most Indian schools, the crush graph in high school looks like this. The boys and girls towards the bottom are the “long tail” – they are not cool to hit on, so nobody hits on them. In other words, they are unloved in High School. Notice that it’s a fairly long tail.

Also notice that most of the arrows point upwards (I’ve drawn the graph so the most sought-after people are on top). Because nothing prevents “one way crushes”, everyone just tries “as high as they can” to find a partner. And most of these don’t work out. And most people remain unloved.

So what does a prom do? Firstly, everyone wants to go to the prom, and to go to a prom, you need a date. Which means that everyone here in this long tail needs a partner as well. In the original setup, when crushes were based on mob-mentality, there was no concept of seeking “undervalued assets” (people nobody else is hitting on). Now, when everyone needs a unique partner, there is value to be found in undervalued assets.

Basically a prom, by providing immediate rewards for finding a partner (soon enough, the kids will discover other “benefits” as well), moves the schoolkids from a “crush network” to a “partner network”, which better represents real-world romantic networks.

Many people may not be able to pair with their first choice (notice in the above network that even the most sought after people may not necessarily match with their favourites), but everyone will get a partner. The Gale Shapley (or should I say Shapely Gal?) algorithm will ensure a stable matching.

Moreover, it doesn’t help your cause in getting a preferred (if not most preferred) partner for the prom if you make your attempt just before the prom. You need to have put in efforts before. This means that in anticipation of the prom, “pair bonding” can happen much earlier. Which means that schoolkids are able to get trained in finding a partner for themselves much earlier than they do now.

That will make it less likely that they’ll bug their parents a decade (or two) later to find them a partner.