Upgrade effect in action

So the workflow goes like this. Sometime a week to 10 days back, I read about the “upgrade effect“. It has to do with why people upgrade their iPhones every 1-2 years even though an iPhone is designed to last much longer (mine is 5 years old and going strong).

The theory is that once you know an “exciting upgrade” is available, you start becoming careless with your device. And then when the device suffers a small amount of damage, you seize the chance to upgrade.

I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro that is 6 years old. It is one of the last “old Macbooks” with the “good keyboard” (the one with keys that travel. I’ve forgotten if this is “butterfly” or “scissor”).

With consistently bad feedback about the other keyboard (the one where keys didn’t travel), I was very concerned about having to replace my Mac. And so I took extra good care of it. Though, this is what the keyboard has come to look like.

Last year I dropped a cup of milk tea on it, and panicked. Two days of drying it out helped, and the computer continued to work as it did (though around the same time the battery life dropped). Last year Apple reintroduced the old keyboard (with keys that travel), and I made a mental note to get a new laptop presently.

However, with this year having been locked down, battery life has ceased to be a problem for me (I don’t have to work in cafes or other places without charging points any more). And so I have soldiered on with my old Mac. And I’ve continued to be happy with it (I continue to be happy with my iPhone 6S as well).

And then on Wednesday I saw the announcement of the new M1 chip in the new Macbook Pro, with much enhanced battery and performance. I got really excited and thought this is a good time to upgrade my computer. And that I will “presently do it”.

I don’t know if I had the article about the “upgrade effect” but the same afternoon, sitting with my laptop on my lap and watching TV at the same time, I dropped it (I forget how exactly that happened. I was juggling multiple things and my daughter, and the computer dropped). I dropped it right on the screen.

Immediately it seemed fine. However, since yesterday, some black bands have appeared on the screen. Thankfully this is at one edge so it doesn’t affect “regular work”  (though last 3-4 months I’ve been using an external monitor at home). Yet, now I have a good reason to replace my laptop sooner than usual..

Based on the reviews so far (all of them have come before the actual hardware has shipped), I’m excited about finally upgrading my Mac. And this computer will then get donated to my daughter (she has figured out to type even on a keyboard that looks like the above).

I hadn’t imagined that soon after learning about the “upgrade effect” I would fall for it. Woresht.

Is handwriting hereditary?

I don’t know the answer to that question. However, I have a theory on how handwriting passes on down the generations.

So my daughter goes to a montessori. There they don’t teach them to read and write at a very early age (I could read by the time I was 2.5, but she learnt to read only recently, when she was nearing 4). And there is a structured process to recognising letters (or “sounds” as they call them) and to be able to draw them.

There are these sandpaper letters that the school has, and children are encouraged to “trace” them, using two fingers, so they know how the letters “flow”. And then this tracing helps first in identifying the sounds, and later writing them.

With school having been washed out pretty much all of this year, we have been starved of these resources. Instead, over a 2 hour Zoom call one Saturday in July, the teachers helped parents make “sound cards” by writing using a marker on handmade paper (another feature of Montessori is the introduction of cursive sounds at a young age. Children learn to write cursive before they learn to write print, if at all).

So when Berry has to learn how a particular sound is to be written, it is these cards that I have written that she has to turn to (she knows that different fonts exist in terms of reading, but that she should write in cursive when writing). She essentially traces the sounds that I have written with two fingers.

And then in the next step, I write the sounds on a slate (apparently it’s important to do this before graduating to pencil), and then she uses a different coloured chalk and traces over them. Once again she effectively traces my handwriting. Then earlier this week, during a “parent and child zoom class” organised by her school, she wanted to write a word and wasn’t able to write the full word in cursive and asked for my help. I held her hand and made her write it. My handwriting again!

Now that I realise why she seems to be getting influenced by my handwriting, I should maybe hand over full responsibility of teaching writing to the wife, whose handwriting is far superior to mine.

The trigger for this post was my opening of a notebook in which I had made notes during a meeting earlier this week (I usually use the notes app on the computer but had made an exception). Two things struck me before I started reading my notes – that my handwriting is similar to my father’s, and my handwriting is horrible (easily much worse than my father’s). And then I was reminded of earlier this week when I held my daughter’s hand and made her write.

This is how handwriting runs in the family.

Covid-19 Prevalence in Karnataka

Finally, many months after other Indian states had conducted a similar exercise, Karnataka released the results of its first “covid-19 sero survey” earlier this week. The headline number being put out is that about 27% of the state has already suffered from the infection, and has antibodies to show for it. From the press release:

Out of 7.07 crore estimated populationin Karnataka, the study estimates that 1.93 crore (27.3%) of the people are either currently infected or already had the infection in the past, as of 16 September 2020.

To put that number in context, as of 16th September, there were a total of 485,000 confirmed cases in Karnataka (official statistics via covid19india.org), and 7536 people had died of the disease in the state.

It had long been estimated that official numbers of covid-19 cases are off by a factor of 10 or 20 – that the actual number of people who have got the disease is actually 10 to 20 times the official number. The serosurvey, assuming it has been done properly, suggests that the factor (as of September) is 40!

If the ratio has continued to hold (and the survey accurate), nearly one in two people in Karnataka have already got the disease! (as of today, there are 839,000 known cases in Karnataka)

Of course, there are regional variations, though I should mention that the smaller the region you take, the less accurate the survey will be (smaller sample size and all that). In Bangalore Urban, for example, the survey estimates that 30% of the population had been infected by mid-September. If the ratio holds, we see that nearly 60% of the population in the city has already got the disease.

The official statistics (separate from the survey) also suggest that the disease has peaked in Karnataka. In fact, it seems to have peaked right around the time the survey was being conducted, in September. In September, it was common to see 7000-1000 new cases confirmed in Karnataka each day. That number has come down to about 3000 per day now.

Now, there are a few questions we need to answer. Firstly – is this factor of 40 (actual cases to known cases) feasible? Based on this data point, it makes sense:

In May, when Karnataka had a very small number of “native cases” and was aggressively testing everyone who had returned to the state from elsewhere, a staggering 93% of currently active cases were asymptomatic. In other words, only 1 in 14 people who was affected was showing any sign of symptoms.

Then, as I might have remarked on Twitter a few times, compulsory quarantining or hospitalisation (which was in force until July IIRC) has been a strong disincentive to people from seeking medical help or getting tested. This has meant that people get themselves tested only when the symptoms are really clear, or when they need attention. The downside of this, of course, has been that many people have got themselves tested too late for help. One statistic I remember is that about 33% of people who died of covid-19 in hospitals died within 24 hours of hospitalisation.

So if only one in 14 show any symptoms, and only those with relatively serious symptoms (or with close relatives who have serious symptoms) get themselves tested, this undercount by a factor of 40 can make sense.

Then – does the survey makes sense? Is 15000 samples big enough for a state of 70 million? For starters, the population of the state doesn’t matter. Rudimentary statistics (I always go to this presentation by Rajeeva Karandikar of CMI)  tells us that the size of the population doesn’t matter. As long as the sample has been chosen randomly, all that matters for the accuracy of the survey is the size of the sample. And for a binary decision (infected / not), 15000 is good enough as long as the sample has been random.

And that is where the survey raises questions – the survey has used an equal number of low risk, high risk and medium risk samples. “High risk” have been defined as people with comorbidities. Moderate risk are people who interact a lot with a lot of people (shopkeepers, healthcare workers, etc.). Both seem fine. It’s the “low risk” that seems suspect, where they have included pregnant women and attendants of outpatient patients in hospitals.

I have a few concerns – are the “low risk” low risk enough? Doesn’t the fact that you have accompanied someone to hospital, or  gone to hospital yourself (because you are pregnant), make you higher than average risk? And then – there are an equal number of low risk, medium risk and high risk people in the sample and there doesn’t seem to be any re-weighting. This suggests to me that the medium and high risk people have been overrepresented in the sample.

Finally, the press release says:

We excluded those already diagnosed with SARS-CoV2 infection, unwilling to provide a sample for the test, or did not agree to provide informed consent

I wonder if this sort of exclusion doesn’t result in a bias in itself.

Putting all this together – that there are qual samples of low, medium and high risk, that the “low risk” sample itself contains people of higher than normal risk, and that people who have refused to participate in the survey have been excluded – I sense that the total prevalence of covid-19 in Karnataka is likely to be overstated. By what factor, it is impossible to say. Maybe our original guess that the incidence of the disease is about 20 times the number of known cases is still valid? We will never know.

Nevertheless, we can be confident that a large section of the state (may not be 50%, but maybe 40%?) has already been infected with covid-19 and unless the ongoing festive season plays havoc, the number of cases is likely to continue dipping.

However, this is no reason to be complacent. I think Nitin Pai is  bang on here.

And I know a lot of people who have been aggressively social distancing (not even meeting people who have domestic help coming home, etc.). It is important that when they do relax, they do so in a graded manner.

Wear masks. Avoid crowded closed places. If you are going to get covid-19 anyway (and many of us have already got it, whether we know it or not), it is significantly better for you that you get a small viral load of it.

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?

News and the Cornish coastline

Following news at more frequent intervals means there is more negative news, and thus a greater chance of getting triggered. 

How much news exists in the world? Is there enough news to fit a daily newspaper? Is there enough news to fit a daily that is focussed on a city? Is there enough news for All India Radio to cover in its three (?) news broadcasts a day? And what about 24/7 news channels? Do they have enough news?

The answer to this question is simple – within reasonable limits, irrespective of how frequently you want to report the news, there will be in some way or the other sufficient news to report.

In some ways, this is like that famous question in Chaos Theory about the length of the Cornish coast. The answer is – it depends upon the ruler.

The length of the famously jagged Cornish coast depends upon the length of the ruler you use to measure it. The smaller the length of the ruler that you use, the more the indentations in the coastline matter, and thus the longer the coast. There is a limit there, of course, if I remember, the “fractal dimension” of the Cornish coast is 1.33 or something.

It is similar with news. The amount of news that is there to report is a function of how frequently you want to report it. A good analogy here is with the stock markets.

As regular readers of this blog might well know, stock price movement, upto some approximation, follow a random walk. This means that the “distance” covered by the stock ticker during the day is far higher than the “displacement”.

So a stock might gain 10% in the first minute of trading, and then lose 5% in the next hour, and then lose all its gains by lunchtime, and then go up and down and round and round and then end up pretty much where it started off at the beginning of the day.

If you are now reporting the news of this stock market with a “one day ruler” (say for your business daily), the market did nothing that day. However, if you have been watching its movement on CNBC (or any other real time news channel), there was a lot to report.

All news is this way. When you follow it at frequent intervals (through 24/7 TV, or through Twitter, for example), there appears to be a lot more news than there actually is when you follow it using a daily newspaper. And given that any piece of negative news is likely to cause anxiety, following news at more frequent intervals exposes you to far more negative news (think the stock market example again), and thus causes far more anxiety.

Not following the news at all (as I did for a while when I was in undergrad) sometimes means that you’ve missed out on all that has happened in the world, and might find it hard to cope with life. And so there is a tradeoff. This involves using a (time) ruler of an appropriate length.

Use too short a ruler and you cause yourself unnecessary anxiety and find yourself getting triggered all the time. Use too long a ruler and you find that you miss out on stuff that might have been necessary for you to know.

The frequency I’ve settled down upon is daily. I get three newspapers delivered to my door each morning, and that is how I’m informed about the world.

It’s interesting that back when the New York Times was a dead-tree periodical, it had a tagline that went “all the news that’s fit to print”. Now that it’s gone online, got a paywall and had to get into real time news, it’s become an outrage machine.


Jio, Amazon and Information Content

A long long time ago I had installed the Jio Cinema app on my Fire TV Stick. I had perhaps watched two movies on that, and then completely forgotten about it. This evening, I had to look for a movie to watch my the wife, and having exhausted most of the “compatible content” (stuff we can watch together on Netflix) and been exhausted by the user experience on Prime Video, I decided to give this app a try.

I ended up selecting a movie, which I later found out has a 4.5 IMDB rating and doesn’t even have a Wikepedia page. Needless to say, we abandoned the movie midway. That’s when the wife went in to put the daughter to bed and my fun began.

So Jio Cinema follows what I call the “Amazon paradigm for product management”. Since Amazon tries to sell every product (or service) as if it is a physical book, it has one single mantra for product management. “Improve selection and they will come”.

The user experience doesn’t matter. How easy the product is to use, and how pleasing it looks on the eye, and whether it has occasional bugs, is all secondary. All that matters is selection. Given that the company built its business on the back of selling “long tail” books, this is not so surprising, except that it doesn’t necessarily work in other categories.

I’ve written about Amazon’s ineptitude in product management before, in the context of that atrocity of an app called Sony Liv. The funny thing is that the Jio Cinema app (on Fire TV Stick) looks and feels pretty much exactly like Sony Liv. Maybe there is an open source shitty fire TV app that these guys have based themselves on?

In any case, I started browsing the Jio Cinema app, and I found something called “movies in 15 minutes“. Initially I thought it was a parody. The first few movies I noticed there were things I had never heard of. “This is perhaps for bad movies”, I reasoned. I kept scrolling, and more recognisable names popped up.

I decided to watch Deewana, which was released just before the start of my optimal age of movie appreciation, and which, for some reason, we didn’t get home a video cassette of.

It’s basically a collage of scenes from the movie. It’s like someone has put together a “highlights package”, taking all the important scenes and then putting them together.

And for a movie like Deewana it works. The 15 minute version had all the necessary plot elements to fully follow the movie. It is a great movie, for 15 minutes. Maybe at 30 minutes as well it might be a great movie. However, I can’t imagine having watched it in the full version.

That was two hours back. I’ve since gone crazy watching 15 minute versions of many other movies (mostly from the 70s and 80s, though they have movies as recent as Jab We Met). It’s been fantastic.

However, I have one crib. This has to do with information content. Essentially, the premise behind “movies in 15 minutes” is that the information content in these movies is so little that the whole thing can be compressed into 15 minutes.  The problem is that not every movie has the same amount of information.

15 minutes was perfect for Deewana. It was also appropriate for Kasam Paida Karne Waali Ki, which I watched only because it gets referenced in Gangs of Wasseypur. Between these two, I “watched” Namak Halaal, and I didn’t understand the head or tail of it. I had to go to Wikepedia to understand the plot.

Essentially the plot of Namak Halaal is complex enough, I imagine, that compressing it into 15 minutes is impossible without significant information loss. And the loss of information was so much that I couldn’t understand the summary at all. Maybe I’ll watch the movie in full some day.

I’m writing this blogpost after watching the 15 minute version of Don. I guess whoever made the summary realised that the movie is so complex that it can’t really be compressed into 15 minutes – and so they have added a voiceover to narrate the key elements.

In any case, I’m feeling super thrilled. I normally don’t watch movies because the bit rate in most movies is too low. Compression means that I can happily watch the movies without ever getting bored.

I wish they made these 15 minute versions of all movies. Jio, all (your Amazon-style product maangement) is forgiven.

Now on to Amar Akbar Anthony.

Signalling quality on Instagram ads

I have mentioned multiple times here before that I love Instagram advertising. I love that whatever Instagram learns from my likes (and not likes) on the platform, and through the various pixels that Facebook leaves all over the interwebs, gets used in showing me highly relevant advertising.

Rather, ever since I started using Instagram, I loved the advertising for its visual quality (that made it hard to distinguish if it was an advertisement or native content), and as things have gotten more relevant over time, I’ve started clicking through. And as I’ve started clicking occasionally, the advertising has become more relevant.

I’m sure some silicon valley marketer has some imagery about flywheels. I’m reminded of that hamster spinning this wheel when I’d gone to this animal farm near Bangalore last year.

In any case, I read this article about “the hard thing about easy things“. The basic theory, if I understand it right, is that by commoditising all the tools of production when it comes to direct to consumer selling, the business of direct to consumer selling has gotten that much harder.

The article goes on to say that unless the brand has a competitive advantage in manufacturing (or sourcing by any other means), it is pretty much impossible to make money off direct to consumer products – you struggle to repel the attack of the clones, and you have to spend increasing amounts of money on online marketing (through Google and Facebook).

While this makes sense (or not?) from an investment and entrepreneurship perspective, it got me wondering – as a consumer, how can I distinguish the quality direct to consumer products from those that have somehow simply managed to get into my feed?

Some advertising is like a peacock’s tail – it doesn’t signal any direct value about the brand being advertised. However, it signals that if the brand can afford to spend such huge amounts of money on this form of advertising, it ought to be a brand with sufficient spare cash flow that it is a good brand.

For example, when Vivo got title sponsorship of the IPL, it not only created awareness (which possibly existed thanks to its retail stores and advertising on Amazon) but also signalled that it is a “good brand” since it had bought prime advertising real estate.

Similarly, when a brand advertises on the SuperBowl, the actual dollars per eyeball may not make sense. However, when you add in the signalling value of having been there on SuperBowl (“if a brand can afford to advertise on SuperbOwl, it ought to be a good brand”), it starts making sense.

This works with a lot of mass media advertising. Front page of Times of India is premium because of peacock’s tail. Advertising in the IPL for the same reason. Perhaps similar with hoardings on the way out of airports. And booking prime time slots on popular television shows.

The problem with online advertising is that it is so targeted (and algorithmic) that this signalling effect goes away. Your instagram feed is like the Times of India where every page is similar to every other page.

From that perspective, it is hard to determine whether an advertisement represents a quality product when it appears on your Instagram timeline.

I bought Vahdam tea after someone recommended it to me on Twitter. I bought Paul and Mike’s chocolates after a friend wrote her appreciation for it on Instagram. When I started buying Blue Tokai coffee, I needed good coffee powder and was in the mood for exploration, but was helped by multiple friends and acquaintances vouching for it .

Marketing solely using digital means runs into this problem of not having the signalling effect. And that means you need to invest in “social” also, however you can imagine that to be. Then again, people have started seeing through “influencers”, like how they started seeing through “endorsements” a generation ago.

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.

Gym pricing

In a weird sort of way, this is a blog-length expansion of a flippant thought I put out as a tweet.

Back to topic – gym memberships are a bundle. They bundle together the ability to use the gym over a long contiguous block of time. It doesn’t matter whether you want to go once a week or every day, in most gyms you have no choice but to buy the full bundle.

In some gyms (such as the one I was a member of before the lockdown started), there was more than the opportunity to use the equipment that was thrown into the bundle – the gym conducted lots of group classes every day. The option to join one of these classes (or maybe more – I never tried) was also bundled into the membership. Similarly, in an earlier gym I was a member of, the membership came bundled with the option to use squash courts, and use the gym bar.

The bundling made sense – cognitively it was easy on the members. The advantage of bundling is that marginal costs are kept at zero, which means mental accounting becomes far easier. Should I go to the gym today? I only need to think about whether I have the time and want the exercise. The decision is not complicated by money that I might have to spend. Similarly, should I join the class or just lift weights? Again depends upon mood and not on whether I need to pay anything for anything.

In any case, the pandemic and lockdown completely ruined the bundle. A lot of the options that were part of the bundle were forced to expire un-exercised since the gym was mandated to be closed (it’s unclear if they’re giving us any extensions of memberships once they restart this week).

Moreover, once the gyms restart (while they have been allowed to start on Wednesday, so far there’s been no communication from my gym on when they’re actually starting), they are likely to want to ensure some sort of social distancing. This means that the sort of bundles that they would sell earlier will be very hard to sustain.

Earlier, the bundle had both the option to attend the rather crowded 6:30 am class or the rather empty 9:30 am class. There was no differential pricing, and for good reason – mental costs were kept low. Now, in case the gym decides that the number of people per class needs to be capped (mgiht have to do that to ensure social distancing), the bundle will become unworkable.

It will be as if the members who can only attend the rather crowded 6:30 am class and no other class are part of the same chit fund, betting against each other so that they can attend their favourite class. From the gym’s point of view, this is not workable.

While gyms worldwide have for long benefited from extreme bundling (with massive discounts for long-term contracts), with the understanding that people won’t utilise a large portion of that bundle, the post-pandemic era that restricts the number of people who can attend the gym at the same time might cause this model to unravel.

It will be interesting to see how the gym pricing models evolve. I liked this model that a gym my wife briefly attended follows – which was like the mobile phone plans of olden days. For a fixed sum, you would be entitled to a certain number of classes that had to be utilised in a certain number of days (eg. 6 classes in a month). And then you would have to book online to book a class and exercise each of these options.

Then again, a lot of gyms belong to what I call the “passion economy” – people who are in business because they are passionate about something rather than because they are good at business. So I don’t know how rational they will be with their pricing.