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.

Leaks and deluges

What connects South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh? All these regions were, at some point of time or the other, hailed for their deft handling of the covid-19 crisis.

Some of them, such as Vietnam and Singapore have continued to do well. New Zealand has also done rather well, and it continues to keep its border closed. However, shit has hit the fan in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in terms of number of cases. All the diligence in containment earlier seems to be of no use now, only delaying the inevitable.

So what happened?

Essentially the way you deal with a leak and the way you do with a deluge are vastly different.

When you have a leak, you know that there is a good chance that you can try to stem it. You first put in some temporary measure to slow it down so that the hole doesn’t become bigger, and then you find something – a rubber patch, or some M-seal, or a piece of string, or some plaster (or a combination of these) to plug the leak.

Once the leak has been plugged you are safe. There are no more leaks in the foreseeable future. The damage is likely to have been limited.

When the flow of water from the damaged source is too heavy, though, stemming leaks just doesn’t work. You can try to stem it, but the pressure is so intense that the water finds its way around it. And the more the effort you put in stemming, the more the likelihood that when the water breaks through it is going to damage you.

When you are dealing with a deluge, the optimal strategy is to not try and stop the deluge. That is usually futile. The focus needs to be on mitigation and management – take the deluge as a given, and that some damage is guaranteed, and try to figure out how best you are going to limit the damage to the extent possible.

Some states in India, such as Karnataka or Kerala or Andhra Pradesh, had been blessed with “thin inlet pipes” in terms of the covid-19 virus. The initial case loads in these states was low, so a strategy of a lockdown (which was national anyways) combined with strong contact tracing and testing kept the disease under wraps. The “models” of these states were lauded at one time or another.

And then inter-state borders opened up. As people streamed in from neighbouring states that had not been blessed by thin inlet pipes, the pipes into these hitherto thick states became thick. Not realising this happened, these states continued with their old “trace and test” strategy. It doesn’t seem to be helping.

Cases are exploding in these states. And the same old strategy is being persisted with. Bangalore even did a week-long lockdown that ended on Tuesday, putting many livelihoods at risk.

I have come to firmly believe that there are no “good strategies” in terms of combating the disease unless strict border controls can be maintained. Anything any government does in terms of tracing and testing and locking down will only slow the inevitable – it doesn’t make the place safe from the disease itself.

The only purpose of containment measures, I have come to believe, is to spread out the severe cases over time, so that hospitals are not overwhelmed, and those who can be helped by medical care can get that help.

In fact, if you remember, this was the original meaning of “flattening the curve”. Over time, people have come up with their own definitions of the phrase, looking at the number of new cases, number of cases, number of deaths and what not.

The original purpose of lockdown was to let the infection spread in a controlled manner, not to prevent the spread of the disease altogether (which is near-impossible). We would do well to remember that.

Shooting, investing and the hot hand

A couple of years back I got introduced to “Stumbling and Mumbling“, a blog written by Chris Dillow, who was described to me as a “Marxist investment banker”. I don’t agree with a lot of the stuff in his blog, but it is all very thoughtful.

He appears to be an Arsenal fan, and in his latest post, he talks about “what we can learn from football“. In that, he writes:

These might seem harmless mistakes when confined to talking about football. But they have analogues in expensive mistakes. The hot-hand fallacy leads investors to pile into unit trusts with good recent performance (pdf) – which costs them money as the performance proves unsustainable. Over-reaction leads them to buy stocks at the top of the market and sell at the bottom. Failing to see that low probabilities compound to give us a high one helps explain why so many projects run over time and budget. And so on.

Now, the hot hand fallacy has been a hard problem in statistics for a few years now. Essentially, the intuitive belief in basketball is that someone who has scored a few baskets is more likely to be successful in his next basket (basically, the player is on a “hot hand”).

It all started with a seminal paper by Amos Tversky et al in the 1980s, that used (the then limited) data to show that the hot hand is a fallacy. Then, more recently, Miller and Sanjurjo took another look at the problem and, with far better data at hand, found that the hot hand is actually NOT a fallacy.

There is a nice podcast on The Art of Manliness, where Ben Cohen, who has written a book about hot hands, spoke about the research around it. In any case, there are very valid reasons as to why hot hands exist.

Yet, Dillow is right – while hot hands might exist in something like basketball shooting, it doesn’t in something like investing. This has to do with how much “control” the person in question has. Let me switch fields completely now and quote a paragraph from Venkatesh Guru Rao‘s “The Art Of Gig” newsletter:

As an example, take conducting a workshop versus executing a trade based on some information. A significant part of the returns from a workshop depend on the workshop itself being good or bad. For a trade on the other hand, the returns are good or bad depending on how the world actually behaves. You might have set up a technically perfect trade, but lose because the world does something else. Or you might have set up a sloppy trade, but the world does something that makes it a winning move anyway.

This is from the latest edition, which is paid. Don’t worry if you aren’t a subscriber. The above paragraph I’ve quoted is sufficient for the purpose of this blogpost.

If you are in the business of offering workshops, or shooting baskets, the outcome of the next workshop or basket depends largely upon your own skill. There is randomness, yes, but this randomness is not very large, and the impact of your own effort on the result is large.

In case of investing, however, the effect of the randomness is very large. As VGR writes, “For a trade on the other hand, the returns are good or bad depending on how the world actually behaves”.

So if you are in a hot hand when it comes to investing, it means that “the world behaved in a way that was consistent with your trade” several times in a row. And that the world has behaved according to your trade several times in a row makes it no more likely that the world will behave according to your trade next time.

If, on the other hand, you are on a hot hand in shooting baskets or delivering lectures, then it is likely that this hot hand is because you are performing well. And because you are performing well, the likelihood of you performing well on the next turn is also higher. And so the hot hand theory holds.

So yes, hot hands work, but only in the context “with a high R Square”, where the impact of the doer’s performance is large compared to the outcome. In high randomness regimes, such as gambling or trading, the hot hand doesn’t matter.

Finite and infinite cricket games

I’ve written about James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games here before. It is among the more influential books I’ve read, though it’s a bit of a weirdly written book, almost in a constant staccato tone.

From one of my previous posts:

One of the most influential books I’ve read is James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. Finite Games are artificial games where we play to “win”. There is a defined finish, and there is a set of tasks that we need to achieve that constitutes “victory”. Most real-life games are on the other hand are “infinite games” where the objective is to simply ensure that the game simply goes on.

I’ve spent most of this evening watching The Test, the Amazon Prime documentary about the Australian cricket team after Sandpapergate. It’s a good half-watch. Parts of it demand a lot of attention, but overall it’s a nice “background watch” while I’m doing something else.

In any case, the reason for writing the post is this little interview of Harsha Bhogle somewhere in the middle of this documentary (he has appeared several times more after this one). In this bit, he talks about how in Test cricket, the opponent might be having a good time for a while, but it is okay to permit him that. To paraphrase Gully Boy, “apna time aayega” – the bowler or batsman in question will tire or diminish after some time, after which you can do your business.

He went on to say that this is not the case in limited overs cricket (ODIs and T20s) where both batsmen and bowlers need to constantly look to dominate, and cannot simply look to “survive” when an opponent is on the roll.

While Test cricket is strictly not an “infinite game” (it needs to end in five days), I thought this was a beautiful illustration of the concept of finite and infinite games. The objective of an infinite game, as James Carse describes in his book, is to just continue to play the game.

As a batsman in Test cricket, you look to just be there, weather out the good spells and spend time at the crease. You do this and the runs will come (it is analogous for bowlers – you need to bowl well enough to continue to be in the game, and then when the time comes you will get your rewards).

In ODIs and T20s, you cannot bide your time. Irrespective of how the opponent is playing, you need to “win every moment”, which is the premise for a finite game.

Now, I don’t know what I’m getting at here, and what he point of this post is, but I think I just liked Harsha Bhogle’s characterisation of Tests as infinite games, and wanted to share that with you.

How to avoid Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet and beat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Expertise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something is better than nothing.

Verandahs

Both the houses that I grew up in (built in 1951 and 1984) had large verandahs through which we entered the house. Apart from being convenient parking spaces for shoes and bicycles (the purpose that the “hallway” in British homes also performs), these were also large enough to seat and greet guests that you weren’t particularly familiar with.

None of the other houses that I’ve lived in (as an adult, and most of them being apartments constructed in the last 20-30 years) have verandahs. Instead, you enter directly into the living room.

There might be multiple reasons for this. Like you don’t want to waste precious built up area on a separate room for guests that is likely to be sparingly used. Some people might consider a separate space to meet certain kinds of people who come home to be classist, and unbecoming of a modern home. Finally, over the last 20 years or so, not as many people come home as they used to earlier.

I’m completely making this up, but I think one reason that the number of people who come home is lower is that we now have more “third places” such as restaurants or bars or cafes to meet people. If you can meet your acquaintances for breakfast, or tea, or for a drink, there is less reason to call them home (or visit them). Instead, your home can be exclusive to people who you know very well and who you can invite into the fullness of your living room.

Now, I must confess that even before the covid-19 crisis, the wife and I had started missing a verandah, and have been furiously rearranging our large living-cum-dining room over the last year to create a “verandah like space”.

When government officials conducting the census come home, where do you make them sit? What about the painter or carpenter who has come to have a discussion about some work you want to get done? What about the guy from the bank who has come to get your signature on some random forms? Or the neighbour or relative who suddenly decides to pop in without being invited?

In either of the homes I grew up in, the verandah was the obvious place to seat and greet these people. You let people into your home, but not really. Now again, some people might think this is casteist or classist or whatever, but you don’t want to expose your private spaces to the world. With relatives and some acquaintances, though, it could get tricky, as seating someone in the verandah was too blatant an indication that they were not welcome, and could potentially cause offence.

In any case, the verandah was this nice middle place that was neither inside nor outside (Hiranyakashipu could have been killed in a verandah). Apart from seating the uninvited, verandahs meant that you could call acquaintances home, and the rest of the house could go on with its business completely ignoring that a guest had come.

In fact in my late teenage I had this sort of unspoken arrangement with my parents that I was free to call anyone home as long as I “entertained” them in the verandah. The family’s permission to invite someone would be necessary only if they were to come into the living room.

In any case, I think verandahs are going to make a comeback. As I wrote in my last post, the covid-19 crisis means that we are going to lose “third spaces” like restaurants or cafes or bars which were convenient places to meet people. And you don’t want to make a big deal of a formal invite home (including taking your family’s permission) to meet the sort of people you’ve been meeting on a regular basis in “third spaces”. A verandah would do nicely.

The only issue, of course, is that you can’t change the architecture of your home overnight, so verandahs may not make as quick a comeback as one would like. However, I think houses that are going to be constructed are going to start including a verandah once again (as well as a study). And people will start creating verandah-like spaces where they can.

One guy in my apartment works from home and gets lots of random visitors. He’s installed an artificial wall in his living room to simulate a verandah. Maybe that’s a sort of good intermediate solution?

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.