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.

Unbundling news and advertising

I’ve written earlier about how once news media became dependent on subscriptions, it started becoming partisan. Thinking about it, it is not particularly correct.

If we think of the traditional (physical) newspaper, it was seldom given away for free (when I lived in London I would pick up free copies of the Evening Standard on days when I needed to line my compost bin). Traditional newspapers relied (and still do) on a combination of subscription and advertising for their revenues.

In that sense, what the New York Times does now (read this nice interview with its outgoing CEO) is basically a digital transformation of what it has been doing for over a hundred years – make money off a combination of subscription and advertising.

So if the business model was the same, why did the online New York Times differ from its previous avatar and become politically partisan? Because the nature of advertising changed.

Nowadays I have this favourite theory that everything is a bundle (maybe I should write my next book about this?).

You can consider this post to belong to this meme.

The traditional newspaper, if you think about it, was a collection of news and advertisements all bundled together. While you could choose what part of the paper you wanted to consume, when you went to a page you would inevitably scan all the headlines. And whether you liked them or not, you would actually eyeball all the advertisements.

The important thing to note is that the paper was a physical product and what advertisement the reader was shown did not depend on that person at all. Whether you were a raving communist or a slaveholder, you would be shown the same set of advertisements.

This meant that physical newspaper advertisements were (and still are) dominated by mass products that were aimed at everyone. And since these advertisements were usually paid for based on an estimate (sometimes highly inaccurate) of how many people saw them, the newspapers wanted to maximise the eyeballs. This meant not taking any extreme political stances, and keeping all parts of the political spectrum onside.

What changed with the move to digital was that this bundle containing the news and the advertisements broke down.

With advertising being sold through data-driven ad exchanges, it was now possible to show different advertisements to different people. And with advertisements now dependent on your search and browsing history (apart from your political preferences), it was effectively personalised. The New York Times did not need to directly sell advertising any more. All they needed to do was to sign a contract with Google or Facebook or both. Job done.

Digital advertising doesn’t make sense for mass brands. Rather, it is highly likely that the availability of data will mean that they will frequently get outbid by highly targeted brands. So whether mass brands wanted to advertise in the New York Times became a less important decision. The paper had no compulsion to be politically neutral any more.

And once their early set of subscribers showed a marked preference for one kind of politics, it made sense to them to go after the subscription dollars of this audience rather than the already uncertain dollars of potential subscribers that preferred another kind of politics. And then there as a self-reinforcement cycle.

Media can crib as much as they want about the likes of Google and Facebook taking away their money. They can lobby, like they have done in Australia, to “levy a google tax“. People can crib about media having become biased.

However, we need to remember that all this mess started with the unmaking of a bundle – once news and advertising had been separated, there was no turning back.

Amazon and brand-building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the gym

Late last month, the Indian government permitted gyms and yoga centres to open from August 5th, with sufficient social distancing and safety precautions. The Karnataka government immediately notified the order. Perhaps to take time to prepare, and give coaches who had gone out of state to return and complete their home quarantines, my gym began only yesterday.

And I went today.

Initially I was a bit sceptical. Not from the safety perspective – the gym had put in place several safety measures such as limiting the number of members in the gym at the same time. I was sceptical more from the perspective of the safety measures which could have been restrictive.

To cut a long story short, I managed to deadlift while wearing latex gloves. I had been highly sceptical of whether I would be able to do this. Usage of disposable latex gloves in the gym was a regulation that the gym had enforced, and justified saying that the government regulations now mandated it.

I had to use an app that the gym asked me to install to book a session. Since I’m not interested in their classes, and don’t want to go there when too many people are around, I booked an “open gym” session for this afternoon.

Before I got there I had to print out a declaration form saying that I don’t have covid (and basically indemnifying the gym if I caught it there). So I went to this shop close to the gym, printed it out and then headed to the gym. I had bought some cloth masks over the weekend since I wanted something “breathable” (I didn’t want to take off the mask at the gym). Compared to my usual wildcraft mask, this seemed so peaceful that it sort of felt “illegal”.

I was welcomed at the gym by Abhijit, the housekeeping guy. He took my printout, asked me to sanitise my hands, took my temperature and oxygen readings, and then sprayed me with some disinfectant. He explained the rules. There were boxes drawn all over the gym. I was supposed to keep all my belongings in one such box. Any equipment I used was to also go into that box – it would later be sanitised.

I warmed up with some dead hangs (and got reminded of that pull up bar that I’ve spectacularly failed to install in my balcony – after two attempts). And some leg raises. And then got down to business.

This is among the longest gaps I’ve taken in terms of lifting weights after I seriously started in 2014. My left shoulder hurt as I gripped the empty bar on my shoulder for my squat. I went through with the motion.

So there is this theory about force behaviour change – when there as a series of London Tube strikes in 2014, people were forced to change the way they travelled – involving alternate routes and connections, and even some alternate modes of transport. What the study found was that once the strike was over, some people stuck to the new alternatives they had found during the strikes. In other words, the forced  behaviour change led people to discover more optimal  behaviours.

I think that might have happened to me to some extent. Having been denied the use of the gym for the last five months, I’ve experimented with other exercises I could do from home. Having read Convict Conditioning, I started doing the progressions of pushups, squats, (sleeping) leg raises and bridges.

Prior to this, for the last six years I had stuck to a standard regimen of parallel back squats, shoulder press, bench press and deadlifts (in the last year or so I had added sumo deadlifts and front squats to my repertoire). This had allowed me to significantly improve lower body strength but my upper body strength had stalled.

The bodyweight exercises at home have had some interesting results – I now “naturally” squat deep (calves touching hamstrings), and I did the same today even with loaded squats. And my upper body finally shows signs of improvement, with all those pushups (though inability to install my pullup bar means my upper body might be growing weirdly).

So for the first time ever, with a barbell on my shoulders, I squatted deep. It was comfortable. I progressively increased the weights but didn’t go too heavy (don’t want to start my comeback with an injury). And then it was time for some deadlifts. My earlier fear of whether it could be safely done with latex gloves proved unfounded. However, again I stuck to lower weights (I have this problem with deadlifts that at lower weights my form is sometimes imperfect. The weight doesn’t “Force me to do it correctly” like higher weights do).

I must say I seriously missed this. This evening I felt the hungriest I have ever felt in the last six months. I’m sure to be going back regularly, at least once a week (possibly two). I’m going to continue with my bodyweight exercises, not wanting to give up the “alternate gains” I’ve had over the last six months.

By the time I was done this evening my mask was soaked, as were my clothes. I hope I wake up up tomorrow in a position to move.

Uncertainty and Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simpson’s Paradox for Levitt’s Measure

Some of you might know that I do this daily covid-19 update on twitter (not linking since I delete each day’s posts the next morning). A couple of weeks back I revamped it, in advance of which I asked what people wanted to see.

A lot of people suggested I use “Levitt’s metric”. I ignored it. Then, after I had revamped the output last week, two people I know very well got in touch asking me to report that metric every morning in my update. This time I decided to do it, and added it to my update on Monday.

My daily update has the smoothed line using a loess smoothing, but I also wanted to see if I can “predict” when the pandemic might end in different places. And so I did a linear fit as well (using 1 month of data – the slope of the line is highly sensitive to how far back you go), and posted it on Twitter.

I’ve extended the X axis of the graph until the end of the year. The idea is that when the blue line (the regression line based on the last 30 data points) hits the red line, the pandemic in that place is “effectively over”. So we can predict when the pandemic might end in different places.

Now, if you slightly contort your neck and try and extend the “india” graph here rightwards, you might see that the pandemic might end (for all practical purposes) around February. The funny thing is that while on average the pandemic might end in India in February, we see that for specific regions the slope is actually increasing (which suggests the pandemic might never end).

And this creates confusion. When you have a bunch of regions with upward slopes, and then suddenly for the aggregate (India) it is a downward slope, it doesn’t make intuitive sense. It is similar to Simpson’s paradox, where a trend disappears when you aggregate data. This graph possibly represents the most famous example of Simpson’s paradox.

Back to the Levitt’s metric, my only explanation is that the curve can’t be infinitely upward sloping – the number of people in any place is finite and so the disease is bound to die out some time or the other. The upward sloping lines are only a figment of the arbitrary linear extrapolation, and are likely to turn down sooner rather than later.

3 x 4 = 6 x 2

I’ll get to the “weird” title of this post soon.

Over at The Paper, which Suprio Guha Thakurta and I have been writing for two months now, one of our ongoing themes (in the context of the pandemic) is that “people will continue to do the same things, but do them in a different way”. We have corollaries to this and all that.

Here is one corollary that is suited more for this blog than it is to The Paper. Basically, when people do things in a different way, they do more of and less of certain smaller things, and this more and less balance out (that explains the title). OK I don’t think you would have understood any of that so let me clarify with some examples.

People are going to commute less (more working from home, less going out and all that), but when they commute, they are far more likely to use cars than using public transport. So the amount of traffic on the road remains a constant.

There will be far fewer “casual restaurant visits”, so when people want to go out to eat, they want to make sure it counts. So they go to really nice places. The “mass luxury” mid-tier places might lose out.

There will be fewer guests at weddings, since in some places the law mandates that now, and people won’t want to go to very crowded events. However, since the number of guests is going to be smaller, people can afford more lavish weddings “per guest”. So they’ll book fancier (if smaller) halls than they would earlier. Fancier (if fewer) meals. Put up guests in hotels rather than in crowded choultries.

In all this there will be winners and losers. The wedding caterer who charges per guest is a loser. The guy supplying the more fancy stuff (or the hotel guy) might be the winner. The large wedding hall guy is a loser. The fancy small hall guy is a winner.

And so on and so forth.

So this post was triggered by two things I saw during a walk yesterday. I first passed by a small-ish (but nice) hall that used to be used for small functions back in the day. It was hosting a wedding yesterday, and the few people who were there seemed rather well dressed up. Far better dressed than people dress for weddings in Bangalore.

Two minutes later, I paused while crossing the road to make way for a bus, and started thinking about when the next time would be when I would take public transport. And then decided to write this.

 

The Mint Way and the NED Way

I wrote for Mint for six and a half years. I loved writing for them. The editors were fantastic, the copy desk was understanding, and for the most part (until the editor who hired me moved on), they published most of the stuff I wrote.

What I wrote for Mint also helped open doors, as I ended up striking up many conversations based on that (though I’ve forgotten if any of them converted to revenue generation). At least in my initial year of writing for them, when I did a data-based take on elections in the run up to Modi’s first national election, I seemed to get a lot of “footage” and attention.

However, one person who was definitely unimpressed with my writing for Mint was my wife. Apart from two or three articles (I remember this and this for sure), she considers most of my writing for Mint as being rather boring. And when I go back to read some of the stuff I’ve written for them, I must agree.

The sort of flow that is there to every post I write here (or at least most posts) is completely missing there. A lot of pieces seems to simply be a collection of facts, and a small dose of analysis based on those facts. I hesitated to state my opinions and “take risks” in my writing. Barring one or two pieces I even hesitated to use a personal voice, appearing rather impersonal in most of my writing.

I had started writing for them at a time when I was starting to be known as a sort of data guy (I mainly wrote data related stuff for them). And from somewhere I had picked up this notion that it is honourable to be faithful to only the data, and to describe it as it is and to the extent possible simply state facts without taking sides.

And the fact that my pieces mostly appeared in the news pages (rather than the opinion pages) made me even more hesitant to use my personal voice in the writing – if it’s going to be news, I need to be as impersonal as possible, I thought. And so I wrote. The editors seemed to like it, since they kept me for six and a half years. Social media feedback tells me that at least occasionally the readers liked it. My wife never liked it.

Nowadays, from time to time, I find myself getting into “the Mint frame of mind” when I’m writing something. This happens when I need to get something out by a deadline, and I try to become too careful about what I’m stating and not bring in a personal opinion. So I try to find links to support every piece of information I put in. I try to be careful to not appear taking political sides. In other words, I get into “Mint mode”. And when I write in Mint mode, I end up writing stuff that, in hindsight, is not very interesting to read.

I guess my blog gives me the freedom that when I’m not writing well, I simply abandon the post. In that sense, the quality of my writing that you see has some selection bias – if I’m not happy with how something is going, I simply abandon it. However, my writing elsewhere doesn’t have that luxury, and so I sometimes end up “delivering shit”.

I really don’t know what I can do to prevent this from happening on a consistent basis. Maybe I should just blog more. And try and be myself when I write elsewhere as well. Maybe I should just write like I write a blog and then edit it to take out any personal touches, rather than trying to write impersonally in the first place.

OK I know i’ve rambled here 😛

TV Bundling

This is yet another blogpost to expand on a tweet I wrote yesterday.

Just to remind you, Suprio Guha Thakurta (former Chief Strategy Officer at The Economist) and I have started The Paper, a 4-days a week newsletter that goes in (some) depth into one business story from India each day. We rely purely on “secondary reporting” (collating from news items), to which we add our own commentary.

Subscribe here.

Last week we wrote about a new TRAI order about bundling of TV channels. Essentially the telecom (and broadcast) regulator in India has gone to great lengths to ensure that TV channels don’t get bundled in a way that makes it difficult for the customer to choose.

While the effect of this bundling order might be uncertain, one question needs to be asked to TRAI – why are they only concerned about bundling at one level (across channels) and not at the television channel level itself?

After all, television channels are also bundles.

For a fixed fee a month (and a willingness to see a certain proportion of paid content), subscription to a television channel gives you the opportunity to watch any of the programming that the channel offers. Let’s take a sports channel, for example (IMHO, live sports is the only reason you need cable TV. Everything else can be streamed).

Let’s say there is one Sony channel that offers live coverage of UEFA Champions League, NBA and cricket played in England (I know all these are part of the Sony bouquet, though I don’t know if they are regularly broadcast on the same or different channels here. Let’s assume there is one channel that shows all three).

Assume that I’m only interested in the football, but not in either NBA or cricket played in England. In order to watch my football, I’m forced to buy subscription to the entire TV channel (and thus pay for the cricket and basketball as well). Why am I being forced to do this?

Take any channel, and the outcome is going to be similar. You will subscribe to the channel only because you want to watch a few programs, but you are forced to pay for everything. Is this fair?

Let’s move beyond televisions. Consider the Times of India. I’m mainly interested in the local news and the bridge column (OK, my daughter has taken a liking for the cartoon page as well). Still I need to pay for the whole paper. Is that fair?

Essentially, bundling exists everywhere. And it is going to be incredibly hard to regulate it away. TRAI wants to reduce one kind of bundling (across channels), but its regulation seems  blind to in-channel bundling. Essentially it is impossible to regulate against in-channel bundling as well.

And in any case, there are clear benefits to customers from bundling, the most important of which is the elimination of “mental cost”. If some day I suddenly want to watch NBA, it’s already there on the Sony channel I’ve paid for, and I don’t need to rush that moment to try and buy subscription.

Yes, pay per view exists in certain markets, and it can be profitably offered for certain kinds of premium events whose viewership is so uncorrelated with viewership of other events that bundling is nigh impossible.

Also, isn’t your spouse or partner also a bundle? To quote Esther Perel:

Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?

I leave you with her TED TAlk.

 

Front Five, Back Five

I recently realised that there are two ways in which you can describe a team’s formation in football. The traditional way is to describe it in terms of the number of defenders, midfielders and attackers. 4-4-2 and all that (speaking of which, I don’t think I’ve mentioned here at all about The Paper, a new venture I’ve started with Suprio Guha Thakurta, where we dissect one piece of India business news every day. Subscribe here if you aren’t yet a subscriber. In yesterday’s edition, we used Inverting The Pyramid to describe India’s National Education Policy).

Back to football, so you can describe teams as 2-3-5, or 4-4-2, or 4-2-3-1, or whatever. However, in the last few months, maybe since Jose Mourinho took over at Spurs, I’ve discovered another way of describing a football team. It’s not that elegant, I must admit, and it takes more effort to describe it. This is what I call the “back five, front five” method.

In his early days at Spurs, Jose sort of surprised us by the way he set up the team. We all expected a 4-3-3 (or even a 4-2-3-1) given his history. It was still a nominal 4-2-3-1, but it was highly asymmetrical. Right back Serge Aurier was given license to attack, while left back Ben Davies stayed back. So the “front five” (players responsible for attack) were centre forward Harry Kane, wide left forward Heung Min Son, the attacking midfielders Dele Alli and Lucas Moura, and Aurier.

In other words, it was the 3-1 of the 4-2-3-1 and the right back that constituted the front five for Spurs under Jose. The remaining two defenders and two defensive midfielders were the “back five”, responsible for holding the position when the front five went on attack.

Now, Jose has tweaked his formation several times after this, but once I had seen this front five back five description, I couldn’t “unsee” it. Every team’s formation fit nicely into a front five and a back five.

Liverpool and Manchester City both play with nominal 4-3-3s, but that doesn’t tell you how different these teams are in the way they attack. Well, for both, the front line of three are all attackers, but the interesting thing is who joins them.

For Liverpool, it is the full backs Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson. The job of the entire midfield is to be part of the back five (though they do join attacks in turns), which makes their job very different from similar midfielders at other clubs. Check out this statistic, for example:

Manchester City (and Guardiola’s Bayern Munich before them) do it differently. For them, all the back four are part of the back five, assisted by one of the midfielders. The other two midfielders (most commonly, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in the last two seasons) are part of the attack (Pep  calls them “twin eights”).

Manchester United struggled for most of the season, trying out different formations and not being particularly good at it until they landed Bruno Fernandes in the winter break. That, along with the emergence of “wide striker” Mason Greenwood meant that they’ve since adopted a front-back policy similar to their City rivals. The resurgence after the pandemic break was spectacular.

So think about it – the reason nominally similar formations might play very differently, or why nominally different formations produce similar styles of play, is that they interpret the front five and back five differently. Maybe it doesn’t work for all teams, but this is a good framework to describe teams.