Two ways of eating chocolate

I only very recently discovered that there are essentially two ways of eating chocolate – biting into it and letting it melt in the mouth.

Maybe it’s a result of my upbringing, but until recently I only knew of the latter. Back when i was growing up, the “standard chocolate bar” was the most popular Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bar which came with eight square pieces in the bar (competitors such as Nestle and Amul had smaller rectangular pieces, and so more pieces per bar of similar size).

My parents insisted that if I ate too much chocolate my teeth would rot. And so chocolate supply was rationed. I could only eat one square piece in a day. This meant that if I didn’t share my chocolate bar with anyone (a rare occurrence, since my parents also liked chocolate), I would eat one standard-issue Dairy Milk for eight days.

Things like eating a whole bar at a time were completely taboo. In fact, even when KitKat became a thing when I was in class 9 (1996-97), I would take one finger of it, break it into two and so eat one four-fingered bar of KitKat over eight days.

I never questioned this wisdom that I shouldn’t eat more than one small piece of chocolate a day. This also meant that whatever chocolate I ate had to last sufficiently long. That meant putting it in the mouth and letting it melt.

Around the KitKat time, it became common for kids to walk around with whole bars of chocolate in school (mostly used to attract members of the opposite sex). And I would see people eating bars together at once and wonder what was wrong with them and what their teeth would become like.

Presently I grew up. I no longer restricted myself to one piece a day. I started getting interested in different kinds of chocolate (of late it’s been mostly dark – I can’t stand milk chocolate nowadays). Many of these didn’t come with predetermined squares to tell what one piece was, so it was rather fluid.

Nevertheless old habits die hard, and so I would continue to eat chocolate by letting it melt in my mouth.

And then one day, I had one large piece and one smaller piece (of Amul Bitter Chocolate, which is my staple nowadays), and thought I’ll bite the smaller piece and eat it. The feeling was something else. I’d lived all my life eating chocolate by letting it melt in my mouth, and now suddenly I was discovering the joys of biting into it.

I think it especially works for dark chocolate. There’s something about biting into a chocolate that gives you the kind of pleasure that letting it melt in the mouth doesn’t offer.

Now, it’s been 20 years since I last had a tooth filled. I now worry if that might change soon.


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.

Placing data labels in bar graphs

If you think you’re a data visualisation junkie, it’s likely that you’ve read Edward Tufte’s Visual Display Of Quantitative Information. If you are only a casual observer of the topic, you are likely to have come across these gifs that show you how to clean up a bar graph and a data table.

And if you are a real geek when it comes to visualisation, and you are the sort of person who likes long-form articles about the information technology industry, I’m sure you’ve come across Eugene Wei’s massive essay on “remove the legend to become one“.

The idea in the last one is that when you have something like a line graph, a legend telling you which line represents what can be distracting, especially if you have too many lines. You need to constantly move your head back and forth between the chart and the table as you try to interpret it. So, Wei says, in order to “become a legend” (by presenting information that is easily consumable), you need to remove the legend.

My equivalent of that for bar graphs is to put data labels directly on the bar, rather than having the reader keep looking at a scale (the above gif with bar graphs also does this). It makes for easier reading, and by definition, the bar graph conveys the information on the relative sizes of the different data points as well.

There is one problem, though, especially when you’re drawing what my daughter calls “sleeping bar graphs” (horizontal) – where do you really put the text so that it is easily visible? This becomes especially important if you’re using a package like R ggplot where you have control over where to place the text, what size to use and so on.

The basic question is – do you place the label inside or outside the bar? I was grappling with this question yesterday while making some client chart. When I placed the labels inside the bar, I found that some of the labels couldn’t be displayed in full when the bars were too short. And since these were bars that were being generated programmatically, I had no clue beforehand how long the bars would be.

So I decided to put all the labels outside. This presented a different problem – with the long bars. The graph would automatically get cut off a little after the longest bar ended, so if you placed the text outside, then the labels on the longest bar couldn’t be seen! Again the graphs have to come out programmatically so when you’re making them you don’t know what the length of the longest bar will be.

I finally settled on this middle ground – if the bar is at least half as long as the longest bar in the chart set, then you put the label inside the bar. If the bar is shorter than half the longest bar, then you put the label outside the bar. And then, the text inside the bar is right-justified (so it ends just inside the end of the bar), and the text outside the bar is left-justified (so it starts exactly where the bar ends). And ggplot gives you enough flexibility to decide the justification (‘hjust’) and colour of the text (I keep it white if it is inside the bar, black if outside), that the whole thing can be done programmatically, while producing nice and easy-to-understand bar graphs with nice labels.

Obviously I can’t share my client charts here, but here is one I made for the doubling days for covid-19 cases by district in India. I mean it’s not exactly what I said here, but comes close (the manual element here is a bit more).



The corner Bhelpuri guy

There’s this guy who sells Bhelpuri off a cart that he usually stations at the street corner 100 metres from home. His wife (I think) sells platters of cut fruit from another (taller, and covered) cart stationed next to him.

I don’t have any particular fondness for them. I’ve never bought cut fruit platters, for example (I’m told by multiple people that I’m not part of the target segment for this product). I have occasionally bought bhelpuri from this guy, but it isn’t the best you can find in this part of town. Nevertheless, every afternoon until mid-March he would unfailingly bring his cart to the corner every afternoon and set up shop.

He has since fallen victim to the covid-19 induced lockdown. I have no clue where he is (I don’t know where he lives. Heck, I don’t even know his name). All I know is that he has already suffered a month and half of revenue loss. I don’t know if he has had enough stash to see him through this zero revenue period.

The lockdown, and the way it has been implemented, has resulted in a number of misalignments of incentives. The prime minister’s regular exhortations to businesses to not lay off employees or cut salaries, for example, has turned the lockdown into a capital versus labour issue. Being paid in full despite not going to work, (organised) labour is only happy enough to demand an extension of the lockdown. Capital is running out of money, with zero revenues and having to pay salaries, and wants a reopening.

Our bhelpuri guy, running a one-person business, represents both capital and labour. In fact, he represents the most common way of operating in India – self employment with very limited (and informal) employees. Whether he pays salaries or not doesn’t matter to him (he only has to pay himself). The loss of revenue matters a lot.

The informality of his business means that there is pretty much no way out for him to get any sort of a bailout. He possibly has an Aadhaar card (and other identity cards, such as a voter ID), and maybe even a bank account. Yet, the government (at whatever level) is unlikely to know that he exists as a business. He might have a BPL ration card that might have gotten him some household groceries, but that does nothing to compensate for his loss of business.

If you go by social media, or even comments made by politicians to the media or even to the Prime Minister, the general discourse seems to be to “extend the lockdown until we are completely safe, with the government providing wage subsidies and other support”. All this commentary completely ignores the most popular form of employment in India – informal businesses with a small number of informal employees.

If you think about it, there is no way this set of businesses can really be bailed out. The only way the government can help them is by letting them operate (even that might not help our Bhelpuri guy, since hygiene-conscious customers might think twice before eating off a street cart).

One friend mentioned that the only way these guys can exert political power is through their caste vote banks. However, I’m not sure if these vote banks have a regular enough voice (especially with elections not being nearby).

It may not be that much of a surprise to see some sort of protests or “lockdown disobedience” in case the lockdown gets overextended, especially in places where it’s not really necessary.

PS: I chuckle every time I see commentary (mostly on social media) that we need a lockdown “until we have a vaccine”. It’s like people have internalised the Contagion movie a bit too literally.


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.

Post-Covid Stimulus

There are two ways in which businesses have been adversely affected by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Using phrases from my algorithmic trading days, let me call this “temporary impact” and “permanent impact”.

For some businesses, the Covid-19 crisis and the associated lockdown means about three months or so of zero (or near-zero) revenues. There is nothing inherently unsafe about these businesses that makes their sales take a “permanent hit” after the crisis has passed us by. Once the economy opens up again, these businesses can do businesses like they used to before, except that they are staring at a three-odd month revenue hole at the top of their P&L.

The second kind of businesses are going to be “permanently impacted”. They involve stuff that are going to be labelled as “unsafe” even after the crisis is over, and people are going to do less of these.

For example, bars and restaurants are going to see a “permanent impact” because of the crisis – people are not going to relish sitting in a public place with strangers in the next one year, and a large proportion of restaurants will have to go out of business.

Similarly any industry associated with travel – such as transport (airlines, railways, buses), hotels and taxis will see a permanent impact from the crisis. Real estate is also likely to be hit hard by the crisis. For all these sectors (and more), even after the economy is otherwise back in full swing, it will be a very long time before they see the sort of demand seen before the crisis.

Now that distinction is clear (I mean there will always be sectors that will sort of lie in the borderline), but at least we have a classification, we can use this to determine how governments respond to stimulate economies after the crisis.

Based on all the commentary going around, it seems like a given that governments and central banks need to do their bit to stimulate the economies. The collapse in both demand and supply thanks to the crisis means that governments will collect less taxes this year than expected. So while to some extent they will be able to possibly borrow more, or monetise deficit, or set aside money from other budgeted items, the funds available for stimulating businesses are likely to be limited.

So what sectors of the economy should the governments (and central banks) choose to spend this precious stimulus on? My take is that they should not bother about businesses that will be permanently impacted by the crisis – at best, the money will go into delaying the inevitable at some of these companies, and if structured in the form of a loan, will be highly unlikely to be unpaid.

Instead, the government should spend to stimulate sections of the economy where the impact of the crisis is temporary – in order to make the crisis “more temporary”. By giving cash to sectors that are going to be fundamentally solvent, this cash can be more assured to “travel around the economy”, thus giving more of the proverbial bang for the buck.

This essentially means that sectors most affected by the current crisis should not get any help from the governments – this might sound counterintuitive, but if the true intention of the government stimulus is to stimulate the economy rather than helping a particular set of companies, this makes eminent sense.

Oh, and in the Indian context, this seems like the perfect time to “let go” of Air India.

Peanut Butter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tests per positive case

I seem to be becoming a sort of “testing expert”, though the so-called “testing mafia” (ok I only called them that) may disagree. Nothing external happened since the last time I wrote about this topic, but here is more “expertise” from my end.

As some of you might be aware, I’ve now created a script that does the daily updates that I’ve been doing on Twitter for the last few weeks. After I went off twitter last week, I tried for a couple of days to get friends to tweet my graphs. That wasn’t efficient. And I’m not yet over the twitter addiction enough to log in to twitter every day to post my daily updates.

So I’ve done what anyone who has a degree in computer science, and who has a reasonable degree of self-respect, should do – I now have this script (that runs on my server) that generates the graph and some mildly “intelligent” commentary and puts it out at 8am everyday. Today’s update looked like this:

Sometimes I make the mistake of going to twitter and looking at the replies to these automated tweets (that can be done without logging in). Most replies seem to be from the testing mafia. “All this is fine but we’re not testing enough so can’t trust the data”, they say. And then someone goes off on “tests per million” as if that is some gold standard.

As I discussed in my last post on this topic, random testing is NOT a good thing here. There are several ethical issues with that. The error rates with the testing means that there is a high chance of false positives, and also false negatives. So random testing can both “unleash” infected people, and unnecessarily clog hospital capacity with uninfected.

So if random testing is not a good metric on how adequately we are testing, what is? One idea comes from this Yahoo report on covid management in Vietnam.

According to data published by Vietnam’s health ministry on Wednesday, Vietnam has carried out 180,067 tests and detected just 268 cases, 83% of whom it says have recovered. There have been no reported deaths.

The figures are equivalent to nearly 672 tests for every one detected case, according to the Our World in Data website. The next highest, Taiwan, has conducted 132.1 tests for every case, the data showed

Total tests per positive case. Now, that’s an interesting metric. The basic idea is that if most of the people we are testing show positive, then we simply aren’t testing enough. However, if we are testing a lot of people for every positive case, then it means that we are also testing a large number of marginal cases (there is one caveat I’ll come to).

Also, tests per positive case also takes the “base rate” into effect. If a region has been affected massively, then the base rate itself will be high, and the region needs to test more. A less affected region needs less testing (remember we only  test those with a high base rate). And it is likely that in a region with a higher base rate, more positive cases are found (this is a deadly disease. So anyone with more than a mild occurrence of the disease is bound to get themselves tested).

The only caveat here is that the tests need to be “of high quality”, i.e. they should be done on people with high base rates of having the disease. Any measure that becomes a metric is bound to be gamed, so if tests per positive case becomes a metric, it is easy for a region to game that by testing random people (rather than those with high base rates). For now, let’s assume that nobody has made this a “measure” yet, so there isn’t that much gaming yet.

So how is India faring? Based on data from, until yesterday India had done (as of yesterday, 23rd April) about 520,000 tests, of which about 23,000 people have tested positive. In other words, India has tested 23 people for every positive test. Compared to Vietnam (or even Taiwan) that’s a really low number.

However, different states are testing to different extents by this metric. Again using data from, I created this chart that shows the cumulative “tests per positive case” in each state in India. I drew each state in a separate graph, with different scales, because they were simply not comparable.

Notice that Maharashtra, our worst affected state is only testing 14 people for every positive case, and this number is going down over time. Testing capacity in that state (which has, on an absolute number, done the maximum number of tests) is sorely stretched, and it is imperative that testing be scaled up massively there. It seems highly likely that testing has been backlogged there with not enough capacity to test the high base rate cases. Gujarat and Delhi, other badly affected states, are also in similar boats, testing only 16 and 13 people (respectively) for every infected person.

At the other end, Orissa is doing well, testing 230 people for every positive case (this number is rising). Karnataka is not bad either, with about 70 tests per case  (again increasing. The state massively stepped up on testing last Thursday). Andhra Pradesh is doing nearly 60. Haryana is doing 65.

Now I’m waiting for the usual suspects to reply to this (either on twitter, or as a comment on my blog) saying this doesn’t matter we are “not doing enough tests per million”.

I wonder why some people are proud to show off their innumeracy (OK fine, I understand that it’s a bit harsh to describe someone who doesn’t understand Bayes’s Theorem as “innumerate”).


Zoom in, zoom out

It was early on in the lockdown that the daughter participated in her first ever Zoom videoconference. It was an extended family call, with some 25 people across 9 or 10 households.

It was chaotic, to say the least. Family call meant there was no “moderation” of the sort you see in work calls (“mute yourself unless you’re speaking”, etc.). Each location had an entire family, so apart from talking on the call (which was chaotic with so many people anyways), people started talking among themselves. And that made it all the more chaotic.

Soon the daughter was shouting that it was getting too loud, and turned my computer volume down to the minimum (she’s figured out most of my computer controls in the last 2 months). After that, she lost interest and ran away.

A couple of weeks later, the wife was on a zoom call with a big group of her friends, and asked the daughter if she wanted to join. “I hate zoom, it’s too loud”, the daughter exclaimed and ran away.

Since then she has taken part in a couple of zoom calls, organised by her school. She sat with me once when I chatted with a (not very large) group of school friends. But I don’t think she particularly enjoys Zoom, or large video calls. And you need to remember that she is a “video call native“.

The early days of the lockdown were ripe times for people to turn into gurus, and make predictions with the hope that nobody would ever remember them in case they didn’t come through (I indulged in some of this as well). One that made the rounds was that group video calling would become much more popular and even replace group meetings (especially in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic).

I’m not so sure. While the rise of video calling has indeed given me an excuse to catch up “visually” with friends I haven’t seen in ages, I don’t see that much value from group video calls, after having participated in a few. The main problem is that there can, at a time, be only one channel of communication.

A few years back I’d written about the “anti two pizza rule” for organising parties, where I said that if you have a party, you should either have five or fewer guests, or ten or more (or something of the sort). The idea was that five or fewer can indeed have one coherent conversation without anyone being left out. Ten or more means the group naturally splits into multiple smaller groups, with each smaller group able to have conversations that add value to them.

In between (6-9 people) means it gets awkward – the group is too small to split, and too large to have one coherent conversation, and that makes for a bad party.

Now take that online. Because we have only one audio channel, there can only be one conversation for the entire group. This means that for a group of 10 or above, any “cross talk” needs to be necessarily broadcast, and that interferes with the main conversation of the group. So however large the group size of the online conversation, you can’t split the group. And the anti two pizza rule becomes “anti greater than or equal to two pizza rule”.

In other words, for an effective online conversation, you need to have four (or at max five) participants. Else you can risk the group getting unwieldy, some participants feeling left out or bored, or so much cross talk that nobody gets anything out of it.

So Zoom (or any other video chat app) is not going to replace any of our regular in-person communication media. It might to a small extent in the immediate wake of the pandemic, when people are afraid to meet large groups, but it will die out after that. OK, that is one more prediction from my side.

In related news, I swore off lecturing in Webinars some five years ago. Found it really stressful to lecture without the ability to look into the eyes of the “students”. I wonder if teachers worldwide who are being forced to lecture online because of the shut schools feel the way I do.