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.

Books, Music, Disruption and Distribution

Having watched this short film by The Economist on disruption in the music business, I find the parallels between the books and the music businesses uncanny.

Both industries have been traditionally controlled by the middlemen – labels in the case of music, and publishers in the case of books. Both sets of middlemen are oligopolies – there are three big music labels and four (?) major publishers. This is primarily a result of production costs – traditionally, professional recording equipment has been both expensive and hard to get. Similarly, typesetting and printing a book was expensive business.

However, both industries have been massively disrupted in the last couple of decades, primarily thanks to new distribution models – streaming in the case of music, and online vendors and e-books in the case of books. Simultaneously, the cost of production have also plummeted – I can get studio quality recording and mixing software on my Macbook Pro, and I already have a version of my book that looks good on the Kindle.

Yet, in both industries, the incumbents strongly believe that they continue to add value despite the disruption, and staunchly defend the value of the marketing and distribution they bring. In the above video, for example, a record studio executive talks about how established artistes may do well going “indie”, but new artistes require support in production, marketing and distribution.

If you see blogs and news articles on publishing and self-publishing, on the other hand, most of the talk is about how little value publishers themselves bring into the marketing and distribution process. While publishers continue to have a broad monopoly on the traditional distribution chain (bookstores, primarily), they have no particular competitive advantage in the new channels.

One of the successful indie artistes interviewed in the above video talks about how he was successful thanks to the brand and following he built up on social media, which ensured that his album had several takers as soon as it was released. It is again similar to advice that authors who want to self-publish get!

As someone who has completed a book manuscript and is looking for production and distribution options, I find the developments in the indie space (across products) rather interesting. Going by all this, maybe I should just give up on the “stamp of approval” I’m looking for from a traditional publisher, and go indie myself!

I leave you with a few lines from one of my favourite poems, which I believe is a commentary about the music record label industry!

Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.


Optimal risk sharing

The wife moved to Ann Arbor over the weekend, where she will be spending three months. She took an Air France flight (AF191) in the wee hours of Sunday morning, and then switched to a Delta flight at the legendary Charles de Gaulle. I must mention upfront that she seems to have had a peaceful journey.

Except that people following the same schedule exactly twenty four hours earlier would not have. AF191 that departed from Bangalore i n the wee hours of Saturday morning returned to Bangalore after a bomb scare. The flight was subsequently cancelled.

There are many risks to flying. Schedules nowadays are packed so closely that your flight might be delayed. Occasionally it might be cancelled even, sometimes without a good reason. A delay might sometimes mean that you miss your connecting flight.

The question is who bears the risk on this one. If I’m booked on a flight that gets cancelled or delayed (because of which I miss my connection), whose responsibility is it that I’m transported to my destination? There are three possibilities – the passenger himself, the airline and an external insurer. The question is which of these is most optimal.

The traditional model in aviation as I understand it is that it is the airline’s responsibility. While this makes sense because a large number of delays/cancellations are on account of faults on account of the airline, even when the delay is not due to the airline’s fault, the airline is best placed in terms of mitigating the risk.

Leaving the risk on the passenger has the advantage that he can choose his own risk profile. If you are flexible about your trip, you might choose to go without insurance, and take the hit yourself. If you’re a frequent flyer, then the “insurance cost” thus saved will compensate for the occasional delay. Yet, the problem with this kind of a model is that people tend to underestimate the risks, and will more often than not not insure, and get hit badly when the delay happens.

Which brings us to the final absorber of risk – the insurance company. I’d purchased “travel insurance” for a recent trip, and there was a component on account of delayed or missed flights. If my flight was delayed by a certain amount of time, my insurer would pay me a fixed amount of money.

While this financial hedging is good, it may not adequately represent the costs of making a new booking (including the hassles) when my flight is delayed or cancelled. So this is not a workable solution at scale.

Another solution is for the insurer to guarantee that you will reach your destination by a certain time in case your flight gets delayed or cancelled. This might work out to be more expensive than a fixed cash payout but this removes the cost and hassle of figuring out the next best alternative on the part of the customer. The problem, however, is correlation. Insurance works when people’s risks are uncorrelated or negatively correlated. Here they are positively correlated – all passengers on Saturday’s AF191 to Paris were affected similarly, and this pushes up the cost for the insurer to rebook people.

Unless they tie up with the airline itself! If they reach an agreement with the airline such that the airline commits to transport the stranded passengers, then this “positive correlation” I mentioned earlier will be taken care of. Seems workable, right? Except that what is being insured here is the risk that the airline abandoned in favour of the passenger, who insured against it from an insurer, who reinsured it with the airliner! Can we just cut out the middle men?

From this rather unscientific argument above, it looks like airlines are best placed to insure passengers against disrupted flight schedules. Back in the days of regulated air fares where competition had to be “on service”, airlines would take responsibility. This might have disappeared with the move towards unbundling over the last 2-3 decades. For good reason – insuring a schedule results in an additional (albeit hidden) cost, and getting rid of it can result in cheaper (base) fares.

Yet, given that airlines are best placed to insure schedules, we need a solution. Maybe they can charge a premium for insuring schedules apart from the base fares? Or would they argue that the current “unrestricted fares” are such insured fares (implying the premium is rather high)?

Short of  government mandated regulation, what is the best way for allocating the risk of disrupted flight schedules, and pricing it appropriately?

Tailpiece: A decade ago, our valuation professor (at IIM Bangalore) had told us that “risk cannot be eliminated. It can only be mitigaged by selling it to someone who can handle it better”.