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.

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.

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.