Computer science and psychology

This morning, when I got back from the gym, my wife and daughter were playing 20 questions, with my wife having just taught my daughter the game.

Given that this was the first time they were playing, they started with guessing “2 digit numbers”. And when I came in, they were asking questions such as “is this number divisible by 6” etc.

To me this was obviously inefficient. “Binary search is O(log n)“, I realised in my head, and decided this is a good time to teach my daughter binary search.

So for the next game, I volunteered to guess, and started with “is the number \ge 55“? And went on to “is the number \ge 77“, and got to the number in my wife’s mind (74) in exactly  7 guesses (and you might guess that \lceil log_2 90 \rceil (90 is the number of 2 digit numbers) is 7).

And so we moved on. Next, I “kept” 41, and my wife went through a rather random series of guesses (including “is it divisible by 4” fairly early on) to get in 8 tries. By this time I had been feeling massively proud, of putting to good use my computer science knowledge in real life.

“See, you keep saying that I’m not a good engineer. See how I’m using skills that I learnt in my engineering to do well in this game”, I exclaimed. My wife didn’t react.

It was finally my daughter’s turn to keep a number in mind, and my turn to guess.

“Is the number \ge 55?”

“Is the number \ge 77?”

“Is the number \ge 88?”

My wife started grinning. I ignored it and continued with my “process”, and I got to the right answer (99) in 6 tries. “You are stupid and know nothing”, said my wife. “As soon as she said it’s greater than 88, I knew it is 99. You might be good at computer science but I’m good at psychology”.

She had a point. And then I started thinking – basically the binary search method works under the assumption that the numbers are all uniformly distributed. Clearly, my wife had some superior information to me, which made 99 far more probable than any number between 89 and 98. And s0 when the answer to “Is the number \ge 88?”turned out to by “yes”, she made an educated guess that it’s 99.

And since I’m used to writing algorithms, and  teaching dumb computers to solve problems, I used a process that didn’t make use of any educated guesses! And thus took far many more steps to get to the answer.

When the numbers don’t follow a uniform distribution, binary search works differently. You don’t start with the middle number – instead, you start with the weighted median of all the numbers! And then go on to the weighted median of whichever half you end up in. And so on and so forth until you find the number in the counterparty’s mind. That is the most optimal algo.

Then again, how do you figure out what the prior distribution of numbers is? For that, I guess knowing some psychology helps.


The Twelfth Camel

In a way, this post should write itself. For those of you with context, the title should be self explanatory. And you need not read further.

For the rest I’ll write a rather small essay.

The story is of the old Arab who died leaving his eldest son half his wealth, the second a fourth of his wealth and the youngest one sixth. The wealth in question turned out to be 11 camels.

With 11 being a prime number, how could this will be executed without any of the camels being executed? An ingenious neighbour came in and lent his camel. Now there were twelve. The three sons respectively received 6 (\frac{12}{2}), , 3 (\frac{12}{4}) and 2 (\frac{12}{6}) camels respectively. One camel was left over – the neighbour’s, who took it back.

This is mathematically inaccurate, since the sons received fractions of their father’s wealth slightly different from what he had intended. However, in general in life, this parable of the twelfth camel offers a useful metaphor.

In engineering, this is rather common – you have systems such as a choke, for example, to enable systems to get started from a “cold start process”. The choke comes in only at the time of startup – once the thing has started, it plays no role.

However, it has its role in normal life and business as well. For example, after a bad breakup, you might rebound to a “stop gap partner”. You know that this is not going to be a long term relationship, but this partner helps you tide over the shock of the bad breakup, and by the time this relationship (inevitably) breaks up, it has achieved its purpose of getting you back on track. And you get on with life, finding more long term partners.

Then, when the company is in deep trouble, you have specialists who come in to take over with the explicit goal of cleaning things up and getting the company ready for new ownership. For exanple, John Ray III has recently taken over as CEO of FTX. His previous notable appointment was as CEO of Enron, soon after that scandal had broken. He will not stay for a long term – he will just clean things up and move on.

And sometimes the role of the twelfth camel is rather more specific. Apart from “generic cleaning”, the temporary presence of the twelfth camel can be used to get rid of people who had earlier been hard to get rid of.

In sum, the key thing about the twelfth camel theory is that the neighbour knew all along that he was going to get back his camel. In other words, it is a deliberate temporary measure intended to achieve a certain set of specific outcomes. And the camel itself may not know that it is being “lent”!

Size, diversity and social capital

Starting off with a “global” statement, life is full of tradeoffs.

When we listen to stories as kids, we think of “battles between good and evil”. When we watch sport, there is “our side and their side”. From stories, we are usually conditioned to “battles” where one side is superior to the other, and there is a clear “favourite” to root for.

Real life is not so simple. A lot of times, you have battles between two sides that are both bad (a lot of elections, for example). And frequently you come across situations where there are two “good” things of which you can only have one (and so the tradeoffs). One of the more famous of these is the “impossible trinity” of international economics.

In a completely different context (which I’m writing about today), two desirable things that are a tradeoff are diversity and social capital. The general theory is that the more diverse a society gets, the lower is the social capital (google is impossible in providing good links on this, so maybe ask ChatGPT).

The theory here goes that you fundamentally trust people like you and mistrust people who are not like you. The more homogeneous a society is, the more there are “people like you”, and so the more you trust. And if everyone trusts one another much more, there is more social capital.

A recent conversation and observations makes me wonder if social capital is also related to size. More specifically I’m thinking of size as in number of people in an institution.

One observation we had when we went for our reunion last week is that the campus is a lot quieter than in our time, and that a lot more rules are followed in letter rather than just in spirit (no, not that kind, but I’m talking about rules about that also).

For example, the basketball hoop in L^2 has been removed. While we pitched up a net and played tsepak in BEFG Square (where we always played it), current students informed us that they can’t play there because playing there is now banned. Students mostly hung out in their wings rather than in the common areas. After our first evening there we assumed all the students were out on holiday, while it turned out only the first years had a term break then.

I still remember my first night in IIMB (in 2004). I stayed in G Block, on one side of the aforementioned BEFG square. A bunch of people were playing Tsepak until late in the night, which meant I didn’t get good sleep (and for the rest of the week we had our “orientation” which meant I couldn’t sleep well then either). A few days later I just joined these people in playing Tsepak and making noise. “If you can’t stop them, join them”, was a perfect way to go about things back in the day.

What I remember is that, with a batch size of ~200, our social capital was pretty good. While there were some students who occasionally displayed elevated levels of conscience, we largely stuck by one another and tolerated one another (and, of course, massively trolled one another). Disagreements and fights always happened, but were largely resolved among us by dialogue, rather than inviting external parties.

With a much bigger batch size now, though, from what we were told, it appears it is not so simple to resolve things using dialogue and mediation. And people frequently take to inviting external parties. And the expected result (crane-mongoose effect) happens.

That some people want to study when others want to play now means that the former complain against the latter, with playing within the hostel being banned. Some people want to enforce the rules on spirits, and they bring in external parties, and the law is invoked in letter rather than spirit.

When social capital dwindles, in some ways, the minority rule comes into play – when there is a small but vocal minority that wants things a certain way, that becomes the way for everyone else as well. (With high social capital, the majority might be able to convince the minority that they need to be more tolerant)

Yet again, this is not a one way street. You can also argue that when social capital is too high, the minorities can tend to get oppressed (since their views don’t count any more), and so a high social capital society cannot be inclusive.

And so yeah, the Baazigar principle is there everywhere. To get something, you need to give up something. To get a more inclusive class, you need to be less majoritarian, and that means less fun on the average. When you have lots of intolerant minorities (a consequence of diversity), those “intolerant rules” get applied on everyone, and the overall payoff reduces.

A few random thoughts to end:

  1. It’s not just the class size, it’s also the fees. We paid ~ ?300,000 over 2 years as tuition fees. Many of us (who sat for campus placements) made almost twice that (post taxes) in our first year of graduation.

    Students nowadays pay ~ ?2,500,000 , so they are a lot more conscious about getting their money’s worth. And being able to study.

  2. In general, cultures change over time, so coming back after 15 years and complaining that “things aren’t the way they used to be” isn’t very nice. So yeah, this blogpost can get classified in the “not so nice” category I guess (not like I’ve ever been known for niceness)
  3. I wonder how much changed during the pandemic, when students were off campus for nearly a year, and had severely curtailed interactions even once they were back. With a 2 year course, it only takes 1 batch to “break culture”, making the culture far more malleable. So again I’m wrong to complain.
  4. All that said, it’s my duty to pontificate and so I’ll continue to write like this

Girard and reunions

Thanks to my subscription to Jim O’Shaughnessy’s Infinite Loops podcast, I have been exposed to some of the philosophy of Rene Girard. A few times, he has got philosopher Johnathan Bi on the show, to talk about Girard’s philosophy.


Bi has also done a series of YouTube lectures on Girard’s philosophy, though I haven’t watched any of them.

In any case, Girard’s basic thesis (based on my basic understanding so far) is that we are all driven by “mimetic desire”, or a desire to mime. This means we want to do things that others want to do.

So you see an instagram post by a friend who has gone to Sri Lanka, and you want to go to Sri Lanka as well. Your cousin has invested in Crypto, so you want to invest in crypto as well. Everyone in your class wants to do investment banking, and so you want to do that as well.

(actually now that I think of it, I was first exposed to mimetic desire by a podcast episode sent by my school friend Hareesh. In a way, Bi’s appearance on Infinite Loops only enhanced my liking for this philosophy).


This is yet another of those theories that “once you see you cannot unsee”. You see mimetic desire everywhere. Sometimes you copy the actions of people who you want to impress (well, that’s how I discovered Heavy Metal, and that has now turned out to be my most-listened-to genre of music, because it turned out I like it so much).

The theory of the “mirror neuron” is unclear (at least I’m yet to be convinced by it), but either by gene or by meme, we are conditioned to mime. We mime people’s actions. We mime their desires. We do things because others do them.

As the more perceptive of you might know from my previous post, we had our 16th year IIMB reunion this year. Not many turned up – about 30 from my class (2006) and 45 from the class of 2005 (thanks to covid both our 15th year reunions had been postponed, so we ended up having our 16th and 17th year reunions respectively).

It was an amazing experience. I don’t know what it was, but I liked it far more than the 10th year reunion.  One major thing was the schedule – the 10th year reunion lacked a focal point on the main day (I’ve written about it) because of which we were rather scattered around campus. The 10th year reunion also had a much more formal structure, with “sessions” which meant we had less time to chat.

This time round, the Saturday schedule was very good – an interaction with the current director RTK from 10 to 11, and then NOTHING. That interaction was enough of a focal point to get us in one place, so everyone was accessible.

Then, fewer people having turned up meant we ended up having deeper conversations. We spoke about life, philosophies, kids, spouses, divorces, other people’s divorces, random gossip and all such. Absolutely no small talk, and infinitesimal work talk, and that made it more satisfying.

This morning, Bi tweeted again about Girard and mimetic desire.

One of the corollaries of Girard’s theory is that people get into conflict not when they are different but when they are similar. And mimetic desire means that people will try to become more similar to each other, and that increases conflict.

If not anywhere else, that is true in a business school, especially one where the class is rather homogeneous. Mimetic desire means everyone wants the same jobs, the same grades. And so they compete. And get into conflict.

16 years post graduation, we have drifted apart, and not in a bad way. Over this period, a lot of us have figured out what we really want to do and what we really want, and understood that what we want is very different from what others around us want. Not really being around our former peers, we have no desire to mime them any more, and that has freed us up to do what we really want to do, rather than just signalling.

And so, when we meet at a reunion like this, we are all so independent that we just never talk about work. There is no sense of competition, and we just focus on having fun with people we went to school with. The time apart has helped us get out of our desires to mime, and so when we get together, we compete less.

Maybe I should read / understand more philosophy. Or is this desire just mimetic?



Key Person Risk and Creative Professions

I’m coming to the conclusion that creative professions inevitably come with a “key person risk”. And this is due to the way teams in such professions are usually built.

I’ll start with a tweet that I put out today.

(I had NOT planned this post at the time when I put out this tweet)

I’ll not go into defining creative professions here, but I will leave it to say that you typically know it when you see one.

The thing with teams in such professions is that people who are good and creative are highly unlikely to get along with each other. Going into the animal kingdom for an analogy, we can think of dividing everyone in any such professions into “alphas” and “betas”. Alphas are the massively creative people who usually rise to lead their teams. Betas are the rest.

And given that any kind of creativity is due to some amount of lateral thinking, people good at creative professions are likely to hallucinate a bit (hallucination is basically lateral thinking taken to an extreme). And stretching it a bit more, you can say that people who are good at creative tasks are usually mad in one way or another.

As I had written briefly this morning, it is not usual for mad people (especially of a similar nature of madness) to get along with each other. So if you have a creative alpha leading the team, it is highly unlikely that he/she will have similar alphas in the next line of leadership. It is more likely that the next line of leadership will have people who are good complements to the alpha leader.

For example, in the ongoing World Cup, I’ve seen several tactical videos that have all said one thing – that Rodrigo De Paul’s primary role in the Argentinian team is to “cover for Messi”. Messi doesn’t track back, but De Paul will do the defending for him. Messi largely switches off, but De Paul is industrious enough to cover for Messi. When Messi goes forward, De Paul goes back. When Messi drops deep, De Paul makes a forward run.

This is the most typical creative partnership that you can get – one very obviously alpha creative supported by one or more steady performers who enable the creative person to do the creative work.

The question is – what happens when the creative head (the alpha) leaves? And the answer to this are going to be different in elite sport and the corporate world (and I’m mostly talking about the latter in this post).

In elite sport, when Messi retires (which he is likely to do after tomorrow’s final, irrespective of the result), it is virtually inconceivable that Argentina will ask De Paul to play in his position. Instead, they will look into others who are already playing in a sort of Messi role, maybe (or likely) at an inferior level and bring them up. De Paul will continue to play his role of central midfielder and continue to support whoever comes into Messi’s role.

In corporate setups, though, when one employee leaves, the obvious thing to do is to promote that person’s second in command. Sometimes there might be a battle for succession among various seconds in command, and the losers also leave the company. For most teams, where seconds in command are usually similar in style to the leader, this kind of succession planning works.

For creative teams, however, this usually leads to a disaster. More often than not, the second in command’s skills will be very different from that of the leader. If the leader had been an alpha creative (that’s the case we’re largely discussing here), the second in command is more likely to be a steady “water carrier” (a pejorative term used to describe France’s current coach Didier Deschamps).

And if this “water carrier” (no offence meant to anyone by this, but it is a convenient description) stays in the job for a long time, it is likely that the creative team will stop being creative. The thing that made it creative in the first place was the alpha’s leadership (this is especially true of small teams), and unless the new boss has recognised this and brings in a new set of alphas (or identifies potential alphas in the org and quickly promotes them), the team will start specialising in what was the new boss’s specialisation – which is to hold things steady and do all the right things and cover for someone who doesn’t exist any more.

So teams in creative professions have a key man risk in that if a particularly successful alpha leaves, the team as it remains is likely to stagnate and stop being creative. The only potential solutions I can think of are:

  • Bring in a new creative from outside to lead the team. The second in command remains just that
  • Coach the second in command to identify diverse (and creative alpha) talents within the team and recognise that there are alphas and betas. And the second in command basically leads the team but not the creative work
  • Organise the team more as a sports team where each person has a specific role. So if the attacking midfielder leaves, replace with a new attacking midfielder (or promote a junior attacking midfielder into a senior attacking midfielder). Don’t ask your defensive midfielders to suddenly become an attacking midfielder
  • Put pressure from above for alphas to have a sufficient number of other alphas as the next line of command. Retaining this team is easier said than done, and without betas the team can collapse.

Of course, if you look at all this from the perspective of the beta, there is an obvious question mark about career prospects. Unless you suddenly change your style (easier said than done), you will never be the alpha, and this puts in place a sort of glass ceiling for your career.

Dhoni and Japan

Back in MS Dhoni’s heyday, CSK fans would rave about his strategy that they called as “taking it deep”. The idea was that while chasing  a target, Dhoni would initially bat steadily, getting sort of close but increasing the required run rate. And then when it seemed to be getting out of hand, he would start belting, taking the bowlers by surprise and his team to victory.

This happened many times to be recognised by fans as a consistent strategy. Initially it didn’t make sense to me – why was it that he would purposely decrease the average chances of his team’s victory so that he could take them to a heroic chase?

But then, thinking about it, the strategy seems fair – he would never do this in a comfortable chase (where the chase was “in the money”). This would happen only in steep (out of the money) chases. And his idea of “taking it deep” was in terms of increasing the volatility.

Everyone knows that when your option is out of the money, volatility is good for you. Which means an increase in volatility will increase the value of the option.

And that is exactly what Dhoni would do. Keep wickets and let the required rate increase, which would basically increase volatility. And then rely on “mental strength” and “functioning under pressure” to win. It didn’t always succeed, of course (and that it didn’t always fail meant Dhoni wouldn’t come off badly when it failed). However, it was a very good gamble.

We see this kind of a gamble often in chess as well. When a player has a slightly inferior position, he/she decides to increase chances by “mixing it up a bit”. Usually that involves a piece or an exchange sacrifice, in the hope of complicating the position, or creating an imbalance. This, once again, increases volatility, which means increases the chances for the player with the slightly inferior position.

And in the ongoing World Cup, we have seen Japan follow this kind of strategy in football as well. It worked well in games against Germany and Spain, which were a priori better teams than Japan.

In both games, Japan started with a conservative lineup, hoping to keep it tight in the first half and go into half time either level or only one goal behind. And then at half time, they would bring on a couple of fast and tricky players – Ritsu Doan and Kaoru Mitoma. Basically increasing the volatility against an already tired opposition.

And then these high volatility players would do their bit, and as it happened in both games, Japan came back from 0-1 at half time to win 2-1. Basically, having “taken the game deep”, they would go helter skelter (I was conscious to not say “hara kiri” here, since it wasn’t really suicidal). And hit the opposition quickly, and on the break.

Surprisingly, they didn’t follow the same strategy against Croatia, in the pre-quarterfinal, where Doan started the game, and Mitoma came on only in the 64th minute. Maybe they reasoned that Croatia weren’t that much better than them, and so the option wasn’t out of the money enough to increase volatility through the game. As it happened, the game went to penalties (basically deeper than Japan’s usual strategy) where Croatia prevailed.

The difference between Dhoni and Japan is that in Japan’s case, the players who increase the volatility and those who then take advantage are different. In Dhoni’s case, he performs both functions – he first bats steadily to increase vol, and then goes bonkers himself!

JEE and academia

This is (hopefully) a quick post I’m dashing off from the sidelines of the Basavanagudi aquatic Center where I’ve brought my daughter for her weekly swimming lessons

I write this as I’m reading Eric Hoel’s post on why he is leaving academia. Basically he talks about all the “extra curricular activities” that an academic nowadays needs to do. Reviewing journals, being on student bodies and the like.

The other reason he quotes is about how restrictive academia is – again because he is being evaluated on multiple dimensions, rather than simply on the quality of his research and teaching.

Given all of this, following four years as an assistant professor at tufts, he has chosen to quit academia full time and become a writer of newsletters. and he writes that “being an academic is not so easy any more”.

I was reminded of an old post I’d written about Indian and American universities. American universities admit students based on “a holistic set of factors”. So your test scores are important but so are your sports and charity work and 10 different kinds of extra curricular activities and all that.

Indian universities (at least the ones I went to) are far simpler – they admit solely on the basis of test scores.

After reading some articles on how the US admission process was producing highly homogeneous classrooms at universities, id written a few years back on how the Indian system rocked – because admissions were based on a single criterion, there was tremendous diversity jn the classrooms on all other criteria.

Now based on Hoel’s post I’m wondering if the same is true of teachers as well – the more the dimensions on which we evaluate professors for recruitment and tenureship, the more homogeneous the professorial class gets. Instead if we were to evaluate professors on narrowly defined conventional criteria (teaching and research) we’ll get a far more richer and diverse professors body.

This, however, is easier said than done. Quality of research is usually evaluated based on the quality and quantity of papers, and papers necessarily go through a peer review process.

And if your peers are all those who have succeeded in the “selected by holistic criteria” game, then you will have to conform to some of their biases to get good papers published.

All this said, I’m hopeful that in the next decade or so we will have a bunch of new and privately funded universities which Yale universities back tk what they used to be – centres of research and teaching , with professors selected on their credentials on these axes only, and a diverse body of students selected hopefully on a a small number of axes (such as test scores).

Hot hands in safaris

We entered Serengeti around 12:30 pm on Saturday, having stopped briefly at the entrance gate to have lunch packed for us by our hotel in Karatu. Around 1 pm, our guide asked us to put the roof up, so we could stand and get a 360 degree view. “This is the cheetah region”, he told us.

For the next hour or so we just kept going round and round. We went off the main path towards some rocks. Some other jeeps had done the same. None of us had any luck.

By 2 pm we had seen nothing. Absolutely nothing. For a place like Serengeti, that takes some talent, given the overall density of animals there. We hadn’t even seen a zebra, or a wildebeest. Maybe a few gazelles (I could never figure out how to tell between Thomson’s and Grant’s through the trip, despite seeing tonnes of both on the trip). “This is not even the level of what we saw in Tarangire yesterday”, we were thinking.

And then things started to happen. First there was a herd of zebras. On Friday we had missed an opportunity to take a video of a zebra crossing the road (literally a “zebra crossing”, get it?). And now we had a whole herd of zebras crossing the road in front of us. This time we didn’t miss the opportunity (though there was no Spice Telecom).

Zebra crossing in Serengeti

And then we saw a herd of buffaloes. And then a bunch of hippos in a pool. We asked our guide to take us closer to them, and he said “oh don’t worry about hippos. Tomorrow I’ll take you to a hippo pool with over a fifty hippos”. And sped off in the opposite direction. There was a pack of lions fallen asleep under a tree, with the carcass of a wildebeest they had just eaten next to them (I posted that photo the other day).

This was around 3 pm. By 4 pm, we had seen a large herd of wildebeest and zebra on their great annual migration. And then seen a cheetah sitting on a termite hill, also watching the migration. And yet another pool with some 50 hippos lazing in it. It was absolutely surreal.

It was as if we had had a “hot hand” for an hour, with tremendous sightings after a rather barren first half of the afternoon. We were to have another similar “hot hand” on Monday morning, on our way out from the park. Again in the course of half an hour (when we were driving rather fast, with the roof down, trying to exit the park ASAP) we saw a massive herd of elephants, a mother and baby cheetah, a pack of lions and a single massive male lion right next to the road.

If you are the sort who sees lots of patterns, it is possibly easy to conclude that “hot hands” are a thing in wildlife. That when you have one good sighting, it is likely to be followed by a few other good sightings. However, based on a total of four days of safaris on this trip, I strongly believe that here at least hot hands are a fallacy.

But first a digression. The issue of “hot hands” has been a long-standing one in basketball. First some statisticians found that the hot hand truly exists – that NBA (or was it NCAA?) players who have made a few baskets in succession are more likely to score off their next shot. Then, other statisticians found some holes in the argument and said that it was simply a statistical oddity. And yet again (if i remember correctly) yet another group of statisticians showed that with careful analysis, the hot hand actually exists. This was rationalised as “when someone has scored a few consecutive baskets, their confidence is higher, which improves the chances of scoring off the next attempt”.

So if a hot hand exists, it is more to do with the competence and confidence of the person who is executing the activity.

In wildlife, though, it doesn’t work that way. While it is up to us (and our guides) to spot the animals, that you have spotted something doesn’t make it more likely to spot something else (in fact, false positives in spotting can go up when you are feeling overconfident). Possibly the only correlation between consecutive spottings is that guides of various jeeps are in constant conversation on the radio, and news of spottings get shared. So if a bunch of jeeps have independently spotted stuff close to each other, all the jeeps will get to see all these stuffs (no pun intended), getting a “hot hand”.

That apart, there is no statistical reason in a safari to have a “hot hand”. 

Rather, what is more likely is selection bias. When we see a bunch of spottings close to one another, we think it is because we have a “hot hand”. However, when we are seeing animals only sporadically (like we did on Sunday, not counting the zillions of wildebeest and zebra migrating), we don’t really register that we are “not having a hot hand”.

It is as if you are playing a game of coin tosses, where you register all the heads but simply ignore the tails, and theorise about clumping of heads. When a low probability event happens (multiple sightings in an hour, for example), it registers better in our heads, and we can sometimes tend to overrepresent them in our memories. The higher probability (or “lower information content”) events we simply ignore! And so we assume that events are more impactful on average than they actually are.

Ok now i’m off on a ramble (this took a while to write – including making that gif among other things) – but Nassim Taleb talks about it this in one of his early Incerto books (FBR or Black Swan – that if you only go by newspaper reports, you are likely to think that lower average crime cities are more violent, since more crimes get reported there).

And going off on yet another ramble – hot hands can be a thing where the element of luck is relatively small. Wildlife spotting has a huge amount of luck involved, and so even with the best of skills there is only so much of a hot hand you can produce.

So yeah – there is no hot hand in wildlife safaris.

Animals in motion and animals at rest

We are back in moshi now after a 4 day safari across northern Tanzania. We did one safari each in tarangire national park and ngorongoro crater, and two whole days of safari at Serengeti. During that time we even spent the nights in (luxury) tents inside the Serengeti park.

In terms of animal “sightings” there was absolutely no comparison to what we’ve seen in india (Bandipur / kabini / Bhadra). Back home we’ve failed to see a single big cat in the wild, across 10 safaris. We very easily went into double digits on this trip.

The main difference I think is the terrain. Karnataka is all thick forests which means that visibility is low. An animal needs to be within a couple of tens of metres from the road for you to be able to see it.

In the African savannah (will come to that in a bit, or in another blogpost), though, you can literally see for miles and miles and miles and …

On the first day in tarangire I spotted an elephant from at least a kilometre away. Turned out it was a herd, drinking water from the tarangire river stream. And we could keep our eyes on it while our driver-guide navigated the paths and bends to take us close to them. This kind of visibility would have been impossible in the Karnataka forests.

It was more stark with the big cats. If you go on any safaris in Karnataka and ask the guides about potential sightings they talk about it in terms of “movements”. Stuff like “there has been good movement of tigers in the last two days but not so much of leopards” etc.

This is important because in the thick forests of Karnataka pretty much the only time you can spot big cats is when they are moving. When they are at rest (as big cats are wont to be a lot of the time) they are resting away from the roads, and because of the terrain they are impossible to spot.

Things can’t be more different in the East African savannah. Our first sightings of lions, on Saturday afternoon, for example, was of a pack sleeping right next to the road.

My fingers added for context, to show how close they were

Even when the animals are resting away from the tracks, the nature of terrain means that you can still spot them. And this – the fact that you can see for miles in the savannah – means that the chances of spotting an animal at rest are significantly higher.

We saw at least four other packs of lions resting under bushes. Our only leopard sighting was of one sleeping on a tree (from what I hear it was there for so long – obviously, since it was sleeping – that pretty much everyone who was in Serengeti on Sunday afternoon managed to see it). Our first cheetah sighting was of one resting on a termite hill. And so on.

So the main reason you see more big cats in Tanzania, compare to india, is that the terrain allows you to see them at rest. And the cat lifestyle is based on short hunts followed by long periods of rest, which means this massively ups the chances of seeing them.

Now I wonder how it is in grassy areas in india, such as Assam.

Cross docking in Addis Ababa

I’m writing this from Addis Ababa bole international airport, waiting for my connection to Kilimanjaro. We arrived here some 3 hours back, on a direct flight from bangalore.

The flight was fine, and uneventful. It was possibly half empty, though – the guy in the front seat had all 3 seats to himself and had lay down across them.

Maybe the only issue with the flight was that they gave us “dinner” at the ungodly time of 3am (1230 Eastern Africa time). I know why – airlines prefer to serve as soon as they take off since food is freshest then (rather than reheating at the end of the flight). And if they serve two meals the second one is usually a cold one (sandwiches cakes etc)

The airport here is also uneventful. There are a couple of bars and a few nondescript looking coffee shops. It is linear, with all gates being laid out in a row (reminds me of KL, and very unlike “star shaped airports” such as Barcelona or Delhi).

In any case I’ve been doing the rounds since morning looking for information of my flight gate. The last time I saw it hadn’t yet been published. But there was something very interesting about the flight schedule.

Basically, this airport serves as a cross dock between Africa and the rest of the world, taking advantage of its location in one corner of the continent.

For example, all flights that have either departed in the last hour or due to depart in the next 2 hours are to various destinations in Africa (barring one flight to São Paulo and Buenos Aires).

Kinshasa. Cape Town. Douala. Antananarivo. Entebbe. Accra. Lubumbashi via Lilongwe. Mine to Kilimanjaro (and then onward to Zanzibar). Etc. etc.

No flight that goes north or east, barring one to Djibouti. And no take offs between 6am (when we landed here) till 815 (Cape Town). And until around 8, people kept streaming into the airport (and the lines at the toilets kept getting longer!)

Ethiopian’s schedule at bangalore is also strange. Flights arrive at 8am 3 days of the week and then hang in there idly till 230 am the next morning. Time wise, that’s incredibly low utilisation of a costly asset like an aircraft (that said it’s a Boeing 737Max).

After looking at the airport schedule though it makes more sense to me. Basically in the morning, flights bring in passengers from all over Asia and Europe, and connect them to various places in Africa.

In the evenings, flights stream in from all around Africa and cross dock people to destinations in Europe and Asia. Currently the cross dock is one way – out of Africa in the evenings and into Africa in the mornings.

This means that there are some destinations where, given time of travel, the only way to make this cross dock work is to keep the aircraft idle at the destination. In African destinations for example, I expect shorter turnarounds – this morning I noticed that the first set of departures were to far away locations – Cape Town, Johannesburg, Accra, Harare and then to Lusaka, etc.

I don’t expect this to last long though. In a few years (maybe already delayed by the pandemic) I expect ethiopian to double its flight capacity across all existing destinations. Then, it can operate both into Africa and out of Africa cross docks twice in a day. And won’t need to waste precious flight depreciation time at faraway airports such as bangalore.

PS: so far I haven’t seen a single flight from any other airline apart from Ethiopian at the airport here.