Topography of Bangalore

My day on Twitter didn’t start out too well today. I wrote this:

As I’ve stayed on for longer, with more data, things have improved today. I’ve learnt a few things, had a few conversations, and watched some fights. But so far, my day has been made by this article about Bangalore’s topography and development.

I’m halfway through reading it, so can’t say yet if I can agree with its conclusions. But what I really really like about the article is the maps. The main map they have is a topographical map of Bangalore (unfortunately, focusses on the cantonment area, so my areas are left out), and then zooming in to bits to explore development.

Topography of Bangalore, from the India Forum article

So many insights already from this:

  1. There is a clear correlation between areas that are perceived to be “posh” and elevation. The better planned areas of Bangalore are built on higher ground than the worse planned.
  2. “High grounds” lives up to its name
  3. While the article (so far) is mainly about construction of the cantonment, the preference for high areas post independence is also evident. From the bottom of the map seen above, you can broadly identify the northern boundary of the area that is now Jayanagar and Basavanagudi. Similarly, the Vidhana Soudha is built at pretty much the highest part of Bangalore (before the Metro came up, you could see the Vidhana Soudha by standing on top of the Trinity Church spire)

Later on in the article there is a more zoomed-out map of Bangalore. And that confirms that Jayanagar is indeed on lofty land.

Jayanagar is right at the bottom of this image. It’s interesting that parts of Banashankari (a rather hilly area) are actually low-lying

Progressing in the article, and it goes off into the (not unexpected) caste and class conflict territory. In any case, I’ve got my value from it. These maps are absolutely fascinating! I hope you like them as well

Covid-19 recoveries in Bangalore

Something seems off in terms of the Covid-19 statistics for Bangalore. The number of “active cases” just don’t seem to be going down in line with the drop in the number of new cases. It seems like we’re not counting “recoveries” like we used to.

Active covid-19 cases in Bangalore in the second wave

In terms of active cases, covid-19 cases in Bangalore peaked in the middle of May. And then active cases started dropping rapidly. It seemed (when I ran this analysis towards the end of June) that active cases would drop well below 50,000 in the middle of June. However, as the graph shows, that hasn’t happened. The reduction in active cases has come down to a trickle.

Now it might well be that the way down is more gradual than the way up, but the thing is that the drop in active cases doesn’t square at all with the number of daily cases.

One metric we can look at is – how many days back do we have to go (in terms of newly infected cases) to get the current number of active cases? This is not correct – it assumes that infection is “first in first out” – but a good enough assumption for our analysis.

I’m writing this on 20th of June. As of today, there are 71000 odd active cases in Bangalore. And we have to go back 26 days to total up 71000 NEW INFECTIONS (assuming none of these people have died). This means that the average recovery period is far more than 26 days.

It wasn’t like this. I graphed this (I’m apologising for using a weird metric here. I thought of dividing active cases by new cases but thought that’s less accurate than this).

At the beginning of June, the number of active cases was equal to the number of new cases in the preceding 18 days. And notice that through June that number has gone up steadily. For whatever reason, the number of days after which a patient is considered “recovered” has been going up. It seems like we’re not counting the recoveries like we used to earlier.

I don’t know why we are doing this.

For the record, if the number of active cases has continued to be in the range of the number of new cases in the preceding 18 days, then we would have about 35,000 active cases in Bangalore right now. That is half the official number of active cases right now.

Again – I’m indulging in curve-fitting of some kind. Just that the data doesn’t tally.

PS: All data in this post from the brilliant covid19india.org .

Reliving my first ever cricket match

Earlier this week, I came cross the recent Sky Sports documentary “spin wash” – about England’s 3-0 Test series defeat in India in 1993. That’s a rather memorable series for me, since it was the first time that I actually saw India win, and win comfortably (I had started watching cricket on my ninth birthday, with the 126-126 tie at Perth).

Prior to the series I remember chatting with an “uncle” at the local circulating library, and he asked me what I thought would happen to the series. I had confidently told him that England would win comfortably. I was  very wrong.

Anyway, one video led to another. I finished the series, and then remembered that it was during the same tour that I had gone for my first ever cricket match. It was an ODI in Bangalore, either the 3rd or the 4th of the series (depending on whether you count the first ODI in Ahmedabad that got cancelled). This came just after the “spin wash” and the expectations from the Indian team were high.

A granduncle who was a member at the KSCA had got us tickets, and my father and I went to see the game. I remember waking up early, and first going to my father’s office on his scooter. I remember him taking a few printouts in his office (a year earlier he had got a big promotion, and so had both a computer and a printer in his private office), and then leaving me there as he went upstairs to drop it off in his manager’s (the finance director) office.

Then we drove to the ground in his scooter. I don’t remember where we parked. I only know there was a massive line to get in, and we somehow managed to get in before the game began. I also remember taking lots of food and snacks and drinks to eat during the game. While entering the group, I remember someone handing over large “4” placards, and cardboard caps (the types which only shaded the eyes and were held at the back by a string).

Anyway, back to present. I searched for the game on YouTube, and duly found it. And having taken the day off work on account of my wife’s birthday, I decided to watch the highlights in full. This was the first time I was watching highlights of this game, apart from the game itself that I watched from the B stand.

Some pertinent observations about the video, in no particular order:

  • The outfield was terrible. You see LOTS of brown patches all over the place. When you see Paul Jarvis come in to bowl, you see a very reddish brown all over his trousers – you don’t really see that colour in (even red ball) cricket now
  • There was a LOT of rubbish on the outfield. Random paper and other things being thrown around. Remember that this was prior to the infamous 1999 game against Pakistan in Bangalore where the crowd threw lots of things on to the pitch, so I’m not sure there was anything to prevent things from being thrown on the pitch
  • The India shirt was sponsored by some “Lord and Master”. I don’t remember at all what that is. Never seen its ads on TV (and I watched a lot of TV in the 1990s).
  • There was a hoarding by the Indian Telephone Industries (state owned telephone manufacturing monopoly that collapsed once the monopoly was broken) that said “allrounders in communications”. I found it funny.
  • There were lots of hoardings by the local business Murudeshwar Ceramics / Naveen Diamontile. The business still exists, but it’s interesting that a local player got hoarding space – I guess TV wasn’t yet a big deal then
  • There was a hoarding by “Kuber finance”. I found that interesting since we’ve almost come a full circle with “Coinswitch Kuber” ads during the 2021 IPL.
  • The Bangalore crowd looked MASSIVE on TV. and the Sky Sports commentators kept referring to how big a crowd it was. Coming soon after Test matches in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, this is “interesting”.
  • Every time the camera panned towards the B stand in the highlights reel, I tried to look for myself (I was 10 years old at the time of the game!). No success of course. But I do remember stuff like Srinath getting his 5-41 bowling from “our end” (BEML End, going away from where I was sitting). And Sidhu fielding right in front of us at third man when India was bowling from the pavilion end
  • I remember leaving the ground early after India collapsed (from 61-1 to 115-7). I remember my father saying that there would be riots once the match finished and we should get out before that. One of my school classmates who also went to the game said he watched till the very end and I was jealous of him.
  • The highlights showed Mexican waves. I clearly remember enthusiastically participating in those
  • This was 3.5 years before the famous Kumble-Srinath partnership in Bangalore against Australia but from the highlights I see that Kumble and Kapil Dev had started one such partnership in this game. Again I remember none of it since I had left the ground by then.
  • I’ll end with a poem. I had written it on the day of the game, on the back of the “4” placard I had been given while entering the ground, and waving it every time it seemed the camera was facing my section of the crowd.

Graeme Hick
You’ll get a kick
From a mighty stick
And you’ll fall sick

He ended up top scoring in the game.

Railways and the military: an evening spent in ToK

Sometime this afternoon, when both the wife and I figured it was impossible for us to nap, she said that she wanted to “go on a drive to a part of town she hasn’t seen”. After some thinking I said that we could go to the “cantonment area” or the “towns” (Frazer Town, Cox Town, etc.), which we knew are not too far off from town, but where we had hardly been to.

Sometime back I had tried to imagine “symmetries” around the centre of Bangalore, whatever that means. It had started when I wondered which other areas in Bangalore are similar to Jayanagar, where I live. Having ruled out Banashankari and Rajajinagar, other areas I’ve lived in, because they are “too far from the centre of town”, I started looking at other areas that are nice and residential but not far from the MG Road area.

And that thought process had taken me to the “towns”  – Frazer and Cox and Richards and all that. I hadn’t thought much about it then. And I hadn’t wondered much about what sets these “towns” apart from Jayanagar. Today’s drive gave me the answer.

There are two defining features of the “cantonment” or “towns” area – the military and the railways. As we journeyed east from Frazer Town (the one part of this part of Bangalore we are vaguely familiar with) all the way to Kammanahalli, and the outer ring road, and Banaswadi, and then back towards Indiranagar (more on that later), we kept encountering large swathes of military lands, and railway lines.

Along the way, we saw roads and areas we had only heard about but never seen. For the most part, we didn’t use Google Maps, but just kept driving along the big roads we could find. So we saw Frazer Town. We saw what we first thought was Banaswadi, but later figured is some Ramaswamy Palya or something. And then suddenly, we decided we had heard about Kammanahalli, but never knew where it was, and decided to drive towards that. Halfway up a railway bridge, we saw a signboard to a detour that would take us to Kammanahalli.

And so we went there, and drove through it. Nothing spectacular. And then I had this “flash of inspiration” that this part of town wasn’t actually very far from Indiranagar, and so we could return home via a dinner stop in Indiranagar. So I entered the address of my office (which I haven’t been to yet, but which is in Indiranagar), and let Google Maps take over.

It took us to the Outer Ring Road. And seemed to suggest a route that was going through KR Puram. “Ring roads are boring to drive on”, I declared, and seeing a detour that was “7 minutes longer” I went off the outer ring road. This took us through Banaswadi, and the drive was great (the road was great).

In any road trip, there is a point where you think you are having so much fun by exploring. And then soon after you suddenly feel tired and exhausted, and start wondering what the hell you were thinking when you decided that this drive was a good idea. Soon after we had passed Banaswadi, we had this moment. And this had to do with the railways and the military.

We had driven past Banaswadi, and encountered the Baiyyappanahalli station (with 16 platforms) that is still being renovated. This was the time when we were still feeling excited, that we were seeing parts of town that weren’t too far, but we had normally not seen.

And then we hit a mud road, and a dead end (literally. Not a T-junction). “I don’t get a good feeling here”, my wife said. I turned around and took a nearby road. This took us to a railway gate.

It is the highlighted route here. The red section near the railway line. It’s interesting that Google has coloured it red, because the section just doesn’t exist now. Maybe as part of the work done to revive the Baiyyappanahalli metro station, a new railway overbridge is being built there. That means the road itself has been closed.

This, we figured after we had crossed the railway line (this happened after a 10 minute wait for the Mysore-Kochuveli Express to pass). We crossed the line and found that the road didn’t exist after that. Everyone was going left there, but the road didn’t look good so on a whim I turned right. The road was decent.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that the other defining feature of cantonment Bangalore would come in our way – military areas. No sooner had I turned right after getting past the railway line that Google suddenly upped the time and distance estimates to Indiranagar. Soon there was a military gate to the left. “Trespassers will be fired upon”, said a board nearby. We drove on.

The size of the military area there meant that we had to go all the way back to Ulsoor Lake before going to Indiranagar. On the way, we passed a funeral procession that occupied the entire road (with lots of singing and dancing and flower throwing). We had a close shave trying to pass an auto rickshaw at an especially narrow stretch of road. At another point, we had to wait for two minutes for a cow to give us right of way.

And then, somewhere along the way, as we neared Assaye Road, I said something like “Ok, we are getting back to civilisation. Close to town now”.

The daughter, seated next to me, and supremely bored as we went round and round without stopping, asked “had we gone to a different state, appa?”.

“Yes”, I replied. “We had gone to ToK” (a tongue in cheek expression pioneered by Thejaswi Udupa (link possibly paywalled now). It can stand for either “Tamil Occupied Karnataka” and “Telugu Owned Karnataka”).

69 is the answer

The IDFC-Duke-Chicago survey that concluded that 50% of Bangalore had covid-19 in late June only surveyed 69 people in the city. 

When it comes to most things in life, the answer is 42. However, if you are trying to rationalise the IDFC-Duke-Chicago survey that found that over 50% of people in Bangalore had had covid-19 by end-June, then the answer is not 42. It is 69.

For that is the sample size that the survey used in Bangalore.

Initially I had missed this as well. However, this evening I attended half of a webinar where some of the authors of the survey spoke about the survey and the paper, and there they let the penny drop. And then I found – it’s in one small table in the paper.

The IDFC-Duke-Chicago survey only surveyed 69 people in Bangalore

The above is the table in its glorious full size. It takes effort to read the numbers. Look at the second last line. In Bangalore Urban, the ELISA results (for antibodies) were available for only 69 people.

And if you look at the appendix, you find that 52.5% of respondents in Bangalore had antibodies to covid-19 (that is 36 people). So in late June, they surveyed 69 people and found that 36 had antibodies for covid-19. That’s it.

To their credit, they didn’t highlight this result (I sort of dug through their paper to find these numbers and call the survey into question). And they mentioned in tonight’s webinar as well that their objective was to get an idea of the prevalence in the state, and not just in one particular region (even if it be as important as Bangalore).

That said, two things that they said during the webinar in defence of the paper that I thought I should point out here.

First, Anu Acharya of MapMyGenome (also a co-author of the survey) said “people have said that a lot of people we approached refused consent to be surveyed. That’s a standard of all surveying”. That’s absolutely correct. In any random survey, you will always have an implicit bias because the sort of people who will refuse to get surveyed will show a pattern.

However, in this particular case, the point to note is the extremely high number of people who refused to be surveyed – over half the households in the panel refused to be surveyed, and in a further quarter of the panel households, the identified person refused to be surveyed (despite the family giving clearance).

One of the things with covid-19 in India is that in the early days of the pandemic, anyone found having the disease would be force-hospitalised. I had said back then (not sure where) that hospitalising asymptomatic people was similar to the “precogs” in Minority Report – you confine the people because they MIGHT INFECT OTHERS.

For this reason, people didn’t want to get tested for covid-19. If you accidentally tested positive, you would be institutionalised for a week or two (and be made to pay for it, if you demanded a private hospital). Rather, unless you had clear symptoms or were ill, you were afraid of being tested for covid-19 (whether RT-PCR or antibodies, a “representative sample” won’t understand).

However, if you had already got covid-19 and “served your sentence”, you would be far less likely to be “afraid of being tested”. This, in conjunction with the rather high proportion of the panel that refused to get tested, suggests that there was a clear bias in the sample. And since the numbers for Bangalore clearly don’t make sense, it lends credence to the sampling bias.

And sample size apart, there is nothing Bangalore-specific about this bias (apart from that in some parts of the state, the survey happened after people had sort of lost their fear of testing). This further suggests that overall state numbers are also an overestimate (which fits in with my conclusion in the previous blogpost).

The other thing that was mentioned in the webinar that sort of cracked me up was the reason why the sample size was so low in Bangalore – a lockdown got announced while the survey was on, and the sampling team fled. In today’s webinar, the paper authors went off on a rant about how surveying should be classified as an “essential activity”.

In any case, none of this matters. All that matters is that 69 is the answer.

 

More on Covid-19 prevalence in Karnataka

As the old song went, “when the giver gives, he tears the roof and gives”.

Last week the Government of Karnataka released its report on the covid-19 serosurvey done in the state. You might recall that it had concluded that the number of cases had been undercounted by a factor of 40, but then some things were suspect in terms of the sampling and the weighting.

This week comes another sero-survey, this time a preprint of a paper that has been submitted to a peer reviewed journal. This survey was conducted by the IDFC Institute, a think tank, and involves academics from the University of Chicago and Duke University, and relies on the extensive sampling network of CMIE.

At the broad level, this survey confirms the results of the other survey – it concludes that “Overall seroprevalence in the state implies that by August at least 31.5 million residents had been infected by August”. This is much higher than the overall conclusions of the state-sponsored survey, which had concluded that “about 19 million residents had been infected by mid-September”.

I like seeing two independent assessments of the same quantity. While each may have its own sources of error, and may not independently offer much information, comparing them can offer some really valuable insights. So what do we have here?

The IDFC-Duke-Chicago survey took place between June and August, and concluded that 31.5 million residents of Karnataka (out of a total population of about 70 million) have been infected by covid-19. The state survey in September had suggested 19 million residents had been infected by September.

Clearly, since these surveys measure the number of people “who have ever been affected”, both of them cannot be correct. If 31 million people had been affected by end August, clearly many more than 19 million should have been infected by mid-September. And vice versa. So, as Ravi Shastri would put it, “something’s got to give”. What gives?

Remember that I had thought the state survey numbers might have been an overestimate thanks to inappropriate sampling (“low risk” not being low risk enough, and not weighting samples)? If 20 million by mid-September was an overestimate, what do you say about 31 million by end August? Surely an overestimate? And that is not all.

If you go through the IDFC-Duke-Chicago paper, there are a few figures and tables that don’t make sense at all. For starters, check out this graph, that for different regions in the state, shows the “median date of sampling” and the estimates on the proportion of the population that had antibodies for covid-19.

Check out the red line on the right. The sampling for the urban areas for the Bangalore region was completed by 24th June. And the survey found that more than 50% of respondents in this region had covid-19 antibodies. On 24th June.

Let’s put that in context. As of 24th June, Bangalore Urban had 1700 confirmed cases. The city’s population is north of 10 million. I understand that 24th June was the “median date” of the survey in Bangalore city. Even if the survey took two weeks after that, as of 8th of July, Bangalore Urban had 12500 confirmed cases.

The state survey had estimated that known cases were 1 in 40. 12500 confirmed cases suggests about 500,000 actual cases. That’s 5% of Bangalore’s population, not 50% as the survey claimed. Something is really really off. Even if we use the IDFC-Duke-Chicago paper’s estimates that only 1 in 100 cases were reported / known, then 12500 known cases by 8th July translates to 1.25 million actual cases, or 12.5% of the city’s population (well below 50% ).

My biggest discomfort with the IDFC-Duke-Chicago effort is that it attempts to sample a rather rapidly changing variable over a long period of time. The survey went on from June 15th to August 29th. By June 15th, Karnataka had 7200 known cases (and 87 deaths). By August 29th the state had 327,000 known cases and 5500 deaths. I really don’t understand how the academics who ran the study could reconcile their data from the third week of June to the data from the third week of August, when the nature of the pandemic in the state was very very different.

And now, having looked at this paper, I’m more confident of the state survey’s estimations. Yes, it might have sampling issues, but compared to the IDFC-Duke-Chicago paper, the numbers make so much more sense. So yeah, maybe the factor of underestimation of Covid-19 cases in Karnataka is 40.

Putting all this together, I don’t understand one thing. What these surveys have shown is that

  1. More than half of Bangalore has already been infected by covid-19
  2. The true infection fatality rate is somewhere around 0.05% (or lower).

So why do we still have a (partial) lockdown?

PS: The other day on WhatsApp I saw this video of an extremely congested Chickpet area on the last weekend before Diwali. My initial reaction was “these people have lost their minds. Why are they all in such a crowded place?”. Now, after thinking about the surveys, my reaction is “most of these people have most definitely already got covid and recovered. So it’s not THAT crazy”.

Local time zones and function food

Last year after we got back to Bangalore from London, we started inviting people home for meals. It gave us an opportunity to socialise and rebuilt our network here. However, soon we stopped doing this – we had what I call a “time zone problem”.

In the UK, people eat early, and kids go to bed early. We liked both these aspects of the British culture and (to the extent possible) adopted them wholeheartedly. Now, back in India, we continue to follow these practices, but realise that most people around us don’t follow it. And this results in “time zone issues”.

This inevitably results in crane-fox situations when we have to go to someone’s place to eat or vice versa. We have gotten foxed several times, turning up for dinner at 630 or 7, and staying hungry till 9. We’ve tried craning several times, calling people at home for dinner at 630 or 7, and having them turn up much later in the evening.

Meeting outside in neutral places has some mitigating factors. Like 8pm drinks with friends means I finish my dinner and then go for drinks, thus maintaining my schedule. When I want to avoid drinking, the easiest thing to do is to drive to the venue (I’m paranoid about driving without full control).

The worst are religious functions. I’m pretty sure I’ve cribbed about them several time here on this blog. With very few exceptions, they invariably serve lunch or dinner late. Also that a “sacred event” is going on is reason enough for most other guests to not be bothered about the disruptions in eating schedules.

And to deal with that (apart from the fact that a large number of functions after we returned to India served pretty unspectacular food), we took inspiration from a close relative who has this policy of never eating at functions (the one time he broke this policy, two years ago, also coincided with what is easily the worst wedding food I’ve ever eaten, so it’s unlikely he’s breaking his policy again). Unless we have good reason to believe that the food at a function is going to be good (most reliable indicator being the caterer), we’ve taken to this relative’s policy.

Timing of most events in Bangalore means that we can eat our food at our normal times (lunch at noon, dinner at 6:30) and then comfortably get to the function well in time. Sometimes the host might get offended when we don’t eat, so a lighter than usual meal at home ensures that there is room for at least a dessert and a tiny course of meal.

As for the original crane-fox situation (calling people home or visiting for meals), we’ve started making adjustments. A few months after we returned, the daughter got back to her usual schedule of going to bed at 7 (unlike most children her age, she doesn’t nap in the afternoon). So dinner invites (in either direction) are out of the question. Lunch invites we manage by adjusting our breakfast times and quantities.

What’s the use of living in India if you cut yourself off from all socialising?

Covid-19 superspreaders in Karnataka

Through a combination of luck and competence, my home state of Karnataka has handled the Covid-19 crisis rather well. While the total number of cases detected in the state edged past 2000 recently, the number of locally transmitted cases detected each day has hovered in the 20-25 range.

Perhaps the low case volume means that Karnataka is able to give out data at a level that few others states in India are providing. For each case, the rationale behind why the patient was tested (which is usually the source where they caught the disease) is given. This data comes out in two daily updates through the @dhfwka twitter handle.

There was this research that came out recently that showed that the spread of covid-19 follows a classic power law, with a low value of “alpha”. Basically, most infected people don’t infect anyone else. But there are a handful of infected people who infect lots of others.

The Karnataka data, put out by @dhfwka  and meticulously collected and organised by the folks at covid19india.org (they frequently drive me mad by suddenly changing the API or moving data into a new file, but overall they’ve been doing stellar work), has sufficient information to see if this sort of power law holds.

For every patient who was tested thanks to being a contact of an already infected patient, the “notes” field of the data contains the latter patient’s ID. This way, we are able to build a sort of graph on who got the disease from whom (some people got the disease “from a containment zone”, or out of state, and they are all ignored in this analysis).

From this graph, we can approximate how many people each infected person transmitted the infection to. Here are the “top” people in Karnataka who transmitted the disease to most people.

Patient 653, a 34 year-old male from Karnataka, who got infected from patient 420, passed on the disease to 45 others. Patient 419 passed it on to 34 others. And so on.

Overall in Karnataka, based on the data from covid19india.org as of tonight, there have been 732 cases where a the source (person) of infection has been clearly identified. These 732 cases have been transmitted by 205 people. Just two of the 205 (less than 1%) are responsible for 79 people (11% of all cases where transmitter has been identified) getting infected.

The top 10 “spreaders” in Karnataka are responsible for infecting 260 people, or 36% of all cases where transmission is known. The top 20 spreaders in the state (10% of all spreaders) are responsible for 48% of all cases. The top 41 spreaders (20% of all spreaders) are responsible for 61% of all transmitted cases.

Now you might think this is not as steep as the “well-known” Pareto distribution (80-20 distribution), except that here we are only considering 20% of all “spreaders”. Our analysis ignores the 1000 odd people who were found to have the disease at least one week ago, and none of whose contacts have been found to have the disease.

I admit this graph is a little difficult to understand, but basically I’ve ordered people found for covid-19 in Karnataka by number of people they’ve passed on the infection to, and graphed how many people cumulatively they’ve infected. It is a very clear pareto curve.

The exact exponent of the power law depends on what you take as the denominator (number of people who could have infected others, having themselves been infected), but the shape of the curve is not in question.

Essentially the Karnataka validates some research that’s recently come out – most of the disease spread stems from a handful of super spreaders. A very large proportion of people who are infected don’t pass it on to any of their contacts.

Gully Cricket With A Test Cricketer

Long, long ago, I’d written a post comparing gully cricket with baseball. This was based on my experience playing cricket in school, on roads next to friends’ houses, in the gap between my house and the next, and even the gap between rows of desks in my school classroom.

I hadn’t imagined all this gully cricket experience to come in useful in any manner. Until a few weeks back when Siddhartha Vaidyanathan asked me to join him in this episode of “81 all out” podcast. The “main guest” on this show was Test cricketer Vijay Bharadwaj, whose Test debut, you might remember, ended in “83 all out“.

It was a fascinating conversation, and I loved being part of it. I realised that the sort of gully cricket I played was nothing like the sort that Vijay played. As I mention in the podcast, I “never graduated from the road to the field”.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to put my fundaes on baseball, and other theories I’ve concocted about Gully Cricket. Nevertheless, I had fun recording this, and I think you’ll have fun listening to it as well. You can listen to it here, or on any of your usual podcast tools (search for “81 all out”).

The future of work, and cities

Ok this is the sort of speculative predictive post that I don’t usually indulge in. However, I think my blog is at the right level of obscurity that makes it conducive for making speculative predictions. It is not popular enough that enough people will remember this prediction in case this doesn’t come through. And it’s not that obscure as well – in case it does come through, I can claim credit.

So my claim is that companies whose work doesn’t involve physically making stuff haven’t explored the possibilities of remote work enough before the current (covid-19) crisis hit. With the gatherings of large people, especially in air-conditioned spaces being strongly discouraged, companies that hadn’t given remote working enough thought are being forced to consider the opportunity now.

My prediction is that once the crisis over and things go back to “normal”, there will be converts. Organisations and teams and individuals who had never before thought that working from home would have taken enough of a liking to the concept to give it a better try. Companies will become more open to remote working, having seen the benefits (or lack of costs) of it in the period of the crisis. People will commute less. They will travel less (at least for work purposes). This is going to have a major impact on the economy, and on cities.

I’m still not done with cities.

For most of history, there has always been a sort of natural upper limit to urbanisation, in the form of disease. Before germ theory became a thing, and vaccinations and cures came about for a lot of common illnesses, it was routine for epidemics to rage through cities from time to time, thus decimating their population. As a consequence, people didn’t live in cities if they could help it.

Over the last hundred years or so (after the “Spanish” flu of 1918), medicine has made sufficient progress that we haven’t seen such disease or epidemics (maybe until now). And so the network effect of cities has far outweighed the problem of living in close proximity to lots of other people.

Especially in the last 30 years or so, as “knowledge work” has formed a larger part of the economies, a disproportionate part of the economic growth (and population growth) has been in large cities. Across the world – Mumbai, Bangalore, London, the Bay Area – a large part of the growth has come in large urban agglomerations.

One impact of this has been a rapid rise in property prices in such cities – it is in the same period that these cities have become virtually unaffordable for the young to buy houses in. The existing large size and rapid growth contribute to this.

Now that we have a scary epidemic around us, which is likely to spread far more in dense urban agglomerations, I imagine people at the margin to reconsider their decisions to live in large cities. If they can help it, they might try to move to smaller towns or suburbs. And the rise of remote work will aid this – if you hardly go to office and it doesn’t really matter where you live, do you want to live in a crowded city with a high chance of being hit by a stray virus?

This won’t be a drastic movement, but I see a marginal redistribution of population in the next decade away from the largest cities, and in favour of smaller towns and cities.It won’t be large, but significant enough to have an impact on property prices. The bull run we’ve seen in property prices, especially in large and fast-growing cities, is likely to see some corrections. Property holders in smaller cities that aren’t too unpleasant to live in can expect some appreciation.

Oh, and speaking of remote work, I have an article in today’s Times Of India about the joys of working from home. It’s not yet available online, so I’ve attached a clipping.