Redundancy

Some weeks ago I noticed that junk calls from telemarketers was decreasing in frequency. I put this fortunate circumstance down to the pandemic. After all, these immense telemarketing operations are super-spreading venues, and must have been closed down. I suppose that meant that some of these jobs went into a gig economy. I guess that the extreme incoherence of some recent telemarketers, and the high levels of background noise in their calls could be due to this. Now the market has stabilized again, not due to vaccines, but because of automation. Today I was woken in the morning by an automated telemarketer.

I always fall into the bullshit. Why?
Socks on in bed—the devil is a lie.

Pentametron++

Travel agents were losing business for a while, and the pandemic has killed them off. Retailers have bounced back, but not exactly to where they used to be. Online marketing has taken on a larger share of the market, and the pandemic has moved a larger number of people into delivery gigs. A couple of times I opened the door for a delivery and saw a man older than me. I wonder what their stories are. Sudden loss of a job? Death of the main bread-earner in the family? While this low-paying job market seems poised for growth, how long will it be before delivery is further automated? The gig economy is a passing phase: it is the automation of shops and customer service counters. Now the automation is reaching deeper: right into the service being provided. The pandemic provides a window where accepting this change becomes easier.

Yet in a circle, pallid as it flow
By this bright sun, with his light display,
Rolled from the sands, and half the buds of snow,
And calmly on him shall infold away.

Deepspeare

Complicated jobs requiring simultaneously human judgement and manual work have been automated: for example, large cargo ships now run with crews of ten or so. My two cataract operations at the end of last year were performed, in about fifteen minutes each, by a robot which calmly intoned the purpose of each part of the process before beginning on it. I found it soothing. The doctor was in the operation theater and supervising, but it will not be many years before she is redundant. How long before the rest of the chain around her is also automated? Perhaps you will get your glasses from a vending machine in a few years. And instead of me, an artificial neural network will be writing these posts.

Light and dark

A simple piece of artwork that I saw on a little walk around town last week is a pointer to a long story of trafficking. The short version of it is here. Or you can read the complementary long version here. As more people die of the pandemic, more children are orphaned, and the problem is bound to grow, unless action is taken.

Hustle without bustle

After another lunch out, we walked through the area around the stock market. The state has designated five categories of lock down, and districts move between them depending on the availability of hospital beds. This is one of the most rational ways that public health agencies can act, but it is still an awful time for business. Mumbai is now in the middle category. I chatted with the owner of the restaurant: he is resigned to the enormous losses, the impossibility of doing his full menu, and the lack of a stimulus.

Since last June we have discovered a large number of people who, having lost their previous business, turned to food as the one thing which always generates an income, no matter how meager. Associated with this is the rise of delivery services, taking their workers from among people who have lost other semi-skilled jobs. The Family worked out a way of no-contact tipping of these delivery boys. We still say boys, although a slowly increasing number are older men, perhaps compensating for the loss or incapacitation of the major bread-earner in the family.

Our walk showed us the same business model on the street. Many of the old street-food stalls are open, now to a much reduced number of customers. Businesses are working on restricted in-office personnel, and the central business district of Mumbai looked empty in the middle of the week. The man roasting peanuts outside the stock exchange, whom you see in the photo above, was joined in the lunch business by newcomers. We saw two such new businesses working out of parked SUVs. One was selling plates of cut fruits, the other was serving out plates of idlis and vadas from large vessels. I liked the views through the open doors of the boots. SUV owners turning to street catering is an indication of a fall in incomes. Mumbai has changed deeply without changing. If the streets are anything to go by, the hustle remains, although the virus may have set us back by one generation in terms of prosperity.

The Family feels like providing business to these street food vendors, but there is only so much you can eat. Paying for others is perhaps the right alternative, but how do you provide a connection between these businesses and the people who are going hungry? I ask the question here because the last such question I asked generated responses, including direct reach outs, which helped us and others in our tiny efforts to help.

Wonderfully ordinary

Like many of you, we had been shut away at home even after being fully vaccinated. While a deadly wave peaked around us, affecting every person’s circle of family and friends, we did not feel any urge to go out. But that wave is now slowly dissipating, leaving behind the post-COVID complications that still kill (India’s first near-Olympian, Milkha Singh, being the latest victim). The sheer depression of being isolated at home while one or two people you know die every day made us want to get out. It had been possible during weekdays for the last two weeks. Eventually, yesterday, The Family and I could juggle schedules to arrange lunch together. South Mumbai looks pretty ordinary, if you forget what it would have been at this time two years ago. Some shops are closed, many of them perhaps forever. The traffic is lighter than normal, and the number of pedestrians lighter still.

Lunch was at a pizzeria on Marine Drive, where we got a table suitable for watching the monsoon tossed waves on Backbay across a welcome view of Marine Drive. A stiff breeze blew between the distanced tables, keeping the monsoon’s humidity at bay. The service and attention to detail has improved with the drop in crowds. We slipped into a dream of normal times, sipping a light rose, spooning up pasta, biting into a crisp pizza, looking for an appropriate dessert to follow and deciding on an espresso instead.

Afterwards we walked past the Brabourne Stadium to the hundred years-old ice cream shop below the stands, now piloted by an old Parsi lady, the grand-daughter of the original Rustom. She never pushes at the boundaries of the stereotype of a cantankerous old Parsi, so sure she is of the quality of the ice cream that she knows that neither her manner, nor the looks of the shop or the merchandise, have to be updated by about three generations. The usual small stream of customers waited patiently for the wonderful ice cream sandwiches, a generous slab of ice cream between two thin wafers, leavened with mild insult. We walked away, a dripping kesar pista in hand, happy that some things never change.

Light tourism

Naini Tal’s Mall Road is usually a gelid mass of tourists, pulsating with impatience. On this day, when the second wave of the pandemic was just beginning to swell, we made up about ten percent of the tourists here. That gave us an opportunity to see the town’s own life, but I wish we had done this at a better time. The Naini Tal district was hit hard by this wave; two weeks after we left, newspapers reported 50% positivity among the COVID-19 tests performed here. Now, as I look back at this featured photo, I know that we did a good thing by not walking through the doors of the billiard club, and not just because of the awful apostrophe.

Like good tourists, we walked up and down Mall Road for an hour, stopping to buy chocolates (the chocolatiers insisted on masking inside the shops), most memorably in the flavour of paan, have an old style espresso, drink a glass of buransh, admire the logo of Himjoli, and stop at a cafe for lunch on a terrace overlooking the lovely lake.

A lovely new thing on Mall Road was street art, possibly from the festival that the city held in December 2019. The subjects were street cleaners, often totally faceless employees of the city. Mall Road is too cramped for good photos of such large pieces of art. If you back away enough to remove distortions of perspective, then there is too much activity between you and the subject. So I had to make do, and tried to correct the perspective later in software. I like the one where a small crowd of women are waiting for a bus home in front of one of the murals, but I can see the 50% positivity rate right in this one photo.

There is still a whiff of the middle of the twentieth century in some bit of Mall Road. The ornate wooden building of the library right next to the lake was closed, but the scooters parked next to the post box was straight out of the 1960s. I don’t think my nieces even know how to send what we used to be call the post in those days. I knew instantly what that man crossing the road with a tin box on his head was carrying. The lettering on the box confirmed it: he was a door-to-door salesman carrying cream rolls and pastries. If it was not for large-scale tourism, Naini Tal could have been the best of two worlds, all the advantages of the current century, the relative prosperity and instant communication, with the charm of the previous century.

Intimations of mortality

Until yesterday I had not realized that I was beginning to slip into depression. I’d neglected work. The news was horrible: people begging for hospital beds for family members, others dying outside overfilled hospitals, doctors filmed crying, other doctors begging the government to divert industrial oxygen to medical use, black marketeers making money on drugs with limited efficacy for COVID-19. Locked down at home, I vacillated between consuming this horror show and mindless rom-coms. In February I’d posted a photograph showing how complacent people had become about the falling numbers of infections. That was reinforced by the trips I took in March and April. Courts have begun to question the administration’s contention that only common people are to blame for this disaster.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
       The earth, and every common sight,
                          To me did seem
                      Apparelled in celestial light,
            The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—

William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality

My nieces do not have this freedom. One, a counselor, realized she was in depression caused by listening to her clients trying to cope with the world that I just described. Her own therapist is counseling her from hospital while being treated for COVID-19. Another niece is in the vanguard of today’s lost generation. She finished her architecture degree from home during last year’s lockdown, and was lucky enough to get a job. So she is in a town completely new to her, setting up her home and commuting to work. She is fairly confident of her work environment; every one is masked all the time, she says. But she finds commuting scary, since in her town many people do not realize masks help protect you. Other nieces are a little further back in the same cohort. One is doing her final year’s internship from home. Another is beginning her second year of college from home. And yet another has just had her school leaving exam cancelled.

I realized that I had been depressed only when I came out of it yesterday. The trigger was that The Family and I got our second shot of vaccine. I had been depressed by thoughts of my own mortality, then. Unlike the two of us, my nieces spend time on social media, which is choked with an outpouring of grief and helplessness from individuals. They are still not eligible for vaccines, and next month, when they are, the vaccine shortage will really begin to hit. Their generation will be changed; I don’t know how.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

Food by Naini’s Tal

The lake district is easily the most popular part of Kumaon for tourists. Within easy reach of Delhi if you want a long weekend’s vacation, Naini Tal fills with crowds which are, if not madding, at least maddening enough for me to avoid. I prefer to stay near one of the fuddy-duddy Tals, any lakeside whose peace is not broken by unending crowds and late-night Bhangra discos. But in this second COVID-19 year, as our holiday drew to a close, and cases exploded in Delhi, tourists were staying away in droves. We had lunch on the terrace of a completely empty cafe overlooking the lake (featured photo). We could stand the music because we were outdoors, we weren’t trying to sleep, and the selection was largely from the 70s (with surprise appearances by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley).

Tal is the local word for lake. After lunch we took a short walk by the tal. At the street food vendors’ end I noticed that the most popular food seems to be chai with bread, or with some combination of eggs and bread. Naini Tal is part of the hills, so a bowl of Maggi is also common. The number of vendors selling corn on the cob was much smaller, and there was no chanawala in sight. The man selling sweet pastries out of a tin box was a whiff of the times when Buddy Holly was all the rage. In these times you might expect that street food vendors would be distanced and masked. Not so in Naini Tal. Masks, if they are seen at all, are used as chin guards. The stiff breeze from the lake is perhaps the only thing that has kept this place safe until now. I saw four other people whose masks covered both their mouth and nose. Of them, the cotton candy man is the only one who seemed to have discovered what I find in the hills: that a properly worn multi-layer mask is a wonderful face warmer.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

Vaccine after-effects

About 50 million Indians, 3.5% of the population, had taken the first shot of their COVID-19 vaccine before I joined the queue on Monday after lunch. It went very fast. I had the jab less than an hour after I joined the queue. A half hour under observation at the hospital after that, and I was out. During the wait I downloaded my certificate of vaccination. Pretty smooth systems, I thought. The Family had got her first shot the previous week. We’d decided not to take the shots together because both of us might have had to deal with the usual after-effects of a vaccination. She hadn’t had any effects, not even a soreness at the site of the injection.

Sometimes I wonder whether all this happened because I didn’t forward that WhatsApp message to ten people. – forwarded on WhatsApp

Four hours later I noticed the first twinges from my immune system. I developed a slightly runny nose. This was a probably my non-specific immune system responding. Four hours later, my internal defense system realized that there was a persistent invader which needed more drastic measures. I developed a very high fever, bad enough to set my teeth chattering. A fever is one of the defense mechanisms that the body has against invading pathogens. Raising the body temperature stresses cells. An out of control fever can be killing, but it is a scorched-earth measure that an immune system adopts to slow an invader before new forces are brought into action.

By end of March the fraction vaccinated had risen to about 3.5 in every 100 people.

I was fairly certain that the fever would recede fast. I had a restless night, but by morning the fever was gone. I had the usual post-fever distress, a mild headache, a touch of nausea for the rest of the day. A mild fever recurred in the afternoon. I dealt with it as I have done whenever I had a bad infection: sleep. This time round I knew that the symptoms would be gone in a day as the adaptive immune system comes into play. This prediction was right. I woke in the morning at my usual time, still with sniffles, but otherwise fresh. There was a mild soreness at the spot of the injection, but I expect it to fade.

Sputnik V emergency use | India to discuss approval of Russian vaccine – MoneyControl news Report

My reaction to the vaccine were pretty much average. About six of the ten males in my age group I talked to had similar after-effects to the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, fading about a day and a half after the shot. One, an older and somewhat immuno-compromised person, had fever and body ache that lasted longer. Three had no after effects. The Family had talked a more eclectic set of women, and it turned out that among women of all ages about half suffered the same reactions as me. If you have this kind of a reaction you can be pretty certain that your immune system is reacting as it is expected to.

At most, perhaps 5% of people have been infected (with SARS-CoV-2)….If all that pain, suffering and economic destruction got us to 5%, what will it take to get us to 60%? That’s a sobering thought. All of that suffering and death is just getting started.” Michael Oseterholm in The Guardian, Jun 10, 2020

We will go on another small trip at the end of next week. Unfortunately, the second wave is still raging across the country, so we will have to remain masked and vigilant during the trip. After all this first shot has only primed the immune system, and the second shot is yet to come. The usual precautions are still needed.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

Second wave

Bad news came in over the weekend. Cases are up in Mumbai, and in several smaller towns. Kerala, which had beaten back the pandemic in its early days, has been going through enormous pains in recent weeks. This week, overall, cases are up in India by about a third. We seem to be at the beginning of a second wave. Friends around Mumbai have been discussing the inevitability of such a thing ever since the local trains were opened to the general public. I have been playing the devil’s advocate (what an appropriate phrase at this time) with the argument that if livelihoods are to be safeguarded, we have no choice but to let people move around. An increase of cases today inevitably leads to the conclusion that the policy changes made two or three weeks ago are at the root of the problem. Governments agree, and sometimes have gone the whole hog again, imposing full lockdowns in some towns.

My early training predisposes me to seek answers in an engineering discipline that is called Systems Design and Control Theory. One of the things that we learnt was that you could try to control a system by using its output to influence its input. This is called feedback. There is a theorem which says that feedback with delays leads to oscillations. Every teenager who has tried to form a rock band knows about the screech of feedback which badly placed mics and speakers can lead to. Others can more easily relate to the frustrating experience of making sure that the water in the shower is a comfortable temperature as an experience of oscillations due to delayed feedback.

Why should this lead to second and third waves of epidemics? The argument goes something like this. When it becomes clear that there is an epidemic, governments put various restrictions in place. But these are temporary, and when the number of cases decreases they are removed. Clearly there is a feedback. The delay comes from two sources: it takes time to realize that there is a consistent rise (or fall) in the number of cases, and it takes time for committees to make decisions.

Fortunately, the theorem assures us that we are not doomed to be tossed about forever by waves of the pandemic. If there is friction in the system then that damps out the successive waves. Where does this friction come from? One is the brutal calculus that the most susceptible are the earliest victims of the epidemic, so successive waves of disease, eventually, find better prepared immune systems. The second source is our personal learning and initiative. When we realize that there is danger, we personally take precautions. And we learn what are the most important, and best, measures. The third is the most enlightened reason of all: medical practice evolves, so that treatments and vaccines become available.

Human behaviour is unpredictable. There are no theorems which guarantee how I will act. Still, when studying a large enough body of people, there are general principles which seem to govern how such collections will respond to circumstances. There are limits to such predictions. Different countries, even different cities, have had a their second and third waves of COVID-19 at different times.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

Don’t get fooled again

The eye is so easy to fool! I’d posted the featured photo in colour before. Just for fun I decided to convert it to black and white. I was surprised that it works. Perhaps because the yellow of the tiny flowers is so luminous that although the whole plant is in shadow there is enough contrast there. That got me thinking about decomposing it by colour. I dialled down the saturation of everything except yellow, and the eye still saw it as not very different from before. You really have to put the two next to each other to remind yourself what the difference is. And even then you may not notice that in one photo the leaves are not green.

Are we thinking right in our response to the pandemic? The world locked down again and again to flatten the curve, to prevent hospitals from being overrun. Wuhan was absolutely locked down at the beginning, and that stamped out the disease in that city completely. In other cities we thought it wouldn’t hurt to go for a walk, and perhaps talk to the people we see. Surely meeting one acquaintance in a couple of weeks would not change things, we reasoned. Was that right?

June Almeida was the first scientist to image a human coronavirus (for bio, click on pic)

If the disease spreads evenly, that is every infected person has the same chance of passing on an infection, then even very mildly leaky lockdowns do not prevent a single death! When you study the total number of deaths, it seems to make no difference whether the lockdown was leaky, or whether there was no lockdown. The only difference is the availability of health care, and whatever that implies. Strange!

So lockdowns were thought of as a tool to “flatten the curve”, not as a long-term solution. But that step involved an assumption. It turns out that if you have epidemics (like the flu or COVID-19) which depend on super-spreading events, then the situation could change. The simple expedient of closing every place in which, say, more than 20 people can gather, can cut the transmission of the disease by a large factor. This saves many lives. Strange!

John Snow is widely regarded as the founder of the field of Epidemiology (for bio, click on pic)

It seems that the maths works out. Not quite as transparent as 2+2=4, but apparently quite as definite. But I am always left a little doubtful by mathematical arguments in which every assumption cannot be tested in real life. Maths is a bit like that photo in yellow; an approximation of the real world. Some scenes can be captured in yellow, others not. Believing blindly in mathematical models of the world led people to theories of the aether once. It leads others to believe in market economics today. Both could have been right, but without extensive testing we would not have known better. You don’t want to make the same missteps again with epidemics. The world is stress-testing epidemiology now. I wonder how the subject will change in a couple of years.