On Gujarati Food: The Dhokla Family of Dishes

This is the Third post On Gujarati Food. Find the rest of the posts here.

Perhaps the first thing most native Bangaloreans will mention when asked about Gujarati food would be the Dhokla. It was literally the ONLY thing I knew about Gujarati food until I met my wife. Gujarati Food = Dhokla. Period. It was almost like people in Gujarat never made anything else at all and ate Dhoklas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A lot of this, of course, boiled down to my own lack of exposure to the cuisine. But in a way, it also speaks to the popularity of the Dhokla as a tasty, convenient, and easy to make side. 

Dhokla: The only Gujarati dish I knew growing up

The way I see it, the Dhokla belongs to a certain family of dishes that involve the use of soaked/ground lentil, rice, some spices and vegetables. This mixture is then baked, steamed or pan fried in some manner resulting in different dishes with different tastes, consistency and texture. So while the Dhokla is the most popular dish in this family, the Khaman and Handvo are close relatives that are equally common in Gujarat. I can certainly add Karnataka’s own (and one of my personal all time favorites) Nuchinunde to this family of dishes too.

It is hard for the lay person to spot the difference between the Khaman and the Dhokla, but once you are familiar with it, you WILL know the difference. A lot of times, the Khaman masquerades as the Dhokla but never the other way round. For what it’s worth, I like the Khaman more than the Dhokla, but will eat either anytime. Regardless, all the dishes in this family are infinitely made better with a good dose of seasoning (oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves), and the presence of a green chutney.

Ultimately, the Dhokla and Khaman serve as a very good tea time snack/side. I personally do not prefer to eat it as part of a bigger meal in itself. I mean, make no mistake. If you offer it, I WILL eat it. But my preference is to eat it over tea in the afternoons.

Handvo: My personal favorite in this family of dishes

But perhaps my personal favorite of this family of dishes is the Handvo. The Handvo is relatively more stiff when compared to the Dhokla or Khaman as it is most commonly baked (and sometimes pan fried too) instead of just steamed like the latter two. The resulting product is more cake-like and packs a denser flavor punch than the Dhokla or Khaman. So it is also a lot more filling and feels like I am eating something substantial rather than something that is filled half with air. 

There is, however, one more reason why I like the Handvo. During the baking/pan frying, the edges and corners of the Handvo get additionally stiff and crispy giving that extra bite to that piece. The first time Devanshi made Handvo, I promptly went to the kitchen by myself, cut out all the corner pieces and ate them without saying a word (and certainly without sharing any of it). Apparently, these corner pieces of the Handvo are completely appropriate things to initiate fights over. So when the wife found the corner pieces (and literally just that) conspicuously missing, she went livid. I got to hear stories on how she would have fights with her brother over them and how, in the end, her dad would trick them into eating it himself.

These stories were recited not without veiled threats of similar ‘incidents’ taking place in our own home in the future. Suffice to say that I got the message and we have had a healthy program of sharing the corner pieces whenever the Handvo is made. And when we have guests over, the general plan is to eat the corner pieces ourselves beforehand, and cut the rest of the Handvo into squares so nobody suspects the missing corner pieces. 

On Gujarati Food: The Two Simplest Dishes

This is the Second post On Gujarati Food. Find the rest of the posts here.

The only place I can think of to start with Gujarati food is the Thepla. This simple bread made of whole wheat flour, besan and methi leaves shouldn’t fool you with its innocuous looks. It is packed with an unbelievable amount of flavor, and it is quite filling – leading to its versatility as a perfectly fine breakfast, lunch, tea time snack, or even dinner. The use of chickpea (besan) flour is what perhaps gives this the distinct flavor and texture that separates it from the regular Roti or Chapathi – even the flavored ones.

It also stays good for a LONG time which makes it a mandatory accompaniment among travelling Gujjus. The variations are endless too, with the use of bajra/jawar/millet flour, zucchini, bottle gourd, drum stick leaves, beet root and so many more items. This way, it is hard to actually get bored of this dish.

The Simple Methi Thepla with Pickle

The Thepla is apparently meant to be eaten by itself (perhaps with some pickle on the side). But try telling that to my south Indian brain which initially treated the Thepla as just another form of Roti and promptly demanded some vegetable or chole side to go with it. (And try imagining the absolute shock on my wife’s face at that moment). It was only after several months that I realized the Thepla had so much flavor by itself, and now primarily enjoy eating it with tea. 

Close relatives of the Thepla include the Rotla and the Bhakri – breads generally reminiscent of JoLada Rotti from North Karnataka, but made with different ingredients and styles. They are generally on the drier side, so need to be eaten with sufficiently gravy vegetables. 

The other equally simple Gujarati dish that is perhaps not as ‘new’ to me is the Kichdi & Kadhi. The Kichdi of course was known to me growing up as Pongal – the one dish I absolutely DID NOT look forward to during Makara Sankranti festival meals. Growing up, it was one of the few dishes I just simply refused to eat (exactly why, I do not remember) and I had not eaten it for almost two decades till recently. I was skeptical about it till I actually ate it at home a couple of years ago – made by the wife of course.

Khichdi and Kadhi

Fact is that there is nothing that will ever blow someone away when they eat the simple Kichdi with Kadhi – it is after all just a mash of rice, lentil, and some basic spices. The Kadhi is really just slightly flavored yogurt/curd. The key, I have realized, is in getting the right texture of the rice and dal by preventing the Kichdi from being overcooked. Its combination with the Kadhi probably adds that extra punch to the taste as well.

This dish maybe extremely simple to make, but it delivers a disproportionate amount of flavor and satisfaction to me nowadays. It and its different masala variations have become a common go-to food for me in situations where we generally lack time to make something substantial. This is also the point where I declare that the best Khichdi & Kadhi made in our home is by ME (used to be the wife, but clearly my Khichdi making skills have surpassed hers).

On Gujarati Food: Discovering a New Cuisine

This is the First post On Gujarati Food. Find the rest of the posts here.

A very welcome consequence of being married to a non-Karnataka person is the constant exposure to a completely different cuisine – one that I only had a passing knowledge of prior to meeting my wife. To be honest, growing up, I did not have a high opinion of north Indian cuisine in general. Punjabi cuisine – which is what is generally found in restaurants (chole, saags, paneer based dishes, etc.) – was fine when the spice levels were good, but my very limited exposure to Gujarati, Rajasthani, and Bengali cuisines did not get me excited back in the day. In fact, the inevitable sweet taste of literally everything I ate led me to develop a bad preconception of the entire cuisine. That was until Devanshi started making Gujarati food the way she ate it growing up, and today I feel so fortunate to have discovered and fallen in love with an entire cuisine.

Navigating the Gujarati vegetarian cuisine can be quite complex – especially as (much like in Karnataka) there are several regional specialties within the state, or the same dish can have several regional variations. And I certainly cannot claim to have tasted them all. But having a Gujarati wife and a bunch of friends from different parts of Gujarat has definitely helped in that regard. My biggest preconception that all Gujarati food is sweet and bland was thankfully disproved early on when my wife vehemently voiced her disagreement with those Gujjus who do make it unnecessarily sweet. The simple truth is that the sweetness index varies from region to region and household to household due to a number of factors. Sometimes your opinion on the cuisine can be based on just dumb luck – like where one ends up eating their first meal of that cuisine. And I was clearly a victim of that. Thankfully, I got a second look. 

Gujarati Thali from Vatan in New York City

In spite of being a Kannadiga who is very proud of all the various cuisines of Karnataka, it has never even crossed my mind to somehow ‘compare’ Karnataka cuisine to Gujarati cuisine – or worse, to try and ‘grade’ the different dishes across the different cuisines. As far as I am concerned, discovering a new cuisine is really just like discovering a new band – it is always a positive thing. Yes it can be subjective, but if you like it, it only adds to the things you already like and never comes at their cost. I personally do not subscribe to the idea that “X cuisine is the best!”, much the same way I do not believe there is any ‘best music band’ in the world. There is some music that I know of, and more that I don’t. Same with food.

In the next few posts, I will briefly cover the different common Gujarati dishes that I have discovered and why I like them. Some maybe familiar, and maybe some are new to those non-Gujjus reading this. 

Remembering SPB and the Art of Playback Singing

Hosa Jeevana (New Life) is a 1990 Kannada movie (a remake of Tamil movie Pudhea Paadhai) starring the late Shankar Nag. It follows the story (and ultimate transformation) of an outcast who has been shunned and ignored by society all his life – including his parents who left him in a dumpster at birth. He grows up fostering a great contempt for everyone around him, actively rejecting the morals and values of the society that pushed him down through its cracks. A grown man now, he lives his life in a rundown ‘house’ and makes money by extorting people on the streets on a whim – in addition to the contract killings and kidnappings he carries out for the local politician (whom he only half-mockingly calls ‘Chairman’). Almost nihilistic in his outlook, his belief in his own world view is absolute: I care about myself, and the world can, and probably should, go to hell.

How do you introduce such a character – in a way that perfectly captures the rage, crass attitude, disregard for society, and absolute contempt for anyone other than himself?

When you have an actor of Shankar Nag’s caliber and a composer/lyricist such as Hamsalekha, you do so by opening the movie with a song consisting of some real in-your-face lyrics and music. I mean, the chorus of this opening song literally translates to this:

The knife, and the chain are

My left hand, my right hand

My bastard body

The blade, and the bottle are

My two younger brothers

Let the hooch flow

To die and to kill

I am ever ready

Needless to say, the translation does zero justice to the impact the words have when spoken in colloquial Kannada, but you get the idea.

So you have one of the best actors of the time playing the outcast, and the best music director composing the music and the lyrics. That combination in itself is quite potent. But you still need that one magical ingredient that makes the song transcend into the art form that conveys all one needs to know about the outcast.

Enter SP Balasubrahmanyam.

Playback singing is not an easy art form. The artist has to completely internalize the character and/or the circumstances of the movie he/she is singing for – to fully capture the soul of the song. And here, SPB practically becomes the outcast. His voice conveys everything you need to know about Shankar Nag’s character – the rage, contempt and his nihilistic world view.

The intimidating punch with which he delivers the first words of the song – “Ei! NinnaaLe Ei!”* – is equivalent to being slapped awake to take notice. In fact, Shankar Nag does as much to every other character around him – slapping or abusing them in various forms and demanding their undivided attention to his presence.

To me, perhaps, the moment in the song that perfectly encapsulates SPB’s talent and absolute commitment to playback singing is, in fact, not when he is singing at all. It comes towards the end of the song after Shankar Nag has made his statement to the world, and it takes the form of a wicked, wicked laugh (at 3:48 in the video) that should send chills down yours spine if you are ever at the receiving end of such a character. (Listen to the song once without the video – just focusing on his voice, and you will know what I am talking about).

Ultimately, SPB channels that rage, nihilism, and contempt so well in his singing, and Shankar Nag portrays the outcast with an uncharacteristic grace (that swagger in his walk!), that at the end of the song you will already be rooting for the outcast – without regard to his sins and vices.

And THAT, to me, is what SPB stood for – a true artist who made you feel emotions that you were likely never even aware of – just with his voice. There are hundreds of his songs that are probably infinitely more melodious and famous than this one with such crass lyrics. But no matter what the character, circumstances, story line or language, SPB took it all to a higher plane like only few others have. And the impressions he has left along the way on more than a billion people can never truly be characterized.

Fact is, I will never know exactly how big of an influence he was on my growing up. All I know is that he was the hook that carried so many of my cultural reference points during my childhood and adult life.

And he will be sorely missed.

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*I truly have no idea how to translate the crass slang of “NinnaaLe” into English. But just know that this song would have never made it to radio or TV back in the 90’s (and I would have likely been kicked out of my home if I was caught using that phrase). And the way SPB delivers those lines, he practically made sure of that.

How Canada Reacts to a Political Scandal

For context on the WE scandal, read this post.

Fact is these kinds of political scandals and investigations into charities are not at all common in Canada. The last major story happened in early 2019 when Justin Trudeau tried to interfere in a corruption investigation by forcing the Attorney General to drop the corruption charges against a company that he had friends in. So when something does happen, it gets a lot of attention. And this WE scandal is relatively big. 

Canada has nowhere near the media empire and network that is found in the US. It has no news channels along the lines of CNN/MSNBC/Fox News, and its newspapers are nowhere near as polarized and disgusting as the New York Times or WaPo. (All for the best).

But every single media outlet – without exception – came down on JT and his government on this WE Scandal. This scandal was on the front pages, the back pages, the editorials, news channels, radio shows, talk shows, podcasts, and every possible platform for several weeks. Part of the reason was because new developments on this continue to be revealed almost on a daily basis – thanks to some phenomenal investigative journalism. And almost every one of them was critical of JT and the Government. In general, this government and the Liberal Party have been getting extreme negative coverage for the past month or so. Their popularity has expectedly eroded significantly over that time. 

If you look at social media, you will find various hashtags regularly trending: #TrudeauResign #MorneauMustResign #IStandWithTrudeau, etc. The first two are obvious reactions to the scandal while the last one is made up of hilarious defenses by his supporters. I read a lot of them over time and I found they mostly invoke ‘whataboutery’ by bringing up the actions of a previous Prime Minister of the Conservative Party of Canada. Or even more hilarious is when they compare JT’s actions to the large shit show happening south of the border and declaring we should all be blessed that we have JT as the leader.

Ultimately, I found that everything associated with the scandal – the nature and magnitude of the scandal, media’s reaction to it, people’s reaction to it – were all significantly toned down when I compare it to the political scandals in India and the US. The discussions on this topic (apart from Social media) were significantly more civil and nuanced, while the news stories were products of actual investigative journalism (and not just recycled rhetoric). JT’s Liberal Party, on the other hand, reeks of opacity, backstabbing, privilege and arrogance – all hallmarks of every corrupt party everywhere in the world. 

Justin Trudeau has taken a massive risk by temporarily suspending Parliament – which means all investigation into this scandal stands suspended. Needless to say, this act got a lot of negative coverage as well. However, this did stem the steady news coverage on the WE scandal and shifted the narrative to what it is the Liberal Party is planning for the new session of Parliament. So he may have played his cards well now but how this might affect his minority government is yet to be seen. 

We may well have new elections coming around the corner if this gamble doesn’t work out in his favor. 

What Does a Political Scandal in Canada Look Like?

If you grow up in India, you grow up watching political scandals and corruption. It is part of the national fabric and we all have to simply acknowledge that it is part of the Indian political culture. This has, over time, got me curious on how political scandals and corruption operate in other countries. With regards to my time in the US, I found that the Trump administration and the national media made the very idea of a ‘scandal’ ambiguous. But this is not about India or the US. Here, I want to talk about how political scandals and corruption looks like in my new home: Canada.

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Yes, Canada – where the country is known more for its proximity to another country……and then for its weather. And in more recent times, it is known for a Bhangra dancing Prime Minister whose main selling point seems to be that he looks smart and charming. Make no mistake, he is very popular among his supporters who mostly do not know exactly why they are his supporters. Hell, even Devanshi and I bought into his charm and charisma initially when we moved here. But what exactly has been happening in the land of Justin Trudeau of late?

Spoiler Alert!! (or not): Political scandal and corruption. I will not bore you with the details of the scandal. Just know that JT decided to award a contract to a Canadian charity named WE to administer a ~$1B summer student volunteer program. This charity, though, has been paying his own family members in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for their access, appearances, speaking and fundraising fees – ever since he became Prime Minister. (Dude even has a campaign themed ad featuring him promoting that charity).

Long story short: JT is facing conflict-of-interest (COI) charges and is currently undergoing an ethics investigation. (He denies the COI of course). The contract now stands canceled and there is another investigation into how the contract was awarded.

Important to note: All these are not even remotely telling the story of the despicable, disgusting, and corrupt way WE Charity runs its business (and yes, it is a business) in the name of charity. 

It is obvious for even the dumbest of people to see the COI here. But somehow JT kept pushing back against the idea that there was any COI at all. In fact, he said that he ‘thought about’ the potential for COI before awarding the Contract to WE, and then decided that there wasn’t one. Of course, nobody knew anything about the selection process. That’s when his Liberal Party MPs tried to block the attempt to get JT to testify to an investigation committee – and lost, as they are in the minority.

He then threw a bunch of people under the bus in his testimony – including the Finance Minister who resigned yesterday citing some idiotic excuse of ‘differences’. And just when the investigations into this scandal were due to receive crucial evidence from the government, the man JT decided to suspend Parliament (today) till September 23. Technically, it is called a ‘Prorogation’ and it essentially hits the reset button on all Parliament proceedings – and terminates all investigations into himself for good.

GENIUS.

Needless to say, a lot of people are very upset about all this. And that is where my real interest lies – in how people reacted to this scandal. That is in the next post.

Bemoaning the Leadership Void at Chelsea FC

Back when I first became a football fan – and subsequently a Chelsea supporter – in the early 2000’s, I was spoilt with the presence of all the massive personalities in the club who constantly showed immense leadership on the field – especially when Chelsea needed it most. These are players who would constantly motivate other fellow players, never stop trying till the final whistle, never accept defeat, never give up, and never let others around them give up. They were also players who would sometimes win games just by the fear their daunting personalities instilled in the opposition.

drogba-terry-lampard

To me personally, Didier Drogba was the man who embodied all the qualities I love in a footballer – the technical ability, athleticism, ability to shepherd his fellow players when the going gets tough, and the ability to intimidate and bully the opponent defense into complete submission. Just ask Arsene Wenger and he will personally attest to all of that. And then you had the likes of Essien and Ballack who were completely in their element tackling, shoving, and generally bullying the opponents – especially in the mid-field. Do you remember anyone ever picking a fight with Essien or Ballack AND WINNING it?!!? And then you had the calm presence of Lampard and Terry – two guys who formed the core of the team and whom you could almost always count on. And then you still had Ashley Cole and Ivanovic – two players who displayed their own sense of leadership to the team and the opponents.

Regardless of what each player’s qualities were, the team almost always played with a “Fuck you, we will find a way to win this game!” kind of attitude. That confidence may have bordered on arrogance at times. But for the fans, that gave a sense of belief in the team that no matter what the scoreline was, there was always hope and that it was never over till the final whistle. (Cue 2012 Champions League campaign).

And that is what I miss the most now – and have missed for a good few years. Ever since the departures of Terry, Lampard, Drogba and company, there has been a massive massive leadership void within Chelsea that has not come anywhere near to being filled. There has been almost nobody who has taken over the role of the team motivator. Cesar Azpilecueta has done an acceptable job as the Captain but has inevitably been far below the standards set by John Terry and Frank Lampard. The club has definitely had its share of stars – Hazard, Fabregas, Costa – but I don’t recollect anyone stepping up to shepherd the players when the scoreline is not in their favor. But the personalities I miss the most are those who took up the role of the team bully. Chelsea has sorely missed someone on the pitch who instilled a sense of fear and intimidation in the opponents just by their mere presence. Perhaps a case can be made for Diego “I go to battle” Costa for the role of the team bully – but that was just a temporary stint.

So as much as I am super excited to see this generation of super young Chelsea players grow and play together for the next several years, I still do not know who will grow up to become the next leaders of the team – someone who will yell at their own teammates to not give up, someone who will set the team’s standards by their own work, someone who instills a sense of belief in the teammates that it is not over till its over, and someone who will intimidate and bully the opponents into self doubt and submission. My money is on Andreas Christenssen, Christian Pulisic, Reece James, and – get this – Billy Gilmour. I don’t expect to see any significant transformation in any of them for at least 2-4 years, but I do have a sense that this young crop of Chelsea players will eventually grow on to take up the mantle vacated by the likes of Drogba, Terry, Lampard, Essien, Ballack and others.

As a side note, I do have to acknowledge this lack of ‘leaders’ being an issue with most of the other top clubs in England. Nobody has taken up the roles vacated by Giggs, Scholes, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic (Man Utd); or Kompany, Yaya Toure (Man City); Henry, Bergkamp, Viera, Pires (Arsenal); or Gerrard, Carragher (Liverpool). I wonder who the ones would be stepping up in those clubs.

What is Common to the New York Times and WWE? A Lot, Apparently.

Note: For what it’s worth, I personally do not agree with anything in the Tom Cotton Op-ed. And, really, you can substitute the NYT with any other mainstream newspaper and this comparison would still work – sadly. 

In light of the Tom Cotton Op-ed fiasco at the New York Times, I realized that the inner workings of the NYT are very similar to that of the World Wrestling Entertainment. These are not just coincidences or a case of confirmation bias. These are scary and disturbing similarities. Here they are:

NYTWWE

They Consist of Partly True Things

The fundamental building blocks in both the businesses are real – well, kind of. In the WWE, these are the acts/moves between wrestlers during fights – some of which are real while some are not. The wrestlers do take a beating which legitimately affects their bodies, but many of the ‘moves’ we see are setup and practiced to minimize harm.

Similarly, the NYT prints stories and op-eds fundamentally based on facts. Though, while it is made to look like ALL THE facts presented are 100% true, they are not. Like the WWE, some of the facts are indeed correct, while the others are not. The ‘incorrect’ part is long and illustrious.  

The Outcomes are Fixed

In the WWE, the actual fighting maybe real in most parts, but the outcomes of the fights are fixed. The outcomes are part of a larger pre-determined story/narrative that is used to generate and maintain interest in its target audience – its fans.

The NYT is not very different. While the reporting is based on some selective facts, the headlines, ‘angles’ and ‘expert quote’ selections are all fixed. They are part of a larger pre-determined narrative that is used to cater to the publication’s target audience – its readers.

They need Superstars – Good and Bad:

The WWE constantly needs superstars to take their ratings to the next level. It works best when you have a strong positive superstar and a strong negative superstar going after each other (think The Rock vs Stone Cold, or Undertaker vs Mankind) over time. They are, of course, just made up characters who play the part, but the audience laps it up and the WWE soars in ratings.

Similarly, to get their circulation high, the NYT needs superstars – both good and bad. The NYT actively builds up a specific person or institution to be a ‘good’ superstar and then decides someone specific has to be the ‘bad’ superstar. The constant battle between the two makes for great ‘read meat throwing’ to its readers – especially when it is showing the ‘good’ guys to be winning a tough fight! But, again, like the WWE, these superstars are all made up with selective reporting. No points for figuring out who the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ superstars are in the NYT!

Guest Appearances

Every so often, the WWE invites outsiders, who its fans love in real life, for a guest appearance and to boost the ratings. But occasionally, they bring in someone who may not necessarily have a favorable image in the real world among the WWE fans. They don’t like them, boo them, and then you have a ‘good’ superstar ‘take down’ this ‘bad guy’ for all the fans to rejoice! (I am of course talking about Trump at Wrestlemania getting a Stone Cold Stunner! Make no mistake, I thoroughly enjoyed that one back in the day!).

Much like that, the NYT invites guests to write a column in their newspaper every so often. These are usually people who its readers love and want to see articulate a view that they already agree with, or just criticize the ‘bad’ superstar. But occasionally, they invite a ‘bad guy’ in real life to write a column that goes against the views of its readers and other employees. They get booed and then they bring in the cavalry to ‘take down’ this bad guy. (I am of course talking about Tom Cotton and his Op-ed piece, and the reaction to it – including all the Op-eds that criticized his Op-ed!).

The Montreal Screwjob

One of the biggest fall-outs from the Montreal Screwjob for WWE was how Bret Hart took his grievances and sense of injustice ‘outside’ the WWE – to talk shows and media interviews. This prompted even Vince McMahon and Shawn Michaels to respond to that. Remember, this was no longer the made up narratives – this was the real deal. But the sacred 4th wall was now broken, and the audience could see through the charade of the outcomes. The fear, of course, was that this would put the perception of legitimacy in WWE at stake.

Similarly, with the Tom Cotton episode, NYT has their own Montreal Screwjob. Their own employees who did not like the Op-ed took their grievances outside and told everyone who would listen. The reaction itself became a bigger story than the Op-ed. And the 4th wall was broken. People could now see through the charades and conflicts of the NYT’s fixed outcomes and began to question the legitimacy of the workings of the organization.

I am sure there are many more similarities you can find between the two. But I will stop with the similarities here, because I do want to highlight one very important difference between the New York Times and the World Wrestling Entertainment:

The WWE admits it is fixed. The NYT actively claims it is not. 

Rediscovering the Joy of Coffee

A few months ago, the wife and I purchased a Nespresso Vertuo coffee machine and a variety of coffee capsules to go with it. (Nespresso is a Nestle-owned company that creates and sells a variety of coffee and espresso ‘capsules’ and the coffee machines that extract the coffee/espresso from these capsules). We spent a good amount of money on that purchase too – something we later calculated would have covered 2-3 months of our Starbucks expenses.

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But within a couple of days of receiving our Nespresso machine, I had buyer’s remorse. Was this even necessary? Why did I get this when I was already happy with the awesome coffee beans my mom would ship to me from Bangalore? How much will this increase my ‘per cup’ cost at home? What else could I have used my money on? Will I even like any of these coffees? Did I really need all these different varieties of coffees when I was happy drinking just one kind?

I seriously considered returning the product but decided to give it a shot with an open mind. 2 weeks later, I had a very different outlook about it. The first and foremost was that these coffees tasted wonderful. I tried about a dozen different types of coffee and espresso, and without exception, their quality exceeded my expectations. It had been a long time since I had simply just enjoyed a coffee for its taste.

For someone who grew up on the best filter coffee Karnataka could offer, I found myself being delighted in the coffee coming out of a packaged capsule! I will freely admit I have always been a bit uptight in my opinion of coffee that is not of the ‘filter coffee’ variety (even leading to arguments with the wife who grew up in Ahmedabad with Nescafe as the idea of coffee. It’s a mortal sin, I know!). I have tried many different varieties of ‘regular’ coffee from the stores – everything from “Freeze-dried Taster’s Choice” to the “Serious Gourmet shit”! But I had never found as much raw delight with any of them as I did with these Nespresso capsules.

The other major value addition was the convenience. Instead of going through all the different steps of making filter coffee – or ever brewing the regular coffee – at home, now all I had to do was pop a capsule in the machine, press a button and the coffee is in the cup in less than a minute. The accompanying Aeroccino machine steams/froths milk (I use oat milk) in the same time. I add that to the coffee as needed and I have my morning concoction ready to go without much effort at all. This might sound like a legit first world problem (it probably is) but there is significant value addition in it for me.

The other value additions to me are the coffee and espresso varieties, and the ability to only brew one serving at a time. I have enjoyed exploring and making different recipes of coffee while not having to brew an entire pot every time. This latter aspect was of particular appeal to me as I didn’t have to worry about wasting a lot of coffee every time. I was also very impressed with Nespresso’s commitment to recycling their capsules. I ship them the used capsules in a pre-paid container where they recycle the capsule and compost the coffee – all free of cost.

Simply put, Nespresso has brought back the joy of drinking great coffee – how it tastes, how it makes me feel, and how it has become a positive part of my morning routine. Ultimately, I realized that while we are certainly paying a lot more for our morning cups of coffee, it is for a better experience that we are both enjoying significantly – excellent taste, convenience, and variety. I now look at it as an investment that is going to pay great dividends for a long time to come.

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PS: My personal favorites are Odacio, Aflorazio, Cookies and Caramel, Voltesso, Mexico & Scuro.

Which COVID-19 Curve Should We Flatten – New Cases, Total Cases, or Active Cases?

The most common talking point on the Covid-19 pandemic has been the idea of ‘flattening the curve’. It generally refers to the idea of taking measures to reduce the number of cases in any given geographical area over time. The ultimate objective is to ‘spread’ the infections (pardon the pun) over a period of time while simultaneously reducing the number of people who are getting infected. This is expected to have the desired effect of lessening the burden on the healthcare systems and to also reduce the overall number of people who would get infected over the lifetime of the pandemic.

ftc
Flatten The Curve – But What is on the Y-Axis?

We have all seen the standard ‘Bell Curve’ as an illustration of this idea. A steeper and higher bell curve (albeit over a shorter duration) is what is to be avoided  as this would indicate a large fraction of the population getting infected over a short time. Instead, the objective is to achieve a flatter and lower bell curve that lasts longer as this would mean a lower fraction of the people infected, but over a longer time. The X-axis (horizontal) in these charts is obviously Time. But where the discrepancies and confusion sets in, is what exactly is plotted on the Y-axis. To be specific, is it ‘Daily New Cases’, ‘Total Cumulative Cases’ or ‘Active Cases’? Is there anything that is correct and incorrect, or is it just a matter of interpreting data differently?

To be clear, it is completely acceptable to simply plot any of the three data sets on the Y-axis and show the resulting chart as a general attempt to provide information. But when one uses the phrase ‘flatten the curve’, the question then is which one should be plotted on the Y-axis?

SKorea chart
Daily New Cases vs Total Cumulative Cases

My personal preference is to plot Daily New Cases to get a proper picture of the scenario. I also believe this is what the original ‘flatten the curve’ referred to. The information in this chart and its interpretation is pretty straightforward. Over time, the number of Daily New Cases goes up, maxes out, then slowly decreases until it reaches zero – at which point the virus is eradicated. At a given point in time, the chart shows where a country stands in this overall trajectory. If it is going up, we know the rate of infections is increasing, and vice versa. If you want the total number of cases at any point in time, all you have to do is add the Daily New Cases for each day till that point – or as the basic definition of an INTEGRAL goes, you simply calculate the area under the curve. So the use of the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ and all its implications (as outlined earlier in this post) perfectly correlate with the Daily New Cases on the Y-axis.

Now how about the Total Cumulative Cases?  By Total Cumulative Cases, I simply mean the total number of infections from the time the first case was reported. Very importantly, it DOES NOT take into account the number of recoveries or the number of deaths. So what this means is that the curve of the TOTAL Cumulative Cases, by definition, only increases till the time there are no new cases at all – at which point, it becomes a horizontal line with the final Y-axis value equal to the TOTAL number of people who were infected at one time or the other. (See above chart)

So is it correct to use the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ while referring to this chart? The short answer is NO, this is incorrect. Firstly, this curve will never ever go down. After an initial increase in steepness (slope increases), it will simply become lesser and lesser steep over time (slope decreases) until it becomes horizontal (slope of zero). But this will never ever go down (slope never becomes negative). So it is completely incorrect to use the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ while plotting the Total Cumulative Cases on the Y-axis. Yes you can still technically state that the curve as such is ‘flattening’ but that would only imply a reduction in the slope of the curve but with a lower bound of zero.

SKorea chart2

And finally, we come to Active cases. I have not actually come across any article which shows a chart with Active Cases plotted on the Y-axis to illustrate the phrase ‘flattening the curve’. But this is actually a legitimate chart that can illustrate the idea of flattening the curve in a different manner. By Active cases, I am counting the total number of people at any given point in time who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and WHO ARE STILL DEEMED TO CARRY THE VIRUS. So this is essentially the Total Cumulative Cases reduced by the number of people who have ‘recovered’ and number of people who have died. At any point, the number of Active Cases will always lie BETWEEN the Total Cumulative Cases and the Daily New Cases.

It will never reach as high as the Total Cumulative Cases and it will always stay above the Daily New Cases. It will reach its peak before the Total Cumulative Cases curve becomes horizontal, but definitely AFTER the peak of the Daily New Cases. (By the way, the peak here refers to the point the number of daily recoveries and deaths exceed the number of daily new cases). It will ultimately go to zero long after the Daily New Cases has gone to Zero. So in a way, this Active Cases curve also shows the same properties of the Daily New Cases curve. It can also track the rate at which patients are recovering and/or dying. As a result, all the implications and messaging from the usage of the phrase ‘flattening the curve’ correctly applies to the Active Cases curve as well.

To summarize, it is completely acceptable to use any of the three data sets to plot over time to provide general information. But the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ should only be used when plotting either Daily New Cases or Active Cases. It should NEVER EVER be used when showing a chart that plots Total Cumulative Cases over time. If you find anyone doing so, please feel free to point it out.