Sunday, November 29, 2015

Climate Change talks, weighted averages and moral highground

It is that time of the cycle again. Where world leaders sit around, pontificate and negotiate how best to share the burden of cutting carbon emissions. It is that time where Tom, Dick and Harry from the media showcase fabulous moral outrage at how little world leaders have committed to, and how the human race is going to destroy itself by 20xx. The air is going to be thicker with the scent of sanctimony than an agraharam from the 1950's.

Competitive green grandstanding aside - we need to focus on two key questions. How grave is the problem? And what is the most just way of sharing the burden?

Science is now certain that the earth is warming, and weaseallably certain the humans are driving this temperature increase. There is no clear-cut prediction about how much warming will happen by when and how much it will affect the world. But let us accept that the problem is grave enough already. (Personally, I am uncomfortable with accepting mathematical models and so want to retain a speck of scepticism. But this is largely due to the fact that I worked in an industry where I created mathematical models to reflect my views)

Now, let us move to the second part of the problem. One of sharing the burden. The debate is outlined as follows. The stage is set as a face off between the Old Pollutants  - North America, Europe, Japan (OPs) vs. Aspiring New Pollutants (ANPs) - India, China.

The Old Pollutants' argument goes thus - We are facing a humongous task ahead of us. We need to share the burden. We do not have the luxury of 'allowing' you xx years of unbridled pollution and then think about increasing your share in cutting emissions. Just because you are new to the game, you cannot be given some time window.

The aspiring new pollutants argument goes thus - You guys had a go, you guys are rich. You take the lead in cleaning the place. We are just beginning to see the kind of growth you saw 30 years ago. Having an energy burden placed on us is unfair.

The Old Pollutants want Countries to commit to cutting their overall emission levels from current levels. The aspiring new pollutants want a time window before they make explicit commitments.

The Old pollutants have been very savvy in framing the debate and have taken any discussion of per-capita carbon emission off the table. Due to the relative bargaining power they wield, they have been able to force the ANPs to negotiate on overall limits. They have claimed "moral highground" by leading the charge on initiating action on climate change. This article from Willem Buiter showcases this line of thinking really well.

The Professor titles the piece - "Does poverty give a country the right to pollute the atmosphere?" straight-away climbing on to the moral high horse and refusing to come down. He goes on to say that Countries such as India suffer from post-Colonial hangover, argue that it is their turn to pollute, cite poverty as a reason when they still have military expenditure and are essentially shrugging off their moral obligation to fight climate change. If I were not inclined to give the benefit of doubt to the good professor, I would call the piece racist.

These arguments are spurious in the extreme. The ANPs are not claiming that it is their turn to pollute. The west seems to have the view that the top 'n' polluting Countries should pull together and lead the way. So, 1.2 billion strong India has a role, but no Country from the Middle East features on these lists. Technically, using this starting point, if India were to splinter and break itself into 30 Countries, we can use as much coal as we would want to, and then some. Utter balderash.

Per-capita numbers are out of whack in the extreme, but why spoil a good story with facts
By any yardstick, per-capita consumption is the apt parameter to compare emissions levels to be just. India can be asked to take the lead and begin chipping in even when it reaches, say, 75% of the per-capita levels seen in Western Europe. Right now, India hovers at around one-sixth of the per-capita levels seen in Western Europe, around 6-7% of the per-capita levels seen in the US, and less than one-third of the per-capita seen by fellow ANP China. Why India is even at this meeting and thinking of commitments baffles me.

The argument from India should simple. We will attend this meeting when our per-capita numbers are 50% of that of the developed world. 300 million Indians are below poverty line. To us, this seems a bigger, and more immediate problem than fretting about potential global impacts of warming a few decades down the line.

Accepting any form of carbon emissions control, any time in the future will be cruel to Indians. particularly the poorest Indians. We cannot afford to increase the cost of energy at this crucial juncture. The idea of limiting overall emissions is fatally flawed.

It's the weighted averages, stupid.
Let us see how the underlying numbers behave with a thought experiment. Let us say, we divide the Indian population into 5 different groups, A to E in order of their carbon footprint. 'A' being the group with the highest footprint and E being the group of people flirting with the poverty line. And let us say, the percentage of population belonging to each category and their respective emission levels are as follows (in some random units). Needless to say, the category A will have carbon emissions substantially higher than the rest. India being India, around half the population will have very low carbon emissions.

Now, let us say that Indians follow a regimen where each individual looks to cut emission Individuals in A, B and C should manage this. The emission number for E is probably just their share from common utilities such as Railways, Roadways etc. So, this probably creeps up a smidgeon. Conservatively, let us say group D stays flat. So, we have a table that probably looks like the one given below in 2020.

Now, due to natural progression seen in a developing Country, there will be some shifts from lower category to higher category. Even for India's level of governance and management, he percentage of people really poor should fall in 5 years. So, proportion of E should fall, and we should see a general bumping up across the board. The 2020 table probably looks like the one shown below.

Now, comes the funny part. The average emission levels of three out of 5 has fallen, one has been flat, and the least significant contributor has gone up a smidgeon.The fall has been steep in categories A, B and C. We are talking off a 10% cut in emission levels across multiple sections for a Country with a chronic power shortage. So, one might expect that the overall emission levels would be lower.

However, the overall average emission in 2015 is 15.9 while the one in 2020 is 17.2, about 9% higher. So, under aggressive assumptions about cut in emissions in each category, we still see an increase in overall emission levels. This is the case even under the assumption of modest shifts in weightages across categories. This is probably what will happen in India over the next 10 years or so. So, if we assume that folks riding bicycles would want to upgrade to motor bikes, and the ones with motor bikes will want to upgrade to cars, then even if we are careful across the board in each category, the overall emission level will probably increase. (And we have not even factored in population increases)

Any commitment India makes, or hints at potentially making in another 5 years time will be suicidal. The western world's moral high ground is utter tosh. India sells ten times as many bikes as cars each year. Ten times! In the west, they use motorbikes only if they want to make a statement. Motorbike transport is considered so blatantly risky that no self-respecting westerner will use it as a regular vehicle to commute. In India, the ones travelling by motorbikes are the luckier, wealthier lot.

The audacity with which these climate change negotiations have been outlined by the developed nations is spectacular. The irony of the developed world leading this need for lowering emissions is completely lost on most participants. The most benign nation and carbon-friendly western Country cannot begin to understand the first ideas of a "scarcity economy".

Scarcity Economy: Hands up if you have you heard of Compression Xerox
I worked in a bank in London where it was fashionable (for a while) to do photocopies back-to-back. This way we could all kid ourselves about doing something for the environment. I graduated from one of the better colleges in the Country where the education was heavily subsidized. On an average, students studying there were wealthier than 90% of their compatriots. This does not mean they were rich, it is just another number to say how poor vast parts of the Country were/are. Quite a few students used to study with compression xerox copies of their classmates' notes. This way, on an A4 page you could go back to back and squeeze 4 sides on to this.

This does unseemly things to the eyes, but budgetary constraints demanded this kind of cost-cutting. And I graduated in the 21st century, so I am not narrating some independence-era sob story here. At a cost of around 40 paise (that is less than 1 cent)  per side of photocopying, Indians in the 90th percentile or above as far as wealth was concerned found the need to reduce this cost by 60%without really evaluating the health cost associated with it (On top of this, we used to share these photocopies. But lets ignore that for the time being). The annual cost of photocopying the normal way would have amounted to $10 per student. We were screwing over our own eyes by attempting to slash this by another 60% or so.

Type in Indian middle class mentality, and you will see gazillion articles on top 10 habits followed by Indians in a bid to cut corners. Squeezing the life out of a toothpaste tube, adding water to 'draw' the last droplets of shampoo, 'merging' two bars of soap are all part of the normal upbringing for Indian kids. Shekar Kapoor has actually written a very interesting article on how this mentality might be holding us back. As an entrepreneur, the one thing that keeps me up at night is the worry about whether I am not thinking big enough.

On more real world metrics, a majority of Indian states face regular chronic power shortages, a decent proportion of our villages still do not have electricity. Actually, make that an indecent number of Indian villages still do not have electricity.

A scarcity economy whose individuals have been frightfully economically conscious historically, whose citizens on a per-capita basis pollute less than 10% of the guys on the other side of the table is being asked to reduce overall emissions when 20% of its population is still below poverty line. This would be satire gold if it were not so tragic.

And India still has the gall to attend global climate change conferences. And the world still has the gall to demand that India chip in at an overall level to combat climate change. On top of all this, the developed world wants to pretend as if all this is done as a moral obligation to save the world. What about the moral obligation to improve the life of the poorest billion in the world? What about the morality of imposing extraordinary cost on the current generation of really poor people, in a bid to potentially improve the lives of the next-to-next generation of reasonably well off people?

Moral high ground is just a facade, this is old-fashioned bullying. Either that, or the greens have hijacked this debate so much that no one cares about the poor of NOW, half as much as they worry about 'generations to come'.

I want to get on top of some mountain and say "Saving the world is a bloody first world problem. All you holier-than-thous can take your global warming agendas and shove them where the Sun dont shine. Spend 3 weeks in a poor village in Bihar, see their energy 'consumption' level, remove your effing blinkers off and dont every effing talk to India about Green agenda again."

Unfortunately, the pseudo-greens in my own Country have taken to talking about climate change and environmental protection. Caring about the environment and getting suckered into a commitment on climate change are two entirely different things. The Narmada bachao Andolan and efforts taken to protect Indian forests are Indian initiatives to protect the environment. These deserve a giant share of our time and energy. Climate change is a global problem. To put it bluntly, we have no business on that table. If the rest of the world is inviting us, shame on them. If we land there and pretend that is our problem also, shame on us.

Even India's so-called right wing has been suckered into this. Apparently, our venerable PM Shree Shree Narendra Modiji has mentioned Climate Change as a possible reason for the unusual rains in Chennai. How immensely it can strengthen our negotiating position I can only imagine.

Indian liberals have always preferred grandstanding to hard bargaining
The Indian left has been talking about India adopting Green measures and reducing emissions voluntarily. The left claims to represent the poorest people in the Country, and claims that any harm to the environment disproportionately affects them. This is true, if we considered local environmental damage. But on a global level, the opposite applies.

Again let us look at a hypothetical scenario. Transitioning from Bharat Stage II to Bharat Stage IV (or some such tripe) increases the cost of a truck by perhaps Rs. 1 lakh. It takes the monthly EMI up by perhaps Rs. 2000. This means the average trucker (a giant 200000 strong unorgainized segment) probably needs to spend an extra 2 days on the road every month to bring in the same amount. Somewhere, there is a Freakonomics level research piece waiting to be written on the correlation between AIDS and BS transition. A trucker who might have had 5 days free per month now gets 3 days free thanks to contributing to the environment. Ergo, increased AIDS.

Before the Green brigade jumps on to me on just putting random hypotheses out there, I am not saying there is a correlation here, I am not implying that there would be. I am not saying that we should not care about the environment. I am just saying that any deal India signs on climate change is going to affect the poorest Indians adversely. Something all liberals - Indian and Global, refuse to acknowledge. And that is the biggest travesty in this whole effing fiasco. Their fetish to pretend to do the morally correct thing blinds them to some basic realities.

The well-sold story has made us all lose sense of key priorities
The doomsday predictions from Climate Change impact that might be seen a few decades from tug at heartstrings. But the solutions being discussed are all going to make the current, visible real lives of extremely poor people noticeably worse. Somehow this perversion has gone unnoticed by the world. I am not making a case for not caring about the environment. I want to make a case for fighting malaria and diabetes. These are disproportionately bigger problems for India. Climate Change is a problem either for the first world or for tiny island states. Just like how Greece was a first world problem.

Recently, when attacks happened in Paris and Lebanon, the entire world's attention was on Paris, with Lebanon barely a footnote. Many found it perverse that one set of lives was considered noticeably more important than another. The Climate Change hoopla is far worse. Loss of quality in the future lives of people is considered a bigger crime than the poor quality of present lives of some others. The bigger irony is that the presently poor people/nations are being made to think like that.

Imagine a poor lamb merrily laughing its way to the slaughterhouse thinking how great it would be to feed the people who 'need' the proteins. India participating in Climate Change talks is similar to that. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Conservative and Proud

The fabulous humanitarian gesture  on immigration from Germany has been heart-warming. Although domestic pressures have made Germany revisit this, the original gesture and scenes in German railway stations were wonderful to see. Angela Merkel's gesture has given the liberal media another tool to berate conservatives, and subtly shame them on the issue of immigration. This is wrong. The concerns raised by the conservatives are very real.

The simplified counter to the idea of mass-immigration would be this - Today's immigration could lead to tomorrow's segregation, to the day after's fundamentalism. The addendum would read - Immigrants live on welfare for a long time and are a net drag on fiscal resources.

But safety and welfare are but one small component of a list of concerns about immigration. It is an oversimplification to bring down immigration to only two issues - security or welfare. A Country could get in safe immigrants who are going to be net contributors to the state and the citizens might still be not comfortable with it. I can be instinctively against enforced multiculturalism without being a moron.

As a conservative, I am peeved at this subculture that looks at any opposition to multiculturalism as bigotry. It is unfortunate that the conservative concern is not articulated and discussed well enough credibly. On one hand, we have the conservative movement hijcked by extremists; on the other we have liberals who are hell bent on belittling conservative ideology.

If I have a second cousin who I know very little about who happens to visit my town, I am ok to grab a coffee with him post work. But even if I am not worried he is a thief I am not happy to have him park at my house for 2 weeks.

Before you get the idea that I oppose all humanitarian gestures and would rather see refugees die, let me clarify that I also think that the response from Germany has been immense and it has made me an even bigger fan of the Germans than I was (and I was a pretty big fan even before this). The way German society has reacted to the refugee crisis has been phenomenal. In the cynical world that we live it, it is very heart-warming to see so many people so willing to take in refugees and help them so much. If I were German, I would be insanely proud of this response from my Country.

As unequivocal as I would be in Germany's praise on this issue, it is important to note that it is not a crime to be wary of immigrants. Similar to slut-shaming, and fat-shaming, this German response has led to a wave of conservative-shaming that has been going on. David Cameron's response has been shameful, Italy has not done enough, the Hungarian Prime minister is bigoted, etc have been found on the web. Anyone who says he/she is worried about the scale of this immigration is painted as the second coming of Satan, or worse still Islamophobic.

Conservatives in Europe have been worried about immigration and multiculturalism for a while now. This is why UKIP got so many votes, this is why Marie Le Pen is gaining momentum. Conservatives in America have been so worried about immigration that they have made a candidate out of Donald Trump. They have been pilloried either for lacking empathy or for whining because they lost out. Although a border-less world with stunted nationalistic impulses would be fabulous for peace initiatives, it is as Utopian as a Marxist world where everyone worked for collective good. All this moralizing is creating fertile ground for a nationalistic backlash that is going to be fun to watch.

Immigration comes with a cost. It is very vital to debate and discuss this with key inputs from people who bear the cost. The left as ever is so eager to capture moral high-ground that there is a steadfast refusal to face facts. The gentlemen who shape immigration policies have probably never lost a job to an immigrant. Perhaps there is some value in listening to what the Hungary PM has got to say

The pace of immigration cannot be imposed by an elite that has nothing to lose from this. On both European integration and immigration from outside EU, the population has grown wary. It is irrational to ask the population to suspend all nationalistic feeling and substitute this either with a trans-national love-in (EU) or with a moral high ground.

The endless moralizing from the liberal media is frightfully annoying on this front. Worldwide, the left has fallen into the trap of believing that occupying moral high ground is in and of itself a solution to many problems. Liberals have a tendency to believe that they can push public opinion toward what it 'ought' to be by tweaking policy. Liberals' fetish for the morally correct humanitarian and environment-friendly gestures is often a load of sanctimonious tosh.

The refugee crisis in the middle East has no easy solution. A small young Syrian boy being washed up on the shore is gut-wrenching; it is so soul-crushing that you want to desperately do something about it. But this desire to do something does not entitle one to belittle anyone voicing caution. With all the moral high ground and pro-poor policies they have, left wingers should be ruling everywhere. Democracy is designed for the guy who speaks for the poor and helpless. The game is stacked so in favour of leftists. But they really struggle electorally because they cannot get over this instinct of being holier-than-thou.

My conservatism is not bigotry. I am not parochial and uncaring merely because I am anti-immigration. I can be anti-immigration, peace-loving, humanitarian and fiercely patriotic at the same time. This is an idea that liberals do not get. In their world, anyone saying - "Hey, we gotta be careful about how many we let into our Country?" is a bigot.  

I am a conservative/nationalist on a few other issues as well. As far as India is concerned, I am not a fan of trade with Pakistan, a pipeline running from the middle East through Afghanistan and Pakistan, or even on cricketing relations with Pakistan. I love the cricket team of our dear neighbours; I would be thrilled to see Amir bowl to Indian batsmen. But in some instances when Countries do not see eye to eye, I am of the view that we should not pretend to be friends. As individuals we try to avoid dealing with people who we do not get along with. As Countries, we should accept the fact that there is a huge trust-deficit and not hanker after foreign policy wins that just do not exist.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Occupational hazards

"a risk accepted as a consequence of a particular occupation" - this is how occupational hazard is defined somewhere in the web. The term evokes pictures of construction workers without helmets, or miners inhaling toxic fumes. My theory is that a lot of professions toy with your mind in ways that create mental structures that can be termed as occupational hazards as well. I have jotted down a few based on my experiences, and from observing people around me. 

May be some psychologist twiddling his thumbs through a doctoral thesis can capture this much better. There you go, this is an example of entrepreneurs' occupational hazard of believing he is a better "ideas guy" than others. 

Doctors: Low on pain empathy. You see 100 patients with different levels of distress, I guess your ability to feel for someone's back ache becomes low after a while.

Investment Bankers: The obvious one is the belief that reality is just an extension of what happens with excel sheets. The more subtle one is the belief that they are fulfilling god's duty by making sure money reaches the right places/people. They also suffer from I-am-totally-worth-it-is - an affliction that makes you search for reasons that justify your own high pay. Where one who said "I dont know why I get paid so much for this" in his first year, can somehow no longer say that in his eighth year of banking, even though work is only 0.4x of what it was in first year, but pay is 5x of what it was. I-Bankers also start inhabiting their own world where big ideas matter more than small piece of execution. I cannot even have conversations with some of my friends who have been I-bankers for a while (too long for their own good). They worry about the impact of Cyprus's potential implosion on the world economy, via contagion through the EU tentacles. I begin thinking "How cool would it be if a fruit were also called Cyprus?"  

Entrepreneurs: These guys suffer from many of these. The most prominent being their appreciation of risk appetite rather than output. "Jo bhi ho, daring to kiya na" is the phrase one of the 'taporis' uses in Rangeela to describe a poor soul that has professed love to the beautiful girl in the mohalla. Entrepreneurs are wont to think like this. Call it justification for their own decision, or a kindred spirit feeling towards anyone trying to do something alone, Entrepreneurs have this balls-before-everything-else bias. 

So, they have an unhealthy contempt towards people employed in professions where they do not have to stick their neck out - consultants spring to mind. To entrepreneurs their world view of this group is very similar to the famous quote on critics - "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem: they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves." Entrepreneurs will often (too often for their own good) discount good advice from well-meaning people because these well-meaning people lack the one quality that entrepreneurs claim is mandatory - sticking one's neck out.

Teachers: Moralititis Teachers, doctors, nurses, priests, researchers and a bunch of low-paying but useful professions have this belief that what their industry economics takes away can be offset by the joy/pride/sheer usefulness to society their job provides. So, this manifests in many ways - 1. Preachitis: Affects people in Godly professions more. They are blessed with sanctimony and view the world as something they can change by their mere presence. 2. Communistitis: Everything rich people do is wrong. Anyone who is rich would have gamed the system. I am glad I am not rich. 3. Justification-itis: People in these professions somehow find the need to say that money is not that important in life. 

Telecallers probably suffer from low self-esteem: You call 100 people a day. 90 of them dismiss you with disdain. These are what you would call your good calls. 9 of the remaining 10 scream at you for calling them. You con the 100th one into buying something worthless. Being taken seriously one in 100 times must be soul-sapping

Social workers suffer from holier-than-thou-itis; Real estate agents suffer from ethicsisnonsenseitis; CAs have knowitallitis. Politicians suffer from delusions of grandeur. TV personalities suffer from delusions of adequacy. 

If you know of any other prominent hazards, please chip in.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

This is not exactly Schadenfreude, but is something similar

Recently, I saw an article about a bombing that led to 20 or so deaths and struggled to suppress a mild feeling of glee. I am afraid that there have been occasions like these in the past as well. Now, before you brand me as a sociopath, let me explain myself a little better.

The recent bombing was the one in Saudi Arabia that killed 20-odd people. Saudi had been insulated from this now-global phenomenon called 'terror', in spite of having played a role in spreading it for many decades now. Although the idea of people losing their lives is sad, there is a part of me that goes "You guys had it coming"

The idea of terror is kinda opposite to the idea of health, The old adage on health goes "We appreciate good health only when we lose it". Perhaps the one on terror should read "You appreciate terror only when you face it."

For many years, we in India have whined about the role played by our neighbour in festering terror within our borders, only to have the Americans say all the right things but not really take this seriously. Once 9/11 happened, apparently the American president called Pakistan and pretty much said "You are with us, or you are against us". The language does change when the terror strikes home. London had also been merrily insulated from acts of terrorism for a long time (barring IRA). Facing a terror attack at 'home', changes the way nations view these things.

Even if the old equations do not change overnight, at least the basis of discussion changes. More importantly, the focus and priorities change. US started worrying about attacks within their boundaries. And they were thirsting for vengeance in a way that was the polar opposite of how they had preached restraint to India on multiple occasions. They were so concerned about Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 that Pakistan had to necessarily put India on the backburner for the next 8-10 years.

In Saudi's case, things are not going to change dramatically. We are not going to witness Saudi renouncing Wahabbism. These kind of things mean too much to these people for them to completely suspend them. But with a war against Yemen, falling Oil Price, an emboldened Iran and terror attacks at home, Saudi might just not have the bandwidth to fund schools in far-flung places. And that has got to be a good thing.

A lot of the terror worldwide has been funded one way or other by 'petrodollars' with the world inventing newer and newer ways of looking the other way. May be a few terror attacks at home can rein in Saudi funding of terror in a way American diplomacy has not achieved in 2 decades.

The Kingdom has had a good run for more than 50 years now. Perhaps, some of the chickens are coming home to roost. 

Meta - What does this mean?

The Hindu has this movie reviewer by the name Bharadwaj Rangan, who along with the venerable Nirmal Shekar kind of embody what the Hindu is all about. Serious writing from people who take their jobs seriously, with the one fallout being that often they take themselves too seriously and end up reminding us of Clevinger (go on, look that up. An article about writers from the Hindu where I do not show off that I read a lot. Now that would just not be fitting, would it?)

Recently, Mr Rangan has been on a Meta-binge. Now I am not implying he has binge-ing on himself, but that he has been using the term Meta for every single movie review. May be he has a wager on or something. Mr. Rangan has called the following movies meta - Jigarthanda, Kallapadam, Utamma Villain, Kathai Thiraikadhai, Enakkul Oruvan.  About Enakkul Oruvan, he says

But in Enakkul Oruvan , which is about the blurring lines between Vicky and Vignesh, this portrayal results in some interesting (if inadvertent) meta-commentary. 

As much as the film is about Vicky and Vignesh, it also functions as a chronicle of Siddharth’s attempts to be seen as the actor who’s more than just the Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi guy, the Rang De Basanti guy. Make-believe spills into reality in more ways than one.

The movie is said to be meta because it is interpreted as a narrative on Siddharth's acting career by Siddarth. You could not make this up. It is a reasonable assumption that Siddarth or the movie director did not think along these lines. These are the times when one wishes that the writers at the Hindu felt a little less pressure to revel in the beauty of their own insights. 

Any and all self-references are not meta. Otherwise, every Rajnikant  movie would be Meta.

Anyway, this made me think about all the Meta related terms that we could coin. Have a go at these, let us see how much you can score

Let us start with a simple example - 
While having a cone icecream, your tongue accidentally touches your finger. Therefore you get a ___ taste. 
Answer - Metallic

Scroll down for answers

1. Labeling every digital footprint with your own name in the hope of being scrolled
2. Some dramatic change in the path to self-discovery
3. Using onself as a figure of speech to draw an analogy 
4. To grow as an individual by looking inwards
5. What do we call the process of speaking to oneself in Hindi throughout? 
6. If self-loathing reaches a point where one hits oneself, this would be?
7. What branch of engg does start to hate one self

1. Meta-tagging, 2. Metamorphosis 3. Metaphor 4. Metastasize 5. Meta-bol-ism 6. Meta-physical and 7. Met- allergy (although I cannot think of any branch of Engineering where one wouldn't hate oneself)

Jokes apart, I would rather have writers who take their jobs seriously, than those who dont. This is why I still subscribe to the Hindu. I just hope that the people at the Hindu read this quote from Thomas P O'Neill - "Take your job seriously, but dont take yourself seriously." 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Fun Number Facts

Most of the times I have blogged whenever something has bugged me. I have railed against -  Internet service providers, bankers (here, here and here), statisticians, entire Countries (Greece and India) ,  analysts, global warming, chartered accountants, Tambrahms  etc.

Just to balance things out a little bit, I am going to write about a few things that have amused me. I am going to focus on mathematical ideas that I have seen recently which have held my attention. Apparently, the Pythaogoren brotherhood used to go around behaving like a "cult", looking for mathematical patterns everywhere.  I am going to list a set of popular references and interesting math bits here.

Ramanujan Number: Many might have heard about this. This is the number 1729. It is special because this is the smallest natural number that can be split as sum of two cubes in two different ways. 1729 = 12^3 + 1^3 and 10^3 + 9^3. It must take a particularly brilliant mind to stumble upon this. Now, what is the smallest number that can be broken as the sum of two squares in two different ways? What is the smallest number that can be broken as the sum of two squares in two different ways if the squares have to be distinct?

Armstrong Number: A 3-digit Armstrong number is a number that is the sum of the cubes of its digits. 153 is an Armtrong number. 1^3 + 5^3 + 3^3 = 153. There are a few more. Life is short. It will never feel complete if you do not know all the Armstrong numbers. Give it a go.

Perfect Numbers:, A perfect number is one that is equal to the sum of its factors (except itself of course). The talk on perfect numbers takes us on to numbers that are semiperfect, deficient, abundant or amicable. Some which are abundant but not semiperfect are called weird, as one can clearly see.

My favourite in this whole lot are the "almost perfect" numbers. They, um, remind me of myself. And yeah, if you did not know before, number geeks are extremely fond of powers of two.  

The best number in the world is 73. This is from Big Bang Theory by the way. 73 in binary is a palindrome. 73 is the 21st prime, which by itself is not such a big deal, but if you reverse 73, it gives us 37 which is the 12th prime.The digits of 73, 7 * 3 gives us 21, which is why being the 21st prime is such a neat deal.  

There is only one natural number in the world, whose successor is a cube and predecessor is a square. Finding this number is not that tough. Proving it is fiendishly tough (Apparently. How would I know?). Fermat apparently mentioned about this number in some letter that he wrote.

There is only one 4-digit perfect square that is of the form 'aabb' where a and b are digits from 0 to 9.

Some other interesting nuggets - there is only one set of three consecutive odd integers all prime (Find these). We can find a set of 6 integers in AP all of which are less than 1000 and are prime (Find these as well, this is tougher). 16 is the only natural number that can be represented as x^y and y^x, where x, y are distinct. Who woulda thunk?

An irrational number raised to an irrational power can be rational (unlike probably a lot that I have mentioned in this post). Try proving that.

Every natural number in the world has a multiple that comprises all the digits appearing at least once each.

Did you know that two triangles can have 3 angles equal and 2 sides equal and still be not-congruent to each other? A quadrilateral can have a pair of sides equal and a pair of sides parallel and still not be a parallelogram. I think it is easier to be this quadrilateral than to be those two triangles.

Do you know that we put our kids through 15 years of school education without them discovering most of these facts? Let me stop right there. I can sense a rant against the Education system coming through the system. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

India's daughter - liberals miss the mark, conservatives continue to be blinkered

The recent banning of the documentary by Leslee Udwin has provided an excellent opportunity for India's chattering classes to get their K's into a T. Having run out of the usual banal routine within 2-3 days, the newscycle pressure has forced the gentlefolk of the media to up the ante to really wildly fantastically irrational territory.

Sample this from the liberal bastion, the Hindu. This is a classic

Some years ago, a friend confided in me that in a fit of rage her husband had shouted that he wished she would be gang raped because she deserved it. Then he paused and said, “No, I think I want something worse than that to happen to you. I want you to die.”
I watched India’s Daughter before the government banned it. As I listened to the rapist explain how he and the others thought about women, I realised there was little difference between them and this husband. But that’s where the similarity ended. He was an upper caste male, an IIT aristocrat living in Silicon Valley, studying at a top business school. The only other difference was that he never acted on his thoughts.
Our lady author friend is gagging with feminist rage and so she extrapolates extravagantly. The sentence "The only other difference was that he never acted on this thoughts" is so brilliant that I hurt myself when I fell from the chair laughing. It is a shame that no one in the editing team from the venerable Hindu told the author "But dear, that seems a pretty big difference to me". 
One one hand, a piqued husband probably says something in anger, on the other hand lies the most heinous crime India has seen (or at least heard of) in the 21st century. This kind of shabby equivalence argument is why Indian intellectual liberalism has not had a credible voice since Nehru.
Somewhere, the liberals have sought to draw a broad enough canvas so as to draw a link between a most gruesome crime and various shades of patriarchy that are present in our Country. This impulse from India's liberal media to simplify everything along pre-existing faultlines is ridiculous. A conversation on rape becomes about Patriarchy-is-the-root-cause vs. blame-the-victim schools of thought. That the rabid conservatives cannot go beyond the "India-is-great" koolaid is a given. That is no excuse for liberals to automatically occupy the diametrically opposite position. 
I am neither liberal nor conservative and if there is one thing that I want to scream out in this whole episode, it is this. I am saddened extremely that this crime against humanity has been perpetrated. I am shaken to the core that there exist people in this world who could commit crimes that are this gruesome. I am scared for women in our cities and our villages. This much is true. I must also say that I am not even a little bit ashamed . Sad, yes. Shamed, no. That my compatriot has committed this crime has not filled my whole being with shame. I feel as much connect with him as a present-day American would with the guy who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. 
I concede that a feudal patriarchal upbringing has played a role in the way we view women. I also accept that I am posit somewhere on this patriarchal hierarchy (I would argue that I aint that bad, my wife believes I am more chauvinist than I would like to believe. Thats a debate for another day. Either way, I sit somewhere on this line). But no matter where I sit on that line, I refuse to be co-opted into this collective "I feel shamed by this" - this feeling that the liberals want me to feel and the conservatives are supposedly rebelling against. That the convict and I share the same nationality has no bearing. 
I even feel shamed by the Country's response, have a sense of helplessness about the state of our security, but I feel no shame in relation to the fact that an "Indian" committed the crime. 
All this talk of shame neatly brings us to the response from India's conservatives. This has been ridiculous. I could not even begin to wind my head around the ban. The policy response has been broadly "Throw a lot of mud. Some will probably stick". The primary issue has been with the producer's nationality. We still have this holier-than-thou attitude, which when mixed with colonial hangover results in "So, how are you any better?" as the built-in response to any issue.
On this front, the statistics on rape per 1000 people that has been doing the rounds has been very helpful to the conservative cause. The stats are wrong. They are absurdly, ridiculously, unspinnably wrong. The stats are all about "reported rapes" and these are miles apart from actual rape, especially for India. In the west they have come a long way on women's safety. Their rape cases are more a case of "pushing the boundaries" and date-rape. I would be shocked if any Indian woman who had lived in Delhi and New York claimed to feel safer in Delhi over NY. And we need to keep in mind that this is a very favourable sample point for India. If we had to compare, say, rural Bihar to Texas things might be far worse. 
Apparently more than two-thirds of rapes are committed by someone who the victim knows. About 0.1% of these will get reported in India. We must be wearing extraordinary truth-protection blinkers to believe that women are safer in India than they are in the west. I am appalled that so many of my friends shared links that showed these statistics. I would not accuse India's conservative media of Intellectual dishonesty (they can at best be called merely dishonest), but many who shared these links should have known better.
In the US, they are talking about the merits of a "No means no" vs. "Yes means Yes" legal framework. 80% of Indian women would not know where to go to complain if they were sexually assaulted, and this is from the educated class. If you are poor, illiterate and a woman, then God save you. One needs to watch only 2-3 episodes of "Savdhan India" to get a sense of the level to which poor in our Country are not guaranteed any of the freedoms that the middle-class is. 
I am bitterly disappointed that so many of my friends shared the statistics. I am ashamed that not one of them came and said these stats seem absurd. Far more ashamed of this than of being a compatriot of the guy committed the crime. 
We need to really stop this right-wing nonsense about how the west is out to malign us. Everything is not a conspiracy. If we did not view everything from the viewpoint of "Does this show my Country in bad light?", it would be that little bit better. We cannot look for any solutions if we continue to be in denial. 
There are many things to be proud of in India. Protection given to women, especially poorer and vulnerable women is not one of them. The sooner we come to accept that, the sooner we can try to improve our lot. 
Last time I re-posted an article on how women should take safety precautions, a group of my friends came down on me like a ton of bricks (Their peeve was that I was somehow blaming-the-victim). I am troubled by the fact even they have not called out this conservative statistic fudging.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Why three-fourth is not always 75%?

One of my pet peeves is the fact that numerical ideas often (too often) get misused in a bid to convey the wrong impression. It is done by those who should know better and very often by those who indeed know better. Recently, Butttowood had a decent article on this. The financial sector is the biggest culprit. Especially, in the willfully misleading category.

When I was in my previous avatar as a flunky in a global investment advisory, the Economist at the firm in charge of global asset allocation released a report key insight was "Semiconductors lead the rest of technology in the recovery cycle in 75% of the recessions" (or some such tripe). Now, this godforsaken sector was one I was in charge of and therefore had to read more on.

Turns out our Global Guru had looked at the last 4 major global recessions over the last 80 years and found that in 3 out of those 4 semis semiconductor stocks bounced sharper and sooner than the rest of tech.

This is tripe. When you are doing empirical research and are looking at 4 cycles, you have no business describing anything in percentage terms. I stopped reading anything else published by the "Guru". But who am I to say anything? He was the top ranked Economist in the investment industry, and I was the guy who wasn't good enough to get fired when I desperately wanted to.

In the Indian context, Outlook published a cover story saying total scam amount in India Rs. 1.75 lakhs crores or some such. They detailed many scams in this one -

The list roughly goes like this
900 crores - Fodder scam
600 crores - Taj Corridor scam
23 crores - Railway placements scam
3 crores - Perhaps accepted in bribe by the first cousin once removed of some central Govt employee
etc etc.

The last scam number listed was

Total black money stashed abroad = 1.72 lakh crores (estimated).

So, this ginormous number that forms more than 95% of the amount put in the cover page is plucked out of the hat. So, why the $#*k should you go into details in the other scams?

There is this beautiful idea of significant digits in the art of measurement. I never really understood this while at school. Any measurement, be it with Vernier Callipers or Screw guage comes with a built-in error factor. (Least Count?). So, whenever you gave any measurement the number of significant digits must be determined keeping this in mind.

So, if the built-in error is 1 cm. We cannot give a measurement that says 223.5 cms (even if take 10 measurements and average this out). We can at best say 223 cms or 224 cms. The 223.5 suggests that we have confidence over that 0.5, which we can technically not have. Simple idea really. It is like saying if your measurement has some built-in error, do not convey more accuracy than there is. So, if you measure some length 18 times with Vernier Callipers and the average comes out to be 32.222cms. You should bite the bullet and say roughly 32cms. Conveying confidence beyond what the numbers tell you is a crime (or at least should be considered one). Finance and sports are the two fields where this gets done the most.

You might have seen something along these lines frequently

1. The best stock returns are seen from Thursday to Monday.
2. Left-arm bowlers have seen the most success in ODIs conducted since the 1990s.
3. Ricky Ponting really struggles against India as he has an average that is 6 runs than his overall average

Why are these absurd?
If you analysed stock returns over three-day window, some three window would have the best returns. This does not mean that that three-day window has something special going for it. This means something else. Something very special. Something that every statistician worth his salt must have the courage to say on 90% of the times he attempts some statistical analysis. This means nothing.

Ditto the other two inferences.

The idea of statistical significance
So, are all statistical inferences absurd? Of course not. This is where the term statistical significance comes into the picture. If the observation is statistically significant, the flag must be raised. And only then must the flag be raised. So, how do we wind our heads around statistical significance. Statisticians have fancy terms for this. But let us see if we can have an intuitive approach around this. Let us have a go at this with an example.

Let us say we want to test whether Ricky Ponting underperformance against a particular team, say, India is statistically significant. Let us further say his average against India is less than his overall average by about 15% (this looks significant).

Now, let us not take his average against his nemesis, India and keep it as a benchmark metric. Now, let us revisit the original sample and extract a sub-sample from this randomly. If the benchmark metric is lower than that observed in the sub-sample, say, 90% of the time, then let us say that the underperformance is statistically significant.

Let us build on this with numbers. Let us say, Ricky Ponting has scores of {1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10} in 10 innings. Further let us say, he has played 2 matches each against 5 teams. His overall average is 5.5. Now, let us say he has an average against India that is more than 15% less than his overall average. Or, an average of 4.5 or lesser. Is this statistically significant?

If we extract two scores that have to average 4.5 or lesser, we can have {1, 2}, {1, 3} {1, 4}, {1, 5}, {1, 6}, {1, 7}, {1, 8}, {2, 3}, {2, 4}, {2, 5}, {2, 6}{2, 7}, {3, 4}, {3, 5}, {3, 6}, {4, 5} - 16 possibilities. Totally, there are 45 possibilities. So, there is a nearly 40% chance that some random sample of 2 out of this 10 will have an average that is 15% lesser than the original. So, this 15% below average number means nothing. It is not statistically significant.

In reality, a great many quoted inferences derived from numbers are not statistically significant. If you are handed any statistical inference on a platter, you have hajaar grounds to suspect it is false. And we have not even come to the idea of bias. There are many ways in which we can bias a sample, Some biases creep in, while some others are introduced. Let me give a few examples.

The 2015 world cup stats counter states rather gleefully that the Indian batting unit has one of the highest strike rates in power plays. Now, we need to remember that this is largely because of 70% of India's cricket is played on subcontinental wickets, where the par score is 330-ish. England might play 50% of its matches on English wickets, where the par score might be 260-ish. So, unless the powerplay strike rates are at least 30% apart, we have no business making any inferences. These are the biases that the samples naturally carry.

There are some other biases that data-presenters can bring in. The most beautiful and one that most fudge-statisticians introduce with an unbearable holier-than-thou approach is the selection bias. Let me deal with this with an example.

Let us say, there are two stocks Alpha and Beta that, as an analyst I want to suggest are correlated heavily. I will draw the stock charts for Alpha and Beta and compute correlation numbers. But here is where I will be smart. I will choose the end date to be today's date and the start date to be any date from 2010 to 2013. I will find the correlation numbers for all 1000 or so possibilities and pick the date from which the correlation is the highest. If it is a Friday afternoon and I want to be really intellectually dishonest before my weekend, I will 'float' my end date also.

For any two stocks, if you have large enough database, about 40 minutes of time on your hands, and a moral compass pointing towards "bonus" there is a 50% chance of finding one set of dates where the correlation is more than 90%. You can even wear your best "Why are you looking at me like that. This is what the numbers are telling us". If you want to be thorough, you should find some pseudo-intellectual justification for having picked the date range that you did indeed pick. In case you are wondering how I know this scam with this much clarity, you should look for Business Objects Cognos 91% correlation on some research database. (In my defence, I am not proud of this).

A good statistician is one who can look at a lot of data and tell us why they do not mean much; and then pick up one nugget that actually means something. The statistician who cannot say "this means nothing" should be kicked out of his job. Lot of stats that we see online and on Television are the ones that should be binned. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

How to invent a new religion

Let us say we want to start a new religion. Why, you ask? It is a wonderful Friday morning; thats it.

Now, we are going to about it very scientifically. We are going to pick up the best practices that our predecessors followed, adapt them to the 21st century and then improvise from there.

We need a God. We have seen the ones without God, and they seem to struggle to grow beyond "weird cult". God cannot be a person, we have seen how that fails. He/She cannot be overly mythological as we are dealing with a 21st century audience. God has to be something omipresent but benign, something no one will have an issue with. Sparkling in its simplicity, wonderfully powerful with loads of uncontestable goodness.

We need some Godly material, some testament/veda kind of thing that gives messages from God. The usual guff about not killing anyone, not harming anyone will have to be improved upon a little, now that we have grand legal systems. The material guide must be cloyingly good-natured. So, in case some hyper-rational dudes get all wound up that the backstories do not fit, we can then say "We are saying do not kill your brother. You wouldnt want to disagree with that, would you?"

The material needs to have credibility and must come from some kind of powerful body. Again, as we are dealing with the 21st century, so something packaged as Science might be useful. Also, this must be refurbished every now and then. This is where I think the major religions lost out a bit and had to resort to "reform" and stuff. Let us be very Kaizen about this and institute continuous improvement as part of the original package.

We need a messenger for God. No one really reads the original stuff, so this messenger person must be phenomenal. People must go -  "If he says so, it must be true". The person must have credibility, must have made his money and earned his name in another field and must have wide reach. This is the place that gives room for a tweak. We can look at a model where there is more than one messenger. With scandal and temptation everywhere, and a feral media presence, we cannot take chances with just the one messenger. In my mind, we should look from within the ranks of Hollywood icons, wildly successful entrepreneurs. retired politicians.

We need guilt. This one is obvious. Whats the point of inventing an elaborate religion if we cannot control the masses with some kind of check-back mechanism. Whats the fun in that?  And where there is guilt, there must be repentance/penance.

We need a conversion mechanism. Without this, again we run the risk of numbers not being on our side. We should not take on the existing religions head-on. They tend to get all violent and prickly if we do that. We should slowly co-opt people from within the biggies. At first, they would worship both sets of gods; slowly we would acquire more mindspace, and within a century we should leave no trace of the original Gods. This is what happened to the Pagans. We should target one vulnerable "new Pagan" at a time and slowly create momentum around the conversion idea.

We need to have a modern version of "burning people at the stake". There needs to be some degree of fear. If not fear of death, at least fear of ostracism, (or fear of lack of funding).

We need congregations. Massive gatherings of people where we reaffirm our faith, have a good time and return to our original destinations with good cheer and more stuff to preach.

We should not be geographically constrained. We should have devotees everywhere, without any region feeling aggrieved or under-represented. (This is where our distributed-leadership, local icon model could be better). The moment we have devotees across nations, we can transcend nationalism and push agendas better.

This is the core framework. Because we get to start from scratch, we can try some new stunts also. May be we can pick up a flag, or specify attire; something that screams identity.

Now, if only we had thought of all this 20 years earlier. Someone has beaten us to this. There is already a religion that has been creeping into our existence over the past two decades. It started as a mere cult, but has now reached preposterous levels. Within years, it will be bigger than the big religions. From there on, it will be a small step to banish the existing religions.

God - Nature. If you want to get all polytheistic about it, add Environment, Earth, Water, Resource etc to it. In an interesting irony, these guys have gone all reverse-pagan on the existing religions.

Material: Stuff published by IPCC. No one really reads this. It is periodically updated, is suitably internationally-themed, has Scientific titles adorning its every orifice. Almost all its original fantastical claims have been re-jigged. Now, anyone who contests this is termed a "denier". Any time they come out with a report, everyone from the Economist to the Times of India must carry an update. Ticks all boxes really.

Messenger(s): They started with Al Gore, then they realized that retired or otherwise, politicians have only so much credibility, so went on a recruitment drive. Now, the largest icon is a Celebrity Economist, Paul Krugman. These days, Krugman does not start any article without berating the "deiners" for questioning climate change. If you have noticed, many of the articles will start with "if there was any doubt, that has been removed now". If doubt has been removed now, how credible were you when you said there was no doubt, way back in 2010? is a question you dare not ask.

Guilt: Man is the root cause of all environmental damage, repeat after me for I am IPCC (Imagine this as a rap). The beauty of the material is the fact that even if he/she does not understand any of the climate-model guff (No one does, by the way), some two bit nincompoop can still tell you "I do not understand why you keep talking about scientific evidence. I cannot imagine you want to destroy all forests and do not want to care about the environment."

For real-world purposes, you can now buy carbon offsets. People eat junk food all the time, lay their body to waste with all kinds of things, but are asked to feel bad if they travel in a car.

Penance: Voluntary carbon offsets. People track their carbon footprint, and then offset their "excess" carbon. Need I say more. I am not making this up

Burning at the stake: Scientists who contest anything said about his can lose funding. Republican senators will be called stupid, you or I would be called a "denier".This letter is brilliant. This piece of research is illuminating, wonderfully challenging some taboos. But I guess the people who wrote these are now without tenure.

Pan-national symbol: Green. This is brilliant. No one has adopted a color this favourably before. the other "red" buggers seem benign in comparison. Even climate-agnostics such as 2IIM offer a Green account for the products they sell.

Congregations: Davos, here I come. Of course, if I do make the trip, I must remember to voluntarily offset my carbon footprint.

We still do not know where the green brigade stand on iconoclasm, whether they will fight crusades, or create backtories to fill out the mythology. But make no mistake, this is a religion alright. Across national boundaries, never have a group of people been so singularly driven by a single ideology.

I must state that this article has nothing to do with my stand on climate change. I might be a denier or an aspiring high priest. So, kindly do not brand me as one or the other based on just this article.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Hired Guns can be fired too!

Guns hired for a specific task can and will be fired once task is fulfilled. If a 20-year old hired gun does not know this, it is a pity. If a 60-year old hired gun does not know this, the joke is on the hired gun.

My sympathies are with party-workers, but there is a part of me that goes "You had this coming."