Social Capital and Caste

Conventional wisdom is that social capitalin India is low because of our historical caste system. By placing people in a rigid hierarchy, and giving some people privileges over others just because of the families they were born into, the caste system prevented people from cooperating as well as they would in a more equitable society – that is what conventional wisdom says.

However, a point that we cannot miss is that despite the caste system placing a hierarchy on people, people from different castes did regularly cooperate and trade with each other. In fact, with caste being tied to hereditary professions, people had little choice but to regularly interact and trade with people from other castes. And this inevitably created social capital.

Putting it differently, the result of the caste system was an unequal but stable society, and this stability led to reasonably good social capital (history might be biased given it was written by people from certain castes, but we don’t see many instances of caste riots or clashes from over 200 years ago). You can think of it as a stable society with “handicaps”, where some people were privileged over others (in fact, there was a hierarchy of privilege), to the extent that it was okay for some people to abuse others in various ways.

Over the last 150 years or so, the caste system has been (rightly) challenged, and we are seeing various movements towards a more equal society. One side effect of this has been that the (unequal) equilibrium that had existed has been disturbed, leading to caste-based antagonism and a fall in social capital.

We are in the process of moving from one (unequal) equilibrium to another (more equal) equilibrium, but until we get there, existing beliefs and biases will continue to be challenged, which means some sets of people will continue to be suspicious of others, and there will be mistrust and thus low social capital.

Originally posted at Pragati Express

Why Indian Classical Music is Superior to Western Classical Music

I’ve been half-watching this atrocious movie called “Thank You“. Rather, the wife has been watching and I’ve been eavesdropping once in a while. Apart from the odd lame joke, it’s a horrible movie, so I wouldn’t recommend you to watch it.

But there’s one scene in that that illustrates that Indian Classical Music is superior to Western Classical Music. So the plot of the movie is that there are three stupid guys who are trying to find a conman who has been messing with them. Despite mostly obvious clues, they fail to identify him.

Until this day when they are all in his office, and one of them finds some sheet music and starts playing the notes on a conveniently located keyboard. This piece of music is something associated with the conman through the movie, and the three stupid guys immediately figure the identity of the conman.

So what does this have to do with Western Classical music? One of the key differences between Indian and Western Classical music is that in the former the performers mug up the notes of the songs – at least the parts where they don’t have to improvise. Once you know a song, you can dispense with the book. It is almost unknown for professionals to look at notes while performing.

Western Classical, on the other hand, spares performers of using up valuable memory space in their heads from remembering music, and has performers read the music from a sheet as they play it. While this has its advantages – notes are never “forgotten”, and all performers are easily in sync, and valuable memory space in the brain is not wasted – there are disadvantages as well.

Like if you have a signature tune, and if you play it often, you are likely to leave the sheet music of the tune lying around in a convenient location – which can then be found by your pursuers who can then identify you. If Akshay Kumar’s signature tune in the movie was Indian classical, he is unlikely to have had sheet music lying around in his office, and thus not got caught!

Now, if this is the way that stupid guys identify a conman, you can imagine how bad the rest of the movie might be. As if it wasn’t absurd enough, they’ve even tried to shoehorn some senti-max social messaging into the movie, making it utterly bizarre.

And once again I must point out that I didn’t really watch the movie – I just occasionally  eavesdropped as the wife watched it!

Denying people their jokes

When I was in Bangalore earlier this year, I was talking to a “US returned” friend about moving back to India, and he mentioned that one of the reasons he moved back is that he didn’t find very good “culture fit” in the US. “The thing that got to me”, he said, “was that I couldn’t even connect with their jokes”.

Living in the UK, that is not that much of a problem for us, since British humour is pretty good, but this anecdote illustrates how important jokes can be for people.

Regular readers of this blog might know that I get damn irritated by the new-found culture of political correctness. While it is not my intention to hurt anybody or their feelings, I feel that political correctness is being overdone nowadays, and that severely restricts what you can say. And that is a problem for people like me who like to say things without thinking.

Reading the odd news report from the US – about the Trump campaign, for example – it’s clear that I’m not alone in having a problem with this newfound political correctness (oh – I can now expect people to attack me for having views similar to Trump’s voters). In some ways the left-right battle in the US can be described as a battle of political correctness, where the “left” likes to be all correct, and expects that everyone else is also always politically correct and not offensive, while the “right” wants to say things as they are.

Anyway, putting together my friend’s anecdote about not getting American jokes, and the culture of political correctness, I can think of one other, possibly major, reason why people are pissed off about the culture of political correctness – it denies people their jokes.

Most popular jokes – may not be the best ones, mind you, but ones that have high memetic fitness – are cracked at the expense of an “other”. This “other” can sometimes be another person – even a public figure, but at other times, it defines a particular community (though not necessarily a certain community). And the joke consists of laughing at this particular other community (broadly speaking).

So you have short people jokes, and black jokes, and Jewish jokes, and Pakistani jokes, and Muslim jokes, and so on. And then you have sexist jokes.

Now put this in the context of political correctness – most jokes that most people have grown up on are now taboo, because they are offensive to one or the other community, and it is not polite to make fun of these communities. So a whole truckload of jokes that people are grown up on can now not be cracked in polite company. And as even the Soviet Union discovered, that can be oppressive.

I recently read this book called Hammer and Tickle – a History of Communism through Communist Jokes (you can find an extract here). This sub-heading accompanying the extract summarises the Soviet attitude towards jokes:

Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy. The standard interpretation is that communist jokes were a form of resistance. But they were also a safety valve for the regimes and jokes were told by the rulers as well as the ruled—even Stalin told some good ones

Now if only the “modern Soviets” were to get this!

Why I don’t like standup comedy

The other day, the wife was watching some standup comedy on Netflix when I walked by, and she asked me to stop and watch for a couple of minutes. Apparently the joke was funny.  Maybe it was, but those two minutes also taught me why I don’t like the genre. It’s the low “bit rate”.

Recently I read this book called The Design of Everyday Things. Among other things, it talked about why most people prefer reading to listening – because reading is much faster. We read at approximately 300 words per minute, while we can listen to a maximum of 50 words per minute. So minute-for-minute, you get a lot more information (in terms of words) from reading.

Which is why podcasts are hard to listen to unless you’re combining them with another activity, such as driving or commuting or exercising. If you’re only listening to a podcast and doing nothing else, you’ll get bored. Because the rate of information flow is low. In that sense, a good podcast offers much more than words – there will be information embedded in the voices, tones, any accompanying music, etc. so that more information can be transmitted to compensate for the low bit rate.

The same thing applies to video as well – the rate of flow of words is much lower than text, but the visuals more than compensate for it. In fact, good movies and shows (in my view) are those that overwhelm your senses with a high rate of flow of information that they keep you engrossed and occupied, and deliver “high information”.

So coming to standup comedy – the reason I don’t like it is because of its low bit rate. Most standup comics speak at a rate slower than Atal Behari Vajpayee, possibly because they want (canned) laughter during each of their pauses. So standup usually goes at well under 50 words per minute.

And there is nothing to compensate for this low bit rate. Visuals are flat – just a person standing on a stage and talking. There is very little action. In the samples that I’ve sampled, the jokes are nice but nothing extraordinary. And there is no information content – it’s just jokes for the sake of it. Finally, you are expecting to be told jokes all the time, and so there is no surprise in the timing of jokes.

So if it were up to me (I’m no standup comic, so it would be never up to me), how would I change it to make it more interesting? The first thing would be to convey additional information through the visual. The low verbal bit rate seems to be endemic to the genre, so that might be hard to change. So adding further information through better visuals can help.

Props might be a good first addition (from my experience with NED Talks, lecture demonstrations were very very well received). Better sets, maybe. Maybe some music (Shekhar Suman already had this with the “rubber band” on Movers and Shakers all those years ago). Anyway, I’m least qualified to comment on this except as a non-customer!

There’s one thing I’ve never understood about standup comics, though – why do they never use collar mikes?

The popularity of nicknames and political correctness

It is a rite of passage in an institution such as IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) that a first year student be given a potentially embarrassing nickname following “interaction” with senior students. The profundity of these nicknames varies significantly, with some people simply being given names that correspond to body parts in different languages, which others have more involved names.

Based on a conversation yesterday, the hypothesis is that more profound nicknames which are embarrassing only in a particular context are more likely to propagate, and thus stick, while the more crass names are likely to die out more easily.

The logic is simple – the crass names (a few examples being “lund”, “condom” and “dildo” – there is at least one person with each of these names in every hostel of every batch at IIT Madras) are potentially embarrassing for an “outsider” to use, and to be used in public. So when the bearer of such a name graduates and moves on to a new setting, the new people he encounters make a prudent choice to not use the embarrassing word, and the nickname dies a quick death.

When the nickname is embarrassing or derogatory for more contextual reasons, though, the name quickly loses its context and becomes incredibly simple for people to use. Take my own name “Wimpy”, for example – not too many people know it has an embarrassing origin, and it is a perfectly respectable word to shout out in public, or even in an office setting. And so it has propagated – in at least two offices I worked in, everyone called me “Wimpy”.

It is similar for lots of other “benign” names. But it is unlikely that a name like “condom” or “dildo” will propagate, and it is in fact more likely that even the people who bestowed such names upon the unsuspecting will stop using them once everyone graduates and moves on to a more formal environment.

There are exceptions, of course, a notable one being “Baada“. It is a cuss-word representing a body part, except that it is in a non-standard (though not small by any means) language, but everyone I know calls Baada Baada. He used to be my colleague, and people at work also called him Baada. It is unlikely that his nickname would’ve propagated, though, had it been the synonym in English or Hindi.

Thanks to Katpadi Katsa for discussions leading up to this post. In a future post, I’ll talk about models for propagation of nicknames across institutions.



Scott Alexander, Bryan Caplan and Nitin Pai on fighting crime (feat. Matt Levine)

The basic idea is that coming down hard on a small number of high-profile crimes can have disproportionate effects in terms of curbing crime

It all started with the pseudonymous blogger Scott Alexander, in what seemed like a justification of outrage. Or maybe it started earlier – with a post by Bryan Caplan deploring outrage. Caplan was commenting about the propensity of people to jump on to bandwagons deploring seemingly minor crimes while not caring enough about worse crimes that were not in the public spotlight already. Caplan had then written:

I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the greater evil, but not the lesser evil. But I can’t understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the lesser evil, but care little about the greater evil. Or why they would have strong negative feelings about one evil, but yawn in the face of a comparable evil.

Now, while “Alexander”‘s response seems to justify outrage (and I’m no fan of online outrage), he did so with an interesting analogy, on how to curb crime when the police has limited resources. He writes:

[…] the police chief publicly commits that from now on, he’s going to prioritize solving muggings over solving burglaries, even if the burglaries are equally bad or worse. He’ll put an absurd amount of effort into solving even the smallest mugging; this is the hill he’s going to die on.

Suppose you’re a mugger, deciding whether or not to commit the first new mugging in town. If you’re the first guy to violate the no-mugging taboo, every police officer in town is going to be on your case; you’re nearly certain to get caught. You give up and do honest work. Every other mugger in town faces the same choice and makes the same decision. In theory a well-coordinated group of muggers could all start mugging on the same day and break the system, but muggers aren’t really that well-coordinated.

The police chief’s public commitment solves mugging without devoting a single officer’s time to the problem, allowing all officers to concentrate on burglaries. A worst-crime-first enforcement regime has 60 crimes per day and solves 10; a mugging-first regime has 30 crimes per day and solves 10.

And then it is again Caplan’s turn to respond. I’m bad at detecting satire, so I’m not sure if he is being serious (I don’t think he is). But he proposes a “sure fire way to end all crime”:

Step 1: Credibly announce that all levels of government will mercilessly prosecute the firstcrime committed in the nation each day.

Step 2: There is no Step 2.

But then, I’m sure that Nitin Pai is being serious in proposing a similar method to curb the spate of violent crime in India based on WhatsApp forwards. In his piece for the Quint, he writes:

the Home Ministry ought to use its considerable powers to tackle the problem. It’s not hard either. One well-advertised arrest, prosecution and sentencing will deter the cowards that comprise lynch mobs. Three high profile arrests and prosecutions – and see how quickly lynchings stop. The smallest police station in the remotest village can stop lynchings if the local sub-inspector has received clear political messages against it.

Finally, the reason why I figured Caplan’s “solution” is satire is because of this passage from Matt Levine’s excellent Money Stuff newsletter (likely it’s behind a Bloomberg paywall, but it’s free if you subscribe by email). Commenting about high frequency trading, Levine writes:

But the answer in actual U.S. market structure is, come on, there is no such thing as “the same time.” Do you know how many nanoseconds there are every single second? (A billion.) The odds that each of us would hit the “Buy” button at the exact same nanosecond are infinitesimal. So if I put in my order to buy the stock at 10:45:06.543210876 a.m., and you put in yours at 10:45:06.543210987 a.m., then I got there first and I win.

Is this a good answer? It has a simple appeal. It just gets rid of the question “who gets the stock if we put our orders in at the same time?” It replaces an economic question about how to allocate the stock with an empirical question of who got there first.

So the problem with fighting the first crime of the day, or year, or whatever, is that a criminal will know fully well, given a reasonably high enough crime rate, that the probability of his crime being recorded as the first in the year or day or whatever is less than one. And the higher the crime rate, the lower the probability that his crime will be recognised as the first one. And so there is a high chance he can get away with it.

And that is where Nitin’s idea scores. Rather than going after the “first crime”, pick a few crimes arbitrarily and “go after them like hell”. Since in this case most of the people who are forwarding dangerous forwards are “ordinary people”, this will likely shake them up, and we’ll see less of these dangerous forwards.

Cross posted from Pragati Express

Why AI will always be biased

Out on Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok has an excellent post on why “sexism and racism will never diminish“, even when people on the whole become less sexist and racist. The basic idea is that there is always a frontier – even when we all become less sexist or racist, there will be people who will  be more sexist or racist than the others and they will get called out as extremists.

To quote a paper that Tabarrok has quoted (I would’ve used a double block-quote for this if WordPress allowed it):

…When blue dots became rare, purple dots began to look blue; when threatening faces became rare, neutral faces began to appear threatening; and when unethical research proposals became rare, ambiguous research proposals began to seem unethical. This happened even when the change in the prevalence of instances was abrupt, even when participants were explicitly told that the prevalence of instances would change, and even when participants were instructed and paid to ignore these changes.

Elsewhere, Kaiser Fung has a nice post on some of his learnings from a recent conference on Artificial Intelligence that he attended. The entire post is good, and I’ll probably comment on it in detail in my next newsletter, but there is one part that reminded me of Tabarrok’s post – on bias in AI.

Quoting Fung (no, this is not a two-level quote. it’s from his blog post):

Another moment of the day is when one speaker turned to the conference organizer and said “It’s become obvious that we need to have a bias seminar. Have a single day focused on talking about bias in AI.” That was his reaction to yet another question from the audience about “how to eliminate bias from AI”.

As a statistician, I was curious to hear of the earnest belief that bias can be eliminated from AI. Food for thought: let’s say an algorithm is found to use race as a predictor and therefore it is racially biased. On discovering this bias, you remove the race data from the equation. But if you look at the differential impact on racial groups, it will still exhibit bias. That’s because most useful variables – like income, education, occupation, religion, what you do, who you know – are correlated with race.

This is exactly like what Tabarrok mentioned about humans being extremist in whatever way. You take out the most obvious biases, and the next level of biases will stand out. And so on ad infinatum.