The “war” on terror

In light of the terrorist attack in London this morning, when 29 people were hospitalised following an explosion in a peak hour District Line train on a massively crowded route, I nearly re-wrote this old blogpost of mine. I even thought of the very same examples before I figured I should once check.

Recently, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared “victory over Islamic State“, and announced that the organisation had been defeated. In this statement, Al-Abadi conveyed his ignorance of the kind of conflict his government was involved in, for Islamic State is not a “normal country” and the so-called “war” the Iraq and others are fighting it is not a war – since it will never end the way normal wars do.

As I’d mentioned in the other post on wars, wars end in a political decision – a surrender, usually. Sometimes, it takes extreme measures to induce surrender, as it happened with Japan in World War 2. At other times, a slight advantage to one side might lead the other to concede, and strike a treaty. Either ways, in a conventional war, few sides are likely to fight on until last man standing.

The so-called “war on terror” (especially aimed at the Islamic State) is not a war for several reasons. Firstly, Islamic State is not a conventional organisation – it has transcended that to become a concept, to unite radical Islamists worldwide. Irrespective of how many layers of the top management of the Islamic State are eliminated (either by killing or by incarceration), the remainder of the organisation will regroup and continue to thrive. And the organisation continues to grow – with ordinary members constantly seeking to enroll new members.

This feature of the Islamic State not being a conventional organisation also means that there is no central leadership that has the power to concede defeat and declare the war to an end. Even if a nominal leader of the organisation were to take such a decision, the fact that the organisation is an extremist on might imply that this decision might be decried as “selling out” by the more extreme factions of the organisation, who will fight on.

Then, the Islamic State is a distributed organisation – even in terms of geography. The use of the internet for recruitment has meant that they have operatives in most countries, and after some initial training, these operatives operate independently. So even if a nominal “top management” of the organisation were to be eliminated, these independent operatives will continue to thrive. And they need to be taken down – to the last man.

In that sense, the “war” against Islamic State is hardly a war. There is no political objective since the Islamic State lacks a political leadership capable of taking decisions. The organisation is rather distributed and even killing the “main organisation” will not eliminate the branches (reminds me of this demon in Hindu myth who had the property that each drop of his blood that would touch the ground would result in a clone of the demon).

The fight is going to be a long one, and we’ll need measures both conventional and unconventional to defeat the organisation. Declaring victory, like the Iraqi PM did, can only prove counterproductive.

On cultural appropriation

Over the last few months, I’ve come across this concept of “cultural appropriation” several times. I don’t claim to get it completely, but I think I understand it enough to comment about it.

Going by Wikipedia, cultural appropriation

is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture

The list of celebrities who’ve been accused of cultural appropriation runs way too long to list here, but it’s basically a popular topic of outrage among the modern left, commonly described by their detractors as “social justice warriors” (SJW).

In any case, my attention to the topic was drawn by a recent essay on the topic by philosopher Kenan Malik. In “In defence of cultural appropriation“, first published in the New York Times, Malik writes:

But who does the policing? Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Such gatekeepers protect not the marginalized but the powerful. Racism itself is a form of gatekeeping, a means of denying racialized groups equal rights, access and opportunities.

In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. They appropriate for themselves the authority to license certain forms of cultural engagement, and in doing so, entrench their power.

In fact, reading the rather long essay, it was hard for me to disagree with him. In fact, it started to make me wonder why cultural appropriation is a matter of debate at all – controversial enough that at least three editors who defended it have lost their jobs (per Malik). In fact, Malik himself was victim of significant online abuse and trolling following his article.

So thinking about this topic during a work break the other day, I found compelling evidence about why the concept is bullshit – basically, it’s one-sided.

The whole concept of “cultural appropriation” hinges on there being a “superior community” and a “marginalised community”, with members of the former not allowed to adopt practices of the latter. This is a one-way street – if you turn the argument around and say that a person from a traditionally “marginalised community” should not adopt cultural practices of a “superior community”, you’re essentially being racist or casteist or whatever.

Consider this, for example – “Dalits should not recite the Vedas because by doing so, they are appropriating the culture of caste Hindus“.  It is unlikely that any self-respecting SJW would condone this statement. But turn the communities around, and the outrage on cultural appropriation become legit!

This makes the entire concept problematic, since it rests on a prior of certain communities being “marginalised”. In other words, it rests on a prior of a partial ordering of “communities”, with some considered more advanced than the other. Take away any such ordering or hierarchy, and the concept of cultural appropriation falls flat.

To me, the outrage about cultural appropriation smacks of a sort of “white man’s burden” among SJWs in an attempt to seemingly protect seemingly marginalised communities. All this achieves, as Kenan Malik mentions in his essay, is to empower the self-appointed leaders of these marginalised communities.

Opinion polls and betting

So for a change the opinion polls seem to have got it right. I’m talking about the just-concluded elections in the UK here, which has returned a hung parliament. The Tories have fallen just sort of a majority (in Kannada we’d call it “AJM“). It’ll be interesting to see how a government will be formed now.

Now, the thing is that the opinion polls got it right. While the Tories had started off with a big lead at the time the elections were announced, opinion polls over time showed that the race was getting a lot tighter. I’d piggybacked on the opinion polls to conduct my own analysis which got published in Mint.

Having shown off that I’d made the prediction correctly, let me get to my hypothesis of why the opinion polls got it right. Opinion polls in the UK have a greater chance of being right because because betting is legal here.

I was walking around Central London yesterday when I saw this poster outside a betting shop.

Because betting is legal in the UK, betting houses take bets on just about anything, including the results of elections. The way betting works is that the betting houses make markets. They present odds for each side of the deal (in this case, let’s say Tory win, Labour win and hung parliament), and whenever a punter walks into the shop and places a bet, it’s the house that’s taking the opposite side of the bet.

What this implies is that the house better get the odds right, otherwise the difference in their odds and the actual results can wipe out the shop. And how does the betting house know where to set the odds? For something like an election, they rely on the opinion polls.

If the opinion polls get it wrong, the betting houses can end up losing a lot of money (like they evidently did last year during the Brexit vote which most pollsters got horribly wrong). So there is a legal entity which has real skin in the game in opinion polls being right.

I’m not sure of the ownership of the opinion polling companies here in the UK, but I won’t be surprised if they make plenty of money by selling their results to betting shops (at a more granular level than what they make public). And given the intense competition among pollsters here in the UK (at least 15 different agencies conducted opinion polls ahead of yesterday’s elections), there is a real incentive for a pollster to get it right – get it wrong and the betting houses might take their business elsewhere.

In case betting wasn’t legal (such as in India), polling agencies wouldn’t be able to legally sell their results to betting houses and punters, and their markets would be limited to media houses. Media houses don’t have that much of a skin in the game in the polls – their profits don’t depend on getting polls right as much as the profits of betting houses. And pollsters would have less incentive to get the polls right.

Now, howzzat?


When I missed my moment in the sun

Going through an old piece I’d written for Mint, while conducting research for something I’m planning to write, I realise that I’d come rather close to staking claim as a great election forecaster. As it happened, I just didn’t have the balls to stick my neck out (yes, mixed metaphors and all that) and so I missed the chance to be a hero.

I was writing a piece on election forecasting, and the art of converting vote shares into seat shares, which is tricky business in a first past the post system such as India. I was trying to explain how the number of “corners of contests” can have an impact on what seat share a particular vote share can translate to, and I wrote about Uttar Pradesh.

Quoting from my article:

An opinion poll conducted by CNN-IBN and CSDS whose results were published last week predicted that in Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party is likely to get 38% of the vote. The survey reported that this will translate to about 41-49 seats for the BJP. What does our model above say?

If you look at the graph for the four-cornered contest closely (figure 4), you will notice that 38% vote share literally falls off the chart. Only once before has a party secured over 30% of the vote in a four-cornered contest (Congress in relatively tiny Haryana in 2004, with 42%) and on that occasion went on to get 90% of the seats (nine out of 10).

Given that this number (38%) falls outside the range we have noticed historically for a four-cornered contest, it makes it unpredictable. What we can say, however, is that if a party can manage to get 38% of the votes in a four-cornered state such as Uttar Pradesh, it will go on to win a lot of seats.

As it turned out, the BJP did win nearly 90% of all seats in the state (71 out of 80 to be precise), stumping most election forecasters. As you can see, I had it all right there, except that I didn’t put it in that many words – I chickened out by saying “a lot of seats”. And so I’m still known as “the guy who writes on election data for Mint” rather than “that great election forecaster”.

Then again, you don’t want to be too visible with the predictions you make, and India’s second largest business newspaper is definitely not an “obscure place”. As I’d written a long time back regarding financial forecasts,

…take your outrageous prediction and outrageous reasons and publish a paper. It should ideally be in a mid-table journal – the top journals will never accept anything this outrageous, and you won’t want too much footage for it also.

In all probability your prediction won’t come true. Remember – it was outrageous. No harm with that. Just burn that journal in your safe (I mean take it out of the safe before you burn it). There is a small chance of your prediction coming true. In all likelihood it wont, but just in case it does, pull that journal out of that safe and call in your journalist friends. You will be the toast of the international press.

So maybe choosing to not take the risk with my forecast was a rational decision after all. Just that it doesn’t appear so in hindsight.

Reasons for voting

A vote is fundamentally a blunt instrument. Each voter has exactly one vote, and this one vote needs to express the voter’s opinion on a large range of issues.

Since you are extremely unlikely to have a unique candidate for every combination of issues, a voter can’t have it all. He must be prepared to compromise on certain issues, in order to get his way on certain other issues.

This is where the voter’s preferences and objectives matter. In the longlist of issues, certain issues matter more to certain people than certain other issues. And voters usually put a “don’t care condition” on their less important issues, so that they can get their way on the more important ones.

So some voters might be okay voting in a racist if he promises to bring them jobs. Other voters might be okay to “sacrifice” cow protection because they believe the reduction in corruption is more important. Some others might be willing to throw minority citizens under the bus if that implies stronger labour protection. And so forth.

If a racist has won the election, it doesn’t mean that all those who voted for him are racist – there are surely racists among his supporter base, but many others voted for him simply because racism is not something they care that deeply about. Similarly, if a religious bigot has won, it doesn’t mean everyone who voted for him was a bigot – all it means is that bigotry was a less important issue for many of these voters.

The problem with a lot of the mainstream media and “commentariat” (in different countries) is that they somehow assume that all voters need to have the same set of preferences and priorities as them. And when that doesn’t happen, and results go against them, they start questioning the morals of their voters. An appreciation of diversity (that different people have different priorities) can help in this matter – assuming that everyone ought to have the same priorities is illiberal.

In this regard, an understanding of what voters’ priorities are is an important tool to frame campaign strategy, which can help politicians determine what areas of their manifestoes to lay more focus on. I had done this kind of an analysis prior to the Maharashtra elections two years ago, for example (based on a painstakingly elaborate survey by Daksh and the Association for Democratic Reforms).

I had taken pairs of communities, and compared them in terms of the order in which they ranked different key issues. The survey I based this on hadn’t asked for the respondents’ views on who they were voting for (that wasn’t the purpose of the survey), if we were to do this kind of preference ranking of voters of different parties, it will soon become evident why the election turned in a certain way.

Finally, the result of an election is usually a result of the issues that were on top of most voters’ priorities. The same parties with the same manifestoes across elections can lead to widely different results, only because the voters’ preferences have changed! It’s time for politicians and the media to chew on that.

When is a war a war?

War is an inherently political instrument used to achieve a political objective, so a credible political adversary is necessary for war to be war.

As the US Presidential election race hots up (or gets more one-sided, depending upon your interpretation), people continue to refer to former President George W Bush leading the US into two “wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thinking about it, I’m not sure the two can actually be classified as wars.

To use a chess analogy, real wars seldom end in checkmate – they most often end in resignation, or an agreed draw. War is an instrument that is used to achieve a political objective, to get the other party to do what you want them to do.

And so war ends when one side has established such an utter dominance over the other that the counterparty decides that to resign, or “surrender” is superior to continuing fighting the war.

For this to happen, however, the counterparty needs to have a political leadership that is able and willing to take a decision, following which the war actually stops. In the absence of such a political leadership, the war will continue indefinitely until “checkmate”, and assuming that the losing side’s force “decays exponentially”, it can take a really long time for it to actually get over.

So based on this definition that war is a political instrument used to achieve a political objective, I’m not sure what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan can actually be classified as “war”.

The “government” of the day in Afghanistan (Taliban), for example, would have never come to the negotiating table with the US, so short of complete annihilation, there was no other “objective” that the US could achieve there.

Iraq, on the other hand, possessed credible political leadership (Saddam Hussein) when the US invaded, but by actually killing him, the US denied themselves the chance of a “real victory” in terms of a negotiated settlement. A game of chess might end when the king is mated (remember that the king never “dies”, only trapped), but in a situation such as Iraq, the battle will rage until each member of the opposing force is taken out.

And so fighting continues to this day, over a decade since it started, with no hope of it ending in the near future. Real wars never go on indefinitely.


My facebook feed nowadays is so full of Brexit that I’m tempted to add my own commentary to it. The way I look at it is in terms of option valuation.

While the UK economy hasn’t been doing badly over the last five years (steady strictly positive growth), this growth hasn’t been uniform and a significant proportion of the population has felt left out.

Now, Brexit can have a negative impact on two counts – first, it can have a direct adverse impact on the UK’s GDP (and also Europe’s GDP). Secondly, it can have an adverse impact by increasing uncertainty.

Uncertainty is in general bad for business, and for the economy as a whole. It implies that people can plan less, which they compensate for by means of building in more slacks and buffers. And these slacks and buffers  will take away resources that could’ve been otherwise used for growth, thus affecting growth more adversely.

While the expected value from volatility is likely to be negative, what volatility does is to shake things up. For someone who is currently “out of the money” (doing badly as things stand), though, volatility gives a chance to get “in the money”. There is an equal chance of going deeper out of the money, of course, but the small chance that volatility can bring them out of water (apologies for mixing metaphors) can make volatility appealing.

So the thing with the UK is that a large section of the population has considered itself to be “out of the money” in the last few years, and sees no respite from the existing slow and steady growth. From this background, volatility is a good thing, and anything that can shake things up deserves its chance!

And hence Brexit. It might lower overall GDP, and bring in volatility, but people hope that the mix of fortunes that stem from this volatility will affect them positively (and the negative effects go to someone else). From this perspective, the vote for Brexit is a vote of optimism, with voters in favour of Leave voting for the best possible outcome for themselves from the resulting mess.

In other words, each voter in the UK seems to have optimised for private best case, and hence voted for Brexit. Collectively, it might seem to be an irrational decision, but once you break it down it’s as rational as it gets!