Afcon in winter

As well as Liverpool is doing this season, there are already clouds on how good next season could be. The reason is the moving of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) to January-February, which means Liverpool will be without three key players (Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita) for over six weeks of the season.

When asked about it at a press conference last week, manager Jurgen Klopp went off on a massive rant (paywalled) about scheduling, and FIFA and UEFA and everything.

The other thing is it doesn’t help African players. We will not sell Sadio, Mo or Naby now because they have a tournament in January and February — of course not — but if you have to make a decision about bringing in a player it is a massive one because before the season you know for four weeks you don’t have them. That’s a normal process and as a club you have to think about these things. It doesn’t help the players, for sure.

This is a very valid second-order impact of having the African Cup of Nations in the middle of the European season. As the timing of the AFCON gets regularised in winter, European clubs will be loathe to hire Africans into their leagues. And that is bad news for African footballers.

While elite players such as Salah or Mane might never be in the need for a job, the problem with the unavailability mid-season is that clubs will start accounting for that while making decisions on recruitment.

The marginal African player playing in the second or third division in a major European footballing country will find it marginally more difficult to get a next good contract. The marginal African player at the top of his country’s league will find it marginally more difficult to get recruited to a (nowadays coveted) European club.

And as African players play less for European clubs (this will happen in due course), there will be fewer African role models. Because of which fewer African kids will want to take up football. Because of which the overall level of football in African countries will go down.

This is the problem with dependence on external factors, like African football does with European football. That the best African footballers want to play in Europe means that the wishes of Europe will automatically have an impact on football in Africa. This means that Africa cannot schedule its continental tournament at the time of the year that is most convenient to it without impacting its own players.

This is a rather common problem. A quick analogy I can think of is the impossible trinity of macroeconomics – an independent monetary policy, free capital flows and a fixed exchange rate. The moment you peg your currency to another, what happens in the other currency automatically starts affecting you.

So what should African Football do? Clearly, climatic conditions mean that for most of Africa it’s optimal to host the tournament in (the northern hemisphere) winter. Clearly, there is no point of hosting such a tournament if the best African footballers don’t take part. But doing so will marginally jeopardise the marginal African footballer. And that is not good for African football.

There are no easy answers to this puzzle.

Cults and kaLsanyasis

I’ve long maintained that religion is a meme. And religions as we know it today have evolved over the last few hundred years (or millenia), though a combination of replication, crossover and mutation. I’ve argued that fun practices are necessary for religions to maintain their memetic fitness, and that people (at the margin) will choose to celebrate festivals that are more fun, and festivals need to be more fun to improve memetic fitness.

Today I came across this old article in the New York Times (possible paywall) about how the decline of cults is a problem. One of the arguments that the author Ross Douthat makes is that cults keep religions fresh, and help them continuously evolve. Yes, cults can be destructive and dangerous and could even kill, but in case they are not and they “survive”, they could even go mainstream.

He gives the examples of Mormonism in the 1900s in the United States, or Jesuits and Franciscans even earlier, as cults that over the period of time became mainstream in terms of religion.

Based on the religion-as-meme framework, you can think of cults as mutations in the religious meme code. Cults keep large parts of their “parent religion” and then experiment with important differences. If these differences prove to be popular (and not dangerous), the cults will prosper, giving rise to a new strand of the religion. Sometimes that can lead to a new religion itself.

While the article linked above is US-centric, and from 2014, India in 2020 has no shortage of cults. A number of cult leaders, such as Paramahamsa Nithyananda and Jaggi Vasudev, have become memes in themselves (apart from their respective cults trying out mutations in the Hindu meme code). Some others, such as Gurmeeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan and Asaram Bapu have been found to be dangerous and put in jail – it’s likely that their cults’ memes aren’t too fit.

And as these cults come and go, mainstream Hinduism sometimes copy from them, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. And what the cults ensure (not willingly) is that the religion itself remains fresh, and as the religion remains fresh, more people will be inclined to follow it.

So while at the level of the individual (think of the victims of (sexual and other) harassment that is rather common in some cults) the cults may not be a great thing, at the systemic level, they make sense.

And the more we make fun of Nithyananda and the more we forward his funny videos on WhatsApp, the more the next “religious entrepreneur” will be inclined to make it big.

Linear Separation of Children and Adults

The other day, we took our daughter to her classmate’s birthday party. Since she is still relatively new in the school, and we don’t yet know too many of the other parents, both of us went, with the intention that we could talk to and get to know some of her classmates’ parents.

Not much of that happened, and based on our experience at two other recent children’s parties, it had to do with the physical structuring of children and adults at the party.

As Matt Levine frequently likes to say, everything is in seating charts.

Not easily finding too many other parents to talk to, the wife and I decided to have a mutual intellectual conversation on what makes for a “successful” kids’ birthday party. Based on four recent data points, the answer was clear – linear separation.

At our daughter’s little party at our home four months back, we had set up the balcony and the part of the living room closest to it with all sorts of sundry toys, and all the children occupied that space. The adults all occupied the other (more “inner”) part of the living room, and spoke among each other. Maybe our Graph Theory helped, but to the best of the knowledge, most adults spoke to one another, though I can’t tell if someone was secretly bored.

At the other party where we managed to network a fair bit with daughter’s classmate’s parents, there was simply one bouncy castle at one end of the venue. All the children were safely inside that castle. Parents had the other side of the venue all to themselves, and it was easy to talk to one another (most people were standing, and there were soft drinks on offer, which made it easy to walk around between groups and talk to a wide variety of people).

In the recent party where we concocted this theory, the children were in the middle of the venue, and around that, chairs had been set up. This radial separation was bad for two reasons – firstly, you were restricted to talking  to people in your own quadrant since it was impractical to keep walking all the way around since most of the central space was taken up by the kids. Secondly, chairs meant that a lot of the parents simply put NED and sat down.

It is harder to approach someone who is seated and strike up a conversation, than doing so to someone who is standing. Standing makes you linear, and open (ok I’m spouting some fake gyaan I’d been given during my CAT interview time), and makes you more approachable. Seating also means you get stuck, and you can’t go around and network.

So parents and event managers, when you are planning the next children’s party, ensure that the children and adults are linearly separable. And unless the number of adults is small (like in the party we hosted – which happened before we knew any of the daughter’s friends from school), make them stand. That will make them talk to each other rather than get bored.

 

The difficulty of song translation

One of my wife’s favourite nursery rhymes is this song that is sung to the tune of “for he’s a jolly good fellow”, and about a bear going up a mountain.

For a long time I only knew of the Kannada version of this song (which is what the wife used to sing), but a year or two back, I found the “original” English version as well.

And that was a revelation, for the lyrics in the English version make a lot more sense. They go:

The bear went over the mountain;
The bear went over the mountain
The bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see.
And all that he could see, and all that he could see
Was the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain
The other side of the mountain, was all that he could see.

Now, the Kannada version, sung to the same tune, obviously goes “???? ??????? ??????” (karaDi beTTakke hoithu). That part has been well translated. However, the entire stanza hasn’t been translated properly, because of which the song goes a bit meaningless.

The lyrics, when compared to the original English version, are rather tame. Since a large part of my readership don’t understand Kannada, here is my translation of the lyrics (btw, the lyrics used in these YouTube versions are different from the lyrics that my wife sings, but both are similar):

The bear went to the mountain.
The bear went to the mountain.
The bear went to the mountain.
To see the scenery

And what did it see?
What did it see?
The other side of the mountain.
The other side of the mountain.
It saw the scenery of the other side of the mountain.

Now, notice the important difference in the two versions, which massively changes the nature of the song. The Kannada version simply skips the “all that he could see” part, which I think is critical to the story.

The English version, in a way, makes fun of the bear, talking about how it went over the mountain thinking it’s a massive task, but “all that he could see” from there was merely the other side of the mountain. This particular element is missing in Kannada – there is nothing in the lyrics that suggests that the bear’s effort to climb the mountain was a bit of a damp squib.

And that,  I think, is due to the difficulty of translating songs. When you translate a song, you need to get the same letter and spirit of the lyrics, while making sure they can follow the already-set music as well (and even get the rhyming right). And unless highly skilled bilingual poets are involved, this kind of a translation is really difficult.

So you get half-baked translations, like the bear story, which possibly captures the content of the story but completely ignores its spirit.

After I had listened to the original English version, I’ve stopped listening to the Kannada version of the bear-mountain song. Except when the wife sings it, of course.

 

Studs and Fighters and Attack and Defence

The general impression in sport is that attack is “stud” and defence is “Fighter“. This is mainly because defence (in any game, pretty much) is primarily about not making errors, and being disciplined. Flamboyance can pay off in attack, when you only need to strike occasionally, but not in defence, where the real payoff comes from being consistent and excellent.

However, attack need not always be stud, and defence need not always be fighter. This is especially true in team sports such as football, where there can be a fair degree of organisation and coaching to get players to coordinate.

This piece in The Athletic (paywalled) gives an interesting instance of how attacking can be fighter, and how modern football is all about fighter attacking. It takes the instance of this weekend’s game between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool F.C., which the latter won.

Jack Pitt-Brooke, the author, talks about how Liverpool is fighter in attack because the players are well-drilled in attacking, and practice combination play, or what are known in football as “automisations”.

But in modern football, the opposite is true. The best football, the type played by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City or Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, is the most rigorously planned, drilled and co-ordinated. Those two managers have spent years teaching their players the complex attacking patterns and synchronised movements that allow them to cut through every team in the country. That is why they can never be frustrated by opponents who just sit in and defend, why they are racking up points totals beyond the reach of anyone else.

Jose Mourinho, on the other hand, might be fighter in the way he sets up his defence, but not so when it comes to attacking. He steadfastly refuses to have his teams train attacking automisations. While defences are extremely well drilled, and know exactly how to coordinate, attackers are left to their own forces and creativity. What Mourinho does is to identify a handful of attackers (usually the centre forward and the guy just behind him) who are given “free roles” and are expected to use their own creativity in leading their team’s attacks.

As Pitt-Brooke went on to write in his article,

That, more than anything else, explains the difference between Klopp and Mourinho. Klopp wants to plan his way out of the randomness of football. Mourinho is more willing to accept it as a fact and work around it. So while the modern manager — Klopp, Guardiola, Antonio Conte — coaches players in ‘automisations’, pre-planned moves and patterns, Mourinho does not.

Jurgen Klopp the fighter, and Jose Mourinho the stud. That actually makes sense when you think of how their teams attack. It may not be intuitive, but upon some thought it makes sense.

Yes, attack is also being fighterised in modern sport.

“Principal Component Analysis” for shoes

OK, this is not a technical post. This is more in the realm of “life hacks“. It has everything to do with an observation I made a couple of months back, and how that has helped significantly combat decision fatigue.

I currently own eight pairs of shoes, which is perhaps a lifetime high. And lifetime high means that I was spending a lot of time each time I went out on which shoe to wear.

I have two pairs of open shoes, which I can’t wear for long periods of time, but are convenient in terms of time spent in wearing and taking off. I have two pairs of “semi-formal” ankle-high shoes – one an old pair that refuse to wear out, and another a rather light new one with sneaker bottoms. There are two pairs of “formal shoes”, one black and one brown. And then there are two sneakers – one pair of running shoes and one more general-purpose “fancy” one (this last one looks great with jeans, but atrocious with chinos, which I wear a lot of).

The running shoes have resided in my gym bag for the last nine months, and I use them exclusively indoors in the gym. So they’re “sorted”.

The problem I was facing was that among my seven other pairs of shoes I would frequently get confused on which one to wear. I would have to evaluate the fit with the occasion, how much I would have to stand (I need really soft-bottom shoes if I’ve to stand for a significant period of time), what trousers I was wearing and all such. It became nerve-wracking. Also, our shoe box, which was initially designed for two people and now serves three, placed its own constraints.

So as I somehow cut through the decision fatigue and managed to wear some shoes while stepping out of home, I noticed that a large proportion of the time (maybe 90%) I was wearing only three pairs of shoes. The other shoes were/are still good and I wouldn’t want to give them away, but I found that three shoes would serve the purpose on most occasions.

This is like in principal component analysis, where a small number of “components” (linear combination of variables) predict most of the variance in all the variables put together. In some analysis, you simply use these components rather than all the variables – that rather simplifies the analysis and makes it more tractable.

Since three pairs of shoes would serve me on 90% of the occasions, I decided it was time to take drastic action. I ordered a set of shoe bags from Amazon, and packed up four pairs of shoes and put them in my wardrobe inside. If I really need one of those four, it means I can put the effort at that point in time to go get that from inside. If not, it is rather easy to decide among the three outside on which one to wear (they’re rather dissimilar from each other).

I no longer face much of a decision when I’m stepping out on what shoes to wear. The shoe box has also become comfortable (thankfully the wife and daughter haven’t encroached on my space there even though I use far less space than before). Maybe sometime if I get really bored of these shoes outside, I might swap some of them with the shoes inside. But shoe life is much more peaceful now.

However, I remain crazy in some ways. I still continue to shop for shoes despite owning a lifetime high number of pairs of them. That stems from the belief that it’s best to shop for something when you don’t really need it. I’ll elaborate more on that another day.

Meanwhile I’m planning to extend this “PCA” method for other objects in the house. I’m thinking I’ll start with the daughter’s toys.

Wish me luck.

Distribution of political values

Through Baal on Twitter I found this “Political Compass” survey. I took it, and it said this is my “political compass”.

Now, I’m not happy with the result. I mean, I’m okay with the average value where the red dot has been put for me, and I think that represents my political leanings rather well. However, what I’m unhappy about is that my political views have been all reduced to one single average point.

I’m pretty sure that based on all the answers I gave in the survey, my political leaning across both the two directions follows a distribution, and the red dot here is only the average (mean, I guess, but could also be median) value of that distribution.

However, there are many ways in which people can have a political view that lands right on my dot – some people might have a consistent but mild political view in favour of or against a particular position. Others might have pretty extreme views – for example, some of my answers might lead you to believe that I’m an extreme right winger, and others might make me look like a Marxist (I believe I have a pretty high variance on both axes around my average value).

So what I would have liked instead from the political compass was a sort of heat map, or at least two marginal distributions, showing how I’m distributed along the two axes, rather than all my views being reduced to one average value.

A version of this is the main argument of this book I read recently called “The End Of Average“. That when we design for “the average man” or “the average customer”, and do so across several dimensions,  we end up designing for nobody, since nobody is average when looked at on many dimensions.

External membership of unions

The ostensible reason for the violent crackdown on protesting students at Alighar Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia last month was the involvement of “outsiders” in these protests. In both cases, campus authorities claimed that student protestors had been joined by “outsiders” who had gone violent, which forced them to call in the cops.

And then the cops did what cops do – making the protest more violent and increasing the damage all round, both physically and otherwise.

I’m reminded of this case from a few years ago from some automobile company – possibly Maruti. The company had refused to recognise an employee’s union at a new plant they were starting, because of an argument on the membership of non-employees in the unions.

The unions’ argument in that case was that external (non-employee) membership was necessary to provide the organisational and union skills to the union. If I remember correctly, they wanted one third of the union to consist of members who were not employees of the firm. The firm contended that they wouldn’t want to negotiate with outsiders, and so they wouldn’t recognise the union with external members.

I don’t remember how that story played out but this issue of external membership of unions, whether student or employees, is pertinent.

At the fundamental level, unions need to exist because of the balance of power – the dominance in favour of an institution over an individual employee or student is too great to always produce rational outcomes in the short term (in the long term it evens out, but you know what Keynes is supposed to have said). The formation of unions corrects this imbalance since the collection of employees or students can have significant bargaining power vis-a-vis the institution, and negotiations can result in more rational decisions in the short term.

The problem I have is with external membership of unions. The problem there is that external members (who usually provide leadership and “organisation” to the unions) lack skin in the game, and the union’s incentives need not always be aligned with the incentives of the employees or students.

Consider, for example, the protests in the universities last month which became violent. The incentive of the protests would have been to peacefully protest (to register their dissatisfaction with a recent law), and then get back to their business of being students. The students themselves have no incentive to be violent and damage stuff in their own institution, since that will negatively impact their own futures and studies at the institution.

External members of the unions don’t share this incentive – their incentive is in making the union activities (the protest in this case) more impactful. And if the protest creates damage, that can make it more impactful. The external members don’t particularly care about damage to the institution (physical and otherwise), as long as the union’s show of strength is successful.

It is similar in organisations. It is in the interest of both the employees and the management that the company does well, since that means a larger pie that can be split among them. The reason employees organise themselves, and sometimes go on limited strikes, is to ensure that they get what they think is a fair share of the pie.

The problem, of course, is that negotiations aren’t that simple, and they frequently break down. The question is about what to do when that inevitably happens. Each employee has his own threshold in terms of how long to strike, and at what point it makes sense to back down and accept the deal on the table.

In an employee-only union, the average view of the employees (effectively) guides when the strike gets called off and the negotiations end. External members of the union lack skin in the game, and they have a really long threshold on when to back down from the strike. And this makes strikes longer than employees want them to be, which can make the strikes counterproductive for the employees.

One infamous example is of the textile mills in Mumbai in the late 70s, and early 80s. There was massive union action there in those times, with strikes going on for months together. Ultimately the mills packed up and relocated to Gujarat and other places. The employees were the ultimate losers there, either losing their jobs or having to move to another city. If the employees themselves had controlled the union it is likely that they might have come to a settlement sooner or later, and managed to keep their jobs.

In the automobile case I mentioned earlier, if I remember correctly, the union demanded that up to 33% of the membership of the union be comprised of outsiders – a demand the company flatly refused to entertain. Now think about it – if external members control a third of the union, all it takes is one fourth of the employees, acting in concert with the union, for something to happen. And there is a real agency problem there!

Two steps back, one step forward

In his excellent piece on Everton’s failed recruitment strategy (paywalled), Oliver Kay of the Athletic makes an interesting point – that players seldom do well when they move from a bigger club to a smaller club.

During his time in charge at Arsenal, George Graham used to say that the key to building a team was to buy players who were on the way up — or, alternatively, players who were desperate to prove a point — but to avoid those who might see your club as a soft landing, a comfort zone. “Never buy a player who’s taking a step down to join you,” Graham said. “He will act as if he’s doing you a favour.”

This, I guess, is not unique to football alone – it applies to other jobs as well. When someone joins a company that they think they are “too cool for”, they  look at it as a step down, and occasionally behave as if they’re doing the new employer a favour.

One corollary is that working for “the best” can be a sort of lock in for an employee, since wherever he will move from there will be a sort of step down in some way or the other, and that will mean compromises on the part of all parties involved.

Thinking about footballers who have moved from big clubs and still not done badly, I notice one sort of pattern that I call “two steps back and one step forward”. Evidently, I’m basing this analysis on a small number of data points, which might be biased, but let me play management guru and go ahead with my theory.

Basically, if you want to take a “step down” from the best, one way of doing well in the longer term is to take “two steps down” and then later take a step up. The advantage with this approach is that when you take two steps down, you get to operate in an environment far easier than the one you left, and even if you act entitled and take time to adjust you will be able to prove yourself and make an impact in due course.

And at that point in time, when you’ve started making an impact, you are “on the way up”, and can then step up to a club at the next level where you can make an impact.

Players that come to mind that have taken this approach include Jonny Evans, who moved from Ferguson-era Manchester United to West Brom, and then when West Brom got relegated, moved “up” to Leicester. And he’s doing a pretty good job there.

And then there is Xherdan Shaqiri. He made his name as a player at Bayern Munich, and then moved to Inter where he struggled. And then he made what seemed like a shocking move for the time – to Stoke City (of the “cold Thursday night at Stoke” fame) in the Premier League. Finally, last year, after Stoke got relegated from the Premier League, he “stepped up” to Liverpool, where, injuries aside, he’s been doing rather well.

The risk with this two steps down approach, of course, is that sometimes it can fail to come off, and if you don’t make an impact soon enough, you start getting seen as a “two steps down guy”, and even “one step down” can seem well beyond you.

Statistical analysis revisited – machine learning edition

Over ten years ago, I wrote this blog post that I had termed as a “lazy post” – it was an email that I’d written to a mailing list, which I’d then copied onto the blog. It was triggered by someone on the group making an off-hand comment of “doing regression analysis”, and I had set off on a rant about why the misuse of statistics was a massive problem.

Ten years on, I find the post to be quite relevant, except that instead of “statistics”, you just need to say “machine learning” or “data science”. So this is a truly lazy post, where I piggyback on my old post, to talk about the problems with indiscriminate use of data and models.

I had written:

there is this popular view that if there is data, then one ought to do statistical analysis, and draw conclusions from that, and make decisions based on these conclusions. unfortunately, in a large number of cases, the analysis ends up being done by someone who is not very proficient with statistics and who is basically applying formulae rather than using a concept. as long as you are using statistics as concepts, and not as formulae, I think you are fine. but you get into the “ok i see a time series here. let me put regression. never mind the significance levels or stationarity or any other such blah blah but i’ll take decisions based on my regression” then you are likely to get into trouble.

The modern version of this is – everybody wants to do “big data” and “data science”. So if there is some data out there, people will want to draw insights from it. And since it is easy to apply machine learning models (thanks to open source toolkits such as the scikit-learn package in Python), people who don’t understand the models indiscriminately apply it on the data that they have got. So you have people who don’t really understand data or machine learning working with those, and creating models that are dangerous.

As long as people have idea of the models they are using, and the assumptions behind them, and the quality of data that goes into the models, we are fine. However, we are increasingly seeing cases of people using improper or biased data and applying models they don’t understand on top of them, that will have impact that affect the wider world.

So the problem is not with “artificial intelligence” or “machine learning” or “big data” or “data science” or “statistics”. It is with the people who use them incorrectly.