Ending a 33-year-old wait

When I was in upper kindergarten (UKG) in 1987-88, my teacher Chandrika Aunty had shown me how to do thread painting. It was a fascinating exercise. Cover a thread in paint, and then let it lie in a random pattern inside a folded piece of paper, and then pull out the thread. It creates a beautiful and symmetrical (thanks to the folding) pattern in the paper.

To my dismay, Chandrika Aunty failed to repeat this exercise, instead spending time to teach us other kinds of painting such as dipping ladies fingers in paint (I’ve always loathed ladies finger as a vegetable, so you can imagine my not being enthused by using it as a block-print).

Somehow my mother (who was generally interested in painting) wasn’t interested in doing this either. So as much as I loved it, I never ended up doing thread painting again as a child.

All that changed a few days back. With the lockdown on, my daughter’s school has been sending her “assignments” to do at home. Now, I find most of these assignments rather stressful. Sometimes they make me wonder what’s the point of sending her to a Montessori at all, if they are giving here homework that I have to supervise (thankfully none of these need to necessarily need to be turned in. They’re more for keeping her occupied. But looking at them as “pending” on the Google Classroom irritates me).

However, there was one assignment that I was rather excited to see. Thread painting! We sat on it for a few days without doing (basically NED happened). However, it was my wife’s birthday yesterday, and when we sat down to make a card for her on Tuesday, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do thread painting.

And so we did, using a small string and water colour tablets (I was so excited by the idea of thread painting that I didn’t bother following the school’s instructions). Apply water to the colour tablet, put the thread on it (and use the brush to make sure the paint was coated on the thread). Then put it in a random pattern between the folded sheets. And then pull it out carefully (the last bit was done by the daughter with great interest).

This was the result:

I’m rather excited by this. For someone artistically challenged like me, this is a nice way to make nice-looking images.

I don’t intend to do a Chandrika Aunty. I plan to do thread painting on a regular basis with the daughter. It’s both fun to do and produces nice results, like what you see here.

The rest of her school assignments can remain undone. I don’t care.

Unions and blacks

Did you know that trade unions were responsible for apartheid, which devastated the lives of black and coloured people in South Africa for nearly a century?

The logic was simple – black people were willing to work as miners for lower wages than white people. So the white-controlled unions lobbied to not allow black people to work in mines, so that their wages weren’t undercut. And what started as a movement to not let blacks work in diamond mines became an overall anti-black movement that led to apartheid.

This is captured in this beautiful old essay in Econlib. A couple of excerpts:

At first, however, the white capitalist could deal directly only with the few English and Afrikaner managers and foremen who shared his tongue and work habits. But the premium such workers commanded soon became an extravagance. Black workers were becoming capable of performing industrial leadership roles in far greater numbers and at far less cost. Driven by the profit motive, the substitution of black for white in skilled and semiskilled mining jobs rose high on the agenda of the mining companies.

[…]

Nonetheless, the state instituted an array of legal impediments to the promotion of black workers. The notorious Pass Laws sought to sharply limit the supply of nonwhite workers in “white” employment centers. Blacks were not allowed to become lawful citizens, to live permanently near their work, or to travel without government passports. This last restriction created a catch-22. If passports were issued only to those already possessing jobs, how was a nonwhite to get into the job area to procure a job so as to obtain a passport? Nonwhites also were prohibited from bringing their families while working in the mines (reinforcing the transient nature of employment).

[…]

To discourage mine owners from substituting cheaper African labor for more expensive European labor, the trade unions regularly resorted to violence and the strike threat. They also turned to legislation: the Mines and Works Act of 1911 (commonly referred to as the first Colour Bar Act) used the premise of “worker safety” to institute a licensing scheme for labor. A government board was set up to certify individuals for work in “hazardous” occupations. The effect was to decertify non-Europeans, who were deemed “unqualified.”

Read the whole thing. Going by modern American (or British) politics, this kind of a conflict between labour unions and blacks doesn’t make sense. After all, both these “communities” are among the biggest supporters of the Democratic (or Labour) Party, and so based on modern politics, you would imagine that they would be in harmony with each other on most counts.

However, I’m not sure the conflict between mostly-white unions and blacks has completely gone away.

I’ve been thinking of the brutal killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests all over the USA (and elsewhere) over the last 10 days. The protestors have been protesting against racism, and the many cases of abuse of black people by white policemen in the US.

While the perpetrators of the crime were all racist white men, and the victim was a black man, I don’t know how much of the brutality can be attributed to racism, and how much simply to bad policing. Keep aside the victim’s race for a moment, and think about what happened – a policeman pinned down a suspect, and then knelt upon his neck for eight minutes until he was dead.

Racism has a part to play in that maybe the policemen thought they have a higher chance of getting away with it because the victim was black, but that the cop thought it was okay to brutalise just about anyone the way he did is atrocious.

Having largely been off social media, my reading about this (and related) issues is through the blogs that I follow, and one phrase that repeatedly make an appearance in this context is “police unions”. Policemen, like many other professions, are highly unionised in the United States, and the unions set rules for how the police can be treated, what they can be expected to do, their punishments, etc.

And from the stuff I’ve read (too many to link to everything), the unions give individual cops to behave the way they want to, knowing that punishment is going to be limited.

Today I came across this rather interesting post by Alex Tabarrok about Camden (New Jersey) where policemen marched with the Black Lives Matters protestors. There is a very interesting history to policing in Camden NJ.

In May of 2013, however, the entire police department was disbanded nullifying the union contract and an entirely new county police department was put into place.

And Tabarrok’s post goes on to show that the dissolution and reconstitution of the police force (basically the dissolution of the union) has led to tangible benefits in terms of reduced violent crime.

So it appears that, decades after apartheid was (in letter) abolished, white-controlled unions continue to make life really difficult for blacks.

Mata Amrita Goes To New York Times

Remember that I had written recently that the pandemic is likely to change the practice of hugging, and the Mata Amrita Index? Now the New York Times has also covered it (possibly paywalled). It includes helpful graphics on “how to hug and how not to hug”.

It is an interesting article, quoting an expert on aerosols about what is the best way to hug. From what I gather, the key is to keep your faces turned away from each other. As long as you maintain this, hugging should still be fine.

[…] the safest thing is to avoid hugs. But if you need a hug, take precautions. Wear a mask. Hug outdoors. Try to avoid touching the other person’s body or clothes with your face and your mask. Don’t hug someone who is coughing or has other symptoms.

And remember that some hugs are riskier than others. Point your faces in opposite directions — the position of your face matters most. Don’t talk or cough while you’re hugging. And do it quickly. Approach each other and briefly embrace. When you are done, don’t linger. Back away quickly so you don’t breathe into each other’s faces. Wash your hands afterward.

Most of this seems fine. Only the last bit seems a bit difficult to implement – how do you wash your hands soon after hugging someone without offending them? I mean – I face this problem already. There are many people I come across whose hands I shake (this is all pre-pandemic) which leave me queasy and at unease until I have washed my hands. The challenge in this situation is how to efficiently wash your hands without making it explicit that the handshake wasn’t a pleasant one.

My favourite bit in the article, however, is the last one. It pertains to the “quality of hugs” that I’ve been talking about for a while now, and also happens to bring in Marie Kondo into the picture.

Dr. Marr noted that because the risk of a quick hug with precautions is very low but not zero, people should choose their hugs wisely.

“I would hug close friends, but I would skip more casual hugs,” Dr. Marr said. “I would take the Marie Kondo approach — the hug has to spark joy.”

Local time zones and function food

Last year after we got back to Bangalore from London, we started inviting people home for meals. It gave us an opportunity to socialise and rebuilt our network here. However, soon we stopped doing this – we had what I call a “time zone problem”.

In the UK, people eat early, and kids go to bed early. We liked both these aspects of the British culture and (to the extent possible) adopted them wholeheartedly. Now, back in India, we continue to follow these practices, but realise that most people around us don’t follow it. And this results in “time zone issues”.

This inevitably results in crane-fox situations when we have to go to someone’s place to eat or vice versa. We have gotten foxed several times, turning up for dinner at 630 or 7, and staying hungry till 9. We’ve tried craning several times, calling people at home for dinner at 630 or 7, and having them turn up much later in the evening.

Meeting outside in neutral places has some mitigating factors. Like 8pm drinks with friends means I finish my dinner and then go for drinks, thus maintaining my schedule. When I want to avoid drinking, the easiest thing to do is to drive to the venue (I’m paranoid about driving without full control).

The worst are religious functions. I’m pretty sure I’ve cribbed about them several time here on this blog. With very few exceptions, they invariably serve lunch or dinner late. Also that a “sacred event” is going on is reason enough for most other guests to not be bothered about the disruptions in eating schedules.

And to deal with that (apart from the fact that a large number of functions after we returned to India served pretty unspectacular food), we took inspiration from a close relative who has this policy of never eating at functions (the one time he broke this policy, two years ago, also coincided with what is easily the worst wedding food I’ve ever eaten, so it’s unlikely he’s breaking his policy again). Unless we have good reason to believe that the food at a function is going to be good (most reliable indicator being the caterer), we’ve taken to this relative’s policy.

Timing of most events in Bangalore means that we can eat our food at our normal times (lunch at noon, dinner at 6:30) and then comfortably get to the function well in time. Sometimes the host might get offended when we don’t eat, so a lighter than usual meal at home ensures that there is room for at least a dessert and a tiny course of meal.

As for the original crane-fox situation (calling people home or visiting for meals), we’ve started making adjustments. A few months after we returned, the daughter got back to her usual schedule of going to bed at 7 (unlike most children her age, she doesn’t nap in the afternoon). So dinner invites (in either direction) are out of the question. Lunch invites we manage by adjusting our breakfast times and quantities.

What’s the use of living in India if you cut yourself off from all socialising?

Social comedy

I’m reminded of this old interview with late actor and director Kashinath. I’ve forgotten which program it was on, so I’m unable to find the link. In that he kept talking about how as a budding filmmaker, he had been taught to “make films about social issues”.

And so in each of his movies, he made sure he incorporated one or the other social issue. Like I remember as a kid going to this movie called avaLe nanna henDathi  (which he remade in Hindi as “Jawani Zindabad”) – this was about dowry.

The thing with Kashinath was that while he made his movies about social issues, he made sure they were at least partly funny. Before we go ahead, I’d urge you to see this legendary song from anantana avaantara , made by and starring Kashinath (trust me, you’ll find it funny even if you don’t understand Kannada).

It’s not just Kashinath who had this mission that any movie should have an underlying “social message”. Go back to any 1990s comedy, and you will find that they follow the same formula. You might laugh for a total of 15 minutes through the duration of the movie, but the need for social messaging means that there are inevitable sad elements in the plot.

Also, a usual template of these movies (across languages) was to pack the first half with jokes and other funny things, and then let the serious stuff take over in the second half (you wouldn’t lose much entertainment by leaving at the interval).

This largely changed after 1999 (or so), when the film industry got “industry” status, bringing in corporate money and formal production houses. The need for sending out social messages went out with socialism, and so the quality of movies in the 2000s became (on average) better. Funny movies could afford to be entirely funny rather than spending one half sending out a social message.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I watched shubh mangal zyaada savdhaan (starring Ayushmannnnn Khurrraannnnnaa), a movie about a gay couple trying to gain acceptance from one of their families. The movie seemed to be a straight throwback to the nineteen eighties.

The first half was funny, with a laugh a minute. All the classic elements of Indian film comedy were present in this half. And then came the intermission (yes, that was indicated even though I saw the movie on Prime Video). And the movie, in 80s style, went off into social messaging mode.

The last 40 minutes was an absolute drag. The story refused to move as the characters went about extolling diversity and inclusion. Whatever was remaining of the story was rather predictable. There was no “information content”. And that left me a tad disappointed.

There is a reason that Ganeshana Maduve remains my all-time favourite Indian movie. Despite being made in 1990, it is an out-and-out comedy, with no social messaging thrown in (the director Phani Ramachandra, who later made the sitcom daNDa piNDagaLu, was a bit of an outlier).

The best part of the movie, in hindsight (ok I’ve watched it at least 50 times) is that it ends rather abruptly. The comedy goes on till the very last moment, and when you think that you’re facing a boring scene, all characters get into one frame (the standard ending of 1980s movies) and “shubham” or some such appears on the screen.

If you haven’t watched the movie, I might remind you that it is available in full on Youtube (unfortunately there are no subtitles, so you’ll need to know Kannada for this one).

 

I really don’t know why this genre of comedy didn’t catch on, and instead we have filmmakers continuing to proselytise us with social virtues.

I don’t know which 80%

Legendary retailer John Wanamaker (who pioneered fixed price stores in the mid 1800s) is supposed to have said that “half of all advertising is useless. The trouble is I don’t know which half”.

I was playing around with my twitter archive data, and was looking at the distribution of retweets and favourites across all my tweets. To say that it follows a power law is an understatement.

Before this blog post triggers an automated tweet, I have 63793 tweets, of which 59,275 (93%) have not had a single retweet. 51,717 (81%) have not had a single person liking them. And 50, 165 (79%) of all my tweets have not had a single retweet or a favourite.

In other words, nearly 80% of all my tweets had absolutely no impact on the world. They might as well have not existed. Which means that I should cut down my time spent tweeting down to a fifth. Just that, to paraphrase Wanamaker, I don’t know which four fifths I should eliminate!

There is some good news, though. Over time, the proportion of my tweets that has no impact (in terms of retweets or favourites – the twitter dump doesn’t give me the number of replies to a tweet) has been falling consistently.

Right now, this month, the score is around 33% or so. So even though the proportion of my useless tweets have been dropping over time, even now one in every tweets that I tweet has zero impact.

My “most impactful tweet” itself account for 17% of all retweets that I’ve got. Here I look at what proportion of tweets have accounted for what proportion of “reactions” (reactions for each tweet is defined as the sum of number of retweets and number of favourites. I understand that the same person might have been retweeted and favourited something, but I ignore that bit now).

Notice how extreme the graph is. 0.7% of all my tweets have accounted for 50% of all retweets and likes! 10% of all my tweets have accounted for 90% of all retweets and likes.

Even if I look only at recent data, it doesn’t change shape that much – starting from January 2019, 0.8% of my tweets have accounted for 50% of all retweets and likes.

This, I guess, is the fundamental nature of social media. The impact of a particular tweet follows a power law with a very small exponent (meaning highly unequal).

What this also means is that anyone can go viral. Anyone from go from zero to hero in a single day. It is very hard to predict who is going to be a social media sensation some day.

So it’s okay that 80% of my tweets have no traction. I got one blockbuster, and who knows – I might have another some day. I guess such blockbusters is what we live for.

Facial appendages

Designers and manufacturers of things we wear on our face don’t seem to have taken into account the fact that people can wear multiple facial appendages at a time.

One problem that has bothered me since I was eighteen, when I got my first motorcycle, has been the clash between my spectacles (something I’ve worn since I was eight) and the full-face helmet. Design of full-face helmets has always meant that I’ve had to take the spectacles off, wear the helmet and then wear the specs back on (and then put on the visor of the helmet).

With some helmets it’s worked beautifully. But occasionally I’ve bought helmets one size too small (or borrowed my wife’s helmet), and in those cases this correlation hasn’t worked out well. There are days when I wear contact lenses first thing in the morning just because I need to take the scooter out.

And now, there is a third appendage which doesn’t work well with either the spectacles or the helmet – the facial mask to keep covid-19 germs away.

So far I’ve been completely unable to wear a helmet while not making the mask move out of position (this is irrespective of which helmet and which mask I use).

And most of my masks have not worked well with my spectacles as well. They interfere with each other in several places – on the nose, on the ears, vapours from the mask fogging up my spectacles. I might start wearing my contact lenses first thing in the morning now as well, just so that I can wear a mask when I step out.

Now imagine what it would be like to wear spectacles, mask and helmet all at once.

I’m glad my hearing is good, for I’m sure you won’t be able to imagine what it’s like to wear spectacles, mask, helmet and hearing aids.

PS: I discovered this morning that I’m allergic to the N95 mask I have. It has an appendage to make it fit well on the nose, and my nose has developed rashes from it.

Mata Amrita in the time of Covid-19

You remember the Mata Amrita Index? I’d first defined it in early 2009, and it is broadly defined as “the likelihood that you will hug a randomly chosen friend or acquaintance you meet”. There is a bilateral version as well, which is defined as “the likelihood that a given pair of people will hug each other when they meet”.

I’ve revisited this concept several times on this blog. Once, I had wondered how you can go about “changing your MAI” with someone. On another occasion I had tried to add a quality dimension to the index, to account for the “quality of hugs”. But indices in general don’t do well when you try to complicate them too much.

In any case, I’ve been wondering how people’s MAI will evolve given the covid-19 crisis. I also wonder how the quality-adjusted MAI will evolve.

For one, Mumbai Mirror reports that Mata Amrita (in whose honour the index has been named) herself has been badly affected by the crisis.

“Like everywhere in the world, life in Kerala and the ashram have changed,” says the ‘hugging saint’, Mata Amritanandamayi, known to her devotees as ‘Amma’, over email. “This is the first time in more than 45 years that there has been no darshan.”

The crisis automatically means that we will, to the extent possible, try to avoid physical contact with other people. When shaking hands itself is frowned upon, hugs are out of the question. However, there will be people outside your immediate family with whom you would have developed a high bilateral MAI. How do you deal with them once you start meeting them again?

My guess is that the bilateral MAI will get sharply partitioned, and “collapse” (in a Schrödingerian sense). For people with whom you’ve had a high historical MAI, and where the historical quality has also been high, you are likely to take a “hell with the virus” approach and continue the (high quality) hugs.

Among other things these also tend to be the people you trust very well (why would you hug someone tightly if you don’t trust them?), and also there aren’t likely to be very many of them.

At the other end, anyone for whom historical bilateral MAI is not close to 1, or with whom the historical quality of hugs hasn’t been great, you’ll simply eschew the hug, going all the way to the namaste, maybe.

So all these “polite hugs” will disappear (which isn’t a bad thing at all, in my opinion). People will also feel less queasy about rejecting a hug – now they have a very good reason to do so.

The other thing is that you need a sort of “trust jump” with someone to get to a point where your MAI jumps from 0 to 1. The old progression (which was never a continuous progression) from handshake to side hug to quick hug to full hug is not going to be valid any more, as you need to directly jump from a zero MAI to a high quality one MAI.

Finally, what will happen of Mata Amrita herself? Is the dip in her “darshan” a temporary impact or a permanent impact? I suspect it’s the former?

Covid-19 superspreaders in Karnataka

Through a combination of luck and competence, my home state of Karnataka has handled the Covid-19 crisis rather well. While the total number of cases detected in the state edged past 2000 recently, the number of locally transmitted cases detected each day has hovered in the 20-25 range.

Perhaps the low case volume means that Karnataka is able to give out data at a level that few others states in India are providing. For each case, the rationale behind why the patient was tested (which is usually the source where they caught the disease) is given. This data comes out in two daily updates through the @dhfwka twitter handle.

There was this research that came out recently that showed that the spread of covid-19 follows a classic power law, with a low value of “alpha”. Basically, most infected people don’t infect anyone else. But there are a handful of infected people who infect lots of others.

The Karnataka data, put out by @dhfwka  and meticulously collected and organised by the folks at covid19india.org (they frequently drive me mad by suddenly changing the API or moving data into a new file, but overall they’ve been doing stellar work), has sufficient information to see if this sort of power law holds.

For every patient who was tested thanks to being a contact of an already infected patient, the “notes” field of the data contains the latter patient’s ID. This way, we are able to build a sort of graph on who got the disease from whom (some people got the disease “from a containment zone”, or out of state, and they are all ignored in this analysis).

From this graph, we can approximate how many people each infected person transmitted the infection to. Here are the “top” people in Karnataka who transmitted the disease to most people.

Patient 653, a 34 year-old male from Karnataka, who got infected from patient 420, passed on the disease to 45 others. Patient 419 passed it on to 34 others. And so on.

Overall in Karnataka, based on the data from covid19india.org as of tonight, there have been 732 cases where a the source (person) of infection has been clearly identified. These 732 cases have been transmitted by 205 people. Just two of the 205 (less than 1%) are responsible for 79 people (11% of all cases where transmitter has been identified) getting infected.

The top 10 “spreaders” in Karnataka are responsible for infecting 260 people, or 36% of all cases where transmission is known. The top 20 spreaders in the state (10% of all spreaders) are responsible for 48% of all cases. The top 41 spreaders (20% of all spreaders) are responsible for 61% of all transmitted cases.

Now you might think this is not as steep as the “well-known” Pareto distribution (80-20 distribution), except that here we are only considering 20% of all “spreaders”. Our analysis ignores the 1000 odd people who were found to have the disease at least one week ago, and none of whose contacts have been found to have the disease.

I admit this graph is a little difficult to understand, but basically I’ve ordered people found for covid-19 in Karnataka by number of people they’ve passed on the infection to, and graphed how many people cumulatively they’ve infected. It is a very clear pareto curve.

The exact exponent of the power law depends on what you take as the denominator (number of people who could have infected others, having themselves been infected), but the shape of the curve is not in question.

Essentially the Karnataka validates some research that’s recently come out – most of the disease spread stems from a handful of super spreaders. A very large proportion of people who are infected don’t pass it on to any of their contacts.

Paiyas and Kodakas

Growing up, I found that a lot of my non-Kannadiga friends took great pleasure in using the words “maga” and “magane” (both mean “son”). For a long time I didn’t understand what was so pleasurable in calling someone “son”. Wasn’t it normal in other languages as well (though Tamil prefers Macha (brother-in-law) ) ?

It took two incidents, separated by six years (and the latter of the two happened ten years ago), for me to understand this. It had to do with abuses.

I remember visiting a Tamilian friend at her home sometime in 2004. There were a few other friends there, and everyone who was there except me was Tamilian (and this is a 20 year-old problem – people randomly assume I’m Tamilian and speak to me in Tamil). So the host’s mother, in the course of the conversation, would break off into Tamil, and when the discussion was about some boys, would talk about “this paiyya” or “that paiyya”.

I remember trying to suppress a chuckle every time she said “paiyya” (I’ll come to the reason in a bit), but largely managed to keep a straight face through the conversation.

Six years later I was visiting my then-girlfriend, now-wife. Pinky’s mother is Gult (technically her father is also Gult, but his ancestors came to Karnataka so long ago that for all practical purposes they’re dig). On the day I visited, Pinky’s aunt was also visiting, and Pinky’s mother and aunt were talking (in Gult) about some boys. And they kept referring to these boys as “koDaku”.

Again I had to suppress chuckles, for the same reason I had suppressed chuckles when my friend’s mother kept saying “paiyya” six years before. And at the same time I understood why my non-Kannadiga friends took such pleasure in saying “magane”. It has to do with abuses.

When you learn a new language as a teenager, it is fairly standard to start off by first learning the swearwords in that language. For some strange reason, South Indians revel in abusing one another’s mothers. And so the popular abuses in all South Indian languages follow this template.

In Kannada, you have “bOLi magane” (son of a bitch) and “sULe magane” (son of a prostitute). Tamil has “thEvaDiya paiyya” (son of a prostitute again). Telugu has “lanja koDaka” (son of a prostitute, once again) and, rather fascinatingly for the amateur anthropologist, “donganA koDaka” (son of a thief).

And in Telugu and Tamil, the word for “boy” is also used interchangeably for “son”, and it’s the same word that appears in the above swear-phrases (Kannada is a little bit different – the word for “boy” is used for “son”, but the swearwords all have the word that is exclusively used for “son”).

Now you know where this is going.

In normal teenage or college conversation it’s not common to talk about people’s sons. So if you’re a Kannadiga who’s only learnt swearwords in Telugu or Tamil, you would have heard the words “koDaka” and “paiyya” in only that context. You would have never heard these words in isolation in normal conversation, separated from the prefixes that make them the swearing qualities.

So because “thevaDiya paiyya” is a swearphrase, I had assumed that both words in it are independently swearwords. And so I got shocked that my friend’s mother kept casually saying “paiyya” in the course of normal conversation, and my (extremely paavam/sadhu) friends didn’t flinch.

It is the same with “koDaka” – having appeared in TWO swearphrases I knew, I assumed it was a swearword, and was shocked to see my would-be mother-in-law use it in a casual conversation with her sister.

I imagine it is the same with “magane” – for non-Kannadigas for whom it’s just part of a swearphrase, it is effectively a swearword. And so, when they use the word, it’s as if they are swearing. And that explains their glee in uttering the word.

Kannada has another son-based swearword. “baDDi maga”, which translates to “son of interest” (as in the interest you pay on a loan). I’ve never understood the logic behind that one.