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.

 

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.

 

The Business Standard is innumerate

I guess there is not that much information in the headline here – claiming that a bunch of journalists and editors are innumerate is like saying that the sky is blue. You would be hard-pressed to find journalists and editors who can actually parse numbers, though I must mention that I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few editors who actually understand arithmetic!

So what happened today? Basically in today’s front page, BS journalists (one Vinay Umarji in particular) and editors have displayed an utter lack of understanding on how relative grading and percentiles work. The context is CAT results, which came out yesterday.

(I’ve put a scan since the online version is behind a paywall).

There is information in saying that “number of candidates scoring 100 percentile is lowest in six years”, and the information I take out of that is that the number of test takers this year is the lowest in six years.

And for four of those six years, the numbers were inflated, since double the number of people who were supposed to get 100 percentile actually got 100 percentile. Since CAT percentiles are given to two decimal places, you get 100 percentile if you are in the top 0.005% of all candidates who took the exam. Or – if your “percentile” is higher than 99.995, it gets rounded up to 100.

For three years in the middle, the CAT administrators (usually they’re Quantitative Methods professors at IIMs), for whatever reason, rounded up everyone who got a percentile higher than 99.990 to 100. I’d written about that in my article for Mint three years back.

Coming back, CAT is an exam that follows relative grading. All that someone  has got “100 percentile” means is that they are within the top 0.005% of all candidates who wrote the exam. So if more candidates write the exam, more people will get “100 percentile”. In my time, for example (CAT 2003-4) some 1.3 lakh people had written the exam, so 7 of us got “100 percentile”. Nowadays the number of test takers has gone up, so more people get that score.

And then I found the rest of the article funny in a way as well, trying to do some sort of sociological analysis of the backgrounds of the people who had scored highly in the exam.

PS: The graph doesn’t give out much information (and I don’t know why the 2019 data point is missing there), but I guess it’s been put in there to make the journalists and editors seem more numerate than they are.

 

Experience and Cows

A lot of people make a big deal about experience. If some people (and some companies) are to be believed, the number of years in a job should be the only criterion of what someone needs to be paid and whether they deserve to be promoted.

However, not all experience is created equal. Experience matters when you are learning on the job, and where you learn the patterns that are inherent in your job, and you can over time replace your “slow thinking” about the job with more “fast thinking”.

If you continue to do the same thing in the same way throughout the years of experience, not bothering to figure out why things are done certain ways, and how things can be done better, the experience isn’t of that much use.

I leave it to former Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino to explain this concept with a beautiful and profound analogy (there’s a video in this link which I’m somehow unable to embed here).

It is like a cow that, every day in 10 years, sees the train cross in front at the same time.

If you ask the cow, ‘what time is the train going to come’, it is not going to know the right answer.

In football, it is the same. Experience, yes, but hunger, motivation, circumstance, everything is so important.

It is unfortunate that the journalist who covered this story for Sky Sports thought this analogy was bizarre. Maybe he has been doing his job reporting on press conferences in the same way a cow sees a train passing by at a particular time every day?

Schelling segregation on High Streets

We’ve spoken about Thomas Schelling’s segregation model here before. The basic idea is this – people move houses if not enough people like them live around them. A simple rule is – if at least 3 of your 8 neighbours around you aren’t like you, you move.

And Schelling’s insight was that even such a simple rule – that you only need more than a third of neighbours like yourself  to stay in your place, when applied system wide, can quickly result in near-complete segregation.

I had done a quick simulation of Schelling’s model a few years back, and here is a picture from that

Of late I’ve started noticing this in retail as well. The operative phrase in the previous sentence is “I’ve started noticing”, for I think there is nothing new about this phenomenon.

Essentially retail outlets want to be located close to other stores that belong to the same category, or at least the same segment. One piece of rationale here is spillovers – someone who comes to a Louis Philippe store, upon not finding what they want, might want to hop over to the Arrow store next door. And then to the Woodland store across the road to buy shoes. And so on.

When a store is located with stores selling stuff targeted at a disjoint market, this spillover is lost.

And then there is the branding issue. A store that is located along with more downmarket stores risks losing its own brand value. This is one reason you see, across time, malls becoming segmented by the kind of stores they have.

A year and half back, I’d written about how the Jayanagar Shopping Complex “died”, thanks to non-increase of rents which resulted in cheap shops taking over, resulting in all the nicer shops moving out. In that I’d written:

On the other hand, the area immediately around the now-dying shopping complex has emerged as a brilliant retail destination.

And now I see this Schelling-ian game playing out in the area around the Jayanagar Shopping Complex. This is especially visible on two roads that attract a lot of shoppers – 11th main and 30th cross (which intersect at the Cool Joint junction).

These are two roads that have historically had a lot of good branded stores, but the way they’ve developed in the last year or so is interesting.

I don’t know if it has to do with drainage works that have been taking forever, but 32nd Cross seems to be moving more and more downmarket. A Woodland’s shoe store moved out. As did a Peter England store. Shree Sagar, which once served excellent chaats, now looks desolate.

The road has instead been taken over by stores selling “export reject garments” and knock down brands. And as I’ve observed over the last few months, these kind of shops continue take over more and more of the retail space on that road. In that sense, it is surprising that a new Jockey store took over three floors of a building on that road – seems completely out of character there. I expect it to move in short order.

I must mention here that over the last few years, the supply of retail space in Jayanagar has exploded, and that has automatically meant that all kinds of brands have space to operate there. It was only natural that a process takes place where certain roads become more upmarket than others.

Nevertheless, the way 30th cross (between 10th and 11th mains) and 10th main have visibly evolved over the last year or so is rather interesting.

Who drives the Sleighs?

I admit I don’t know too many Christmas songs. I mean, I can recognise the tunes of quite a few, but there are very few of whom I know the lyrics. This is on account of us mainly trolling our school music teacher Samson when he would teach us these songs at this time of the year every year. For example, one year I remember we would sing all songs replacing keywords with “moTTe” (egg). “Joy to the world, the moTTe has come” etc.

So two songs whose lyrics I sort of know (primarily because the wife knows their lyrics well, and also because the daughter sings well), are Jingle Bells and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. And the two fundamentally contradict.

Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
Over the fields we go
Laughing all the way

So it’s a “one-horse open sleigh”, which suggests that Santa travels on a sleigh which is pulled by one animal, which happens to be a horse.

Now, consider the lyrics of the other song that I know:

Then one foggy Christmas Eve,
Santa came to say,
Rudolph with your nose so bright,
Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight

So this suggests that it is Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer who pulls the sleigh?

Isn’t there a fundamental contradiction in here? Is it the horse that pulls the sleigh or is it the reindeer? It’s extremely confusing!

I have only one explanation to this – it’s a one-horse sleigh that Rudolph the Reindeer “guides”. So you can think of Santa sitting on a sleigh that is pulled by a horse, with the reindeer travelling along as a guide of sorts (since the horse doesn’t know its way around Scandinavia).

What’s your explanation of it?

And while we are at it, wish you a Merry Christmas!

 

 

Holidays as focal points

I don’t like Christmas holidays. I mean I have nothing against Christmas and New Year – they are wonderful festivals. I don’t like Christmas holidays because it’s one week in the year when pretty much the entire world has holidays.

And this makes it difficult to plan a holiday. Unless you’ve planned British-style and booked your hotel three months in advance, it is not easy to get room in quality hotels anywhere at this time of the year.

It is similar with the holidays around Dasara in October. It may not be a worldwide phenomenon like Christmas is, but it is a phenomenon that affects a large portion of India. And that makes it hard, once again, to plan holidays and go to places that are not going to be inundated with tourists.

In contrast, I love summer holidays because they are so long (between two and three months depending upon your school) that not everyone goes for vacation at the same time. Consequently, unless you go around long weekends (such as Easter or May Day), places are easier to get and not as crowded as well.

Until we had a kid, we tried as much as possible in being contrarian with our holidays – go when nobody else is going. Now that we have a kid (though not too big, but she goes to school), we tend to look at the school holidays as anchors as to when to go for a vacation. The last two holidays (the Dasara holidays in October and the Christmas holidays starting later today) have been a bit of a washout on that count because on both counts we didn’t plan early enough (and even if we did, we can expect pretty much every place to be choc-a-bloc with tourists in these times).

On the other hand, in August, the daughter’s school gave a week off at a time when pretty much no other school in the country had given vacations. That was brilliant, and we did a beautiful holiday then, booking less than a month in advance but getting a great but non-crowded place. Then again, I guess my daughter’s classmates who have siblings in other schools would have faced problems at that point in time.

In any case, going forward, we’ve decided to do what parents of other young children tend to do – not bother about child’s classes or “attendance” and go for holidays whenever.

We should simply stop planning holidays when everyone else is planning holidays!