Children’s birthday parties and alcohol

A long time ago, well before I had even planned to have children, I had decided that children’s birthday parties were decidedly boring affairs, especially for adults. Activities are all kid-centric. Food is kid centric (not often that you get chocolate cake at children’s birthday parties). Adults (at least those without kids) won’t be able to relate to most of the songs. It’s especially hard if you as an adult is incapable of getting silly.

One of my friends had once told me that his trick to dealing with kids’ birthday parties (he has lots of kids himself) is to carry along a hip flask, and get buzzed to the appropriate amount (remember you primary task, especially if you have kids of your own, is to chaperone). Since then, I’ve come to believe that alcohol is the best way for an adult to deal with a children’s birthday party.

However, so far I haven’t come across too many children’s birthday parties (maybe not even one) where alcohol is served. In a lot of cases the reason is regulatory – people like to do their children’s birthday parties outside of home, in a sort of party venue. And onerous liquor regulations in Bangalore mean that it is next to impossible to serve liquor there (unless the venue already has a liquor license).

And I must sheepishly raise my hand as a guilty party here, but I’ve found that so far house parties celebrating children’s birthdays also don’t serve liquor. And thinking about it, one big reason comes to mind.

As mentioned earlier, the role of most adults at children’s birthday parties is chaperoning. Which means that they need to be in a state that they can effectively take care of kids. And so some hosts might (maybe legitimately) feel paternalistic about not letting these guest chaperones take full care of the true guests (the other kids at the party).

Added to that is that in Bangalore at least, a part of the job of chaperoning involves driving the child to the party and back, and there alcohol can be a really legitimate barrier. And so that further reduces the demand for alcohol at the party, perhaps below a point where the host feels compelled to serve it.

Finally, there is the sexist reason – at a party I had chaperoned the daughter to yesterday, I was the only dad (among the section of the crowd I knew, at least). All the other kids had been accompanied by their mothers. Maybe the fact that most adults at most children’s birthday parties are women makes the hosts go full on paternalist and refuse to serve liquor?

WhatsApp Profiles and Wandering Spirits

As the more perceptive of you might know, the wife runs this matrimonial advisory business. As a way of developing her business, she also accepts profiles from people looking to get married, and matches them with her clients in case she thinks there is a match.

So her aunts, aunts of aunts, aunts’ friends, aunts’ nieces’s friends, and aunt’s friends’ friends’ friends keep sending her profiles of people looking to get married. The usual means of communication for all this is WhatsApp.

The trigger for this post was this one profile she received via WhatsApp. Quickly, her marriage broking instincts decreed that this girl is going to be a good match for one of her clients. And she instantly decided to set them up. The girl’s profile was quickly forwarded (via WhatsApp) to the client boy, who quickly approved of her. All that remained to set them up was the small matter of contacting the girl and seeking her approval.

And that’s proving to be easier said than done. For while it has been established that the girl’s profile is legitimate, she has been incredibly hard to track down. The first point of contact was the aunt who had forwarded her profile. She redirected to another uncle. That uncle got contacted, and after asking a zillion questions of who the prospective boy is, and how much he earns, and what sub-sub-caste he belongs to, he directed my wife to yet another uncle. “It’s his daughter only”, the first uncle said.

So the wife contacted this yet another uncle, who interrogated more throughly, and said that the girl is not his daughter but his niece. As things stand now, he is supposed to “get back” with the girl’s contact details.

As the wife was regaling me with her sob stories of this failed match last night, I couldn’t help but observe that these matrimonial profiles that “float around” on WhatsApp are similar to “pretas”, wandering spirits of the dead (according to Hindu tradition), who wander around and haunt people around them.

The received wisdom when it comes to people who are dead is that you need to give them a decent cremation and then do the required set of rituals so that the preta gets turned into a piNDa and only visits once a year in the form of a crow. In the absence of performance of such rituals, the preta remains a preta and will return to haunt you.

The problem with floating around profiles on WhatsApp, rather than decently using a matrimonial app (such as Tinder), is that there is no “expiry” or “decent cremation”. Even once the person in question has gotten taken, there is nothing preventing the network from pulling down the profile and marking it as taken. It takes significant effort to purge the profile from the network.

Sometimes it amazes me that people can be so nonchalant about privacy and float their profiles (a sort of combination of Facebook and Twitter profiles) on WhatsApp, where you don’t know where they’ll end up. And then there is this “expiry problem”.

WhatsApp is soon going to turn us all into pretas. PiNDa only!

Tautological Claims

Sometimes the media can’t easily reason on what led to something that they consider to be negative. In such cases they resort to tautologies. One version of this was seen in the late 2000s, during the Global Financial Crisis. The crisis “was caused by greed”, claimed many a story. “It is because of the greed of a handful of bankers that we have to suffer”, they said.

Fast forward ten to twelve years later, and the global financial crisis is behind us (though many economies aren’t yet doing as well as they were before that crisis). The big problem that a lot of people are facing is addiction – to their smartphones, to apps, to social media, and so on. Once again, media at large seems to have been unable to reason effectively on why this addiction is happening. And so once again, they are resulting in “tautologies”.

“Apps are engineered so that you engage more with them”, they say. If you ask the product manager in charge of the app, you will find out that his metric is to increase user engagement, and make sure people spend more time on the app. “Apps use psychological tools to make you spend more time on them”, the outlets write, as if that is a bad thing.

However, if you are an overstretched product manager hard-pressed to increase engagement, there is no surprise that you would use every possible method – logical and psychological, to do so. And if that means relying on psychological research that talks about how to increase addiction, so be it!

It is tautological that social media companies “want to increase engagement” or “want to increase the amount of time people spend on the platforms”, and that they will try to achieve these goals. So when media agencies talk about these goals as something to be scared about, it’s like they’re bullshitting – there’s absolutely no information that is being added in such headlines.

It is similar to how a decade and a bit ago the same media decided to blame a fundamental human tendency – greed – for the financial crisis.

The Base Rate in Hitting on People

Last week I met a single friend at a bar. He remarked that had I been late, or not turned up at all, he would have seriously considered chatting up a couple of women at the table next to ours.

This friend has spent considerable time in several cities. The conversation moved to how conducive these cities are for chatting up people, and what occasions are appropriate for chatting up. In Delhi, for example, he mentioned that you never try and chat up a strange woman – you are likely to be greeted with a swap.

In Bombay, he said, it depends on where you chat up. What caught my attention was when he mentioned that in hipster cafes, the ones that offer quinoa bowls and vegan smoothies, it is rather normal to chat up strangers, whether you are doing so with a romantic intent or not. One factor he mentioned was the price of real estate in Bombay which means most of these places have large “communal tables” that encourage conversation.

The other thing we spoke about how the sort of food and drink such places serve create a sort of “brotherhood” (ok not appropriate analogy when talking about chatting up women), and that automatically “qualifies” you as not being a creep, and your chatting up being taken up seriously.

This got me thinking about the concept of “base rates” or “priors”. I spent the prime years of my youth in IIT Madras, which is by most accounts a great college, but where for some inexplicable reason, not too many women apply to get in. That results in a rather lopsided ratio that you would more associate with a dating app in India rather than a co-educational college.

In marketing you have the concept of a “qualified lead”. When you randomly call a customer to pitch your product there is the high chance that she will hang up on you. So you need to “prime” the customer to expect your call and respond positively. Building your brand helps. Also, doing something that gauges the customer’s interest before the call, and calling only once the interest is established, helps.

What you are playing on here in marketing is is the “base rate” or the “prior” that the customer has in her head. By building your brand, you automatically place yourself in a better place in the customer’s mind, so she is more likely to respond positively. If, before the call, the customer expects to have a better experience with you, that increases the likelihood of a positive outcome from the call.

And this applies to chatting up women as well. The lopsided ratio at IIT Madras, where I spent the prime of my youth, meant that you started with a rather low base rate (the analogy with dating apps in India is appropriate). Consequently, chatting up women meant that you had to give an early signal that you were not a creep, or that you were a nice guy (the lopsided ratio also turns most guys there into misogynists, and not particularly nice. This is a rather vicious cycle). Of course, you could build your brand with grades or other things, but it wasn’t easy.

Coming from that prior, it took me a while to adjust to situations with better base rates, and made me hesitant for a long time, and for whatever reason I assumed I was a “low base rate” guy (I’m really glad, in hindsight, that my wife “approached” me (on Orkut) and said the first few words. Of course, once we’d chatted for a while, I moved swiftly to put her in my “basket”).

Essentially, when we lack information, we stereotype someone with the best information we have about them. When the best information we have about them is not much, we start with a rather low prior, and it is upon them to impress us soon enough to upgrade them. And upgrading yourself in someone’s eyes is not an easy business. And so you should rather start from a position where the base rate is high enough.

And this “upgrade” is not necessarily linear – you can also use this to brand yourself in the axes that you want to be upgraded. Hipster cafes provide a good base rate that you like the sort of food served there. Sitting in a hipster cafe with a MacBook might enhance your branding (increasingly, sitting in a cafe with a Windows laptop that is not a Surface might mark you out as an overly corporate type). Political events might help iff you are the overly political type (my wife has clients who specify the desired political leadings of potential spouses). Caste groups on Orkut or Facebook might help if that is the sort of thing you like. The axes are endless.

All that matters is that whatever improved base rate you seek to achieve by doing something, the signal you send out needs to be credible. Else you can get downgraded very quickly once you’ve got the target’s attention.

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.