My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.
At the very moment you read this, there is a Test match going on and two batsmen consulting out in the middle about whether they should use the DRS.
“Was I really lbw? Should I refer? Do you think it was missing?”
“I don’t know. But whatever you do, don’t look at the pavilion. Control your neck. Control it. Hold it if you have to. Here, I’ll hold it for you. Control!”
The big cricket story of last week, somehow, was not India’s excellent comeback in the Test series against Australia, but the DRS controversy. Batsmen are not supposed to look at the pavilion for advice when deciding whether or not to go for a decision review. Those are the rules, Steve Smith broke the rule, and it was fair enough that he was asked to leave the field of play. But the rules themselves are ridiculous.
I’ve been ranting about this for years, and still these people don’t learn. You would think no one reads me. Gah. Anyway, because I care about you, here, once again, are my thoughts on technology in cricket. And in life, which, by the way, is futile. (I don’t shy away from the big questions.)
First up, a question: why do umpires exist in cricket? After all, cricket is about batsmen batting, bowlers bowling and fielders fielding. No one goes to a ground to watch an umpire umpire. Well, umpires exist purely as a means to an end. They have to take decisions about whether a batsman is out or not, and lubricate the action in the game by communicating to scorers exactly what is going on. A secondary function is to step in if there is physical conflict, and to maintain decorum. Their job is not to be the action, but to keep the action flowing smoothly.
In other words, umpires are a technology.
Think of anything that is a means to an end as a technology. Umpires are a conventional technology for arriving at the right decisions on a cricket field. Now, the last couple of decades have seen rapid upgradations to pretty much every other technology there is. And so it is in the case of cricket. The decision-making mechanisms in cricket have been enhanced with new technologies meant to supplement (and not replace) the umpires.
The most significant of these is Hawk-Eye. Umpires, being human (as of now), are prone to all kinds of optical illusions, such as the parallax error, which impede their decision-making ability. Hawk-Eye, in every respect, makes better decisions than an umpire can. (And it makes them in real time – the time-consuming replays you see you on TV are only for the benefit of viewers.) But for the longest time, luddites fought the use of Hawkeye in decision-making, which led to the ridiculous situation that everyone watching a game had accurate information about whether a batsman was out or not – except the bloody umpire. It was ridiculous.
Cricket authorities have since become more open to the use of technology, but not enough. They almost seem to use it grudgingly. Consider DRS, for example. If the idea of the technology called umpires is to make correct decisions, and there is more technology that will lead to even better decisions, then why don’t we use it as much as possible? Why should DRS appeals be limited for a batting side? Why should every dismissal not be reviewed as a matter of course? Reviewing a dismissal would not take more time than a batsman walking back to the pavilion, so this should be a no-brainer.
Steve Smith wouldn’t be so embarrassed then, eh?
But really, the larger issue here is that the world is changing rapidly, and our minds are not adjusting fast enough. It’s not just cricket. As a species, we don’t have enough clarity about means and ends. For example, just as umpires are a technology for making correct decisions on a cricket field, consider that animals are a technology for growing food. And now that scientists have figured out a way to grow meat in labs without sentient animals being involved, they may soon be an outdated technology, at least for this use case. That might lead to goats going extinct. (Not puppies, though, because puppies can be hugged.)
Equally, hugs are a technology for oxytocin generation. Romance is a technology for the way it makes us feel and the chemicals it releases. If we could pop a pill and feel the same way, would we bother to fall in love, or hug or cuddle or caress, or even woo? Are we so arrogant enough to believe that the love we feel for anyone is truly transcendent, and not mere technology? And also, is humanity any loftier than just a carrier for the trillions of bacteria that inhabit us? What suckers we are, that we behave as if we’re the rulers of the universe?
Okay, excuse the digression, your life has meaning. Happy now? Get back to watching the cricket, but do think about how it makes you feel, and the purpose of it all.
I am a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, but the man had some strange views. In Hind Swaraj, written shortly after he turned 40 in 1909, Gandhi tore into some of the symbols of the modern age. “Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin,” he wrote. “To study European medicine is to deepen our slavery.” He railed against the railways, saying “it is beyond dispute that they propagate evil.” He argued against lawyers, despite being one himself, saying they had “impoverished the country.” But here’s a thing to note: despite these personal views, he never once suggested that railways, hospitals and lawyers should be banned.
There is a notion being spread these days that is as absurd as the ideas above: it is the notion that there is something wrong with using cash, and that we should head towards being a cashless society. This is nonsense. A cashless society would be a disaster for India. Here’s why.
One, a fully cashless society would mean the end of privacy. There would be a digital trail of every action you take through your purchases and transfers. If you buy AIDS medication or a porn magazine or book a hotel room for a romantic alliance, this information can be accessed by the government – or any hacker with the requisite skills – and used against you. India has no privacy laws, and data protection is also a big worry – every week we hear stories of some some big hacking or the other, from the Congress in India to the Democratic Party in the US.
Two, a fully cashless society could mean the end of dissent. The government can use any data it gathers against you. (Even if you commit no crime, there is much you may be embarrassed by.) What’s more, they could make any opponent a pauper with one keystroke, freezing your bank account while they investigate alleged misdeeds. Just the fact that they have this power could have a chilling effect on dissent. Those in government now may well salivate over this, but tables turn fast, and when they are in opposition, would they want their opponents to have such power over them?
Three, a fully cashless society endangers freedom. Cash is empowerment: ask the young wife who saves spare cash from her alcoholic husband; or the old mother who stuffs spare notes under her mattress for years because it gives her a sense of autonomy. Indeed, in a misogynist country like India, cashlessness would hit women the hardest.
It is a myth that an advanced society must necessarily be cashless. In Germany, a country which knows the perils of authoritarianism, more than 80% of transactions are in cash, as citizens safeguard their privacy and freedom. Even in the USA, 45% of transactions are in cash. Note that Germany and the USA actually have the banking and technological infrastructure to enable cashlessness. In India, 600 million people have no bank account, and less than 20% of all Indians have a smartphone. Internet penetration is iffy, as is power. (By ‘power’, I mean electricity, not the government’s control over you.) Trying to make India cashless is akin to putting a bullock cart in an F1 race, and whipping the driver because he’s too slow.
It is true that many technologies imperil our privacy, like any app we download on our phones, for example. But those actions are voluntary, and we can choose to avoid them. That is the crux of the matter. My objection here is not to cashlessness per se, but to the coercion implicit in the currency swap of November 8 and its aftermath. A cashless society would only be good if we evolve towards it, not if we are forced into it.
At the moment, the common Indian is wary, for good reason. Digital payments involve transaction costs, are unreliable because of infrastructure issues, and hey, who would trust an Indian bank after what the RBI just did? The beneficiaries of forced cashlessness are not consumers, but vested interests like banks and payment companies. Indeed, this might even be the largest redistribution of wealth from poor to rich in the history of humanity.
The BJP itself continues to take cash donations and shift goalposts. When the demonetisation was announced, they said it was meant to attack black money and counterfeit currency. Once it became apparent that those reasons were nonsense, the government tried to change the narrative into one about a cashless society. Within a fortnight of that, they are already backtracking and saying they meant ‘less cash’ when they said ‘cashless’. The truth is this: demonetisation was a humanitarian disaster that is crippling our economy, and no matter how many times Modi and gang try to rationalise it, it cannot be done. One day, these men will stop trying. When they cannot justify any more, they will distract.
Like cancers and heart disease, Alzheimer’s is a sickness of the wealthy.That is because it is a sickness of the old.
Reflect on that a bit, and consider the irony of how bad news can be good news. The proliferation of these diseases stands testament to much our species has advanced. That is awesome—but only till it’s my turn.
Thank you for the recent love song, She Mooooves Me, which you wrote and dedicated to ‘all the cows on Planet Earth’. Me and my friends here in England have it on loop on CowTube. There are few humans we like—you lot enslave us, molest us for milk every morning, and kill us and sell our meat after that. So we’re not very fond of your species. But you, Amit, we have always liked you, because you understand us, you’re a good listener, and you’re so so cute! But this is not mere fanmail. I am unwell right now, hugely under the weather, and I need to rant. And like I said, you’re a good listener. So here goes.
I won’t go into the details of my illness with you, except to say it’s not just a mere cold. Serious shit is going down, and I’m in a lot of pain everyday. And how am I being treated? With sugar pills. Sugar fuckin’ pills. Oh yes, you may pick your jaw up from the floor now, you don’t want a snail entering while you’re all astonished. (Happened to Lucy once.) This is for real, so let me quote from a report last month in the London Telegraph.
The report says: “British organic farmers are being forced to treat their livestock with homeopathic remedies under European Commission rules branded ‘scientifically illiterate’ by vets. Although homeopathy has been branded as ‘rubbish’ by the government’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, organic farmers have been told they must try it first under an EU directive which came into force last year.”
Yes, that’s right. There are serious issues with my liver, I need antibiotics badly, the pain is excruciating, and my owners are being forced to treat me with bloody sugar pills! You’re a rationalist, Amit, I know you feel my pain right now. (Well, not literally, for that you’d need my liver, but you know what I mean.) That some humans believe in this nonsense is understandable, you’re a nonsense species, and by all means do whatever you want to yourselves. But why force it on us cows?
I first got to know homeopathy was bunkum thanks to your writings. First, there’s the science behind it. The idea of homeopathy is that the substance that is to be used to treat the patient is so diluted that it is unlikely that there is a single molecule of the substance in the pills the patient ends up consuming. As Martin Gardner once said, it is “equivalent to taking one grain of rice, crushing it to a powder, dissolving it in a sphere of water the size of the solar system, with the sun at the centre and the orbit of Pluto at the outside, and then repeating that process 2 million times.” My mind boggles at imagining the scale of this: not the solar system, but the idiocy.
Naturally, homeopathy doesn’t work. The standard scientific way of testing medicines is via double-blind placebo-controlled tests, and homeopathy has repeatedly failed those. I have read accounts of this in two great books you recommended, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. I no longer have copies of those books – let’s just say that they’ve been chewed and digested – but I recommend them to all those who wish to argue with me on the subject.
My friend Lucy is not into books, though – that’s why her brain is full of grass. And she said to me the other day, “Well, I had indigestion from accidentally swallowing a snail, and I was given homeopathy, and now I’m fine. So surely it works.” I get this all the time, which proves that some cows can be as thick as some humans. So I explained to Lucy the fallacies in such thinking.
First, I told her about the placebo effect. Sometimes, even if you’ve been given a pill containing no medicine at all, if you think you’ve been given proper medicine, you start responding to it. In Bad Science Goldacre wrote about an American anaesthetist during World War 2, Henry Beecher, who had to perform an operation on a soldier with “horrific injuries”. Morphine wasn’t available so he used salt water. And it worked! The placebo effect is an incredibly powerful and well documented effect, which is why when new medicines are tested, they are tested against placebos. Only if they do better than placebos are they considered effective. Homeopathic medicines always fail these tests, because hey, they’re just sugar pills as well.
Another phenomenon I explained to Lucy is regression to the mean. Many ailments work in a natural cycle, where you get worse and then get better, quite on your own. This is true for colds, backaches, migraines, and also Lucy’s indigestion. But if you are inclined to believe that a particular treatment works, you will take the medicine, get better on your own, and ascribe it to the medicine. This is the Confirmation Bias at work, and also that other one, I forget the name, you write about it often, which mistakes correlation for causation.
Anyway, so I patiently explained all this to Lucy, and you know what she did? She said ‘Whatever.’ Then she swished her tail, turned around and stepped into a pile of her own dung. I’d do a facepalm if I could.
Anyway, enough ranting. I just want to thank you again for your song. If you’ve visiting England sometime, please come over to the farm and meet the girls, we’d be sooooo happy. We can’t offer much in terms of hospitality, but I’ll gladly share my sugar pills with you.
This is the 33rd installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
One of the ironies of poker is that at a nine-handed poker table, all nine players believe that they are profitable, if not the best player at the table. This obviously cannot be the case. Poker is a negative-sum game: the rake takes a percentage of each pot or tournament, and winners win less than what losers lose. Also, easily more than 90% of players are long-term losers, and most of the winners are just marginal winners. So what’s going on here?
I have two answers for you: 1. The nature of poker as a game. 2. Human nature itself. Let’s get the easy one out of the way.
Every game contains differing elements of luck, and although poker is unquestionably a game of skill, the quantum of luck in it is far higher than in other games. A winning player’s edge translates into a profit only in the long-term. Over a short span of time, it is difficult to tell from results who is the fish and who the shark. Losers win their fair share of pots and tournaments, which fosters the belief that they are better than they really are. But their flawed self-assessment is a consequence not just of the nature of poker, but of human nature itself.
A few decades ago, the writer Garrison Keillor created a fictional town named Lake Wobegon, where, he wrote, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” This gave its name to the Lake Wobegon Effect, also known as Illusory Superiority, a tendency humans have of overestimating their abilities. This tendency crops ups across contexts: in studies, people have been known to overestimate their driving skills (everyone can’t be above average) and terminally ill cancer patients have also, poignantly, overestimated their chances of survival.
You will see the Lake Wobegon Effect in poker, as also its sister, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Wikipedia defines the Dunning-Kruger Effect as ‘a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.’
In the context of poker, a player may think he is better than he is because he lacks understanding of the game, or the intellectual tools to perceive his own weaknesses. I see this around me in many players. They don’t understand the long-term nature of the game, focus only on their own hand and don’t think in terms of ranges or equities, are results-oriented rather than process-oriented, and consider pots they win to be a validation of their skill while attributing their losses to bad luck. Some of these guys avoid putting in the hard work to get better, and rationalise this sloth; some of them are simply not capable of improving. This is not a defect in character any more than being human is.
How can you guard against the Lake Wobegon Effect and the Dunning-Kruger Effect in yourself? Here are two things you can do. One, always ask yourself what your edge is in any game you go to. If you can’t define this precisely in terms of how you are exploiting the specific weaknesses of others, you don’t have an edge. Two, keep track of all your scores, and see how much money you make over a decent sample size of sessions. Your brain might deceive you—but the numbers won’t lie.
This is the 24th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
If there is one quality that distinguishes humans from other species, it is our arrogance. We think we are masters of the universe – but really, we are not even masters of our own selves.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the cognitive neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry carried out a series of studies on split-brain patients that are now legendary in the field. One of the treatments for severe epilepsy is to cut the corpus callosum, the collection of neural fibres that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. This results in what is known as a split brain, when the two halves of the brain cannot communicate with each other. (In popular psychology, the left brain is considered to control rational thought while the right brain is more intuitive and creative. This is a simplification, but a useful one.) Gazzaniga and Sperry’s experiments aimed to find out what consequence this had on behaviour, and what it revealed about the brain.
The good doctors separated the visual fields of the two hemispheres, and flashed an instruction to the right hemisphere. In one example: “Walk”. The subject got up and started walking. When asked why he suddenly got up and started walking, he replied, “To get a Coke,” – and here’s the remarkable thing: he actually believed that was the reason. Time after time, across instructions, across split-brain subjects, the docs found that the right hemisphere responded to one thing and the left hemisphere, having no way of knowing what the right brain was responding to, would rationalise the actions the person took.
Steven Pinker, in his influential book The Blank Slate, referred to these experiments and called the conscious mind “a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.” Gazzaniga himself referred to the left brain as merely “the interpreter.” VS Ramachandran wrote in Phantoms in the Brain, “[t]he left hemisphere’s job is to create a belief system or model and to fold new experiences into that belief system. If confronted with some new information that doesn’t fit the model, it relies on Freudian defence mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate – anything to preserve the status quo.”
Consider this possibility: we do many things, some would even argue all things, driven by forces we can’t control. We are slaves of our wiring, our brain chemistry, of impulses and drives we may not even be aware of. Our left brain, our ‘spin doctor’, our ‘interpreter’, neatly rationalises all this and comes up with reasons for everything we do. Why are we walking? Because we want a Coke. There’s a reason for everything we do; but it’s not necessarily the real reason, even if we believe it to be so.
This brings up the obvious question of the existence of free will, and Gazzaniga actually wrote a fascinating book about this, Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. (Contrary to what you might expect, he actually makes a case for free will.) But that is a complex philosophical subject that is beyond the ambit of this column, which, after all, is about poker.
All the time, on the poker table, I see players articulate reasons for actions that sound just like the bullshitting of the left hemisphere. I see addicts, chasing one more dopamine rush, playing every hand, but rationalising any particular call. (“I was in position.” “I thought I’ll outplay him postflop.” “What if I hit?”) I see them making terrible calls because they’ve gotten attached to their hands and can’t let go, and give silly reasons after the fact. (“He was polarised there.” “He often bluffs, I have history with him.”) I see them unable to get up from sessions when they should book their hefty profits, and ditto when they should just book their losses. (“The table was so juicy, I thought I will clean it up/recover.”) I see players not in control of themselves, and with reasons for everything.
So when you play poker, or do anything at all in your life for that matter, watch out for the interpreter at work. Always ask yourself hard questions, and remember, the easy answers are usually wrong.
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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.
This is the 11th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
A few days ago, a friend rang me up to tell me a bad-beat story. He called a preflop raise in a home game with 33. The flop came A83r. The initial raiser c-bet, my friend raised, villain overbet- shoved for 500bb, my friend called, villain showed ATo. The turn was an ace. The river was an 8. ‘He was 2% to win the hand,’ my friend moaned. ‘How unlikely is that?’ ‘It’s unlikely,’ I replied. ‘But it’s also inevitable.’
That sounds contradictory, but it’s true, once you account for the lens through which you view poker. From a short-term perspective, the beat that my friend got is unlikely: it will happen one in 50 times. But the long view is that over the millions of hands that my friend will play in his life, this beat will happen to him again and again and again. To understand this, allow me to introduce you to a term coined by the mathematician David J Hand: ‘The Improbability Principle.’
In an excellent book by the same name, Hand lays out the Improbability Principle: ‘Extremely improbable events are commonplace.’ This seems counter-intuitive, but Hand elaborates upon it with a series of mathematical laws. The first of them is the Law of Inevitability: ‘If you make a complete list of possible outcomes, then one of them must occur.’ Lotteries are an illustration of this. Let’s say you buy a lottery ticket, and stand a 1 in 10 million chance of winning it. Every single person who has bought a ticket to that lottery has the odds stacked against him – and yet, someone will win: improbably, but inevitably.
Millions of poker hands are played every day across the world, mostly online. At a conservative estimate, let’s assume that every week, 100,000 sets run into top pair. At 50-1 to lose,it’s likely that 2000 of these will be busted. Yours could be one of them.
The next law, the Law of Truly Large Numbers states: ‘With a large enough number of opportunities, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.’ If you play enough poker, you will run AA into a smaller pair repeatedly. You’re supposed to win around 80% of those, so if you play 10,000 such hands, you should expect to lose 2000 of those. And yet, I know people who whimper like a baby every time their AA is cracked by 88. In poker, everything that is unlikely in the short run is inevitable in the long run.
Also consider the Law of Selection: ‘You can make probabilities as high as you like after the event.’ Let’s go back to the previous example of AA being cracked by a smaller pair. Over a sample size of 10k iterations, not only will this happen to you 2k times, but it’s likely that somewhere in there, you will receive that beat 4 times in a row. It would be a mistake to ignore the other 9996 times, select that sequence of four in a row, and whine, ‘My aces got busted all 4 times that I got them today, there’s a 1 in 625 chance of that happening, this site is rigged.’
Hand’s book has more math laws that explain the Improbability Principle, and I’d recommend it strongly to all my readers, not just to poker players. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and tend to give too much significance to coincidences and improbable events. Conspiracy theories and pseudosciences feed upon our misunderstanding of probabilities. Indeed, I think belief in God also relies, to a large extent, on our innumeracy. Perhaps my heresy is responsible for all my bad beats?
We don’t really have a problem that there aren’t enough television sets in our society. We really don’t. I mean we did once. I mean it used to be that some people had television sets and some people don’t. We don’t have that problem anymore in America.
When somebody writes the human history of Americans, the fact that 25 years from now we will have done most of the following: cure Alzheimer’s, apply stem cells to prevent diabetes, develop approaches that enable most of us to be the weight we want to be, rather than the weight we are, and find a solution for dementia, the fact that 25 years from now we will have done not all of those things, but we will have done most of those things, I think that looms enormously large.
If you look at the price earnings ratio for technology companies relative to the price earnings ratios for all industrial companies, you take that ratio, PE technology divided by PE industrial, you can plot that ratio over the last 40 years, and it is at the lowest point that it’s ever been.
So if you look at the large tech sector, it’s very, very hard to see a bubble. [...] What is true is that the Internet, the last time there was an Internet bubble, was 120 million people dialing up.
The Internet today is two billion people and two billion mobile devices, with wireless connectivity at a far more rapid pace. Today, the businesses have cash flow, which they didn’t ten years ago. So I think it’s a little facile to assume that just because the numbers are big, that it’s obviously a bubble.
There’s a section in which Summers talks about the different styles of the two presidents he’s worked for, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Most interesting.
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And yeah, I’m encouraged by his prediction that 25 years from now, I’ll be the weight I want to be. An exercise regime, in these circumstances, seems short-sighted.
[T]he fact of the matter is that cell phones do cause brain damage. Cell phones cause brain (and body) damage when people use them while driving. Cell phones distract, whether we measure in the lab or on the road, and they distract enough to make cell phone use not all that different from driving under the influence of alcohol (at the illegal level). In marked contrast to the studies on cell phones and brain cancer the studies on cell phones and driving are broadly consistent and suggestive of a small but significant increase in death (your own and that of others). [Links in the original.]
Men are worse at multi-tasking than women, for evolutionary reasons, but it’s certainly true that anyone who speaks on the phone while driving is doing something profoundly stupid. But leave that aside, here’s a thought I have: if speaking on the phone impairs a driver’s facilities in the same way that alcohol does, then would it also be the case that it has the same effect on other activities? Is multi-tasking, thus, as potentially hazardous in the short term as alcohol?
To take just one random activity as an example, would a man having sex while talking on the phone perform as poorly as a very drunk man? This is certainly an experiment worth carrying out, and I encourage you to go for it. In the interests of science.
I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish. That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation. I wish that children nowadays could have similar experiences, but it’s not very easy.
I think Miyamoto’s lament holds true not just for kids but for all of us. We are desensitized and apathetic, and there is no sense of wonder in our lives anymore. How does one recapture it? I don’t think going back to nature and escaping from the urban grind is an answer in itself. Those of us who do that do it as an anaesthetic or a balm. There has to be something more.
... have been announced. It’s a solid line-up, and I’ll be looking forward to the talks by Antonio Damasio, David Brooks, Anthony Atala, Ed Boyden and especially Roger Ebert, who has reinvented himself so magnificently on Twitter. And ah, there’s also Salman Khan—not the Bollywood actor, but the entrepreneur who created the wonderful Khan Academy. It should be quite something.
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Aside: If the Bollywood Salman Khan was ever invited to TED to give a shirtless speech, what do you think he’d talk about?
I have often said that economics, to the extent it is a science, is like biology rather than physics. Let me try to make that clearer. By biology, I do not mean the study of the human cell, which we have made a great deal of progress understanding though there is more to learn. I am thinking of biology in the sense of an ecosystem where competition and emergent order create a complex interaction of organisms and their environment. That sounds a lot like economics and of course it is. But we would never ask of biologists what the public and media ask of economists. We do not expect a biologist to forecast how many squirrels will be alive in ten years if we increase the number of trees in the United States by 20%. A biologist would laugh at you. But that is what people ask of economists all the time.
Beautifully put—and you can make the same comparison with medicine. I am just reading The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s magisterial history of cancer, and the similarities between medicine and economics in the last century are striking. You see hubris, false certainties, ideological fervour, and mistakes on a giant scale that cause the suffering of millions and are diagnosed only in retrospect. Both fields have grown by quantum leaps and achieved much: Just look at the radical increase in life expectancies and living standards in the last 100 years. But complexity still abounds, cancer still kills, economies still fail, and humility is always a good thing.
Growing up, I was a lucky kid. My father was an avid reader, and his collection of books numbered in the thousands. It wasn’t a surprise, then, with books all around me, that I became a keen reader as well. At an age when other children dream of being astronauts or movie stars or cricketers, I wanted to be a writer. And I wasn’t just reading Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys—at age ten, I discovered a book called The House of the Dead, thought the title indicated a thrilling read, and embarked on my first foray into serious literature. It happened to be written by a dude named Dostoevsky, and while it didn’t contain the ghost stories I expected, it got me hooked. Dostoevsky was my first favourite, and I admit that looking back on it, I find it a bit freaky that I read all the major Russian novelists at age ten, and all of Shakespeare as well. (I liked Titus Andronicus more than Macbeth, so it’s fair to say that my tastes weren’t all that refined.)
My reading habit ebbed and flowed over the years. From a weird-ass, serious geeky kid who read a lot, I turned into a rebellious teenager who wore torn jeans, listened to alternative rock and didn’t read all that much. But one thing didn’t change: the desire to be a writer. After college, I wandered into copywriting, then into writing for television, then journalism, then blogging, and then after years of procrastination that I blame on my half-Bengali genes, I finally wrote my first novel a couple of years back. None of this would have been possible if my dad hadn’t been such a collector of books, and if serendipity hadn’t started at home. Forget the fact that I am a writer: I’d be an entirely different person if I hadn’t been the kind of reader that I was. My life would have been diminished.
As it happens, I have become a bit of a book collector like my father was, and while he lived in large, spacious bungalows all his adult life, I have lived in relatively small apartments in Mumbai for much of mine, and the thousands of books I own have created a major storage issue. The bookshelves are overflowing; all the beds with storage space are filled with books; there are three cupboards filled with books; the tables and sofas in my living room overflow with them. So it’s a surprise that I held out for so long before buying my first Kindle.
One reason I didn’t buy the Kindle earlier is that I like the feel of books in my hand. (Not so much the much-touted smell of paper, because years of sinus issues have ravaged my sense of smell.) Also, I used to think that I wouldn’t like the Kindle because one can’t read off a computer screen for too long. However, on using a friend’s Kindle, I discovered that the E Ink technology that the Kindle uses replicates the look of print on paper almost exactly, and is easy on the eyes. (No backlit screens and all that.) Also, the marketplace, which was once a bit limited, has now expanded, and book prices are quite affordable: often cheaper than you’d get in a real bookshop, and when it’s not, the premium is worth it in terms of convenience and storage space. So I’ve gotten myself a Kindle 3, and I love the machine already: it’s lighter than a paperback, can contain thousands of books, and the look and feel is just wonderful.
But I’m not writing this column to evangelize the Kindle as a device. I’m writing, instead, because while browing the online store, I remembered my privileged childhood. I bought a handful of books on my first day with the machine, but the vast majority of the hundreds of books I downloaded in my first few hours with it were free. Every book published before 1924 is in the public domain, and therefore free to download. So there I was, reliving my childhood, downloading Dostoevsky and Turgenev and Dickens and Shakespeare and Mark Twain and even some of Agatha Christie and Wodehouse on my Kindle—for free. In half a day, I put together a collection of books that must have taken my father years of perseverance and saving up to compile. To me, that is a matter of great wonder.
For someone who doesn’t like children very much, and chose long ago not to have any himself, I will now have the audacity to give the parents reading this piece a word of advice: kindle your children. The biggest thing you can do for your kids is open up the world to them, and reading is a great way of doing that. One can’t force kids to read, of course, but merely having books around the house is often enough. (Most avid readers I know picked up the habit that way.) The Kindle—or any other ebook reader that you prefer—saves you a lot of trouble and makes it easy to put a world of books at your kids’ disposal. So here’s what I suggest: gift your kid a Kindle, load it up with a library of free classic books, and set up a one-click payment system through a debit card with a monthly budget so that your kids can buy a reasonable amount of books themselves, regularly, without your supervision. Give them the power—and set them free. There is a good chance that, 30 years later, they will thank you for it. And, thanks to the wonders of technology, it will take you far less effort than it took my dad.
I was delighted this Monday when my fellow Yahoo! columnist Girish Shahane took on homeopathy in his column ‘Sugar Pills and Skepticism’. It needed to be done, but while I found myself agreeing with much of his piece, I was disappointed by the last paragraph, in which Girish said that he uses homeopathy occasionally, and that it sometimes seemed “to have an effect, particularly with respect to allergies.” This is a fairly common view among many people, who admit that while homeopathy has no scientific foundation, ‘it seems to work’. For many of my friends, this puts homeopathy in the category of things that conventional science can’t explain yet, rather than those that have no scientific basis at all.
I used homeopathy for a few years when I was much younger. I believed then that it worked on me. I still have much fondness for my erstwhile homeopath, who I believe to be neither a fraud nor a fool. And some people close to me still pop sugar pills when they are ill. Yet, I now believe that homeopathy is no less ridiculous than astrology or numerology, and no more scientific than them. I’ve travelled the entire arc of belief when it comes to homeopathy, from an automatic, peer-influenced faith to skepticism to unbelief and contempt—and that is the subject of my column today: why so many people believe in homeopathy even though it is, to put it plainly, nonsense.
I won’t do a detailed debunking of homeopathy here. For that, I refer you to books like Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst’s Trick or Treatment, as well as this classic talk by James Randi. To summarise, the methodology of homeopathy makes no sense whatsoever, and scientific trials, when carried out with proper rigour, have shown homeopathic medicine to be no better than placebo, the standard for judging the efficacy of any new medicine.
The most bizarre thing about its methodology is the composition of the medicine itself. In homeopathic medicine, the substance being used to treat a patient has to be so diluted that there is generally not a chance that a single molecule of the substance remains in the medicine a patient is taking. In Randi’s video, for example, he displays a homeopathic sleeping aid that contains, as its active ingredient, caffeine. (Homeopaths believe that the substances that cause a particular condition should be used to treat it. Go figure.) The dilution of the caffeine in the medicine: “10 to the power of 1500.”
Randi asked the maths writer Martin Gardner if there was a way of explaining to the layman how much that really was. Gardner explained, “That’s equivalent to taking one grain of rice, crushing it to a powder, dissolving it in a sphere of water the size of the solar system, with the sun at the centre and the orbit of Pluto at the outside, and then repeating that process 2 million times.”
In Bad Science, Goldacre offers another analogy: “Imagine a sphere of water with a diameter of 150 million kilometers (the distance from the earth to the sun). It takes light eight minutes to travel that distance. Picture a sphere of water that size, with one molecule of a substance in it: that’s a 30c dilution.”
By these standards, there are so many impurities in regular drinking water that we are probably being treated for every major disease anyway.
Leave aside methodology. Maybe modern science hasn’t advanced enough, and we just don’t get it. Methodology would not matter if homeopathy actually worked. The standard test in medicine for seeing whether a treatment works is a double-blind placebo-controlled test. In this, patients are randomly divided into two groups, one of which is given the treatment being tested, and the other is given placebo—such as pills that look like real ones, but are actually inert. Neither the patients nor the doctors know which group is getting the treatment and which the placebo (that’s why it’s ‘double-blind’), thus eliminating psychological biases on their part. The mere belief that they are being treated often helps patients, so the true test for a treatment is if it can do better than placebo.
Homeopathy has failed such trials consistently. (Bad Science covers this subject in some depth, and also explains why some of the trials homeopaths claim have been successful have had methodological flaws, and suchlike.) There was a time when I wanted to believe the damn thing worked—but there is no evidence of it.
That brings us back to belief. Why do so many immensely smart people around us believe that homeopathy works if it does not? Surely they can’t all be deluded?
One reason why homeopathy seems to work on so many people is the aforementioned placebo effect. This is a remarkably powerful phenomenon, one that medical scientists are still studying with wonder. In Bad Science, Goldacre wrote about Henry Beecher, an American anaesthetist who operated on a soldier with “horrific injuries” during World War 2, using salt water instead of morphine, which was not available. It worked. Similar stories abound through the history of medicine, and the placebo effect is an established part of medical science. If you believe you are taking medicine, that belief itself might help you get better, and you will naturally ascribe the recovery to the medicine you took. This is why, for any medicine to get the approval of the scientific establishment, it has to be shown to be better than placebo—otherwise what’s the point?
There is also a phenomenon called regression to the mean which comes into play. Many diseases or physical conditions have a natural cycle—they get worse, and then they get better, quite on their own. This can be true of backaches, migraines, common colds, stomach upsets, practically anything non-major. If you take homeopathy during the course of this, and you get better, you might well ascribe causation where there is only correlation, and assume the medicine did it. As Simon Singh puts it, you may take homeopathy for a cold or a bruise, and “recover after just seven days instead of taking a whole week.” And there you go, you’re a lifetime fan of Phos 1M right there. (This is known as the Regressive Fallacy.)
I suspect this was one reason homeopathy became popular in the first place. Back in the 19th century, conventional medicine was in its infancy, and as Goldacre wrote in his book, “mainstream medicine consisted of blood-letting, purging and various other ineffective and dangerous evils, when new treatments were conjured up out of thin air by arbitrary authority figures who called themselves ‘doctors’, often with little evidence to support them.”
Indeed, seeing a doctor or visiting a hospital probably increased your chances of dying. Atul Gawande, in his book Better, tells us in another context that in the mid-19th century, at the hospital in Vienna where the doctor Ignac Semmelweis worked, 20% of the mothers who delivered babies in hospitals died. The corresponding figure for mothers who delivered at home: 1%. The culprit: infections carried by doctors who did not wash their hands. (Semmelweis tried to reform the system and was sacked.) This, then, was the state of mainstream medicine when homeopathy began gaining in popularity. In contrast, homeopathy was harmless, would not make you worse or give you an infection and kill you, and if you recovered in the natural course of things, you would give it the credit and tell all your friends about it. The growth of the system, I say with intended irony, was viral.
When it comes to any kind of belief, the confirmation bias comes into play. If we use homeopathy, we do so because we are inclined to believe in it, and our ego gets tied up with that belief. After that, we ignore all evidence that it doesn’t work, and every time we pop a few sugar pills and get better, we give homeopathy the credit. Also, the fact that so many other believers exist reinforces our own belief, for all these people surely can’t be wrong.
In a way, belief in homeopathy is similar to religious belief. (Yes, I’m an atheist as well.) I don’t berate my religious friends for their beliefs, because even though they might be wrong, there is often comfort in that kind of wrongness, especially when dealing with issues of mortality and insignificance. Similarly, if someone I know wants to pop homeopathic pills for a stomach ache or a common cold, I’ll let them be, both because of the power of the placebo effect, and because they’re likely to get better on their own anyway. (Also, I’d rather see them taking sugar pills than, say, antibiotics for something so trivial.)
But just as religious belief can be taken too far, so can homeopathic faith. When people treat serious ailments with sugar pills instead of proper medicine, matters get problematic - especially if they force such treatment on others, such as the Aussie homeopathy lecturer Girish wrote about and I’d blogged about once, who killed his daughter by insisting that her eczema be treated with homeopathy alone. That demonstrates that while blind faith may have its consolations, it can be lethal when taken too far. If only it could be given a homeopathic dilution.
BBC informs us that scientists have now found a way to genetically engineer glowing sperms so they can “track the seed’s progress inside the female, in real time.” Sperms that fail to make it to their destination will be given the pink slip.
Interestingly, the IPCC study is reported to have taken the deadline on the melting of the Himalayas from a Russian study, which predicted the melting of the glaciers by 2350. IPCC changed it to 2035, making it a ‘Himalayan’ blunder.
If you’re predisposed to reaching a particular conclusion, and all your incentives are tailored towards it, then such mistakes become inevitable. It doesn’t help that RK Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, calls himself “unsinkable”. Mr Pachauri, remember the Titanic, for which that term was also used? There’s an iceberg of truth heading your way.
Also, Pachauri really does owe VK Raina an apology. Maybe, following the example of David Frith, he should literally eat up all the IPCC reports. That would make for a good YouTube video.
(I got some of these links via an online discussion involving Mohit Satyanand, Barun Mitra, Yazad Jal and Sruthijith KK, among others.)
It’s somehow appropriate for a lazy half-Bong to come up with a sleeper hit. Open Magazine‘s latest issue has a feature story titled “Silent Bestsellers”, and My Friend Sancho is one of the subjects of the piece.
There was actually a decent amount of buzz about the book both before and after it was published, so maybe it’s not so much of a sleeper. But it’s true, as the author of that story says, that “cocktail crowds don’t trip over each other trying to grab a photo op” with me. It is entirely their loss, I must say, for my company is more intoxicating than a Long Island Iced Tea spiked with Bhang.
In other personal news, the December issue of the Indian edition of the magazine T3 has compiled The T3 Tech 100, their list of 100 movers and shakers in the technology world. Anil Ambani comes in at No. 82, Jimmy Wales is No. 83, and Amit Varma is No. 84. (This Indian list doesn’t seem to be online, but here’s a screengrab, if I may call it that.) Shah Rukh Khan is No. 86, and I hope this settles once and for all the longstanding debate about which of us is a bigger stud.
No, but really, it’s an interesting list. Stephen Fry clocks in at No. 4, ahead of Steve Jobs (7), Steve Ballmer (10), Barack Obama (18), Bill Gates (27), Tim Berners-Lee (36), Mike Arrington (58) and Jeff Bezos (63). Go figure.
The last time I made such an august list was in April this year, when Business Weeknamed me one of India’s 50 Most Powerful People. The local auto drivers haven’t got the memo, though, and keep refusing to go where I want. Like, dude, do you not know who I am? I’m the juggernaut, bitch.
Maybe I should act in a Shah Rukh Khan film instead of him.
Every day, as we go about our mundane tasks, scientists and researchers are engaged in work that increases our understanding of the world in profound ways. Consider the following two studies, for example.
Study One: Cows and Names: In this pathbreaking study, researchers who do not need to get a life, thank you, have discovered that cows with names give more milk than cows without names. The lead researcher has been quoted as saying: “Placing more importance on knowing the individual animals and calling them by name can significantly increase milk production. Just as people respond better to the personal touch, cows also feel happier and more relaxed if given one-to-one attention.”
Study Two: Men and Alcohol: In a revelation that will send the men among you tumbling to the nearest pub, “new research suggests that moderate drinking actually protects against impotence in the long term.” The study finds that “drinkers experienced rates of impotence 25% to 30% below those of teetotallers.” So sweep that glass of fresh-lime soda off the table on your next date, and ask for a beer. “I will take you to heaven,” tell your love, “but first I must drink seven.”
And what is the conclusion from these two studies? Just this: The next time you are dating a cow, have a drink or two; but don’t drink so much that you forget her name.
Actually, both diamonds and tequila can make a girl weak at the knees, so this new development is quite apt. If you can’t afford a ring for the love of your life, just dip her finger in a shot of tequila.
World renowned cool company Apple Inc. has launched their latest product, the iThing – a strange, minimalistic handheld device with no apparent features or uses. Now available in stores globally, the iThing is unbelievable sleek, sexy, desirable and useless. While even Apple has admitted that they have no idea what it actually is, this hasn’t prevented millions of Mac fans from lining up outside retail outlets from the wee hours of the morning to be among the first to own one.
Meanwhile across the world people are dropping Microsoft’s MS Thing and finding that it… crashes. So there we go.
A 16-year-old girl in Madhya Pradesh allegedly committed suicide after watching news about the possibility of the end of earth, following the atom-smasher experiment in Geneva that began on Wednesday.
Chhaya, a resident of Sarangpur town in Rajgarh district, consumed sulphos tablets (an insecticide) on Tuesday, her parents said.
Her parents told reporters that she had been watching reports about the world’s biggest atom-smasher experiment in Geneva on news channels since the last two days, following which she got restless and ended her life.
It’s a horribly sad story, and I wonder what went through her mind as she made her decision, and what other factors contributed to it. I’m guessing she wasn’t particularly happy otherwise, and there were other black holes in her life besides the notional ones in the news. (Speaking of which, read this.)
And see the irony—I read this story shortly after getting an email from Nitin that today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I’ve been keeping a close watch on myself ever since.
I love Chris Albrecht’s response to the news that “Sega is rolling out a line of 15-inch robot girlfriends that will kiss on command”:
I never like to buy the first generation of any tech product, so I’ll wait for EMA 2.0, which replicates the girlfriend experience even more by giving you a kiss, then pausing and looking at you. You ask her what’s wrong, she says, “Nothing.” You ask if it was something you did but she just sits there, crosses her robot arms and says, “It’s fine.” You say obviously she’s not fine, to which she responds with, “I’m fine. Whatever. Nothing’s wrong. Let’s just go.” And you say no, let’s talk about it, and she says, “We’re late, let’s just go this party and we can talk about it later,” ruining your whole evening as you try to figure out what exactly you said and — oh. Wait.
In other words, men will find themselves in a position where they can figure out neither their women nor their gadgets. What’s left to do then?
This piece of mine was published this Sunday in Mail Today (pdf link).
We live in times when progress is often denoted in statistical terms: the Sensex rises by this much, the economy grows by that much, inflation is so much, poverty is that much, and so on. In a complex world, any single piece of data always tells just part of the story. So which statistics do a good job of illustrating India’s progress? One very good one, in my view, is the divorce rate.
Divorce rates are going up across India. The figures that exist for our cities and towns show a sharp increase in the last decade or so. Many commentators bemoan this trend, speaking of the breakdown of families, the loss of family values and the influence of the West. But to me, the rising rate of divorces is a trend to celebrate. It is the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.
Rising divorce rates tell us one thing for sure: that more and more women are finding the means, and the independence, to walk out of bad marriages and live life on their own terms. If we judge ourselves as a society on the state of our women – and surely that must be a parameter – then this is good news. We do not need to credit either feminism or Western culture for this – the emancipation of women in real terms, across the world, has been enabled by technology, and can be explained most easily with economics.
In economic terms, the biggest factor behind human progress is the division of labour. If we all hunted our own meat and grew our own food, we’d still be hunter-gatherers. Adam Smith used the example of a pin factory to illustrate how division of labour improves productivity: if one man attempts to make pins all by himself, he might make about one pin a day; but his productivity can increase by as much as five thousand times if every person in the factory focuses on just one aspect of the pin production. This is true of everything in our lives, such as this newspaper you are holding: if every employee of Mail Today set out to write, design and produce the whole newspaper, it would take weeks for each person to put together a single issue, and they would all be substandard in one way or another. Instead, they specialise, and the result is in your hands every day.
Well, in the words of Tim Harford, who devotes an excellent chapter to this subject in his book The Logic of Life, the family is “the oldest pin factory of all.” In old days, before the advent of modern technology, for a single man or woman to earn a living and look after the household all by himself or herself was immensely difficult. It became a little easier if two people came together and split both tasks half and half. But it became exponentially easier if they specialised. For evolutionary reasons, and because women were stuck with child-bearing, it so happened that men traditionally got the role of earning a living while women raised kids and looked after the house.
These gender roles evolved out of circumstance, and not necessarily because women weren’t capable of earning a living. Indeed, in cases where the wife was better at both earning a living and keeping house, the traditional role allocation would still make sense for them as a unit if the husband was especially bad at housekeeping. (Economists call this “comparative advantage”.) Thus, the incompetence of men at keeping house might have played a greater role in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes than any shortcoming women might have had in the workplace.
These gender roles got reinforced culturally. If men earned a living and women looked after the house, it made economic sense to bring up children to specialise in those areas. Thus, the boys got a better vocational education while the girls were taught to cook. This also reinforced prejudices in the workplace, intimidating women from taking up a profession. Women thus became dependent on men, unable to break out of bad marriages because they simply didn’t have choices available to them. No wonder divorce was so rare.
All this changed in the 20th century. The catalyst for these changes was technology.
Technology freed women in two ways in the last century. One, household technology made it possible for women to finish off household work quickly, while it was otherwise enormously time-consuming. The cooking range, the microwave, the mixer-grinder, the pressure cooker are all commonplace kitchen items today, but imagine how arduous preparing a meal was before they existed. (It still is in poorer parts of the world and our country, which partly explains why the oppression of women varies with class.) Once these gadgets entered the kitchen, women found themselves with more free time at their disposal, which they could use to take up a job or to get an education.
Two, the pill allowed women to delay child-bearing and plan parenthood. This meant that they could be sexually active without the risk of pregnancy, and thus delay marriage. That allowed them to study further and be as qualified as men for the workforce. And, most importantly, it gave them options.
A qualified woman who chose family over work is much better placed than a woman who hasn’t got any skills to help her earn a living. She has more leverage within the relationship. One, it is easier for her to quit the marriage if she feels unhappy with it. Two, because that option is open to her, her husband cannot take her for granted, and has to treat her better than he otherwise would.
Harford, in his book, points to a study by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers that showed that as states across America passed ‘no fault’ divorce laws, allowing women easier routes to divorce, “domestic violence fell by almost a third.” When incentives were in place for men to behave better, men tended to behave better. Thus, technology not only enabled women to walk out of bad marriages, it also made them more powerful within a marriage.
In India affluence acts, in some cases, as a substitute for technology. In Mumbai, for examples, the typical middle-class house is too small for household devices like washing machines and dishcleaners. But in families that can afford household help, maids take care of those functions, freeing up women’s time in ways that technology does in the West.
Families have such sanctity in Indian tradition because until recently, people needed the division of labour that a family provides. Indeed, joint families used to be common here because, when we were a poorer country, they made economic sense. (A common kitchen for 20 people provided economies of scale.) But times have changed, incentives have changed, and to value these things for the sake of tradition alone is irrational.
As a society, our highest value should be to ensure that every individual has the maximum opportunities possible to find happiness. This means educating our daughters to be independent and removing the stigma that comes from a broken marriage. Every divorce means that two people have a better chance at finding fulfillment than they did in the marriage, and that is surely cause for celebration. In America, divorce rates climbed back down after the surge of the 1970s, mainly because young people took greater care in getting married, and premarital relationships were not considered sinful. Change is happening at different rates across classes in India, and the divorce rate will continue to rise for many, many years. That is a sign of progress, and we should be happy about it.
* * *
For more on this subject, I highly recommend checking out the chapter on divorce in Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. It’s written in an American context but its insights are universal, and it cites a number of studies that you can Google and read for yourself. My review of Harford’s book is here. I’ve also briefly touched on this subject in these two old posts: 1, 2.
The life of 20-year-old Emine, and her 24-year-old husband Ramazan Çalçoban was pretty much the normal life of any couple in a separation process. After deciding to split up, the two kept having bitter arguments over the cellphone, sending text messages to each other until one day Ramazan wrote “you change the topic every time you run out of arguments.” That day, the lack of a single dot over a letter—product of a faulty localization of the cellphone’s typing system—caused a chain of events that ended in a violent blood bath (Warning: offensive language ahead.)
The surreal mistake happened because Ramazan’s sent a message and Emine’s cellphone didn’t have an specific character from the Turkish alphabet: the letter “ı” or closed i. While “i” is available in all phones in Turkey—where this happened—the closed i apparently doesn’t exist in most of the terminals in that country.
The use of “i” resulted in an SMS with a completely twisted meaning: instead of writing the word “sıkısınca” it looked like he wrote “sikisince.” Ramazan wanted to write “You change the topic every time you run out of arguments” (sounds familiar enough) but what Emine read was, “You change the topic every time they are fucking you” (sounds familiar too.)
Read of the rest of the Gizmodo post to see what happened next. (Basically, much violence, and both Ramazan and Emine are dead now.) And when there is strife, don’t bother with messages: just call.
Check out this presentation by David Pogue on why simplicity is a virtue in software design. The musical send-ups of customer support, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are outstanding, and his call to “count the taps” should inspire any product designer. Fittingly, I first watched it on my iPod.