Tourism is not a vertical

The Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi is clearly inspired by the Taj Mahal.

While Shah Jehan commissioned the Taj for his wife, Sheikh Zayed wanted to ensure his mausoleum was in keeping with his self-image. The scale is grand – and this breathless piece describes its opulence: http://www.traveller.com.au/abu-dhabis-match-for-the-taj-mahal-7cnw.

The Abu Dhabi dome is larger, the minarets are twice as high, and the grounds are on a scale only possible in a sparsely populated desert kingdom.

The Macedonian marble of the Abu Dhabi mosque is a flawless, almost synthetic white, and since it has not been aged by the centuries. it sparkles against the clear blue skies of the gulf peninsula. You could take offence with the garish crystal chandeliers in the mosque; what you think of the inlay work is a matter of taste, but to my eye, the vast floral sprays on the floor and one wall are quite exquisite. And I couldn’t help noticing how absolutely clean the water in the reflecting pools is.

This cleanliness is, of course, true of the grounds, the security posts where guards clear you, the parking lots, and the sweeping drive into the mosque complex.

I couldn’t help compare this with my last visit to the Taj, barely 12 months earlier – the parking lot was littered and tacky; the toilets were leaking; the walkway was uneven and dusty; and the queues impossible. We take all of this as standard for our nation, but at the Sheikh Zayed mosque, I couldn’t help wondering why international visitors would want to come to the Taj, once word gets around how stunning the Abu Dhabi mausoleum is.

Turns out, the word is already out there – Last year, Trip Advisor rated it as the world’s 2nd favourite tourist attraction, just behind Angkor Vat, and ahead of the Taj Mahal, at No. 5. The rating was obtained by using traveler reviews over  a 12 month period, folding both quality and number of reviews into an algorithm developed for the purpose.

We can’t solve for the Taj, or any of our other heritage buildings alone. The shambolic state of our infrastructure, the shabby attitude and poor training of our security guards, the , er, cleanliness of toilets, the indifference to litter – these have all come to define our national character; increasingly, these, rather than the built heritage, will determine tourist traffic, which continues to lose out to other nations.

 

Mohit Satyanand

 

The Bunker and The Bridge

I was watching a film at Fort Canning Hill when I first came to know of The Battlebox. Currently a museum tucked away in Central Singapore, the Battlebox was originally a top-secret bunker that sheltered British troops during the Battle of Singapore (1942). It was here that the British decided to surrender Singapore to the Japanese, the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history.

My curiosity after taking the Battlebox tour led to me numerous personal accounts of British POWs who provided labour for building the Thai-Burma Railway under the Japanese Imperial Army. Both ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) and ‘The Railway Man’ (2013) were findings from that quest. These highly recommended anti-war films delve into the lives of the POWs in Japanese camps with the futility of war as the core theme.

While the Thai-Burma Railway is a character common to both films, they deal with two different periods in the life of the POWs. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ is a work of fiction based on French author Pierre Boulle’s 1954 novel of the same name and depicts the torture the prisoners were subjected to by the Japanese. The film is a commentary of the clash of two imperialistic powers personified by the protagonists – Colonel Nicholson and Colonel Saito, who make for a great study on military tradition, heroism and pride in war. ’The Railway Man’ makes for an appropriate subsequent watch (binge if you can). Based on the life of Eric Lomax, the film is a cinematic masterpiece about the torment of WWII soldiers with themes of guilt, isolation, revenge, confrontation and friendship are skilfully woven together.

Much has been written about the historical accuracy of these films. Claims that the Japanese have, in a way, been demonised by the West have been countered by others which argue that conditions in the camps were much worse than depicted. These are important conversations to be had about the representation of historical events. However, despite these criticisms, the two films have much to offer to cinema buffs and history geeks alike.

_______

P.S. The Battlebox having remained unused since the War was opened for the public in 1997. The museum tour takes visitors through the history of the fall of Malaya and Singapore in WWII and explains how an underground command centre functioned during the War. Romen Bose’s ‘Secrets of the Battlebox’ is an excellent read on the role of command headquarters in the Second World War.

Politics as Persuasive Performance

In this post, I juxtapose two notions about politics that I came across in the past couple of weeks.

One, in Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast on Julius Caesar (which I referenced in my two earlier posts, available here and here), Mark Antony’s famous speech is seen as an appeal to emotion and is in stark contrast with Brutus’ appeal to reason. It is a performance, a façade that Antony puts up to get what he desires.

Two, in an episode of the Waking Up Podcast on the current fate of liberalism in the USA, Mark Lilla argues against the pull of identity politics. He says that politics should not succumb to self-expression. Instead, it should be a tool for persuasion.

So, there you have the reason for the annoying alliteration in this post’s title. Politics as a combination of performance and persuasion. A persuasive performance, if you will. Of course, this begs the larger question: would it be good politics, and I use good in a value-neutral sense here, if one of these features is absent? This is something to mull over in the future.

Who gains from the new Maternity Benefit Act Amendment?

The new Amendment will harm the women working in the formal sector more than those in the informal sector.

There was a recent uproar about the new amendments were made to the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961, which extended the paid maternity leave to 26 weeks from 12 weeks. Although the move sounds positive at first glance, it holds negative repercussions for the women in the workforce.

One of the most obvious criticisms for the Act is that it would make it costly for the employer to hire women whom they would now have to give a paid leave for 28 weeks. Team Lease did a study titled “The Impact of Maternity Benefits on Business and Employment” which stated that 11 lakh to 18 lakh women will face difficulty in finding jobs in the Small and Medium Scale Industries. 

The second and the less discussed repercussion is that the amendment would impact women employed in the formal sector more than ones employed in the informal sector. There are two broad reasons. First, the formal sector is scrutinised more than the informal sector. Second, women in the formal sector are paid higher than in the informal sector. This makes the maternity leave a more expensive affair for the formal institutions.

To grasp the magnitude of the problem, we need to start with some basic facts:

  • Number of women working in the informal sector in India (2018): 90%
  • Gender pay gap in India (2017): 20%
  • The difference between the male and the female employment ratio (2017): 79% – 27% = 52%

As women in the informal sector are already cheap labour and the regulatory oversight is limited, the chances are higher than the employment rate for women in the informal sector would remain the same. Meanwhile in the formal sector, where even after the wage gap, providing a 26 week paid leave would be an expensive affair for the firm. With the formal contracts in place, the higher regulatory oversight also ensures that the employer would rather hire a male employee than overlook the new amendment. The final outcome of this would be that we will see a decline in the female labour employed in the white collar jobs, even if the status stays the same for their informal counterparts. Leaving us with the question of who is the actual beneficiary of the Act.

Instead of increasing the cost of hiring women, one of the key solutions is to make more jobs formalised. This initiative need not be just for the women. With just  6.5 per cent of the jobs formalised, the regulatory reach of the State is several limited. Increasing the formal net would allow more people to access the safety benefits provided by the state and ensure better working conditions for more people. One of the other key impacts would, of course, be that it would help empower more women to seek their rights.

Scott Alexander, Bryan Caplan and Nitin Pai on fighting crime (feat. Matt Levine)

The basic idea is that coming down hard on a small number of high-profile crimes can have disproportionate effects in terms of curbing crime

It all started with the pseudonymous blogger Scott Alexander, in what seemed like a justification of outrage. Or maybe it started earlier – with a post by Bryan Caplan deploring outrage. Caplan was commenting about the propensity of people to jump on to bandwagons deploring seemingly minor crimes while not caring enough about worse crimes that were not in the public spotlight already. Caplan had then written:

I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the greater evil, but not the lesser evil. But I can’t understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the lesser evil, but care little about the greater evil. Or why they would have strong negative feelings about one evil, but yawn in the face of a comparable evil.

Now, while “Alexander”‘s response seems to justify outrage (and I’m no fan of online outrage), he did so with an interesting analogy, on how to curb crime when the police has limited resources. He writes:

[…] the police chief publicly commits that from now on, he’s going to prioritize solving muggings over solving burglaries, even if the burglaries are equally bad or worse. He’ll put an absurd amount of effort into solving even the smallest mugging; this is the hill he’s going to die on.

Suppose you’re a mugger, deciding whether or not to commit the first new mugging in town. If you’re the first guy to violate the no-mugging taboo, every police officer in town is going to be on your case; you’re nearly certain to get caught. You give up and do honest work. Every other mugger in town faces the same choice and makes the same decision. In theory a well-coordinated group of muggers could all start mugging on the same day and break the system, but muggers aren’t really that well-coordinated.

The police chief’s public commitment solves mugging without devoting a single officer’s time to the problem, allowing all officers to concentrate on burglaries. A worst-crime-first enforcement regime has 60 crimes per day and solves 10; a mugging-first regime has 30 crimes per day and solves 10.

And then it is again Caplan’s turn to respond. I’m bad at detecting satire, so I’m not sure if he is being serious (I don’t think he is). But he proposes a “sure fire way to end all crime”:

Step 1: Credibly announce that all levels of government will mercilessly prosecute the first crime committed in the nation each day.

Step 2: There is no Step 2.

But then, I’m sure that Nitin Pai is being serious in proposing a similar method to curb the spate of violent crime in India based on WhatsApp forwards. In his piece for the Quint, he writes:

the Home Ministry ought to use its considerable powers to tackle the problem. It’s not hard either. One well-advertised arrest, prosecution and sentencing will deter the cowards that comprise lynch mobs. Three high profile arrests and prosecutions – and see how quickly lynchings stop. The smallest police station in the remotest village can stop lynchings if the local sub-inspector has received clear political messages against it.

Finally, the reason why I figured Caplan’s “solution” is satire is because of this passage from Matt Levine’s excellent Money Stuff newsletter (likely it’s behind a Bloomberg paywall, but it’s free if you subscribe by email). Commenting about high frequency trading, Levine writes:

But the answer in actual U.S. market structure is, come on, there is no such thing as “the same time.” Do you know how many nanoseconds there are every single second? (A billion.) The odds that each of us would hit the “Buy” button at the exact same nanosecond are infinitesimal. So if I put in my order to buy the stock at 10:45:06.543210876 a.m., and you put in yours at 10:45:06.543210987 a.m., then I got there first and I win.

Is this a good answer? It has a simple appeal. It just gets rid of the question “who gets the stock if we put our orders in at the same time?” It replaces an economic question about how to allocate the stock with an empirical question of who got there first.

So the problem with fighting the first crime of the day, or year, or whatever, is that a criminal will know fully well, given a reasonably high enough crime rate, that the probability of his crime being recorded as the first in the year or day or whatever is less than one. And the higher the crime rate, the lower the probability that his crime will be recognised as the first one. And so there is a high chance he can get away with it.

And that is where Nitin’s idea scores. Rather than going after the “first crime”, pick a few crimes arbitrarily and “go after them like hell”. Since in this case most of the people who are forwarding dangerous forwards are “ordinary people”, this will likely shake them up, and we’ll see less of these dangerous forwards.

 

Which States are Financially Underdeveloped in India?

Which states are the least (most) financially developed in India? To answer this question, I construct a Financial Deprivation Index (FDI); the higher the FDI, the less financially developed a state is. FDI is based on three dimensions: branch coverage, deposit mobilisation and credit disbursal. The first dimension relates to the financial infrastructure, other two are the variables relevant for the long-term saving, consumption smoothing and investment.

To construct the FDI, deprivation scores are calculated by dividing the population of each state by the number of reporting branches, total deposits and credit outstanding as on 31st March, 2017, respectively. A simple average of these scores would be misleading as they carry different units. To get around this problem, the scores are centred about the mean and normalised by dividing by the range. Finally, a simple average of the normalised score is calculated which serves as the Financial Deprivation Index.

So much for the data and methodology. As for the results, they are depicted in the map shown above. The least financially developed states in India are Manipur, Bihar, Assam, Nagaland and Uttar Pradesh.

The most financially developed states/UTs in India are Chandigarh, Goa and NCT of Delhi. Given the level of urbanisation, this is hardly surprising. Among the larger units, Punjab, Kerala, Haryana, Karnataka and Maharashtra are the most developed states. Somewhat surprisingly, hilly states such as Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Himanchal Pradesh have fared well.

One surprising finding of the analysis was the extent of heterogeneity in the North-Eastern states. Assam, Manipur and Nagaland figure among  the least financially developed states in the country; Arunanchal Pradesh, Mizoram and Sikkim show decent performance in terms of FDI. Understanding the reasons of uneven development may provide valuable lessons for policy formulation.

Why AI will always be biased

Out on Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok has an excellent post on why “sexism and racism will never diminish“, even when people on the whole become less sexist and racist. The basic idea is that there is always a frontier – even when we all become less sexist or racist, there will be people who will  be more sexist or racist than the others and they will get called out as extremists.

To quote a paper that Tabarrok has quoted (I would’ve used a double block-quote for this if WordPress allowed it):

…When blue dots became rare, purple dots began to look blue; when threatening faces became rare, neutral faces began to appear threatening; and when unethical research proposals became rare, ambiguous research proposals began to seem unethical. This happened even when the change in the prevalence of instances was abrupt, even when participants were explicitly told that the prevalence of instances would change, and even when participants were instructed and paid to ignore these changes.

Elsewhere, Kaiser Fung has a nice post on some of his learnings from a recent conference on Artificial Intelligencethat he attended. The entire post is good, and I’ll probably comment on it in detail in my next newsletter, but there is one part that reminded me of Tabarrok’s post – on bias in AI.

Quoting Fung (no, this is not a two-level quote. it’s from his blog post):

Another moment of the day is when one speaker turned to the conference organizer and said “It’s become obvious that we need to have a bias seminar. Have a single day focused on talking about bias in AI.” That was his reaction to yet another question from the audience about “how to eliminate bias from AI”.

As a statistician, I was curious to hear of the earnest belief that bias can be eliminated from AI. Food for thought: let’s say an algorithm is found to use race as a predictor and therefore it is racially biased. On discovering this bias, you remove the race data from the equation. But if you look at the differential impact on racial groups, it will still exhibit bias. That’s because most useful variables – like income, education, occupation, religion, what you do, who you know – are correlated with race.

This is exactly like what Tabarrok mentioned about humans being extremist in whatever way. You take out the most obvious biases, and the next level of biases will stand out. And so on ad infinatum.

Cross posted from my personal blog

Xi Jinping’s foreign policy pivot

Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs recently, with his speech offering important insights into Chinese foreign policy philosophy, objectives and approaches. Xi defined his philosophical program as “diplomacy of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era,” outlining 10 key aspects of this thought.

Examining these, it isn’t surprising that Xi’s first and foremost priority in foreign affairs is to uphold the “authority of the CPC Central Committee” and strengthen “its centralised, unified leadership on external work.” This has a domestic and international component. Domestically, it refers to the emergence and role of a diverse set of actors in Chinese foreign affairs – from the top leadership, diplomatic corps, representatives at international institutions, party members in the judiciary, the trade and commerce bureaucracy, local governments, the military to financial institutions and state-owned enterprises. Externally, it implies an expansion in the role of party organs and ensuring that events outside do not jeopardise the Communist Party’s rule.

Analysing the state media readout of the speech, one can identify that the fundamental objective of Xi’s foreign policy is to “facilitate a favourable external environment for realising the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.” This is an expression of Xi’s shift from Deng Xiaoping’s tao guang yang hui (roughly translated to hide your strengths and bide your time) in favour of the strategy of fen fa you wei (roughly translated to striving for achievement.)

What this implies is that one can expect China to continue with an assertive foreign policy to actively shape events, attitudes and institutions in order to achieve its objectives. However, this round of assertion will be different from the nationalistic kind that has been witnessed since 2008, say in the South China Sea or with regard to Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute since 2012.

For starters, Xi acknowledges that China’s rise is “intertwined” and interacts with “the most profound and unprecedented changes (that the world is currently undergoing) in a century.” In such an environment, he is placing priority on developing “global partnerships while advancing diplomatic agenda.” This ranks two spaces above “national core interests as the bottom line” in the list of ten aspects of the new diplomatic thought. Also, ranking higher than core interests are the goals of “building of a community with a shared future for humanity” and “reform of the global governance system with the concept of fairness and justice.”

This indicates that Beijing is keen to actively “advance major country diplomacy” to reduce friction and work with partners, particularly developing countries, to expand its global influence and play a greater role in norm setting. For potential partners, this signifies an important window of opportunity, as China is likely be more amenable to addressing sources of tensions and flexible towards accommodating their concerns. One can view events like December’s South-South Human Rights Forum, Beijing’s outreach to New Delhi and Tokyo over the past few months, its deepening ties with Moscow, its attempts at negotiating a new South China Sea Code of Conduct with ASEAN and its efforts to gather support against Donald Trump’s protectionist policies in this context. This subtle change does not imply an infusion of universalistic or idealistic notions in Chinese foreign policy but is rather driven by pragmatism.

A final noteworthy aspect of Xi’s speech was the constant reference to history. The repeated emphasis on having “an accurate understanding of history,” the need to “review the past, summarise historical laws,” understand “the trend of history” and the identification of present times as a particularly significant “historical juncture” operate at multiple levels. First, it signifies a sense of manifest destiny that has characterised Xi’s leadership. Second, it is an example of personal narrative building, whereby Xi has appropriated for himself the goal of making China strong, after it has stood up and grown rich. This once again places Xi in the league of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, above his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. And third, it is a nudge to the party rank and file to maintain “strategic confidence” and not be disoriented by “ever-changing international chaos.”

Effectively what Xi appears to be telling Party cadres and the world at large is that while the tide of realpolitik may ebb and flow, China is here to play the long game, “keeping in mind both internal and international imperatives.”

Who the *@# are you?

I am that pesky Uncle whose car blocks a motorcycle heading the wrong way up a one-way street, and asks the driver what he thinks he’s doing.

I’m also that elitist idiot who once rapped on a lady’s car window, and handed her a Subway sandwich wrapper she just tossed, saying, “Madam, you left something behind.”

When I was not a silver-haired senior citizen, I would often get “Who the @#* do you think you are?” in words, or body language. Now, it’s more, “Don’t waste my time, move on.”

Sometimes, it’s more hopeful. Recently, on my cycle, I caught up with a motor-cyclist who swerved across two lanes, crashed one red-light, but was forced by traffic to wait at the next. I smiled at him, and asked him how much time he’d saved by the last manouver. “Not much”. he acknowledged.

And even if he had, I persisted, what would he have done with the time. He had the grace to consider that a valid question. “True”. And actually went to say, ” I won’t do that again.”

I’m not idealistic enough to believe that I modified someone’s behaviour that morning; but I got through.

I once read that traffic in Italy – long renowned for it’s unruliness – began to tip into the lane of European civility when it became socially unacceptable to drive with extreme selfishness. In Delhi, where I live, the blatant disregard of driving rules is worsening; I don’t see the traffic police responding in any meaningful manner.

As long as I have the energy, I will continue to be that pesky Uncle. But the years have taught me that you have a much better chance of getting through when you engage with civility and decency, rather than anger. And humor is the best recipe.

Once, tired at the end of a long day commuting by metro, I stood in front of the seats reserved for senior citizens and the disabled. The two young men occupying the seats pretended not to have noticed me. Loudly, I asked, “Which one of you is a senior citizen, and which one disabled?”

One scooted into the next carriage. The other looked around, saw another white haired-gent, and asked him resignedly, “Would you want to be sitting, too?”

I think we have a responsibility to engage with our fellow citizens, to make ours a more respectful, orderly society. But, if we want to succeed, we too, need to engage with respect.

The World’s most livable city

Yesterday, a cousin sent me a triumphant WhatsApp message from Munich, a city he has made his own: “Munich named world’s most livable city, again!”

The top city ranking was awarded by Monocle Films, which does an annual ranking of the world’s 25 top cities. Mercer, a global consultancy firm, ranks Munich at Number 4.

No.1 or No.4, Munich’s a gorgeous city, with great museums, a vibrant student life across 16 universities, beer, and above all, the English garden. With 78 kilometers of paths, this is one of the world’s largest urban parks. The Isar river runs through it, and a quirk in the topography creates a standing wave that challenges surfers in body suits. 10 minutes downstream, an artificial island hosts a Japanese tea house. Some of the garden’s architectural features are somewhat kitschy, but the feature that caught my liberal soul was this signboard posted at the top end of a meadow reserved for nude sun-bathers

 

I translate loosely:

LAWN FOR NUDE SUNBATHERS

 

  • Nude sunbathing is permitted in the meadow within the horse track
  • It doesn’t need saying that dogs in this area must be on a short leash
  • Please don’t disturb the peace of sunbathers here – many other lawns within the garden are at your disposal
  • Football and other ballgames are not permitted

Please regard this freedom as a special expression of a liberal and tolerant society

 

For this one sign board, and the worldview it represents, I hereby nominate Munich as the most tolerant city I have ever visited.

 

Lessons from Julius Caesar – Part-II

Note: This is the second of a two-part series on some thoughts I had after reading the play Julius Caesar. You can read the first part here. Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast has an excellent episode that looks at the play from a modern context and that helped me gain some valuable perspective on this famous piece of literature. I would highly recommend listening to it if you have read the play.  

Julius Caesar is a tragedy. Characters exhibit flaws and make choices that lead to terrible consequences. It is easy to feel sorry for Caesar, who gets stabbed by his good friend, or Brutus, whose misplaced idealism comes back to haunt him (quite literally at that). But the individual I felt sorry for the most was one who had a bit part role, the poet Cinna.

In the aftermath of Mark Antony’s incendiary speech, the Romans go berserk, searching for the men who murdered Caesar. They come upon Cinna on the street and kill him because his namesake was one of the conspirators. The scene is short but shocking, but with a tinge of black humour when the crowd realises they have the wrong man but kill him regardless, justifying their action on the basis of his supposedly bad verses.

I have two thoughts on this little episode.

One, it best showcases Shakespeare’s cynicism about human reason that I touched upon in my previous post. If it was not clear already, this scene shows just how vacuous a crowd can be. The broader implications this has on a democracy and a republic cannot be ignored.

Two, it asks questions about Antony’s role in Cinna’s death. Yes, he could claim he had no intention and that Cinna’s death was an unfortunate case of collateral damage. But he was aware of the crowd’s nature and knew exactly what buttons to push to get them riled up. Shouldn’t he then bear some responsibility for his words? Or does the blame lie solely on the crowd even though their capacity to reason is stunted? These questions act as a precursor to a conversation about hate speech and how best one can prevent it while still preserving a right to free speech. That we are still having this conversation centuries after Shakespeare wrote the play shows just how vexing a problem it is.

Lessons from Julius Caesar – Part-I

Note: This is the first of a planned two-part series on some thoughts I had after reading the play Julius Caesar. Slate’s Lend Me Your Ears podcast has an excellent episode that looks at the play from a modern context and that helped me gain some valuable perspective on this famous piece of literature. I would highly recommend listening to it if you have read the play. 

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an intriguing blend of high drama, sudden bursts of violence, and impressive speeches. It is also a realistic and sombre meditation on the fragility of a republic. This fragility stems from the play’s take on human nature, which it would not be a stretch to say is a touch cynical.

Brutus, the idealistic senator and Caesar’s friend, sets great store by reason to disastrous effect. He believes that his fellow conspirators are as idealistically motivated as he is. He believes that the citizens of Rome will understand his reasons for assassinating Caesar. He is mistaken on both counts. The self-interest that propels these groups is a trait that very few individuals, like Brutus, can disavow. Left to their own devices, they will wreak havoc on society, which they do in the play to varying degrees of success.

This points towards the quality that a republic must have in order to endure, namely, that of being more than the sum of its parts. It needs to rise above the individuals who form it. And the way it can achieve this is by having institutions that channel the best of such individuals while avoiding the unsavoury bits. A republic thus lives and dies on the strength of the institutions that undergird it. This is a lesson worth revisiting every time the functioning of a republic is questioned.