Month: December 2017

Further points on how to understand modern India (from the comments)

Good post.

There are a few other topics that can serve as useful handles to “understand” India.

1. Study the folk history of the popular Indian pilgrimage sites –

For a lot of people, Hinduism is associated with abstruse metaphysics, mysticism, Vedanta, and Yoga. And this obsession with the high falutin theoretical stuff, means that many students of Hinduism don’t pay as much attention to the pop-religion on the ground. And this religion is best understood by actually understanding the few hundred important pilgrimage sites scattered across the country. Each of these sites is ancient and has a “legend” associated with it. (the so-called Sthala Purana). The civilizational unity of India is largely accomplished because of the pan Indian reverence for these pilgrimage sites. Be it Benaras in the North, Kolhapur in the west, Srirangam in the south, or Puri in the East. A nice way to get started on this is Diana Eck’s book – “India – A Sacred Geography” where she makes a strong case for the theory that the idea of one India is one that is primarily stemming out of the pilgrimage experience of Hindus.

This study of pop religion will be messy and frustrating for people from an Abrahamic monotheistic background. But there is no better way to understand what makes Indians tick spiritually, and why every Indian is a millionaire when it comes to Religion.

2. Study of the history of Indian mathematics –

This may seem like an odd handle to understand India. But in my view it is useful, because Indian mathematical tradition that goes back to roughly 700 BCE, is one that is highly empirical, algebraic, and averse to theorizing and rigorous proofs. So it tells you a lot about the Indian mind. Which is very different from the Greek mind, in that it places a very very low premium on “neatness”, and a high premium on “improvisation”.

Unlike the Greeks, Indian mathematics is not that big on geometry. And also not that big on “visualization”. While someone like Euclid leveraged diagrams to make his point, Indian mathematicians like Brahmagupta and Bhaskara I/II, just stated results in 2-line or 4-line verses.

The Indian mathematical tradition is arguably the greatest Indian contribution to human civilization. Particularly the decimal number system, infinite series, and the algebraic orientation in general (markedly different from the Greek emphasis on geometry). The tradition includes Sulba Sutras (700BCE), Aryabhata (400CE), Varahamihira (400CE), Brahmagupta (500-600CE), Bhaskara I (600CE), Bhaskara II (1100-1200 CE), and ofcourse the famed Kerala school of mathematics (14th century). Madhava from the Kerala school approximated Pi to 13 decimal places. In more recent times, the most distinguished mathematical mind is ofcourse Srinivasa Ramanujan, very much a man in the Indian tradition, who disdained proofs and conventional rigor, and instead relied on intuition and heuristics.

3. Study of Indian poetry and music and its emphasis on meter

This is something that is again uniquely Indian – the very very high emphasis on meter. Which is a consequence of the Indian oral tradition and cultural aversion to writing. Which continues to this day. The emphasis on meter and rhyming was partly an aid to memorization and rote learning. And this emphasis begins with the Vedas (the earliest religious literature, preserved orally for some 1500 years before they were written down in the common era) And you see this in Indian poetry and even Indian film music to this day! Bollywood songs are characterized by their metrical style and perfect rhyming, which you don’t always see in western popular music. In that sense, the metrical legacy of the Vedas is still alive in popular culture.

That is from Shrikanthk.

Amateur meteorology in India

India’s amateur forecasters are not formally trained in meteorology. Still, many people rely on individual blogs or Facebook pages that have built reputations after years of forecasting. “U r a gr8 help” reads a message Srikanth received from one reader of his Chennai Rains blog, which he manages with two other people. Another reader invited the Chennai Rains team to his wedding.

Weather wonks such as Srikanth are scattered around India. In the financial hub of Mumbai, 64-year-old retired businessman Rajesh Kapadia has become a local hero for the predictions on his blog, Vagaries of the Weather. Kapadia’s passion for meteorology started when his father gave him a wall-mounted thermometer as a teenager. At first, people mocked his weather obsession. “They thought I was a madman looking at clouds,” he said.

In the northern Indian city of Rohtak, 16-year-old Navdeep Dahiya sends local farmers WhatsApp and Facebook weather alerts while studying for school exams. Dahiya describes 2014 as his “golden year” — it was the year he went on a school trip to the India Meteorological Department. “I saw how farmers are helped by the weather,” he said. “I saw how they use all these gadgets to predict weather.”

Dahiya soon set up his own weather station at home; he has thermometers, an automatic rain gauge and a digital screen. Now known as Rohtak Weatherman, Dahiya sends out weather reports in Hindi and gets phone calls from farmers in the region asking for predictions.

That is from Vidhi Doshi at WaPo.  I would be very interested in knowing how the forecasts of the amateurs (probably not the right word at this point) compare to the professionals.

How to think about 2018 — predictions for the year to come

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

The onset of a new year brings plenty of predictions, and so I will hazard one: Many of the biggest events of 2018 will be bound together by a common theme, namely the collision of the virtual internet with the real “flesh and blood” world. This integration is likely to steer our daily lives, our economy, and maybe even politics to an unprecedented degree.

For instance, the coming year will see a major expansion of the “internet of things”…


But whatever your prediction for the future, this integration of real and virtual worlds will either make or break bitcoin and other crypto-assets.


So far the process-oriented and Twitter-oriented foreign policies have coexisted, however uneasily. I see 2018 as the year where these two foreign policies converge in some manner. Either Trump’s tweets end up driving actual foreign policy and its concrete, “boots on the ground” realization, or the real-world policy prevails and the tweets become far less relevant.

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of cyberwar,  China and facial surveillance technologies, and the French attempt to ban smartphones at schools.

Critique of the blockchain contra blockchain

Here is an excellent Kai Stinchcombe essay, piling together many of the extant criticisms of blockchains, here is one excerpt:

There are four additional problems with a blockchain-driven approach. First, you’re relying on single-point encryption — your own private keys — rather than a more sophisticated system that might involve two-factor authorization, intrusion detection, volume limits, firewalls, remote IP tracking, and the ability to disconnect the system in an emergency. Second, price tradeoffs are entirely implausible — the bitcoin blockchain has consumed almost a billion dollars worth of electricity to hash an amount of data equivalent to about a sixth of what I get for my ten dollar a month dropbox subscription. Fourth, systematically choosing where and how much to replicate data is an advantage in the long run — the blockchain’s defaults on data replication just aren’t that smart. And finally, Dropbox and and Google and Microsoft and Apple and Amazon and everyone else provide a set of valuable other features that you don’t actually want to go develop on your own. Analogous to Visa, the problem isn’t storing data, it’s managing permissions, un-sharing what you shared before, getting an easy-to-view document history, syncing it on multiple devices, and so on.

Overstated, in my view, but worth a ponder nonetheless.  How many years does blockchain get before we start being unimpressed?  Ten?  Thirty?

Binge-Worthy and Not Binge-Worthy

Top of my list for binge-worthy over the holiday season is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime. It’s written and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino and like her previous show, The Gilmore Girls, it features whip-smart women spouting fast-paced dialogue but here decidedly more ribald and foul-mouthed. The show, set in 1958 New York, features Rachel Brosnahan as the eponymous Midge Maisel who, when her husband leaves her for a shiksa, finds unexpected release by explosively ripping into the situation in a public monologue that gets her arrested for indecency alongside comedian Lenny Bruce. Midge is at the center of three New York City Jewish cultures, the intellectual, represented by her father the mathematician Abe Weissman (in an excellent performance by Tony Shalhoub), the Yiddish business culture as represented by her father-in-law, Moishe Maisel played by Kevin Pollak, and the cultural critic represented by Lenny Bruce (played by Luke Kirby). I especially liked the show as a portrait of the young artist, drawing on and combining all three cultures, honing her material, working it out, mastering the process. Brosnahan as Midge is the very definition of winning. Alex Borstein as aspiring agent Susie Myerson gets some of the best lines. The children are mute and faceless, an interesting choice.

Bright, the $90 million “epic” on Netflix is watchable but ho-hum. The premise seems straight out of Hollywood mad libs: orcs+elves+buddy cop movie in modern LA. Let’s get Will Smith! The undertones of “orcs are like gang-banger blacks” was off-putting.

Godless on Netflix was a near miss. It’s a Western and has a great performance by Jeff Daniels as a spiritual, psychopath gang leader. In fact, I liked everyone in it including Michelle Dockery and Scoot McNairy (Gordon Clark from Halt and Catch Fire) but the show has no center. Is it about Dockery’s character, the single mom with an Indian son, trying to make it on the farm? Is it about the town of women who all instantly lost their husbands in a terrifying mining accident? It is about the going-blind Sheriff trying to track down the killer-gang in one last attempt to win the woman he loves? Or is it about the buffalo cowboys trying to make their way in a white man’s land after the civil war? Any of these stories could have been, indeed would have been, interesting but they are all touched upon and then dropped. Focus goes instead to the “hero,” the bad-guy orphan turned (for reasons we never learn) good. Boring. Oh, and what the hell is going on with the ghost Indian?

Speaking of Halt and Catch Fire it’s on AMC and Netflix and also makes my binge-worthy list. It’s about the rise of the personal computer and the internet. The first season was very good. The second season flagged with a bunch of unnecessary and diverting plots about sex, including a bizarre AIDS subplot. It got back on track in the third season, however, and finishes with the wonderful fourth season and the transcendent Goodwill episode.

The Punisher on Netflix. Binge-worthy! Be forewarned, however, this is the most violent of the Marvel superhero shows. Lots of homage here to Dirty Harry, Goodfellas the infamous eye-ball scene from Casino (NSFW and maybe NSFH). The surface plot, guess who the bad guy is?, was boring and predictable but there’s also lots of interesting commentary on war, the bonding of men (hints of fraternal polyandry) and the pull of amoral familism when society seems to be breaking down.

Canada facts of the day

The estimate comes from Canada’s bureau of statistics, which studied marijuana consumption between 1960 and 2015.

The government has promised to research the drug’s affect on the economy and society as it ramps up its plans to legalise cannabis next summer.

The report also found that use has gone up over the years as it has become more popular with adults.

In the 1960s and 1970s cannabis was primarily consumed by young people, according to Statistics Canada.

But in 2015, only 6% of 15-17 year olds smoked cannabis recreationally, compared to two thirds of adults over 25.

Here is the story, via Mark Thorson.

Uber as an ambulance substitute

Using an ambulance to travel to the hospital in an emergency can cost upwards of $1,000 USD. Now research demonstrates that a significant number of people are instead choosing Uber to perform the same service.

The paper – currently being peer reviewed – examines the effect on ambulance usage as Uber was introduced to 766 cities across 43 states. According its findings, even the most conservative estimate shows a seven percent reduction in people traveling via ambulance where the service is available.

Here is the full story, via Jeffrey Deutsch.  File under “Even with surge pricing, bending the cost curve.”

How to understand modern India

I could just rewrite my post How to understand modern China, but change the examples.  But you can do that mental exercise yourself, and besides it is easier to access information about India in the English language.  So let me try a very specific recommendation for India:

Study Indian textiles and their history

I  found this the single most useful way to get a handle on Indian history, a bit less on contemporary India.  Here’s why:

1. The artistic side of textile history gives you a clear sense of regional differences, and also Islamic influence, or lack thereof.

2.. It focuses your attention rather immediately on the role of women and women’s work, and also how this interacted with industrialization.

3. In the early 18th century, India was a world leader at cloth production, but it lost this position by the early 19th century.  Studying textiles and cloth production offers an excellent window on their major story of economic decline, and how British import penetration, backed by colonialism, contributed to Indian deindustrialization.

4. Relatively poor and neglected regions of India, such as Bihar and Orissa, have a strong presence in Indian folk textile traditions, and you will learn plenty about them.

5. Books on textiles will explain the accompanying information about Indian history in a clearer way than will actual history books about India.

6. People who write books on textiles tend to be both clear and careful I have found, perhaps because they love and collect something delicate.

7. Studying textiles and cloth also brings you right to Gandhi’s “Swadeshi’ movement.

8. Unless your income is really quite modest, you can afford to buy and regularly view some pretty high-quality Indian textiles.  In India I’ve found some excellent pieces for as cheap as $200-$250.

9. Studying textiles also will bring to your attention India’s tribes and indigenous peoples.  And it ties in readily to India’s broader cultural influence throughout Southeast Asia.

10. Textile books have many pretty pictures.

My favorite books on Indian textiles are cited in my discussion of that topic in Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures.  But it’s more a question of reading a bunch of them, rather than picking out a select few.  Simple, direct searches will get you to where you need to go.

My favorite collection of Indian textiles is in the Victoria & Albert museum in London.  Sadly, I’ve yet to get to the Calico textiles museum in Ahmedabad, though it is very highly regarded.

Christmas assorted links

1. Google Maps moat.

2. On family estrangements (NYT).

3. Interview with Sujatha Gidla about the reception of her book in India.

4. Elad Blog on Bitcoin network effects.

5. “Among the allegations against UI physics professor Michael Flatté is that he spent more than $8,000 in UI resources on robots “to teach classes, supervise assistants, and attend meetings while he was out of the country or attending conferences.”” Link here.

6. “If only we could find a Sufi master to humble us a bit.

Tis’ the season to be jolly?, or Who needs the child tax credit?

…interest in sex peaks sharply online during major cultural and religious celebrations, regardless of hemisphere location. This online interest, when shifted by nine months, corresponds to documented human births, even after adjusting for numerous factors such as language and amount of free time due to holidays. We further show that mood, measured independently on Twitter, contains distinct collective emotions associated with those cultural celebrations. Our results provide converging evidence that the cyclic sexual and reproductive behavior of human populations is mostly driven by culture and that this interest in sex is associated with specific emotions, characteristic of major cultural and religious celebrations.

That is from Ian B. Wood,, in Nature, via Kevin Lewis.  Kevin also refers me to a new paper arguing that “the company” came before and stimulated the development of “the economist.”

Sunday assorted links