Saturday, 9 December 2017

A Layered Framework To Understand Religion-Based Terror

I was shocked to hear the news of a Hindu man in Rajasthan who hacked a Muslim man to death and set him alight, all the while having the deed and his aggrieved justifications recorded on camera. It was difficult to watch, but also too fascinating to ignore from a psychological angle. The reasoning the man gave was outlandish. He accused his victim of conducting a "love jihad" (a peculiarly patriarchal term of outrage applied to instances of Hindu women marrying Muslim men and converting to Islam). He said he had committed the murder "for the sake of our Hindu faith".

Viewer discretion advised, even though the gory parts are blurred out

The justification that he did it for the faith was the most striking to me.

I have heard this kind of argument before, especially the oft-repeated scaremongering propaganda that "Muslims will outnumber Hindus in India in a generation". I had demolished this latter canard quite simply and comprehensively, using nothing more than a spreadsheet and census data of the last four decades. However, variants of this inexplicable majoritarian insecurity keep surfacing and never seem to die.

I had to create a joker meme to express my incredulity at the skewed priorities I was seeing

When I posted about this latest outrage and called it "Hindu terror", a couple of my Hindu friends protested. The gist of their protest was that Hindu scripture and Hindu spiritual leaders have never called for the killing of people of other faiths, and therefore any reasons claimed by the murderer were to be treated as entirely personal. It was not to be called "Hindu" terror in spite of his claim that he did it out of a desire to defend the Hindu faith; it was just a murder carried out for personal reasons.

They had a point in that Islamist killers often point to some verse or the other in the Quran to justify their acts, but there is probably no verse in any Hindu religious text that calls for violence against Muslims or people of any other faith.

But their argument didn't completely convince me either.

I am not a believing Hindu. I consider religion to be nothing more than ideology, which is a set of ideas that possesses a person's mind, and which need not make any sense to a rationalist, or even be internally consistent. Ideology can come from a variety of sources. Looking for motive purely in scripture or in a narrow school of doctrine is naive, because the links from a person's ideology to religious scripture are not always straightforward. It's important to examine the murderous ideology and see where it is derived from.

I was gratified at one level to see that even my Hindu friends did not condone the murder itself. They were just extremely uncomfortable with my associating the murder with Hinduism, even though the murderer had explicitly made that link himself! So was I really justified in calling this an act of "Hindu terror"?

This post is my systematic attempt to deconstruct the elements of religion-based ideologies with a view to understanding their role in instigating acts of terror.

Let's first establish and agree that a negative ideology can instigate a person into committing acts of violence against others.

A positive ideology, on the other hand, can make a person more amenable to peaceful coexistence with others.

When looking at the role of religion in creating either a positive or negative ideology in the mind of a person, it's important to recognise at least three paths from scripture to the mind.

The simplistic view is that a person is directly influenced by what is written in scripture. Of course, since everything is subjective and amenable to interpretation, even a person reading a scriptural text all by themselves, without external influences, is still subject to the interpretation offered by their own mind.

In practice, scripture is almost always interpreted for believers by intermediaries such as clerics and accepted spiritual leaders.

Therefore, the clergy has a crucial role to play in interpreting scripture and creating an ideology in a believer's mind. We have seen for ourselves the practical difference between a positive ideology and a negative ideology in countless cases.

At this juncture, a number of Hindus may interject to argue that this is true only of the Abrahamic religions, since Abrahamic texts are known to be exclusivist and intolerant of other faiths, often exhorting their believers to engage in acts of violence against unbelievers. Hindu scriptures do not call for such violence against unbelievers, and therefore there is no question of Hindu scripture being used to provide a credible basis for such violence.

While this is a valid argument, we are talking about ideology as a general phenomenon, and its roots need not be scripture alone but other social or political entities that are associated with the religion in some way.

While the scriptures themselves may not exhort believers into any kind of action, there could be self-styled defenders of the faith who create a sense of imperative action through a specialised ideology that claims to have its roots in scripture, but which in reality is a distinct ideology in itself. What matters is the perceived legitimacy of the new ideology in terms of its basis in religion. If the ideology is more and more widely perceived to be related to the religion, then the difference between the ideology and the religion becomes more and more academic.

With the two Abrahamic religions, ideology is directly related to scripture, with interpretation playing a key role in the formation of the ultimate ideology that influences a believer's mind.

This is what the ideological model of Islam looks like:

(Click to expand)

There is a scriptural basis for intolerance in Islam, and there is simultaneously scriptural basis for tolerance. It is a genuine contradiction, and the contradiction is resolved one way or the other depending on interpretation. Thus, the term "jihad" could be interpreted either literally as violence against unbelievers, or as an internal spiritual struggle. Believers in each ideology claim to be the correct interpreters of their scripture, and consider the other group to be misled.

The model is more interesting in the case of Christianity, since scripture itself is divided into two texts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is very similar to the Quran in the vehemence of its language and degree of intolerance for various groups of people and acts. The New Testament, the chronicle of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, is much less violent. Interestingly, the New Testament asserts itself to be in complete alignment with the doctrine of the Old.

(Click to expand)

Extreme punishment for minor transgressions, of the kind encountered in the Quran, is also found in the Old Testament, but no modern interpretation of Christianity gives this any credence, even though there is no formal repudiation of these verses either. There are, however, other examples of intolerance, such as the injunctions against homosexuality, which continue to divide believing Christians. Hence Christianity too exhibits a striking dichotomy in ideology in spite of basic scriptural unity.

Hinduism is perhaps the most interesting model of the three.

(Click to expand)

Hindu scripture is remarkably diverse, with many different texts considered to be sacred and authoritative. The illustration above deliberately draws upon a spectrum of scriptural texts. Traditionally, the variety of opinions in the scriptures has been interpreted in two broad ways. Socially, a rigid hierarchy and pervasively observed rules have controlled diversity in often oppressive ways. Philosophically, there has been a degree of mutual respect and tolerance for other viewpoints (sampradayas). There have been debates between competing schools of thought, but violence as witnessed in Europe between Catholics and Protestant, for example, has been historically rare.

Sometimes, there have been creative reinterpretations of the faith itself, when placed under pressure from materially more powerful external viewpoints (e.g., the 19th century reinvention of Hinduism by Swami Vivekananda and Dayananda Saraswati on account of pressure from British sociologists as well as missionaries).

With Hinduism though, modern interpretations have added a layer of complexity to the traditional ones, in the form of new ideologies. Marxism, Feminism and Liberal Humanism are a group of ideologies that challenge the traditional orthodox Hindu social order as being fundamentally unfair. Concurrently, perhaps as a reaction to reform, the ideology of Hindu Nationalism (or Hindutva) has arisen to defend the old order from perceived attack.

There are thus two distinct Hindu ideologies. One of these successfully combines the native Hindu tradition of philosophical tolerance with the modern sensibility of egalitarianism. The other, equally successfully, combines the negative elements of social orthodoxy and majoritarian insecurity. The latter is increasingly seen in Indian society and mirrors the rise of the BJP in Indian politics. It is this ideology that is responsible for instigating violence against religious minorities.

It is clear from these models that at a general level, acts of terror are driven by ideology. Ideology may have its roots in religious scripture and interpretations thereof, but it could also be influenced by socio-political organisations and movements that only bear a tenuous relationship to religion. Regardless, if these socio-political organisations and movements are widely acknowledged to be legitimate spokespeople for the religion, then any acts of terror instigated by their ideology must be laid at the door of the religion.

Much as my Hindu friends might protest the term "Hindu terror", it is an inescapable conclusion that the terror ideology of the Hindutva organisations is related to Hinduism to the extent that they are considered legitimate representatives of Hinduism. Hindu terror is therefore regrettably real.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Wall Art That Is Aesthetically Pleasing And Mathematically Elegant (A Personal How To)

It's done. Two and a half days after inspiration first hit, the finished product is finally here.

I'm no oil painting myself, but I just created one. I call it "Locutus".

It all started three nights ago on Facebook, when a friend posted a picture of some wall art she had created.

Tanushree Rao's Wall Art

It was striking and elegant, and I was very impressed. Tanushree also provided a link to a site that explained how to create such a piece. I'd recommend that page to anyone who feels tempted to create something like that.

But on examining the design closely (the basic design, I mean, not Tanushree's creation), I discovered something vaguely unsatisfying. If you notice, the design uses four colours and is made up of 27 pieces (what I will call "shells", for want of a better term).

Now 27 is not neatly divisible by 4, so this means that the design cannot have an equal number of shells of each colour. Indeed, in Tanushree's case, there are only 6 orange shells, but 7 each of the other 3 colours.

( 7 x 3 ) + 6 = 27

It's a very small thing, but so is a pebble in one's shoe. This tiny, tiny imperfection troubled me a fair bit, and I told Tanushree so. I was gratified when she responded, concurring with me on this.

I hear you! It troubled me too. I got around it by 'categorising' the orange differently to the rest. It's the feature/colour pop whereas the others are standard!

That comment about categorising one colour differently gave me an idea!

My lounge already has a couple of paintings that employ this concept.

I saw this painting at a mall a few years ago, and it was so arresting that I had to buy it.

I saw this painting later on, and I bought it because it complemented the other one.

To add to this theme, my wonderfully talented sister-in-law Vidya Sen decided to gift us one of her paintings.

The umbrella's handle looks like the stalk of a chilli, and I have joked to Vidya that she must have been subliminally influenced by her Tamil background, since the Tamil word for capsicum is 'koDai-miLagaai', or "umbrella chilli".

Now I had the basic design in my head, but there were many steps I had to take.

First, I wanted to see if the colour scheme would even look good.

For that, I had to create a hexagonal grid and colour it.

Creating a grid using SVG was a bit of a challenge, but a lot of fun. I love SVG.

It's probably not the most elegant code, but it was enough to create a basic grid.

And this was the result.

I didn't do the colouring within SVG because I wanted to experiment with different colours interactively, so I used The GIMP to edit the black-and-white image file that I generated from SVG.

After a few attempts, this is what I ended up with.

Notice the "shells" at three of the six vertices of the hexagon. They're not of a single colour! That's because I realised that keeping the shells intact would spoil the design of the grid that I was envisaging. So I decided to cheat by cutting and splicing these three shells so each would have two colours.

OK, it didn't look too bad, so next, I had to work out how to render it in the physical world. The main decision was about dimension. How large or small should the display be? I worked out what I thought would be a reasonable size for the final canvas, then worked backwards to determine the size of the piece of paper required to create each shell.

Some scale models were called for.

The shell on the right was created from a 210 mm x 210 mm square, i.e., directly from an A4 sheet of paper (210 mm x 297 mm). That was too large, and it told me that the correct dimension should be 2/3 of that, which meant paper of size 140 mm x 140 mm.

Armed with the knowledge of these dimensions, I set out to the shops to buy myself some art material.

To wit:

1. A canvas of size 610 mm x 508 mm
2. Some hanging wire and hooks
3. Foam mounting tape
4. Acrylic paint (Carbon Black and Titanium White)
5. Two large brushes and a fine one
6. Coloured paper, 125 gsm (black, white, grey and red)

Although it was all marked as 125 gsm, the grey paper was perceptibly thicker than the others, and harder to fold. Fortunately, I didn't have to buy different packs of paper for different shades of red. The pack for red itself had sheets of different colours.

Each A4 sheet would give me enough material for two squares, 140 mm x 140 mm.

I took care to mark the dimensions very precisely on each and every sheet before cutting. It was tedious work, but I was thankful later when everything just fit.

I remembered what my father used to say about the Carpenter's Maxim - "Measure Twice and Cut Once".

Folding itself was easy once I worked out how to do it from the tutorial.

The first set of folds...

... then the second... voilĂ !

Now all I had to do was create 27 shells in all:
- One each in the three shades of red
- 8 each in black, white and grey

Once that was done, I placed them on the canvas as a sort of "dress rehearsal'.

The burgundy on the right was too dark, so that told me to swap it out and replace it with the red on the left, and to use orange on the left in its place.

Apart from that minor change to the colours, the design looked good even when materialised into real objects, which encouraged me to go on.

I screwed in the hooks for the mounting wire.

The lady at the shop had suggested I hang the frame as-is, but I didn't want to take any chances.

A few minutes later, the canvas had more than one option for hanging.

Next, I laid out all the stuff I needed to paint the canvas and mount the shells.

Notice that I've pencilled in the hexagonal grid.

My painting arsenal was simple and minimalistic.

The large brushes were for the thick strokes, one for white and one for black (of course, they would merge and start to "pollute" each other), and the thin one was just for me to initial the work in my usual style.

I like acrylic paints because they dissolve in water and dry in minutes. Unlike watercolours, they no longer dissolve in water once they dry, so they cannot smudge or "run" once the painting is done. And unlike oils, they don't require days and weeks to dry.

So painting took just a little while, and then it was done.

I had a choice here to change direction and instead paint a woman in a hijab (just kidding)

The tutorial had suggested using foam mounting tape to mount the shells, so I next stuck pieces of the tape on top of the grid that I had pencilled in. The lengths needed to be measured fairly precisely, otherwise there would be unseemly pieces of mounting tape sticking out from under the shells, or there wouldn't be enough to hold the shells up.

As it turned out, the roll I purchased was exactly enough for this artwork. I finished the roll as I applied the last piece to the canvas.

Foam mounting tape is extremely sticky, so it's just as well that one side is covered in non-stick paper. Even so, applying the pieces correctly involved lots of cursing.

Once all the pieces of tape were in place, I removed the non-stick paper to expose the sticky upper surface.

It's important to place the shells right the first time, because pulling an object free of this extremely sticky surface can be ... frustrating.

Some more cursing later, the shells were all in place.

It finally began to look like what I had envisaged two nights earlier

I'd heard that artwork made of paper doesn't age very well, because colours tend to fade when exposed to sunlight. I have a fair amount of sunlight in my lounge, so something would have to be done. Some research turned up a UV protection spray for precisely such pieces of art, so I went out and purchased that too.

They think of everything, don't they?

Once sprayed and initialled, the product was ready.

And all I had to do then was mount it on the wall.

And there it hangs. "Locutus" is finally done!

Why do I call it Locutus?

Do you remember how Captain Picard was kidnapped by the Borg and used as an interlocuter between the Borg species and humans? The hexagon represents the 3-D view of the Borg Cube. The smaller red cube within it represents Picard in his red Starfleet uniform.

"I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated."

I'm very pleased and satisfied. Not only do I have a sense of artistic accomplishment, I'm also very happy that I managed to do this while preserving mathematical symmetry at more than one level.

Black - 8 shells; Dark red - 1 shell
Grey - 8 shells; Orange - 1 shell
White - 8 shells; Yellow - 1 shell

Thank you, Tanushree!

Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Three Singularities In Our Future

1. The Technology Singularity

Ray Kurzweil's 2005 prediction of the "Technology Singularity", the point in time when machines will finally overtake humans in intelligence, is looking more inevitable as the years go by.

The moment that Skynet becomes self-aware...

This is exciting, but it's also scary, and not just because of some Terminator-style doomsday scenario, but because of the much more mundane prospect of mass unemployment.

2. The Energy Singularity

There is a second singularity that is also approaching, which I call the "Energy Singularity". I define it as the point at which the marginal cost of energy production and transmission is virtually zero. In other words, the world can access as much energy as it needs at virtually no cost. The infrastructure to deliver energy has already been paid for at this point, and the investment can thereafter be harvested ad infinitum.

We're seeing some early signs of this. Germany is now producing 35% of its power requirements from renewable energy. Chile is producing more solar power than it can consume, and is consequently giving energy away for free! There is talk of households being able to go "off the grid" with solar panels and battery storage. The cost of solar panels has been dropping significantly over the years.

Solar is becoming a formidable source of alternative energy with each passing year

Vertical Axis Wind Turbines promise much greater efficiencies in wind power generation, because they no longer need the amount of real estate that the earlier generation of "windmills" required. And when wind and solar come together, they can smooth the fluctuations in power generation from either one alone.

The state of the art in 2017 - Maglev Vertical Axis Wind Turbine (VAWT) and solar panels for solar-wind hybrid LED street lights

It's not hard to extrapolate forward to a future where energy is available in abundance at a price point that is virtually free.

These two singularities together have very significant implications for the production of goods and services. At a high level, the three classic inputs to the production of any good or service are raw material, labour and energy. If energy is free and labour (even that of knowledge workers) can be replaced through automation, then it is only the cost of raw material that is relevant. Again, if the major cost of raw material is its extraction or harvesting from nature, and if these activities can be directed by artificial intelligence and powered by cheap or free energy, then the cost of raw material plummets as well.

It bodes very well for the productivity of industry in general. In fact, since energy is the ultimate currency, the availability of cheap and abundant energy means that human society will become unimaginably wealthy in a very short time.

However, the imminent arrival of the Technology and Energy Singularities doesn't necessarily and automatically translate to a higher standard of living for human beings. There is a certain conscious economic "rewiring" of society that will be required to transition to this better future and to minimise the pain of the transition.

The point at which this rewiring takes place is what I call the "Economic Singularity".

3. The Economic Singularity

After all, the implied social contact between households and firms has looked like this for a few generations now:

A classic diagram from any economics textbook - "The Circular Flow of Income"

As firms become capable of replacing human labour with machine labour, the inner circle begins to weaken.

"Jobless growth" occurs when the outer circle remains healthy but the inner one weakens

In other words, the consequence of rising productivity through increased automation is unemployment.

But the inner and outer circles have to be in equilibrium! That equilibrium is what sustains the economy. When the inner circle weakens, it's only a matter of time before the outer circle weakens as well.

It cannot last. The economy will grind to a halt.

It's easy to see that if households suffer from mass unemployment, they will not have the means to spend on goods and services produced by firms. So it doesn't matter how productive firms are, or how competitive their prices become. They will simply not be able to sustain the volume of sales as time goes on.

Of course, long before that stage is reached, there will probably be bread riots and violent revolution, because people are unlikely to starve quietly.

It's obvious that firms are being extremely short-sighted in their headlong pursuit of productivity advantages through automation of their workforce. They are unravelling the delicately balanced wiring that keeps the economy going. If the captains of industry don't want their heads to be carried on pikes at some point in the inevitable popular revolution, they should start to look at alternative wiring of the economy to compensate for the weakening of the inner circle.

The Economic Singularity, the point when society rewires itself in a sustainable way so that equilibrium is again attained, will require the intervention of governments. Here is what that could look like:

The long-prophesied "leisure society" after the Economic Singularity

In other words, the firms that produce goods and services for profit without employing human labour, consuming virtually free energy and using cheaply acquired raw material must pay taxes that are then distributed to households as a "Universal Basic Income", credited directly into bank accounts. Households then use this income to spend on goods and services.

This is a new equilibrium that gives every person what they need without their having to work for it. The Economic Singularity will mark the beginning of the much-awaited Leisure Society.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

My Thoughts On The Netflix Film "What The Health"

At the urging of a friend, I watched the Netflix movie "What The Health".

Initially, I thought I wouldn't be able to sit through the entire hour and a half, but after a while, I was hooked. The film is nothing if not gripping.

You can watch it here.

Plot, dialogue, humour - the film has it all, not to mention a crop of the most chilling villains you'll ever come across

The basic message is short and simple enough: A plant-based, vegan diet is good for our individual health, for public health and for the environment. A vast conspiracy involving powerful corporations and corrupted institutions that should be watching out for citizens' interests is preventing us from learning this simple truth.

There were many surprising or shocking pieces of information contained in this documentary, some of which I knew and some of which I didn't.

For example,
  • The conditions under which poultry and livestock are raised for dairy and meat are cruel, unhygienic and ecologically devastating. I knew this already, and the shocking footage only reinforced this knowledge.

  • The institutions that are meant to provide health advice (The American Cancer Society, The American Heart Association, Susan G Komen, The American Diabetes Association) are completely compromised due to their sponsorship by corporations in the food and pharmaceutical sectors. I knew this already, but it was good to see some actual names and funding relationships. The interview with the representative of the American Diabetes Association was particularly damning.

  • The entire healthcare system is oriented towards helping people live with disease through medication and surgical procedures (all of which are sources of revenue to powerful industry players), rather than towards helping people prevent or overcome disease (which would cost society a lot less but would also end those sources of revenue). I knew this already, and this was reinforced quite strongly by interviews with people across a spectrum of roles.

  • The strategy used by the food industry is to sow doubt in the minds of the general public, which works brilliantly at blunting even the most adverse research findings. I knew this too from my past knowledge of how the tobacco industry worked.

  • Whistleblowers who attempt to unearth evidence against livestock companies can be charged with crimes and jailed. I didn't know this, and it was particularly shocking to me, even though I am familiar with how lawmakers have been coopted by industries in the past.

  • Doctors are only exposed to 7 hours of instruction relating to nutrition during their 4 years of undergraduate study, even though their patients trust their doctors as authorities on nutrition. There is corporate-funded legislative opposition to doctors being provided more instruction on nutrition. I didn't know this, and this was the single most shocking piece of information I received from this video.

  • A lot of the farms and livestock-raising facilities are located close to poor neighbourhoods and pose a severe health risk to certain demographics, which happen to be ethnic minorities. I did not know this, and I agree with the viewpoint expressed in the film that it is a civil rights issue.

  • A number of athletes claim that their strength, endurance and ability to recover from injury improved after they started on a vegan diet. This was surprising to me, and I intend to research this further. A couple of the athletes interviewed, who said they were close to 50 years of age, looked to be in their thirties, which is pretty impressive.

  • Moderation isn't actually a good strategy. When the evidence is clear-cut that certain things are just bad, then it makes sense to cut them out entirely rather than consume them "in moderation". What is being achieved by consuming them at all? This was an interesting argument that made me think, because I have always unconsciously accepted the idea that everything in moderation is probably the right way forward.

There were a couple of areas where I think the video overstated the case.
  • For example, I don't think sugar can be let off the hook that easily as a risk factor for various diseases.

  • And I'm not sure that eggs are as bad as they're made out to be in this film. Of course, it could just be my personal biases at work, since I cannot do without eggs for breakfast.

What I liked best in the film were the three case studies of individuals who had serious health issues earlier, but who showed dramatic improvements within a few weeks of switching to a vegan diet.

Here is a mildly critical review of the film from Time. There are more strongly critical ones, which I suspect are funded by the organisations exposed by it.

In sum, the film has sensitised me a little bit more to this most important topic, and I will do more research, especially into the benefits of a vegan diet and lifestyle.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Henry Lawson's "The Drover's Wife" As An Allegory For The Female Condition

One of my Aussie friends pointed me to a classic short story by the Australian poet and writer Henry Lawson, called "The Drover's Wife". (Click on the link to read it now.)

Read superficially, this short story is a recounting of a few dramatic hours in the life of a woman living alone with her children in the Australian outback. A venomous snake appears, and then ominously disappears under the floorboards of the rough house. The vigil she mounts against the threat of the snake's reappearance, aided only by her dog, occupies the bulk of the story, together with some reflective passages that recount some of the other struggles she has faced alone. Her husband is a "drover", a stockman who drives livestock over long distances, and is consequently away for months at a time. Her children are all very young and require her protection rather than being of help to her.

"The Drover's Wife", immortalised in an Australian postage stamp

However, the story is much more than just an evening in the woman's life. It is an allegory for the female condition, and it is as valid today as it was in the 19th century when it was written. I believe it's a feminist text that should form part of any Women's Studies program. It appears from Henry Lawson's biography that his mother's own struggles as a single parent (his father being a miner and away from home for long periods) sensitised him to a woman's struggles and enabled him to write about them so insightfully.

As an allegory, the story actually deals with the specific issue of women's physical safety, and there are five main players:

1. The woman herself, who has to be alert, cool-headed and courageous at all times.

2. The men in her life, whom she cannot rely upon to protect her. The men here are either absent (her husband) or incapable (her young sons).

3. Society as a whole, which enables her to survive when things are otherwise going well, but is not of much use in a situation of immediate threat. The barter she has with her brother-in-law's family is an allegory for the social contract between a family and society.

4. The snake, a classic phallic symbol which here represents the predatory male, the ever-present threat to a woman's physical safety. She has no way of telling when the threat will appear. When it does, she cannot let her guard down for a moment, and has to stay calm and collected to deal with it.

These two passages describe that constant, chilling menace.

Occasionally a bushman in the horrors, or a villainous-looking sundowner, comes and nearly scares the life out of her. She generally tells the suspicious-looking stranger that her husband and two sons are at work below the dam, or over at the yard, for he always cunningly inquires for the boss.
Only last week a gallows-faced swagman — having satisfied himself that there were no men on the place — threw his swag down on the veranda, and demanded tucker (food). She gave him something to eat; then he expressed his intention of staying for the night. It was sundown then. She got a batten from the sofa, loosened the dog, and confronted the stranger, holding the batten in one hand and the dog’s collar with the other. “Now you go!” she said. He looked at her and at the dog, said “All right, mum,” in a cringing tone, and left. She was a determined-looking woman, and Alligator’s yellow eyes glared unpleasantly — besides, the dog’s chawing-up apparatus greatly resembled that of the reptile he was named after.

5. The dog, the one entity that can protect her with its sharp teeth. The dog represents the Law. That's the only thing feared by the predatory male.

The moral of the story is that women cannot rely on the protection of friendly males, or on other families in civil society. Women are partly responsible for their own safety, in that they must remain alert about potential danger, and must also be level-headed and courageous. They also need to work with sympathetic law enforcement machinery to ensure their safety.

At the very end of the story, after the snake is killed and consigned to the flames, the release of tension makes it possible for other, repressed emotions to come rushing back. The woman's eldest son, an "urchin of eleven", declares,

Mother, I won’t never go drovin’; blarst me if I do!

I believe that was the author's own voice, expressing anguish at the struggles to which his own mother had been abandoned.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

"I Want To Sleep On Your Snout..." And Other Tales Of Monsterly Affection

A curious game evolved in our family when my son was growing up. When he would come upon me lying on my back, he would climb on top of me and press his cheek against my nose. Finding it hard to breathe, I would tickle him to get him off me, and that became a recurring game.

He would approach me saying, "I want to sleep on your nose!" He had a cute Aussie accent too, and to me it sounded like, "I want to sleep on your na-ous!" So I mimicked him, going, "I want to sleep on your snout!"

And suddenly that developed into a full-blown story of a baby monster playing with papa monster and demanding to be allowed to do all sorts of alliterative things:

"I want to sleep on your snout!"

"I want to hold your horns!"

"I want to feel your fangs!"

"I want to touch your talons!"

"I want to walk on your wings!"

"I want to stroke your scales!"

"I want to twist your tail!"

Long after my own baby monster grew up and went to University (not Monsters University, thankfully!), I was browsing at K-Mart when I came across this DVD.

The wings seem to be tucked away, and there are no scales, only fur and a spiny back, but I won't complain too much.

I had to take a picture of the DVD and text it to my son.

You remember the baby monster that told its papa all the alliterative things it wanted to do ("I want to hold your horns, I want to feel your fangs", etc.)? What do you think they looked like?

The response was as expected.

Hahaha we need to watch that

So I bought the DVD. I discovered there was a prequel to this one, so I bought that too.

I'm pedantic about a number of things, especially about sets. If there's a prequel, we must have the prequel. If there's a set, we must have the whole set.

So when the baby monster comes home on holidays next, we'll probably have a binge-watching session, initiated by, "I want to devour your DVDs!"

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

An Early Prediction For India's 2019 Election

In financial markets, two types of analysis are common. Fundamental Analysis goes into all the factors that affect markets, and attempts to predict them, and thereby their impact on the prices of assets. But Technical Analysis completely ignores fundamentals. Operating under the idea that "price discounts everything", Technical Analysis looks purely at the movements of prices, and attempts to discern patterns from time series data.

I've decided to do some Technical Analysis of the Indian Lok Sabha (parliamentary) elections. I'm going to look at vote shares and seat shares, without worrying about the fundamentals that impact them. We will see that this approach has some merit too.

The Indian parliamentary elections of 2019 are likely to be the biggest in the world, as usual

First off, I noticed a curious fact, i.e., that the sum of the seats of the two main parties, the Congress and the BJP, has been virtually the same in the last two elections, suggesting that the gains of one come mainly at the expense of the other and not any third party.

[In 2009, the Congress had 206 seats to the BJP's 116, for a total of 322. In 2014, the BJP had 282 seats to the Congress's 44, making a total of 326. The strength of the house is 543.]

I then plotted the correlation between the BJP's vote share and its number of seats between 2009 and 2014, interpolating for all the percentages in-between. A screenshot of the spreadsheet is below.

A straightforward analysis with some stark results

In interpreting this spreadsheet, I made two fundamental assumptions.

1. The BJP's vote share of 31% in 2014 is unsustainably high, since it represents a swing of 12% in a single election. It will have to drop in 2019.

2. However, the BJP's vote share is unlikely to drop below its 2009 level of 19%. That represents its core base.

Hence, we have to look at all the vote share percentages from 20% to 30% (inclusive) to assess the likely outcomes.

And two facts are immediately obvious from this analysis:

1. The BJP will not succeed in replicating its absolute majority in 2019. Even a 1% drop in vote share will take its seats tally to 268, which is below the 272 required for an absolute majority. Hence a coalition government is virtually guaranteed even if the BJP does return to power. It will have to be as part of the larger NDA coalition.

2. It is highly unlikely that the Congress-led UPA will return to power. The BJP's vote share will have to fall from 31% all the way down to 22% or less, for the UPA to have a chance at returning to power. In no case will the Congress get an absolute majority on its own.

In spite of these fairly certain outcomes, the power dynamics after the results are out are likely to be very interesting. A lot depends on the personal characteristics of Modi himself. His flexibility, humility and ability to reach out to different groups in a spirit of compromise will be on test. So far, he has shown discomfort in dealing from anything but a position of absolute power.

Those days now look numbered.