Wednesday, 27 February, 2008

History, freedom and bunkum

The release of Jodha-Akbar has sparked yet another media debate.

According to the opponents of the film, it gets its history all wrong.

According to the film's supporters, it's art with a historical backdrop really. So history doesn't really matter. Besides, there's the big matter of artistic freedom.

I'm afraid I don't get it.

If history doesn't matter, why use it as the backdrop? And if the movie isn't surrealistic, the relation between its backdrop and plot has got to be quite linear. Which means history does matter, doesn't it?

Of course the film-maker must dice and spice history. But can he say that 'history is for history books'? I suppose that's a bit thick.

Good science-fiction doesn't turn known science on its head. And there are fine historical novels that bring the history to life for the layman without disrespecting history. Must the film-maker turn a ten-course meal into chewing gum?

I hasten to add that in this case the director himself maintins his film is based on respectable sources. (Nobody expects every historian to agree on things which happened more than 300 years ago, especially in the confines of the royal harem.) The 'history-is-bunkum' attitude belongs to his overzealous fans.

Who also believe that 'artistic freedom' means 'anything goes'.

Let's step back and apply common sense here. In the end, artistic freedom, freedom of speech, or for that matter any other freedom, comes from society. Society allows it because it gets some benefit, monetary or otherwise, immediate or long-term, out of it.

We can say - speaking very broadly and kind of philosophically - that artistic freedom exists so that the artist may tell 'the truth'. It doesn't exist so that the truth may be twisted or tossed off.

(I do realise that what constitutes artistic freedom and its twisting may be an endless debate. May I submit that an endless debate need not be an useless one too?

Besides, for all I know, both art and law may have well-accepted notions of artistic truth.)

If that sounds hopelessly vague, maybe we should try something more familiar. The proponents of free market economy maintain that the free market system exists to maximise everyone's economic wellbeing. If it doesn't erase inequality, that's the price we pay for its efficiency. But it shouldn't and needn't lead to creative accounting, hoarding, inside trading, cartels, and the rest.

Everything may be fair in love and war, but business has rules. And rules have underlying reasons and... you get the drift.

The point I'm trying to make is that 'artistic freedom', like 'free market', is not a catch-all excuse.

Admittedly, the former is far more vaguely defined than the latter. Which is all the more reason that it should be invoked extremely carefully. Or you'd have Hindutva brigade producing films promoting sati, Ahmadinejad rewriting Holocaust history, and child porn, all under the all-embracing blanket of freedom.

Freedom is not half as all-embracing and one-dimensional as we'd like it to be. So let's remember the sorry end of the boy who cried “Wolf!” and think thrice before crying “Freedom!”

Ok, if 'artistic freedom' is only for the intellectual high table, what remains? Well why not try rule of the law? The film's been passed by the censor board. That's good enough reason for people to be able to see it. And the police to ensure that it can be shown.

(The government of Madhya Pradesh has suspended showing the film, fearing violence. This is dereliction.)

Of course, you can't have an interesting debate over rule of the law. Also, rule of the law sounds so, oh, rightist and unromantic. Nonetheless, I'd rather have them keep it simple than have ideals like 'artistic freedom' devalued. Who knows when we may need them.

Does the public favour mediocrity?

I don't watch reality singing contest, but have overheard enough to get the distinct feeling that the voting public often favours singers who sing badly, often in spite of repeated requests from the judges.

The matter can be easily settled by looking at the data, and examining the extent of negative correlation between judges' scores and voters' votes, after accounting for regional imbalances (for example, one mustn't expect South Indians to be as interested in a Hindi film song contest as North Indians).

Unfortunately, these contests allow voters to vote repeatedly for the same contestant. So the number of votes need not coincide with the number of voters. To account for this, one should only count unique voters. Or assume that all contestants have the same proportion of repeat-voting fans, and all their votes would be scaled down by the same proportion. Or one may actually find the proportion of repeaters from representative samples.

Most probably, we will have to account for a few other things as well, like (a) gender of contestant (voters can't seem to vote for girls at all) (b) number of contestants from the same region and (c) level of the contest (preliminaries, semifinals, etc).

Fortunately, there are many such contests, in several languates. So we should get plenty of data, if the channels cooperate. There is no reason for them not to, because all the scores and votes were on tv: Nothing is secret.

Besides, reputed accounting firms are commissioned to tally the figures. Everything should be readily available.

Maybe bookies have already made these calculations.

My interest is elsewhere. If my haunch turns out right, and it turns out that the public does indeed favour the mediocre, how would social scientists explain it?

Speaking of voting, there is another question that has recently started to intrigue me: Does secret ballot stand in the way of good candidates in a dysfunctional democracy?

Let me explain. Suppose an election is being contested by a thug and a honest candidate. The thug's electioneering is simple. His henchmen terrorise voters, especially slum dwellers and other poor people, to vote for him en block. The voters know that they are voting for the wrong candidate but have no choice.

Yet they could have gotten rid of the thug, by voting overwhelmingly in favour of the good candiate. Because it is unlikely that the goon would retain much muscle power if he suffered an enormous defeat politically.

I'd like to believe that the one reason why they cannot do this is because no voter knows what the other voters are doing.

The voters' only hope for change lies in making a near unanimous choice, that strips the goon of all political power and scores an enormous psychological victory for the voters. Such unanimity can never be archived as long as each voter fears that his neighbour will give in to fear in the secrecy of the booth!

In a nutshell, to tackle a gang, they must act like a mob. And a mob can't act in secret.

This is not to say that a show of hands would be a way out. Who will bell the cat?

Nonetheless, I'd love to know if my line of reasoning is sensible, and if secret ballot can end up ensuring dictatorship.

Friday, 15 February, 2008

Abuse alert

I came across this in an online review of the new film Jodha-Akbar: “Some historians and viewers may question the plot lines developed in the film. Some may wonder why the film does not show any indication how, in his later years, Akbar would not allow his son to marry a court dancer.”

I left a comment to the effect that there is no historical record of Akbar opposing his son's marriage to any court dancer or, for that matter, that crown prince Salim wanted to marry any court dancer.

And that while Mughal-e-Azam and Anarkali were fine films, with excellent songs, we shouldn't take them as history.

What I didn't write, but now wish I did, was that expecting the makers of Jodha-Akbar to be bothered about Anarkali was like expecting a researcher on Victorian crime to investigate Sherlock Holme's contribution to criminology.

Anyway, when I went back to the site a few hours later, I was amazed to find this under my comment: “This post has been permanently removed following an abuse alert.”

Abuse alert!

I do wish I could see the abuse.

What was so offensive in what I wrote?

On the other hand, abuse is commonplace on the Web. Senseless, racial abuse.

I'd like to believe that it is the handiwork of a few harmless kids, who don't mean what they write.

But what if it isn't. What if most people are very angry. And have we always been so angry?

Ever since Amitabh Bachchan grew old, one rarely hears the expression 'repressed anger'. Yet the other day my GMAT math tutor said, “In a decade from now, there will be revolution in this country. The child begging from you today will rob you at knife point.”

What I cannot understand is why that begger's elder brother isn't already revolting. Or why his grandfather didn't kill my grandfather. Haven't we humans always had a great deal to be violent about – even without being angry. Why aren't more of us at each other's throats?

Tuesday, 12 February, 2008

Quarter truth

Did you know that only 3% of the villagers who are supposed to be helped by the rural employment guarantee scheme actually get anything!” informed a colleague.

That was too bad to be true. So I looked it up on the Web.

The Comptroller & Auditor General of India has come out of a draft report on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). And all hell has broken lose.

A news organisation reporte that '97% of households in India did not receive the 100 days of employment under NREGA that was promised across India.'

A pro-NREGS columnist said that it 'is well known even from the official figures which show an all-India average of 33 days of work provided to 25.5 million households.'

An pro-market commentator wrote that 'only 3.2% of the registered households could avail of 100 days guaranteed work. The average employment under NREGP was just 18 days.'

The bits and pieces made no sense. So I asked a statistician friend what sort of distribution would have 3.2% scoring 100 yet an average of 18. (Admittedly, this is not what our right-wing friend said; though I suspect he implied something thereabouts.)

My friend replied that it's idiotic to even start imagining when we have is two data. Do we know how many got 99 days' work? 90 days? 5 days? What is the standard deviation? Are we referring to the same thing throughout, or does the first figure pertain to household and the second to persons?

He is right, of course.

My question is: 'Why are we clogging the airwaves and drenching newsprint with quarter truths? Don't commentators feel it their duty to connect the dots for the voting public? If not, what should the public do? Kill Jews?'

By the way, the report is up on the Net though I cannot vouch for its authenticity. Apparently, it's not supposed to be there. Also, I'm no wiser after scanning the relevant portions.

Tuesday, 5 February, 2008

Risk appetite and the surgeon

This Monday's (4 Feb 08) Times of India has an article by financial advisor Gaurav Mashruwala titled No books or periodicals offer you a theory on risk appetite and investment. I wish I could get a link to it's online version, but I can't find any.

Anyway, according to Mashruwala, “'Advising investor based on their risk appetite' is the biggest humbug coined by financial distributors to 'sell' higher commission products.”

He goes on to draw a parallel between financial advisors and surgeons, explaining that 'the way whether to perform surgery or not has to be decided by the surgeon, similarly an investor should invest in equity or not has to be decided by the advisor... Recommendations should be solely dependent on investor's future financial goals. It has nothing to do with his or her risk appetite.'

He's particularly against questionnaires framed to gauge investors' risk appetites.

Humm... I suppose Mr Mashruwala is absolutely right in everything he says about risk appetite. Nonetheless, I beg to differ on the parallel.

First, money is not a matter of life and death. The surgeon is responsible for something far more precious that any financial planner will ever be. The level of trust necessary between a surgeon and his patient is - and should be – many times higher than between a financial adviser and his customers. To expect otherwise is to set oneself up for disappointment.

Second, major surgery is always carried out by a team of experts, each with deep knowledge and experience in his area. The team uses the best technology available. All conditions are strictly controlled, before, during and after surgery. A series of tests are carried out too. Besides, there are trained nurses and attendants to look after the patient.

Often, there is little risk in surgery. The cliché that the 'operation was successful but the patient died' is not an oxymoron. The surgeon most probably knew the patient's chances of survival (even if the operation was successful) before the operation, as did the patient or his dear ones. (A small point here: If I know my chances, the nature of risk is quite different from that in a situation where I cannot quantify or otherwise estimate [much, little, medium] my chances.) In fact, so rarely do things go wrong nowadays, that when they do, the patient's relatives suspect malpractice and negligence and beat up the surgeon!

Such is not the case with investors yet, is it? Or are we in the Age of Endless & Universal Prosperity already?

Third, surely one of the principal reasons for investing is to feel financially safe. If investing makes the investor very insecure, it sort of defeats the purpose, doesn't it? It's like going to a gym to break your back.

Fourth, Mr Mashruwala assumes all cases that every surgeon deals with are ones where the patient's only choices are between (a) taking the surgeon's advice to be operated on and (b) dying. This is hardly the case in the real life.

In many cases the surgeon says, “Look, this can be completely cured by surgery, but if you're not particularly keen on an operation, that's ok too. Though you'll have to take medication for ever. Your problem won't kill you, just bother you, even when it's under check.” In such cases, the surgeon does accept his patient's lack of 'surgical appetite' (his term).

But I'll never have enough money to need Mr Mashruwala's advise or that of any financial advisor. So why do I bother?