Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Luck - III

According to the economist Sherwin Rosen, inequality comes about because of a tournament effect where a person who is only slightly better gets the entire jackpot while others get next to nothing. The effect of asymmetric results can also come from an initial arbitrary push ultimately giving that person cumulative advantage even when no initial skill difference is involved. The sociologist Robert Merton also showed how an initial advantage can follow a person through life which he called the Matthew effect.

The idea of cumulative advantage is that once a person gains a small advantage over other persons, that advantage will compound over time into an increasingly larger advantage. This idea applies to anyone who benefits from past success - individuals, companies, actors, etc. Disadvantages are also cumulative with an initial failure due to random reasons stalking the person for the rest of his life.

When stock markets collapsed following the bursting of the housing bubble many fresh graduates in the US got caught in the ensuing recession. They had to take up lesser paying jobs in industries that were not their first choice. When the economy started recovering a few years later, these people had to start at the bottom of the ladder if they wanted to go back to their preferred sectors and had to compete with younger fresh graduates because their experience was not relevant for the new job. Hence an event entirely outside their control has saddled them with a disadvantage that will dog them throughout their lives.

In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell writes about the concept of the 'self-fulfilling prophecy' by Richard Merton. Here is how Merton put it in his original essay:  “The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true’.  The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error.  For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.”

For example, for admission to kindergarten, a child has to have completed a certain age so there will be a few months difference between the oldest and youngest child in the class. At that age, a few months of extra brain development is significant. The older children will be able to grasp things better and therefore perform better. The cycle of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, adds up to a significant advantage over the years. I am quite sure such a process worked to my advantage.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is related also to what Karl Popper called “The Oedipus effect” - an idea that he had discussed in The Poverty of Historicism - the influence of a prediction upon the event predicted.  He called this the ‘Oedipus effect’, because the oracle played a most important role in the sequence of events which led to the fulfillment of its prophecy.

Path dependent processes are those where initial decisions and conditions almost irreversibly affect subsequent decisions which ultimately produce an outcome. It explains how the set of decisions one faces for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions one has made in the past, even though the situation may have changed. Here the future success is determined by the past success. Thus Microsoft or QWERTY keyboard enjoy disproportionate success even though superior products exist. Economists also call it 'network externalities'. Nassim Taleb writes in Fooled by Randomness:
...Brian Arthur, an economist concerned with non-linearities at the Santa Fe Institute, wrote that chance events coupled with positive feedback rather than technological superiority will determine economic superiority - not some abstrusely defined edge in a given area of expertise. While early economic models excluded randomness, Arthur explained how "unexpected orders, chance meetings with lawyers, managerial whims... would help determine which ones achieved early sales and, over time, which firms dominated."
As this Hindi song shows, some people believe that life is all about luck while some believe that life is all about planning. The truth is that both play a role in deciding one's life chances. The successful vastly underestimate the role that luck has played in their lives. Tom Peters, one of the authors of In Search of Excellence , writes in an article TOM PETERS'S TRUE CONFESSIONS, 'In McKinsey's world, all of life is one of two things: strategy or organization.' If everyone had the same opportunities that I had, I would not have got into IIMA.(No doubt you are muttering what Sherlock Holmes told Doctor Watson, 'Your grasp of the obvious amazes me.' )

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Luck - II

Although both genes and environment both interact and influence behavior, there are some situations when a powerful influence from one side of the interaction can overwhelm the influence of the other. Take for instance the side of genes. Whatever splendid environment you are born in, it will not compensate for the catastrophic consequences of a genetic disease like Tay-Sacks.Conversely some environmental effect can overcome genetic influence. Even the best possible combination of genes is not going to help if you are subjected to a prolonged period of severe protein malnutrition during childhood.

Psychologists say that birth order has an effect on effort and striving - apparently, the first-born has a stronger work ethic, makes more money and achieves more conventional success than their younger siblings. In Justice, Michael Sandel says that when he asks his Harvard class how many are first born, about 75-80% raise their hands. The results have been the same every time he has held the poll.

I would have liked to conduct such a poll in the classes I studied in if I had known about it at the time. (The study is controversial and there is no scientific consensus about it.) For the record, I am first-born. Nobody can claim that he or she can influence the order in which one is born. If something as arbitrary as one's birth order has an influence on one's tendency to work hard then even the hard work one puts in is a matter of chance.

I heard a BBC podcast which suggests that social conditions a couple of generations ago could affect your health. How? The egg that formed you was formed in your mother's ovary when she was a foetus in your grandmother's womb. The health of this egg depends on your grandmother's diet. So your health depends on how women were treated in your society a couple of generations ago.          

Not only the economic capital but also the social capital of family members - the relationships that they have built over the years - aid in one's education and career.  The social capital of a plumber is less influential than that of a doctor in any part of the world so which social stratum you are born in is by no means immaterial even in the most meritocratic societies. The social and economic conditions that you find yourself in matter big-time.

In his retirement speech, Tendulkar talked of the large number of people who helped him in various ways. In the absence of such a nurturing and supportive environment he would not have achieved as much as he did. Jeb Bush, whose father and brother were US presidents and whose grandfather was a  rich Wall Street banker and a US  senator, once said about having such a family lineage, 'I think overall its a disadvantage.' Most people would give their right arm to have such a disadvantage. As Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers:
People don't rise from nothing.  We do owe something to parentage and patronage.  The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves.But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up.  The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
A report in the NYT says that a large-scale research study found that social mobility hadn’t changed much over time. When you look across centuries, at social status broadly measured — not just income and wealth, but also occupation, education and longevity — social mobility is much slower than many thought.  This is true whether you consider capitalism, democratization, mass public education, the decline of nepotism, redistributive taxation, the emancipation of women, or even, as in China, socialist revolution.

Then there are the unexpected accidents that keep happening. You may fall sick before an exam or interview. A trivial injury may turn into a life threatening condition as happened to this journalist. You may be standing on the side of the road and a vehicle may hit you. (There are maniacs on Indian roads so this is by no means rare.) There is a long running study of Harvard graduates extending over decades which shows chance events changing lives in unexpected ways.

Happy B'day dear Kesu

Hi Friends,

This is a post from Jaya. Those who are reading Kesu's blog would definitely know me (Kesu's wife). Today is Kesu's birthday  and I take this opportunity to write a few words about Kesu in this post. Firstly, wish you a very happy Birthday dear Suresh. You have always been such a wonderful life partner with whom I would share anything and everything. You are a  genius, matured, patient, loving, caring ... the list is endless... husband.  Love u lots!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Luck - I

Some in the upper strata of society lose no opportunity to say that their success is entirely due to their hard work and luck has nothing to do with it, that everyone can achieve their dreams. They will give the credit for their success to factors like passion, hard work, skill, focus, and having great ideas. These answers will get plenty of air-time since they make for more inspiring stories than any credit given to luck or privilege. Saying that everything is within your control is an appealing story but that doesn't mean it is true.

When I hear statements like 'you can be whatever you want to be', 'Champions are not born, they are made', 'the only person standing between what you are and what you want to be is you', etc. I get the feeling that these people are living on  a different planet from the one I occupy. It is often seen that the advantages that give us a head-start and the accidents that open up avenues play a huge part in our lives. Small, random, initial advantages can balloon into huge ones. Nick Cohen writes in You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom about many of the super-rich:
...they are unshakable in their belief that they are entitled to their wealth, and have every moral right to resist attempts to reduce it. It never occurs to them that they are lucky...To outsiders their luck seems self-evident. Yet nowhere in the recorded utterances of the plutocracy does one find a glimmer of an understanding that time and chance played a part in their good fortune.
The same book quotes the Russian oligarch Mikail Khodorkovsky before his fall from grace, 'If a man is not an oligarch, something is not right with him. Everyone had the same starting conditions, everyone could have done it.' Every one had the same starting conditions? This guy must have been hallucinating when he said that. As somebody said, 'You cannot make your opportunities concur with the opportunities of people whose incomes are ten times greater than yours.'

Our existence begins with a genetic lottery. Only one out many sperms in an ejaculate can fertilize an egg. It is estimated that the set of people allowed by our DNA far exceeds the set of actual people. In The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins, I came across a poem by Aldous Huxley:
A million million spermatozoa, 
All of them alive:
Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah
Dare hope to survive.
And of that billion minus one
Might have chanced to be
Shakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne -
But the One was Me.
Shame to have ousted your betters thus.
Taking ark while the others remained outside!
Better for all of us, forward Homunculus,
If you'd quietly died!
If you are lucky to be born on the right side of the social  and economic divide, you can think of Gabbar Singh in the movie Sholay putting a gun under the chin of one of his henchmen, pulling the trigger, seeing that nothing had happened and saying, 'Bach gaya saala.'  The lottery starts before the moment of conception. What happened to your forefathers, the country and culture in which you are born etc. make a big difference to how you end up. Richard Dawkins writes in Unweaving the Rainbow:
Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to when it doesn't bear thinking about. Desmond Morris opens his autobiography, Animal Days (1979), in characteristically arresting vein:
Napoleon started it all. If it weren't for him, I might not be sitting here writing these words...for it was one of his cannonballs, fired in the Peninsular War, that shot off the arm of great-great grandfather, James Morris, and altered the whole course of my family history.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The feeding conundrum

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. - Sherlock Holmes

Watch this brief video before you proceed further. (It is critical that you watch the video before you read the post.) In one of my early posts, I had written:
At times I am so lost in my thoughts that I fail to notice the nurse giving me feeds through the feeding tube. When Jaya asks me about the feeding I stare blankly at her and she has to get the details from the nurse. Even I am surprised that I did not notice something so obvious. 
I came across a study which throws light on why I missed something so obvious. Since the experiment was first published in 1999, it has become one of the  most widely demonstrated and discussed studies in all of psychology. It won the psychologists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons  the Ig Nobel Prize in 2004. It illustrates a situation where people are misled into thinking that they know something that they actually don't.

The psychologists made a short film of two teams of people moving around passing basketballs. One team wore white shirts and the other wore black.Many people were shown the clip and asked to count the number of passes made by the players wearing white while ignoring the passes made by the players wearing black. The subjects counted the number of passes fairly accurately but that was not the point of the experiment.

Half-way through the video, a female student wearing a gorilla suit walks into the scene, stops among the players, faces the camera, thumps her chest and walks off.The amazing fact is that roughly half the number of people in the study did not notice the gorilla! They were so busy doing the task assigned to them that they did not notice any other happening. The experiment has been repeated many times, under different conditions in many countries but the results are always the same: about half the people fail to notice the gorilla.

This error of perception due to lack of attention to an unexpected object is called 'inattentional blindness'. It is called 'inattentional' because the blindness results not from any damage to the visual system but  because people are devoting their attention to one aspect and miss other aspects that they are not expecting. They are taken aback when their error is pointed out.

When the experiment was repeated without the task of having to count the passes, everyone spotted the gorilla easily - their brain was not busy doing another activity. The gorilla study illustrates the powerful illusion of attention.  Looking directly at something is no guarantee that you will see it. You may miss it if your brain is busy doing something else. That is why driving while talking on the cell-phone is so dangerous. The psychologists write in The Invisible Gorilla (a description of the experiments mentioned in the book can be found at their website
As the gorilla experiment has become more widely known, it has been used to explain failures of awareness,from the concrete to the abstract, in diverse domains. It's not just limited to visual attention, but applies equally well to all of our senses and even to broader patterns in the world around us. The gorilla is powerful because it forces people to confront the illusion of attention.It provides an effective metaphor precisely because the illusion of attention has such broad reach.
It is plausible to now think that missing noticing the feeding being given to me  was not unusual. My brain was busy thinking of something and was not paying attention to the surroundings.Most of the seeing is not done by the eyes but by the brain.

PS: I had to think of a title that was related to the post yet did not give any clue about the contents of the post otherwise you may spot the gorilla. Once you know about the existence of the of the gorilla, you cannot avoid seeing it. And yes, I did not spot the gorilla. Neither did Jaya.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Palace of illusions

Sometime back, I read The Palace of illusions which is a novel based on the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view. Draupadi is the narrator of the story. It had raised the hackles of some Hindu groups which was the reason why it came to my notice and decided to read it - a minor illustration of the Streisand effect.

It was not difficult to find  passages that would have annoyed some groups. For eg., when her brother Dhrishtadhyumna's tutor says that the primary duty of  a woman is to support her father, brother, husband and sons, Draupadi tells her brother, 'And who decided that a woman's highest purpose was to support men? A man, I would wager! Myself, I plan on doing other things with my life.'

About fortune-tellers, Dhai Ma (who is the nurse of Draupadi, a character invented by the author) says, ' Fortune-tellers are always predicting weddings. They know that's what foolish girls want to hear. That's how they get fatter fees.'

The book is worth a read. I found it the most interesting version of whatever I have read of the Mahabharata. It humanises deified characters and gives them qualities that one relates to, for eg., the mother-in-law - daughter-in-law psychological tussles between Kunti and Draupadi or the steady deterioration of moral values as a war proceeds. Most interesting is the depiction of a soft corner that Draupadi always had for the most tragic hero of the Mahabharata, Karna.

This was something I had not come across earlier. The author got the idea from an incident described in a Bengali version of the Mahabharata. The incident itself does not form part of the book but is described by the author in this talk about the book.It happens after the Pandavas were exiled following Yudhishtira's loss in a game of dice.

While they were  traveling through a forest, they saw a tree laden with fruits from which they plucked one fruit. At this point Krishna appeared and told them that the tree belonged to  a great sage who had a bad temper. When he finds out that they had plucked a fruit from his tree there was no knowing what curse he might put on them - it might even mean the  death of the Pandavas. A frightened Draupadi asked him how to atone for the misdemeanor.

Krishna said that as atonement, each person should tell his or her deepest secret. Each of the Pandava brothers reveals his deepest secret and each time, the fruit rises part of  the way towards the tree. It was only a little distance away from the tree when it was Draupadi's turn but when she revealed her secret, it dropped to the ground. Krishna said that Draupadi had not revealed her deepest secret and asked her to try again. But the fruit did not rise - it was not her deepest secret. Finally she confesses, 'I always had a soft corner for Karna.'

I read that the author is working on a novel based on the Mahabharata  from Sita's point of view.It will definitely be part of my antilibrary.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Analysis of disasters

After every disaster - earthquakes, floods, industrial accidents, terrorist attacks...-there will be breathless coverage for days on end with lots of expert analysis. They quickly become rather tiring.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests doing a thought experiment. Suppose there was a far-sighted manager who had implemented some years ago the safety measures that are now being discussed by the media. He would have been told that he was wasting scarce resources in superfluous areas; the scenario that he had painted would be dismissed as a figment of his imagination - it has never happened before. He would have got a bad annual review since his department had 'squandered resources on non-productive expenses'.

If he continues along his 'foolish' path, he may lose his job. He may be replaced by a 'dashy-pushy' (see note below) guy who has more 'Confidence in the future' (i.e. who ignores the possibility of Black Swans) who will be obsessive about buzzwords like efficiency/cash-flow/ bottom line etc. and reduce the 'unproductive expenses'. He will focus on 'leveraging intellectual capital and intangible assets' to create a 'knowledge-based' firm. (Add a few more buzzwords to impress CNBC) And suppose some of the 'unproductive expenses' had been retained and they had helped mitigate the effects of the disaster that would have happened some years after they had been implemented, the far-sighted manager who had risked his career over them would have been long forgotten.

Accidents often happen because of seemingly trivial faults and minor malfunctions that had been overlooked. Small faults like a tiny leak or a rusted bolt that had been routinely picked up earlier would now be missed by the fewer number of over-worked employees that had resulted from Downsizing/Layoffs/Ramping down an operation/Right sizing/Restructuring etc. to 'trim costs' in order to 'remain competitive'. (The 'flattening of the organizational pyramid' would be to take 'nimble advantage of market nuances'.) The mistake that caused the accident may be the final straw on the camel's back. Taleb writes in The Black Swan:
Who gets rewarded, the central banker who avoids a recession or the one who comes to 'correct' his predecessors' faults and happens to be there during some economic recovery? Who is more valuable, the politician who avoids a war or the one who starts a new one (and is lucky enough to win)?
...everybody knows that you need more prevention than treatment, but few reward acts of prevention.  We glorify those who left their names in history books at the expense of those contributors about whom our books are silent.  We humans are not just a superficial race (this may be curable to some extent); we are a very unfair one.
Hindsight bias, also known as the knew-it-all-along effect, is the inclination, after an event has occurred, to see the event as having been predictable, despite there having been little or no objective basis for predicting it. After an event, people often believe that they knew the outcome of the event before it actually happened. They often forget a dictum that one historian stated - what is now in the past was once in the future -and assume that a decision-maker at the time had the same information that they have now.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Danil Kahneman give an example of hindsight bias. The day before the attacks on WTC in the US, the CIA got information that al-Qaida may be planning a major attack in the US. This information was given to the NSA rather than to President Bush. When this became known later, the executive editor of The Washington Post said, 'It seems to me elementary that if you've got the story that's going to dominate history you might as well go right to the president.' But the day before the attack, no one knew - or could have known - that the next day would 'dominate history'.

After a terrorist attack you will often be told that the suspect had been in some police record somewhere for some petty crime. The implication will be drawn that if there was better coordination between the different agencies, the person would have been caught then and the terrorist incident would not have happened. But there was no way for the police to know that he would plant a bomb in a bus a few months later.

Note: I came across the word 'dashy pushy' in an article in The Caravan magazine. It is a corrupted combination of two English words and is used in West Bengal:
By chopping the last three letters off “dashing,” and adding a “y” to ease its coupling with “pushy,” we get a new word. It denotes a go-getter with an unsubtly aggressive edge about him — a slightly pejorative term in its early days, but now one of approval, if not admiration.