DePRESSing Priorities – Evidence That Fear Trumps Tragedy

How happy I will be to have been wrong! Unfortunately, I was right!! On January 1, 2013 I wrote” As much as it saddens me to say it, in years to come we will all see more homicides and mass shootings in America.” There have been a number of ‘school shootings’ since the Newtown school tragedy on December 14, 2012. The latest was in Marysville WA, on Friday, October 24, 2014. And when it happened some networks broke away from regular programming to report on the tragic events. And over the last two days news outlets have had reports about the shooting. But then…

The Sunday news shows think that a school shooting is no longer worthy of conversation. I am a news junkie. I watch three news shows every Sunday – ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, and Fox’s News Sunday. And I looked forward to hearing the left/right, anti/pro NRA conversation today. I enjoy hearing debates where I know what will be said by all so that I can feel well informed, even if all that is being said is recycled garbage. However they disappointed me today – all three of them – ABC, NBC, and FOX!

None of the shows said much (I think it was nothing, but just in case someone said something tangential I use the much softer ‘much’) about the shooting in Washington state. Nowadays school shootings in America are as common as traffic accidents, and spilt milk – and it would be silly to expect the Sunday news shows to cover every accident and cry over spilt milk! And this week was also a pretty busy week – we had Ebola and Lone Wolf Attacks to talk about!

Good Americans have got used to gun violence in their schools. They understand that when a school shooting occurs the event is tragic. But they also understand probability theory and that something like this happening in their community, or to someone near and dear to them, is so small that they no longer fear school shootings.

But ‘Ebola’ and’ Lone Wolf Attacks (especially by religious zealots who belong to a religion which begins with ‘I’ and ends with ‘M’ – and we ain’t talking ‘Induism’!) are new and the American public isn’t very good at applying probability theory to see that dangers posed by either of these two is so remote that they really shouldn’t be worrying about them. Ignorance is the basis of fear, and fear is worthy of media exploitation. That explains why the news media talks endlessly about Ebola and the dangers posed by lone wolves. And it also explains why we don’t talk about school shootings after another school shooting in spite of the fact that after Newtown, CT, President Obama said, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change.”

The press can either discuss tragedies we can do something about and can focus on, or they can prey on our fears. Actually, I am wrong about that – they can do both! They can walk and chew gum at the same time – they can discuss the tragedy of gun violence and prey on our fears of Ebola and crazy attacks by lone wolves! Tragically, they do the latter and not the former! And that is DePRESSing

Less Than A One in Hundred Chance – NFL, the Super Bowl, the Regular Season and Probability

There is less than a one in a hundred chance event that is taking place today. I thought I’d alert you to it as I try to restart my semi-frequent blogging exercise. The credit for the contents of this blog go to my son who told me about it, but thought it wasn’t worth writing up for others to see! So, what’s it all about?

The Seattle Seahawks are playing the Denver Broncos in a rematch of last year’s NFL Super Bowl (the ‘finals’ for American Football, for those who are wondering). The last time teams who met in the Super Bowl played each other in the next regular season games was in 1997! It has been sixteen years since that event has occurred.

Rare Super Bowl Rematch As Seahawks Host Broncos is the headline to an AP news story which appears in a number of different news outlets to capture the event. However, the headline notwithstanding, the article does not address the rarity of the event. Trey Wingo, of NFL Live tweeted -

How rare is a Super Bowl rematch the following season? Sunday’s @Broncos @Seahawks game will only be 6th such occurrence.— trey wingo (@wingoz) September 17, 2014

“…game will only be 6th such occurrence” doesn’t capture how rare it actually is. To understand how rare this even is we need a little NFL history, a little on the team structure of the NFL, how the NFL schedules games, a little NFL history and some very basic Statistics.

The National Football League (NFL) is divided into two conferences, The American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Each conference has 16 teams, slotted into four divisions (North, South, East, and West). Thus, the NFL has 32 teams. The Super Bowl is the championship game between the AFC and NFC champion. To become a champion you play 16 regular season games, and a few playoff games. Playoff games are only between teams in a conference (AFC teams play only AFC teams, and NFC teams play only NFC teams).

Regular season games can be inter-conference. In fact every team plays 4 inter-conference games every season. The way the games are scheduled, a team in one conference plays each of the teams from a division in the other conference on a 4 year rotating schedule. The way the games are scheduled every team in one conference will play every team in the other conference once in a regular season game every four years. This scheduling is structured and automatic. Thus there is a 25% chance that any team will play a team in the other conference in any given year.

The first Super Bowl was held in 1967, following the merger of the National Football League and the newer American Football League. Between 1967 and 1997, there was a rematch of the teams playing in the Super Bowl in the following season only 5 times. This hasn’t happened since 1997. In other words, it has taken 17 years for the teams that met in the Super Bowl to meet in the very next regular season.

So the question is, what is the probability that a game (or in probability terms an ‘event’) with a 25% chance of happening in a given year will not happen for 16 years and will occur in the 17th year? The answer is (0.75)16 * (0.25) = 0.0025, which is a quarter of a percent chance! So if you watch the Seattle-Denver game today please realize that you are watching something that is really rare.

A final note for inside the ballpark NFLers, and my colleagues who teach Statistics – in doing this calculation we have ignored the reorganization of the NFL conferences and divisions in 2002. We’ve assumed that 1997 to 2001 was organizationally the same as was post 2001. Taking that difference into account will change the result marginally, but the central story that this is really, really rare will stay on. My Stats colleagues who think it is worth making your students read this piece may want to ask them to go and research the organizational structure of the NFL pre-2002 and see how that will change this result!

P.S. The central ideas in this piece are Aditya Krishnan’s. So, I got a blog entry for the tuition payments we made!

Envy, Nostalgia, and Voting Twice in the 1977 Election

Elections are just around the corner in India. And I sit far away in the mid-west of the U.S. looking on with envy at those who are right in the thick of things. I wish I was there; but then choices have consequences, and missing the elections in India is a price that I have to pay given my choice of place and profession. Along with envy I feel nostalgia. This feeling returns every time there is an election in India. But this is the first election in India after my father’s (Appa) passing away and I fondly remember casting two votes in the same election!

Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency rule was on, and for reasons which are unexplainable even today she called an election. It was the election of March 1977. She called the election on January 18, 1977. The period between 1975 and 1977 was the foundation of my peer group’s political awakening. Those years, after most Saturday scout meetings Rajeev (now Professor IIM-B, spokesman for the Congress Party, and Nandan Nilekani friend/adviser – read below why this connection is relevant) and I would eat idli-vada-sambhar at (if memory serves me right) Prakash Hotel on Residency Road, opposite the old Reserve Bank of India building, in spite of my mother warning me not to discuss politics in public (or private) lest I be arrested! Paranoia was normal, given the happenings of the Emergency. We may not have been able to philosophically differentiate between left and right, but we spoke a lot about the right and wrong of politics. And Rajeev, even in those days, was well versed in the sociology of politics. And even though we were just entering our teens, we were politically aware and engaged, and we chose sides.

Mrs. Gandhi’s call for the March 1977 parliamentary election was a game changer. Jagjivan Ram, H.N. Bahuguna, and Nandini Satpathy abandoned Mrs. Gandhi and formed the Congress for Democracy, which later merged with the newly formed Janata Party which put up a united (and based on the outcome, formidable) front to the Congress. It seemed that this time there was a contest.

It was under these circumstances that I cast two votes – well before Sharad Pawar recommended that people do the same!.

We lived in Wilson Gardens and our constituency was Bangalore South. The election in Bangalore South was mainly between two men of renown. K.S. Hegde (Janata Party – symbol Farmer) and K. Hanumanthaiah (Congress – symbol Cow and Calf). Hegde, who was running for the Lok Sabha for the first time, was a former Justice of the Supreme Court and would later go on to become the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Hanumanthaiah who held the seat, was a former chief minister of the erstwhile (that is nostalgia speaking) Mysore state, who went on to become a member of the Union Cabinet, and after whom Double Road (the one that leads into Lal Bagh) is named. There were well attended rallies at the Hombe Gowda Boys School grounds. Oh the joy I felt after attending one of those K.S. Hegde rallies. I can still recall the loud speaker’s call of, “Please cast your alubil alubil ote in favor af K.S. Hegde. K.S. Hegdege nimma matha kodi, nimma matha, K.S. Hegdege

It was also the time when Appa had come down with a bout of jaundice and was bed ridden. He was on a diet on Keelanalli and bland veggies, and was ordered to ‘bedrest’. There was no question of him going and standing in line to cast a vote. And my mother (Amma) was going to not vote with him. Damn be that this was possibly the most important election in the short thirty year history of Indian independence, and that they should make their vote count. My mother was playing nurse and worked out that at the margin their two votes would make no difference, while it would matter if my father’s liver would take a turn for the worse. The doctor had ordered bedrest and bedrest it would be.

I argued my case over and over again. Appa discussed a great deal of politics with me and I was pretty sure that if he voted he would vote for Hegde; Amma I was not sure. I was Hegde’s operative in our house. But I was up against jaundice and Amma. So I struck a deal with Appa – he would go and vote if he did not have to stand in line. Reluctantly, Amma fell in line. So off I went to meet the polling officer in the Hombe Gowda Boys School polling station. I explained the situation to him and inquired whether my sick father and mother could jump the line and vote. He agreed. I returned home triumphantly, and packed my parents into the car with our driver Janardhanan steering us to the polling station. The voting took place as arranged – two votes were cast by people who drove down in a nimbus blue Premier Padmini, or was it the light green matador, ah memory fails me. And a fourteen year old was responsible for casting two votes.

I have no idea if those two votes had any effect on the final vote difference between KSH and KH – as I said I’m pretty sure how Appa voted, but Amma’s vote still remains a secret. I do not know if she added to Hegde’s total, or neutralized Appa’s vote. And in case you were wondering, K.S. Hegde won – the only non-Congress candidate to win from Karnataka that year. (That last sentence is wrong. On reading this blog Rajeev just informed me that Hassan was also won by the Janata Party – Nanjesha Gowda was the candidate. I could have simply corrected my error, but then…Thanks Rajeev)

While the farmer, and, the cow and calf are no longer competing symbols, there are parallels in Bangalore South between 1977 and 2014. Again it is a contest between a veteran and a newbie, though this time the BJP candidate Ananth Kumar is the veteran, and Nandan Nilekani the Congress candidate is running for the first time. At that time Rajeev supported the Congress as he does now. But unlike last time, he’s working to get people to the polls for his guy in Bangalore South. Then, I was engaged and enthusiastic. Now, I am envious, and nostalgic!

Oh, how wonderful!

P.S.

  • The Rajeev I refer to is Rajeev Gowda. I called him Rajeev because in those days he was M.V. Rajeev.
  • Rajeev’s uncle successfully contested the 1977 elections from Chikballapur in Karnataka.
  • Also if anybody reading this knows why all the Janata Party candidates are listed as BLD (Bharatiya Lok Dal, presumably) in the official elections results, please tell us.

Periappa Remembered

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A combination of busyness and inefficiency accounts for why I can say with a straight face, “Time flies.”  This piece was due about a year ago. But then, time flies. In my defense, I am glad I am not writing this piece a year from now. Even in my life, inefficiency and procrastination take a break every once in a while.

It is a year since my Ramamoorthy Periappa passed away. His was a life novels are made of if good writers become aware of the details. Even though I think I know a lot about his life I am not sure all of it is true. He didn’t formally complete a college program but was a Renaissance Man – a successful industrialist, brilliant artist and an amazing photographer, politically kind of active RSS man, all round handyman, avid card player, foodie…  Most importantly he was a good and generous man, a proxy parent for many a person.

It is that final aspect about the man that I will remember forever. His house in Madras was an open house for many a person in need. I can remember many of my friends who were beneficiaries of his and Periamma’s generosity and openness. Ajay stayed with them when he had to write some medical entrance exams. Dimpy stayed with them for an extended period of time as she was finding her feet becoming an artist – in fact I think she used their address to establish residency! Subha stayed with them when she was working at the Spastic Society and needed a place to stay. Periappa and Periamma conducted Kamala’s wedding under circumstance we no longer talk about. These are just connections personally close to me. Their generosity extended to countless others.

We had the joy of spending many vacations in Periappa/Periamma’s house in Madras – first in Tondiarpet and then in different locations in Annanagar. My fondest memory of him is when he used to take us kids for ice cream to a place whose name I cannot remember, but I am sure one of my cousins or siblings will recall. At times it was only a couple of people who could go along with him on his ‘mobike’. Ah! What a treat it was. Right up there with the ice cream treat was going with him to see Walt Disney movies. He enjoyed them far more than we kids did. And we kids enjoyed them a lot.

I also recall once when he dropped me from the flying pan into the fire. To cut a long story short, I had got myself into a situation where I needed to see the college principal with my father before I could be given a hall ticket to write the centralized university exam. My father who had asked me not to do the thing that got me into trouble, but who was asked to not interfere in a not so polite way, refused to accompany me to the principal’s office. Periappa was my proxy father. He was well coached on what the problem was and how he was only coming along as a seat warmer and should say little. At that young age I did not understand the unpredictable nature of Renaissance men. Periappa not only spoke, but agreed with the principal that my indiscretions were a part of the nature of the younger generation, and said that he was grateful I was being held to account.  I probably would have held it against him if the final outcome of a vindictive principal really harmed me. It didn’t. But I always knew I had a proxy father.

There is much more I can say about Periappa, about things he did which were ahead of his time and indicative of his courage and decency. Some of it, I will not, because it is of a personal nature unfit to blog. The trouble with the other stuff is that there are so many stories that if I carry on I can never stop. What I do know is that he has left behind a caring, loving family, all of whom miss him, and most of whom want to emulate him.  That is a good thing.

Hopefully there will be a novel in the not too distant future by someone who knew him well. I have a working title – The Man Who Would Be Good!

Debt Limit, Cruzification, and Republican Future

The chaos in Washington is worth breaking my long blogging silence (though I am a self-described semi-frequent blogger).

Debt Limit Extension

In a piece on Jan 15, 2013 titled, ‘Go Home – No News – No U.S. Default on Debt‘ I wrote that on August 7, 2011 I wrote”

“Does anybody seriously think the U.S. will default on its debt obligations? The recent political mess in Washington may make you say, “Maybe.”  But think about it for a second. In spite of a bunch of politically motivated, not so intelligent, partisan, ideologically driven bozos who cannot even be personable to each other running things in Washington, when push came to shove, when they had the opportunity to default, they didn’t. The last month in the U.S. simply shows us that even in terrible economic times, when the political system is quite broken, the U.S. will not default on its debt. So if you are thinking, “Maybe,” think again. The U.S. will not default on its debt. The past month has confirmed that view.”

I’m sticking to that view. The U.S. will not default and many of the pundits who are hedging now about the possibility of a U.S. default will speak about how it was simply unimaginable that the U.S. will default. In fact I’ve bet a small sum of money that the debt limit will be raised before the U.S. can be called a defaulter. However unlike the game going on in Washington the bet I have taken with my colleague is a win-win bet, because we’ve agreed that the winner will buy the loser a round of drinks. And how bad can it be if the certainty outcome of a bet is that an economist and an anthropologist will discuss politics and sociology over a healthy brew of hops and nachos?

Cruzified?

However I’ve changed my mind on something else I said in my Jan 2013 piece. I said:

“Nothing has changed in Washington. We have more or less the same cast of characters and they are behaving in more or less the same childish manner that they did about 18 months ago.”

Actually I think things have changed in Washington over the last six months. It has been Cruzified! (What is it to be Cruzified? Similar to what Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, I may never be able to intelligently define it for you, but you know it when you see it.) The rational lunacy (that which is crazy but which can be explained) of the legislators in the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is clear for all to see. I guess some of them see themselves as carrying on the work which the 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (the intellectual pater of Reaganism) started and think that they are doing the cause of Republicanism (which they see as misplaced and misunderstood Libertarianism) a favor with their petulance. I’d like to think that they think their present actions are simply a manifestation of Goldwaterism and that they can be explained as remembering one of the lessons that Goldwater delivered in his 1964 Presidential nomination acceptance speech, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Alas, such thinking on my part would be incredibly generous, and I am in no mood to be generous to adults throwing tantrums. I would also be wrong in attributing principled action to a group who seem to think that subversive legislative means justify policy seeking ends based on shoddy, if any, thinking. While they spout the bumper sticker phrases of Goldwaterism like ‘freedom’ and ‘constitutionalism’, it appears they do not understand the spirit and context of Goldwater’s libertarianism sculpted in the midst of the Cold War and the Communist scare. And if any of you think I am being immoderate in my critique of the Tea Party wing of the political Right, then with apologies to Goldwater I suggest, “Moderation in the pursuit of objectivity is no virtue!”

To be clear, my remarks above should not be read as my endorsing Goldwaterism, or being a Goldwaterite – though there is quite a lot in Goldwater that I find wonderful. I am simply suggesting that if the Tea Party thinks it is fighting the good fight started fifty odd years ago by Goldwater, they are far from right!

Republican Future

As the polls suggest the tactics and strategy of the Republican Party has been tarnished. If the Republicans hang around with the Tea Partiers they will be in trouble for a long time to come. An extreme, small and vocal minority cannot be constructive; but they can sure be obstructive. It is time for the Republican Party to abandon its extreme and thoughtless wing. That may mean that mainstream Republicans (defined as, in the mold of Goldwater) will be in the political wilderness for a short while. A little cost-benefit analysis suggests that dumping the Tea Partiers and being in the political wilderness for a short while beats the heck out of keeping the Tea Partiers and being in the political wilderness for a long while.

It is time the Republican Party came back to being a viable, constructive force in American politics. A good step in that direction is for Speaker Boehner to table/push forth some reasonable bill to end the present potentially costly stalemate of a closed Federal government even if the tantrum throwing Tea Parties will vote against it. At the very least he should allow a vote on a bill that will increase the debt ceiling. I predict he will. And it may cost him his Speakership, and save the Republican Party.

With Friends Like These…

Real friendship is shown in times of trouble; prosperity is full of friends. – Euriides

For all that went wrong with Rajat Gupta over the last couple of years, there was one silver lining in his dark cloud. He seemed to have a group of friends who sang his praises and were determined to remind the world that a good man had been wronged. In a piece  I wrote slightly over a year ago about Rajat Gupta, I quoted Jagdish Bhagwati who said, “There will be cynicism among some people, but the vast majority will see him as a good man, who got caught on the wrong side of the street.” My next sentence in that piece was, “In fact, there is a website friendsofrajat.com, where a number of people have attested to his integrity, decency, and goodness.”

But a year later, with only an appeal to the federal courts standing between him and jail, and a book by Anita Raghavan (The Billionaire’s Apprentice…) which argues that Gupta’s need to keep up with the Joneses (or at least, the Gates, Kravii, and Paulsons…oh those billionaires) explains how his “story went awry,” his friends seemed to have abandoned him.

The friendsofrajat.com site no longer exists. Go to it and GoDaddy greets you and inquires as to whether you want to search for sites similar to friendsofrajat.com. A click here and a click there and you learn that the friends of rajatgupta.com site can be yours for $ 69.99 (what would a price be without the .99) and some commission. Kind of ironical that the friendsofrajatgupta is/are kind of cheap!  If you want to buy the site, click here.

I now feel bad that I didn’t download the contents of the site when I could. I would have if I thought the site would not exist in the future. On that site were glowing testimonies of more than 300 (I didn’t count, and am relying on Sandip Madan’s count – more on Sandip Madan below) friends who signed an open letter to tell the world who the real Gupta was, and how the charges against him were unfounded at worst, and the result of his decency at best. The public testimonies that he is incapable of being someone who indulged in an act “the functional equivalent of stabbing Goldman in the back”  no longer exists. What does this tell us?

Either that his ‘friends’ no longer believe what they said. If that is true, they must say so. Or that, those testimonies were simply a mechanism to influence in some small way the outcome of the charges against Rajat Gupta – a strategy more than testimonies. Or, …

There is at least one exception to Rajat Gupta’s friends those who seem to have publicly abandoned him – Sandip Madan. As recently as May 31, 2013 on his Things Blight and Beautiful, Madan blogs “Rajat continues to maintain he’s not guilty as he appeals his conviction and sentencing, and  I continue to root for him.” Madan’s faith and respect for Rajat Gupta seems unshaken given the unfavorable outcomes of the judicial process, and an image that is tarnished forever. I take Madan to be saying, “It doesn’t matter to me what you guys say, I know my friend.”

I hope that one of Gupta’s friends reads this piece, and revives the public support for Rajat Gupta that the site symbolized. I’ll be happy to put up the $69.99 + commission – though I am sure that that is not the binding constraint. If it is merely an oversight, I hope the site comes back. Not because I am a friend of Rajat Gupta (I do not know the man), but because, if what his ‘friends’ said is true, then it must be part of the public record.

I only remember one name from those who signed on to the open letter and wrote testimonies on behalf of Rajat Gupta. That person was Mukesh Ambani. I remember saying then, “With friends like these… ”

On Technology, Twitter and Tripathi

There is an old saying – opinions are like anal orifices, everybody has one. Technology has made the act of public flatulence easy and costless. And we have a number of twits who seem to be constantly stinking up the place.

As children some of us played the game of telephone, where a message started with person ‘A’ and got passed from child to child till the mangled message was announced by person ‘B’. The point of the game was to teach kids to listen carefully before passing on rumors. As adults we play the game of twitter. In this game we take our unconfirmed, yet ‘reported’ pieces of news, punctuate them with our opinions and pass them along. Doesn’t matter if what’s being passed along is true; doesn’t matter who it hurts. All that matters is us using our digits to pass on the word and some judgment. As I said, technology has made the act of public flatulence easy and costless.

I got up rather early this morning and as I do on most mornings, I logged on. I was informed that Mike Muguleta and Sunil Tripathi were the Boston marathon bombers. Word spread. I hadn’t heard of Muguleta, but was familiar with Tripathi. I normally don’t get on to Twitter, but today I thought it was worth seeing what the search ‘Tripathi’ would bring up. On Twitter, as elsewhere, a large number of folks condemned the young man based on no evidence. Amongst the ‘let’s pass on the word’ players on Twitter was Michelle Malkin. The lady is irritating …, but the less said about her and others who helped spread the word that Tripathi was the man, the better.

The people who were in my thoughts rather immediately were Sunil’s immediate family – especially his mother and sister. I know nothing about them except that Sunil has been missing for about a month and his sister has been in the forefront of searching for him. As someone with a son in college when I first heard about Sunil’s disappearance I quietly said, “There but for the grace of God, go I!” And I’m not even a believer.

This morning those sentiments came back. My wife and I tried to imagine what Sunil’s family was going through. How were they reacting to the reports? Were they thinking, “My God, it all seems so much worse than the worst that we could imagine?” They had sent their kid off to a wonderful college, the way a whole bunch of people I know have done. He got into Brown – they must have done something right. Did they believe what was being said about their son? Were they blaming themselves?

The sad part is that Sunil is still missing. How unfortunate must your circumstance be if you get comfort knowing that your son was not the guy who was responsible for the bombings? His family has just gone from being miserable, to being incredibly miserable, to being miserable again. It is at times like this I hope I was a believer. Then in good conscience I could say a prayer for them and hope it would help. Now I can only think about them, and…

Unfortunately many of those who helped spread the rumor will rationalize it, if they give it another thought. And sometime in the future, once again many of us will use technology to indulge in another act of easy and costless public flatulence.

Hope someone uses that same technology to pass a word to Sunil’s family. You are all owed an apology. Somebody should say sorry to you all. For what it’s worth – I am deeply sorry for the what ‘we’ have done to worsen you already tragic circumstances.

And an apology goes out to the Muguleta family. Though I know absolutely nothing about them, the apology is in order. Because, somebody should say sorry!