Into the Woods: Giving “Snow White” a New Meaning

I happened to watch the trailer of the upcoming Disney musical “Into the Woods” recently:

Notice anything peculiar? Everyone is white. It’s a large ensemble cast of white people. (Scan through the cast on IMDB for more.) I wonder if this occurred to the people making the film. Did Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick (who I’m guessing are liberals) exchange glances during the shoot and say “Hey Meryl/Anna, how come everyone here is white?”

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Bonding Social Capital

In a post titled “Social Capital and Cultural Capital” last year, I talked about the British class survey which measured a specific type of social capital – “the number and importance of social contacts”. This type of social capital is referred to by social scientists as linking social capital – the connections we have to people of importance, influence, who can get things done.

There are various other types of social capital used by sociologists. One type generally recognised today is bonding social capital. Bonding social capital is that which exists within a social group, and consists of shared norms and values, reciprocity, trust, expectations and obligations. Social “group” seems akin to the social identity model used by social psychologists – an “in-group” formed through categorisation, identification and comparison (here is a good primer on Social Identity Theory which explains this). We all belong to various social identities – based on gender, ethnicity, wealth, nationality and caste for example. Bonding social capital is the capital we get by virtue of being part of the in-group. Note that like social capital in general, bonding social capital is an asset – a resource that you can use (consciously or not) to your benefit. Secondly, it comes from social structure and processes – the social mechanisms described by sociologists and also the social-psychological processes described by social psychologists.

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Memories of 1984

A short collection of memories of Delhi during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.

With the thirty-year anniversary of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom around the corner, Hartosh Singh Bal’s Caravan article “Sins of Commission” is worth reading in full. It describes all that happened then, and all that has happened since – thirty years, nine commissions of inquiry, zero justice.

I was in Delhi back then, and have been trying to recall my memories of those days. I decided to ask others to share their memories as well, and put all the accounts together into this blog post. I’m not sure what I hope to accomplish with it; I just know that it’s important to remember all this — “the struggle of memory against forgetting”, to use Milan Kundera’s famous quote.

The bloodied bodies of two murdered Sikh men lie piled onto a cart, on the New Delhi railway station platform. Men can be seeing standing on the right looking at the bodies; one man walks past while looking.

The bloodied bodies of two murdered Sikh men lie piled onto a cart on the New Delhi railway station platform (November 1984). Men can be seeing standing on the right looking at the bodies; one man walks past while looking.
(Photo via IndiaTV; links to source.)

The memories follow below; each numbered account is from a different person.

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Traffic Safety in India

Lecture titled “Accidents, Mythologies and Science of Traffic Safety” by Prof. Dinesh Mohan of IIT Delhi (with notes).

Via South Asia Citizen’s Web (a fantastic site, add it to your feed) I came across a video of this lecture on road safety in India by Dinesh Mohan of IIT Delhi – a well-known proponent of road safety research in India. It’s part of a monthly public lecture series on science, held at the India International Centre in Delhi. I highly recommend watching it when you get time (it’s 1h:30m long including Q&A), but since it’s a rather large video file some might not be able to – so I took down notes while watching it. Here they are. (Note that the notes aren’t exhaustive or error-proof!)

Initially the fatality rate was growing at 4% a year, which increased to 6% around the time Maruti was introduced. For the last few years, it’s increasing by 8% a year. Due to increase of “energy levels” (more vehicles, bigger roads and highways) – but not better “designs”.

There are around 20 countries with decreasing fatality rates (e.g. Netherlands, UK). The decrease started around 1965-70, probably due to a wide variety of changes including safety regulations.

About 400 people are killed every day. About 1200 people are permanently disabled every day. About 8000 people are hospitalised every day.

There is a lack of data on the profile of accident victims (which vehicles etc.)

Paradigm shift from “Adapt PEOPLE to manage traffic SITUATIONS” to “Eliminate risk factors from road traffic SYSTEMS”. Both road design and car design was changed dramatically via regulation.

Instead of blaming and educating people, better to treat people as “normal” and focus on the system.

Car industry has not changed its attitude. Sexist, macho, not concerned with safety. Airbags still not the default for ALL models.

No correlation between fatality rate and per capita income. There are safe countries amongst both the rich and the poor.

Accident injury should be considered using epidemiological models just like other diseases – damage to the human being from the environment that it lives in. It is a public health problem. Accidents are not “acts of god”. The “agent” of the disease is mechanical energy. To reduce injury, reduce the energy i.e. reduce the velocity, increase the distance, increase the area of contact. Our cars today are much safer due to these simple principles.

Behavioural science – it takes a few thousand hours of driving before you become a safe driver. All drivers have high crash rates in the first 2 years of driving. Children need a few thousand hours on the road to understand speed. Human beings are not good at judging speed.

The “theory of rare events” – the more rarely a certain risk factor is encountered, the larger its effect on accident rate.

The “theory of complexity” – the more information a road user must attend to (per unit time), the higher the probability of error. No cellphones!

Two slides from the lecture - they show a diagram of a hypothetical accident where a speeding car hits a motorcycle and the rider (who isn't wearing a helmet) is killed.

Two slides from the lecture – they show a diagram of a hypothetical accident where a speeding car hits a motorcycle and the rider (who isn’t wearing a helmet) is killed. The first diagram shows the existing practice of focusing on individual behaviour – the car driver is booked for rash and negligent driving, and culpable homicide. The second diagram shows the recommended approach of trying to fix systems – such accidents could be reduced by systemic practices such as – bright light at junction, roundabouts, speed cameras, police presence, and helmet laws.

Summary of studies:
– no clearly proven relationship between knowledge and attitude on one hand and behaviour on the other hand.
– Education programmes by themselves are usually insufficient to change behaviour.
– Contrary to the view that education cannot do any harm some of these programmes have been shown to make matters worse, esp for young children. Cochrane review of road safety programmes for children shows that effects on injury are unknown. Similarly, school based driver education increases crashes, because it encourages early licensing.
– Teaching licensed drivers how to drive better has no effect (again Cochrane review).
– Fines as penalties and deterrents have little effect. Only when subjective probability of detection of sufficiently high – i.e. when you think you’re going to get caught – that’s when you follow the law. Making penalties higher as an isolated measure has little effect.

Sweden’s “Zero Vision” road safety bill is based on the notion of “allowing” accidents to occur, but at a level of violence that does not threaten life or long-term health. The system must also be such that it accomodates the individual who has the worst protection and the lowest tolerance to violence. The responsibility of every death or loss of health in the road system lies with the person who designed that system.

IIT studies on fatalities by road user type in around 10 cities shows that:
– pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists constitute 80% of fatalities. Interestingly, probability of fatality in an autorickshaw trip is lower than that in a car trip.
– vehicle role at societal level (adjusted for exposure) shows that cars are the worst – they kill others as well as occupants. Autorickshaws are the best.
– data from US cities suggests that cities with wider and longer roads have more fatalities

Other findings:
– buses must be moved away from pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists.
– roundabouts reduce fatalities by 70-80%.
– when a pedestrian is hit by a car moving at 30kmph, probability of death is 10%. At 50kmph it becomes 80%.
– mixed traffic on highways is dangerous. largest number of deaths on highways is pedestrians.
– illegal speedbreakers put up by villagers are saving around 20-40 thousand lives a year.
– medians on highways are dangerous. Other solutions like guard rails should be implemented.
– Alcohol accounts for about 40% of the fatalities.
– If motorcyclists use their headlights during the day, fatalities reduce by 10-15%. (Because others can see them better.)
– Establishing a good central government “lead agency” is essential. Create jobs and expertise. No country in the world has improved road safety without doing this.
– The “National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill”, 2010 has been pending in parliament for three years. The govt refuses to push it. This is after the 4 years it took for the bill to be formed.
– Free left turns inside cities should be forbidden.

Postscript: Please take a look at Nirmukta’s Organ Donation Campaign and register to be an organ donor after death. Given the number of road deaths we have – all those organs are going to waste – at least some good can come of these tragic and unnecessary deaths on the road.

 

A Question to Put to the Ayurveda Crowd

Health minister Harsh Vardhan spoke again in support of Ayurveda and “alternative” medicine yesterday, as reported in The Hindu (Harsh Vardhan bats for Ayurveda):

Dr. Vardhan recommended that the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) commit itself “to promoting Ayush” (Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy). NIMHANS and SVYAS should work in coordination and share scientific expertise, he said. “The supremacy of Indian fields of medicine has been established… Today, we do not have to convince people about yoga and Ayurveda.” However, the country needs evidence-based medicine, he said, adding that research on practices such as meditation and yoga could help empirically prove the efficacy of these Indian health systems.

The bit about evidence-based medicine is most welcome. My suspicion though is that they are not serious about it. His remarks here and previously (see Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy to be included in AIIMS system: Harsh Vardhan) suggest that he has already decided that Ayurveda works, and the evidence-based support is going to be selectively painted on – perhaps dishonestly – to give it a respectable veneer.

In a previous post titled How Ayurveda Works (Not Really) I argued against Ayurveda based on issues of plausibility. Perhaps we should also keep this different question handy to put to them:

Can you describe some Ayurveda remedies which were examined using the techniques of evidence-based medicine, found ineffective, and therefore discarded?

This would give some idea of whether they are seriously following evidence-based medicine or not. Mind you, this question is very valid even for modern medicine, as Ioannidis and co. have found – biases like publication bias are very real in modern medicine (Why Most Published Research Findings Are False). So if you put this same question to a doctor or researcher of modern medicine, you won’t get as many examples as you’d like. But you will find some, as a little searching on Google reveals. You will also find disputes, re-evaluations and controversies, like in the case of statins. So, in the future when our health ministry has its way on AYUSH, we should see at least this amount of failure and controversy in the news. If my suspicion is correct, we will not – instead we’ll see one positive result after another. Time will tell.

 

A Year of Grand Slam Data: Men’s Tennis and Women’s Tennis

Since the 2013 US Open, I’ve been collecting the statistics published by the grand slam tennis tournaments in a spreadsheet. This was prompted by a discussion on sexism in tennis about a year ago, where I saw someone say he didn’t watch women’s tennis these days as it was “full of unforced errors”. So I decided to have a look at what the stats were. And since they publish stats not only on unforced errors but many other measures as well, and they use an identical tabular format (links: Aus, French, Wim, US), it was easy to compare and aggregate them.

I chose a number of “metrics”, some I’m sure most tennis fans will agree on, some based on what I like in tennis. I also did a per-game/per-set normalisation to get around the 3-set/5-set difference (more on the number-of-sets issue later). Here are the metrics I chose:

(1) Winners per game (the more the better), (2) winners rate (the more the better), (3) unforced errors per game (the lower the better), (4) unforced errors rate (the lower the better), (5) winners to unforced errors ratio (the more the better), (6) points per game (the more the better), (7) games per set (the more the better), (8) %age of straight-sets matches (the lower the better), (9) %age of final-set matches (the more the better), (10) %age of tie-break sets (the more the better), (11) double-faults per game (the lower the better), (12) service breaks rate (the more the better).

Before looking at the data, try to do a estimate in your mind of what you think these numbers will be like.

The Data

Here are the results: you can view the Google spreadsheet here (hopefully the Excel-to-Google conversion preserved all the formulas), or you can simply see the aggregates in the screenshot below (click to enlarge):

Spreadsheet showing aggregated statistics of the four grand slams. (Please see article body for the main results in text form.)

Spreadsheet showing aggregated statistics of the four grand slams. (Please see article body for the main results in text form.)

The results (aggregate of all 4 tournaments):

(1) Winners per game: men 2.0, women 1.8

(2) Winners rate (as % of total points): men 31%, women 27%

(3) Unforced errors per game: men 1.7, women 2.1

(4) Unforced errors rate (as % of total points): men 27%, women 33%

(5) Winners to unforced errors ratio: men 1.14, women 0.83

(6) Points per game: women 6.6, men 6.3

(7) Games per set: men 9.8, women 9.2

(8) %age of straight-sets matches: men 50%, women 69%

(9) %age of final-set matches: women 30%, men 17%

(10) %age of tie-break sets: men 18%, women 9%

(11) Double-faults per game: men 0.2, women 0.3

(12) Service breaks rate (as % of total games): women 35%, men 20%

Arguments

Arguments that women should receive less prize money than men are more generally arguments about value – i.e. does men’s tennis have more value than women’s tennis. The measurement of this value can take many forms – prize money is one of them; other forms are things like the amount and nature of media coverage, and the amount and nature of public appreciation. The higher the prize money, and the more and better the media coverage and public appreciation, the more the tennis is valued.

Most commonly one hears the argument that since men play best-of-5 and women play best-of-3, therefore men’s tennis deserves more prize money (i.e. it has more value). Leaving alone the fact that the WTA is willing to play best-of-5 too (links: Major obstacle to women’s call for five sets, WTA chief says women ‘ready, willing’ for five sets), the main flaw in these arguments is inconsistency – if number of sets really determines value, then that metric ought to be applied uniformly across the board rather than only on two sides of an arbitrarily chosen divide of men’s tennis and women’s tennis – i.e. it ought to be applied to all tennis matches, period. So a man who loses in 3 straight sets should receive less prize money (and less and worse media coverage and public appreciation) than a man who loses in 5 sets – because going by the logic of that particular metric, there is a difference in value the two men have provided. The same principle holds for any of the metrics above, or any other metric of your choosing, such as market demand (ticket sales, TV ratings etc.). Today the prize money is already equal, so what of the other measures of value – the media coverage and the public appreciation? It’s quite easy to see the inconsistency – a men’s match is treated kindly even when it ought not to be (as per these metrics). The media tends to be generous with praise and emphasizes the positive rather than the negative, with far more interview quotes and coverage for the men in general. One example from recent times – Maria Sharapova’s final-set defeat to Angelique Kerber in this year’s Wimbledon only got one sentence of coverage in The Hindu. Yet it devoted several paragraphs to Andy Murray’s straight-sets defeat (on a different day) – and this discrepancy in coverage was repeated on many days. This issue is something that would be worth doing a proper study on.

The fact that nobody is demanding “variable value” based on such metrics, yet noises about men-vs-women keep being made, indicates just how deeply embedded gendered thinking is – the divide shows up artificially even when it isn’t relevant, all the while appearing to be perfectly natural. (If you did make this proposal there would be an outcry against it, from players and fans alike – particularly if it involves prize money. I think the reason goes back to Michael Sandel’s Moral Limits of Markets. Market evaluations and incentives have a degrading and corrupting effect on certain goods and practices, and sports is one of them. Sports is bound up in all kinds of human emotion and values – honour, courage, beauty, skill, triumph over adversity – perhaps that’s why we wouldn’t like this idea. It also explains why we get angry when players aren’t loyal to their teams and play for the highest bidder.)

Another thing worth noting is, it’s debatable whether the 5-set format is better. It results in less straight-sets matches, but it also results in less final-set matches than the best-of-3 format. Yet you don’t see anyone arguing, “Women play more final-set matches, so women should receive more prize money”. Which leads me to to think that reason “5 sets” is used in the argument is that it’s what men play. Personally, I find a three-straight-sets match even worse than a two-straight-sets match, because the loser had three opportunities to win a set – over two-plus hours of my life which I’m never going to get back – and he couldn’t do it. A final set is the only thing I’m willing to watch in a tennis match these days, unless I have an emotional investment in one of the players. So I think the tennis authorities should instead revamp the scoring system entirely – neither best-of-3 nor best-of-5, but something completely different. Games like badminton, volleyball, squash and table-tennis have all experimented with scoring changes to make the game more appealing, so it’s worth trying. There will be objections to it, but I suspect these objections will mostly be a case of status-quo bias.

Finally, all the above is even before you take into account other important premises that ought to be included in any argument about men’s tennis and women’s tennis: the biological advantage that men have, and the barriers of sexism that women face and men don’t: implicit bias, explicit bias, objectification, sexualisation, infantilisation, body shaming, and policing of “femininity”. So taking all this into account, I conclude that we ought to value men’s tennis and women’s tennis equally, and also that the tennis authorities should look into changing the scoring system to make the game more appealing.

PS: any errors you find in the spreadsheet are honest mistakes; please point them out if you find any. I got tired of validating the data and the formulas and was seeing stars by the end of it, so I’m just going to go ahead and publish this post now.

 

 

The Inversion of Responsibility

“Be Responsible”, requests the sign. It’s titled “Hate Mongering” and was seen recently in the city of Pune:

Sign seen at a traffic intersection in Pune (see article for text of the sign).

Sign seen at a traffic intersection in Pune (see article for text of the sign).

Who is it addressed to, you might wonder. Is it addressed to the terrorists of the Hindu Rashtra Sena (“Hindu National Army”) who went on a rampage in the city last month and beat a Muslim man to death? No, it’s addressed to… people on Facebook. The sign advises its readers:

Choose carefully what you Comment, Like or Share on Social Media.

And it adds an upside-down image of a Facebook “Like” icon – i.e. a thumbs-down – for emphasis.

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How to Say Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu posted an audio pronounciation guide for his name on Tumblr yesterday, adding:

My career goal is to make people say my name properly. This kind of success is called THE GALIFIANAKIS. Hopefully this post will help.

Hari is such an easy name I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t pronounce it correctly (after hearing someone else say it correctly). Kondabolu is harder, but just like Hari, there aren’t any syllables in it which don’t exist in English and most modern languages right? It should to be easy to teach yourself to say Hari correctly. Just say hurry. Or say hubby and replace the b sound with an r sound.

My experience in the UK was that most people said Soooo-nil for some reason – and it grated like hell. This despite them hearing me say it any number of times. The u in my name is actually pronounced like foot, and the i is pronounced either like eel or ill – I use the former, though most Sunils seem to use the latter.

I think it’s a basic courtesy to pronounce someone’s name the way they pronounce it, provided you can say all its syllables. If you can’t say them all, at least say the ones you can – make a “good faith” effort. If you’re not sure, ask! Some of my Indian friends don’t pronounce my name with the pronounciation I use either – I wish they would. (I also have friends who don’t say my name at all – I don’t want to think about what that means.) I’m not immune to this myself; but I try to correct myself. When realisation dawned that I’d been mispronouncing one of my oldest friends’ name for years, I corrected it overnight. When I had a colleague named Sarah I taught myself to say it – “say stair-ah and remove the t“. I’m not sure how to pronounce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s name, but I’m confident that once I hear someone say it correctly, I’ll learn that correct pronounciation.

The phenomenon of name mispronouncation takes on a more serious tone when the person whose name is being mispronounced belongs to an out-group – say immigrants or ethnic minorities. I did some searching on Google Scholar and came across this thesis The Racialisation of Names: Names and the Persistence of Racism in the UK by sociologist Emily Jay Wykes, which examines the racialisation of names including mispronounciation. It’s interesting stuff and there’s free access to the PDF, do take a look.

 

 

On Not Having a Good Hindu Name

I met up with a friend yesterday, who, like me, is an atheist but has a Christian last name. As often happens these days, the conversation drifted to the possibility of having Modi as prime minister. She told me about a friend of hers, who has a mixed background – Muslim father, and Christan mother. Her friend said that she was apprehensive about having a Muslim name in an India where Modi is in charge. There would be a sense of fear lurking in one’s mind. What if.

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A Thought on “It’s Just a Joke”

Two days ago, Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson was found uttering the N-word in unaired footage (video):

In the unseen footage – which was later edited out of the show – the £1million a year TV host is seen swinging his finger between two cars, while reciting a racist version of a children’s counting rhyme. Clarkson can be heard chanting: “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…” He then mumbles: “Catch a n***** by his toe”.

Clarkson initially denied using the word, after which the newspaper released the video footage proving it. Yesterday Clarkson made an apology video where he claimed that he knew it was a racist word which he “was extremely keen to avoid”, and that it “did appear” that he actually used the word and that he was moritified. And that “I did everything in my power to not use that word”, whatever that means. It’s hard to take him seriously when he and Top Gear have a history of racism, sexism, homophobia and just all-round harmful offensive marginalising shit. For example, just a few months ago Clarkson tweeted a photo of him sleeping with a sign saying “gay c***” pointing at him, with one of his Top Gear lads smiling smugly behind him. Or just a month ago when Clarkson refered to a Thai man as a “slope” – a racist slur referring to facial features.

But this post isn’t just about Top Gear, it’s more about people who say and do such things, and when others complain, they respond “it’s just a joke”. Here’s a thought I had on dealing with such people. When someone says “come on it’s just a joke”, ask them the following question:

Could you give me an example of something which you think should not be joked about?

Hopefully they do have such a thing. If they say no, there’s isn’t any such thing – and they really mean it – then this is probably a fruitless exercise, as this is someone who doesn’t have much intelligence or ethics. But presumably, for most people, there is such a thing. Then hopefully what you could do is get them to self-examine the premises behind their conclusion it’s okay to joke about X but not Y. They would have to come up with relevant dissimilarities between X and Y to justify their conclusion, and maybe if they do that exercise honestly, they’ll realise that actually there are many relevant similarities and few relevant dissimilarities between the two. So they ought not to joke about X either.

Maybe it’s a long shot, but hey a humanist can dream, right?

I’ll end this short post with one of my favourite comedy sketches ever – British comedian Stewart Lee skewering Top Gear. It’s excellent political comedy as well as all-out hilarious: