Famous people from little-known countries

I recently finished reading Svetlana Alexievitch’s Second-hand Time, a memoir of people in the erstwhile Soviet Union as the union broke down in 1991. It’s a long and rather intense book, and maybe it wasn’t the best choice for reading on days when I wasn’t able to sleep.

I don’t, however, regret reading the book at all. It was incredibly enlightening and taught me a lot of life in the Soviet Union and in the post-Soviet republics. This is what I wrote in review on Goodreads:

Absolutely brilliant book. Very very informative and enlightening, especially for someone for whom “USSR” was this monolith growing up, and then finding out that it was actually 15 different countries.

Only reasons I didn’t give it 5 stars are that it’s a bit too long (though at no point did I want to give up on the book – it’s very good), and that some of the stories are a bit too similar.

Also I would have preferred more stories from the non-Russian republics.

One of the stories in the book is about migrant workers from Tajikistan in Moscow, and how they are ill-treated and racially abused. They are called “blackies”, for example, a term that puzzled me since to my knowledge Tajiks are rather fair-skinned.

I had to “see it to believe it”, and what did I do? I googled the photo of perhaps the only Tajik I’ve heard about – Ahmed Shah Massoud, late leader of the Northern Alliance who fought in the early 2000s to expel the Taliban from Afghanistan.

(Now I learn that Massoud was Afghan and not Tajik, so I was actually mistaken. I somehow remember him as being the leader of the ethnic Tajiks in the battle against the Taliban (and General Abdul Rashid Dostum being an ethnic Uzbek leader as part of the Northern Alliance) ).

In any case, now that it turns out that Ahmad Shah Massoud wasn’t actually Tajik, it turns out that I don’t know of even a single Tajik. Not one. So this got me thinking about countries that have very few people who are present in popular imagination.

And I don’t think there are too many countries from where there are so few little-known people (I consider my own “general knowledge” to be pretty good, so me knowing someone “famous” from a country should count).

Some countries have charismatic or otherwise popular political leaders, and you are likely to know them by face. Then, there is sport – if you follow a handful of sports, you are likely to know at least a few people from most countries.

For example, my ability at guessing a European’s nationality from their first name comes from my following of football, a sport that is popular all over Europe, and has famous players pretty much from all countries (I admit I don’t know anyone from Moldova or Belarus, though the latter has a rather famous and nicely named football club).

I know of people from a lot of former Soviet republics (but not any Tajiks, or Uzbeks or Kazakhs) because I follow chess. Paul Keres from Estonia, Mikhail Tal from Latvia, Levon Aronian and Tigran Petrosian from Armenia, Teimour Rajdabov and Shakhryar Mamedyarov from Azerbaijan and so on are among the very few (or only) people I know from their respective countries.

Think about it – which are the countries from which you can’t name a single person? How many such countries might there be? In my case there may be a maximum of 50 such countries (there are about 200 independent countries in the world, IIRC).

I recently came across this blog post in EconLog which made a pretty interesting point comparing blacks in the US to Uighurs in China, which possibly prompted my post:

In most cases, oppressed groups tend to be relatively poor and powerless, and thus are often invisible to outsiders. Can you name a single member of the Uyghur minority in China?

It seems to me that African-Americans are somewhat different. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t most well informed people in other countries able to name and identify quite a few African-Americans? In politics the most obvious example is Barack Obama…

I can’t think of a single Uyghur either. Oh, and I forgot to mention the role of movies and books and other methods of popular culture that give you exposure to people from different countries.

City Shutdown

Piccadilly Circus on Christmas Day. By Justin Bramwell of the BBC

I wouldn’t have imagined that it would be possible for the capital city of a supposedly liberal Western democracy to completely shut down, even if it were for a day. The extent to which London shut down yesterday on account of Christmas proved me wrong, and the only parallels I could think of were Bangalore on the day after Rajkumar died in 2006, and Gurgaon on the day of Holi in 2009.

Considering that the latter two instances were essentially a response and a pre-emptive response to hooliganism, I was surprised to see London reach the same levels of shut down on an otherwise peaceful day.

There were no shops open through the day. A handful of restaurants were open, but only for those with reservations. A pub (short for “public house”) close to home had a signboard saying “for reservations only. Not open for public”. Most other pubs and restaurants were shut.

Even the small versions of large chain-stores that open from early morning to late night on most days were shut. So were the mom-and-pop stores that are “off-license” and hence not subject to Sunday trading restrictions (another irritating thing I find about Europe, coming from India where Sunday is the busiest day for shopping). Public transport wasn’t running. There wasn’t much private transport either – the streets were mostly empty. I didn’t pass by many medical shops but those too weren’t open.

Thankfully we realised that the shutdown was impending – I don’t really know how we realised, but by Monday it was clear that yesterday wouldn’t be a “normal day”. We duly stocked up on all essentials and non-essentials, especially given we have houseguests. The kids wanted to go to the park in the afternoon, and we weren’t sure if that would be open either (it was). A lone Starbucks in the area was open and it did brisk business.

I don’t know if there’s regulation that states that stores ought to close on Christmas in London (given “sunday trading rules”, I wouldn’t rule that out). To me this shut down illustrates the fragility of a city with one very dominant culture (yes, London is multi-racial and multi-national, but curiously everyone shuts down on Christmas). While Bangalore, where I’m from, has few foreigners and is majority Hindu, there is some low-level multiculturalism in the city that means that the whole city doesn’t shut down on the same day (unless there are riots, that is).

It’s possibly because in India we have so many festivals that there is no one festival that is the “major festival” for everyone. So while people for whom the day is the major festival go on holiday, others for whom it isn’t that major a festival remain open for business and profit from the reduced competition. In some sense, establishments “take turns to go on holiday”. Public transport runs (albeit at reduced levels) on these holidays.

Again, all of India isn’t like this. As I mentioned at the top of the post, Delhi virtually shuts down on the day of Holi – the result of one dominant culture in that city. Similarly, the memetic fitness of the Ganesha drowning event in Mumbai is so strong that that city shuts down on the drowning days as well  (again there’s an element of hooliganism present) – though not to the extent to which London shut down yesterday.

There are a few odd people in London who don’t shut down for Christmas, though. This one photographer from the BBC goes out every Christmas to chronicle the empty streets of London.

Oxford Circus. Source: BBC


Distance between Indian fathers and kids

As a rule, Indian fathers are not terribly close to their kids (my father was a major exception to this rule), and I lay the blame on a “traditional practice” in Indian families.

This is the concept of “baaNantana” (don’t know words in other Indian languages) where the woman goes to her parents’ house for childbirth, and stays there till the child is a few months old, before returning to her own house. And this contributes to several reasons which contribute to distance between fathers and children.

For starters, the woman’s house and her parents’ house may not be in the same city or region, putting a physical distance between the father and the baby. Thus, for the first few months of the baby, there is little contact between them, and when the baby finally goes to live with its father, he is already a distant figure. And unless the father makes special efforts to bond with his child, this distance is only bound to grow.

Secondly, in India, childbirth and associated activities are generally seen as a primarily female pursuit. It is the mother’s parents (primarily mother’s mother) who accompany her to the hospital, and be there with her until childbirth. The father generally only makes a guest appearance where he appears, carries the baby for a bit, hands it back and disappears.

And then every subsequent activity of the mother is directed by her own female relatives, and the father has little to do in the process. Even if he is physically proximate to the baby (by virtue of living not too far from his in-laws), the “culture” of baby-related activities being female pursuits means that he is not a primary actor any more, and he generally prefers to hand over the baby to a “female elder” when it cries, rather than to learn to pacify it himself.

Given this background, I’m really impressed with the efforts of CloudNine, the hospital where my daughter was born, in involving the father in the delivery process and beyond. For starters, the hospital insists that the father be present at the time of delivery, and cut the baby’s cord. While this was always known, what I was pleasantly surprised was the process afterwards.

A couple of hours after my wife and daughter came to their room, a nurse materialised, offering to teach her how to breastfeed. I readied myself to be sent out for the process, but there was no such attempt. In fact, the nurse seemed encouraging of me watching on – the hospital has perhaps realised (maybe belatedly in the Indian context) that the wife’s boobs are unlikely to be a novelty to a man, and so there is absolutely no reason to send him out!

On the other hand, the joy in watching your child feed directly from your wife is totally unmitigated!

Then later in the evening on Thursday, another nurse materialised, to take my wife for bath. That time, both my motherinlaw and I were there in the room with her. The nurse presently put my motherinlaw in charge of looking after the baby, and asked me to accompany her to help give my wife a bath. When my motherinlaw gestured that she could help out with the bath, the nurse firmly said that she wants me to come.

Apart from the hospital’s efforts I’ve been doing my own efforts to make sure I bond with the baby. Rather than sending off my wife to her parents’ place for baaNantana, I’ve instead convinced them to come live with us for a month, to help us deal with the new baby. I’ve learnt to carry the baby in different ways and change diapers, and I’m trying to learn to calm the baby when she cries (lack of boobs is a big impediment in this process).

And I’ve found that the more involved I am with the baby, the more responsible I feel in taking care of her and looking after her. The more I’m sent to “do my thing” while others take care of the baby, the more I feel like handing her off to someone else when she cries, rather than pacifying her myself!

Thinking back, perhaps one reason my father was able to bond with me was that he lived fairly close to my maternal grandfather’s place when I was born, and even though my mother was away on “baaNantana”, he made sure to come see us for a few hours every day, and carry me. Hopefully I can propagate this process with my daughter!

Marrying out of caste – 2

We stay with our analysis of the National Family Health Survey data on marrying out of caste. In this edition we look at factors that lead to higher rate of inter-caste marriage.

Based on the data given, age definitely has an impact on the rate of inter-caste marriage. To put it in another way, considering the entire survey was conducted at a particular point in time, what this means is that the incidence of inter-caste marriages in India has been steadily increasing, though at a glacial pace.

Women aged 45-49 at the time of survey were only 8.5% likely to marry someone outside their caste, while women aged 15-19 at the time of survey were 11.75% likely to marry outside their caste. This shows there is definitely a shift in rate of inter-caste marriage, but it is a very slow shift.

The other factors that have been examined, however, seem to give fairly contradictory results (compared to “conventional wisdom”, that is), and that forms an important factor in the survey. For example, only 11.6% of rural women surveyed married out of caste while only 10.6% of urban women surveyed did so (while the difference looks small, the sample size makes it statistically significant), turning on its head the conventional wisdom that urbanisation might lead to higher incidence of inter-caste marriages.

Education shows a bizarre pattern, though. Women educated at the school (primary or secondary) level are more likely to marry out of caste than uneducated women (the difference is small, though), but this trend “regresses” as the women get further educated – women with higher education are less likely to marry out of caste than even uneducated women! The pattern is the same with respect to the woman’s husband’s education level also.


There are more sources of contradiction – working women are as likely to marry within caste compared to non-working women (while there is a small difference it is hardly statistically significant, despite the large sample sizes). Standard of living also has no impact on likelihood of marrying within caste (difference too small to be statistically significant).

The most surprising result, though is regarding “exposure to media” (I don’t know how they have measured it). The likelihood of marrying out of caste is highest among women who have declared their access to mass media as “partial exposure”, followed by women whose declared access to mass media is “no exposure”. Women with highest access to mass media (“full exposure”) have, quite counterintuitively, the smallest chance of marrying outside of caste (this is a statistically significant result with high degree of confidence)!

A reasonably dominant discourse nowadays in certain circles is that exposure to media, urbanisation and women going out to work are responsible for destroying “our culture”. If we take likelihood of marrying within caste as a proxy for “culture” (the one that must be preserved as per these worthies), it turns out that urbanisation, access to higher education and exposure to mass media actually help preserve this “culture”, while access to employment for women and nuclear families do little to “destroy” this culture!

Now if we assume the above correlation to imply causation, and incidence of same-caste marriages as preservation of “culture”, what we need to do to preserve our culture is to increase exposure to mass media, access to higher education for women and urbanisation. While we are at it, we can promote nuclear families and access to employment for women also!

If only the Khaps and other self-proclaimed preservers of culture were to look at hard data before making their pronouncements!


Why being on time is a wonderful thing

This post is NOT about Indigo airlines, though I do fly them fairly frequently (approximately once a month). It is about the general culture of timeliness, and how it can help all of us save time and money.

If you and I decide to meet at say, 1 pm tomorrow, what time are you likely to turn up? There are two factors to consider here – you don’t want to be too late since that will create a bad impression in my mind, and you wouldn’t want that. You don’t want to turn up too early, either, for you don’t want to end up waiting for me. So when you plan your travel to the place we are meeting, you will first estimate what time I’m likely to show up and then plan to turn up such that you’ll maximize the probability of turning up between the time I’m expected to show up and five minutes earlier.

Notice how this can change depending upon the culture of timeliness. If you and I know each other, and I know that you are a punctual person and vice versa, we will both make an attempt to time our travel so that we maximize our probability of being there before 1 pm (the appointed time). What if I think that you are perennially late? The problem here is that I need to not only shift the “mean” of when I want to get to the place, but the variance also changes!

Notice that in case I know you are habitually late, I’m unlikely to know precisely when you’re going to arrive. Say I estimate based on our past record that you might turn up any time between ten and twenty minutes after the appointed time. How will I now plan to arrive so that I arrive between five and zero minutes of the time when I expect you to arrive? My travel time to get to the place already creates one level of uncertainty and to that I need to add another level of uncertainty in terms of when you are expected to arrive! Thus, these two sources of variation end up adding up and I will either be late (in case I’m okay wtih that) or end up spending more time just waiting for you!

Essentially, because I know that I cannot precisely determine when you are likely to get there, I assume a variance of when you are likely to get there, and that variance will add to the variance of my travel time and thus I’ll have to give myself a larger buffer so that I need to be on time while not waiting for too long!

This is similar to what people in quantitative finance call “market price of risk”. Let me illustrate that again using travel time as an example. In case 1, travel time from my office to yours has a mean of 40 minutes and a variance of 10 minutes (let us assume it is normally distributed). In case 2, travel time from my office to yours has a mean of 40 minutes (same as above) but a variance of only 5 minutes. Let us assume I want to be on time for the meeting at least 97.5% of the time. What time should I leave in each case?

In the first case, the one sided 97.5% confidence interval for my travel time is 40 + 2 * 10 = 60 minutes, or I expect to take no more than 60 minutes 97.5% of the time. In the second case, however, it is only 50 (40  + 2 * 5) minutes! In the first case, if I want to ensure a 97.5% chance of being on time for our 1 pm meeting, I’ll need to leave my office at 12 noon, while in the second case I can leave a full ten minutes later!

You need to notice here is that in both cases, the average travel time is the same. The only thing that has changed is the variance. In the first case, because the variance of the travel time is larger, I need to leave earlier! Leaving ten minutes earlier is essentially the price I have to pay because of the larger variance!

Similarly, when there is a variance in my estimate of when you will arrive for the meeting, it adds to the variance of my travel time, and the total variance I need to consider for when I need to leave goes up! In other words, simply because there is a variance in when you will arrive for the meeting,  i will have to leave earlier to compensate for your variance!

What if we had a culture of being on time? Then, I would know that with a very high probability you would be there on time for the meeting, and that would reduce my overall variance, and make it easier for me to also be on time for the meeting!

Essentially, a culture of being on time can save time for both of us – simply because it eliminates the variability of when we will end up arriving for the meeting, and this saved time is reason enough to build a culture of punctuality.

Yet you have people who schedule back-to-back meetings that invariably cascade and ruin their reputations of being on time, and thus inconvenience themselves and their counterparties!

Perceived cultural superiority and need for protection of culture

At the outset, I must admit the idea for this post is not my own. In fact, even the idea to do a scatter plot between these two variables is not mine. It’s from IESE Business School Professor Pankaj Ghemawat‘s book “World 3.0”. The original plot can be seen here:

Source: Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0


While the graph above might be appropriate for a book (given its size, etc.) it’s not particularly well drawn. For example, circles are drawn around some countries (represents their population), which makes it harder to read. Then, there are the arrows which are not self-sufficient (without any accompanying text, which is probably there in the book, there is no way you can make sense of the arrows). Then you have some countries with a perceived need for cultural protection at over 100%.

So when Prof Ghemawat shared the data source (on twitter), I thought it might make sense to re-draw the graph. As you can see below (click for a larger version of the graph)  the new graph is also far from perfect. Since I’ve used full names of countries (easier without accompanying text than three-letter codes), there is significant overlap. Yet, I think it does better in conveying the information. In place of Ghemawat’s arrows, I have a regression line!

Source: Pew Survey on Global Attitudes 2007
Source: Pew Survey on Global Attitudes 2007


The insight is clear (was clear in the earlier graph also) – the greater the citizens of a country believe in the superiority of their own culture, the greater is their perceived need for “cultural protection”.

PS: Note that the data is from 2007. I’ll try to get more recent data and re-plot presently.