## Confusing with complications

I’m reading this awesome article by Srinivas Bhogle (with Rajeeva Karandikar) on election forecasting. To be fair, not much of the article is new to me – it’s just a far more readable version of Karandikar’s seminal presentation on the topic made at IIT Kanpur all those years back.

However, as with all good retellings, this story also has some nice tidbits. This one has to do with “index of opposition unity”. The voice here is Bhogle’s:

It is easy to understand why the IOU becomes so critical in such situations. But, and here’s the rub, the exact mathematical formula connecting IOU to the seat count prediction is not easy to find. I searched through the big and small print of The Verdict by Dorab Sopariwala and Prannoy Roy, but the formula remained elusive.

Rajeeva suggests that it was likely based on simple heuristics: something like ‘if the IOU is less than 25%, give the first-placed party 75% of the seats.’ It may also have involved intelligent tweaking based on current survey data, historical data, informal feedback, expert opinion, gut feeling, and so on.

I first came across the IOU in Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala’s book. The way they had presented in the book, it seemed like it is a “major concept”. It seems, like I did, Bhogle also looked through the book trying to find a precise formula, and failed to do so.

And then Karandikar’s insight above is crucial – that the IOU may not be a precise mathematical formula, but just an intelligent set of heuristics, involving intelligent tweaking.

Sometimes putting a fancy name (or, even better, an acronym) on something can help lend credibility to the concept. For example, IOU is something that has been championed by Roy and Sopariwala for years, and they have done so to a level where it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a respected scientist for Bhogle has gone searching for its formula!

Also, sometimes, telling people that you “used an intelligent heuristic” to come up with a conclusion can lead you to be taken less seriously. Put on a fancy name (even if it is something that you have yourself come up with), and the game changes. You suddenly start to be taken more seriously, like Ganesha assumed when he started sending fan mail under the name “YG Rao”.

And like they say in The Usual Suspects, sometimes the greatest trick that the devil ever pulled was to convince you that he exists. It is the same with “concepts” such as IOU – you THINK they must be sound because they come with a fancy name, when all that they apeear to represent is a set of fancy heuristics.

I must say this is excellent marketing.

## Social comedy

I’m reminded of this old interview with late actor and director Kashinath. I’ve forgotten which program it was on, so I’m unable to find the link. In that he kept talking about how as a budding filmmaker, he had been taught to “make films about social issues”.

And so in each of his movies, he made sure he incorporated one or the other social issue. Like I remember as a kid going to this movie called avaLe nanna henDathi  (which he remade in Hindi as “Jawani Zindabad”) – this was about dowry.

The thing with Kashinath was that while he made his movies about social issues, he made sure they were at least partly funny. Before we go ahead, I’d urge you to see this legendary song from anantana avaantara , made by and starring Kashinath (trust me, you’ll find it funny even if you don’t understand Kannada).

It’s not just Kashinath who had this mission that any movie should have an underlying “social message”. Go back to any 1990s comedy, and you will find that they follow the same formula. You might laugh for a total of 15 minutes through the duration of the movie, but the need for social messaging means that there are inevitable sad elements in the plot.

Also, a usual template of these movies (across languages) was to pack the first half with jokes and other funny things, and then let the serious stuff take over in the second half (you wouldn’t lose much entertainment by leaving at the interval).

This largely changed after 1999 (or so), when the film industry got “industry” status, bringing in corporate money and formal production houses. The need for sending out social messages went out with socialism, and so the quality of movies in the 2000s became (on average) better. Funny movies could afford to be entirely funny rather than spending one half sending out a social message.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I watched shubh mangal zyaada savdhaan (starring Ayushmannnnn Khurrraannnnnaa), a movie about a gay couple trying to gain acceptance from one of their families. The movie seemed to be a straight throwback to the nineteen eighties.

The first half was funny, with a laugh a minute. All the classic elements of Indian film comedy were present in this half. And then came the intermission (yes, that was indicated even though I saw the movie on Prime Video). And the movie, in 80s style, went off into social messaging mode.

The last 40 minutes was an absolute drag. The story refused to move as the characters went about extolling diversity and inclusion. Whatever was remaining of the story was rather predictable. There was no “information content”. And that left me a tad disappointed.

There is a reason that Ganeshana Maduve remains my all-time favourite Indian movie. Despite being made in 1990, it is an out-and-out comedy, with no social messaging thrown in (the director Phani Ramachandra, who later made the sitcom daNDa piNDagaLu, was a bit of an outlier).

The best part of the movie, in hindsight (ok I’ve watched it at least 50 times) is that it ends rather abruptly. The comedy goes on till the very last moment, and when you think that you’re facing a boring scene, all characters get into one frame (the standard ending of 1980s movies) and “shubham” or some such appears on the screen.

If you haven’t watched the movie, I might remind you that it is available in full on Youtube (unfortunately there are no subtitles, so you’ll need to know Kannada for this one).

I really don’t know why this genre of comedy didn’t catch on, and instead we have filmmakers continuing to proselytise us with social virtues.

## The Ramanamurthy Spectrum

The basic point of the protests ongoing throughout India opposing the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act is that it doesn’t follow the “Ramanamurthy Principle“. Let me explain.

The Kannada classic Ganeshana Maduve (1989) is set in a cluster of houses owned by one Ramanamurthy, where all houses apart from his own has been let out to tenants. His battles with his tenants is one of the running themes of this comedy.

One notable conflict has to do with whitewashing. Ramanamurthy decides to get his house whitewashed, but his tenants demand that their houses be whitewashed as well. After a long protracted hilarious battle (starring a dog, also named Ramanamurthy), the tenants come to an agreement with Ramanamurthy – that if he gets his own house painted, he has to get the entire cluster painted.

In other words, the conflict between Ramanamurthy and his clients had only two permissible solutions – all houses are painted or no houses are painted. All solutions in the middle were infeasible. This gives us what we can call the “Ramanamurthy spectrum”.

Here it is visually.

The protests against India’s citizenship amendment act can be summarised by the fact that the act fails to follow the Ramanamurthy Spectrum. The act, as it has been passed by parliament, uses an arbitrary criterion (religion) to determine which incoming refugees will be given Indian citizenship.

And the protests against that come from both ends of the Ramanamurthy spectrum. In Assam and the rest of the North East, areas that will be most adversely affected by the act, they want the solution that Ramanamurthy finally adopted in the movie – “I won’t get my house whitewashed as well”. They don’t want any of the incoming people to be given citizenship.

Elsewhere in the country (now I must admit I haven’t been able to follow this crisis as closely as I would like to, since it is very difficult here to separate news from “reaction to news“), the protests seem to be at the other end of the Ramanamurthy spectrum – that everyone should be let in.

In any case, the incumbent government has utterly failed in recognising this important principle of politics, and going ahead with a regulation that is neither here nor there in terms of the Ramanamurthy spectrum.

No wonder that the whole country is rioting!

## YG Rao

We’re celebrating Ganesha Chaturthi by re-watching Ganeshana Maduve and Gowri Ganesha, two classic movies from the early 1990s starring Anant Nag and Vinaya Prasad.

Ganeshana Maduve is a shop-around-the-corner / you’ve-got-mail kind of story of real-life neighbours who hate each other who court each other through letters. Real-life Adilakshmi has adopted the name “Shruti” for her singing career, and she replies to her fan-mail under the same name.

It is her fan/neighbour’s name that had intrigued me thus far. He is the titular Ganesha, but saying that “Ganesha” sounds too old-fashioned, he writes his letters under the name “Y G Rao”, short for his full name which is “Y Ganesh Rao”.

Now, this would have been fine, except that later on in the movie his father’s name is shown to be Govinda. And under conventional Kannada naming conventions, this simply doesn’t make sense. Typically in most Kannada names, if you have only one “initial” that represents your father’s given name (for example, the S in my name stands for Shashidhar, which is my father’s given name).

Hence, under standard Kannada naming conventions, Govinda’s son has to be G Ganesh Rao. And in what is an overall excellent movie (it’s easily my most-watched movie of all time. Today was perhaps the 50th time I watched it), this naming convention was a bit intriguing.

The thing with Ganeshana Maduve is that each time you watch it, you discover a layer that you hadn’t discovered  (or missed) earlier. And one detail I found today that I’d missed earlier, is that the movie is based on a Telugu novel. And then it all started making sense.

It is perfectly okay under Telugu naming convention for Govinda’s son to be Y Ganesh Rao, for a single initial there represents the family name, rather than the father’s given name.

And so it is very likely that when the Telugu novel was adapted into a Kannada film, the names were kept the same, and so we got the Telugu convention into the Kannada movie!

The next item on today’s festival agenda was to watch Gowri Ganesha, but I need to get some work done, so the wife is watching that alone. And while some process runs I’m writing this post.

## The RBI does a Ramanamurthy

This is the second time in a few weeks I’m referring to this scene from Ganeshana Maduve. Please watch it first.

Ramanamurthy the owner of the “vaTaara” (a kind of apartment that was popular in Bangalore till the 1980s, with lots of small houses in the same compound) wants to whitewash his house. The residents of the vaTaara  demand that if he whitewashes his house he should whitewash the entire vaTaara. After a long and protracted negotiation, Ramanamurthy agrees to their condition – he doesn’t whitewash his house!

It is a similar story with taxi operators in India. Uber (the Ramanamurthy) figured out a way to bypass RBI’s two factor authentication system and offer seamless payment options for their taxi services. Soon other taxi operators like TaxiForSure and Ola started crying foul saying they too wanted their houses painted, i.e. they too wanted to locate payment servers abroad to accept one factor authentication credit cards.

And now RBI, like the rent controller ubiquitous (in mention only) in movies of the late 80s has stepped in and stopped Ramanamurthy from painting his house, too – they’ve barred Uber from charging in US dollars for Indian rides. It would be interesting to see how the market will develop now.

My personal opinion is that RBI’s insistence on two factor authentication is half-assed. They should make every effort possible to increase the number of credit card (or account-to-account) transactions. On one hand it decreases flow of black money but more importantly it means that people will keep more cash within the banking system (rather than as hard cash) which will have a multiplier effect on money available for lending and all that.

It’s fine to have regulations in place such that credit card fraud is minimized but that doesn’t mean cutting credit card transactions altogether! Hopefully the RBI will see the light of day on this one soon.

## Ramanamurthy, barbells and the bimodal distribution

One of my favourite movies (perhaps my favourite movie) is this 1990 Kannada movie called Ganeshana Maduve (Ganesha’s marriage). It takes off on the 1940 James Stewart starrer The Shop around the corner – ok the story of the movie doesn’t matter here so I’ll stop this digression.

One of the pivotal scenes in the movie is where Ramanamurthy the owner of the “vaTaara” (a kind of apartment that was popular in Bangalore till the 1980s, with lots of small houses in the same compound) wants to whitewash his house. The residents of the vaTaara  demand that if he whitewashes his house he should whitewash the entire vaTaara. After a long and protracted negotiation, Ramanamurthy agrees to their condition – he doesn’t whitewash his house! This negotiation can be seen in this landmark scene from the movie:

In one of his books (perhaps “The Black Swan”) Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about what he calls the “barbell distribution” for investing. Most of your money, say around 80-90%, he says, should be invested in risk-free securities such as government bonds. The rest, he recommends, should be invested in extremely high risk high return investments – like venture capital or far out of the money options. This kind of investing strategy, he says, produces superior long-term returns than the conventional investing model.

Both the “Ramanamurthy principle” (as I call it, starting with this blog post) and the barbell distribution are instances of “bimodal distributions”. You can also think of bimodal distributions as being a strategy.

To refresh your statistical knowledge, a bimodal distribution is one that has two “modes”. The histogram of this distribution looks something like this (now you might get why Taleb, a self-confessed body builder, likens this to the barbell):

Based on this distribution one can craft a “bimodal strategy” for life – including investing. You either take extremely low risk or extremely high risk – nothing in between. You completely stop taking sugar in your coffee but have the occasional dessert. You either paint the entire building or don’t paint the building at all (like Ramanamurthy). Stripping off all the technical content, this strategy can simply be described as “don’t do things in half measures” or “not spreading oneself too thin”.

Of late I’ve found this kind of a strategy rather useful in my work and other life. One example is the sugar distribution – a little sugar in every cup of coffee doesn’t particularly give much pleasure but adds on to my blood sugar content. The occasional dessert (after having eschewed sugars entirely), on the other hand, can lead to insane pleasure.

Then there is the fitness regime that I’m trying to follow. The classic gym routine is to do a lot of warm up, and then some weights, generally exercising just one muscle set, and this is to be done every day, for over an hour a day. The routine I’m trying to follow dispenses with these warmups and light weights and focuses on lifting a few repetitions of very heavy weights, three times a week.

These are only a few examples of where this kind of a strategy can prove useful. Maybe you should think of where this might be applicable – and it is likely that it will work better than your little bit of everything model!