Sunday, June 25, 2006

Living from a suitcase

Since a trip last October, I have been living from a suitcase. One of the daughters moved back and all the bedrooms in the house are taken up. In the nights, I move my mattress, a few books and laptop to the rumpus room and when my wife takes over the room in the day time try to I find some room wherever in the house. It is bit like the situation of some Japanese derelicts living in stations each near a pole which I saw long ago. I try to pretend that this gives me some glimpse of how the other half lives and keep reading and thinking about social change.

So many great minds have thought about social change before and what hope do I have of solving these problems. Unfortunately one has to vote, think about jobs for near and dear and take a stand sometimes and it seems that one has to think about the decisions of various people around the world. With so much information, it seems possible to support any stand one takes and one usually ends up forming opinions which seem beneficial and at the same time makes one feel moral and a bit better than most others. One tries to confirm and strengthen such good feelings by gossip. In any case, the world seems so complex that it is impossible to have informed opinion on every issue. But we have some idea and consensus on what are good in life and institutions and if one can develop some ways of quantifying such things, it may be possible to make some decisions and formulate flexible courses of actions. Robert Putnam has been trying to do such measurements in terms of what he calls ‘social capital’. From his 1995 article “Bowling Alone” part of which appeared in:
“Recently, American social scientists of a neo-Tocquevillean bent have unearthed a wide range of empirical evidence that the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions (and not only in America) are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement. Researchers in such fields as education, urban poverty, unemployment, the control of crime and drug abuse, and even health have discovered that successful outcomes are more likely in civically engaged communities. Similarly, research on the varying economic attainments of different ethnic groups in the United States has demonstrated the importance of social bonds within each group. These results are consistent with research in a wide range of settings that demonstrates the vital importance of social networks for job placement and many other economic outcomes.
No doubt the mechanisms through which civic engagement and social connectedness produce such results as better schools, faster economic development, lower crime, and more effective government are multiple and complex. While these briefly recounted findings require further confirmation and perhaps qualification, the parallels across hundreds of empirical studies in a dozen disparate disciplines and subfields are striking. Social scientists in several fields have recently suggested a common framework for understanding these phenomena, a framework that rests on the concept of social capital. By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital -- tools and training that enhance individual productivity -- "social capital" refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.”
Putnam has studied measurements and development of social capital in three books and some web sites. The books are “Making Democracy Work”, “Bowling Alone” and “Better Together”. I read the last, browsed through the second and have not yet seen the first, which is supposed to be the best of the lot. In “Bowling Alone” he gives exhaustive statistics to show the decline of social capital in USA since around 1965. In the third book, he gives diverse examples of organizations which raised social capital in their communities; Valley Interfaith in Southern Texas working for the education of migrant children, branch libraries in Chicago, Tupelo model in Southern Mississippi developing an impoverished agricultural community to a thriving semi-industrial community etc. The last mentioned case is impressive though there are fresh conflicts. These are all small scale local phenomena and even the one internet community discussed mainly works in the San Fransisco area though similar sites have sprung up in other towns and cities. One of the main criticisms of Putnam’s programme is that the work is necessarily of local nature and small scale and it is not clear that these can achieve the sort of changes for the whole society which Putnam envisages. See, for example, the reviews:

Politicians and even KKK may bring cohesiveness to some communities which may not be palatable for other communities. Moreover there are strange factors about social capital; a war may increase the social capital in a community or a country and prosperity may lessen it as it has done in USA. So, in spite of its apparent measurability, the very concept seems to be rooted in some contradiction. Perhaps, that is the only way we can go.
A more extreme form of social capital called ‘asabiya’ has been studied by a theoretical bioligist Peter Turchin in “War, Peace and War”. Asabiya used by Arab historian Ibn Khladun apparently means ‘collective solidarity’ in Arabic and according to Tutchin “Asabiya of a group is the ability of its members to stick together, to cooperate; it allows a group to protect itself against the enemies, and to impose its will on others” and “Putnam’s social capital is abasiya for democratic societies, with an emphasis on its non-military aspects”. Turchin used this concept of asabiya to study the rise and fall of empires and he also has mathematical studies of various other cycles; see for example the reviews by Herbert Gintis and of a mathematical version of the book byPaul Seabright (The reviews can be found at: Though Turchin’s analysis looks impressive, it is probably not so difficult to cast a net to explain the past and the power of any theory also lies in its predictiveness. In any case, most of Turchin’s study is about agrarian states and we seem to in a completely different set up now. One of the few people who predicted with a fair amount of accuracy seems to be Daniel Bell about the information age but he failed in other predictions (so far):
People like Jeffrey Sachs (in “The End of Poverty”) have pointed out that over all there is much development in the past two hundred years in all continents and much larger percentage of people are generally living much better now than a few decades ago. Perhaps we should look at progress over 3-4 generations rather than one generation. Is it possible for one person to understand all this and make decisions? Perhaps we need more informed discussions among groups; some way of combining local social capital information of the sort Putnam described with global information and reach through a group of like minded people around the world and concerned about the less privileged. One site which seems to be trying to make such study and provide information in India is
Perhaps there are more such sites.
For the moment I seem go along with the thoughts about the faults in the texture of existence expressed by Pankaj Mishra in his review of “The Namesake”. I will go back to science where things are a bit more clearer.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Pankaj Mishra

I have read very little of Pankaj Mishra but the little I read stayed with me. The first is this last paragraph from his review Of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake”
“This is the melancholy awareness that suffuses Lahiri's catalogs of desirable things and people. And so while such obvious underdogs as Nazneen and Chanu arouse pity and indignation, an overprivileged immigrant like Ni-khil leaves one with more disturbing feelings: an intimation, such as the one his father once had, of "all that was irrational, all that was inevitable about the world"; a suspicion that "all men are mild lunatics engaged in pursuits that seem to them very important while an absurdly logical force keeps them at their futile jobs." It is as if we have been given a glimpse not so much of an unjust social or political setup as of what Nabokov, writing about "The Overcoat," called "flaws in the texture of life itself."
The second is his story “Edmund wilson in Benares” again from The New York Review of Books:
which reminded me very much of my own growing up in villages, small towns in A.P. and then the exposure to the world of books and ideas in Madras.
Since then I have read a few articles but none of his books. A friend from UK forwarded a review of his latest book:,,1793848,00.html
May be I will read this book.
Jo's response (13/6/06): Some writers are most impressive without making you wish you could interact directly and personally with them. Mishra is attractive on both counts.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

An old review

I started looking through some Indian blogs and many of them turned out to be very interesting. An enthusiastic review by Tabula Rasa:
made me look at my write up in Telugudanam last year. Here it is:
"Freakonomics" by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (William Morrow, 2005)seems to be becoming a cult book with its own web site and a column in NewYork Times. I enjoyed the book and though I have some reservations, Irecommend the book. It can be classified under Microeconomics ( thoughsome of the pieces seem to be more like investigative journalism) and startswith a worldview of five general principles, two of which are: "Incentives arethe cornerstones of modern life" and `Knowing what to measure and how tomeasure it makes a complicated world much less so". I will quickly sketch twosmaller pieces in the book.Paul Feldman was an economist working for the US Government, got bored with his job, resigned and started selling bagels. He would deliver bagels tovarious companies in the mornings and come back before lunch to collectleftover bagels and money deposited in boxes. Soon he was delivering 8,400bagels a week to 140 companies. He expected about 95 percent of thepeople to be honest but expected that he could get by even if 80 to 90 percentpeople are honest. It turned out that the percentage 87 and he soon earned more than he did in his previous details.There are some other twists and turns, differences between small and big companies and the affects of 9/11.Check what this has to do with Adam Smith!Another small story is detecting corruption among sumo wrestlers which was difficult because the yazuka threats and the reluctance of the police. Thatthere was corruption was proved just by examining the data which consistedof about 32,000 bouts between 281 wrestlers. A wrestler's ranking and hencehis earning are based on his performance in the elite tournaments held six times an year. In each tournament, there are fifteen bouts and if the wrestler finishes with a winning record (that is at least eight wins) he does not loose his rank and it may rise. So, the first thing that was investigated was the record of the fights of 7-7 wrestlers (7 wins and 7 losses) against 8-6opponents. Statistically (here some technical expertise comes in, but it isnatural to guess that the percentage should be less than 50), the 7-7 wrestleris expected to win 48.7 percent of the time where as they won 79.6 percent ofthe time. Clearly there is some thing funny going on here which warrantedfurther investigation.The chapter I liked most is "Why do drug dealers live with their moms?" basedon Levitt's work with Alladi Sudhir Venkatesh. I have doubts about the next two topics: "Where have all the criminals gone?'and the next two chapters on parenting. For one thing, the conclusions in thetwo chapters seem to contradict each other. The first topic was based on Levitt's own research in which he attributes the decline of violent crime from1990s to the Supreme court ruling in Roe vs Wade and he does not evenmention the follow up papers which did not agree with him. There may be a correalation and may be it just that. There are any number of other theoriesfrom the raise of rap music to reemergence of role models in some ghettos.I get the impression that Levitt has some neat ideas and did some good research ( he won a prize awarded every two years to the best Americaneconomist under forty) and seems to have padded up these with somecareless chapters to make a quick buck. But this is the tendency with many popular books these days. Many educated have disposal incomes and arecurious to know about thing outside the areas of their expertise and there area lot of one idea revelation books (selfish gene etc) by good scientists eithercarried away by their own ideas or trying to make money. I guess we shouldtale all these revelations with a grain of salt.But I like this book. It indicates how even amateurs can study somemicroeconomic problems and problems of corruption. Among the follow upstories in New York Times, there is an interesting story of an Yale economistKeith Chen teaching monkeys how to use money:
P.S. (June 10, 2006) I may be wrong about "The Selfish Gene". It certainly influenced a generation but the pendulam seems to be swinging back. E.O. Wilson seems to have changed his opinion (?) about group selection and Trivers is back with a new book. More about this later.

Browsing through "Freakonomics" again, I realize why I thought later parts (chapters 5 and 6 on parenting) had contradictory elements. The first part of Chapter 5 is based on Judith Harris' work and is explained in much more detail in Steven Pinker's "The Blank State". If I remember right, Harris's data mainly came from middle class white families. In the later part of Chapter 5 of Freakomomics, the data comes from much wider group of blacks as well as whiltes and of varying economic status. May be that is why the conclusions seemed contradictory.
Apart from this both Levitt and Pinker do not take in to account data given in a 2002 study of Caspi and others described by Matt Ridley in his book "Nature via nurture" pp. 267-269 (see also the previous discussion on experiments with rhesus monkeys on page 255). This experiment studied over a long period the affect of maltreatment on over 400 boys born between 1972-73. They found that children with high-active MAOA gene were virtually immune to maltreatment.
It seems to me that many of these studies give interesting and useful insights but it may take a long time and several different type of studies to come to any suggestion that can be recommended.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Why blog?

Lyla says that blogging is a bit of cop out; sitting in one's hut like a rishi and waiting for admirers to come in. Far from it. I blog because I am confused and ignorant. After Bush Jr. came to power, I started feeling that one cannot ignore the outside world and pure mathematics started feeling a bit dry.The few sites I tried had arguments, opinions, agendas and rarely discussions. At my age, it is not so easy to learn new things; a bit of science and economics are what I wanted to understand. But then I either only partially understand or keep forgetting. Jotting down partial understanding at intervals seemed a good strategy to keep track of what I am doing. As I go on, I feel that I should revise or delete some of the previous blogs. There are always personal responses from some friends and the very fact that others may look at these seems to put some intensity in to the effort and it seems to help in understanding things a bit better. There is a recent article by Drs. Fernette and Brock Eide:
which suggests blogging can be useful.
Actually, now I have found a number of good science blogs and sites like 'gene expression' 'evolutionary-psychology' group site and that lessens the need to blog too often.
Trying to follow the resrvations controvesy, I looked for Indian blogs and sites. Many seem frenetic and could not find much statistics about progress of B/Cs and OBCs in most of the sites. Finally Sujai Karampuri suggested:
which has the explanations for the terminology used and some statistics. From what little I have seen, it seems to be an excellent blog, one of the best blogs that I have seen so far.
Some other blogs in which I have read a few posts and I found interesting:
If these blogs are any indication, the argumentative Indian is doing much better in blogs than discussion sites. Somehow discussion does not seem to be strong part of Indian culture and many discussion sites seem to gather groups who support each other's prejudices without much information gathering or discussion. Perhaps some of these blogs will act together and develop in to useful discussion groups.
P.S. (1/7/06) I just found out that bloggers are not exempt from bad writing awards: