Monday, 29 May 2017

‘We’re in an even deeper malaise’: Many of Modi’s right-wing liberal supporters are now disappointed

Shoaib Daniyal in

As chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi was a highly polarising figure. Due to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots that took place on his watch, Modi was anathema to leftists, liberals and even to a section on the right. After the riots, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister at that time, himself wanted Modi sacked as chief minister.
Yet, as the general election of 2014 approached, Modi’s base expanded. As the prime ministerial candidate, Modi ran a powerful campaign that focused on economic growth, limited government and liberalisation. The communal polarisation that had kept him in power in Gujarat was rarely addressed. Coming after the moribund United Progressive Alliance-II government, Modi presented an attractive economic pitch to many right-wing liberals.

The utilitarian approach

The mood of many right-wing liberals was captured by a much-discussed Gurcharan Das piece that was published in April, 2014, a few weeks before the election results were due. In his piece, Das, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, India, and an author and columnist, juxtaposed Modi’s communalism versus his promise of reform thus:
“There is a clear risk in voting for Modi — he is polarising, sectarian and authoritarian. There is a greater risk, however, in not voting for him. It is to not create jobs for 8-10 million youth that enter the market each year…There will always be a trade-off in values at the ballot box and those who place secularism above demographic dividend are wrong and elitist.”
As a thesis, this was utilitarian in the extreme. Das was not absolving Modi of the communal stain. He was simply saying it was outweighed by the benefits Modi would bring as an economic reformer. Three years down the line, how well has this bargain worked?

One end of the bargain

Novelist and political commentator Aatish Taseer said that his initial assessment of Modi was off the mark. “In 2014, I expected a mixture of economic vitality and chauvinism with Modi, but I was wrong,” said Taseer. “What India got was only chauvinism – and now we’re in an even deeper malaise”.
Taseer’s point is backed by data. In 2014, Das was clear that job creation was a moral imperative that outweighed ideals such as secularism. However, this argument is under severe strain three years later, given that job creation has ground to a halt under the Modi administration. India’s unemployment rate has actually increased since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government took office. The number of jobs added by the Modi government in its three years in office is just 50% of the jobs added by the previous Manmohan Singh government in its final three years.
Even as the Modi government is unable to live up to its promise on increasing employment, it has also slipped on its promise of small government. In 2014, Modi ran for prime minister with the slogan “maximum governance, minimum government” – a thrilling prospect for India’s economic liberals, given how rare the concept is in India. Yet, as right-wing commentator Rupa Subramanya pointed out in a piece last month, the Modi-led Union government is “starting to slip back into the old command and control mode and away from the promise of good governance”.
Earlier this week, clashes erupted between Dalits and Thakurs in Saharanpur, UP. (Photo credit: PTI).
Earlier this week, clashes erupted between Dalits and Thakurs in Saharanpur, UP. (Photo credit: PTI).

Religious identity politics

Even as the vast majority of India’s population stagnates economically, religious identity has emerged as the main axis of Indian politics. For the past three years, politics around the cow has taken centre stage, with vigilante groups attacking Muslims and Dalits across the country on the suspicion of cattle smuggling and slaughter.
Political columnist Tavleen Singh supported Modi in 2014. Yet, on May 7, Singh wrote,
“It is hard to understand why a Prime Minister so passionate about making India a modern, digital, prosperous country has seemingly not noticed that hunting and killing Muslims on the pretext of cows and love jihad does not sit well with modernity.”
Speaking to, Singh said, “I think I misjudged him. I thought he was a liberaliser.”
In Swarajya, a magazine that describes itself as “a big tent for liberal right of centre discourse”, senior journalist Seetha argued that right-wing liberals are “disappointed at his [Modi’s] inability to get the BJP-ruled state governments to rein in the hardline/fringe elements and vigilante groups”.
Seetha specifically called out the appointment of the far right Adityanath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March to buttress her point.

Hobson’s choice

Gurcharan Das, though, is still sticking to his 2014 analysis. “Jobs are plummeting all over the world,” argued Das, defending Modi’s poor job-creation record. “This is due to automation. I am not sure what other policies could have been pursued to make it better.”
Das is also sanguine about the BJP’s record on law and order. “Yes, there have been stray events such as gau rakshak attacks,” he said. “There has been no sort of state-planned murder or anything.”
Das is disappointed with the fact that Modi has been unable to raise India’s ease of doing business ranking but said, overall, he would still support the BJP were he given a chance to turn back the clock to 2014. “There is nobody else,” explained Das.
The TINA or “there is no alternative” argument, however, is something that punctuates most critiques of Modi from his right-wing liberal supporters.
“Modi and the BJP is still the best option,” said Tavleen Singh. “Compare him with Nitish [Kumar], Lalu [Yadav] or Rahul Gandhi. That is why he wins; because the voter can see he is the best option.”

Liberal irrelevance

In the end, the fact that Modi can coolly ignore his right-wing liberal supporters and still end up being backed by them might serve to illustrate how increasingly irrelevant India’s tiny liberal elite – both right and left – are becoming to the political discourse. Maybe nothing captures this better than the Union government’s demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 banknotes late last year. The move went against every liberal principle of limited government and had few economic benefits. Sadanand Dhume, a Wall Street Journal columnist and a prominent supporter of Modi during the 2014 elections called the move a “debacle”.
Yet, Modi simply brushed aside this criticism and converted what was an economic disaster into a political windfall. Months after demonetisation was announced, the BJP won a landslide victory in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. If 2014 saw a provisional alliance between right-wing liberals and Hindutva groups, three years since, it is clear that right-wing liberals are getting increasingly marginalised. For the last two years of the Modi adminstration’s term, it seems the Hindutva right will call the shots within the BJP.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

When algorithms are racist

Ian Tucker in The Guardian

Joy Buolamwini is a graduate researcher at the MIT Media Lab and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League – an organisation that aims to challenge the biases in decision-making software. She grew up in Mississippi, gained a Rhodes scholarship, and she is also a Fulbright fellow, an Astronaut scholar and a Google Anita Borg scholar. Earlier this year she won a $50,000 scholarship funded by the makers of the film Hidden Figures for her work fighting coded discrimination.

A lot of your work concerns facial recognition technology. How did you become interested in that area?

When I was a computer science undergraduate I was working on social robotics – the robots use computer vision to detect the humans they socialise with. I discovered I had a hard time being detected by the robot compared to lighter-skinned people. At the time I thought this was a one-off thing and that people would fix this.

Later I was in Hong Kong for an entrepreneur event where I tried out another social robot and ran into similar problems. I asked about the code that they used and it turned out we’d used the same open-source code for face detection – this is where I started to get a sense that unconscious bias might feed into the technology that we create. But again I assumed people would fix this.

So I was very surprised to come to the Media Lab about half a decade later as a graduate student, and run into the same problem. I found wearing a white mask worked better than using my actual face.
This is when I thought, you’ve known about this for some time, maybe it’s time to speak up.

How does this problem come about?

Within the facial recognition community you have benchmark data sets which are meant to show the performance of various algorithms so you can compare them. There is an assumption that if you do well on the benchmarks then you’re doing well overall. But we haven’t questioned the representativeness of the benchmarks, so if we do well on that benchmark we give ourselves a false notion of progress.

When we look at it now it seems very obvious, but with work in a research lab, I understand you do the “down the hall test” – you’re putting this together quickly, you have a deadline, I can see why these skews have come about. Collecting data, particularly diverse data, is not an easy thing.
Outside of the lab, isn’t it difficult to tell that you’re discriminated against by an algorithm?

Absolutely, you don’t even know it’s an option. We’re trying to identify bias, to point out cases where bias can occur so people can know what to look out for, but also develop tools where the creators of systems can check for a bias in their design.

Instead of getting a system that works well for 98% of people in this data set, we want to know how well it works for different demographic groups. Let’s say you’re using systems that have been trained on lighter faces but the people most impacted by the use of this system have darker faces, is it fair to use that system on this specific population?

Georgetown Law recently found that one in two adults in the US has their face in the facial recognition network. That network can be searched using algorithms that haven’t been audited for accuracy. I view this as another red flag for why it matters that we highlight bias and provide tools to identify and mitigate it.

Besides facial recognition what areas have an algorithm problem?

The rise of automation and the increased reliance on algorithms for high-stakes decisions such as whether someone gets insurance of not, your likelihood to default on a loan or somebody’s risk of recidivism means this is something that needs to be addressed. Even admissions decisions are increasingly automated – what school our children go to and what opportunities they have. We don’t have to bring the structural inequalities of the past into the future we create, but that’s only going to happen if we are intentional.

If these systems are based on old data isn’t the danger that they simply preserve the status quo?
Absolutely. A study on Google found that ads for executive level positions were more likely to be shown to men than women – if you’re trying to determine who the ideal candidate is and all you have is historical data to go on, you’re going to present an ideal candidate which is based on the values of the past. Our past dwells within our algorithms. We know our past is unequal but to create a more equal future we have to look at the characteristics that we are optimising for. Who is represented? Who isn’t represented?

Isn’t there a counter-argument to transparency and openness for algorithms? One, that they are commercially sensitive and two, that once in the open they can be manipulated or gamed by hackers?

I definitely understand companies want to keep their algorithms proprietary because that gives them a competitive advantage, and depending on the types of decisions that are being made and the country they are operating in, that can be protected.

When you’re dealing with deep neural networks that are not necessarily transparent in the first place, another way of being accountable is being transparent about the outcomes and about the bias it has been tested for. Others have been working on black box testing for automated decision-making systems. You can keep your secret sauce secret, but we need to know, given these inputs, whether there is any bias across gender, ethnicity in the decisions being made.

Thinking about yourself – growing up in Mississippi, a Rhodes Scholar, a Fulbright Fellow and now at MIT – do you wonder that if those admissions decisions had been taken by algorithms you might not have ended up where you are?

If we’re thinking likely probabilities in the tech world, black women are in the 1%. But when I look at the opportunities I have had, I am a particular type of person who would do well. I come from a household where I have two college-educated parents – my grandfather was a professor in school of pharmacy in Ghana – so when you look at other people who have had the opportunity to become a Rhodes Scholar or do a Fulbright I very much fit those patterns. Yes, I’ve worked hard and I’ve had to overcome many obstacles but at the same time I’ve been positioned to do well by other metrics. So it depends on what you choose to focus on – looking from an identity perspective it’s as a very different story.

In the introduction to Hidden Figures the author Margot Lee Shetterly talks about how growing up near Nasa’s Langley Research Center in the 1960s led her to believe that it was standard for African Americans to be engineers, mathematicians and scientists…

That it becomes your norm. The movie reminded me of how important representation is. We have a very narrow vision of what technology can enable right now because we have very low participation. I’m excited to see what people create when it’s no longer just the domain of the tech elite, what happens when we open this up, that’s what I want to be part of enabling.

British voters support every point on it, but the public square echoes with summary dismissal - The mystery of Jeremy Corbyn

Tabish Khair in The Hindu

How does one account for the fact that most U.K. voters support every point of the Labour manifesto, but the Tories, despite fumbles, are still leading in opinion polls by about 10 percentage points?

It is two weeks since the Labour manifesto was ‘leaked’. Immediately all the tabloids and most of the broadsheets went to town decrying the manifesto. It is the “second-longest suicide note in history”, they scoffed.

The hara-kiri reference was to the disastrous and divisive Labour manifesto of 1983, dubbed the “longest suicide note in history”. It is not an accurate reference. This 2017 manifesto is not protectionist like the 1983 one, and it promotes very restrained nationalisation. Moreover, the 1983 Labour manifesto was anti-Europe, anti-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), and uncompromisingly pacifist.

Not quite a ‘suicide note’

The 2017 manifesto is not anti-NATO; it even endorses NATO’s defence requirements. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has repeatedly explained that sometimes collective military interventions can be justified, though he has also criticised the hasty wars of recent years.

Similarly, his plan to nationalise the railway services is not necessarily an ‘old-fashioned leftist idea’. It is a bid to bring government-controlled railways back onto a level playing field, thus undercutting the monopolies of private companies and providing commuters with more options. Most voters support this, as they do his plans to abolish education fees, provide more and cheaper housing, and improve the National Health Service. And yet Corbyn is expected to lose — narrowly by some sympathisers, hugely by his opponents. Why is that so?

Some of it has to do with Corbyn. He comes across as a severely honest but uncharismatic leader from the past, someone who engages with ideas (whether you agree or disagree with them) and not sound bites. The media does not like such politicians, as we know in India too. They provide boring copy.

The problem facing Labour is that of credibility: voters agree with their manifesto, but they do not believe it can be implemented. This is especially true of the ‘middle’ voters, who usually sway elections: many of them feel that Mr. Corbyn is idealistically leftist.

Deviating from core principles

It has to be said in Mr. Corbyn’s defence that for decades Labour has been diluting its pro-worker platform and the Tories increasing or sustaining their free-market platform.
This has not been held against the Tories by many in the ‘middle’, while Labour, because of its compromises, has lost ground to the far right, even when it has won elections.

It is also a morbid world in which many ‘middle’ voters feel that something absolutely necessary for citizens cannot be done for fear of offending capital!
Surely, a nation is not a corporation or an individual, both of which can go bankrupt, and a politician’s first responsibility is to citizens?

In that sense, Mr. Corbyn’s manifesto is a gamble — to attract more ordinary voters back into the folds of Labour, on the assumption that concrete policies will count for more than xenophobic rhetoric for many of them.

But are the policies outlined by Mr. Corbyn ‘sustainable’? Many papers and all tabloids seem to claim that they are not.

One way to answer this is to look at the general outline of what Mr. Corbyn is promising: he is promising to “transform” the lives of ordinary Britons. This, in effect, was also what Donald Trump had promised the Americans, and both Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron had promised the French.

Interestingly, at least some of the tabloids that have dismissed Mr. Corbyn’s promise were far less critical of similar claims to shake the cart by Mr. Trump. As interestingly, Mr. Trump, Mr. Macron (at least until he got elected) and Ms. Le Pen, in very different ways, had offered less concrete policies to induce us to believe that they could make any significant dent in the status quo.

Mr. Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto has clearer ideas: a pledge not to increase middle class taxes but to tax the top 5% more heavily, action to shrink the growing wage gap between employees and top management, a better housing policy than the Tories, etc. Even his position on the European Union seems to be more concrete than Tory leader Theresa May’s vacuous statement, redolent of colonial hubris, that she will be a “bloody difficult woman” during Brexit negotiations!

The media’s role

It remains perfectly valid to ask whether these Labour measures are enough or fully ‘sustainable’, but that is not what is being done by much of the U.K. media. Instead, the very effort is being dismissed.

Is it the case that, being paid huge salaries by the neo-liberal dream, which is becoming a nightmare for many, British media leaders (who are not necessarily editors) do not wish to question its myths. Especially the cardinal myth that ‘national bankruptcy’ can be avoided only by passing on public debts to individuals, as private debts, while nationally subsidising banks and corporations.

Friday, 26 May 2017

India: The bleak new academic scenario

Krishna Kumar in The Hindu

The other day, a student asked me what exactly the word ‘liberal’ mean. She wanted to know whether ‘liberalisation’ promotes ‘liberal’ values. She had noticed that institutions of higher education, which are supposed to promote liberal values, were finding it difficult to resist ideological and commercial pressures triggered by the process of economic liberalisation. So, was economic liberalism different from political liberalism? And what do people mean when they refer to neo-liberal policies? The questions she was asking could hardly be addressed without invoking the political economy that has emerged over the last three decades.

When liberalisation of the economy started to receive common consent in the mid-1980s, few people thought of examining what it would mean for education. Then, in 1991 came the dramatic announcement of a new economic policy, accompanied by a package of steps to be taken for ‘structural adjustment’ of the Indian economy. The purpose of ‘adjustment’ was to facilitate India’s integration into the global economy. Even then, education didn’t receive specific attention. Some critics of the new economic policy expressed anxiety about the consequences of state withdrawal from its prime role and responsibility in sectors like education and health. The national policy on education drafted in 1986 had mostly adhered to the established state-centric view. A major review in the early 1990s vaguely resonated the new discourse of liberalisation, but offered little evidence of change in the basic perspective. The Programme of Action, announced in 1992, stopped short of admitting that the state’s role in education was about to change. Nobody could imagine at that point that over the following decades, the state’s role in education would change so much that the Constitution would begin to sound like rhetoric.

School education

In order to examine what happened, we must make a distinction between school and higher education. When Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao spoke about liberalisation as the central theme of the new economic policy, he also referred to the ‘structural adjustment programme’. Under this programme, the World Bank offered a ‘safety net’ for primary education. It meant additional resources and policy guidance to enable the system to expand its capacity for enrolling children. The District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), which later mutated into Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), symbolised the ‘safety net’ approach. It was designed to cushion the harsh effects that ‘structural adjustment’ under liberalisation was expected to cause in welfare sectors like children’s education and health. The DPEP and SSA efficiently served this role, creating an ethos in which children’s education seemed to have become a major priority of the state. The success of these programmes emboldened the government to push the Right to Education (RTE) law through Parliament. Governments of many States registered their anxiety over their capacity to fund the implementation of RTE after the Central assistance provided under SSA runs dry.

How valid that anxiety was is now amply clear. All across northern India, the DPEP and SSA have left a radically expanded system that no one wishes to own. The contractual teachers appointed on a massive scale to fulfil the ambitious goals of DPEP and SSA are crying aloud for dignity and stability. Post-RTE, many State governments have drawn on the services of mega-NGOs and private companies to look after schools. As one might guess, it is children of the poor who attend these schools. Under the policy of liberalisation, the state has outsourced these children to non-state players. Those belonging to the better-off sections of society have moved to private schools.

Higher education

In higher education, the new economic policy designed on the principles of liberalisation offered no safety net. From the beginning, the assumption was that higher education ought to generate its own resources. An accompanying idea was that higher education should respond to market demands in terms of knowledge and skills. Over the last three decades, these two guiding ideas have dented the established system of higher education in all parts of the country. Both Central and State universities have been starved of financial resources. Cutting down on permanent staff, both teaching and non-teaching, has emerged as the best strategy to cope with financial crunch. A complex set of outcomes, specific to different universities, makes any general analysis difficult. In some, self-financed courses, mostly vocational in nature, have provided a means of income. In others, such courses have been resisted by teacher unions. However, these unions have gradually lost their power and say because they are broken from within.

A shrinking elite of senior, permanent teachers is struggling to represent a vast underclass of frustrated and vulnerable ad hoc teachers. The old idea that an academic career should attract the best among the young holds no meaning now. Research fellowships have been used as a cushion to absorb the growing army of unemployed, highly qualified young men and women. They have no organised voice, and each one of them is individually too vulnerable to protest against continuous exploitation.

This is the bleak new academic scenario. In India, the term ‘liberal’ essentially meant a voice representing courage and wider awareness. Training of such a voice was the main job of colleges and universities. This function grew under severe constraints in colonial times. The constraints were both social and cultural, but as electoral democracy advanced, political constraints gained ground. Politicians of every ideological persuasion resented the role of colleges and universities in maintaining the supply of critical voices. These institutions have now been forced to compromise their role in training the young to speak out. The compromise has taken over three decades to occur. It is hardly surprising that no political party shed a tear. So, if we now return to the question my young student had asked: ‘Does liberalisation promote liberal values?’ The answer is, ‘It hasn’t.’ Rather, it has eroded our society’s institutional capacity to train young people who might pursue liberal values by exercising an independent voice.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

London School of Economics - Shame on you

Owen Jones in The Guardian

It is a university that prides itself on being a forum for debate about social injustice and inequality. The London School of Economics was founded by Fabian socialists at the end of the 19th century: they believed education was key to liberating society from social ills.

Last week I was due to attend a debate at the LSE on the expansion of secondary moderns (which is what selection in education really means). At the request of cleaners on strike over their terms and conditions, I withdrew at the last minute. And here is the perverse truth: well-paid speakers will turn up at this prestigious institution to debate the great injustices of modern Britain. Then in come the cleaners – all from migrant or minority backgrounds – to clear up, victims of some of the very injustices that have just been debated.

Like most universities, LSE outsourced its cleaners years ago. It’s cheaper, you see, because the cleaners can then be employed with worse terms and conditions than in-house staff. In this way a university with a multimillion-pound budget can deviously save money on those who clean the libraries, the lecture halls, the offices.

An in-house LSE worker has up to 41 days’ paid leave, six months’ fully paid sick pay, and good maternity pay and pension rights. Cleaners, on the other hand, have the statutory minimum. If they fall ill, they are paid nothing for the first three days, then just £17.87 a day. For a cleaner paid £9.75 an hour – living in one of the world’s most expensive cities – that’s simply not an option. “They can’t afford to be sick,” says Petros Elia, general secretary of the United Voices of the World (UVW) union. Cleaners turn up ill to work instead.

No wonder they describe themselves as “second-class”, “third-class”, or “no-class” workers. The response of LSE’s management is a sobering indictment of industrial relations in a society in which the employers have the whip hand. Cleaners and their supporters have been threatened with arrests and injunctions. “LSE’s mottos is ‘to know the causes of things’,” says Michael Etheridge, the Unison branch secretary, “and yet on the issue of outsourcing it has, as an institution, been wholly ignorant.”

That these cleaners have stood up for themselves – in the face of such hostility – is courageous, and an inspiring precedent for other workers in low-paid, insecure Britain. They’ve come from a variety of different countries; some have only worked at LSE for a few months. But they have organised, and thrown themselves into a determined struggle that now has the university authorities on the run.

Rattled, the LSE has been forced to offer concessions: beginning with 10 days’ full sick pay, then 15, then 20. But UVW and Unison – which represents some of the other cleaners – are clear. This is not a strike simply about improved conditions: it is about being treated the same as other workers. Only parity will do. Unison has been offered a package of improvements, including sick pay of up to 65 days and four weeks of additional maternity pay, and a pledge to work “to reach full parity … in the near future”. But continued pressure on LSE to accept the cleaners’ demands is clearly necessary.

It is a saga that tells many stories about modern Britain. It’s about how, disproportionately, some of the lowest paid and most insecure work is done by migrants and minorities. It’s about a race to the bottom in terms and conditions. It’s about how the law is rigged in favour of bosses. But it’s also about how – with determination and organisation – workers can indeed win.

Mildred Simpson was born in Jamaica and moved to Britain in 1989: she’s worked at the LSE for 16 years. A few years ago she was made a supervisor: back then, there were 25 supervisors, but the number has been slashed to 13. For no extra pay, she is expected to do the jobs of two people. This, for her, is a fight for equality. “We’re doing all the dirty work while they’re drinking their champagne and drinking their coffee,” she says. But she has a message to other workers too. “Fight as well as us as much as you can, for your rights, for pensions, for better working conditions, to be recognised.”

Britain’s universities grant their management lavish salaries: the Former LSE director Craig Calhoun was on a salary package of £381,000 a year and spent tens of thousands on overseas trips. It’s not just cleaners who are mistreated. Academia is becoming increasingly casualised and insecure. At Birmingham University, for instance, a shocking 70% of staff are on insecure contracts. Academics are overworked, struggling with bureaucracy, and often lacking the basic security of knowing how many hours they’re working each week.

Unions have been dramatically weakened in Britain. That has fed into a general sense that injustice is permanent, a fact of life like a weather system, rather than the consequence of human decisions. If there is no apparent collective means available to overcome injustice, then inevitably we become resigned. But if some marginalised, hitherto voiceless cleaners can put one of the world’s most prestigious universities on the backfoot, they set an example to others. This is a country that has endured the longest squeeze in wages for generations, while wealth at the top and in the boardroom has boomed; where our workforce is increasingly stripped of security and fundamental rights. That might be the current direction of travel, but it can be changed. And those cleaners at LSE show how.

Cricket and Data: Is T20 becoming a game of speed chess?

Jarrod Kimber in Cricinfo

MS Dhoni is facing Karn Sharma in the playoff, not Harbhajan Singh, despite Harbhajan's economy rate of 6.48 in this IPL. Harbhajan has been dropped partly because Rising Pune Supergiant are playing only one left-hander. Dhoni's figures this season are poorer against spin than pace, and when the quicks come on, he gets short balls and full, wide balls, because he doesn't score quickly from those. He then faces Mitchell McClenaghan, not Lasith Malinga, because Dhoni has a better record against Malinga, and because McClenaghan has overs left since he doesn't get used in the middle overs (where he gets smashed for more than 13 an over). Dhoni ends with 40 off 26, because he scores quickly at the death, where his strike rate this season has been 188.

This is what T20 cricket is becoming: a game of speed chess. Think of how far T20 has already come from the first T20 international, a game where players wore comedy wigs and retro kit. Now teams have general managers with business backgrounds and bat-swing gurus are looking for hitting power, teams are flirting with virtual reality, and league cricket - not international - is a driving force for change. And for all the changes and innovations we have already seen, so many more may yet come.

The closer you look at T20, the more problems, inefficiencies and potential innovations you see, and it is what I've been obsessing about at 2am, which has led me to this piece, which is part prediction, part gripe and part prescription for the near future of T20 cricket.

Do risky second runs make sense?

Running between the wickets is such an integral part of the game that it's incredible how little it is analysed. On his blog , Michael Wagener categorises the different kinds of batsmen in Tests not by where they bat in the order but how they go about their innings. His four categories are: defensive, pushers, block-bash and aggressive. Defensive doesn't exist in T20. Pushers do but are often the improvisers and smartest batsmen. Aggressives and block-bashers are the format mainstays.

Wagener uses David Warner as the stereotypical aggressive player. Warner has always been known as a big-hitter, but his running between wickets is just as bullish. He likes to score off every ball; he steals singles, pushes hard to turn ones into twos, and he takes as many chances with his running as he does with his strokeplay.

The stereotypical block-basher is Chris Gayle. There are few players more content with blocking or leaving the ball than Gayle. And while his slow starts sometimes cost his team, when he does stay in for more than 30 balls, he usually more than makes up. But Gayle has been running singles like his hamstring is gone for almost ten years; he doesn't push hard.

Gayle's method makes sense even if he isn't trying to score from every ball like Warner is. In the IPL, 10% of all dismissals are run-outs (just over 7% for openers). Warner is at 6% in his career. Gayle is at 1%; he's had one run-out in 86 IPL innings, meaning he is effectively cancelling out one mode of dismissal. Gayle gives up risky singles for more boundary attempts, which, for him, carry less risk. It is similar to the trend in basketball to move away from the mid-range two-pointers and replace them with three-pointers, because while you might hit them less often, they're worth more.

In the 2016 World T20, most of Gayle's team-mates played that way. West Indies had seven players in the top 25 of batsmen who scored the highest percentage of their runs in boundaries (minimum 50 runs); Gayle and Carlos Brathwaite were ranked two and three. And it raised the question of what batsmen should be expending their energy on: risky second runs, or risky boundary attempts? And instead of turning the strike over to put pressure on the bowler, perhaps big-hitting batsmen should face multiple balls in a row, allowing them to find rhythm and size the bowler up better.

Gayle scampers a quick single. Would the data advocate otherwise? © ICC/Getty

Or: Glenn Maxwell has a strike rate of 264 between overs 13 and 16, higher than any other player in any other period in this year's IPL. If he is facing in the 14th, do you want him taking a risky single and getting a slower batsman on strike, or do you want to bowl a dot and have him face the next ball?

How do fast batsmen run? How productive are coaching methods for running between wickets? Currently coaches are trying to train intent into batsmen, but outside of full match simulations, there seems to be no clear method to turn an average runner into a good one.

How about facing tempo? Some players are happy to stand at the non-striker's end for a long time, while others get frustrated, which often leads to their wickets. More data is needed for this, as wickets are probably falling because a batsman is not letting his partner strike the ball enough, or vice versa. As teams look for one-percenters, running could be one place they find some.

A more context-driven measure for a player's effectiveness

We know how many runs every over is worth on average in T20 and yet we still talk about players' overall strike rates. There are four periods in T20 for which you look at numbers: the Powerplay, the lull from overs 7 to 12, the ramping up between overs 13-16, and the death from 17-20. For most players, their career strike rate or economy rate is defined by what period they appear in the most.

A bowler (many wristspinners, for example) who starts in the seventh over and bowls the majority of his overs during the lull will have a better economy than someone who bowls more in the Powerplay and death. These splits tell us who the best players are, and where players can improve.

For batsmen the most obvious place for improvement is in the lull, where the game drifts. This IPL season Rohit Sharma, Shreyas Iyer and Shikhar Dhawan scored at a run a ball in this period, while Robin Uthappa (207 runs) and Aaron Finch (202) scored at more than two runs a ball.

Almost all batsmen can smash the ball at the death, but the real key is if you can score above the going rate for any specific period consistently. A strike rate of 150 sounds great at the death, but it's lower than the average rate for that period. You only have to check the lull overs to see a bunch of batsmen are going far too slow, ending up with good averages but not adding a lot of extra value.

With something as simple as a plus or minus on your strike rate or economy rate, you could instantly tell which players were playing above or below the average. So instead of a pure strike rate, a figure would be adjusted to each ball of the innings they played (we know how many runs each ball in T20 goes for). On a game-by-game basis it isn't as important, but over a season, or career, you can work out if a player added value or lost it based on their true strike rate or economy rate.

Spotting bowling patterns (or not)

Batsmen have only recently embraced video analysis to determine the patterns of bowlers. Before, they would base it on their experiences, not insights from data. One analyst told me a story of batsmen noticing that Jade Dernbach would almost always follow up being hit for a boundary with a back-of-the-hand slower ball. The analyst thought they figured it out through natural batting intuitions, not through analysis.

Rohit Sharma is one of several batsmen who are too sluggish during the middle overs © BCCI

Bowlers can change, and while it is not definitive, Dernbach's death-bowling economy rate over the last two county seasons is 7.8, which is brilliant, and suggests that it is possible he doesn't follow his old patterns anymore (or he is just prospering among the lower level of players in English domestic cricket).

Something like this was probably on R Ashwin's mind when he said: "six well-constructed bad balls could be the way to go forward in T20 cricket". Ashwin knows that on most occasions bowling six well-grouped offspinners together will allow batsmen to know what he bowls, and he'll go the distance. So what we normally of think of as a good ball is not a good ball in T20, and instead Ashwin might have to "construct" a random pattern of what look like bad balls in order to stay one step ahead of the batsman.
Jasprit Bumrah bowled the penultimate over of the IPL this year and the commentators talked about its quality. When he was hit for six off a half-volley, they mentioned how rarely he misses the yorker. But he also bowled two knee-high full tosses and, as neither went for boundaries, nobody focused on them as mistakes. So Dernbach's best ball is smashed, Bumrah's worst is mishit, and Professor Ashwin's theory might be slightly flawed, but you can see why not letting the batsman know what is coming next is the best option.

Will we see batting cages near the dugout?

The idea that you just go out there and smash your first ball for six isn't quite how T20 is played. Even the most aggressive players generally have a strike rate of less than a run a ball over their first five balls. You have to get your eye in, cricketers are taught; and T20 is still a new invention, so teams and players are working it out. But it still hasn't been drilled into players that every single ball is 0.83% of the innings, and one over to settle in is 5% of your team's quota.

The first team to strike well from ball one will have a huge advantage. Perhaps the best way to try to achieve this is through batting cages, or a fully enclosed batting net on the boundary edge. That way the next batsman in is playing himself in right up to the point he gets to the middle.

It may not be exactly the same as being out in the middle, but it's as close to it as we can currently get. Every analyst, general manager or coach I've talked to is frustrated batsmen don't start quicker, and yet teams still aren't trying to ensure that batsmen feel like they are already in before they walk in.

Balls are also wasted in T20 when batsmen approach milestones. Milestones in cricket have long been millstones around batsmen's necks. Cricket is a weird hybrid of individual skills and battles within a team sport. We see it all the time; the player is smashing the ball and suddenly gets near his milestone and starts chipping it around. Australian players have been encouraged to try and forget about this, but in franchise cricket, where so much of your worth comes down to people remembering how well you did, it's hard for players not to waste a few extra balls when you're in the forties or nineties.

Bat lean, bat efficient

Imran Khan, an analyst for CricViz, looked at the boundary attempts made by batsmen in this IPL. Finch tries to hit a boundary every 1.81 balls and succeeds 45% of the time. Manan Vohra attempts a boundary every 3.44 balls and has a 69% success rate. They are two of the leaders on the metrics of balls per boundary attempt and the success rate of their attempts. But the real eye-catcher is Sunil Narine, second on the list with a 68% success rate from his attempts, and one attempt every 2.16 balls (fifth). There are all sorts of other interesting finds, like the fact that the slog sweep is the shot most likely to produce a boundary, and even that only works 40% of the time.

"Here comes another fiendishly clever bad ball" © BCCI

This is just the beginning for cricket when it comes to measuring the efficiency of batting. At ESPNcricinfo we've been using a batting metric called control stats, to judge whether a batsman was in control of the shot he played (an edge, for example, is not in control). Like CricViz's boundaries attempted, it is recorded by an analyst, and so is subjective.

Other sports use algorithms and technology for this analysis. Basketball has SportsVu cameras above the court and spatiotemporal pattern recognition - a science that provides insights into human movements - to decide the success probability of each shot. The software has essentially worked out all the different kinds of shots and plays in basketball, through algorithms and the footage.

The same could eventually be done for cricket. A slog over midwicket off a tall bowler on a pitch with above-average bounce is probably going to be successful fewer times compared to a straight drive off a half-volley from a shorter, skiddier bowler with mid-on and mid-off up. Spatiotemporal pattern recognition could completely change the way the game is played. We'd get real, objective information on the worth of fielders, wicketkeepers, running between wickets, bowling and batting; information that could provide a huge leap forward for the way T20, and eventually all cricket, is played.

Fielding metrics are going to be important

There is a plan for every ball of a T20 match, yet the game still doesn't really map where fielders stand for each ball. The best way to do it would be an overhead camera that catches all data from the game. Devices such as the Australian-invented Catapult, which players wear between their shoulder blades, give interesting data of player movement and fitness levels, but not fielding maps.

There is no reason that fielding maps can't be more widely used by analysts at the ground, or even if TV companies wake up and start showing live fielding changes in a small box on the screen. Cricket's first data-led analyst, Krishna Tunga (the Bill James to John Buchanan's Billy Beane), has done some work with fielding data But in reality there is very little written or thought about fielding, unless a captain has what we believe to be a shocker. But fields change almost every ball in T20; it is a massive part of the game, and yet how often are fielding strategies part of the reasons teams lose according to experts? A big part of that is the lack of stats and data.

Even in a Test we have no idea if a bowler performs better with three slips and a third man, or two slips and a ring field. Maybe the bowler feels one suits him more, and the captain another. But the best option might never be chosen simply because they don't have actual data to back up their feeling. In T20, we still don't have stats for how a batsman scores against individual fields.

Baseball took years to work out that shifting the field for specific batters was important. Cricket has been doing it since the start, but it's just not noted - there are wagon wheels of innings from the 1800s. If you allied modern technology - a real-time video fielding map, for example - to the ancient wagon wheel, you could actually see where a batsman scored his runs, and whether or not he was exploiting the fields that were set.

The slow ball is important, but how well do we know it?

At the exact time that spinners seem to be getting quicker, fast bowlers are spinning the ball more than ever. Whether it is the standard slower balls that Dwayne Bravo or Thisara Perera bowl, or the fast spinners Mustafizur Rahman does, seam bowling in T20 cricket is more about rotating the seam than keeping it straight.

Statistically, the slog sweep is the shot most likely to produce a boundary © Cricket Australia

And yet for all the slower balls delivered, we still don't have much information on how often they are bowled, or how successful they are. CricViz occasionally tweets about bowlers' records with slower balls. From ball-tracking data they can tell you the percentage of slower balls (classifying everything under 77mph as slow): Bumrah (25%), Lasith Malinga (17%), Mitchell McClenaghan (16%), and Albie Morkel (16%). Because they don't always have access to ball-tracking, and some bowlers who bowl slower balls don't have a top speed much above 77mph, they also use analysts to manually log slower balls. Using that data, we know that Bravo bowls slower balls 34% of the time, and that Malinga's bowling average for slower balls is 8.15 and Kevon Cooper's is 9.76.

Numbers like this will help fans understand the true worth of bowlers like Rajat Bhatia. But at this point we don't even know which batsmen play slower balls well, though it is something we could figure out just by looking at a batsman's strike rate and average against slower balls (which will in future probably be further split between back-of-the-hand, knuckleballs and offcutter slow balls).

Making sense of the data

Match-ups - like pitting a left-arm spinner against a player who struggles against them - are already happening. Some teams go further into individual contests, of players against other players. The problem right now is that the sample sizes are very small. The bowler who delivered the most balls to any one batsman in this year's IPL was Kuldeep Yadav to Warner: just 25 balls.

T20 has many different competitions, all played in completely different conditions, with different players. Baseball match-ups produce bigger samples, but in the IPL there is only one contest that has over 100 balls: Suresh Raina v Harbhajan (which Harbhajan is winning, with an average of 26 and economy of 6.6). So while it is interesting that Ashwin has never taken Virat Kohli's wicket in 97 balls, and that Rohit Sharma has a strike rate of 84 against Ashwin, in the history of the IPL there are only 132 match-ups of more than 50 balls.

The top four bowling strike rates between overs seven and 12 in T20 (minimum 36 balls) over the last couple of years belong to David Willey (208), Sharjeel Khan (190), Gayle (179), and Patrick Kruger (177). One plays the T20 Blast, Big Bash and T20 internationals, another plays the PSL and internationals, the third plays everydamnwhere, and the fourth is a 22-year-old who plays for Knights and Griqualand West in South Africa. This is not like for like.

That doesn't mean there aren't certain trends that are pretty clear across all leagues, but there are league-specific trends. In South Africa, 8% of all Powerplay overs are bowled by spinners. That is less than in England (12%), nowhere near Australia (23%), and not even in the same ballpark, so to speak, as in the Caribbean (35%). So someone picking a South African opening batsman with little experience outside South Africa for the CPL constitutes a huge risk. And even in a league like the BBL, where you are facing more spin at the top of the innings, it is a completely different kind of spinner, on a completely different kind of wicket.

But data is certainly a very good tool, not just in selection, or coaching, but in game situations. A player recently asked me to look into his career stats and see if there were any areas he could work on as he freelances his way around the world. I found that he has an incredible record when he comes in further down the order, and that when he comes in higher, he's not as effective. He turned from a late-order champion to an average middle-overs player. He said that he had been batting higher because he and his most recent coach were worried he was coming in too late. When I looked into the details, there hadn't really been a game where he came in too late; it was just the perception, perhaps, of a player who was watching balls he assumed he could hit for six, and maybe a coach who felt the same.

The game's next big innovations might well emerge from data sets © Getty Images

While most of the pioneering will happen in T20 leagues, international cricket will catch up. Cricket has never been changing faster than it is now. T20 is finding trends and abandoning them quicker than you can say "Sunil Narine, opening batsman".
As the technology, methods and people from T20 end up in international cricket, we will see changes there as well. By recruiting people like Pat Howard (rugby) and Kim Littlejohn (lawn bowls) international cricket has already shown it is open to outside ideas and perspectives. The next big move will be when people from the finance and corporate world, who are starting to take over as decision-makers in franchise cricket, move to international cricket.

We are probably only a few years away from international cricket's first GM who isn't a former player, has come from a non-sporting background, and is calling the shots on how international squads are put together.

The battle to make every last run is no longer just on the field, it's in algorithms and data sets, and cricket's next big change is as likely to come from a laptop as it is a bat.

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Rise of Open-Label Placebos

Nic Fleming in The Guardian

Linda Buonanno had suffered 15 years of intense cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and pain she describes as “worse than labour”. She was willing to try anything to get relief from her irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and leapt at the chance to take part in a trial of an experimental new therapy. Her hope turned to disappointment, however, when the researcher handed her a bottle of capsules he described as placebos containing no active ingredients.

Nonetheless, she took the pills twice daily. Four days later, her symptoms all but vanished. “I know it sounds crazy,” says Buonanno, of Methuen, Massachusetts. “I felt fantastic. I knew they were just sugar pills, but I was able to go out dancing and see my friends again.”

Placebos have a reputation problem. It is widely believed they are only effective when those taking them are deceived into thinking they are taking real drugs. As such, prescribing dummy or fake treatments is unethical. Yet in Buonanno’s case there was no deception. And she is not alone. A review of five studies, involving 260 patients, published last month found that “open-label” placebos – those that patients know contain no active medication – can improve symptoms in a range of conditions. This growing body of evidence raises a number of important questions. How do open-label placebos work? Which conditions do they work for? And should doctors prescribe them?

Dr Jeremy Howick first began asking about placebos when a herbal doctor suggested he drink ginger tea to combat cat allergy symptoms. He was highly sceptical, but three days later his runny noses, sneezing and insomnia stopped. Twenty years later, Howick is a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Oxford. Last month, his group published a review of previous research that has compared the effects of giving patients open-label placebos with no treatment.

The first was led by Professor Ted Kaptchuk, of Harvard Medical School, who gave 80 IBS patients, including Buonanno either no treatment or open-label placebo pills. He found those who took placebos for three weeks experienced greater improvements in symptoms, including less severe pain. Sadly for Buonanno, when the study ended she was unable to obtain further effective placebos and her symptoms returned.

In another of the studies in Howick’s review, chronic lower back pain patients openly given dummy pills to add to their existing treatments reported an average 30% pain reduction. In the three other review studies, people given open-label pills reported reduced symptoms for depression, lower back pain, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Howick acknowledges that a limitation of these trials is that participants knew whether they were getting placebos or not being treated. Yet other research has demonstrated placebos trigger real physiological changes. They are known to increase the circulation of endorphins, the body’s own natural painkillers, and of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated both with pleasurable activities and perceptions of pain.

Placebos appear to work only in certain circumstances. Research suggests they can be effective when the brain and perception can help modulate symptoms such as pain, fatigue and itch. Dummy pills also vary in their effectiveness according to genetics. A 2012 study found IBS patients differ in their sensitivity to placebos based on the variants of a gene called COMT they had, probably because this can affect their dopamine levels.

So if ethically given placebos can work, surely doctors should be prescribing them? “I’m not advocating doctors handing them out like Smarties,” says Howick, whose book Doctor You, about overmedicalisation and the body’s self-healing capabilities, will be published later this year. “I do think, however, that this research is telling us we should start to recognise the benefits of doctors being realistically positive when they talk to patients.”

Kaptchuk is more enthusiastic about wider open-label placebo use, despite antipathy among doctors. “If enough of these studies have positive results in different conditions, I hope we can convince the medical community that there’s something useful here.”

The placebo effect: is there something in it after all?

That might be more likely once more work has been done to explain how open-label placebos work. One hypothesis is that patients who have previously got better after being treated by trusted doctors might experience subconscious boosts to levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, thereby improving their symptoms. This is the conditioning effect, made famous by the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, who trained dogs to salivate when they heard a buzzer they associated with being fed, even when no food was presented.

Another possibility is that patients might be told that placebos have worked before for people with their conditions, leading to a conscious expectation of improvements, resulting in chemical releases that relieve their symptoms.

Both of these probably play a role, yet Kaptchuk says neither can fully explain the experiences of participants in his IBS study, most of whom had been through multiple failed treatments. He thinks a relatively recent theory called embodied cognition is closer to the mark. This suggests that the possibility of improvement can trigger subconscious signals to pass between different parts of the body, resulting in chemical releases that alleviate symptoms.

Buonanno, meanwhile, has some thoughts on the potential mechanisms of open-label placebos, but is more interested in the fact that they have worked for her. Since late last year, Kaptchuk and his gastroenterologist colleague Anthony Lembo have been prescribing them to her as a patient. “I feel perfect,” she says. “It’s like I was never sick. I think it’s something to do with having confidence in my doctors, in the way they tell me it’s going to work, having hope and really wanting something to work. I don’t really understand it. But what I do know is that, after 23 years, I’ve got my life back.”

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Kashmir: hard choices only

Pervez Hoodbhoy in The Dawn

I RECENTLY received an extraordinary email from a troubled young Kashmiri in Srinagar. Days before the Indian authorities turned off the internet, Saif (not his real name) had watched on YouTube the 45-minute video documentary Crossing the Lines — Kashmir, Pakistan, India that I had helped make in 2004 and mostly agreed with its non-partisan narrative. A nationalist boy turned stone thrower, Saif is outraged by the brutality of Indian occupation. He is fortunate, he says. His 14-year-old second cousin lost his left eye to pellets.

Saif continues to fight India but is worried. Protesters of his father’s generation were largely nationalist, but today’s are a mixed bunch. IS and Pakistani flags are often unfurled after Friday prayers, azadi demonstrations resound with calls for an Islamic state in Kashmir, and Nasim Hijazi’s cartoon history of Muslim rule in India Aur Talwar Toot Gayee is serialised by local Urdu papers. Significantly, Burhan Wani was laid in the grave by a crowd of thousands, wrapped in a Pakistani flag, and celebrated as a martyr rather than Kashmiri freedom fighter.

Why this change? The present government — Narendra Modi’s — surely stands guilty. By reducing space for democratic discourse, it promotes radicalisation. Unlike Vajpayee’s accommodative politics, India offers little beyond the iron fist and draconian laws such as AFSPA. The BJP-PDP alliance — shaky to start with — is almost over as each blames the other for the two per cent voter turnout in last month’s by-elections. Hindutva’s religiosity is displacing Nehru’s secularism all across India, and Indian democracy is yielding to Hindu majoritarian rule.

Kashmiri nationalists must realise the grave dangers of giving more space to religious extremists.

But blaming Modi is half an explanation, perhaps even less. In Palestine, after decades of struggle against Israeli occupation, the secular PLO lost out to the religious radicalism of Hamas. In Arab countries, young Muslims dream of fighting infidels and dying as martyrs. In Pakistan, the celebrated army operations Raddul Fasaad and Zarb-i-Azb target armed militants fighting for a Sharia state. Last week, the Higher Education Commission showed its concern by convening a meeting of 60 university vice chancellors in Islamabad on rising extremism in Pakistani campuses.

Extremism has further complicated an already complicated Kashmir situation. What now? For long, Kashmiris, Pakistanis, and Indians have wagged fingers at the other for the 100,000 lives lost over three decades. Where lies the future? Does any solution exist?

A short retreat into mathematics: some equations indeed have solutions even if they need much effort. But other equations can logically be shown to have no solution – nothing will ever work for them. There is still a third type: that where solutions are possible but only under very specific conditions.

Kashmir is not of the first category. Everything has been tried. Delhi and Islamabad have created clients among the Valley’s leaders and political parties, and subversion is a widely used instrument. But they too have turned out to be useless. Elections and inducements have also failed to produce a decisive outcome, as have three Pakistan-India wars. A fourth war would likely be nuclear.

All parties stand guilty. India, under various Congress governments, had once projected itself as a secularist democracy distinct from an Islamic, military-dominated Pakistan. It appeared for that reason to be preferable, but in practice its unconscionable manipulation of Kashmiri politics led to the 1989 popular uprising, sparking an insurgency lasting into the early 2000s. When it ended 90,000 civilians, militants, police, and soldiers had been killed. Remembered by Kashmiri Muslims for his role in the 1990 Gawkadal bridge massacre, Governor Jagmohan received the Padma Vibhushan last year.

Pakistan tried to translate India’s losses into its gains but failed. It soon hijacked the indigenous uprising but the excesses committed by Pakistan-based mujahideen eclipsed those of Indian security forces. The massacres of Kashmiri Pandits, targeting of civilians accused of collaborating with India, destruction of cinema houses and liquor shops, forcing of women into the veil, and revival of Shia-Sunni disputes, severely undermined the legitimacy of the Kashmiri freedom movement.

Pakistan’s ‘bleed India with a thousand cuts’ policy is in a shambles today and jihad is an ugly word in the world’s political lexicon. Say what you will about ‘Dawn Leaks’, but Pakistani diplomats who represent Pakistan’s position in the world’s capitals know the world doesn’t care about Kashmir. How else to explain Prime Minister Modi receiving Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian award from King Salman bin Abdul Aziz?

If Kashmir is ever to have a solution — ie belong to the third type of math problem — then all three contenders will need to rethink their present positions.

Thoughtful Indians must understand that cooling Kashmir lies in India’s hands, not Pakistan’s. By formally acknowledging Kashmir as a problem that needs a political solution, using humane methods of crowd control, and releasing political prisoners from Kashmiri jails, India could move sensibly towards a lessening of internal tensions. Surely, if India considers Kashmiris to be its citizens then it must treat them as such, not as traitors deserving bullets. Else it should hand Kashmir over to Kashmiris — or Pakistan.

Thoughtful Pakistanis must realise that their country’s Kashmir-first policy has brought nothing but misery all around. Using proxies has proven disastrous. A partial realisation has led to detaining of LeT and JeM leaders, but Pakistan’s army must crack down upon all Kashmir-oriented militant groups that still have a presence on Pakistani soil. Such groups are a menace to Pakistan’s society and armed forces, apart from taking legitimacy away from those fighting Indian rule.

Thoughtful Kashmiri nationalists — like Saif — must recognise the grave dangers of giving more space to religious extremists. Their struggle should be for some form of pluralistic entity – whether independent or under nominal Indian or Pakistani control. That entity must assure personal and religious freedoms. An ISIS type state with its cruel practices makes mockery of the very idea of azadi and would pave the way for Kashmir’s descent into hell.

Such rethinking would clear the road to peace through negotiations which, though narrowed, still remains open. Every conflict in history, no matter how bitter, has ultimately been resolved. In Kashmir’s case whether this happens peacefully, or after some apocalypse, cannot be predicted.

Friday, 19 May 2017


Kashmira Gander in The Independent

“What if I want to be a trophy wife?” asks a woman in the audience at the Sugar Baby Summit at the plush Ham Yard hotel in central London. Self-confessed sugar baby Clover Pittilla, who is addressing the room at a podium on stage, pauses for a moment and replies “I say do it. Just live your dreams.”

Pittilla is a 21-year-old pharmaceutical student, and one of the speakers at the third Sugar Baby Summit event organised by dating app and website Seeking Arrangement. The app enables sugar daddies, and some mummies, to seek out so-called sugar babies to shower with gifts, cash and luxury experiences. In return, sugar babies knowingly provide a pretty face and good company. Today, both experienced and wannabe sugar babies have paid £150 to learn how to attract high-net-worth-individuals. They’ll put these skills into practice at a party in the evening. The competition is intense, as Seeking Arrangement permits sugar daddies to have four sugar babies at once. 

And this complicated world of course has its own vocabulary. The sugar babies are told that vanilla, or conventional, relationships are not what sugar daddies are into. And salt daddies are men who just want attention but don’t want to part with their cash.

To some, the oh-so-romantically named Seeking Arrangement is empowering women and men to be brutally clear about what they want in their relationships. The website and the summit are places where they can find one another and forge, more often than not, relationships with massive age gaps without judgement. It offers privacy for the 40 per cent of sugar daddies and mummies who are married. Sugar babies, meanwhile, find lovers, friends and mentors. Others might argue that Seeking Arrangement users might pretend that the power balance between babies and daddies is equal, but in a world where it lies with the person with the fattest wallet it is therefore, well, creepy as hell.

Stood on stage in a short blue gingham dress and glittery silver stilettos, her long blonde hair swept to one side, Pittilla fits the ultimate stereotype of a sugar baby. She tells the around 70 people in the audience that her sugar daddies have enabled her to travel the world and study without having to resort to eating beans on toast to make her student loan stretch. Her spiel mirrors the adverts on the Seeking Arrangement website, which invite students to sign up and lessen the load of their crippling debt. Students are given further incentive to join with free premium membership.

But the crowd is more varied than one might assume. The (mainly) women here are of all ages, body-types and ethnicities. Some, like Pittilla, are dressed in stunning, hyper-feminine clothes, with towering heels, long hair and spotless makeup. But there are plenty of women in casual clothes that wouldn't be out of place in an office. And one guy with blonde hair dressed in black with a man bun. And they're hanging on Pittilla’s every word. When at one point she scrolls quickly through her presentation slides, one woman shouts “you’re going too fast!” Other panels cover cyber-security, fashion and making a first impression, staying motivated, and how to manage finances. 

Clover Pittilla advised shared her tips at the Sugar Baby Summit

First off, Pittilla stresses to the audience that being a sugar baby isn’t sex work and that the men are not paying them. She then reels off bullet points on from her presentation which unintentionally highlight that finding and keeping a sugar daddy is a little complex. Have your own life and don’t put everything aside for a man, but be flexible, she says. Be honest and assertive, but don’t be argumentative. Perhaps hint at what you want and don’t ask for money outright because you’ll seem entitled, and no one likes that. If he doesn’t call you or doesn’t text back, “don’t be argumentative because no one likes that, either”. “Make him feel needed, because guys like to be needed,” she adds.

“He’s paying you,” Pittilla lets slip during her presentation, quickly correcting herself to add “well, no he’s not. He’s definitely not paying you. What he gives are gifts”.

Emma Gammer, a 28-year-old sugar baby who married and divorced a sugar daddy, follows Pittilla's presentation. Gammer advises women to include keywords in their profiles that attract sugar daddies. "Student, model, nurse." Some professionally shot “sexy and sassy” photos to send to potential sugar daddies are also useful, but she urges the audience to avoid men who talk too much about sex and ask for photos but never to meet. Those who flake repeatedly are also a waste of time, she adds. “Some will even go as low as pretending there’s been a family death to avoid meeting you.”

Doesn’t it all make dating seem a bit cold and businesslike? But that’s the beauty of it, suggests Seeking Arrangement founder Brendon Wade, who thinks he’s nailed the formula for successful relationships. Asked why people should become sugar babies rather than finding a match the conventional way he tells The Independent: “You could do that. You could make numerous mistakes and you could fail that way. I’ve been married and divorced three times. Or you could learn the faster way. A lot of sugar babies are teaching the newbies the sorts of mistakes they have made and what they've found to be the most successful way to finding relationships that they truly enjoy.”

Wade adds that he’s going through a “messy divorce” so he’s using the website himself at the moment. As the founder, he’s the original sugar daddy, he adds.

As a younger man, he was “shy, dateless and incapable of finding a woman” he recalls. His mother told him that if he concentrated on his studies and became successful, women would flock to him.

“But when I was in my thirties I had a Bachelor degree and an MBA and I was still dateless. I tried to solve that and date. I was not successful. I would create profiles on dating apps and write hundreds of message but still had no luck. So I thought 'why not base a concept on my mother's idea?'” 

Wade compares using Seeking Arrangement to honing your career skills. “Your career is very important. That’s why you create a CV. But romantic relationships are equally important. But people aren’t using the same goal oriented approach. Most of us beat around the bush, date, and don't specify what we want. We fall in love, and then perhaps months or years later we realise ‘wow this is a mismatch’. What we need is to do is teach people how to date effectively,” he argues. After all, he goes on, in the past parents would set up arranged marriages based on what their child had to offer on paper, so what’s the harm in modernising that approach?

Among the women taking a punt on Ward’s idea is Natalie Wood, a 31-year-old beautician. She has has been using Seeking Arrangement for a few years. One man whom she met on the website flew her to Indonesia to meet him, gave her £10,000 and money for shopping, she says, beaming. Unfortunately, that relationship broke down a few months in because of the man’s circumstances, but he continued to look after her afterwards, she says. At the summit after-party she hopes to pin down some sugar daddies who might otherwise be too busy to meet her. 

Natalie Wood was given £10,000 by a sugar daddy (Seeking Arrangement)

“I really like this website because you can be honest about what you want. I want someone successful, an older mentor. Someone who doesn't mind spending their money, and enjoys a luxury lifestyle. And if he’s not in London I can go on this website and find him internationally.”

In the end, she hopes to find a man to help her set up a salon and, ultimately, someone to marry. Her friends recommended that she try the website in the first place, and she’d happily do the same, she adds.

Others are more nervous about people knowing that they are at this event, presumably because of the stigma attached to unconventional relationships based around money.

I want someone successful. Someone who doesn't mind spending their money
Natalie Wood, beautician and sugar baby

Donna Summer, a 32-year-old beauty therapist based in Hastings, says she’s nervous about being here today, and hasn’t told her friends or family that she’s using Seeking Arrangement.

“I was very apprehensive before I came here that there would be more beautiful women than me,” she says quietly. “I'm going to the party after this and I'm a bit nervous.” Summer was scared the event would be “dodgy”, but is now happy to seek advice from veteran sugar babies on whether or not she needs to declare the money she is given for tax, and other financial questions.

“I’m getting older I don’t have much time left to find someone, so I thought ‘let’s just take the plunge and do it’. Life’s too short, and you’ll probably end up in some horrible relationship anyway. So why not do this?” she reasons.

One 26-year-old from London, who asks to be identified as Nina Sky, has been using Seeking Arrangement for four years, and forged one two-and-a-half-year relationship, and one which lasted under a year. “I’ve been to many countries, gotten gifts. You name it: bags, pets, furs. Loads of things,” she says.

Sky has always been attracted to older men, and is foremost looking for a “gentleman”. A man who is settled emotionally, financially and mentally. She doesn’t have an age limit, but draws the line at someone with poor hygiene.

“I had a Tinder profile up until recently but I just think this is so much better for me. I’m very direct and I like to know where I stand from the beginning. It just avoids confusion,” she says. But Sky disagrees that she takes a businesslike approach to dating. “It’s not a business. It’s finding a mutually beneficial agreement and if it leads to love, then amazing. But I think you need to know what you want.”

The women add that they are unfazed by people who want to judge them, or accuse them of being gold diggers. And of course the sugar daddies aren’t here to defend themselves against anyone who might accuse them of taking advantage of people. They’re at the party, where the press aren’t allowed.

“I would say to someone who might call me a gold digger that I’m reaching out to find what I want. If I want a better life and to make my life the best, I will,” says Wood. “Maybe they're just jealous of my fantastic lifestyle.” And who said romance is dead?

The courts and matters of faith

Peter Ronald deSouza in The Hindu

We need to make a distinction between matters of conscience and matters of faith

There is an uncanny similarity of argument between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) on controversies that have to do with belief. This is illustrated best in their respective positions on the Ram Setu and the triple talaq debates.

In 2005, on the Ram Setu issue, the RSS stated that their opposition to the UPA government’s plan to dredge a canal between Rameswaram, off the coast of Tamil Nadu, and the islands of Mannar, near Sri Lanka, was a “matter of faith and hence required no substantiation”.

Twelve years later the counsel for the AIMPLB has offered a similar argument in the Supreme Court when making his client’s case on the practice of triple talaq. A Constitution Bench of five justices is to decide on whether the practice of divorce by triple talaq is consistent with the protections guaranteed to individuals by the Indian Constitution. In opposition to pleas that the practice be considered unconstitutional, the AIMPLB counsel stated that triple talaq “is a matter of faith. Hence there is no question of constitutional morality and equity”.

This argument that matters of faith be given special status needs to be assessed. Why should matters of faith be given immunity from scrutiny?

Three responses can be offered to this question. Let me, on grounds of brevity, refer to them as (i) the special status of faith, (ii) the issue of validity, and (iii) ethical codes in modern democracies.

Special status of faith

At the outset we must acknowledge that faith, as religious belief, must have special status in any constitutional order. It constitutes the core of an individual’s sense of self and is the basis of a believer’s conscience.

Belief is a matter of personal choice and no external authority, whether state, cultural community, or religious congregation, can tell an individual what her beliefs should be. To do so is to violate the individual’s freedom of conscience guaranteed by most constitutional systems and human rights covenants. But on matters of faith, an important distinction has to be made.

All ‘matters of conscience’ are ‘matters of faith’, but not all ‘matters of faith’ are ‘matters of conscience’. It is only matters of conscience that are protected by the freedom-granting provisions of the Constitution. Matters of conscience are individual-centric. They have an ethical core that guides the choices that an individual makes.
They endow the world with meaning and give the individual purpose. In contrast, the ‘matters of faith’ which the RSS and the AIMPLB are referring to — while they may look similar to ‘matters of conscience’ — are not so for they are group, not individual, centric. They have a component that is based on evidence, whether this is textual, historical, or empirical. In other words, the belief is contingent on the evidence. For example it would take the following form: ‘we believe X because it is said so in our holy book’.

It is the ‘because of’ component that demands analytical and scientific scrutiny of the matters of faith. Does the holy book actually say so? Did Lord Ram really build the Setu?

Further, when matters of faith have harmful social consequences, they must be subject to scrutiny since the Constitution guarantees the individual protection from harm.

This is the basis of all social reform in our history.

When the AIMPLB says that triple talaq has evolved in the last 1400 years, it has inadvertently conceded that the practice is not cast in stone. Let the court’s intervention be part of that evolution.

The issue of validity

The many advances in linguistics, cultural anthropology, gender studies and, of course, the natural sciences can make the probing of the ‘because of’ component of the belief very exciting. For example, a textual analysis of a holy book using a study of old and new grammar, or the etymology of the word, or its placement in a sentence are all ways of arriving at the meaning of the statement.

Textual analysis has advanced considerably and hence is available to determine the validity of the interpretation being offered by scriptural authority. The many schools of Islamic jurisprudence are testimony to this plurality of interpretations.

To that can be added the modern tools of linguistic analysis, gender studies, human rights jurisprudence, and cultural anthropology. The validity of triple talaq must be subject to textual interpretation. Similarly with the Ram Setu claim. It too must be scrutinised by modern science.

Ethical codes in democracies

The most difficult issue in this debate is how to respond to the situation where, after scrutiny, the matter of faith is found to be valid but considered by many in need of change such that it conforms to the contemporary ethics of human rights.

When the counsel for the AIMPLB says that there is “no question of constitutional morality and equity” in matters of faith, he is building a wall, a fashion these days, behind which the orthodox will police their community. Such a wall must not be built. It has no place in a constitutional democracy.