Monthly Archives: September 2014

In the Light of What We Know: Review

James Wood is everyone’s idea of a thoughtful reviewer. When his praise is high, it convinces us to not merely to read the book but also to measure ourselves in terms of how much we like it.

In the light of What We Know is that rare novel that earns the adjective of being sprawling. The first quirk that Zia Haider Rahman introduces is that both the protagonist, Zafar, and the narrator speak to us in first person. Somehow it works. The seamless transition from narrator’s voice to Zafar’s is often used as a pivot from the meta to digressions on everything else. The other unmissable feature of the 500 page novel is that you’ll end up highlighting at least one quote in every one of those pages. Some of them for true originality of thought, some for the lyrical prose that captures them and others for a combination.

Zafar is an infuriating man; often reminding us of our worst moments. He’s thoughtful, insecure, vengeful and generous. Except, his insecurity is the prism through which he views the world. He has a way of speaking that’s alluring on good days and just annoying on most others. Whether this reflects Zia Haider Rahman’s own writing form or is intentional is a question that’s impossible to answer. Zafar’s vile belittling of well meaning and misinformed people is irresistible in its pull. Personal angst is used to justify the post-colonial revulsion and vice-versa.

Zia Haider Rahman’s plot is thin; non-existent even. A long lost friend shows up at a banker’s house and tells him his life story. Which isn’t much. The entire novel is an excuse to tell us what a strange man Zafar is. There is, as several feminists have complained, unforgivable misogyny. But that’s who Zafar and his friend are as people; post colonial men of talent and privilege respectively. Only they find out, it possibly takes a few more generations to normalise regardless of how much wealth or intelligence one possesses. Until then, their lives are empty and nothing happens. Almost by definition. So in a convoluted way, the book manages to stay honest in its exploration of the human condition.

The theme of novel is Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. The use of 20th Century’s greatest result as a metaphor is tricky. It hardly lends itself. Rahman, ever the thoughtful student of Mathematics, also hints at that very problem and discusses the limits of metaphors in a different context. One isn’t sure whether one should be exasperated or charmed. Every thought that the reader may have has a nod somewhere from the author within the 500 pages. Which makes us realise Rahman is, above all, a reader. A man who consumes literature and possibly created it as an elaborate game; a joke. The kind of self aware and self deprecating joke that is funny to us when it’s shared only with us. And this book manages to make us believe it’s just that – an inside joke only the reader and Rahman get.

Referendum Strategy: Break away, for now

The referendum on Scottish independence this week will be a rare data point in a difficult problem, should the Scots vote yes. For a perspective on the issues related to that referendum you could simply watch John Oliver. This post is not about Scotland but territories like it and the difficult problem they pose: is it a good or a bad idea for Scotland or any other territory to break away?

Nation states, almost by definition, are historical accidents. There’s no real reason for their boundaries to be what they are. Catalonia, Scotland, South Sudan and Tamil Nadu are all very different from the respective countries/kingdoms that they are or were part of. From an economic perspective the four are evenly divided: Scotland and South Sudan contributed much less to the larger nation state’s GDP per capita compared to the mean. In the case of Catalonia and Tamil Nadu, the contribution is much higher than the mean. That the former two seem to have a vote already while the latter two don’t is something worth pondering. Nevertheless, this post is not about Economics.

The simple problem statement is: how do we know the point of optimality between sticking on to a larger nation state and breaking away? The problem, to one’s uninformed first brush, looks remarkably similar to the Multi-arm Bandit Problem. The problem, stated simply, is this: if you go to a casino that has N machines you can play on, at what point in 1 through N do you decide to stop exploring the multiple options in N and instead settle on one specific machine to exploit its returns? That’s the reason most textbooks us the term ‘explore versus exploit trade-off‘ to refer to this optimality. For a country, the options of breaking away sounds a bit like explore while staying back sounds a bit like exploit[1].

The problem, as we now know, is a solved one. It’s also relatively straightforward to solve. A Bayesian optimisation is what almost all text books will prescribe to such a problem[2]. The issue we have however is, there are not enough samples for us. That is, not enough countries have broken away to have explored the option enough so that a Bayesian optimisation problem can be set up.

Perhaps the the erstwhile Soviet republics are a good bunch to start. But what is undeniable is that to set this problem up and arrive an optimisation function that can reasonably tell a territory whether it should or shouldn’t break up, a lot more territories need to do that first. For the sake knowledge and for the sake of a more informed tomorrow, this only means Tamil Nadu and every other territory that feels marginally alienated from its nation-state needs to have a referendum for independence. And preferably break away.

[1] – David Cameron’s warning that Scotland can never return should it break away has been ignored in this analogy.

[2] – Here is a ‘no regret’ experimental design. Interesting.