Chocolate and Gold Coins

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Ergodic Set

In a Markov process, an ergodic set is a subset of the measure space that maps to itself. Once you’re in there you cannot escape. All hope is lost.

Somehow, this is the feeling I get when reading some of the posts of the new group blog: How the Other Half Lives. With famous bloggers like Dilip, Uma, Vikrum, Anand, and Shivam, this new blog is bound to attract a lot of attention. But the subject matter seems - well - a bit depressing.

Here are some recent posts:
Suicides of farmers in Vidarbha
India’s newest import: toxic waste
People who eat less that $10 of food in a whole month
Dowry deaths
How to treat beggars

It’s not that these stories are wrong or that they aren’t blog-worthy. It is that taken collectively, there seems to be complete dearth of hope about the “other half” in India. And this is a lie. Many poor people are making a better life for themselves in India. India, which has been a poor country for at least 400 years (and maybe 4000 years), is rapidly becoming a middle class country. This is an amazing story, when you think about it. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this transformation in this blog.

I can understand the frustration of a person like Dilip who states, “[In] a rapidly changing India, some people have seen very little change. Strike that: a lot of people have seen very little change.” He wishes that the change would be faster. I wish that too. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make everyone at least middleclass.

Wait – I don’t want that. I don’t want that power. I wouldn’t want anyone to have such power – especially a politician. So maybe we should not be so impatient – it could be worse. The poverty that India has that might be gone in a generation might instead be with India for centuries to come if India asks its politicians to help out the poor.

My complaint is that this blog should, at least once in a while, show the other side. They could occasionally show the Indians who were poor but are now a little less poor: The rickshaw driver who saved up to buy his own Ambassador, the housemaid who sent her daughter to college, the delivery boy who starts his own ramshackle delivery business. These stories do happen. There are stories like this in every nook and corner of India. This is the other half of the “other half”.

I am not saying that stories about dowry deaths and such have no merit – not at all. I think these stories are important and it is important that we read about them. But it is sort of like saying vegetables are important and we should eat them. If you serve a feast of broccoli and carrots, don’t expect many guests.

So please, give us the occasional gulab jamun. Remind us all that poverty is not an ergodic set.


  • I think whole intention in the 'other half' blog is to be negative. Knowingly. Not because there are not positive stories but because positive tends to make us forget the reality. While hopelessness point is right, but there is plenty of hope in other media and blogs which consistently forget 'other half'. Idea is to remind ourselves, repeatedly, to look at bad side. To keep the pity alive. Because while whole economic world and urban India is noticing 10,000 mark sensex, I am not sure if it matters to 'other half'. I understand some economics of it but it doesn't matter directly at least.

    I remember once a major news channel was asking people how they plan to celebrate new year on one new year's eve. And reporter goes as far as to wake up a man sleeping on footpath and ask hims on camera. I mean how insensitive is that. That person probably doesn't know where his next meal is coming from, and most likely has no business remembering days/months. This is one of many examples of attitudes of media in India towards 'other half'

    Lastly, there is no dearth of good positive news as well. This free online journal is maintained by single elderly person:

    By Blogger Ashish Gupta, at 5:34 PM  

  • While on the topic of ergodicity, I used to have the world's stupidest pick up line based on time average and space average.....and actually thought I was oozing geeky sexy crap.

    Damn, I was(!) stupid.

    By Blogger Nilu, at 9:56 PM  

  • The Povertarians. Thats what we call Dilip and his fellow idiotic leftist 'intellectuals'.....

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:55 PM  

  • I agree. A more balanced coverage would indeed make the blog more interesting.

    Some positive stories would be very inspiring and would show that the situation depicted in the negative stories can be rectified if tackled in the right manner and with the right resources.

    The blog aims to show us the reality of the other India, the India we are not very aware of or one we choose to ignore. I am sure there are some success stories in there too...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:01 AM  

  • Hi Ashish, Nilu, Raj, and Varun
    Ashish: Thanks for the link. I agree that not all news has to be good news and bloggers should be free to focus on the negative if they so chose. But a blog on all depressing stuff won't get regular readers I think.

    I contrast the new group blog with their individual blogs. All of the individual blogs are interesting because they mix it up. You need a mix I think. When Sepia Mutiny was formed Abhi specifically chose bloggers to give the blog a variety of viewpoints. That's why it works.

    Nilu: I wonder what the line was?

    Raj: Now some groundrules here. You are welcome to come and comment but please do not insult others on my blog. I like all of the bloggers at the new "Other Half" blog and I like Dilip - I think he is a great guy. And I would not want him to stop blogging about poverty - if that is his favorite subject, fine. Just like I wouldn't want Uma to stop blogging about dowry deaths or Nitin to stop blogging about Pakistan-India relations. These are pet subjects and that is fine.

    I just don't want to read about those subjects all the time at the exclusion of everything else. So I move on to other blogs. I am just saying that if the "Other Half" is going to be a success, they will need to diversify what they blog about.

    You touched upon another area: policy recommendations. They will advocate for an increase in the minimum wage. Well if it were that easy to reduce poverty they might as well as parliament to repeal the law of gravity and everyone could just fly to work.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 8:24 AM  

  • I think that you have misunderstood the purpose of the other India blog. (The site seems to be down this morning). Every gulab jamun story of a rickshaw driver buying an ambassador, there are several disconcerting stories, only a small sample of which has been discussed at the other India blog. The blogosphere represents the cream of the society, at least in terms of monetary and educational skills, and is often unaware of the problems faced by the masses. The other India blog is merely trying to point out that all is not well in India, and things could be much better. Nobody will disagree that we need to address the problems of "the other half", which is probably more like 75% of India, but the first step is to realize that we have a problem.

    Additionally, many in the Indian blog world seem to think that all you need to solve these problems are more radical neo-liberal economic policies. I think that the Other India blog is taking an objection to this. Their argument is not against more neo-liberal policies. They want to make everyone aware that such policies are merely increasing the size of the pie without necessarily distributing it justly.

    You can read the Gulab Jamun stories everywhere else. There is no reason why the other India blog should do so.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:28 AM  

  • Anup
    I suppose you are right but like I said, if it is all negative stuff that I won't visit. The problem is that it takes it as a given that markets and liberalisation of the economy has done no good for the poor and this doesn't seem to be supported by facts. In fact Dilip had a post in which he said that the fall in the official poverty rate from 36% to 26% (which should be awfully great news) was misleading because the bar for poverty was set too low. So he wants to move the goal posts.

    I don't disagree that only eating $10 a month would hardly make someone comfortable but the point is that by a consistant measure of poverty, poverty in India is declining. That should be really good news.

    I have a new post about why farmers are so poor.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 9:17 AM  

  • Michael, I like the other half blog a lot - the people behind it are committed and involved, and there is a desperate need for these questions to be asked and stories to be told... but I know what you mean about the gulab jamun...

    we need the success stories, the stories of inspiration and hope too along with the statistics and stories that make you wince... else this blog is going to lead to overkill and eventually do what too many natural disasters have done to us - make us immune and insensitive...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:47 AM  

  • M. ,

    I apologise for taking out my anger and hatred for Dilip and his brand of leftist 'intellectuals' on your board. They just make my blood boil. I can't help it. Won't happen again.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:38 PM  

  • Michael, while I agree with your point almost in toto, it is early days! We've been around less than two weeks. Give us a chance! We're also struggling with a server that fails every now and then, which we hadn't anticipated and we're trying to get done.

    I appreciate the need to find the gulabjamuns -- hell, it's what keeps me going as I travel around this country and write whatever I do.

    Finally, I think this was unfair: In fact Dilip had a post in which he said that the fall in the official poverty rate from 36% to 26% (which should be awfully great news) was misleading because the bar for poverty was set too low. So he wants to move the goal posts.

    If you read the comments, I have specifically said it is great news. I donj't think it is shifting the goalposts at all, because I never said it was misleading. I too think a fall in a consistent measure of poverty is a good thing.

    The point I'm making, and hope to elaborate on soon, is that we should be aware what it is we are talking about when we talk about a poverty line.

    By Blogger Dilip D'Souza, at 9:51 PM  

  • Hi Dilip
    Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog. And I hope that you took my post for what it was intended "constructive criticism" - I genuinely hope the "Other Half" becomes a great group blog that we all read each week.

    There does seem to be a bit of bias in the type of quotes you select from my comment section. For example, you could have selected this quote from my (mild) rebuke of another commenter:
    "You are welcome to come and comment but please do not insult others on my blog. I like all of the bloggers at the new "Other Half" blog and I like Dilip - I think he is a great guy. And I would not want him to stop blogging about poverty - if that is his favorite subject, fine." {emphasis added} :-)

    That said, there is a danger in quote material from memory and without rereading carefully. When I was responding to Anup, I had to recall from memory because - as you pointed out frequently happens there - the server was down. In rereading the post, and reading the comments I can see that you did mention - in the comments - that the reduction in poverty was great news. Actually, I think the important comment was Anand's that mentioned the severe measurement error problem.

    I think you get a lot of unfair criticism and hatred because a tendency to "blame the messager". It might help, in that post, if you had written that the reduction in poverty was good new in the body of the post instead of the comments. Not everyone reads the comments. But I agree that as India developes they might have to redefine the measure of poverty because no one will be poor in 20 years by the old measure. And that is great news!

    My feeling is that the blog would be a big success with a sixth blogger who could focus on the positive. Btw, I looked a bit at that good new India blog above mentioned by Ashish and it was way too much good news. It was like a diet of gulab jamuns. It would make you vomit after a week.

    Good luck - I wish you all well.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:34 AM  

  • Thanks for your review of our blog, Michael. The new blog has been getting a lot of attention in terms of comments, hits, links and posts like yours - far more attention than I thought and probably I can handle.

    Nitin seems to paraphrase your post well, "Those gazing at the dark underbelly end up thinking that that is what the whole elephant looks like." The idea of starting this blog was to see that underbelly because we found that too many were beginning to forget the underbelly as if it weren't there. Giving voice to the voiceless is indeed a depressing thing to do, probably cliched too, but so very important as well. We have been writing a post under the category, 'making a difference'. My post on minimum wages, for instance, talked about something positive: workers getting justice.

    Thanks a lot for your comments. I hope you will engage with our posts.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:54 AM  

  • Michael,

    I agree with you that we have to hear about the gulabjamuns. And, like Dilip, it's learning about the gulabjamuns that keeps me going. It's the triumphs and the stories of hope that are inspiring and beautiful.

    I hope to make my posts as optimistic as possible. But sometimes that is not possible. There is no silver lining to India's sex ratio, for example. Millions are dead because they were born are girls.

    Anyway, I echo Dilip's sentiment: the blog is a little over a week old so it's a bit unfair to nip it in the bud.

    Also, we have never stated that the reality portrayed in "the Other India" is the only reality in India. We try to focus on stories that are often left out by the page-3-obsessed/national self-esteem promoting Indian media.

    By Blogger Vikrum, at 1:04 PM  

  • Hi Shivam and Vikram
    Shivam: Minimum wage - justice? Didn't you notice that the minumum wage for women is 30% less than the one for men. How can that be fair?

    In any case, putting the spotlight on Indias troubles is a good cause if somewhat thankless. You will get some brickbats from those who associate support of the poor with support of the Socialists/Communists.

    In anycase, the blog looks really good and there is lots of good stuff there (if a touch depressing). Good luck

    Vikrum: I actually liked the post on begging - that was practical advice. When I was in India, I never carried money. That way, I didn't have to think about what to do.

    I'm not nipping anything in the bud, btw. I'm sure the site will be a success, it has gotten a lot of attention.

    Again, best of luck.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 4:25 PM  

  • Hi Nitin, Charu, Neela, and Raj

    Nitin: That is their focus and I guess that is alright. people focus on different things. Proctologist focus on...well I not reading any protologists' blogs.

    Charu: Hopefully that will not happen - make us insensitive. My hope is that they will mix the sad stories with the hopeful ones. As I said, this is the other half of the other half.

    Neela: I briefly read your comment before it was deleted (by you not me) and I didn't recall anything objectionable or regretable in it. As I recall you just echoed my hope that there would be more hopeful stories there. I'm sure there will be in time.

    Raj: I think you might have Dilip a bit wrong. I don't think he supports socialism/communism and all that. He works a lot with the poor - I don't see anything wrong with that.

    In any case, it is alright to say that you personally don't care for Mr. X as long as you don't flat out say that Mr. X is an idiot. We stay positive here.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 4:34 PM  

  • It strikes me that the very nature of economic growth makes it very easy for pessimism to flourish. Even at a real GDP growth rate of 5% per year, it would take 15 years to double average income. And if you're only earning $10 a month in the baseline year even a doubling of income over 15 years wouldn't be very encouraging.

    But it's small, steady incremental steps like this that make nations wealthy. Even in cases with amazing growth like Singapore and Hong Kong there was never a day when the people of those areas could suddenly look around and say "Wow! We're wealthy now!"

    Michael, I agree that the grand success stories of individuals are good fodder for boosting the spirits. But the real story for making India wealthy will be the slow plod of economic growth, with very little ballyhoo. Unfortunately, that means that it's easy to pooh-pooh the progress being made, because it is so gradual.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:03 PM  

  • Hi Abel and Neela
    Abel: I agree except economic growth in India is up to 8% a year. It will be a bit of a slow plod but they'll make some serious progress in a decade.

    Neela: Thanks for saying that I am polite. The new Other Half blog has generated some no so polite exchanges.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 5:35 PM  

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