May 28, 2009

Save the JEE, Kill the KEE

The IIT system, that was born in the early, optimistic years of the young Indian state, was truly one of kind. It articulated the scientific and technological aspirations of a nation, that had just found its feet in the global community, and exemplified -- what Thomas Friedman would later refer to as -- the process of "drilling for talent" : the search for the best and finest minds in the country -- irrespective of where they came from and who they were related to. By raising the bar on exclusivity and fairness, the JEE, that guarded the portals of the IIT system from the general mediocrity of the population, has become such a legend in itself that Brand JEE dominates Brand IIT by miles ! This is evident in the difference in the market esteem ( if not market value ) between IIT students who have cracked the JEE ( undergraduates) and those who have not ( for example the M.Techs, PhDs and what not ).

But like all other institutions in the country, the JEE is under attack and is in mortal danger of being subverted by the poisonous ambience of what Nirad Chaudhury referred to as the Continent of Circe. "India" has a way of debilitating people -- from the Aryaputra's of yore, through the Huns, Kushans and Turks right upto the British, whose conquest of the country spelled the doom of their Empire. Killing the JEE, and the excellence that it embodies, is KEE, the Kota Examination Enhancer, the Rajasthan based set of coaching classes that converts dross into (fool's) gold.

With due respect to the 10000+ youngsters who have cracked JEE-2009 ( and that includes my son) we observe that there is a marked difference in the success rates in different parts of the country. Success is highest in the western region -- which includes Kota, where most of the KEE coaching classes are located -- and lowest in the east. At the risk of being politically incorrect and possibly chauvinistic, we do know that the Residents of Rajasthan are not exceptionally brilliant ! In the absence of any firm evidence of foul play, once is forced to admit that it is the ultra-rigorous, possibly brutal, practice regime enforced in these coaching classes that equip otherwise mediocre students with the skills to somehow crack the JEE and lay claim to the value of a brand that has been built by far smarter predecessors.

Can sheer practice help ? I am sure it does -- under high pressure and temperature, graphite does get converted into diamond, but never of the quality that is used in jewellery. If you rub a brick long enough and hard enough it just might shine like a slab of marble ! But are we interested in bricks that look like marble and diamonds made from graphite ? Or are we interested in actual marbles and gem quality diamonds ?

The answer is obvious : we would like the JEE to help locate the gems, and reaffirm our faith in the brand. But the BIG QUESTION is HOW ?

Should we bring in ham handed legislation and ban coaching schools ? That would be patently illegal and unfair (though such lofty considerations have hardly deterred our legislators from passing obnoxious laws )

Should we consider Class XII marks for IIT entrance ? Obviously not because all state boards are manipulated by local politicians to push through politically correct candidates ( In West Bengal, it used to be "rural" candidates who would get high marks and now, after the Sachar Revelations, it is "muslims" who are seen to be successful)

Should we change the pattern of questions so that they reveal more of the innate ability than rote learning ? Of course we should but AGAIN, HOW ? I am sure the JEE organisers have agonised over this but have not found a way to do this. So there is no hope for an immediate breakthrough on this front.

Perhaps PAN-IIT, the umbrella organisation for all IIT alumni should take this up a subject for intense debate and deliberations. If the best and brightest in the land cannot come up with a way to protect and preserve their own brand equity then who will ? Such a debate could throw up interesting ideas ...

For example : can we consider percentile ranks ( not percentage ) in Class X and Class XII examinations, convert the raw JEE rank into a corresponding percentile and then define a modified JEE rank based on the weighted average of the percentiles in Class X, Class XII and the JEE ? There is some research that indicates that the average of Class X and Class XII marks is a good indicator of a persons ability and this scheme is an extension of this line of thought.

This is one suggestion. I am sure that there will be other ways by which we can save the JEE and kill the KEE !

May 20, 2009

Psychohistory and the Indian Elections

Text books define history in terms of events and individuals. Hari Sheldon -- the epicentre of thought in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series -- posits an alternate perspective where the ebb and tide of the human saga is independent of both events and individuals and follows what others call the flow of destiny -- the inevitable. But what sets Asimov's interpretation stand apart from those of others is that he packages destiny in the garb of statistical inevitability.

What does this mean ?

It means that even if specific individual were not present, or specific events did not happen, the tide of history will -- by and large -- be the same. If Hitler was not born then the circumstances in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century would still have resulted in something like the Second World War. If Isaac Newton was not around and the apple did not fall on his head, it is very unlikely that we would still not have known about gravitation. Some one else would have figured this out ... but this someone else could not have done this before the European Renaissance ! So it is these broad trends of society that are the real actors who play out saga of human history.

Unflattering as the analogy may be, the evolution of human history is comparable -- in style, though not in actual impact -- to the behaviour of a colony of ants or of bees. Individual insects are not important but their collective behaviour is. Similar is the case of Brownian motion in a gas -- the behaviour of an individual gas atom does not matter. It is the statistical average of thousands of individual atoms that give rise to the "emergent" properties that we are all familiar with -- pressure, temperature and volume.

The just concluded General Elections in India have also thrown up such "properties" -- in this case seat counts -- that we are debating and discussing across the length and breadth of the country. While we readily acknowledge that individual votes ( or voters ) do not count and it is the collective will that is finally on display .... we still tend to believe that individual "leaders" and "events" do play a role. For example we believe that Mamata Banerjee or Rahul Gandhi are important and events like the Mumbai Massacre influence voters.

This need not be true. At one level of analysis, the individual voter is irrelevant but at a higher level of analysis, even leaders and events can become irrelevant. Even if Mamata Banerjee was not around, circumstances would have thrown up someone else. So is the case with Congress victory ... in Bengal it was because of the consolidation of the anti left vote, in UP it was because of the split of the OBC/Muslim vote and in Maharashtra it was because of the split of the right wing Hindu vote between the ShivSena+BJP and the MNS. So all these events, of limited importance in themselves, add up to a very significant result that finally bring Manmohan Singh to the Prime Minister's chair.

Net-net history moves at its own pace and in its own style. Some people would call this destiny. Some would see in these events in terms of astrological patterns, I would root for Hari Sheldon's psychohistory.

May 17, 2009

Thank you Mr Karat ! for the deliverance of Bengal

Mamata Banerjee should send a big bouquet of red roses to Komrade Karat because it is to him and his arrogant intransigence that she owes the 19+ Lok Sabha seats that she has won yesterday.

The Communist Party of Bengal ( and Kerala and Tripura, if you please ) came to power in 1977 and has since been stuck leach-like to this state. While its intial entry was on the basis of certain ideologies, its uninterrupted continuance has been because of (a) its proprietary process of scientific rigging, that I explained in an earlier post and (b) its skillful division of the anti-left vote between the Congress and its offshoot, the Trinamool Congress. This second policy was perpetuated first by supporting the Congress at the centre and second by planting watermelons" in the Congress party in the state -- watermelons being fruits that are are green, the Congress colour, on the outside and RED at heart ! Trapped between the distant machinations in Delhi and the activities of saboteurs in Calcutta, the Congress in Bengal had neither the will, nor the wherewithal to take on the Communists in the state.

The Trinamool Congress is a child of this impotent frustration and for the past twenty years it has waged a relentless campaign to oust the Communists from this state -- with little effect. While the Communists never commanded a majority share of the popular vote, the first past the post system of India's election ensured that they always secured a comfortable majority of the legislative seats because the split in the anti-left vote between the hapless ( and hamstrung) Congress and the belligerent Trinamool.

And so it would have continued for the next 30 years had it not been for Komrade Karat !

Karat ( and his cohorts ) have never won an election -- other than at student unions in JNU -- but they are photogenic, articulate and can speak good English. The media -- particularly the TV media, with which he has family connections -- glorify him and his utterances to the extent that he believes that he and his glamorous communists are the real communists in this country -- not because they have won elections but because they oppose US "imperialism" and act as paid agents of China. He has no time to think about the the bumbling Bengal communists, who can murder opponents with ease but run for their life from TV cameras and their English speaking reporters.

He has bigger things to think about -- the Nuclear Deal.

And to prove his point, he kicked Manmohan Singh in the face when this erudite gentleman went ahead with the deal. And that was the undoing of the Communists !

When the Congress got the kick in the Centre, it had no further interest in being polite at the state. Thirty years of pent up frustration in the Bengal Congress translated into an easy alliance with the Trinamool and an immediate consolidation of the anti-Left vote -- and the result is there to read in today's papers.

Many political analysts and even the communists would say that Mamata Banerjee won because of her opposition to the acquisition of agricultural land for industrial development -- but those who know Bengal know better. On the issue of land, she would have won in pockets of south Bengal but the necessary and sufficient condition for the large scale decimation of the communists -- they have been wiped out from 10 of the 19 districts of the state -- has been the consolidation of the anti-Left vote caused by Karat's kick to Manmohan.

That is why Mamata should send the roses.

May 12, 2009

Using Sparse Matrices and RDBMS for Statistical Testing of Hypotheses in Astrology

In an earlier post on I had tried to explain why in the study of astrology it makes more sense to observe, track and validate correlations between events in the celestial sphere and that in personal life. An analysis of correlations is a standard tool or technique in statistics and so it makes sense to apply this technique in astrology as well. However, there are certain challenges in this approach because the format in which astrological charts are created or stored is not amenable to the kind of statistical analyses that we are familar with.
To overcome this limitation and I have come out with a new way to store and retrieve horoscope charts using sparse matrices and relational database management systems. You can read about this mathematical technique in my paper Statistical Testing of Hypotheses in Astrology.

An unexpected byproduct of this effort was my introduction to the Scribd service that allows you to convert any form of document OpenOffice, MS-Office, PDF and what not into iPaper that is not only a pretty nice, web friendly format but one that allows you to publish your thoughts and ideas without depending on anyone else

May 08, 2009

Three Reasons for the KKR debacle

In general I do not follow the antics on the cricket field but since the IPL is good tamasha and KKR is ostensibly based out of Calcutta ( or god forbid, Kolkata !) I have been wondering why they are putting on such a uniformly bad show. The chatterati have come out with two streams of thought to which let me add my own ...

First, SRK after his nationwide success with Chak De India, has come to believe that it is the coach that makes -- or, as in this case, breaks -- the team. In CDI, he portrayed -- albeit on the screen of fantasy -- that the players hardly matter, it is the coach and his strategies that matter in the end and he has applied this philosophy through Buchanan. But he seems to have forgotten completely that the game is actually played on the field -- not in the strategy session -- and it is the players who score runs, take wickets and finally win or lose a game. So now he has a whole team of coaches in addition to a team of players and the tooth-to-tail ratio, both in numbers as well as in the management process, is so small that the team has been rendered toothless !

A corollary to this line of thought is that people do not matter, systems do. That is the way multinational companies operate and that is what is taught to MBA students in the more traditional ( and increasingly obsolescent ) management curriculum. As Gautam Bhattacharya, the incisive and articulate sports correspondent of the Ananda Bazar Patrika, pointed out, this may be the case in more mature societies of Western Europe and North America -- the traditional home of most multinational corporations. But in India, the "system" is so screwed up, distorted and biased, that left to itself it cannot create any value and it is up to the individual who has to beat the system -- by hook or by crook -- to succeed. That is why Hindustan Lever has to learn marketing from Nirma -- and it is to their credit that they learnt it -- and Indians are famous for their jugaad. Circling back to KKR, what this means is that we need the flamboyant eccentricity of sparkling individuals who can hit the ball more than spreadsheet simulations of the Duckworth Lewis variety.

Secondly, SRK is not used to having his personal brand being eclipsed -- even partially -- by another and that is why he cannot tolerate Sourav Ganguly being seen as being central to the KKR story. All said and done, Ganguly has led the national team -- the real team, not a cinematic team -- out of the pits of the betting scandal to the guts-and-glory a victory at Lords and elsewhere ! But it is also true that the Ganguly brand has a limited shelf life and with the passage of time, it will become an increasingly regional brand. So SRK has two reasons -- one personal and the other professional -- why he should not allow Ganguly to succeed and whether he is right or wrong, it is his team, he is the owner, the malik, and since he has paid the piper, he has certainly has the right to call the tune.

While not disagreeing with either of the above, I have a third reason and that is based on astrology ! Though I do not have SRK's horoscope and even if I had it, I do not enough to interpret it adequately, one thing I am sure about is that his stars are well and truly ill-crossed. So called "rationalists" and people with a little knowledge of science may cry foul but the fact remains that there is an undeniable correlation between patterns in the sky and the patterns of events in a human life -- and you may twist and turn and wriggle and squirm but the final result is determined but unfortunately not known, except to the student of patterns.

Napoleon is said to have asked, not for competent generals but for lucky ones ! Having failed with his corporate-managerial approach to running his team he should now decide on the next coach-captain combination in consultation with a good astrologer.

May 05, 2009

Zoho : now UC Berkeley wakes up !

I have been using Zoho at the Praxis Business School, Calcutta and have written about it in my blog posts Zoho : Amazing Web Based Applications and Zoho : The Continuing Saga but is great to know that the University of California at Berkeley has also woken up to the enchantment of this wonderful platform. Please see the presentation below.