Thursday, April 26, 2007

Why the IITs are Dying

It really breaks my heart to launch this vicious tirade "against" my alma-mater. I hope this assault is not viewed as ingratitude or malice. Because I had five of the best years of my life at IIT Madras, where I met the best people in the world and worked with some of the finest brains in Indian Academia.

There is a virus infecting the IIT system in India. And this virus is not Ramiah, everybody's punching bag. Neither is it Bansal nor Fiitjee. The whole thing goes much deeper. IITs are actually a very unique institution. They are Nehru's brainchilds, relics of a socialist era that India has left behind.

In a land with almost no quality educational options, IITs are a guarantee of a six figure salary - a guarantee of a life filled with relative prosperity. And it is this natural quest for money (and often, sadly, an American Job) that makes parents coerce their children into studying for a horrendously difficult exam. Crammeries such as the aforementioned Ramiah and Bansals abound - and with their draconian regulations, they "coach" the average student to "crack" the J.E.E.

In a land with over-whelming poverty, the very idea of "interest" is a luxury. It is often very likely that a certain student's major holds no passion for the student. Whilst a student might love finance, he might find himself working on Civil Engineering.

I am a Mechanical Engineer. I was in a batch of 75 students, most of whom are very intelligent. The top few in the batch were excellent mechanical engineers. They made their way into MIT, Illiois-Urbana and the like for a Masters Degree - and look! It now disgusts me to say that they have currently prostituted themselves into working for companies such as Capital One and Standard Chartered as business consultants. Why did the Indian taxpayers spend 5 lakhs per head on each of them? So that they can go to a foreign land and work on a foreign field? Return on investment, I don't think so.

But one must not blame the students entirely. Passion is a difficult emotion to cultivate - especially in the dog-eat-dog world of many, many Indians battling for the same scarce resources. In the U.S. even a waiter at McDonalds gets enough to live well. And since ample educational opportunities are available (albeit at a price) - a person interested in finance actually can pursue finance in the undergraduate years (change branches, if necessary). Not so, in India. It is either an engineer or a doctor - unless you are some sort of a nut.

And let's not let the teachers off the hook, either. I had a few miserable experiences back there at IIT (and I won't name names right now). [Though more than 60% were fantastic!]. I have issues with the kind of research they do there: philosophical and profound:yes, but realistic? That is debatable. In most good US universities, the industry funding model is quite robust - forcing a degree of realism. India will get there soon, one hopes.

I reallty don't see any hope for the undergraduates at IIT. Though there are a few students who do pursue PhDs in the long run, (and make a difference to society in the field they were trained to work on at IIT) - that percentage is dwindling - thanks to seductive offers made by those "investment bankers" in India itself! I think India should also upgrade its other colleges to IIT level. Nothing could be better than making all local colleges as good as IIT at the U.G level. (But where will be get the teachers from?).

The only hope for IITs is to reinvent themselves as good graduate schools. And the IITs have started work in that direction with the introduction of "dual degrees" (like yours truly). I wish them all the best in the future. And I also hope that they get some competition from the scary monopoly they have on talent.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Rise of Fundamentalist Atheism

All faith systems, alas, even the much hyped "scientific method" are prey to the disease of intolerance and fanaticism. This extends to nationalism (who can explain the blind reverence that some Americans have for their Second Amendment despite numerous shocking and crippling shooting incidents?), to religion (of course) and even to research - but that is a different story, altogether.

And I shall join hands with those irksome pop-culture "philosophers" , Trey Parker and Matt Stone in assaulting one Richard Dawkins - the closest Atheists have come to a suicide bomber. And in critiquing Dawkins, I must say that I am not in the best place: I have not read even one of his books. But I have heard him speak on youtube, which, people will certify is the next best thing to reading his books. And for smug loudmouths like yours truly, those speeches provide ample fodder to judge him.

I am not debating Prof. Dawkins' beliefs. I am an atheist myself and I do appreciate why he thinks the way he does. I do get irked when I see irrational blind faith, but I have the good sense to keep it to myself. Prof Dawkins does not.

Being an evolutionary biologist, Prof. Dawkins must realize that this "susceptibility" to believe in a supernatural being has evolved alongside humanity. Every culture in the world demonstrates this susceptibility- from the Pagans in the days of old to the Scientologists of today. The Egyptians had their Gods and Godesses as did the Greeks, as did the Indians (and they still do!). They might have been delusional - but this delusion kept them organized. And organization kept them resilient. Organization let them live long enough (by defeating and killing other not-so-organized tribes) to pass on their "delusion-susceptible" DNA.

And in the days of old where record was kept primarily by word of mouth, it is easy to see how an individual deemed exemplary and inspiring by his/her contemporaries (or even evil and ruthless, for that matter) gets deified in time. Grandparents would be telling their grandchildren "I knew this man who laid down his life for saving the whole town from the pack of wolves". The grandchildren would then tell their grandchildren "There was a great man with two heads who was eaten by savage beasts". And so on, until the "great man" becomes a deity. Because people like inspiring / horrifying stories.

People like inspiration. People like to know that there is someone out there who is better. And this whole thing ultimately formalizes into organized religion. Usually, the diktats issued by "holy books" are usually compassionate and constructive to society. And the stories help define, to the average clueless human being, the difference between good bad. Prof. Dawkins ignores the fact that most human beings have better things to do in their lives than decide what is good and what is bad using their own common sense. What religion does is that it serves it on a platter for them. It makes sure that people do not reinvent the wheel.

What prof. Dawkins' must do is focus on the real virus. The very concept of nationality.

Prof. Dawkins' views on how the world ought to be are impractical, that is a given. If he is prepared to have impractical views, why not have anti-border views? Borders create all the wars in the world. Not religion. The differences based of nationality are more bigoted and dangerous than religion.

Or is he uncomfortable with the idea of a Bangladeshi farmers (say) settling down in Oxford (or Cambridge or wherever he is)?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Design of Religion: A Case for Universal Scaling

A lot has been said about evolution by notable scientific minds, right from Darwin to Dawkins, throwing in the odd Gregor Mendel and the odder Khorana. Engineers have exploited this too: the use of genetic algorithms to in optimization problems has gained mainstream acceptance. Even if it has not gained "mainstream acceptance", it is quite a nice tool to obfuscate and obscure paper titles and give them an aura of erudite sophistication. “Fin Heat Transfer Enhancement: The Genetic Algorithm- Aritifical Neural Network Approach”

Evolution is a philosophy which explains why things are they way they are. Of course, it explains why manta rays are shaped they way they are; why elephants are so large and humans are so (allegedly) intelligent. But it also applies to the laptop that I am typing on right now, the car which is giving me such a hard time of late (but that's a different story). It applies to the chair that I am sitting on, the music I am listening to. Everything. And also to the religion that some people, alas, believe in and kill in the name of. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and anything else that I might have left behind.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by the evolution of the chair I am sitting on. The first chairs, in the world were, presumably tree stumps (or something similar) that people sat on. Then, some enterprising guy (or gal) decided that having something portable that could be sat on made a lot of sense. So they probably chopped a block off a tree and sat on it at home. And in time with commerce arose a "breed" of people (if I may use that therm inoffensively) who were adept at fashioning tree stumps into stools that other people could use. And these people used tools, which had, in a similar process evolved to make the task of creating a rudimentary stool easy. Chairs made of banana tree trunks would not have worked at all, while chairs working out of teak stems would have worked very well. So, no chair would be made of banana - and more would be made of teak in the future.

Human selection.

And in a few thousand years - presto - we have leather swivel chairs, plastic molded chairs, fold-able outdoor chairs, massage chairs in the airport, those extremely uncomfortable university chairs .. all made to be as comfortable and durable as they can be made for the price they are sold at. Future innovations on chair design, just like the innovations in the past will continue to be market-determined - evolution will move in a direction dictated by overall profits of the chair manufacturing concern.

This brings us to a paradox of sorts.

The chair designers are indeed intelligent. And there have been a large number of intelligent designers working on chairs. This could mean that creationism and evolution can both exist. Or this could also push us into greater irrelevance.

For creationism to be compatible with Human Evolution, one must allow for the possibility of a designer fiddling with the DNA of any living thing and shaping every little variation of weather, every little earthquake, every little green man from mars .. you name it. To do all this, one must envisage a perfect being that does all these things – or an army of less than perfect beings, who design everything in the universe. To them the human being is like a chair. Humans use chairs to sit on. What does this army of omnipotent beings use humans for? Presumably not for sitting on. Maybe we’re just a toy for their children (assuming they do have children). Or maybe we’re reality show (Universal Idol?).

Or maybe, the very concept life is overrated. Maybe in the larger scheme of things, we’re just as significantly insignificant as DNA is to us macroscopically. Maybe we’re all just the DNA for the monsters that we create -viz. Religions, Nations, Sects, Cricket Teams... Maybe the evolution of religion (or Nationalism) is just like the evolution of man; with the DNA strands and RNA strands replaced by men and women – just information carriers. All “intelligent” choices that man makes could be analogous to the randomness and mutation that human evolution survives on.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Walmart Comes to India

Five hundred years or so after the British East India Company came by to India and dropped anchor for a good four hundred years, another global Goliath, Walmart is deciding to set sail for India - to sell extremely inexpensive goods to India's more-than-a-billion Davids, sourced presumably from China and India. This article is an attempt at prognostication: it will try to put a human face to lives ruined by this capitalist foray.

Turn front the clock six years (in the spirit of turning back the clock). The year is 2013. Walmart has completed its foray into India - having set up in excess of four hundred stores - almost at least one per each and every economically significant community in India.

The Singhs

Mr. Balbir Singh Jr. was a eleven year old child in Luknow. His father (Balbir Singh Sr.) was what was called a "procurer - seller", and individual who would buy foodgrains from farmers for Rs 0.50 per kilo and sell them to retailers in the same town for Rs. 4 per kilo. The grain would be brought to a government constructed godown by the farmers on their trusty bullock carts, and would be picked up by truckers operating on behalf of city-based
kirana stores from the same godown. Balbir Singh Sr. would pocket this Rs. 3.50 per kilo as profit and educate Balbir Singh Jr. in an expensive English Medium School. Mr. Singh Sr. was what academicians considered "a middle man". He was so much a middle man that if middle men ever formed a political party, it would be quite probable that Mr. Sing Sr. would be their poster man. The party would probably be called CPI (M), with the "M" standing for Middlemen.

Mr. Singh's business model was quite robust. He was exploiting the illiteracy of his suppliers by paying them only Rs. 0.50 per kilo. And by paying them only Rs 0.50 per kilo, he would ensure that none of their children could ever afford to go to school. So, they would never learn how they were being ripped off.

Yet Walmart put a big question mark on Mr. Singh Jr's future and Mr. Singh Sr.'s livelihood. Here's how.

  • Walmart was cheap: Much cheaper than local Kirana stores. Despite the fact that the shops were 30km away, the villagers sent their wives to Walmart to buy food every week. They would go walking and come back walking with a cardboard carton on their heads - just like they carried water from the well 40km away on other days. They started doing this as soon as Walmart opened. On looking at their Walmart bill, they realized that they saved Rs. 50 ($1.10) on average every month. They used this to educate their children in the local school. And somewhere in 2011, their children realized that Mr. Singh was ripping them off.
  • Walmart Started Buying Direct: An enterprising walmart manager, in 2009, realized that they could buy the groceries directly from farmers. This was a breakthrough as they paid the farmers Rs. 3 per kilo of rice (and sold it at Rs. 3.50 per kilo). Soon, word started to spread that the farmers were getting a good deal from Walmart. More started to sell to walmart.
  • The great middle man strike: Some idiot in the local faction of the CPI came up with the brainwave of crippling the society by making the middle men go on strike to protest the "unfair business practices" adopted by Walmart. Needless to say, society flourished like never before. This was the end of the middle men.
The Venkataappans

little Liela Venkataappan was asked what her father did for a life, she would stand embarassed for a little while, and then say what she was taught to say: her father was a "political operator." And that, of course was a euphemism for "goonda". Her father was one of Tal Bhakeray's minions in Mumbai. He had taken pride in digging up the pitch in the match against Pakistan in Mumbai long ago - as a matter of fact, he held that as the pinnacle of his career. He was also instrumental in burning theaters that screened Mira Nair's movie about lesbianism, "fire". (We will let the fact that he was in actuality a closet homosexual be for now.)

When Tal Bhakeray learned that Walmart was giving the middle men (one of his most important constituencies) a tough time, he decided to end Walmart. So, he sent Mr. Venkatappan to a walmart with an army of people to create entropy. After Venkatappan went to Walmart to strart wrecking the asiles, be came to the television asile. There, he saw a 29" flat screen color T.V for Rs. 2500. ($60)

He bought it. This great deal ensured that he did not have the heart to destroy walmart. He called off the attack. This enraged Tal, and Venkatappan was fired. And Ms. Leila's future was in the same trouble that Mr. Singh Jr's was.

Mr. Robson Walton

Mr. Walton was Mr. Walton's son, the latter being the founder of Wat-Mart. He had had high hopes for India. A billion customers made his mouth drool and his eyes open wide in 2007. So, he set up more than 400 stores in India, just like he would have set up in the U.S.

He set them up with massive parking lots in sub-urban areas.

Any Indian would tell you that this was a recipe for disaster. Not many people have cars in India. They have scooters and cycles and they use public transport. His business model was benefiting only 5% of the population. This kept the registers ringing, profits were modest - but not astronomical. The poorest of the poor would seldom use Wal-mart, save the odd woman from a nearby village who would carry the food back at home in a cardboard carton.

These were not happy days for Mr. Walton. He saw his business margins decrease over time, when other Indian retailers started delivering goods for "free" at home. Mr Walton had reformed retail in India - but had not got a big slice of the initial pie. Much like Kelloggs revolutionized corn-flakes in India - pushing up drastically the sales of their competitors by their advertising. Mr. Waton got together a team to do some further brainstorming. He had some serious food for thought.