Saturday, May 15, 2010

System and outliers

Harsha Bhogle writes about three reasons for the failure of India's campaign in the Twenty20 world cup,

Not one of these three shortcomings was unknown, and it would be easy to blame the system and the coaches for it. Teachers don't write exams, students do, and eventually they must figure it out themselves, and so we must return to attitude. There is no point blaming the pitches and the bowlers in domestic cricket for the inability to play short-pitched bowling. Gavaskar emerged from the same school, as did Tendulkar, Dravid and even Laxman. Abhinav Bindra and Saina Nehwal are products of such a system. Azharuddin emerged as one of the world's finest fielders. Greatness lies in rising beyond the system. It isn't the system, therefore, but work ethic that lies at the heart of success. I'm not saying India's cricketers don't possess it, it's just that they don't display it often enough.

I admire Harsha for a lot of things, including his deep knowledge of cricket and administration. However, I have to differ from him on this. There is a significant difference in the system where Sachin, Dravid, Kumble or Laxman came from and the current system. At that time, there was hardly any money in the domestic circuit. Today, a cricketer makes much more money from IPL, ODIs etc before they play a single test. This also reduces the time for practice and improving the talent.

Kumble, in Hindustan Times, writes

The pressure during the IPL is very different, as you are performing for your franchises. It's quite intense. Perhaps, the players felt more in their comfort zone when they went back into an Indian set-up and it cost them. It sounds odd but it makes sense. ...Their positive mindset was the difference between them and India, as evidenced by what Dhoni said after the loss to the West Indies. 'We'll play Lanka and go home'. India seemed already resigned to the fact that they were out and that was unacceptable.

The pressure for playing for franchises is higher than playing for India may be shameful and unacceptable but that seems to be the fact. Because the franchises pay more and makes one more accountable, players seem to put more pressure on themselves than when they play at the international level. The difference on the pressure seem to be as stark as a person who works in a startup company vis-a-vis a person who works in the government sector.

What this means is that the system is not geared to produce good players and we seem to depend on outliers to take us through and win events. Thus, it seems that players like Dravid and Kumble are outliers in the system. There are more than 1 billion people in India, 21 million in Australia and, yet Australia have a better win-loss record against every other country in all forms of the game. This does not happen by accident. Their system is consistently producing classy players, players who are "freaky" and can win matches from any situation. If the bowlers have an off-day and the top order fails (like yesterday's game against Pakistan), two players bail you out and the other team are shocked into submission and defeat.

The academic system in India is not different. We seem to be happy with producing outliers (like a CNR) and have no system in place to consistently produce the best talent or convert the talent you see in startup companies to work for government research institutions.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


to Viswanathan Anand for winning the world championship. It was a good game 12, when he defeated Veselin Topalov in 56 moves. Topalov's declaration before the series that he would neither offer nor accept a draw clearly had a liberating effect that resulted in an entertaining world championship final. If the game 12 was drawn, it would have been 6-6, tie breaks would be in place and the rapid format would have helped Anand. However, I am happy that Anand closed it early by winning game 12.

Due to the volcanic ash resulting in flight delays, Anand was tired in the first game, which he lost by making a blunder in move 23. He should have definitely won game 9. Surprisingly, he ran short of time and had to play move 40 in two minutes. He should have exchanged two rooks for the queen but he played Rh8+. Topalov replied with Kd7, which was followed by Anand's Rh7+. I think he should have played Re4 instead of Rh8. 

In game 12, people are calling move 38 by Topalov i.e., Qf1 as a blunder but I feel that 31. exf5 by Topalov was a blunder. Anand immediately replied with Qxe4 and he had nearly won. The game continued till move 56 but this sealed it.

Anand thus became the first ever player to win the title 3 times, after his victories in 2005 and 2009. Congratulations again !

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Adventurism and Irreverence

Abi writes about Mashelkar's article on irreverence. So does Balaram, who writes,

Success  will  undoubtedly need more than irreverence. It will need professionalism, a  clear  understanding  of  the  virtues  of  collaboration  and cooperation and an honest and rational system of measuring  and  assessing  performance.  It  will  also  require  commitment,  enthusiasm   and   resilience.  
The key, in my opinion, is the lack of an honest and rational system of measuring and assessing performance. In addition, it is the lack of a critical mass of scientists and researchers, as discussed later.

A recent article in Current Science discussed on scientometrics, cricket and Wisden. The author criticizes the administration for the lack of leadership qualities, spells the name one of the greatest batsmen of our times, V.V. S. Laxman, wrongly several times in the article and concludes that the bane of Indian science lies in the use of scientometrics and the lack of leadership.

Cricket is the not the correct sport to be compared with science. The number of people who play cricket in India is much higher than the number of people who play cricket, say, in New Zealand. Thus, if India performs better than New Zealand in cricket, then one is not surprised. Maybe we should compare tennis with science. Except for an occasional star or two at the world level, and with no singles winner at any Grand Slam event, it is similar to Indian science. The lack of winners have not led to people not playing tennis and if there is an occasional Grand slam winner, he/she will be an outlier and not the norm. To produce Grand slam winners (or  Noble prize winners) consistently, requires effort, investment and commitment not just irreverence or leadership.

The number of scientists in India is much smaller than the number of scientists in China or USA. So is the GDP alloted for research. Thus, the output of researchers will be proportionately smaller. For example, India produces 650 engineering Ph.Ds per year; the number of Indians getting engineering Ph.D's from USA alone is higher than this. To determine how India is performing compared to the world, one has to provide normalize this activity with size. Such an article has been recently written by Dr. Gangan Prathap, who concludes by saying the following,
For  India  to  reach this  league,  not  only  must  it  increase  its investment  by  30–50  times but  its  number of R and D workers by 30–80 times. 

Unless this is done along with an  honest and rational system of measuring and assessing performance coupled with an "assured" decent job for an average scientist, India's S&T will never become a leader.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Airlines, cost and travel.

All government employees (IIT/IISc faculty, for example) have to travel by Indian Airlines (Air India) and, if flights are not available, one can travel by private airlines after taking appropriate permission. In a notification dated September 7, 2009, the government announced that one has to travel by economy class only by Air India irrespective of the entitlement. As of April 1, 2010, this has been relaxed and thus one can travel by executive class, if one is entitled. A full professor is entitled to travel by executive class.

The cost of the executive class fare is four times that of the refundable economy class fare. For example, the "normal" refundable fare available for Bangalore to Delhi is Rs. 7000 while the executive class fare is around Rs. 28000. However, many travel by "full fare" economy class ticket, which costs around Rs. 23000 because there are no cancellation charges and, after all, it is one government agency transferring money to another government agency.

So, how good do the airlines fare in terms of number of passengers that transport with the number of aircraft that they have? Have a look at the table below. Currently, their air fares are higher than almost all other airlines. Considering that Air India transports very few passengers because of the fares, especially considering the huge number of aircraft in their possession, doesn't it make sense that they reduce the airfares and make it more competitive?