Oct 29, 2011

For those whining about the F1 Indian GP

It seems to be the season of idiotic statements. There's been a steady stream from the likes of Digvijay Singh and Kiran Bedi, but as someone who only writes occasionally, I can't even try to keep up with them. I did offer my two bits about NRN's statements about IIT-ians, and am now writing again about something that I care a lot about, and which hopefully will NOT become an endless debate.

PT Usha made some stupid statements about F1 which received a lot of attention from the media, probably because they were consistent with the sentiment or ignorant perception held by a lot of people. In a poll run by Times of India yesterday, 61% idiotic/ignorant/communist people 'agreed with PT Usha that hosting F1 in India is a waste of money'.

The first counter-point I'd like to make is that no tax-payers' money is being spent here. In fact, the govt is earning a lot as they've not recognized this as a sporting event and offered no tax relief whatsoever. People have a right to approve/disapprove, and judge whether money is wisely spent or wasted, when tax-payers' money is involved as it was with the CWG, but F1 is private enterprise (and generally profitable). Why should private investors be denied a business opportunity if they consider it worthwhile? I haven't heard anyone complain about SRK spending Rs 175 Cr making Ra.One. So why the double standards?

The next argument is that we're an under-developed country and we don't need high-profile/hi-tech events like this. This reflects sheer ignorance of economics and the capitalist system. High-profile events like this generally involve construction of infrastructure, investment of capital, creation of jobs, a significant boost to tourism, and generally enhance the 'image' of the hosts if executed well. That is why other developing countries like China and South Africa want to host events like the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. And in this case, the ordinary citizen is getting the benefits - whatever little they may be - at zero cost!

Another argument being offered is that F1 lacks mass appeal. So? Do people watch every game of hockey played by our national team? PT Usha says 99% Indians don't care about F1. I am sure there are more F1 fans in India than there are fans of athletics or archery or pretty much any sport other than cricket, tennis or football. Does that mean we should shut down all the other sports federations and cancel all other events?

The point is - any sporting event, or movie or TV channel or author or any product for that matter - does not need to be relevant or interesting for everyone. It just has to have enough 'consumers' to justify its existence and hopefully turn in a profit, without breaking any laws. F1 does that, and does it better than most other sports.

Another version of this argument is that F1 is an 'elitist' sport or a rich people's sport. Closer to the truth is that it is an intelligent, educated & patient people's sport. To really appreciate it, you need to understand the nuances and complexities of things such as pit-stop strategy, tire performance and 'balance' optimization for 1-flying-lap versus race-pace, and you need a lot of patience. If you 'get' it, it's very rewarding. It is not for everyone, but then you don't shut down your IITs or IIMs because 99% people can't get into them.

As for the 'rich people's sport' argument - yes, that's true if you want to own a team and host parties on your own yachts like Vijay Mallya. Otherwise, you just need to be able to afford a subscription to the 'Star Sports' TV channel. FYI - Vijay Mallya spent as much or more money buying RCB than he did on buying Force India. Also, monthly subscriptions to most cricket channels cost more than Star Sports. Yet I don't hear anyone calling cricket a rich man's sport.

PT Usha also cribbed about how corporates don't spend much on other sports. Why would they, unless there was something in it for them? Corporates don't spend on sports out of the goodness of their hearts - nor should they or will they. They do it because they expect returns on their investments (ROI). They can actually expect a positive ROI on their spends in F1 - in terms of brand image and prestige, if not actual profits. In most other sports in India, the money would sink without a trace. In fact, much of it would probably end up in the pockets of some corrupt officials.

Some people - including PT Usha - don't consider F1 a sport at all. They obviously don't understand either what sport is, or what F1 is, or both. You can look at any definition of sport - the common elements in narrow definitions are physical activity, fitness, competition and entertainment - and F1 meets all of these criteria. (In wider definitions, some aspects such as physical activity can be left out to include things such as board games, but you don't even need that for motorsport)

I think such statements typically come from people who think F1 is just like driving your car and not a physical activity requiring fitness. In actual fact, F1 - any motorsport for that matter- requires the drivers to be extremely fit, have great stamina, really quick reflexes and a great degree of skill & concentration. Physically & mentally, an F1 race is more demanding than almost any other form of sportRead this for details.

Finally, it is all about entertainment. If someone can run a hundred meters or a mile faster than anyone else - it has no practical value to anyone. Professional sports exist because of the patrons - the ordinary people who enjoy watching sportsmen achieve records and win contests - are willing to pay for the experience. F1 delivers that. People like Usha should sportingly acknowledge that and try to improve their offerings rather than whining about corporate funds going to T20 and F1. And if they don't get it at all, they should just shut up, or be ignored if they don't.

Oct 21, 2011

Dumba Metro

For the past few days, there's been a lot of hype in the media about Bangalore's new 'Namma Metro'. It's been covered on national TV, and the local newspapers have gone ballitsic. TOI carried a 32-page special supplement yesterday, and had another 10 pages of reports and related ads in the main newspaper and Bangalore Times. These included interviews with people who had used the NY Subway and London Tube systems while they lived in those cities, and they talked about how they didn't need to own cars to move around in those cities, and seemed to believe that Namma Metro will do the same here. In fact, there was also a lot of ink devoted to the hi-tech features of the Metro, including Wi-fi connectivity etc., some of which are going to be first-ever-in-the-world, and make Namma Metro 'the best'.

The people behind all this PR - in the govt, media and the metro management - desperately need a primer in something that most of us learn within the first couple of months on any job - expectation management. I don't believe the Namma Metro is going to make too much of a difference (and I'll explain why) in the near future, and I think people are being misled into believing otherwise. They are going to feel let down very soon.

The reason people don't need to own vehicles in cities like London and New York is that there are massive public transport systems that include rail, bus and taxi services. No matter where you are in those cities, you just need to walk a short distance to access some public transport. If you're 'downtown' or in any area with a lot of commercial activity, you're usually within walking distance (under 10 min) of a train station - and trains are significantly faster than all other modes of public transport. This is made possible by a very large network with lots of stations and lines that cross at multiple points.

Now let us look at some numbers

'Journeys' above is the total number of unique combinations of any two stations on the network. So, each combination represents two places in the city you can travel between, using the metro (in either direction). It's not an exact measure, but a good approximation for the 'extensive-ness' of the network in question.

Clearly, this is roughly proportional to the square of the number of stations, which in turn is proportional to the total km track length. Namma Metro - even after the completion of Phase 2 (for which no deadline is set yet, but it wont be before 2015, given that Phase 1 itself doesn't get completed till 2013) - will only be about one-fourth as 'extensive' as the Delhi Metro is today, and nowhere near as extensive as the London Tube or NY Subway are today, OR what the Delhi Metro and Singapore's MRT will be by 2020.

In terms of population and area, while Bangalore is not as large as Delhi or NY, it is not a tiny fraction either, and it is comparable with Singapore and London. For the city's size, the size of the Namma Metro network is a joke. It will be at least a decade before it causes a significant reduction in traffic across the city, probably longer.

Another important aspect is the actual route map. Below I present my simplified version.

The black lines and blue points represent the actual route map, as planned.
The parts in gray are proposed and are not going to happen for a while.

The places marked in red are where most of the IT-industry employees reside, work, and basically live their whole lives. All these places lie in the south-east quadrant of the city, and most of the new, huge residential apartment complexes being constructed are also concentrated here (or around the Hebbal-BIAL stretch). For all these people (this probably includes you if you live in Bangalore and are reading this blog), Namma Metro might as well not exist, because it offers no connectivity within the south-eastern quadrant of the city and only runs along its periphery.

The reasons for this are obvious. The population that lives in the south-east quadrant is transient - many of them belong to other parts of the country and are in Bangalore only for a few years - to work. A lot of these people also tend to move overseas for long periods. They are notoriously poor voters - many not registered, and even among those registered - the turnout in elections is low and voting patterns unpredictable. Also, many of them would prefer private or company vehicles over 'public transport'. Hence, the powers that be simply ignore them when making plans. That's what's happened here.

So cut all the hype and hoopla, and prepare for more arguments with annoying auto-wallas for the next 10 years at least.

PS: New 'comments/reactions' section below! Please use :)

Oct 8, 2011

Response to NRN's comments about IITians

Receiving criticism isn't new at all to IITs and their alumni. Is it a coincidence that such criticism almost always comes from people who did not go to IITs themselves? I think not. Anyway, when someone as eminent as Mr. Narayana Murthy speaks on a subject like this, people pay attention. To be fair, he did raise a few valid points. However, most of what he said was BS, and it is simply unacceptable for someone who is considered a potential future President of India to make such strong statements in public forums without thinking everything through.

Let's step back and examine some facts.

In the 60s and 70s - the time he talks about - the IIT JEE was taken by less than 50,000 students, for less than 2,000 seats in 5 IITs. 
The complexity of questions asked in exam was very high. 
English was one of the subjects candidates were tested on. 
There were virtually no quotas or reservations. 

In reality, this meant that you only had a shot at getting through if you'd been schooled in a good, private, English-medium school. Which in turn meant that you had to come from a family of some means, and probably from one of the bigger cities.

In other words, the IITs in that period were as elitist as they could be. Most of the students went on to join the Civil Services, or moved to the US and never came back. They did well for themselves, and went on to build a strong 'brand IIT' in places like the silicon valley. But for the govt of India - which had provided these people a good, subsidized education - the ROI was questionable.

This led to the policy shifts witnessed from the early 90s onward. The govt created some new IITs and upgraded some other existing colleges to IIT status. The intake was also increased at each institute. English was discontinued as a test subject at the JEE. Quotas were introduced for SC/ST candidates etc. The result is that the IITs now take in around 10,000 students each year, and the admission criteria are not the same as they used to be.

Now, you don't need to be a genius to realize that there will be some drop in quality when you admit the 'top 10,000' rather than the 'top 2,000'. With the revised exam pattern and admission criteria, you will also end up admitting more students from smaller towns and modest family backgrounds and they will not be as articulate or fluent in English as past generations used to be. This may not please Mr Murthy but the policy-makers have chosen to go this way, and they have good reasons for doing so.

India's priority is not to have one or two institutes that can compete with MIT on quality & prestige, but to have enough institutes to satisfy the demand for quality graduates in our growing economy. To facilitate 'inclusive growth', an IIT education has to be made more accessible to kids across different social strata and from all regions. People who resent this and complain about 'dilution of brand IIT' and 'drop in quality' are being unforgivably elitist. Mr. Murthy is one such person. If he didn't like the policies or their consequences, he should have taken it up with the appropriate authorities. Instead he made harsh, sweeping statements that could demoralize young IIT students. The kids who have worked hard to get into IITs and are doing their best to secure their future in a competitive economy certainly deserve better.

Next, let's consider the coaching institutes. These are being blamed for the drop in quality of students joining IITs. I don't really understand this argument. Is it being suggested that the candidates being admitted to IITs don't really deserve to be there, and are there only because of coaching, at the cost of other, more deserving candidates? Whoever says this - please provide some evidence to back it up. I'd like to remind such people that the JEE is one of the toughest exams to clear in the whole world. This is followed by a rigorous 4-year B.Tech. course which includes a relentless series of & exams that are equally difficult to pass. If you want to disregard the achievements of people who survive all this, and give all the credit to the coaching institutes, your arguments for doing so need to be really solid. So far, nobody's offered any.

More to the point, coaching institutes help candidates prepare for an exam. What is wrong with that? If public schools were functioning well all over the country, these institutes wouldn't be required. But as things stand today, a candidate from Bhiwadi, Bhusawal or Bihar has little hope of getting into an IIT without the help of coaching institutes. They fill the gap that the govt has created through its poor performance in providing good school education to all, and level the playing field to an extent - which I consider a good thing. Of course, the increasing presence of kids from Bhiwadi, Bhusawal and Bihar does bother some elitists.

Murthy also said that 'Coaching classes teach aspirants limited sets of problems, out of which a few are asked in the examinations.' Again, I fail to understand what is wrong with this. The JEE coaching classes are supposed to prepare you for an exam, not teach you salsa dancing or how to appreciate Mozart. If they are thorough, rigorous and focused, why is it a bad thing? In any case, students take these classes for a year or two. This is preceded by 12+ years of school, and in case of successful JEE candidates, is followed by at least 4 years at IIT in a full-time residential program. If the students lack the ability to think creatively, communicate effectively - or whatever Mr. Murthy wants - at the end of all these years of education, the blame should lie partly with schools and mostly with IITs, and it is wrong to place all of it on the coaching institutes.

It is also sad and pathetic that he chose to criticize the IIT students and the coaching institutes who are merely participants in a system they did not create and do not control. What about the IITs themselves - the institutes where these students spend so many years after JEE, and where the buck should stop when it comes to the quality of admissions as well as end-output. Shouldn't they be held responsible, especially with their huge reputation? What about the government that takes major policy decisions that affect 'brand IIT' and 'quality' more than anything else? What about the Industry that contributes virtually nothing to the processes of education and research, unlike in countries like the US that he is using as a benchmark. Does Mr Murthy not realize any of this, or does he not have the courage to go after people or bodies that might hurt his future presidency hopes?

Another theme we hear frequently is the lack of 'research' at IITs. Mr. Murthy points out that the IITs produce few PhDs compared to the US universities and even China. I feel it's a case of putting the cart before the horse. Engineers don't go for PhDs in India as there is simply no incentive. Even the few who do, complain about the absolute lack of suitable jobs. I have batch-mates from IIT who went to the US for further studies and are really keen to return to India but they simply can't find any good jobs here. The reason for this isn't hard to find. Engineers with PhDs are needed for advanced R&D, which in turn is driven by the (manufacturing) industry. USA is the most developed industrial nation in the world. China is becoming a global manufacturing hub. India still hasn't witnessed an industrial revolution, and some suspect we might never see one! We might just skip from agriculture to a service economy and rely on imports of manufactured goods from the likes of China.

This aside, the fact is that not many Indian companies invest significantly in R&D. We don't yet have a culture of entrepreneurship or innovation that could be compared to the US. Till this happens, there were be no demand for people with advanced degrees, and consequently no supply. The industry and the govt need to turn this situation around before they start complaining about lack of research or PhDs at IITs. As it is, we have millions of people with college and post-graduates degrees doing jobs that are done very well by diploma holders in other countries.

In this context, one has to question if producing more advanced degree holders - particularly PhDs in engineering - is even required by India today. Even if it is, where does it lie on our priority list? In a country where we are not even close to universal literacy, quality of public schools is appalling, and there aren't too many decent post-graduate jobs, the answer is obvious. All this talk about R&D and PhDs is reminiscent of Nehru and his 'temples of modern India' - symbolic but useless. I hope we learn from history.

I could say a lot about Mr Murthy himself. How about looking at the profile of new hires at Infosys, evaluating their 'quality', and how it has evolved over the years. If he's not happy with the quality of IIT engineers at Infosys, perhaps he should look at the farcical hiring process Infosys follows there, rather than JEE. How many PhDs does Infosys hire, where are they hired from and what are they paid? How many research projects does Infosys fund and where? Perhaps Mr Murthy should think about what he and his company are doing to improve the situation, rather than being critical of smart, hard-working 17-year-olds or the people helping them get into good colleges.