JEE coaching and high school learning

One reason I’m not as good at machine learning as I can possibly be is because I suck at linear algebra. I totally completely suck at it. Seven years of usage of R has meant that at least I no longer get spooked out by the very sight of vectors or matrices, and I understand the concept of matrix multiplication (an operator rotating a vector), but I just don’t get linear algebra.

For example, when I see terms such as “singular value decomposition” I almost faint. Multiple repeated attempts at learning the concept have utterly failed. Don’t even get me started on the more complicated stuff – and machine learning is full of them.

My inability to understand linear algebra runs deep, and it’s mainly due to a complete inability to imagine vectors and matrices and matrix operations. As far back as I remember, I have hated matrices and have tried to run away from it.

For a long time, I had placed the blame for this on IIT Madras, whose mathematics department in its infinite wisdom had decided to get its brilliant Graph Theory expert to teach us matrices. Thinking back, though, I remember going in to MA102 (Vectors, Matrices and Differential Equations) already spooked. The rot had set in even earlier – in school.

The problem with class 11 in my school (a fairly high-profile school which was full of studmax characters) was that most people harboured ambitions of going to IIT, and had consequently enrolled themselves in formal coaching “factories”. As a result, these worthies always came to maths, physics and chemistry classes “ahead” of people like me who didn’t go for such classes (I’d decided to chill for a year after a rather hectic class 10 when I’d been under immense pressure to get my school a “centum”).

Because a large majority of the class already knew what was to be taught, teachers had an incentive to slack. Also the fact that most students were studmax had meant that people preferred to mug on their own rather than display their ignorance in class. And so jai happened.

I remember the class when vectors and matrices were introduced (it was in class 11). While I don’t remember too many details, I do remember that a vocal majority already knew about “dot product” and “cross product”. It was similar a few days later when the vocal majority knew matrix multiplication.

And so these concepts were glossed over, and lacking a grounding in fundamentals, I somehow never “got” the concept.

In my year (2000), CBSE decided to change format for its maths examination – everyone had to attempt “Part A” (worth 70 marks) and then had a choice between “Part B” (vectors, matrices, etc.) and “Part C” (introductory statistics). Most science students were expected to opt for Part B (Part C had been introduced for the benefit of commerce students studying maths since they had little to gain from reading about vectors). For me and one other guy from my class, though, it was a rather obvious choice to do Part C.

I remember the invigilator (who was from another school) being positively surprised during my board exam when I mentioned that I was going to attempt Part C instead of Part B. He muttered something to the extent of “isn’t that for commerce students?” but to his credit permitted us to do the paper in whatever way we wanted (I fail to remember why I had to mention to him I was doing Part C – maybe I needed log tables to do that).

Seventeen odd years down the line, I continue to suck at linear algebra and be stud at statistics. And it is all down to the way the two subjects were introduced to me in school (JEE statistics wasn’t up to the same standard as Part C so the school teachers did a great job of teaching that).

Teaching and research

My mind goes back to a debate organised by the Civil Engineering department at IIT Madras back in the early 2000s. A bunch of students argued that IIT Madras was “not a world class institution”. A bunch of professors argued otherwise.

I don’t remember too much of the debate but I remember one line that one of the students said. “How does one become a professor at IIT Madras? By writing a hundred papers. Whether one can teach is immaterial”.

The issue of an academic’s responsibilities has been a long-standing one. One accusation against the IITs (ironical in the context of the bit of debate I’ve quoted above) is that they’re too focussed on undergraduate teaching and not enough on research – despite only hiring PhDs as faculty. From time to time the Indian government issues diktats on minimum hours that a professor must teach, and each time it is met with disapproval from the professors.

The reason this debate on an academic’s ability to teach came to my mind is because I’ve been trying to read some books and papers recently (such as this one), and they’re mostly unreadable.

They start with some basic introductory statements and before you know it you are caught up in a slew of jargon and symbols and greeks. Basically for anyone who’s not an insider in the field, this represents a near-insurmountable barrier to learning.

And this is where undergraduate teaching comes in. By definition, undergrads are non-specialists and not insiders in any particular specialisation. Even if they were to partly specialise (such as in a branch of engineering), the degree of specialisation is far less than that of a professor.

Thus, in order to communicate effectively with the undergrad, the professor needs to change the way he communicates. Get rid of the jargon and the sudden introduction of greeks and introduce subjects in a more gentle manner. Of course plenty of professors simply fail to do that, but if the university has a good feedback mechanism in place this won’t last.

And once the professor is used to communicating to undergrads, communicating with the wider world becomes a breeze, since the same formula works. And that vastly improves the impact of their work, since so many more people can now follow it.

Parents, IITJEE and arranged marriage 

For a few years after I did well in IITJEE and joined IIT madras there was a steady stream of acquaintances and acquaintances of acquantances who came home to get “gyaan” about the exam. Initially I was fun to spout gyaan but later I got bored. 

By then, though, my father and I had come up with a formula to assess the chances of the person who came home in cracking the exam. Usually they’d come in pairs, a candidate along with a parent. If the candidate spoke more than the parent, my father and I would think there was some chance that the candidate would be successful. In case the parent spoke more, though, it was a clear case of the candidate having next to no chance and going through the motions because of parental pressures. 

As I watch the wife broker marriages as part of her marriage broker auntie venture, I see something similar there as well. Some candidates represent themselves and talk to her directly. Others are mostly inaccessible and use their parents as brokers in the market. 

What the marriage broker auntie has found is that the candidates who represent themselves show far more promise in being matched in the market than those that are represented by their parents. And having being stung by candidates’ inflexibility in cases where parents represent them, the marriage broker auntie has stopped working with parents. 

Sometimes, this happens. 

“We’re looking for a boy for my sister. Anyone you know?”

“Ask your sister to call me”

“Oh but why? what will you gain by talking to her?”

A few minutes later the candidates mother calls. “Oh we’re looking for a boy for my daughter ” 

“Ask her to call me. I don’t work with parents” 

“Oh but why?” 

And that one gets marked as a case with little chances. 

do you remember this blog post I’d written a long long time back, soon after I’d met the person who is now my wife, about how being in a relationship is like going to IIT

Acknowledgements

As I continue my progress towards publishing the book whose manuscript I’ve completed, I’ve started to think about the acknowledgements section, which I’m yet to write. Each time I read a new book now, I make sure I read the acknowledgements, and see who all people have thanked. I’ve not gone to the extent of formally collecting data from these acknowledgements, but I must say the effort is underway.

Based on a recent discovery, though, I think all this research is moot. Recently I was cleaning up an old cupboard (the kind that comes embedded in a cot) in my grandfather’s house, and happened to stumble upon my B.Tech. project. I’d brought it home and kept it aside, and happened to open it today.

Overall, in hindsight, I seem to have done a better job of my project than I’d imagined. I’ve always remembered that rather than solving the problem I’d taken up, I’d constructed a proof to show why it couldn’t be solved (something my mother always made fun of). But reading the report, it appears that I’ve gone beyond that, and constructed some approximate and randomised heuristics to tackle the problem – so I’m happy about that.

The more interesting bit is the acknowledgements section. It pretty much encapsulates my life at IITM. Again, I remember having done some research looking at other people’s acknowledgements to see who all they’d thanked, and I followed the same process – guides, professors, lab mates, etc. And then I’ve mentioned some friends.

The first part of the acknowledgements section is not particularly insightful so I’m not pasting it here. The second part makes for fun reading though, in hindsight. I like the way I’ve been fairly informal (in such a “formal” document as my B.Tech. project report), with puns and all.

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The key thing to note is the last paragraph. I seriously mean it (even now) when I say that the best part of my life at IITM was the time spent at Patisserie, and all the discussions I had there. The discussions were diverse, with lots of different people, and we spoke about different things on different days.

It may not be a stretch to claim that I learnt more during my discussions there than during the time spent in classrooms. And if I today considered well-networked in my batch (and surrounding batches) at IITM, it’s again due to the time I spent there.

Now to think about how to adapt this acknowledgements section to something that makes sense for the manuscript I’ve written!

Third party life insurance

An alumnus of IIT Madras has made a contribution to the institute in a very interesting manner. He has assigned IITM as a beneficiary of his life insurance policy. The amount isn’t large – $100,000, which I would think is lower than the median amount insured in pure life insurance (as opposed to insurance combined with investment) policies in India.

The important thing is if there are any regulatory implications of this. Typically, insurance companies don’t allow you to assign your policies to random third party beneficiaries, since it can result in adverse incentives – the random third party can murder you, for example (it’s common, however, for employers to be beneficiaries of key employees’ life insurance). However, things might be different here since the receiving entity is an institution.

If insurance firms are willing to write such policies, I wonder if this could be a scalable and sustainable method to donate to institutions of one’s choice. Or if it is simply better to will the same amount of your life’s savings to go to the institution after your death.

PS: I found the original article on LinkedIn and found it incredibly difficult to link to the text and picture. Hence just put the picture here. Another reason why LinkedIn sucks.

A mechanical achievement

I’m an engineer. Rather, I have an engineering degree. I have an engineering degree from what is supposed to be among the best engineering colleges in India. If you look at my grades, you might think I did rather well in my engineering (CGPA of 8.91 out of 10). So you might assume that I’m a good engineer.

In my engineering I studied Computer Science. I consider myself to be pretty good at building algorithms and coming up with heuristics (better at latter than former). But I can’t write production code. I can’t write systems code. Fixing together a computer terrifies me. Any “normal engineering thing” is well beyond me.

My father used to rile me about going to IIT and yet being a poor engineer. “What did they teach you at IIT if you can’t even fix a lightbulb properly?”, he would ask. It didn’t help that he was pretty good at the small engineering stuff around the house, despite being an accountant by training and profession. Every time I did something stupid while trying to fix something, he would just say “IIT”. That didn’t mean that I made an effort to improve myself.

My father passed away in 2007. In 2010, I got married, and the wife took his place in riling me as a poor engineer. She is also an engineer by training, but she knows how to fix things. When our invertor gave way two years back, it was she who diagnosed what the problem was and what part should be replaced. Her father, also an engineer and also quite hands-on, procured the necessary part and fixed our invertor. I was quite lost. To give another example, I procured a lightbulb (a slightly complicated one, this one, for a fancy lamp) two months back. And then I waited another month till the wife came home for her vacation to get it fixed!

In this context, what I achieved this morning is surely a spectacular achievement. As I had mentioned on this blog earlier, I was going to meet my friend on Wednesday when my bike refused to start. Despite hitting the electric starter multiple times, despite kicking till my legs almost gave way, and holding down the choke while I was at it, there was no response. I ended up taking the bus that day.

I was dreading having to call Royal Enfield On Road Service and waiting for them to come and fix the bike. The bike is already due for service (I’ve taken an appointment for Tuesday), so I was wondering how I could avoid another round of repairs before that. In an earlier avatar, I would have just prayed (despite being mostly atheist) that the bike starts. This time, however, I was more resolute and decided to see if I can fix it myself.

A little bit of thinking convinced me that the problem was with the spark plug. I had replaced my battery just six months ago, so that was unlikely to be the problem. The noise when I tried holding down the electric starter convinced that. And considering that there was nothing else that was likely to have changed since the last ride (and there was fuel in the tank), and that the problem was in starting, it was clear that the problem was with the spark plug.

After putting NED for 2 days (the diagnosis happened on Wednesday), I decided this morning that I’ll fix it today. I googled for “how to change spark plug in Royal Enfield Classic 500”, and that gave me a few videos which told me where the spark plug is and how I should use a combination of the spark plug spanner (I had always wondered why I had such strange-shaped spanners) and the tommy bar to pull out the spark plug. And so I picked up my toolkit (for the first time in four years) and went down to check.

I located the spark plug (after all I’d seen in the video where it is) and pulled out its covering. The plug stood there bare. I now had to extract it. I tried with my hands and it didn’t work. I then found the spark plug spanner which fit over this plug snugly (a little bit of trial and error was involved in the process). Then came the problem of turning the spanner, which I knew I had to do with the tommy bar. So in went the tommy bar, and one whack I gave, and I felt something move. Soon the thing started getting unscrewed and I didn’t need to use the tommy bar any more. Presently the plug came out.

I realise I’d never seen a spark plug before, to know whether it was sooted and dirty. All I saw was one black tip, and assumed that that was the end that needed cleaning (I’d forgotten to see a video on how to actually clean a spark plug). So I picked up a cloth and wiped it. It took some effort but after some time most of the black stuff was gone from that end. I assumed that this should be enough to make my bike run until the service on Tuesday.

When you’ve debugged code, the greatest trepidation comes in the time when you’re testing the code after you’ve debugged it. For you know that if it doesn’t work now you’ll have to do it all over again! So it was with that trepidation that I fixed the spark plug back in its place (using first just the spark plug spanner and then adding the tommy bar). And I pressed the electric starter. And the engine roared to life!

I know this is trivial – that this is the first bit of motorcycle maintenance that everyone learns, and that an enfield owner is supposed to know something about maintenance and all that. Yet the fact that I managed to diagnose the problem and actually fix it is making me supremely happy. You can put this down as another item in the checklist that contributes to the “late bloomer” phrase in my twitter bio.

My first ever published piece of writing

So the first time ever I published something was in 2003, in The Fourth Estate, IIT Madras’s campus magazine. It was a rather scandalous piece. So scandalous that I declined to put my real name as the byline instead preferring to be called “The Wimp”.

I was rummaging through my computer and actually managed to find a soft copy of that issue of The Fourth Estate. I have no clue where I had downloaded it. In any case if any of you is interested, do let me know and I’ll send over the PDF to you. Anyway, here goes the piece. Copypasting from PDF, so might be some formatting issues. I’ve quoted the whole thing verbatim

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