My tryst with Kannada media

So about a month or so back, I wrote up an essay on why the much-maligned TenderSURE project is a right step in the development of Bangalore, and why the Chief Minister’s comments on the issue were misguided and wrong.

Having written it, considering it worthy of a better forum than NED, I shared it with my Takshashila colleagues. They opined that is should get published in a Kannada newspaper, and Varun Shenoy duly translated the piece into Kannada. And then the story began.

We sent it to PrajaVani (which has published several other Op-Eds from other Takshashila people), but they summarily rejected this without giving reasons. We then sent it to UdayaVani, reaching it after passing some hoops, but then they raised some questions with the content, the answers to which had been made quite clear within the text.

I think Mint has spoilt me, in that I assume that it’s okay to write geeky stuff and have it accepted for publication. Rather, it is possible that they’ve recruited me so that they can further bolster their geek quotient. Last week, for example, I sent a piece on Fractional Brownian Motion, and it got published. A couple of years back I’d sent a formula with Tchebyshev’s inequality to be included in a piece on sampling, and they had published that too.

When translating my piece, Varun thought it was too geeky and technical, and he made an attempt to tone it down during his translation. And the translation wasn’t easy – for we had to find Kannada equivalents for some technical terms that I’d used. In some cases, Varun expertly found terms. In others, we simply toned it down.

Having toned down the piece and made an effort to make it “accessible”, UdayaVani’s response was a bit of a dampener for us – and it resulted in a severe bout of NED. And so we sat on the piece. And continued to put NED.

Finally, Varun got out of it and published it on the Takshashila blog (!!). The original piece I’d written is here:

A feature of Bangalore traffic, given the nature of the road network, is that bottlenecks are usually at the intersections, and not at the roads. As a consequence, irrespective of how much we widen the roads, the intersections will continue to constrain the flow of traffic in the city. In other words, making roads narrower will not have a material impact on the throughput of traffic in the city.

And Varun’s translation is here:

(Update: I tried to extract Varun’s piece here but it’s not rendering properly, so please click through and read on the Logos blog)

Read the whole thing, whichever piece you can understand. I think we are on to something here.

And on that note, it might make sense to do a more rigorous network-level analysis of Bangalore’s roads. Designing the graph is simple – each intersection (however small it might be) is a node, each “road segment” is an edge. The graph is both directed (to take care of one-ways) and weighted (to indicate width of roads).

We’ll need data on flows, though. If we can get comprehensive data of origin and destination of a large number of people, we should be able to impute flows in each segment based on that.

And then we can rigorously test the hypothesis (I admit that it’s still only a hypothesis) that bottlenecks on Bangalore’s roads are intersections and not roads.

Splitting BBMP and gerrymandering ToK

Kannada organisations have argued against splitting of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the civic agency that is supposed to govern Bangalore, arguing that a three-way-split of the municipal corporation, as has been proposed, will lead to “non-Kannadiga mayors” for some of the newly created corporations, and hence this is an “anti-Kannada” move. In a funny twist, the Chief Minister himself has had to make a statement that the split won’t lead to “Telugu and Tamil mayors”.

A couple of months back, Thejaswi Udupa had written this tongue-in-cheek post on the geopolitics of Bangalore, for April Fool’s Day on Takshashila’s Logos blog. The Business Standard picked it up and published it as an Op-Ed the next day. The reason the piece matters is that it introduces the larger public to the wonderful phrase ToK. Quoting,

The largest of disputed territories in Bangalore is that of ToK. Tamil occupied Karnataka. These are large swathes of interconnected parcels of land in the South-Eastern quadrant of Bangalore. ToK’s existence is mostly under the radar, and people notice it only when the census figures come in once a decade with its linguistic break-ups, and suddenly people realise that nearly 25% of Bangalore’s population is Tamil. However, there are many who believe that ToK stands for Telugu owned Karnataka, as most of the land here is owned by Telugu landlords.

So basically the concern of the Kannada organisations is that when Bangalore is split ToK (however you may define it) will become an independent city. While some people might consider it a good thing in a “ok those buggers are not in our city any more” sort of way, these organisations will see this as a loss of territory, and consequently as a loss of power. So this is a genuine problem.

While this might be a genuine problem, the fact is that there is a “genuine” solution to this problem. We had seen last month about how Bangalore city is so badly gerrymandered in terms of splitting its assembly constituencies. For example, my constituency (Padmanabhanagar) looks like a dancing hen. To refresh your memory, this is what Bangalore’s assembly constituencies look like:

So if assembly constituencies are so badly gerrymandered, what prevents us from gerrymandering the municipal corporations? And there is further precedence to this – there are primarily three Parliamentary constituencies in Bangalore, and it is not hard to argue that they have been gerrymandered in a similar manner.

It all finally comes down to the mechanics of how we split the city. If the city is cut into three by drawing North-South lines (creating “Bangalore East”, “Bangalore West” and “Bangalore”), we have a problem, since the Bangalore East thus created will largely coincide with ToK, and we might end up with non-Kannadiga mayors there, as the Kannada organisations fear.

However, considering that Bangalore is being split for purely administrative efficiencies, and for no real cultural reasons, there is no reason we need to split the city in that way. All we need to do is to draw the lines in an East-West fashion, as we have done with our Parliamentary constituencies, giving us a “Bangalore North”, “Bangalore Central” and “Bangalore South”. A split like this, well done and well gerrymandered, will ensure that ToK is split evenly into the three new corporations, and all will remain under the control of the Kannadigas.

So the Kannada organisations don’t need to fear the split. Solution exists. Only thing they need to fear is the way the split is implemented. And with precedence (parliamentary gerrymandering) on their side, they really have nothing to fear!

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Varun Shenoy for the discussions leading up to this post

The Cooling Effect of Bangalore Rains

So it is “well known” that whenever it rains heavily in Bangalore, the city cools down like crazy. However, all these days, thanks to dodgy data from the Met department, it’s just been an (multiple) anecdotal observation, and not really backed by data.

However, thanks to the efforts of Pavan and Saurabh and the Yuktix team, we have “citizen weather monitoring centres” in several places across Bangalore. These are simple devices that have been installed on terraces or gardens of people, and they contain a rain gauge, a hygrometer, a thermometer and a wind gauge (or whatever it is that measures wind). And they have an embedded SIM card and transmit data every few minutes to the central server (for all you VCs, this is both “cloud-based” and “Internet of things”, so fund them already!).

The web interface isn’t great yet, and the data download is a bit dodgy, but hey, it works for now and we have actual data to show the weather conditions in Bangalore. And there are several stations all over the city (all installed by volunteers who have paid to have one such device in their homes. If you are interested, you can get one, too. Contact Pavan for this), so we can actually test popular hypothesis like how it can rain in one part of Bangalore and not in the other, etc.

Anyway, given the dodgy interface I’m unable plug a weather widget here (how cool would that have been?) so I’ve to shamelessly take screenshots and paste it. This one shows the temperature as measured by the device in Pavan’s house in 4th T Block (the station closest to my home) in the last one week:

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.49.10 am

 

Notice the nice sawtooth pattern of Bangalroe summer temperature. Temperatures rise steadily till about 2:30 pm and then fall steadily (but at a lower rate) till about 5:30 am. It is rather steady and repetitive as the graph shows. And then look at what happened yesterday! A steep plunge between 4:30 and 6:30 pm yesterday, and remember that the hailstorm started around 6!

I’ve noticed this on other days also (again by looking at Pavan’s data), and the same pattern holds. The hypothesis that rains do have an instant effect on the city’s temperature definitely holds!

For more interactivity with the data, you can check out Pavan’s station. Or whichever station that is closest to where you are! if there is none close to where you are, maybe it’s time for you to set up one such station!

Gerrymandering in Bangalore

So a couple of years back, just before the Karnataka Assembly elections, I had taken a look at Gerrymandering within the constituencies of Bangalore. This picture shows the boundaries of the parliamentary constituencies in the city, and you can see that it is bizarre. For example, parts of the Bangalore North parliamentary constituency (black) lie to the south of all of Bangalore South constituency (green)!

Now, the word “gerrymander” was invented in the 1800s, when one Mr. Gerry, who was the governor of Massachusetts, redrew the districts (constituencies) in the state in order to maximise the chances of his further election victory, and the redrawn districts looked like some kind of a mythical creature, which was given the name “gerrymander”.

Now, while the Bangalore figure above looks bizarre, no doubt, it doesn’t really resemble any animal, mythical or otherwise. However, with the proposed BBMP Restructuring, Bangalore’s wards are in the news again. And I was just looking at the population densities in different wards, and happened to take a look at Padmanabhanagar, which is my current assembly constituency. And this is what it looks like (different components are the different wards within the constituency, and intensity of colouring indicates population density within these wards).

padmanabhanagarYes, really, that is the shape of the Padmanabhanagar assembly constituency. If you have any doubts, get the data from http://openbangalore.org and check out for yourself (that’s where I got the mapping data from; density data came from the BBMP Restructuring site  – there’s a link there with excel file on areas and populations).

Anyway, so what do you think Padmanabhanagar looks like? To me, this looks like a hen that is running. To Thejaswi Udupa, with whom I shared this picture, it looks like a “hen doing ballet”.

Whatever it is, such gerrymandering leads to atrocious policy and implementation. My house, for example, is very close to the beak of the hen described above. In other words, it’s in one extreme corner of the constituency. Actually, if you look at the portion forming the hen’s head, that’s Yediyur ward, and my house is at one extreme of Yediyur ward, too.

The road outside was dug up a year and half back and hasn’t yet been asphalted. Stone slabs covering storm water drains were removed four months back for desilting and are yet to be placed back. And because we are at one extreme edge of both assembly and BBMP constituencies, neither MLA (R Ashok) nor corporator (NR Ramesh) bothers.

If there were no gerrymandering, there wouldn’t be any “extreme corners” like this one. And that would mean less chance for elected representatives to ignore certain parts. And that would lead to better governance!

Update:

This is what all the constituencies of Bangalore look like (click for a full size image)

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Let your imagination run wild!

Karnataka’s bizarre liquor license policy

Karnataka has a rather weird liquor license policy. Some twenty years ago, back when S Bangarappa was the chief minister (if I’m not wrong) the state decided to freeze the number of bars. “Growing alcoholism” was the ostensible reason. Since then, if someone has to open a bar, the license has to be purchased from an existing bar owner who will then shut down his bar. Thus, the number of bars in the state (whose population has increased manifold since) has remained constant.

This is not the only funny aspect of liquor regulation in Karnataka.  Till recently, there was also the rather bizarre requirement that each bar sell a minimum “quota” of liquor each month. If the bar failed to do so, it had to pay “short lifting” fines. While this regulation (minimum “lifting” by bars) went much before the time when number of licenses was capped, the two can be seen to be related. When the number of licenses is capped, the state needs to ensure that it gets a certain fixed revenue out of excise licenses and sales. Fixing a minimum sale quantity ensures that licenses are not “wasted” by bars with low sales, and in case they are, the government doesn’t lose out on such sales.

A possible reason that this rather bizarre regulation on minimum sales was lifted is due to it becoming moot thanks to competition. When the number of liquor licenses is limited, the price increases, and thus bars which are selling lower amounts of liquor find it more profitable to cash out on their licenses than continue their business. Thus, bars that continue to have their licenses are those that continue to sell significant quantities, which makes the quotas moot.

Nevertheless, the cap on the number of bars means that the liquor scene in Karnataka is rather bizarre, the point being that there are no “middle class bars”. Here in Barcelona, where I’m currently on holiday, pretty much every restaurant and cafe has an alcohol license (at least beer and wine), and it is possible to have a drink in an “ordinary setting” at a reasonable price. A glass of beer at any of these establishments, for example (small quiet places which are seldom crowded), costs about EUR 1.80 (~Rs. 120 by today’s exchange rate).

In Karnataka, on the other hand, thanks to the limited licensing regime, a bar needs to do a certain minimum amount of business before it is viable. This has led to bars in Karnataka adopt one of two opposing routes. Some play the volume route, setting up an atmosphere where there is quick turnaround of customers (it can be argued that atmosphere is set up to ensure customers don’t stay too long) each of who consumes in significant volumes so that the bar can make significant amount of money despite charging only a small premium on the liqour.

At the other end you have the rather fancy “value players”, who make their margins on rather large markups on the liquor they sell. These are typically fine dining restaurants where people’s primary purpose is eating (rather than drinking) and which have rather low table turnover. A combination of the above two means that volumes are low, but such restaurants more than make up by means of significant markups. These markups are extended to non alcohol items also (these restaurants can afford to charge a premium since all other similar restaurants serving alcohol also charge the same premium, and presence of alcohol is a hygiene factor for such restaurants). Here is an old blog post where I argue why liquor regulations imply high.

So the question is if the government can do away with the bizarre regulations on minimum sales, why can’t they increase the number of liquor licenses? The problem is that it is a classic case of baptists and bootleggers. The baptist case is that by issuing more liquor licenses, it makes things easier for people to drink alcohol and that’s not a good thing for society. And the bootleggers are existing licenseholders, whose licenses will get devalued if their supply increases. I just realised I’ve already done another blog post addressing this topic.

R, Windows, Mac, and Bangalore and Chennai Auto Rickshaws

R on Windows is like a Bangalore auto rickshaw, R on Mac is a Chennai auto rickshaw. Let me explain.

For a long time now I’ve been using R for all my data management and manipulation and analysis and what not. Till two months back I did so on a Windows laptop and a desktop. The laptop had 8 GB RAM and the desktop had 16GB RAM. I would handle large datasets, and sometimes when I would try to do something complicated that required the use of more memory space than the computer had, the process would fail, saying “fail to allocate X GB of memory”. On Windows R would not creep into the hard disk, into virtual memory territory.

In other words it was like a Bangalore auto rickshaw, which plies mostly on meter but refuses to come to areas that are outside the driver’s “zone”. A binary decision. A yes or a no. No concept of price discrimination.

The Mac, which I’ve been using for the last two months, behaves differently. This one has only 8GB of RAM, but I’m able to handle large datasets without ever running out of memory. How is this achieved? By means of using the system’s Virtual Memory. This means the system doesn’t run out of memory, I haven’t received the “can’t allocate memory” error even once on this Mac.

So the catch here is that the virtual memory (despite having a SSD hard disk) is painfully slow, and it takes a much longer time for the program to read and write from the memory than it does with the main memory. This means that processes that need more than 8 GB of RAM (I frequently end up running such queries) execute, but take a really long time to do so.

This is like Chennai auto rickshaws, who never say “no” but make sure they charge a price that will well compensate them for the distance and time and trouble and effort, and a bit more.

Clusters, not champions

Recently, Nokia decided to shut its factory in Sriperumbudur, following a tax dispute with the Indian government and the loss of orders from Microsoft, who took over most of Nokia’s cellphone business (in fact, all of it apart from the Sriperumbudur factory). Consequently, it has had to let go of most of its workers in its plant. The results, as Mint has reported here, are not pretty at all. People who worked for years at Nokia assembling phones have suddenly found that in the absence of Nokia, there is no comparable employer in the Sriperumbudur area. There is little else in terms of mobile phone manufacturing in India – most Indian companies get their phones manufactured abroad. Only this April did MicroMax start manufacturing phones in India – in Rudraprayag, far far away from Sriperumbudur.

Around the same time that Nokia was shutting down its factory in Sriperumbudur, Yahoo! decided to shut down its software engineering operations in Bangalore. About 600 employees got sacked (with severance payouts), while a few top performers were given the option of either relocating to its California headquarters or exiting the company with an even better severance payout. In the days that have followed, there has been a massive scramble for the now ex Yahoos among software companies in India. Apart from those that are yet to make up their mind, most ex Yahoos are gainfully employed, most of them in Bangalore.

The reason for the differential outcomes in the above two cases has to do with geography. Nokia’s plant in Sriperumbudur operated in an island – in a place where there was little else in the way of mobile manufacturing units. Thus, employees of the plant (who were well paid, as per the report), came to depend wholly on Nokia for their livelihoods. It something happened to Nokia, as it did, or if for some reason their relationship with their employer or boss soured, they had nowhere to go. Even when the plant was fully functional and successful, employees of the plant were effectively “locked in” to their employers and thus had little choice in terms of their careers.

Yahoo!, on the other hand, had (and has; operations have not ceased yet) its office in Bangalore, which has emerged as an excellent hub for software engineering services in India. From the time Texas Instruments first set up its office in the city over thirty years back (apart from the weather, a guiding factor for that decision was the availability of engineering talent in Bangalore, thanks to the presence of defence PSUs in the city), Bangalore has only grown as a market for techies. Thus, there is a large number of IT companies that has made Bangalore its home, and there is now a significant market for techies of all levels and skills in the city. Thus, when Yahoo! decided to shut its factory, there was little problem in absorbing the now surplus employees.

The difference between Sriperumbudur and Bangalore was that Bangalore grew organically as an IT hub – companies invested in the city because it made economic sense for them to invest there, in terms of the ecosystem, and upward and downward linkages available in the city. Nokia, on the other hand, was “parachuted” into Sriperumbudur. The Mint story mentions that the Nokia factory was situated there after some kind of a bidding war between various states, and was essentially a political decision and not a business decision made by Nokia. Nokia was followed there by its suppliers (who are also facing an uncertain future now) but that was the end of it – there was no further growth in the mobile manufacturing ecosystem in the Sriperumbudur area. Thus when the one company that the tiny ecosystem there got dependent on decided to shut shop, the consequences were disastrous.

There are several policy lessons that can be drawn out of the above contrast. The first, and most important, lesson is that companies should not be “parachuted” into areas chosen by the government (Jane Jacobs has an excellent treatment of this in her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations). Instead, investment should happen “organically”, by means of decisions that make business sense to the investor without relying on artificial sweeteners such as tax breaks (this might mean that no investment might happen in certain areas, but that only means that such areas are overpopulated and people from there should move to areas where investment happens).

As a corollary of the above lessons, we need land acquisition laws that are friendly to both investors and landowners – the current law passed last year is friendly to neither, but simply enhances the power of the government. The key to the building of large industrial clusters (especially in heavy manufacturing industries that the current government plans to promote) is that companies will want to be situated close to other similar companies, or companies that form an upward or downward linkage. This means the company should have the ability to set up shop close to the existing cluster, and that means being able to purchase the land at a “reasonable” (both to the company and the land owner) price. A land acquisition law which empowers the government at the cost of the transacting parties prevents such organic expansion from taking place.

Thirdly, governments should stop promoting “champions”. The assumption is that once you have a “champion” of a particular sector set up shop in a particular area, it will automatically lead to an ecosystem for that sector in the area. As the Nokia story demonstrates, this is not necessarily the case. What the government should do is instead simply be an enabler for clusters, and stop looking for “champions” to establish such clusters. In fact, it is not necessary for a big investment by an existing company for a cluster to develop, and this needs to be recognised.

Conventional wisdom regarding the success of the software engineering industry in India is that it succeeded “in spite of” rather than “because of” the government – being a new sector it was lightly regulated that resulted in its rapid growth and success. While the contribution of the government in the overall success of the industry might be debated, what is clear is that lack of government intervention has helped the industry to build around a few “clusters”, and that has only made the industry stronger.