Conversation with an Afghan-Dutch taxi driver

We got back to London yesterday, and were welcomed with atypical London weather – thunderstorms. While it is common to stereotype London’s weather as being typically shitty and grey, it doesn’t normally rain all that heavily here – most of the rain that London gets is what is called “spitting rain” – slow drizzly rain best dealt with with a nice cap.

Also welcoming us was an Afghan-Dutch guy who drove us home in his Merc (we hired him through Uber). We got talking and there were a few interesting things from what he said that I though were Pertinent.

  • When we told him we were from Bangalore he said something that sounded like “cooley”. First we interpreted it as him saying that the city is cool, and then realised that wasn’t what he was saying. Then I thought he was talking about Coolie which was filmed in Bangalore, but it wasn’t that as well. Finally we realised he was talking about Virat Kohli, who plays for Royal Challengers Bangalore. It’s funny how Kohli is identified with Bangalore abroad though he’s only nominally based there only during the IPL season
  • We spoke a bit about the IPL and he said he was disappointed that “our team” lost. A minute later he said the team was Sunrisers Hyderabad. For a while it wasn’t clear as to why the Sunrisers were his team. Then I realised they have two prominent Afghan players – Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi.
  • He was studying to be a dentist, and decided to spend time in England learning English because a lot of the dental course was in English. Apart from putting himself through formal English classes, driving an Uber was a way for him to become better at English (it’s interesting how at times in our conversation he switched to using Hindi words – some of which I’m guessing are common to Pashto as well), apart from making money
  • My wife later told me that it was common for continental Europeans to spend a gap year in England learning English. And that apart from taking classes they take up jobs where they can practice the language – like driving a taxi or waiting tables.
  • The conversation also got me thinking about gap years and saving up for education – something that doesn’t at all happen in India. In India, the standard practice is to go to college immediately after school, when one is still being funded by parents. In one way, this reduces social mobility since people whose parents can’t afford college end up not studying. Also, the returns to education in India are high enough that the compensation for blue collar jobs (that one can find without a college degree) isn’t enough to fund a later degree.
  • Despite having Afghan parents, this guy has never been there. “It’s way too dangerous. I can go see relatives but will end up spending most time indoors, so not much fun”, he said.

Every time I have a conversation with a taxi driver I’m reminded of what I was told by a friend on the day I moved to Delhi in 2008. “It might be common in Bangalore to chat up auto and taxi drivers”, he had told me, “but in Delhi it is not the done thing”. I still wonder why.

1/13: Leaving home

Tomorrow, Pinky turns 30. I set out wanting to write 30 blogposts about her on the occasion. As it has happened, I managed 13 before I ran out of ideas and time. Anyway, I hope she likes them! 

Sometimes it’s hard to understand what some people are going through. When they put up a brave face and tell you that everything is okay, and they don’t crib, you simply assume that all is right with them. You don’t once try to understand that there might be some struggles going on within, and that the brave face is a result of being able to somehow deal with all of that.

Pinky hasn’t had the last three years easy. In August 2014, she moved to Barcelona to live by herself for the first time ever (she used to live with her parents until she moved in with me in 2010). The small matters of living alone for the first time, and in a new country, were compounded by lack of funds. We’d purchased an apartment in Bangalore earlier that year, and had exhausted a lot of our savings for that.

Unsure of how much she had to spend, Pinky economised. She would write a long email to me every day (and I’d wake up every morning looking forward to that mail), and while she seemed to be having a good time meeting new people and partying late into the night (on many days I’d be awake in Bangalore by the time she got home in Barcelona), she was also careful about conserving money.

There were times when she’d go out with new-found friends and not eat anything because the restaurant was too expensive. She’d ask for tap water, or the cheapest drinks, on nights out so that she didn’t blow away the savings. For breakfast she had buns and croissants bought in bulk at supermarkets – that came at a big discount.

She told me she looked forward to my visits to Barcelona in the hope that she could “spend normally”. In her last term when I lived with her in Barcelona, our monthly spending was three times what she normally spent when living alone!

And Barcelona was hardly the toughest part of her MBA. Her focus on e-commerce and operations had taken her for an internship to Jakarta, where she landed right in the middle of Ramzan. With her office being in an out-of-the-way warehouse, there were no lunch options available nearby, and she spent nearly the entire month without lunch, going all day hungry. Also a delay in her pay and reimbursement had led to a working capital crunch, which nearly left her homeless (it ultimately didn’t get THAT bad).

It was similar later that year when she was in U. Michigan as an exchange student. She survived an entire term without a lamp in her room (it was an unfurnished house), and slept on the floor on a mattress another student had donated to her. Food was also a struggle, as being the only woman among a bunch of Indians left her as the “resident cook” of her apartment. And the US sprawl meant she couldn’t get nutritious ingredients, which were only available at far-off supermarkets.

Yet, whenever we spoke, she was mostly positive and seldom cried. Irrespective of the difficulties she went through, she was focussed on her academics and career. It was only much later, after she had graduated that she had told me how she’d gone through really tough times.

And even amidst the toughness, she remained resourceful. She found that her US Visa allowed her to work on campus, and managed to make some money as a teaching assistant. Back “home” in Barcelona, she wrote cases and made more money. And despite some setbacks, she kept her job-hunt going, graduating with a much sought-after job with Amazon.

I’m proud to be married to her! And you might wonder why I’m suddenly writing all this – she turns 30 tomorrow, and this is as good a time as ever to express my gratitude to her!

Batch size at IIMB

A few days back I had written about how the new IIMs with a sanctioned batch size of around 60 and a faculty strength of 20 are unviable and need to scale up quickly. My argument was that one of the big strengths of the older IIMs is its faculty size which leads to a large number of electives, which allows students to shape themselves the way they best feel. In this context it would be interesting to compare these IIMs to one or more of the older IIMs.

I recently received a mail by the IIMB Alumni Association asking me to reach out to batchmates who are not part of the association. This mail had been sent to all IIMB Alumni who are registered with the association, and the purpose was to increase membership and reach of the association (and no, there are no membership fees). And the mail came with a very interesting data set, and one of the fields was the size of each graduating batch at IIMB.

Source: IIMB Alumni Association
Source: IIMB Alumni Association

It can be seen that IIMB also started rather small, with about 50 students graduating in the first batch in 1976. By the end of the decade, the number was close to a 100, which is where it stayed through the 1980s. Around 1990 was when the batch size increased to about 150, and the number stayed within the 150-200 range for another decade and a half (the 2004 batch was bigger than the ones around it, possibly due to the IT slowdown in 2002 when this batch entered IIM).

And then after 2006 (when I graduated), the batch size increased. My batch had three sections as would have the 15 batches prior to that (based on this data; IIM sections normally consist of 60-70 students). In fact, the “quantum” nature of the increase in batch size at IIM can be put down to the concept of sections – so the increase from the 100 to 150 level was a function of addition of a third section, and so on. After 2006, though, the batch size has exploded, and the current batch (2013-15, who I’m teaching) has a strength of almost 400 students (divided into six sections).

A good addition to this dataset would be some data that could show the prominence or measure of success of IIMB Alumni who graduated in each  batch, which can then allow us to examine whether batch size has had anything to do with continued career success of the students. It would be interesting to examine how this additional data can be collected.

Why Cash Transfers Should Not Replace Midday Meals in Schools

Admin Note: This is not a typical RQ post, in that this has no numbers. Yet, since this is policy related I think it makes sense to put it here

I’m normally a big fan of cash transfers. I’m glad that the Indian government has started implementing it for things like fuel subsidies and certain other benefits. After all, by simply providing the subsidy in cash (market price minus intended “subsidized price”) the government achieves the subsidy while not really having to bother about managing the supply chain. I would have been less unhappy with the Food Security Bill had it been designed as a cash transfer scheme, rather than giving further responsibility to the much-maligned Public Distribution System. With the midday meal system in schools, though, I make an exception.

Following the tragedy in the Bihar school this week, people have called for the government to scrap the midday meal scheme in schools and provide students a cash subsidy instead. Some people have argued against it quoting economies of scale (for example, ISKCON, under its Akshaya Patra scheme, provides midday meals to children in Bangalore schools at the cost of Rs. 6 per child per day, and that amount cannot but much food in the market). That aside, there is a fundamental economic argument against providing for children’s midday meal in the form of cash.

Every year, during Christmas time, journalist Tim Harford (of Financial Times, BBC Radio 4, etc.) writes an article that states that gifting induces a net weight loss, and the economically ideal way of gifting is to gift cash. For example, if I give you Rs. 100 in cash, you can do whatever you want with that cash. Instead, let us say that I use the Rs. 100 to buy you a gift (let’s say a pen). Now, irrespective of how much value you see in the pen, you don’t have the option any more of spending that Rs. 100 on anything except the pen I’ve got you. So you are in effect poorer than you would be had I simply given you the Rs. 100 rather than buying you the pen.

The question now is whether I want you to buy more pens or less. If for some reason I believe that buying more pens is good for your health, I can do my bit in encouraging that behaviour by gifting you pens rather than gifting cash. If on the other hand I don’t have a view on whether pens are good for you, I will gift you cash.

Government subsidies work the same way. If the government wants to encourage consumption of a particular good or service, it subsidizes it directly. If, on the other hand, the government doesn’t have a particularly strong view on whether a citizen should consume more or less of a particular good, but only wants the citizen to be able to afford that particular good, it provides cash. With the current form of the food security bill (where the government has promised to give foodgrain at subsidized prices) the government is implicitly stating that it wants to encourage people to eat more foodgrain (which flies in the face of data which shows that most Indians already eat too much cereal and too little of other nutritious foods). If the intention were only to ensure that people can afford food grains, a cash transfer would have sufficed. Similarly, by moving to a cash transfer scheme for cooking fuel, the government has signaled that it doesn’t particularly encourage the use of cooking fuel, but it simply wants to make it affordable for whoever wants to consume it (without distorting markets).

While the stated aim of many states in implementing the free mid-day meal in schools is to encourage attendance, there is a more fundamental reason to it. It is in the country’s interest to ensure good health and nutrition of children, in order to enhance their possible contribution to the economy when they grow up (studies have shown that malnutrition and poor health leads to lower educational attainment which leads to lower capacity to contribute to the economy). In this light, it is in the country’s direct interests that children are well fed, and the school is a location where children gather and can be fed (this is where the economies of scale bit comes in). That it encourages attendance is only a positive externality.

Now that it has been established that it is in the country’s interest for the child to be well fed, and that the midday meal in school is a good opportunity to thus feed the child, this presents a classic case for giving a “direct subsidy” rather than a cash transfer. That meals served within school premises are not tradable goods and hence won’t distort markets is a bonus.

Difficulty of Indian Education Boards

With the IITs now having a requirement that students should have scored in the top 20 percentile of their respective boards in order to qualify for admission, we have a chance to evaluate the relative difficulty of various Indian boards.

The IIT Delhi website has the cutoffs for each board. These cutoffs represent the “80th percentile scores” for each board, i.e. if you were to  rank all students who took that particular board exam, these are the marks scored by students 80% from bottom. If you have written any of these board exams and got more than the corresponding 80%ile score for your board, you are eligible to join IIT (provided you score sufficiently in the JEE-main and JEE-advanced, of course).

This plot shows the cutoffs (80th %ile score) for various boards:

Source: http://jee.iitd.ac.in/percentile2013.pdf
Source: http://jee.iitd.ac.in/percentile2013.pdf

Note that the four southern states are on top. These states are reputed to have high educational attainment. Could this be a consequence of easier board exams in these states? We don’t know.

Also, interestingly, these four states are followed by ISC and CBSE, before other state boards. Interestingly, the cutoff for ISC is higher than that for CBSE, which flies against conventional wisdom that CBSE is “easier” than ISC.

Also, if you look at the data, some states have more than one board, and the JEE council has used separate cutoffs for each of these boards. For purpose of my analysis I’ve arbitrarily chosen one board for each state – typically the one whose total is the “roundest” number.

 

RG@ICSE,ISC

I did my higher education at two “institutes of national importance”. Both institutions followed what is called “relative grading”. It didn’t matter on an absolute scale how well or how badly you did. Your grade for the course would depend on how everyone else who took the course did. So for example, there was this one course at IIT Madras where I got 80/100, and got an S grade (the highest grade possible). The general performance of the class had not been great, so in that course 80 merited an S. In another course, however, 80 fetched me only a B (the third highest grade) – the general performance of the class had been much better.

While IITs and IIMs and some other autonomous institutions practice relative grading, it is not the “done thing” in most of the rest of India. Most of our board and university exams follow what is known as “absolute grading” – your grade for the course depends solely on your performance, without taking into account the performance of others. So it is theoretically possible to have a case where practically everyone in the class scores “90%”. Given that this is the prevailing system of grading in most of India, we assume that the board exams follow this principle, too.

Two or three days back, Debarghya Das, a student at Cornell set a cat among the pigeons by scraping the marks of every single student who took the ICSE or ISC exams (10th and 12th board respectively administered by the CICSE). What he noticed was that certain marks had gone missing – for example nobody scored 81, 82, 84, 85, 87, 89, 91 or 93 in any of the courses.  This is just a sample of marks that have gone missing. There are several other numbers which are effectively “unattainable” in any of the courses. Das, on his account, has alleged some kind of “fraud”.

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you see this rather jagged distribution? I wouldn’t blame you if you saw a hedgehog. But can you think of a graph that looks like that?

Three years back I bought myself a DSLR camera, after which I pretend to be an expert photographer. I even use Photoshop/Gimp to manipulate some of the images I click. And a decidedly much better photographer friend has told me that the first thing you do while editing a photo is to adjust “levels”. See this to know what you can do with levels. Basically, the concept is that some parts of the colour spectrum are unrepresented in an image, and by adjusting levels you make sure the full spectrum is used, thus improving the contrast of the image.

There is something known as the image histogram. I took a picture that I had shot and adjusted the “levels”. On the left you see what the histogram looks like after the levels. On the right, you see the histogram as it was before you adjusted the levels.

Image histogram after (left) and before (right) adjusting the levels of an image. From a random photograph I had shot
Image histogram after (left) and before (right) adjusting the levels of an image. From a random photograph I had shot

Doesn’t the histogram on the left remind you of the distribution of ICSE/ISC marks? And how did we get that histogram? By taking the histogram on the right (which is smoothed but all bunched up in one part of the distribution) and stretching it so that it falls across the entire distribution. And what happened when we did that? We got gaps, as you can see in the histogram on the left or the distribution of ICSE/ISC marks.

There is an article in The Hindu today that again explores this issue of missing marks in ICSE/ISC. In that the ICSE council, which administers these exams is quoted saying:

 “In keeping with the practice followed by examination conducting bodies, a process of standardisation is applied to the results, so as to take into account the variations in difficulty level of questions over the years (which may occur despite applying various norms and yardsticks), as well as the marginal variations in evaluation of answer scripts by hundreds of examiners (inter-examiner variability), for each subject.”

Another money quote from the same article:

“The word tampering is wrong. There is moderation that happens across education boards,” explained a teacher, who has worked with ICSE schools in Hyderabad and Chennai. “After the first round of corrections, raw data is given to officials and head examiners who analyse how students have performed. They try to ensure the bell curve of the results does not look awkward. If it does, the implication is that the checking has been either too liberal or very strict.”

So there you go. The ICSE Council effectively follows relative grading. There is a certain distribution of marks that they desire, and they adjust the “levels” of the overall distribution of marks so that the desired distribution is achieved. The desired distribution of marks is something like “X% students get between 95 and 100, Y% get between 90 and 95”, and so on. Now, two students who had got the same number of marks as per the initial marking have to get the same number of marks after recalibration. So what the missing marks indicates is that there was clustering – a large number of students had ended up scoring in the same narrow range, and so after normalization, this range got expanded because of which you have gaps. Now, when certain sections of the range in the middle are expanded, some at the end have to get contracted (for example, if someone who originally got 70 is given 90, a person who originally got 90 deserves so much more). Which is why you see that at one end – 94-100 all possible marks are represented.

This still doesn’t explain one thing though – why is it that the same marks have gone missing in all subjects? It is impossible that the initial distribution of marks was identical across subjects. I have only one explanation for this – there was one overall mapping algorithm that was used across subjects, that converted marks obtained to the relative marks. This is also seen in the fact that the shape of the distribution across subjects varies widely (again refer to Das’s post).

So that explains the weird distribution of marks in the ICSE / ISC exams. But what explains the title of the post? In IITian English, “RG” is a term derived from “relative grading”. It is a rather derogatory term used to describe people who prefer to pull down others in their quest to get ahead (note that this is a consequence of relative grading). Taking some more liberties and using IITian English, you can say that the ICSE/ISC board has “RGed” students!

Push and Pull Teaching

I’m writing this in the context of the Right to Education Act coming into force this year. The reason I use a musical example upfront is that music is the only thing I’ve tried to learn formally in recent times. While I use the example to illustrate the problem with the traditional Indian learning system, I refer to more basic and general education in this post. 

So about a month back I decided I need to add to my education in Carnatic and Western Classical Music and decided to learn Hindustani Classical. I decided it was time to learn a new instrument (so far I’d been trained only in playing the violin) and after some facebook queries, found a teacher who lived close by. After a lecture in how he teaches to take forward a “parampara” and not for money, and that he expects extreme devotion from students, and that he likes to begin classes for a new student only on a Monday, classes began in right earnest.

Classes soon hit a roadblock, though. As the more perceptive of you here might be aware, I have (I don’t want to use the word “suffer”) ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder), thanks to which my attention span is grossly lower than that of the normal human being. Weeks together of simply going up and down the (Bilawal) scale soon got to me and I lost interest in practicing. Soon I realized I had started to look for excuses to bunk classes. I decided to cut my losses and decided to discontinue class.

Before I discontinued class, however, I  thought long and hard about telling my teacher about my ADHD, and that his methods of teaching weren’t working out for me. I wanted to tell him about the Suzuki method which my Western Classical teacher had adopted a year ago, which kept me interested in the music without relaxation of rigour. The Suzuki Method had worked fantastically well for me. Each class I would learn a new (simple) song – for example, I started my Western Classical learning by learning to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

There are times when I think that I should have given my sitar teacher a fairer chance and explained to him about the Suzuki method and adopt something like it for the Sitar. However, from my knowledge of him based on my intereaction with him for a month or so, it didn’t seem like it would work, and I ended up (regretfully) quitting without giving him a chance to push the education on me.

The thing with traditional Indian learning is that it is fundamentally “pull”. The onus is on the student to convince the teacher to take him on as a student, and then to extract knowledge and wisdom from the teacher. In the traditional Indian context, it is absolutely okay for the guru to be aloof and disinterested, for it is not his duty to teach – it is the student’s duty to extract knowledge from the teacher. In fact my friend and colleague Nitin Pai informs me that according to the Upanishads, it is the duty of the teacher to reject a student the first three times he “applies”, and accept a student only after he has sucked up considerably.

While there might have been good reasons for such teaching practices back in the Vedic and Puranic ages (for example, the caste system forbid considerable sections of the population from learning the scriptures), these practices are wholly unsuited for the modern age where the focus is on increasing the reach of education and and ensuring that more people have access to education.

With the onus being on universal education and on getting every child to learn, we need to get rid of the “Acharya Devo Bhava” (teacher is god) paradigm and instead shift to a framework  of professional teachers where it is the teacher’s duty to reach out to the student. We need to get to a paradigm where the students can demand that the teacher reach out to them and teach them, and where students don’t need to suck up to the teacher.

The “acharya devo bhava” concept might have served us well in the pre-writing age and ensured that our most important scriptures were transmitted down to an era where they could be written down. This paradigm, however, is not scalable, and definitely not suited to a situation where the objective is to provide education to everybody.

Flawed though it may be, the Right to Education Act is a good step by the Union Government to ensure greater learning among kids and to maximize our chances of making good of the demographic dividend. The measure, however, will be dead on arrival unless the mindset of teaching and learning is changed.