The popularity of nicknames and political correctness

It is a rite of passage in an institution such as IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) that a first year student be given a potentially embarrassing nickname following “interaction” with senior students. The profundity of these nicknames varies significantly, with some people simply being given names that correspond to body parts in different languages, which others have more involved names.

Based on a conversation yesterday, the hypothesis is that more profound nicknames which are embarrassing only in a particular context are more likely to propagate, and thus stick, while the more crass names are likely to die out more easily.

The logic is simple – the crass names (a few examples being “lund”, “condom” and “dildo” – there is at least one person with each of these names in every hostel of every batch at IIT Madras) are potentially embarrassing for an “outsider” to use, and to be used in public. So when the bearer of such a name graduates and moves on to a new setting, the new people he encounters make a prudent choice to not use the embarrassing word, and the nickname dies a quick death.

When the nickname is embarrassing or derogatory for more contextual reasons, though, the name quickly loses its context and becomes incredibly simple for people to use. Take my own name “Wimpy”, for example – not too many people know it has an embarrassing origin, and it is a perfectly respectable word to shout out in public, or even in an office setting. And so it has propagated – in at least two offices I worked in, everyone called me “Wimpy”.

It is similar for lots of other “benign” names. But it is unlikely that a name like “condom” or “dildo” will propagate, and it is in fact more likely that even the people who bestowed such names upon the unsuspecting will stop using them once everyone graduates and moves on to a more formal environment.

There are exceptions, of course, a notable one being “Baada“. It is a cuss-word representing a body part, except that it is in a non-standard (though not small by any means) language, but everyone I know calls Baada Baada. He used to be my colleague, and people at work also called him Baada. It is unlikely that his nickname would’ve propagated, though, had it been the synonym in English or Hindi.

Thanks to Katpadi Katsa for discussions leading up to this post. In a future post, I’ll talk about models for propagation of nicknames across institutions.

 

 

Varamahalakshmi and Organic Chemistry

Today is Varamahalakshmi Vrata, a minor festival for South Indian Hindus. It is major enough, however, for a sufficiently large/influential proportion of the population, that schools declare a holiday on this day. It is not major enough, however, for the day to be declared a public holiday.

Mine is one of those families where this festival is not major enough to be celebrated. “It’s not an important festival for people of our caste”, my mother told me, though this now confounds me since this is a rather major festival in my wife’s family, and she belongs to the same caste as me.

The fact that this festival has been rather minor has meant that I don’t have much memories of past occurrences of this festival. There is one exception, though, which is what I want to talk about in this post. Varamahalakshmi Vrata of 1999 played an important part in shaping my performance in the IIT-JEE ten months hence.

In 1999, I was in class 12, and had spent the holidays between classes 11 and 12 attending the International Maths Olympiad Training Camp (IMOTC) in Mumbai. While I didn’t ultimately get selected to represent India, I had an overall great time at the camp, and learnt a lot of maths.

By the time I returned to Bangalore, though, class 12 had already started in school, and classes were also underway at my JEE factory, which I had joined just prior to my travel to Mumbai.

With the school teachers intending to finish the entire academic year’s portions by November, classes had been scheduled for Saturdays as well. This, combined with my JEE factory having classes on Friday and Saturday evenings and all day on Sunday, this left me little time to do pretty much anything.

It wasn’t that I wanted to do too many things – my focus that academic year had been to simply focus on the IIT-JEE and (to a much lesser extent) my class 12 board exams. Yet the near non-stop schedule at both school and factory had meant that I was constantly “running” to catch up, with little time for independent study outside of school, factory and their assignments. I desperately needed a holiday to slow down, grab my breath and catch up.

It is a quirk of the Indian festival calendar that there are few holidays between May Day and Independence Day (August 15). If one of the Muslim festivals (which move around the year) doesn’t occur in this time period, it is possible to not have any holidays at all. 1999 was one such year. And this is where Varamahalakshmi Vrata came to the rescue.

I don’t remember the exact date it occurred on in 1999, but it was a Friday (it always is). I had been especially struggling with organic chemistry in the past month, totally unable to grasp the concepts.

Now, the thing with class 12 organic chemistry is that there are lots of patterns, which you need to learn to recognise. Simply mugging is an option, of course (and I suppose a lot of people take that path), but the syllabus is so voluminous that you rather take a more scalable approach. Learning to recognise patterns, however, means that you be able to spend a sufficient amount of time on the concept without distractions. It takes a special kind of focus to be able to do that.

And so I sat down on the morning of Varamahalakshmi Vrata 1999 with “Tata McGraw Hill guide to IIT JEE Chemistry” (forget precise name), and started doing problems. I didn’t intend to discover patterns that day – simply to solve lots of problems so that I’d somehow get a hang. The fact that the festival wasn’t celebrated in my family meant there was no disturbance (of bells and prayers).

So it happened sometime around noon, or a bit later. I had started the morning mostly struggling with the problems, and having to put major fight to be able to solve them. Over time I had gotten better steadily, but slowly. Now, suddenly I found myself being able to solve most problems rather easily. I had to only look at a problem before I could recognise the pattern and apply the appropriate framework. Organic chemistry would be a breeze for the rest of that academic year.

It’s funny how learning happens sometimes. There is usually a moment, which usually comes after you’ve spent sufficient time on the problem, when there is a flash of inspiration and it all falls into place. It has happened to me several times hence. So much so that I fundamentally believe this is how all learning happens!

Or at least so I believed back in 2004 when I had to give a lecture on “Quality takes time” (this was part of a communications course at IIMB). Watch the video:

Dominant affiliation groups

I was writing an email to connect two friends, when I realised that when you know someone through more than one affiliation group, one of the affiliation groups becomes “dominant”, and you will identify with them through that group at the cost of others. And sometimes this can lead you to even forgetting that you share other affiliation groups with them.

In social networking theory, affiliation groups refer to entities such as families, communities, schools or workplaces through which people get connected to other people. It is not strictly necessary for two connected people to share an affiliation group, but it is commonly the case to share one or more such groups. Social networking companies such as Facebook and LinkedIn sometimes suggest connections to you based on commonly identified affiliation groups.

So my hypothesis is that when you share multiple affiliation groups with someone, you are likely to have been more strongly connected to them through one than through others. For example, you might have gone to the same school and then worked together, but your interaction in school would have been so little that it almost doesn’t count. Yet, the school  remains as a common affiliation group.

Does it happen to you as well? Do you forget that you share an affiliation group with someone because it is not the “dominant” one, since you share another? And due to that do you miss out on making connections, and thus on opportunities?

I had this hilarious incident two weeks back where I was meeting this guy W with whom I share three affiliation groups – BASE (the local JEE coaching factory), IIT Madras and IIM Bangalore. Due to the extent of overlap and degree of interaction, I know him fundamentally as an “IITM guy”. And there’s this other guy X who I also know through three affiliation groups – BASE (again), IIM Bangalore (again) and a shared hobby (the strongest).

So I was talking to W and was going to bring up the topic of X’s work, and suddenly wondered if W knows X, so I said “do you remember X, he was in your batch at BASE?”. And then a minute later “oh yeah, you guys were classmates at IIMB also!”.

The rather bizarre thing is that I had completely stopped associating both W and X with IIMB, since I have much stronger affiliation groups with them. And then when I had to draw a connection between them, I even more bizarrely picked BASE, where I hadn’t interacted with either of them, rather than IIMB, where I interacted with both of them to a reasonable degree (X much more than W).

I know I didn’t do much damage, but in another context, not realising connections that exist might prove costly. So I find this “interesting”!

Is there anybody else in here who feels the way I do?

Educating at scale

You can’t run a high-quality business school with 20 faculty members

In the course of a twitter discussion yesterday, journalist Mathang Seshagiri quoted numbers from a parliamentary reply by the ministry of HRD (on the 24th of November 2014) on the sanctioned faculty strength and vacancies in “institutes of national importance”. While his purpose was to primarily show that even the older IITs and IIMs have massive vacancies, what struck me was the sanctioned faculty strength of the newer IIMs. Here is the picture posted by Mathang:

Source: Parliamentary Proceedings (Rajya Sabha). November 24th 2014. Reply by MHRD

Look at the second column which shows the sanctioned faculty strength in each IIM. Once you go beyond the six older IIMs, the drop is stark. The seven newer IIMs have a sanctioned faculty strength of about 20! The question is how one can run a business school with such a small faculty base.

About ten years back, when I was a student at IIM Bangalore, I had gone for an event where I met someone from another business school in Bangalore whose name I can’t remember now. During the course of the conversation he asked me how many electives he had. I replied that we had about 80-100 courses from which we had to pick about 15. This he found shocking for in his college (from what I remember) there were only three or four electives!

The purpose of an MBA is to provide broad-based education and broaden one’s horizons. Thus, after a set of core courses in the first year (usually about fifteen courses), one is exposed to a wide variety of electives in the second year. It is a standard practice among most top B-schools to fill the entire second year with electives. In fact, in IIM Bangalore, electives start towards the end of the first year itself.

With 20 faculty members, there are only so many electives that can be offered each year. For example, in the coming trimester, IIM Bangalore is offering students (about 400 in the batch) a choice of about 40-50 electives, of which each student can pick four to six. This gives students massive choice, and a good chance to tailor the second year of their MBA and mould themselves as per their requirements.

By having 20 faculty members, the number of electives that can be theoretically offered itself is smaller (given research requirements, most IIM professors have a requirement to teach no more than three courses a year, and they have core and graduate courses to teach, too), which gives students an extremely tiny bouquet of choices – if there is any choice at all. This significantly limits the scope of what a student in such a school can do. And the student has no option but to accept the straitjacket offered by the lack of choice in the school.

In the ensuing twitter conversation this morning, Mathang contended that it is okay to have a faculty strength of 20 in schools with 60 students per batch. While this points to an extremely healthy faculty-student ratio, the point is that for broad-based education such as MBA, faculty-student ratio is not a good metric. What makes sense is the choice that the student is offered and that comes only at scale.

Thus, the new IIMs (Shillong “onwards”) are flawed in their fundamental design. It is impossible to run a quality business school with only 20 faculty. One way to supplement this is by using visiting faculty and guest lectures, but some of the new IIMs are located in such obscure places (where there is little local business, and which are not easily accessible by flight) that this is also not an option.

Merging some of these smaller IIMs (a very hard decision politically) might be the only way to make them work.

PS: Here is the sanctioned faculty strength and actual faculty strength numbers for IITs (same source as above). I might comment upon that at a later date.

Source: Parliamentary reply by Ministry of HRD; November 24th 2014

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

Continue reading “My first ever published piece of writing”

Quotable quotes

Over the last week or two, I’ve been doing a fair bit of “social networking”. I’m not talking about online social networks – if anything I’ve significantly cut down on that (I’ve taken a break from twitter). I’m talking about old-fashioned social networking, where I meet old friends and acquaintances over coffee or drinks or a meal.

Since the last two weeks were “holidays” in most of the world, a number of people happened to be visiting Bangalore and I ended up meeting a lot of people. I’ve met so many people that now it’ tough to remember what I spoke about with whom. And it’s only a good thing, for nothing gives me a bigger high than a nice long intellectual conversation, and my discretion means that I’ve only met people who have afforded me such conversation.

During a couple of such conversations I think I said stuff that is rather quotable. Since the people I said these things to don’t have active blogs, I thought I should be rather pompous and put up quotes here from my own conversations.

Last week I was talking to a friend from IIT. I was telling him about getting some change.org petitions such as “IITians against article 377”. What is the point of putting all IITians as a group, I asked. Apart from the fact that we did rather well in a supposedly tough examination, I don’t see any particular feature that sets IITians apart from the rest of the population and I find this grouping of IITians rather amusing. The conversation went thus:

“I don’t see what is special about IITians. During my time at IITM I found 80% of IITians rather unspectacular and uninteresting”
“I agree with that number but what sets IIT apart from other colleges is that it is 80%. Elsewhere it will be 95%”
“Yeah, but that isn’t a big improvement”
“Of course it is a big improvement. 80% is so much better than 95%”
“Ah, now I get it. If we have a class of 100, and if 95% are uninteresting that means there are only 5 interesting people. With 80% uninteresting, it means that there are 20 interesting people! 4 times the number of people to hang out with!”

Ok I admit there’s nothing particularly quotable in that but I wanted to talk about the concept of inverse proportion here, and hence all the build up. And perhaps this thing about inverse proportions would have made more sense on my official blog, but since there is a little bit of bitchiness involved I’m putting it here.

Coming to the other quotable quote – earlier this week, a friend was asking my why I don’t push myself harder professionally. This guy has had an exceptional professional career so far, and was pointing out the benefits of his professional focus over the last few years. This is what I told him:

“I used to be like this, but after a few years and a few incidents, I realize I don’t have that appetite for delayed gratification anymore. I’m not willing to slog it out for a while to wait for the fruits of labour later on.

“So it is 10 pm in IIMB, and you need to submit your Supply Chain Management case analysis by 8 am the next morning. this guy who is in your discussion group comes by, ostensibly to work on the case. And he says ‘one game of AoE before we start the case?’

“And so we sit down to play AoE. It is 5 am by the time we have finished solving the case. We started, in fact, only at 1 am – we were playing AoE till then.

“Now, even if we had started solving the case at 10, there is no guarantee that we would have finished significantly earlier than 5. In that case, we would still have not slept, and not played AoE either. The way we did it, we didn’t sleep but we we at least managed to play a solid round of AoE.”

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.