Sunday, May 31, 2015

Not as Bad!

It's been a week since my grades for this semester came out and I still go back to check if I read them right. From my dire predictions of an A- in CEE506 and a B+ in CEE 517, I ended up with an A+ in both! It was quite shocking that despite my own very poor expectations, I would indeed finish another semester with a perfect 4.0 GPA. And to think I was worried about my GPA two years ago!

In CEE 506, while I did somewhat underestimate my total, it turned out a clustering algorithm was used in the end, which put me and another student way above the rest, and hence the A+. While I would not like to speculate, I think this firmly makes me a contender for TA for this course next time it's offered, which will be 2017. Phew, that's far away!

CEE 517 turned out to be the real surprise. From what I can see, the clinching factors were the term paper and the final exam. The term paper did go well, but I didn't expect it to be that good - 97.5 against a class average of 83! This also makes it my third stellar term paper with this professor. But the most amazing result was in the final exam, with a 95% against a class average of 76%. This could have been the top score on an exam that I thought went quite badly. Anyway, I'm not complaining!

Now, not to jinx it, but if I can finish with an A or an A+ in STAT-410 this summer, I will have unofficially finished my MS with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Officially, I'm going to transfer some excess credits to my PhD file, so I already completed that feat in the Fall! 

Reversing a Decade of Decline

Foreign affairs after Nehru and Indira Gandhi have largely been left as an elitist affair that doesn't affect India (except the policy on Pakistan, which is a relic of Partition). This has of course, been a grave mistake, as foreign affairs is deeply intertwined with domestic affairs. But it is deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche to look at ourselves as an island, despite the centuries of foreign conquest that we have endured. It was a breath of relief then that Narendra Modi's first year has seen a significant upgrading of India's foreign policy, with a generous mix of domestic policy mixed in.

Most journalists, being very poorly educated themselves, falsely think the PM has overshadowed the Ministry and Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and her MoS Gen. (retd.) VK Singh. But nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, all those multi-billion dollar deals negotiated and signed with many countries have been won through hard diplomacy led by the MEA. Indeed, in terms of return on investments in the very near term, the MEA outshines every other minister except perhaps Power. Sushma Swaraj, despite the initial politics that saw her on the other side of the fence as Narendra Modi at the historic Goa summit of the BJP, was given the ministry, part of the Big 4 (Home, Finance, Defense and External Affairs, together with the PMO). And she has had a stellar performance.

Indeed, perhaps the best-known civil servant is also from the MEA, Syed Akbaruddin, who is now set to move higher up the chain. The Ministry has transformed itself from the apathetic, lackluster beast that it was for decades to a proactive one that not just takes care of foreign policy but also the interests of Indians abroad, as spectacularly seen in the Yemen evacuation that put India at the forefront of global efforts. In Year 1 of the Modi sarkaar, the MEA has stood out as the surprising star of the Union Government. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

How to create a controversy

Another day, another fake controversy created by a media that is hell-bent on continuing their decade-long witch hunt against the now Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is getting comical despite being so very serious!

The latest fake controversy is around a casteist group in IIT Madras that was provisionally de-recognized by the Dean of Students for violating norms regarding use of the IITM brand name and logo. Of course, all these facts came out much later. If it were just that much, nobody would've bothered. How then did this small matter turn into a national "issue"?

Obviously, Narendra Modi! Or rather, so-called liberals who hate him.
The media's agenda is very clear: hurt Modi, any which way possible. They're quite adept at it since 2002, but since he used their hatred to his advantage to become India's 15th Prime Minister with a historic mandate, they have been working over-time. The casualty has been journalism, of course, which is why their kind are called #Presstitutes.

If a reporter heard that such a group was de-recognized for supposedly insulting Modi, they should have first talked to both parties - IITM and the group - to get the facts, and then report them. This is called journalism. Instead, the entire spectrum of the media just bought whatever angle was fed to them and even tried to ignore IITM's official press release. This is called propaganda, leftist propaganda in this case. This is how controversies are generated today - through lies and deliberately ignoring facts.

The silver lining is the sheer speed at which the right-wing was able to bring the facts out in the open and put the left on the defensive for its lies. It is comical how this left-wing group in IITM talks as if the right-wing is crushing it on campus - history knows that it is the Left that has crushed the right, which is why there is such little right-wing intellect in the country. JNU is a hallmark of such a leftist bastion. To then cry wolf for a little bit of their own medicine is laughable.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Seeing people go

May is almost done and people who came to Illinois with me two years back have largely left, except the PhD students. Actually, most of the people had left in December after completing their degree requirements, but the people in research are beginning to leave now. Emotionally, December was more important but May is important in terms of options after my PhD - it is critical to keep talking to people and staying in touch to know what to do once you're at that stage.

But parting ways is always painful, not least because there is only an unknown void ahead. I've been through this so many times that I've almost grown immune to it, which some would say is a sad state to be in though philosophers say is the best state. Anyway, the fact is, a lot of people are leaving to build their own futures. In a way, so am I - an MS is not a PhD, no matter how much research you do. Things change and change in certainly coming in many ways. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

On the Minimum Wage

The city of Los Angeles, CA recently raised the minimum wage to $15/hour. Last week, McDonald's employees laid siege on the company's headquarters in Illinois to demand higher wages. Both of these events are part of a larger push in the US to raise minimum wages to what backers call 'living wages' - wages at which a family can expect to actually live. While to those on the left and indeed even centrists, this might sound like a no-brainer, I recently spoke to someone who characterized the issue well, and from a more nuanced perspective.

The real question is - if there is a mismatch between market-determined cost of living and market-determined wages, what is the source of that mismatch? Classical economics tells us that there are simply too many workers chasing too few jobs, but given that US unemployment is recovering well for the last couple of years and that McDonald's wages (as an illustration) have not changed much either before or after the Great Recession, this classical explanation seems inadequate. My friend explored another plausible solution - a demand-supply mismatch in terms of skills.

All jobs are not equal, some pay more than others. At least in theory, higher-skilled jobs attract higher wages. With all due respect to clerks at McDonald's, their job is unskilled and therefore, they are quite literally at the bottom of the food chain. A demand to equate unskilled labor with skilled work through legislation will only create a new mismatch that will ultimately kill jobs, as has already happened in Japan, where robots are taking over an unthinkable variety of jobs, including serving customers at restaurants.

However, we cannot let families starve - that comes with the social contract. So what do we do? The only reasonable solution is to increase access to higher education that brings employable skills, somethings that Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner won his election on. This will involve higher education budgets, which is obviously difficult to achieve without cuts somewhere. This must be two-pronged: a reduction in the massive administrative overheads that eat up university and community college budgets with little benefit; and a reduction in state spending in programs that do not impart job-ready skills. Of course, the liberal left will call this an assault on the university system, but attacking ideas with rhetoric is not going to solve a very real problem. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Diamond in the Council

Continuing with our series evaluating the Narendra Modi Government after a year, we come to Power Minister Piyush Goyal, who is by all standards the best Minister short of the Prime Minister himself. Indeed, one of the biggest successes of the government, the coal block allocations that successfully undid one of the biggest cases of crony capitalism of the UPA-II dispensation, was under Goyal's watch. But this is not his only achievement and indeed, it may not even be the biggest.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's clear vision is to bring electricity to every last village and he knows that coal-fired plants are not going to meet that need. Thus, while pumping up coal production to record levels and ending the monopoly of Coal India (both humongous feats for any government), the Power Ministry has also been working on alternative energy resources. Thus, the appropriate U-turn by the BJP on the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement and subsequent uranium supply pacts with suppliers goes a long way meeting India's energy needs. The crackdown on illogical and anti-national organizations such as Greenpeace is also in this direction.

But the biggest success is yet to come. The world, including India, are on the cusp of a solar energy revolution, a revolution that could completely up-end the way we look at energy security. Indeed, the greatest advantage of the technology lies in its decentralized form, thus lowering capital requirements and making it much cheaper. Advances in storage technology can give a further fillip to it. Piyush Goyal is quite aware of this, as he has repeatedly said at conferences. More importantly, his short yet stellar record of getting the job done makes him the best man for the job. The Prime Minister chose wisely, as did the electorate. After all, another Faaroque Abdullah and Manmohan Singh and energy security could've been written off as a pipe-dream. The BJP's Lok Sabha majority has given many benefits to the nation - Piyush Goyal being one of them. 

The BJP's Warhorse

One year since the BJP Government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected in a sweeping electoral mandate, it's cabinet and council of ministers are cemented and, one year ahead, they can be assessed. In this quick series, we will assess some key ministries that impact the entire country. First up, HRD and the rather controversial HRD Minister Smriti Irani, the youngest members of the Union Cabinet at just 38. Obviously, handling such a challenging ministry was never going to be easy, but she did come with a lot of administrative experience from her party activities.

Right from the beginning, she was the weakest link in the government, having had no real influence either electorally or in the Delhi networking circle (a la Arun Jaitley). Nonetheless, her history of fighting against tall leaders like Kapil Sibal and Rahul Gandhi in their own backyards has given her quite a thick skin. And she certainly needed it, as an extremely hostile media ran tirade after tirade against her. Indeed, after Narendra Modi himself, no Minister has faced such media persecution as she has. However, quite unlike the Prime Minister, Irani has been quite successful in battling the sold-out media. In interview after interview, she has exposed the biased reporting that she has become accustomed to. In her latest interview with Rajdeep Sardesai, who is known to have pro-AAP leanings, she laid his concocted controversies to bear.

However, ultimately, Smriti Irani's job is not to fend off a hostile media - her job is to manage education in India from a broad policy perspective. In that respect, her intent has been very ambitious - to end the stranglehold of the leftist academia in determining Indian education policy. It is well-known that since the days of Nehru, Indian academia has been packed with leftists and the right-wing intelligentsia has been starved of official patronage and also persecuted in equal measure. Irani, by trying to undo this, has invited scorn from possibly the most powerfully entrenched lobby in Delhi, no doubt the prime reason for the hostility she has faced from every quarter. And yet she has persisted doggedly with the new Education Policy, a persistence that deserves praise from those who share her goals.

Possibly, someone with more experience and academic credentials might have been able to do a better job. But then again, someone with more experience in the system would have a powerful desire not to change it. In that respect, a complete outsider is the only person who can make such far-reaching changes. In that respect, Irani has her task cut out, but her performance has been just average. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Murmurs of Axact Around the World

The New York Times today broke a massive piece of investigative journalism centered around a global diploma mill based in Karachi, Pakistan, which also exposes what is presumably the country's number one services company, Axact. The sheer scale of the fraud is breathtaking, with victims virtually all over the world west of Pakistan, but not inside Pakistan itself. News is that just today, the Karachi police raided Axact's very modern office.

However, for us in India and indeed even the US, this is a reminder of a very real malaise. India is no stranger to diploma mills. While IIPM, which used to boldly advertise its MBA degree from an unheard-of university in Belgium until the Delhi High Court recently restricted it, is a well-known case because of all the publicity it got (primarily due to IIPM's own full-page ads), there are many more. Periodic disclosures of fake degrees of politicians, such as the recent case of an AAP MLA in Delhi, just prove that point. Even in the US, the case of Trivalley University is infamous.

While law enforcement agencies should certainly crack down on diploma mills, there is still the burning question as to why they have such a large market, despite many customers knowing full well that it's fraud. The reason is complex and is tied to the necessity of higher education to move up the value chain as well as the exorbitant cost of higher education. Together, these two forces effectively shut out a large part of the workforce from advancement and they resort to fraud as a consequence. While subsidizing all higher education like Europe may be an answer, it is not necessarily sustainable. A better solution might lie in vocational schools that impart real-world skills that bring employment at affordable and sustainable rates. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Not it's job

The Supreme Court came out with an extremely absurd judgment this week, mandating that government ads cannot be used to build a personality cult and thus, the ads can only have images of the President, the Prime Minister and, strangely, the Chief Justice of India, as well as deceased leaders. This judgment is problematic on two counts, which I will discuss. However, this article should be seen as fair criticism of a judgment on its merits and not any attempt to tarnish the power or reputation of the court, thus inviting contempt of court.

The first problem revolves around the selection of the candidates whose faces may appear on the said ads. If the logic is to allow only constitutional positions to feature on such ads, then the list is much longer than the one created by the court, and does not in fact, include dead people (except maybe Mahatma Gandhi). If the aim was to create a rules-based system, then the rules themselves must be based on some firm logic. If the aim is to avoid creating personality cults on public money, then the court surely could not have missed the cult of dynasties which have gripped India, from the little Sinhas to the big Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. If the logic of the court is to be extended, then all the universities/roads/buildings/hospitals/schemes etc. named after the Dynasty should be stopped, because Rahul, Sonia, Priyanka and Vadra exploit that legacy. As do many other politicians from lesser dynasties. In short, the court's order, if taken to logical conclusion, does not stand the test of logic and in fact, represents a slippery slope.

The second problem is more serious though. Is it the court's job to keep correcting each and every infirmity in society? Constitutionally, the Supreme Court is mandated to hear matters relating to interpretation of the law, appeals that involve substantive constitutional questions and matters pertaining to fundamental rights. While these may seem rather broad, the court, over the decades, has loaded itself with much more, so much so that petty matters related to tenancy and even appeals to change the national anthem have reached it. From being the court of last resort, it has become just another court in the appeals process, or even a court of first resort in some cases. Naturally then, the wheels of justice hardly move for a vast majority of people - and they are angry. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a mention of 'five star activists' that clog up the system, but could they do so without the court itself over-reading its constitutional mandate?

In my opinion, the problem with the Supreme Court's verdict, and indeed the core problem that has created the judicial mess, is the instinctive desire to create a paternal state at all levels, so that some higher authority such as the judiciary (but not limited to it) makes decisions for people, assuming people are too foolish or uneducated themselves to make those decisions. Will stopping government ads end personality cults? No - it will simply be pushed into the vast black market instead. Is it a constitutional desire to end personality cults? No - because that is the will of the people (for better or worse). The Constitution cannot be above its people and any attempt to do so will fall flat. The fact is that if personality cults are so bad, then people have to figure it out for themselves. Constitutionally, it is not the Supreme Court's job to teach them what's good or bad for them and a liberal interpretation of the Constitution to that effect does much more harm than any good could justify. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

One Year of Glory

One year ago, a glorious historic event took place, an event that will go down in modern Indian history as defining. The BJP, a party barely 30 years old and already enjoying power in several states, having given India its first non-Congress Prime Minister to have served a full five-year term, won a sweeping one-party majority (the first in 30 years) in the Lok Sabha elections and then going on to unseat the Congress as the dominant party of India, now governing either on its own or in a coalition in twelve of twenty nine states - Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Jharkhand, Jammu & Kashmir and Nagaland. Thus, from being a so-called regional party of North India, the BJP has become a truly pan-Indian, national party. 

Credit for this goes to the volunteers who pushed every limit and brought in every seat for the BJP, from as far as the one Arunachal Pradesh to the full sweep of the Jammu region; from a full sweep in Gujarat to the seats in Lakshadweep. And yet, even the enthusiasm of the BJP and its supporters would not have been of any use without a sound electoral strategy and a single unifying and inspiring figure. The sound electoral strategy came of course from the BJP's national executive, with then President Rajnath Singh provide valuable leadership. Current President Amit Shah, of course, led the electoral strategy in the heartland state of UP, where the BJP made history by winning 72 or 80 seats (and one more through an ally), thus ensuring that the BJP would form the next government. 

But the final push to Mission 272+ came from the man who is now Prime Minister himself, the most popular politician in a generation, Narendra Modi, the first Prime Minister born into Independent India - an absolute inspiration to many. Some call him a polarizing figure and indeed he is, because there are those who absolutely hate him and there are those who love him. The difference is, the former are willing to take down India in their fight to defeat him, while the latter are willing to fight for India, with him or against him. 

One year of the Modi Sarkaar, much has been done and much is left. The story of India, well over 5,000 years old, is just getting started. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A PhD-like semester?

The Spring Semester 2014-15 officially ended for me today, after I handed in my last exam, which just had to be a take-home exam. There is still a possibility of some sort of 'exit interview' for this course, but that won't need much preparation beyond reading my own term paper again. By all previous measures, this was a massively challenging semester, possibly my first inkling of what a PhD-semester would be like, although not exactly.

In terms of courses, while CEE 506 was quite an excellent course, a lot of what I learned was more for the sake of it, because almost none of it had any bearing whatsoever on my research. More importantly, I learned a lot about how a good course is managed, lessons that will certainly come useful in a few years. The opposite can be said about CEE 517, which I absolutely regret taking and am sure will drag down my GPA (which really is becoming an irrelevant metric as I will easily cross the 3.5 needed for the QE). From that course I've learned how not to conduct a course - ever. This will certainly be my last systems course, at least for a few years, as I transition to Mechanical Engineering courses for my research. For CEE 506, I expect an A, although it could go down to A-, while for CEE 517, I expect an A-. Yes, bad semester.

Coming to research, it was quite a semester, in fact. I submitted my first ever journal paper, which is currently under consideration. Writing that paper was an experience in itself, having taken well over six months, but in the end, I think (hope) it came out well. I finally wrapped up all data collection for my research and also set the stage (although not on purpose) to two more conference papers. I received my rejection from MIT as well, and the day I realized I would be in Champaign for a few more years was quite a day, actually. Overall, I think I have improved substantially in my research this semester, and my adviser is certainly pleased (9/10 on the review!).

Is this what a PhD semester is like? A few challenging courses and many challenges in research, including the actual task of writing papers? It could well be. The only way to know for sure is to move on and come back and read this in a few years. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Another Congress-mukt state?

Events last week from Nagaland deserve to be given the title of the most audacious political maneuver in recent history in any Indian state. Nagaland Chief Minister TR Zeliang, who (on paper) had a thumping majority of 52 members in the 60-member Assembly, with his party the NPF controlling 44 and alliance partner BJP controlling 8. However, ever since his predecessor Neiphu Rio contested and won his Lok Sabha seat in 2014, things haven't been as planned.

What really changed everything, not just in Nagaland but also in other states, was the BJP's surprising majority of 282 in the Lok Sabha, not just defeating the opposition UPA parties but also repelling any and all blackmail and horse-trading from allies. In effect, the BJP and in particular, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, defeated everyone, even their own allies. Thus, Rio's dreams of blackmailing his way into the Union Cabinet fell apart. It's not his fault - Narendra Modi was always a difficult person to work with and all allies were banking on using his charisma to win seats but then stopping him from becoming PM, to be replaced by a nice, Manmohan Singh-like figure. The BJP's single-party majority crushed all such hopes, and the Cabinet could be formed from merit, for once.

As dreams fell however, Rio's ambitions in Dimapur came back to haunt his successor, Zeliang. It is no secret that Zeliang only had the backing of 16 or so NPF MLAs, and the BJP could go either way, so he needed something big to stay CM. And that's what he got, when he engineered a defection from the Congress and took all 8 of its MLAs aboard. Almost instantaneously, the central leadership of the Congress suspended those MLAs, but because the entire block defected, they do not lose their seats.

The pro-Congress #Presstitutes are trying to put a spin to it by saying that the CM inducted the entire Opposition. That is not true - the BJP was never in Opposition, it was and has been for many years in government as the junior partner in the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN). Even now, the BJP MLAs remain loyal to their party and only recently did party president Amit Shah pay them a visit. The only party to have lost everything was the Congress - Nagaland is now the third state in the Union to have absolutely no Congress MLAs (the others being Delhi and Andhra Pradesh). If Rio thought Zeliang was a lightweight, he was sorely mistaken. The pupil has overtaken the master by leaps and bounds.

That said, the state government is not the only holder of power in the state, where the NSCN(IM) and other groups run a parallel administration. Naga civil society and the Church have been voicing dissent against these violent groups recently. And therein lies the challenge for the CM who has no opposition to deal with in the Assembly, but plenty outside of it.

Correction: Nagaland is actually the fourth state with no Congress MLAs. Sikkim has no Congress or BJP MLAs. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A new media strategy?

Something has changed in New Delhi regarding what the BJP Government is doing with the media. The initial strategy after the massive election victory was to keep the Delhi media at an arm's length and revoke the privileges that they've gotten used to under their paymasters, the Gandhi dynasty. This worked for sometime as Modi was able to use his signature social media swagger to control the narrative, but it eventually began to wear off as the drag of officialdom gave the mainstream media - the #Presstitutes, to use a colorful term - a chance to come back. And for that, they had Arvind Kejriwal, who they used with alacrity to help defeat the BJP in Delhi. Ironically, that same Kejriwal has not instructed his government to file defamation suits against the media with aplomb - such is politics.

But with the first anniversary of the BJP Government coming close, something has changed. Two things indicate this pointedly. First, after about a year, journalists accompanied the President of India on his official trip to Moscow for the Victory Day parade - an event that was full of the same old stuff (read, free booze). Second is the sudden shift in the virulent anti-Modi stride of Firstpost since its editor was changed after the 2014 Elections, before which it was quite a "sanghi" website. Now, Firstpost seems to be more accommodating, even fair, in its assessment. More so, all news outlets seem to have given up the popular line of few months back - that of Christians being under attack in India. Now, even TOI is using the world 'alleged' for all such attacks, which is a huge shift.

So what's happened? If gossip from Delhi is to be believed, this is Arun Jaitley working his way through Lutyen's corridors, doing exactly what Vajpayee did - co-opting the mainstream media. Jaitley after all, is that Delhi creature that has enormous influence through journalists but no mass base at all (he lost an election in a wave, after all). So, the new strategy seems to be to win the media over, just as the Gandhi dynasty has been doing for decades.

This strategy may fail or succeed, depending on which journalists are being courted. If it's the same old dynasty-friendly cabal, the strategy will fail miserably. This cabal is already bought over - through benefits and coercion, in equal measure - and its loyalties are not up for sale by the owner (read, Sonia Gandhi). If however, Jaitley uses his enormous influence to co-opt the vast pro-Modi journalistic base, those on the right of the spectrum as well as the centrists, this strategy could succeed. What would ensure it succeeds? Brute force - that's right, the full might of the state. The pro-dynasty journalists have many skeletons in their closets and the Union Government has the power to unearth them. By simultaneously discrediting this band and giving more voice to the right wing, the Delhi establishment can finally be broken, at least partially.

For better or (more likely) worse, this is what Delhi politics is like. Modi was probably happier in Gandhinagar. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

For the love of C#

I've spent a good part of the preceding semester making the biggest upgrade in my programming skills since I learned C++ about four years back. In the intermediate time, I've also learned C and FORTRAN (for backward compatibility) and Excel VBA (which is a piece of cake for anyone used to formal languages as opposed to scripting languages). But C# is a different game altogether. Consider this

int number = 32;

This makes perfect sense in C, C++ and C# (and other languages too). But:

int32 number = new int32();

Now, this is garbage in everything but C# (and also, I'm told, Java). So that's it? The difference is just in syntax? Oh no, there is a difference in syntax (and you can just use the old syntax for the most part as well) but that's because the underlying idea of the language has changed. There are no values anymore, everything is an object, everything comes from an underlying class and the .NET framework builds all that, making it very easy to write programs.

In fact, now that I'm pretty comfortable with C# and know its powers, I'm surprised that just a year ago, I had ignored sane advice and sided with C++! The future is C# certainly - but I've mainly learned it to use WPF so that I can move beyond WinForms on VB (who in their right mind uses VB when they have other options?!). And yet, I'm told WPF too is dying in favor of WinRT, although as far as pure desktop applications go, WPF is still the big daddy around.

Because of my intense self-study of C#, I think I'm in a bit of love with it. I think about it all the time, what I can do with it that would've been so hard with C++ (though mostly I just think about how great C# on its own is - no exes!). Ah, C#, where have you been all my life?

What did the Java programmer wear glasses? Because he couldn't C#!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Decoding the UK Elections

The UK's election, whose result came out yesterday, came in as a big surprise to everyone, especially the psephologists who were predicting a badly fractured mandate and another loose coalition for power. Instead, Conservative leader David Cameron stunned his opponents by winning the first consecutive election victory for his party since the mighty Margaret Thatcher, ditching his former coalition partner the Liberal Democrats and securing a clear majority in the House of Commons. Or, as a rather surprising campaign slogan went, 'Phir ek baar, Cameron sarkaar!'. If once India was a colony of Britain, it seems Britain today has been colonized by Indian ideas, if not Indians themselves.

The biggest losers were the LibDems and the reason is simple for any political strategist to see: they let down their core voters. In any election, a party has a core base of voters who, ordinarily, would vote for it no matter what. If that core base is energized enough and can smell victory, it can bring in the fence-sitters and thus form a powerful coalition. This is precisely how Narendra Modi won his spectacular 2014 election in India. And it is precisely this that destroyed the LibDems: as the junior coalition partner, they remained thoroughly subservient to the Conservatives despite have a markedly different agenda and in that process, lost their core base.

Labor on the other hand, lost their usual seats in Scotland to the SNP, which is now the third-largest block in the House of Commons. This is a result of the failed referendum for disunion, which has at least made young voters quite aware for their nationhood. This will be a huge challenge to Cameron and his victory will have a short honeymoon. As for Labor itself, although they remain the second-largest party, the loss of base in Scotland will have long-term implications for them as well. At least, with leader Ed Miliband stepping down, they can try something new.

These elections are certainly historic for Britain, but Britain itself is decaying and dying, together with all of Europe (except Germany). David Cameron can bask at his victory, and the British people can celebrate for making the right decision of electing a right-wing government, but in the end, it will not end the decline of Britain. David Cameron things he can make Britain greater - the truth is, it's not even great anymore. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What should gym music be like?

Campus Recreation at UIUC runs what it calls Illinois CampusRec Radio, an in-house radio that plays music in the ARC and CRCE facilities. 'Music' is a pretty loose term here because you mostly can't hear anything unless you're in the locker room and it's not too crowded! However, it is a gym and people are watching TV or busy with their iPads (note the sarcasm) or iPods, so the music should not be very loud. However, it should at least be somewhat audible to actually justify its existence!

However, the volume is not the real problem - I suppose there are studies on optimal intensity and wiser people have chosen the settings for some percentile that I clearly don't fall under. My real problem is with he kind of music that's played. I might not be an expert in acoustics, but I have been a regular at the gym for almost two years now and I know that you don't play slow, sad music in a place high on adrenaline and (mostly) testosterone. I was in the bank today and I surprisingly enjoyed their music more than I do CampusRec Radio - the bank!

So really, CampusRec is wasting their money (our money) with music that I can't hear (could be my fault) and which I wouldn't even want to hear in a gym if I could!  

Data & Modeling

Recently, in research, I've come across the question of what proportion of data and modeling are ideal. You see both of them in any thesis - some are purely data-based without much effort put into modeling the data, and others are purely simulation-based and not tested (at times cannot be tested) in real life. My own research has seen both - some work that was entirely based on simulation and other based entirely on data, with very little effort made to model it.

Neither approach is right or wrong. There are genuinely situations where, due to limitations of money or even technology, where collecting data is next to impossible. Alternatively, there are situations where modeling is so complex and poorly understood that data and data-based models are the only practical remedies. Ideally, a mix of both would be suitable, though what proportion is right is subjective.

How does one go about judging such work then? Both approaches have their shortcomings and these should be scrutinized. Models need to make reasonable assumptions that are not obviously incorrect (easier said than done!) and should explore a range of possible solutions. Sensitivity analysis is a popular tool to understand to what extent the assumptions change the answer. The key is careful and in-depth analysis of the model. Purely data-based work should be judged strictly from experimental results - many researchers try to prove a pre-determined hypothesis without adequate data and this needs to be shot down. Repeatability is another issue for, as my adviser likes to say, 'anyone can prove anything with just one data point!'

The most ideal of research, a mixture of both modeling and data, is also the most difficult to assess because it carries both burdens. No wonder then that so few do it!