Thursday, February 28, 2008

Satire of the highest quality

in this recently begun but already enormously popular blog called Stuff White People Like. Just a glance at the posts there will tell you why the blog is generating so many hits. It exploits the stereotype, uses sweeping generalizations (what's interesting is that if the same approach were used in other cases, it would most definitely be considered offensive) and the deliberately staid tone of the writing takes care of the humor. For instance, here’s a hilarious excerpt from a piece about recycling:
Recycling is a part of a larger theme of stuff white people like: saving the earth without having to do that much.

Recycling is fantastic! You can still buy all the stuff you like (bottled water, beer, wine, organic iced tea, and cans of all varieties) and then when you’re done you just put it in a DIFFERENT bin than where you would throw your other garbage. And boom! Environment saved! Everyone feels great, it’s so easy!
Or, consider this piece about white people studying abroad:
In addition to accumulating sexual partners, binge drinking, drug use and learning, white people consider studying abroad to be one of the most important parts of a well rounded college education.

Study Abroad allows people to leave their current educational institution and spend a semester or a year in Europe or Australia. Though study abroad are offered to other places, these two are the overwhelming favorites.

By attending school in another country, white people are technically living in another country. This is important as it gives them the opportunity to insert that fact into any sentence they please. “When I used to live in [insert country], I would always ride the train to school. The people I’d see were inspiring.”

Khatami quote

Via Chandrahas, I learned of this wonderful quote by, no not some well known literary star, but from Mohammad Khatami, the former President of Iran. I don’t know much about Khatami or his political record – except that he seemed someone who promoted a conciliatory rather than a confrontational tone – but I like very much what he says below:
One goal of dialogue among cultures and civilizations is to recognize and to understand not only the cultures and civilizations of others, but those of one's own. We could know ourselves by taking a step away from ourselves and embarking on a journey away from self and homeland and eventually attaining a more profound appreciation of our true identity. It is only through immersion into another existential dimension that we could attain mediated and acquired knowledge of ourselves in addition to the immediate and direct knowledge of ourselves that we commonly possess. Through seeing others we attain a hitherto impossible knowledge of ourselves. [my italics]
Yes, there’s some rhetoric in the quote, but the last sentence captures the gist beautifully, and is spot on!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The resettlement of refugee farmers after Partition: Notes from Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi

We all know that the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 had terrible consequences. Tens of thousands of people died. Millions were displaced: Muslims left India for Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs left Pakistan for India. It was the greatest mass migration in history. But what is less understood is the manner in which the vast numbers of refugees were accommodated and settled into the newly divided regions. The greatest mass migration in history inevitably became the largest resettlement operation in the world.

How was this monumental task achieved? That question might take up many books, and perhaps many have already been written. But we get an exquisite glimpse of how it was done in the Indian side of the Punjab (East Punjab) in Refugees and the Republic a chapter in Ramachandra Guha’s sweeping post-independence historical narrative India after Gandhi. Indeed, the book’s great appeal lies in its ability to tell of scores of such forgotten stories, give quick but illuminating glimpses, while still not losing sight of the larger political narrative.

Punjab was one of the partitioned provinces; the eastern part found itself in India while the western in Pakistan. A large number of Muslims had left East Punjab for Pakistan. But there was an even greater influx of Hindus and Sikhs into the east from Pakistan. Most of these refugees were farmers. Together they had abandoned 2.7 million hectares of land in Western Punjab but across the border in India where they now had to make a living only 1.9 million hectares had been left behind by Muslim farmers who had fled the opposite way. Not only that, the new lands were also less fertile than the richer, abundantly irrigated soils they had been cultivating in the west.

The unenviable task of reallocating the reduced acreage of land fell upon the Indian government and its civil service workers. As a first step, they assigned each family of refugee farmers 4 hectares irrespective of its past holding; they also gave loans to buy seed and equipment. As families began to sustain themselves, applications were invited for them to claim more land, depending on what they had owned in West Punjab. Within a month, there were 500,000 claims! These claims were then “verified in open assemblies consisting of other migrants from the same village. As each claim was read out by a government official, the assembly approved, amended or rejected it.”

Refugees tended to exaggerate of course, but were deterred by the open assembly method; if a claim turned out to be false they were punished by a reduction in land. Nearly 7000 officials were needed to support this difficult and complicated process; these officials “came to constitute a kind of refugee city of their own.”

Sardar Tarlok Singh of the Indian civil service and a graduate of the London School of Economics led the rehabilitation operation. He used two interesting rules for allocating land, and this is where the innovation and pragmatism in the whole operation comes most clearly to light. Though claims had been filed, because of the reduced acreage, none of the refugees could be assigned as much land as they'd originally owned. Everybody’s claim had to be reduced by a certain percentage. Plus, there had to be some way of accounting for the differing fertility of land.

Sardar Tarlok Singh came up with two measures, the standard acre and the graded cut, which dealt with these issues, and this is how:
A standard acre was defined as that amount of land which could yield ten to eleven maunds of rice. (A maund is about 40 kilograms.) In the dry, unirrigated districts of the east, four physical acres were equivalent to one standard acre; but in the lush “canal colonies” [where irrigation was strong], one physical acre was about equal to one standard acre. The innovative concept of the standard acre took care of the variations in soil and climate across the province.

The idea of the graded cut, meanwhile, helped overcome the large discrepancy between the land left behind by the refugees and the land now available to them – a gap that was close to million acres. For the first ten acres of any claim, a cut of 25% was implemented – thus one got only 7.5 acres instead of ten. For higher claims the cuts were steeper: 30% between ten and 30 acres, and on upward, so that those having more than 500 acres were taxed at the rate of 95%.
With this rule, there clearly were losers, and the losers, of course, were those who had once owned huge tracts of land. Here’s an ironic example:
The biggest single loser was a woman named Vidyawati who had inherited land (and lost) her husband’s estate of 11,500 acres spread across thirty-five villages of the Gujranwala and Sialkot districts. In compensation she was allotted mere 835 acres in a single village of Karnal.
Standard acre and graded gut are simple rules, but their simplicity helped in solving a complex, very large-scale land allotment problem that involved thousands of people. By November 1949, about a year and a half since the operation began, Tarlok Singh had made 250000 allotments distributed equitably across the districts of East Punjab. Not only that, “neighbors and families were resettled together, although the recreation of entire village communities proved impossible.” The resettlements were so successful that “by 1950, a depopulated countryside was alive once again.”

The sheer scale of the effort is mind-boggling. Imagine the paperwork, the records that had to be kept and retrieved; imagine the disputes, the flared tempers, the jealousies; but imagine most of all the perseverance, the unflagging determination. It is upon such efforts – largely ignored yet involving the sweat and toil of thousands – that nations are built.


Related notes:

1. Guha ends this section in the chapter poignantly. The resettlement, Guha says, may have been successful, but the general sense of loss could not be undone. The migrating Sikhs had left behind a beloved place of worship, Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of the founder of their faith, Guru Nanak. Muslims migrating from East Punjab too had left behind the town of Qadian, the center of the Ahmadiya sect of Islam; the Ahmadiya mosque was visible for miles around. Very few Muslims now lived in Qadian, which was full of Hindu and Sikh refugees. Guha quotes the editor of the Calcutta newspaper Statesman, who wrote that in both Qadian and Nankana Sahib there was “the conspicuous dearth of daily worshippers, the aching emptiness, the sense of waiting, of hope and…of faith fortified by humbling affliction.”

2. The picture shows a boy at a Delhi refugee camp in 1947. Here’s the source. The largest refugee camp, though, was at Kurukshetra, consisting of nearly 300,000 people. For their entertainment, film projectors were brought in and Disney specials featuring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were screened at night. It was, as one social worker described it, a “two-hour break from reality”.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

My adventures during a queuing study

Here’s my account of a class project I did back at Arizona State University. The class was about the mathematics of queues, but this light (and hopefully funny) account centers around my adventures while I did my project. There are a few technical terms here and there – Exponential distribution, Poisson arrivals, goodness of fit tests – but they shouldn’t hinder the flow of the piece.


In Spring 2003, I took a class on Queuing Theory as part of my PhD coursework at Arizona State University. One of the assignments towards the end of the term was to apply the queuing models we’d learned to a real situation. Expectedly, students headed to the nearest fast food chains, banks, traffic signals and congested elevators to diligently conduct their studies. A not-so-small number headed to their friends to just as diligently pilfer projects from prior years and repackage them as their own work.

I headed to the nearest Safeway grocery store. Why? Because I’ve been fascinated with American grocery stores from the time I first stepped into one. There is something in the size of these stores, the bright lighting, the glittering array of produce and processed food along aisles – vegetables that have so much sparkle as to seem unreal (strangely they do not taste as good as they look); monstrous bags of potato chips; boxes with muffins, their tops bursting with nuts and chocolate; an entire aisle for ice creams only – there is something in this abundance that leaves me agape. Such a cornucopia would have doubtless entered the dreams of Early Man resting in his cave next to his precious hunting tools; and doubtless, waking up the next day, he might have resolved to change the world around him to achieve that dream.

But to return to the particulars of my queuing project. The Friday before Easter, I sat outside the entrance of the Safeway store, next to the vending machine and bike stand, with a stopwatch, pen and piece of paper. I felt later that I might have been thought of as homeless, but this didn’t cross my mind then. I was too absorbed recording the arrival time of every customer into the store from 5 to 7 pm (A group such as a family or that arrived in the same car, I considered as a single customer.) I wanted to see whether the great claim made by mathematicians and queuing theorists about arrivals was true: the claim that the rate of arrivals, if they are sufficiently random and independent (as they are expected to be at a grocery store), follows a Poisson distribution; or conversely, the distribution of inter-arrival times is Exponential.
The plot of inter-arrival times did indeed look exponential. On average a customer arrived at the store every 15 seconds; the standard deviation was 16.25 seconds, quite high, but not unexpected given the distribution. The data cleared goodness of fit tests with flying colors. I was excited! A fundamental assumption in many queuing models is that inter-arrival times are exponentially distributed, and here I had empirical confirmation of this from data I had painstakingly collected.

But arrival data was only the first part of my project. I planned to explore whether there were enough cashiers in the store to sustain this arrival rate, and if queues were reasonable. Since I now had to collect data in the store, I approached the manager, Scott.

I had seen Scott on my weekly shopping visits. He was a tall man, with blonde hair and an erect and dignified bearing. He was usually dressed formally in a white shirt and striped tie. He looked grim - I'd never seen him smile - but was always attentive to his customers' needs. “Hi,” he often said sagely to them. “Are you finding everything you need? Can I help you with anything?”

I explained my project to Scott, and told him it could be useful to the store. He looked at me skeptically. A frown creased his forehead.

“You can’t ask customers any questions. That’s just not permitted.”

“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that. I won’t be asking anything, just recording data on how many come in to the store, at what time,” – I’d already done that with arrivals but I didn’t mention it – “and doing a queuing study that may yield benefits to the store. Maybe I’ll learn something that Safeway can implement.”

It wasn’t the strongest pitch. Scott was still unconvinced and the frown remained. But he agreed. So I began doing rounds at the store, trying to remain inconspicuous, getting a sense of what people did, the amount of time they spent in queues, and the time checkout cashiers took to service them.

I was intrigued particularly by the rack or shelf that extended in front of each of the checkout counters. They consisted of the latest magazines, chocolates and candy with colorful wrappings, and such odds and ends as batteries. Customers would choose a magazine and toss it into their cart as they waited, their curiosity no doubt piqued by George Clooney's most recent affair or the most recent adoption from Cambodia, Kazakhstan or Malawi by a high profile actress - all this brazenly announced in The National Enquirer or People. Kids, on the other hand, would insist on having candy. Since a significant number purchased something from the rack – it was a reflex for some – I wondered if queues were really so bad after all. Sure, queues shouldn’t be too long for that can be frustrating, but maybe it actually helps the store to lengthen queues just a wee bit and provide an extra magazine or candy rack.

I dealt with this in my project, though with the deadline approaching I could only scratch the surface. The details are too specific and convoluted to mention here, but I proposed a modified single server queuing model where queues are profitable, so long as they are not longer than the length of the rack (usually 4-5 people). I don’t think I did enough for the model to give any insights as far as Safeway was concerned, but I sure was excited with this seemingly perverse idea of increasing queue sizes.

The other analysis I did was standard, garden-variety stuff: Were there too few or too many cashiers? The answer was not simple. The store had a floating set of employees who would do other jobs in the store but when queues started building they would be called using the announcement system to open a new checkout counter. Thus lines never got out of control, and employees could be used flexibly to do other odd jobs at the store during periods of lull. I figured my fancy math models with their set of assumptions weren't really applicable. After all, what could I suggest about staffing from my short visits that Safeway employees and the ever grave Scott hadn’t already figured from years of experience? There do exist other situations where a fresh perspective can help spot obvious flaws or suggest improvements, but this didn’t seem like one. Besides, people working in settings such as Safeway have rudimentary but intuitive ideas they develop themselves, and which they adapt with the passage of time and with experience; they don’t need degrees in mathematics or operations research to develop this intuition.

Finally, to finish this rather long post, here's how my project related visits to Safeway came to an abrupt end. I was trying to collect cashier service times – I’d already collected enough but wanted some more. My modus operandi was to choose a cashier, retreat to the rear of the corresponding aisle and observe from there. I couldn’t retreat too far since I wouldn’t have a clear view and I couldn’t be too close either for fear of attracting attention. Whatever my little tricks, there must have been an inadvertent surreptitiousness to my actions, for my eyes met once with a curly haired cashier’s and lingered for a while. He picked up the phone; I thought it was to address some customer issue. But a minute later, I heard a familiar voice behind me.

“Hi,” the voice said sagely. “How are you doing?”

Scott was dressed as usual: plain white shirt and striped tie. He wasn’t happy. “You’re making people nervous,” he said.

“But I informed you already that I would be collecting data in the store – I was trying to do it covertly so as not to disturb!”

“Yes, but you have to tell me when you intend to come in so I can warn my employees and so they don’t get edgy about some stranger spying on them, stopwatch in hand.”

I saw his point. Scott was just being a good manager. I agreed to inform him in the future, but I never returned – mostly because I had enough data for my project, but also because I was worried about becoming notorious as an undercover data collector. What if harassed employees were to put up an enlarged mug of mine at various locations with the stopwatch cord serving as a noose and a bold red “BEWARE OF THIS MAN!” stamped diagonally across? Even worse, what if I were to be booted out of the store? How then would I buy the enticements along the aisles - bags of Lays, delectable Entenmanns pastries, desserts of Pepperidge Farms, things I had come to depend so much on?

So, you'll understand why I receded wisely, wrote up my project report, got a good grade, and continued to be an anonymous customer - one of the 'Poisson-arriving' masses!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Suketu Mehta on napping

There’s an long and interesting interview of Suketu Mehta, author of the famous non-fiction book on Mumbai, Maximum City, in the Believer magazine. The interview reveals a lot about his background and his struggle to become a writer. All that might seem very serious, but Mehta’s answers are often playful. In my view, he makes his most salient point in the beginning of the interview, when he talks about laziness as an asset, and more specifically about the regenerative effects of taking naps during the day.

I couldn’t agree more, given that I close my office door, not, as is assumed, for privacy and work, but for deep, immensely satisfying and refreshing 20-minute naps. There’s nothing more annoying that a jarring knock on the door that interrupts this sojourn of mine back into the world of dreams. Anyway, here’s Mehta:
You know, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay extolling sloth. I think [that’s] the difference between civilized and uncivilized society—societies where the afternoon nap is a regular feature. I nap every day, wherever I am. I have a big lunch, which I cook myself, and then I nap for at least an hour. It’s like having a second morning. The kind of stuff one writes after getting up from morning sleep and afternoon sleep is very different. When you get up from morning sleep, you’re writing straight from dreams. For me it’s much more wildly creative. But if I need to do detailed work—editing or paying my bills or writing a new scene for a nonfiction article in which facts are more important, then I write it after my afternoon nap. Someone should do a study on writers and their sleep habits and how that influences their work. Who wrote what sections of what book after sleeping at what time?
Interview link via Amitava's blog. I like Believer interviews; here's my post on a different Believer interview, The necessary vanity of a writer, from last year.