Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book Review: Five Point Someone

5.someone is not a book about Operations Research. It is the title of a wildly successful first book by Chetan Bhagat in 2004. He is now India's most successful English paperback novelist. While 5.s is primarily an entertaining waiting-room read, it is also an indictment of India's higher education system that has so successfully strangled creativity. Nowhere is this 'success' more visible than in India's elite Institutes of Technology (IIT) that have incredibly low acceptance rates. While the IITs have indeed become a great global brand name, they have also failed to meet India's genuine domestic engineering and technological R&D needs. Having scraped through this very system a couple of decades ago (only recently have the resultant PTSD symptoms gone away!), the urge to relive the past was non-existent until recently when the hilarious movie version came out and commented on here. Also found some O.R connections in the plot, which is the main reason for this post.

The story is about three brilliant high-school students "who never came second in their class ever" until they make it into the IIT's mechanical engineering program, where their Grade-Point Average (GPA) is in the 5.0/10.0 region that relegates them to the back-benches. The story is about the combined desperate attempts of these 'three idiots' to push that magic number up into a respectable region before they graduate, while at the same time, allocating a respectable amount of time for all-night weed-Vodka sessions with Pink-Floyd on the rooftop of their dormitory building. The resulting series of comic failures within this GPA mouse race (since "rats are smart") includes a near-suicidal jump from the 9th floor of a campus building. Furthermore, one of the three 'idiots' is dating the daughter of their arch nemesis, the Mech HoD (see 'translations' at the end of this post) who happens to teach Indem (i.e. Operations Research and Management Science).

The story took an interesting turn for me when i discovered that the villain of the piece is an OR guy. His first scene in the book has him lecturing about scarce resource scheduling and management in a garment-tailoring factory setting. The resultant mathematical analysis leads to 'optimization equations' which at least one of the idiots finds extremely interesting. Great. However, the smartest of the three idiots differs and criticizes this abstract reduction of human effort to equations saying that 'these are people we are talking about, not robots'. Nevertheless, this doesn't discourage them from optimally pooling their resources and partitioning their classroom attendance to reduce their effort by 66% while also maintaining their GPA. They also estimate the probability-weighted cost of traffic cop fines if they were in fact caught triple-riding on the motor scooter owned by one of them to be far less than the accrued benefits.

Response from Critics
The style of writing is informal and filled with campus-slang Indian English, which may affect a few sensibilities and result in some wincing for those who read 'seriously good' contemporary Indian authors like Aatish Taseer. The author (then a rank amateur and an engineering techie) typed the whole thing up himself using MS Word. The book is available at Amazon, where the critical ratings, mostly based on all too-serious analysis of the language style and delivery, are at odds with the unprecedented popularity of the substance of the book within India itself. One reason is that most Indian students are required to be reasonably fluent in 2-4 Indian languages (apart from English, C, C++, Java, ...) in addition to being exposed to dangerously high radiation levels of math and science. Consequently, they never get a chance or feel the need to master any one of these languages until it is too late (this tab is a classic example). The book can be enjoyable if you can cut through the almost blog-like writing style as well as some awkwardly written situations, and let your inner undergrad-rebel escape. The incidents described in the book are something that engineering students across India, both in and out of the IIT system, can readily identify with. The U.S education system with its growing and almost exclusive emphasis on standardized testing and credentialing (i.e the "degree"), along with a reduction in the overall number of quality tech jobs, may well be on its way there too.

Translation
Mech = Mechanical Engineering
HoD = Head of Department
Indem = Industrial Engineering and Management
Mugger = One who excels in the art of rote-learning
Ragging = Hazing
Arbit = Arbitrary
Parantha = An unleavened Indian flat bread.

Update 9/19/2011: usual typos and more OR ideas in the book.
Update 1/19/2013: Just watched Paper Chase (1973). Let's just say that the plot and some of the scenes described in Chetan Bhagat's book resemble those in the movie, with a low probability of this being a coincidence. (Interestingly, CB was displeased with the low-key credit given to his book in the Bollywood version.)

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