Thursday, June 30, 2011

Worst practices: gender and literacy shaping

Demand shaping is an OR-rich technique of using control levers (e.g. pricing in a supply chain) to induce a demand shift away from scarce items, or toward products in excess supply. If you know the shadow price of constrained inventory (e.g. an airline seat in a particular market), you can use that information to make useful quantitative control decisions that maximize utilization and drive profits.

We look at a couple of related examples of demand shaping done for all the wrong reasons. While I present a couple of egregious examples from India, this is most certainly not a unique Indic problem. Hopefully such examples with motivate a deeper OR study into this worldwide and systemic human rights violation pattern in the human biological chain.

Example 1: gender shaping
Urban India is in the midst of a pop-culture-driven left-liberal movement for men and women that addresses a lot of new-age social issues (e.g. right to fashion, right to a fairer skin tone), while almost completely neglecting the more fundamental 'right to life' issues. This isn't a pro-life v pro-choice discussion. While there's valid arguments on both sides in that debate, this is about the nihilistic practice of gender shaping practiced in several parts of the world, including, but not limited to the English-speaking literati of India, where the sex of the unborn can seal its fate. Since a positive identification is possible only after many months into pregnancy, the term used in India for such gender shaping is close to the truth: female infanticide, i.e. murdering baby girls (for monetary reasons). The gender shapers have succeeded in reducing 'demand for excess inventory' by more than 160 million in just the last few years. In fact, as researchers have argued, since the viability of the female fetus is probabilistically higher, that 'lost-sales number' is merely a lower bound. India has banned sex-determination tests to reverse the tide, but the practice is still rampant.

One of Russel Ackoff's OR consulting projects in India was focused on the primal problem of over-population which motivates the second example. A section in his classic book examines why demand-shaping there (in the benign form of family planning) was relatively unsuccessful. Filtering through all the noise, it now appears that gender-shaping is merely it's evil dual twin.

Example 2: literacy shaping
President Obama has more than once pleaded for US students to shift toward increased enrollment in science and math "STEM" courses to be able to effectively compete with their Indian and Chinese counterparts (A quick look at the recent results of the national spelling-bee and national geographic math/geography contests will tell u why). This was widely published, but where? A Google search shows that this was carried prominently by many newspapers in Asia (a classic example of a complementary "cross elasticity" effect in pricing analytics). Not that students in those countries need any more motivation. The utter bankruptcy in governance exhibited by the dynastic ruling political party (which ironically calls itself "the congress party") that has ruled India for more than 75% of the time post-independence, has driven the country to near ruin. The number of good-quality higher and primary education institutions has been practically stagnant for decades. Rather than do the actual work of building more schools and colleges with all that money pouring in from the liberalized economy, the education ministry has adopted an easier, but dastardly three-pronged literacy shaping approach:
a. decrease the rate of construction of primary and high schools to control the resultant demand for higher education

b. Increase the score threshold for acceptance into the existing higher education institutions.

c. Misuse the well-intentioned affirmative action 'quotas' to drive demand toward politically influential families.

(a) effectively ensures that the poorest and marginalized communities of India cannot really avail of the illusory affirmative action-fenced inventory segments. The literacy shapers further shift demand toward those who wield power via (b) and (c). For the last 3-4 years, we have had farcical situations where, in some parts of India, the score threshold (i.e. the shadow price for a scarce university seat) was adjusted to 100%! In US terms, it means that only those who have a picture perfect SAT score are eligible to apply to a reasonably good college.

That brilliant lady professor from India who shined at your local OR conference is one of the lucky ones who managed to evade the dual traps of gender and literacy shaping.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Duality in music

Regular dual noise service is interrupted to provide some dual music for a change. Check out this piece by the music band 'Tirtha', aptly titled 'Duality', I kid you not:

Being a bit biased toward instruments with strings attached, fast-forward to about 5:50 and listen. That is India's most versatile guitarist, Prasanna, playing. To listeners from India (South India, specifically), Carnatic music's distinctive 'microtone' notes ring through pretty clearly, whereas Jazz aficionados will enjoy the 'swing' i suppose. He seems to be playing both of these, but then, it is not what radio-stations label either as 'fusion' (not quite imaginative), or 'new age' (out of ignorance?). Both Carnatic and Jazz music are original, classical art forms with a rich history and a dedicated fan-base. The former is native to S.India and the latter, apparently is America's only true native art-form. Equally, he is playing neither - purists are more likely come to this conclusion after detecting some 'noise' intertwined with the specific form of music they swear by.

From an OR perspective, i would like to think that the two seemingly unrelated musical forms in this piece achieve the same objective, follow certain well-defined rules and satisfy certain well-understood and pleasing properties, and depending on how you 'look' at it, you can call it Carnatic or Jazz. Duality - there is more than one way of getting things done. Whether you are a South-Indian who is just beginning to discover Jazz, or a Jazz-fan who is touched by the Kalyani Ragam for the first time, it's a great two-for-one deal.

And there is one more connection that might explain the name of the musical piece. One ancestor of Prasanna was the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, the 'man who knew infinity'. Signing off with an old solo piece by Prasanna, composed when he was an undergrad at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Open-source Java tools for OR/BA projects

A list of open-source Java-based resources for optimization and business analytics is presented in this post. There's surprisingly few of these going around. COIN-OR has relatively few or no pure Java tools, but if you have heard of any, please post.

Object-oriented, algorithmic, decision-driven analysis of a complex business system having many moving parts, is an effective approach, and Java, a solid delivery option. Add to this the inherent cross-platform interoperability and performance improvements in recent times, and Java becomes a pareto-optimal deployment choice in many project instances.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and yes, it's missing all those heavy-duty MINLP and SOCP Cadillac solvers, but there's always some solid mileage in your old Chevy if you're a good driver (whatever that means)

LP solver: "Gooplex": Google's 'toy' implementation that is well-written and thus extensible (Apache commons) to a more sophisticated DIY simplex implementation. An old post on this topic here. Great for solving one or a million tiny LPs.

NLP: L-BFGS for large-scale unconstrained nonlinear optimization. This is a translation of the original FORTRAN version written by Jorge Nocedal. The license for this tool appears to be fairly relaxed (LGPL), but do your own checks. The bound-constrained L-BGFS-B is not 'free' for commercial use.

Trivia: Which is supposedly the fastest pure Java LP solver 'in the world'?

Predictive analytics
Colt: high-performance tools for linear algebra, matrix methods, OLS, etc.
Jama: A light-weight package for linear algebra
OpenForecast: Moving averages, multivariate regression, etc.
Wikipedia's meta list of numerical Java tools
Libsvm: SVM for classification, etc.