Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Visiting the Land of the Ramayana

India is timeless. Returning from there is always the difficult part and every trip to the land of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata invariably feels too short, and the most recent visit to South India was no exception.

India frustrates. Six decades of Soviet-style centralized planning after two centuries of looting by the British has wrecked the post-independence economy and sapped much of it's optimism. Economic liberalization introduced in the 1990s to rescue the economy has now slowed down. India is living proof that populist socialism works wonderfully in theory, but in practice brutally extinguishes the hopes and lives of millions. I have had first hand experience. India's first and foremost modern ORMS and analytics practitioner, P. C. Mahalanobis constructed large-scale linear programming models in the 1950s to optimize such grand centralized planning goals - an exercise in futility and certainly not the science and practice of 'better'!
(pic source: www.famousscientists.org)
Incidentally, one of the members of today's NAC (national advisory council), an unaccountable group of secretive leftist planners that work totally outside the purview of the Indian parliament, is Jean Dreze, a naturalized Indian citizen from Belgium who appears to have learned the art of coming up with equally grand centralized planning models (for the 21st century) from his father, who was both an operations researcher and economist. Not surprisingly, these grand schemes have failed miserably during human testing. It seems the modeling assumptions did not account for reality.

Mahalanobis did however leave behind a positive legacy. He founded the Indian Statistical Institute that produces many smart ORMS and statistics graduates to this day. He was a contemporary of the legendary Srinivasa Ramanujan and there is a well-recorded story of PCM posing a math problem to the young math genius from Tamil Nadu, who while cooking, answered the question and also provided a solution to the more general case.
Perhaps a major reason why India still has above-average GDP growth is the natural entrepreneurial spirit of its talented people that simply refuses to die. There is a market for everything in India.

India enchants. By the time I wake up in the morning in my ancestral village in the temple state of Tamil Nadu, my mother has created her Kolam (Rangoli) patterns in front of the house.
(pic source: /farm3.staticflickr.com)
In the old days, the designs were done using rice flour, so the little ants could feed on it. According to Indian belief, all living creatures, big or small, have souls just like humans. I doubt if my mother bothered to check if the Kolam path she traced every morning for the last 40 years was a Hamiltonian circuit or not ...
(pic source: 3.bp.blogspot.com)

India challenges. We board a train from Bangalore to Chennai. The seats are numbered sequentially but the ticket does not provide a deterministic clue on whether we have an aisle or middle seat. My family has contiguous seat numbers, but we soon discover that the seats themselves are not. A sole traveler shifting away from his window seat would have solved the problem in a jiffy but he refuses to oblige. We discover two other families facing the same problem. We perform an elegant three-way swap that would have made Lin and Kernighan proud, and enjoy a global optimal solution to this combinatorial problem for the remainder of the journey. It's about time the Indian Railways switches to alphanumeric seat labels.

India corrupts. I notice the beginnings of a flyover (overpass) in my village-town. Clearly there doesn't seem to be a need for it since the benefit/cost ratio seemed rather poor, but the politicians wanted one, so the town has to endure it. They're also widening the train tracks that go thru the town, which actually appears to be a sane idea. However, they want to rebuild a working bridge to accommodate this change. The crazy guys try to demolish the old bridge, but it proves to be too strong, so work is delayed. Eventually the new one will come up and will most likely be built with sub-standard building material.

India heals. I visit the temple of my Ishta Devta (approximately translates to: 'preferred iconic embodiment of the divine') that is located on a hill in Pazhani,Tamil Nadu. In the past, many fervently monotheist invaders of India mistook this sophisticated Indian concept for "idol worship", leading to genocide and wholesale temple destruction. sigh.

(pic source: upload.wikimedia.org)

I visit this famous temple the traditional way by climbing the many hundred steps to the summit. It's also a great morning work out. My family choose the popular modern mode of transportation and take the cable-car and arrive 30 minutes later! There appears to be a classical circulation problem hidden there.

(pic source: commondatastorage.googleapis.com)
The temple staff appear to be practicing some form of revenue management while also maximizing cable car capacity utilization. Uphill rides are twice as expensive as riding down, off-peak rides are half-price, and they wait until the cars are at capacity before launching. Hence the delay. Once inside the temple complex on the top, the administrators appear to employ 'lot sizing' where people line up and then ushered in to view the Murthi (icon) of the deity in batches that seem to be somewhat synchronized with cable car arrivals at the top. Thus I derive no significant advantage in getting to the top earlier than the cable-car riders. You either wait at the bottom of the hill or on top and the total time spent in the system is practically constant.

India beckons. All said and done, I cant wait to get back. Until then, here's an audio sample of South Indian classical (Carnatic) vocal synced to Western instrumental music.

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