Sunday, August 25, 2013

Predicting Coconuts and Baby Chickens

The next few blogs cover observations from a recent visit to India and South-east Asia.

Earlier this month, I used to wake up at dawn every day to visit the farmer's market in my ancestral town in Tamil Nadu, India to purchase fresh vegetables for salad, curry, and sambhar.

The vegetables here are sold directly by farmers, and are simply delicious. The vegetables I purchase in US groceries may look better, but in terms of variety, flavor, and cost, are no match for what is on offer here in this village market.

I was introduced to a wise and elderly person selling coconuts in his stall.

My family buys coconuts exclusively from him. Coconuts, like the cow, have a special place in Hinduism. The Coconut is like the Kalpavriksha, the giving tree, while the cow is associated with the Kamadhenu, the wish fulfilling cow. The reason, as is usual with Hinduism, is both scientific and compassionate. The sanctity of a particular place, object, person, or living being is usually tied to net benefit of the entity with respect to the cosmos. The Indian cow and the coconut tree are incredibly giving in a variety of ways throughout their lifetime, demanding little in return. Worthy of emulation and praise.

Coconuts are often used in a Pooja (as a prayer offering) at temple. Often, Indians break a coconut prior to beginning an important task, or undertaking an tough journey, or launching a new project. When used for such a purpose, it is desirable that the coconut not be tender or rotten or dry, but perfectly fresh. Breaking a bad coconut at a temple is deemed to bring ill-luck (from a scientific perspective, this act aims to turn a complacent person/group into the more alert and focused type, pre-empting any mishap with positive action. Ill-luck is most certainly avoidable). However, there is no obvious, guaranteed way to tell from an external observation whether the inside of a coconut is spoilt or not. For example, roughly 50% of the coconuts I select at the local A&P grocery store turned out to be spoilt (The degree of spoil is actually a continuous variable, but for now, we simply treat it as a binary indicator). Thus, careful attention is paid to the selection of temple coconuts.

The white turbaned coconut vendor in the picture is an expert at picking out good coconuts. He has an excellent track record. I asked him about the various factors he takes into account prior to making his selection decision. Aside from a visual inspection, he conducts a quick 'sound test' to pick a coconut. If you let him know that this coconut is destined for a temple, he picks one that informally maximizes the probability of goodness. Also, spherical coconuts are preferred to the ellipsoidal ones, since they tend to shatter quite spectacularly like grenades, emphatically warding off ill-luck :) An empirical analytical model for predicting the probability of a good coconut can be constructed using a logit (logistical) model, for example:

log(odds of a good coconut) = A0 + A1 * thickness of the shell + A2 * latent quantity of coconut water inside + A3 * shape_factor +  A4 * sound_factor ... = U

By measuring the values of the explanatory variables in the RHS and recording the outcome after breaking the coconut, we can calibrate the coefficient vector (A) using historical data (maximum likelihood estimate, for example), giving us the following probability model that predicts the goodness of a coconut:

prob (good coconut) = exp(U) / (1 + exp(U).

When we pick coconuts, our mental decision model informally estimates the RHS for a given set of coconuts and picks the one that appears to maximize the odds. During the last few years, our vendor has picked just one bad coconut. It seems he was quite distraught, and replaced the coconut free of cost.

A related, traditional prediction problem that requires specialized skills and experience, is determining the gender of a baby chicken. Multiple techniques have been employed to make this prediction. Unlike coconuts, experts here can  make a conclusive determination (probability ~ 1.0). As the book "Moonwalking with Einstein" notes: "A good chicken sexer can identify the gender of approximately 1,000 chickens an hour and much of this has to do with their expert memory of chicken private parts".