Sunday, January 30, 2011

Super Crunchers - Ian Ayres

Data based decision making is not new.  It had been there for ages. Why has it come to prominence again under various names like Number crunching,  data crunching or as the title here says super crunching.  The only difference is now the ability to do this in a jiffy, in split seconds and perform action ( many automatically) based on the results. With the advancement of IT and super computing, it has become more widely used not only by researchers, but by business as well.  So much is the importance, that some of the largest IT Services companies offering services around the business of analytics.

However, this book revolve around what is known to us already. Looking at statistical regression and related examples from various field and some of the front runners, who relied on the data based decision making, in place of the common wisdom and intuition.  Typical to many of them,  Ian Ayres too, starts with the wine industry ( why is the wine industry so popular with number crunching ? The book titles Quants, was also begun on similar lines, if I remember correctly) and the typical exchange of words by the traditionalists and the 'super crunchers', He then goes through various segments of industry such as  medicine, legal ( predicting the judgement based on previous results and data), movies( the box office collection even before the first frame is shot) , and social ( government projects, dating and marriage services, the individuals characteristics and preferences), explaining the merits over and over again.

One of the key ingredient of regression analysis, is the data itself. However, we could use the same methodology in arriving at business decision by selective experiments and data collection using randomization trials and or with control group experiments.  With the advancement in technology and the availability of large data set, helps us run the experiments with multiple variables with various controls as is needed.

The book is an easy fiction like read, with innumerable case studies or examples, each driving us to the same conclusion that the data cant lie. Having said that, it traces the obvious and to me there are no new insights making it a pretty ordinary read.

He conclude the book with a line, which captures this book in a nutshell: Super Crunching is not substitute for intuition, but a compliment. Our intuition, our experiences, and,yes,statistics should work together to produce better choices.

Super Crunchers : How anything can be predicted ( 2007)

Ian Ayres

John Murray ( Publishers)

260 Pages
Further read: Emerging Trends

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Masque of Africa : Glimpses of African Belief - V S Naipaul

At the age of 76 ( he is now 78), Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul packs his bags again to Africa. A continent he visited 40 odd years ago, giving us a couple of thought provoking ( though controversial) books. This time, he says, his theme is around "African Belief", and will not be politics or religion.
My theme is belief, not political or economical life; and yet at the bottom of the continent the political realities are so overwhelming that they have to be taken into account."
Starting his journey from Uganda moving on to Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast , Gabon before concluding at South Africa. At the outset, it looks and reads like a westerners prejudiced view of the continent and he hasn't been able to free himself from the it,. Most of his preparation was based on the 19th century European travellers and often he was trying to identify the present day Africa to that of 19th century descriptions.

Africa, to many outsiders are still a mystery. While the new world religions are prominent , the traditional religion or way of living is gaining huge momentum. This phenomenon is seen across sub Saharan Africa. Arabs came for trade and brought Islam to the land centuries ago. While they were less forceful, compared to Christianity, the Saharan and north eastern countries embraced it. However, Christianity came in with the European slave traders.

"The colonial masters came here for business. Slave trade was a business. May be bad, but it was purely business. They took, but they gave us the church. That was a death knell to traditional religion. In the traditional religion, every king had his chief priest and elders to consult. It was a democratic system. It promoted sanity. People did not cross boundaries. The church came and overturned this. They brought in Jesus." and "They took away our land, religion, customs and social structure. Our king, our everything"
To a culture, where spirits and ancestors hold the key, the new religions came in with a different opening.
"Both Christianity and Islam would have been attractive to Africans for a simple reason. They both offered an afterlife; gave people a vision of themselves living on after death. African religion on the other hand was more airy, offering only a world of spirits, and the ancestors.
During these time , end of 18th century and most part of the 19th century , saw the spread of these religion in Africa, at least to the outer world, while the practice of traditional religion and rituals continue to thrive under various clan leaders. 
We were brought up in the faith, and that dictates that African religion as paganism. We were trained to despise it.... Now that I have grown up and had exposure, I see it was a tool to control our African mind. It is how the imperialists worked.
Culture does not die - today it is called witch craft."
Not surprisingly, most of the research or fact finding in the journey revolved around these practitioners. Meeting various clan leaders or priests ( of African belief), Naipaul build his story around the practices of which craft, sorcerer, sooth sayers, healers and black magicians. Obviously, people who claims to have control or ability to initiate the spirits of ancestors hold the key in the life of common man. There is no difference between Country, City, small town, village or the forest in these believes.

Relying largely on the conversations with his guides, sponsors and few of the people of control, he bring about their thoughts and idea of the African belief; at times referring to his previous visits to the continent. And that , I believe, is one of the short fall of the book. There are no insights, often contradicting views with no clarification by the author makes it pretty ordinary read for most part. There is also kind of contempt in his language which does not go well with a sympathizer. At one place, he even experiment with one of these men asking him to find out about the marriage of his girl ( he does not have children). "Will my daughter get married ?"... "The girl is not going to get married. You have many enemies. To break their spells we will have to do many rituals. This will cost money, but the girl will get married.

Across the continent, there is a revival of traditional beliefs, while continue to practice the religion of their birth. This contradiction, which is seen in every aspect of African life, makes the story interesting. More and more writers rely on their own language, more and more governments encouraging the local culture and religion, people of high profile openly coming out in support of the believes and defending them in public. As an outsider the new century Africa will be an interesting place to watch and admire. 
"I want to tell you about language, how important it is. There is a spiritual quality to the language, to words. If you use language as tool to suppress people it will loose all its spirituality.... Our mother tongue historical elements, and words were important."
The blurb proclaim, "The best living writer of English Prose". This book was far from it. Most of the initial writings were very ordinary. It does not reflect the language and insights of a Nobel Laureate. The section about Gabon could be an exception, where I found the language and content beautifully woven. That one chapter made all the difference to reading this book. In general the language and style improved towards the end. Writing on Gabon and that of South Africa were beautifully written. However, I am not excited about this book.
The Masque of Africa ( 2010)

V S Naipaul

Picador India

325 Pages

Rs 595

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mumbai Jaalakam - Jyothirmayi Sankaran

Kerala depends on its expats for most of the moral , financial and literary growth. The flow of people out of Kerala has started long ago, primarily for seeking jobs. Over the decades, the flavour of location kept changing from Mumbai, Delhi to Chennai , the Gulf countries and Bangalore ( of late the U.S) . In the early migration, Mumbai stood as one of the most preferred destination. Unlike Delhi, where most of the expats were on the PSU jobs or central govt service, Mumbai was common man's paradise. Ultil the early 70s Mumbai continued to attract many Keralites. It was the trouble that erupted with the rise of Shiv Sena, this flow of Keralites reduced to Mumbai. Chennai , was the preferred destination for many a lower section of the crowd, setting up tea and vegitable shops and around late 70s the desert dream and Gulf mania gripped Kerala. The Y2K lead opportunities and the need for Software engineers, made Bangalore the most preferred destination in the recent past.

It is thus, important to understand that every Keralites, carry a part of Kerala within him when he migrates, living off the nostalgic memories of the distant land. The last half of 20th century gave us enormous literary classics, in Malayalam, produced from these parts of the country. Some of the big names in Malayalam Literature ( there are quite a few names), have spent a large part of their life in Mumbai or Delhi. On the other side, every family in Kerala can boast of some one of their close relative, residing in most of these metros, hence making these names like Bandra, Andheri, Chembur, Goregaon , familiar to them as if they are some part of Trissur or Palakkad.

Smt Jyothirmayi Shankaran, brings out the daily snippets of the life in Mumbai, in this recently published book Mumbai Jaalakam. There are no dearth of books that cover the Mumbai story at varied topics and influence. Mumbai had been part of the literary read for most of the 'reading' Keralites through the works of Anand and others. There had been stories and legends passed over friends get together and other informal meetings. But seldom, had there been an attempt to get them told in a basic form of narration, meant for general read.

Jyothirmayi Shankaran, does not deploy the high brow language, and there is no pretensions of any intellectual debates. These are the observations and readings of the common man. This are the impressions of some one living this life, and not that of a traveller. Like every common man/woman, she takes up issues with the way authorities are handling various functions, the fear of safety, the tussle with the auto/taxi drivers, the rise and fall stock market, the Bollywood, the separate world of the sub-urban train, the effect of terrorism, the local importance places and their significance, the festivities and the Gods. These are not the notes on Mumbai alone, its the tale of every large metro in india. Mumbai had the advantage or disadvantage of going through them ahead of the rest, often leading them in many a progress.

These are written over the period of Dec 2007 to March 2010, and, I understand, was published in the online magazine Kanikkonna under the same name. It was now compiled into a book and was published, by the same group. Easy and quick read, and barring  few places, she shows a lot of command over the use of language and style.
Mumbai Jaalakam ( 2010 )

Jyothirmayi Sankaran

Kanikkonna Publications

176 Pages

Rs 100/-

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Amulet - Roberto Bolaño

"This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won't appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won't seem like that. Although, in fact, it's the story of a terrible crime." starts the book. The book indeed is that of horror and murder. Based on the real incident of massacre of students and the curb of the demonstration by the Mexican authorities. Bolano, does not refer to the murder directly, but the theme hover around this, coming back to the fate again and again, through the experience of Auxilio Lacouture, a Uruguan expat in Mexico city, self proclaimed " mother of all Mexican poets".

During the eventful days of students uprising, locked herself , in the "cubicle of the ladies "lavatory on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico City (UNAM), where she has been trapped by an army occupation of the campus", thus demonstrating a solitary protest ( according to her),she become part of the resistance by her own way. It is this eventful 12-15 days( which she does not remember exactly), that takes her through the life, half in delirium due to the solitary confinement and the tiredness due to lack of food, get us through the fable of her time during those years and that of the socio-political life in Mexico City.

Auxilio, came to Mexico city, from Montevideo, few years before 1968. It could be 1967 or 65 or as early as 63, she does not remember. All she know was the poets Leon Felipe and Pedro Garfias were alive ( both of them died in 1968) and she was working at their home doing odd jobs and other errands for them. It is this acquaintance with the great poets made her stake the claim of mother of all Mexican Poets. She did not have a proper job. Apart from spending her time in the taverns and coffee bars with young and wanna be poets, she works at the university, at her own will on mostly free or for occassional wages given on temporary work at various functions at the University.

It is also important to know the events that happened in 1968 at Tlateloco in Mexico City. There were general unrest and agitation for larger freedom and democracy against the ruling PRI ( single party rule at that time in Mexico). On the Octover 2, 1968 students from the above mentioned university along with the rest of the liberal politicians and intellects gathered at Plaza de Tlateloco, Mexico City for a meeting. The Army surrounded the place and opened indiscriminatory fire against the agitators. More that 300 killed and many more seriously injured. There were many arrested, imprisoned and tortured , leaving behind one of the darkest days in 20th century Mexico's history. You can read more of that here.

Auxilio, on her note confirms that she was at the University and did not witness the murder.
I was at the university on the eighteenth of September when the army occupied the campus and went around arresting and killing indiscriminately. No. Not that many people were killed at the university. That was in Tlateloco. May that name live forever in our memory ! But I was at the university when the army and the riot police came in and rounded everyone up.
But on her part she still feels the pain of the sorrow, and her repeated recollections of her days at the lavatory , even after many years as late as 1974 in some of her stories. She continue to be tormented and continue to suffer from night dreams and hallucinatory visions. The last few pages, where the 'ghost-children' of Tlateloco, march in unison singing and falling off the abyss to the depth of history. She says, "And although the song that I heard was about war, about the heroic deeds of a whole generation of young Latin Americans led to sacrifice, I knew that above and beyond all, it was about courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure."

This is not an isolated Mexico story. Its the story of the Latin America in general, almost all of the countries going through troubled times in the 60s and early 70s. His alter ego, Aurtirito Belano, a young poet from Chile came to Mexico to live, During the times of Allende, he goes back to his native country, returning back to Mexico after he was de-throwned in a coup. Like many of his countrymen he too did not do anything apart from being a silent witness. Auxillio says "everyone was somehow expecting him to open his mouth and give us the latest news from the Horror Zone, but he said nothing, as if what other people expected had become incomprehensible to him or he simply didn't give a shit."

Bolano, also indicates that the only thing that survive beyond generations are the literary works. He predicts, the resurrection of various writers from the past having readers in the 21st and 22nd centuries while he himself was not sure of the outcome in the near future. Auxilio in her days of confinement says,

The vanity of writing, the vanity of destruction. I thought, Because I wrote, I endured. I thought, Because I destroyed what I had written, they will find me, they will hit me, they will rape me, they will kill me. I thought, The two things are connected, writing and destroying, hiding and being found.
There are many intellectuals and political figures appear in her narrative. Apart from many known Mexican Poets, she seems to have acquainted and the Italian and French artists and painters, Ernesto de Che Guevara also appears in Mexico.

Extremely powerful and haunting book. It is not an easy read and for majority of the pages it goes through the hallucinatory world of scattered events, people, time often jumbled and troubled as the narrator herself experience. Its very demanding read and Bolano does not explain the real motive or drive behind the fiction, making it more and more obscure. However, a strong narration and the absorbing language in line with the overall direction makes this a compelling and powerful book. Outstanding.
Amulet ( 1999)

Roberto Bolaño ( translated by Chris Andrew 2006)


184 Pages
More read : Guardian , Complete Review , Wiki